After four masterful novels – I've argued before that the first two lackluster entries in Rowling's series don't count toward the greater whole – Rowling bungled the final chapter in her epic tale by wasting time, falling into cliché and delivering on only one of the promises she had tacitly made in her previous novels.
And let me clarify what I mean by "promise": The "promise" Rowling made over the course of the books was simply to deliver a final chapter that at least matched the craftsmanship of the previous, stellar entries. To do this, she simply had to throw a series of levers that she herself had installed over the last four books.
Somehow, she missed all but one of those levers. Let's go down the levers and talk about how she missed them – and don't worry, I'll praise the one lever she managed to pull.
MISSED LEVER ONE: Petunia Dursley. The novel started promising enough, with the loutish Dudley thanking Harry for saving his life, but after the fifth book, when we found out that Petunia Dursley was more wrapped up in the magical world than we thought, I found it disappointing that she didn't play a larger role in the closure of Harry's time with the Dursleys. That was the smallest of my disappointments.
MISSED LEVER TWO: The quest for the Horcruxes, aka “Harry, Ron and Hermione spend 200 pages doing nothing in the woods.” Now we're getting into serious pooch-screwing territory here. Rowling made a bold choice to have Harry drop out of Hogwarts at the end of book six, Half-Blood Prince, and she managed to resist the temptation to send him back to school there.
By doing this, she set herself up to write a truly striking Harry Potter novel – a traditional hero-quest set beyond the walls of Harry’s cozy prep school and in the myriad wilds of the magical world.
Rowling attempted to do this and failed. Instead of giving us more of the focused narrative she proved herself capable of in books three and four (and parts of books five and six), Rowling stranded her three lead characters in a tent for 200 pages where they essentially did nothing.
My objection to this has two prongs:
First, Rowling could have very well left Harry and the gang with a clue or two to start them on their quest. Or, she could have used one of her own (and Joss Whedon’s) favorite devices to launch her story: the library. Led by Hermione, Harry and Ron had found the answers to previous mysteries in books, and even though accessing the Hogwarts stacks would have been near-impossible at the start of book seven, why not make up another library and send them to it? I mean, she has the cheek to make up a “Room of Requirement” – why not hook up her kids with some fucking books?
But instead of doing either of those things, Rowling made Harry and the gang apparate from one random place to another, hoping to find a clue, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, she actually had them stumble upon some characters who gave them their first clues. Within the walls of Hogwarts, it was easy to believe that Harry (or whoever) would overhear important plot points all the time, but – and here’s where the “empress has no clothes” thing kicks in – for Rowling to employ the same cheesy device while the gang randomly teleports from one part of rural England and Europe to another was simply insulting. (Eventually, the trio gets captured -- a slightly more credible plot point, given the police state that Voldemort had made of the magical world.)
But that’s not even the worst part, and here I get to my second prong. I would have been delighted for Rowling to strand her three magnificent leads in the wilderness for an aimless 200 pages as long as something had happened. (Harry, Ron and Hermione, despite my disappointment with book seven, will hold proud places in my personal pantheon of great characters from pop-culture, right up there with Frodo, Sam, Luke, Han and all the rest.) George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan and Irvin Kershner stranded Han Solo and Princess Leia in an asteroid field for half a movie, and that extended caesura gave them time to develop one of the great onscreen romances. Rowling, by contrast, put an extended caesura in her climactic novel, and she wasted it. Over six novels, Rowling had established several worthy conflicts among her three leads, and any one of them would have been great to explore during this passage. To wit, Rowling could have explored any of these conflicts:
• Ron’s jealousy of Harry’s celebrity.
• Hermione’s contempt for Ron and Harry’s lackadaisical study habits.
• Ron’s grudge against Hermione for going out with Krum before going out with him.
• Hermione’s grudge against Ron for going out with Lavender Brown to “get back at her” for going out with Krum.
• Hermione generally calling Ron out for being a fuckbrain who couldn’t express his feelings for her until Dumbledore got waxed.
• Ron’s anger at Harry for getting involved with Ginny. (Side note: Why was this even an issue for Ron in book six? Didn’t he spend the whole damn fifth book trying to hook these two up?)
To be fair, Rowling did explore one conflict: Ron’s suspicion that Hermione was in love with Harry, not him. Unfortunately, Rowling only explored this lackluster conflict during the magically heightened scene where Ron destroyed one of the horcruxes. Why does this choice suck? For two reasons:
• One, like I said, Rowling hadn’t established this as a legitimate love triangle. I have never gotten the impression that Hermione felt anything but sisterly affection for Harry. On the other hand, she essentially spent the better part of two novels wanting Ron to jump her bones. Listen, I’m a huge apologist for Ron, having been an idiot like him myself, so I can imagine how inadequate he could feel around a budding legend like Harry – but Rowling had simply taken the time to establish so many other, richer conflicts – why not explore them?
• Two, as a fantasy and sci-fi geek, I am sick of the tired old device of having a specter of evil tempt or taunt a good guy. This hoary cliché reached its zenith in The Exorcist. Let’s put a moratorium on this for a few decades.
Oh, I’m sorry. Rowling did explore how Harry, Ron and Hermione got tired and hungry on their quest. During this, Ron left because he was angry about being tired and hungry. Then he came back. At just the right time. Snore.
But enough about the quest for the horcruxes. Let's move on to ...
