Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I was, strangely enough, singularly loath to begin reading my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final instalment in J.K. Rowling's immensely popular Harry Potter series. For I knew that once I'd begun, I wouldn't put it down till I was done - and that wouldn't take more than a couple of days - and then, it would all be over. No more Harry Potters. No more waiting, no more arguments and endless discussions with friends and on public forums, no more anticipation, no more excitement. Having discovered Harry Potter before the advent of all the media hype that turned the publication of every new book into a veritable circus, I count myself among the group of original Potter fans, and I didn't want it all to end. But I didn't really have a choice, did I? So, after having stared at the cover illustration for as long as I could, trying to glean little details of the plot from the design, and having read the blurb, the dedication, and even the copyright page, there was nothing left for it but to dive in.

We all knew what Harry was expected to do in Deathly Hallows - at the end of Half-Blood Prince, he had resolved to carry out Dumbledore's final instructions, and now, aided by best friends Ron and Hermione, he sets out in search of Voldemort's Horcruxes, each of which he had to destroy before he could confront - and ultimately vanquish - the Dark Lord himself. Meanwhile, with Dumbledore's death Voldemort's powers had reached new heights - after taking over the Ministry of Magic, and the press, the new regime proceeds to unleash their reign of terror, particularly targeted against Muggles, and Muggle-born wizards, offensively termed Mudbloods, a term that belongs to the same category as, say, 'nigger'. Amid all the persecution a huge hunt is launched for Harry, the 'Undesirable No. 1' who has a bounty on his head - for the Boy Who Lived, the symbol of hope around whom the resistance was rallying, could not be allowed to continue living if Voldemort was to reign supreme.

Taut and dark, the book offers no respite, no breathing space from the very beginning, with the deaths of known and loved characters beginning from the fourth chapter itself. You realise then that this is how it has to be - in a world taken over by the Dark Arts, there can be no Hogwarts Express, or light-hearted moments. We are given a short breather during the run-up to Bill and Fleur's wedding, after which the action begins in earnest. Rowling's gift lies in her storytelling - while she isn't likely to get an award for the beauty of her prose, she does manage to communicate the tension that every one of her characters are going through - indeed, it is sometimes hard to remember that we, the readers, are outside the events being described.

But are we, though? No writer can escape the influence in her/his writing of the world that they live in, and Rowling is no exception. When you take into consideration the fact that despite the magic, the spells, robes and wand-waving, Rowling's work is firmly rooted in reality, a decision taken years ago when she decided to set the books and the characters in our world, our time and our dimension, the events that she describes become that much easier to relate to. I once argued that Voldemort's obsession with pure-blood witches and wizards, and his evil henchmen, the hooded Death Eaters, are symbolic of the racism that has been prevalent in every part of the world at all times - the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan - and nowhere is that brought home more strongly than in Deathly Hallows. The setting up of the Muggle-born Registration Commission (headed by the evil, sadistic Dolores Umbridge, whose brush with the centaurs had clearly left no lasting impression), the refusal to allow Muggle-born witches and wizards a place in Voldemort's new wizarding order, the unceremonious arrest and deportation of all Muggle-borns and those holding out against the regime to Azkaban, the derisory way of addressing the few witches and wizards who had escaped arrest but been reduced to begging as 'it', thereby robbing them not only of their identity as members of the magical community but also of their humanity, brings to mind the horrors of persecution the world has been witness to - Nazi Germany, the compulsory registration of all Jews, the Holocaust, the Iraq war, religious persecution and Guantanamo Bay - our own government had, following the barbaric murders of the Staines family, decided to have all Christians living in the country register themselves - Nurmengard, the prison where Grindelwald's supporters, and Grindelwald himself, after his defeat at the hands of Dumbledore, were imprisoned, bears phonetic resemblance to Nuremberg, the place where the trials of those Nazis who had participated in mass genocide were carried out. In Voldemort's regime, Rowling envisions a future not unlike the dark world that Jonathan Stroud describes in his The Bartimaeus Trilogy - one where 'magic is might', and commoners/Muggles have to accept their rule, their superiority, and acquiesce to a life of subservience, where fear and suspicion prevails, and where resistance brings with it the firm promise of death.

Harry himself, an adult at 17, finds himself cast adrift without the magical protection that, thanks to Dumbledore's spells, Privet Drive had offered, and bereft of the wisdom and guidance that the headmaster has always held out to him, and that he had taken for granted. Now, robbed of his one true father figure, he realises what it is to have people look to him for guidance instead, and feels the weight of the burden he bears, perhaps for the first time. Lost and lonely, and faced with unsettling facts about Dumbledore's hitherto unknown past, Harry reacts in an all-too typical fashion - he rails against Dumbledore for not having made his task easier, for not having taken him into confidence, for not having trusted him - part of the anger is directed against himself, for not having asked, and learnt, enough about/from Dumbledore when he had had the chance. Ron and Hermione, always true, always supportive, learn that Dumbledore, who knew them better than they realised, intended the mission to teach them more about themselves - Ron, having deserted his friends, gathers strength from his moment of weakness and emerges a true Gryffindor; and Hermione, while understanding that myths and legends can have as much of a basis in truth as facts and theories, finds within herself the courage to withstand even the torture that Bellatrix puts her through. Deathly Hallows is as much their journey as it is Harry's.