MISSED LEVER THREE: Wasted time, wasted opportunities. The 200 pages in the wilderness short-circuited the rest of Rowling’s final novel, which was already in trouble, given the time she had wasted in book six. Now, don’t get me wrong – Half-Blood Prince might go down as the best top-to-bottom novel in Rowling’s series (it’s certainly my favorite), but it felt like Rowling was just killing time until her final chapter. In an interview, Rowling once said that she considered dealing with a lot of the material she covered in Half-Blood Prince much earlier in her series, specifically in the second volume, Chamber of Secrets. That would have been wise, seeing as how both novels include a lot of tempo-killing flashbacks to Voldemort’s youth, as well as horcruxes.
With that knowledge in mind, I looked back over the entire series and regretted Rowling’s scattershot approach to it. She wrote two perfectly pleasant boarding-school adventures before she found her sea-legs and launched into a grand, epic narrative that she managed to sustain through books three, four and five before the wheels invisibly came off in book six. It took the seventh book to make us realize they had come off.
In short: We didn’t get to see graduation, dammit.
I know I’m being glib, but looking back, it seems that Rowling would have been well served to combine books two and six into a larger and stronger novel, and she should have made Hogwarts a six-year school instead of a seven-year one. I submit that book six should have ended with Dumbledore’s funeral and graduation. That would have made the quest for the horcruxes the kids’ first great challenge as Hogwarts grads – their first great challenge as adults.
But I’m nit-picking. Let’s talk about the one lever Rowling successfully managed to throw, which will lead us directly into the last lever she missed.
SUCCESSFULLY THROWN LEVER: The need for Harry’s sacrifice. The instant we finished reading book six, all of us speculated about the mechanics of the climax of Rowling’s series, right? Would Harry be a horcrux? Would the horcruxes be what Dumbledore suggested they’d be? I myelf suggested that Harry’s wand would be a horcrux, leaving Harry to summon magic with merely his will.
Many of us predicted that Harry would be a horcrux, and even though Rowling fulfilled that prediction, she still managed to out-think a lot of us by making Harry an unwitting horcrux that had to die. Voldemort unintentionally soldered a shard of his soul onto Harry, and this meant that in order for Harry to vanquish Voldemort, Voldemort had to kill Harry.
By now, everyone seriously reading this essay knows how the book panned out – the meeting with Dumbledore in the afterlife, the final battle in the Hogwarts Great Hall – so I’ll only offer this:
I loved this choice, and no one can take away the bittersweet joy I felt as I walked with Harry on his final march toward his doom. Just think of how this ending would have been if Rowling had had the courage to follow through with it. Just think of how it would have retroactively tinged Dumbledore’s every conversation with Harry with grief. Think about it: What if Dumbledore knew that Harry was doomed to die when he was 17? What if Snape knew that?
This leads me to the final failed lever:
MISSED LEVER FOUR: No important deaths. Before the release of Goblet of Fire, Rowling said that a lead character would die. She wound up killing Cedric Diggory. To be sure, Cedric was a lead character in the novel Goblet of Fire, but he wasn’t a “main character” in the sense that all of us fans thought.
In other words, she cheated, and she did it again in book seven.
To her credit, Rowling did kill two lead characters in the series: Sirius Black and Dumbledore, but then during her promotional interviews for book seven, she said that a lot of characters would die, including two she didn’t expect to die. She also said that she gave one character “a reprieve.” Rowling wound up killing several memorable characters in book seven, including Mad-Eye Moody, Remus Lupin and Dobby, whose death sparked one of the book’s most effective scenes (Harry burying the house-elf the old-fashioned way). Unfortunately, the brute effectiveness of this scene annoyed me because it was for fucking Dobby.
Like one of her literary forebears, Rowling started out writing a kid’s book and wound up writing a war novel, but unlike Tolkien, Rowling didn’t have the courage to kill anyone who mattered. Tolkien made Frodo his novel’s great casualty of war. Frodo returned from his journey shattered, and by sending Frodo to the Grey Havens (essentially heaven), Tolkien drove home the fact that Sam was the hero of his epic tale, and that he was a hero not just for helping to destroy the ring – he was a hero for having the fortitude to say goodbye to his old friend and build a family.
For years I predicted that Ron would die at the end of Rowling’s books, but while reading Deathly Hallows, it occurred to me that Harry simply had to die. Prophecy had decreed he enter this world to stop Voldemort, and he spent his life as a kid who was never quite normal – always off-center, always looking to belong but never quite finding his place.
Looking back, I feel cheated that Harry turned into just another boring parent on platform 9 and Three-Quarters. I wanted Harry to be a something like a jinn – a concept from time-travel theory. You know how in the movie Somewhere in Time, Chrstopher Reeve’s character gets that pocket watch from an old woman, and then he goes back in time to give it to her when she was young, but the watch itself has no real origin – it just exists in a circular timeline for no discernable reason? That’s a jinn. The idea of one fills me with wonder and makes me think of Harry Potter's curious place in the wizarding world.
Again, pretend for a moment that you’re Albus Dumbledore, and you know of the prophecy of the boy who lived. Intellectually, you know that this innocent child must die for the greater good of the wizarding world – but then you meet this child right after his 11th birthday, and he’s more extraordinary than you expected, and over the years, you continue to advise him, but the whole time you know that he’s doomed to die for the greater good – and yet you never tell him. You consider this omission one of your great failures in personal character – and yet you never tell him. You can’t tell him.
You can’t tell him. You never tell him. You simply trust that your closest confidante – a broken-hearted, lion-hearted man – will relay this tragic information.
And you trust that the boy who lived will choose to die.
These books will always have an esteemed place on my shelf – but what a shame.