The slow, descriptive tone of Deathly Hallows in no way takes away from the grim tension - Harry, Ron and Hermione seem to be living on borrowed time, and each narrow escape from Voldemort could well be their last. The introduction of the deathly hallows, three objects that can allow the wizard/witch who manages to unite them 'mastery over death' provides a twist to the narrative - as Harry now has to make a crucial decision, and choose between Horcruxes and Hallows, power or his journey, and the knowledge that he will ultimately gain from it. It takes the death of Dobby, the house-elf so beloved to them - and us - who gave up his life while trying to save Harry's, to give Harry the enlightenment that he had been desperately seeking. The journey ends where it began - at Hogwarts - and it wasn't only Harry, but I, and I'm sure many, many others, who had a feeling of having come home in the familiar corridors and grounds. The last battle at Hogwarts, with the teachers, the DA, the Order, and every other student who refused to give in without a fight ranged against Voldemort and the Death Eaters was glorious, rousing, spirited, easily the best thing Rowling has ever written. The final confrontation, with Snape's vindication (no surprises there for those among us who had believed, if not so much in the likelihood of Snape's 'goodness', then certainly in Dumbledore's wisdom) and Voldemort's defeat, which came, as Dumbledore had predicted, through the former's complete ignorance of the power of love, comes as a fitting finale, everything that one could have hoped for.

Rowling had once stated that she hadn't read much of fantasy fiction, except for the canonical masters of fantasy like Tolkein and C.S. Lewis, and their influence is apparent in Deathly Hallows. The Slytherin locket Horcrux that weighed down the wearer, possessed their thoughts and imagination, and turned friends against each other is reminiscent of the ring of Sauron; and nowhere are the Christian allegories more stark than in Deathly Hallows. The constant emphasis on the power of love, of white magic that ultimately triumphs over the Dark Lord; Harry's choosing to sacrifice himself to save the lives of his friends and everyone else who loved and supported him, a choice which bestowed on them the same protection that Lily's sacrifice had bestowed on him, and, indeed, the entire episode in the Forbidden Forest reminds one very strongly of the Stone Table in Narnia, when Aslan chose to sacrifice himself to the White Witch in order to save Edward. Harry's subsequent resurrection mirrors Aslan's (and Aslan, as those who have read Narnia would know, was supposed to have been a metaphor for Christ), a resurrection that symbolised the return of hope, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. The power of a pure, and whole, soul was constantly harped upon, brought out in the chapter 'King's Cross', where Harry meets Dumbledore after his 'death' in a place that could only be limbo. Accompanying them there is Voldemort, in the form of a ravaged, mutilated, whimpering, tortured foetal-like creature, for whom 'there is no help possible'; and in fact, the importance of keeping Harry's soul whole and pure is also iterated in the fact that Voldemort dies not at Harry's hands, but at his own, when his Killing Curse rebounds on him, bringing us full circle to the events of 16 years ago at Godric's Hollow, and the chain of events that Voldemort chose to begin himself through the murders of James and Lily, and his attempt on Harry's life.

Several of the question we had been debating for the past two years were answered satisfactorily - where Snape's loyalties lay, and why; the meaning of the triumphant gleam in Dumbledore's eyes at the mention of Voldemort having taken Harry's blood; the bond that Harry had created between himself and Wormtail by having saved the latter's life (a debt that Wormtail, in his turn, repaid, a moment of pity that he paid for with his life); we learn, as promised, a little more about Aunt Petunia. The surprising revelations about Kreacher and Dudley's characters drive home the fact that even the most unexpected people have the power to astonish us; Mrs Weasley's duel with Bellatrix is nothing short of brilliant; and the delightfully irreverent Potterwatch, the underground radio channel run by members of the resistance, bears testimony to Rowling's ample wit. However, there were several unanswered questions and disappointments, not least of which was the way most of the deaths were handled. Dobby and Fred's deaths were moving, and would have driven most people to tears, and Snape's death, and the memories that he left Harry were beautifully written. However, were Hedwig, Mad-Eye Moody, Lupin and Tonks so insignificant that their deaths were dispensed with in just a couple of terse lines? Despite all the hype surrounding the deaths, it seemed as though Rowling had taken the easy way out, killing some of the most lovable, yet supporting characters while the major ones all escaped virtually unscathed. And if Harry escaped death only because his blood ran in the living Voldemort's veins, how did he not die when Voldemort did? Or, after resurrection, are you supposed to stay resurrected? And why would the blood-thirsty Death Eaters, who cheerfully struck everyone they could find with the Avada Kedavra without a second thought, not kill Hagrid when they had the chance but tie him up instead? And what on earth was Colin Creevey, a Muggle-born, doing at Hogwarts when the school was only open to pure-bloods?

Rowling's epilogue, 'Nineteen Years Later', her attempt at providing the series with a fairy-tale ending, bordered on the cheesy. Amidst the news that everybody had, most incestuously, married one or the other of the Weasley family, and that they all had at least two to three children with rather predictable names (except for the touching Albus Severus; and surely it's reasonable to presume that almost two decades later, teenagers would not still be using that most irritating word, 'snogging'?), many questions went unanswered - what, for example, had Harry, Ron and Hermione taken up as professions? It was wonderful knowing that Neville, the hero of the resistance, was Professor of Herbology at Hogwarts - but who was the current Headmaster? Did Kingsley stay on as Minister for Magic? Where was Luna? Where was George, and how had he coped with losing a twin? And surely it wasn't mere coincidence that led Rowling to give Teddy Lupin the same fate that had befallen Harry himself, the sole exception being that Teddy had a godfather, in the form of Harry, who could, and did, provide him with a family. Perhaps Rowling will give us some answers in the Harry Potter encyclopaedia that she has been thinking of writing - but the fairy-tale happily-ever-after made for a very anticlimactic ending for a dark, yet positive book. Had she left that out, it would have been pretty much everything fans the world over were hoping for.