Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor
Warning: This discussion of the final novel is *not* spoiler safe, indeed, it is intended for those who have already taken in the final installment of Harry Potter.
The final Harry Potter novel could only be expected to end with a bang: with the drawn out anticipation of fans, myself included, and the midnight debut reserved for true pop culture icons [really, how many *books* get a midnight release in an era where so many speak of the death of the novel?], Rowling had a lot to live up to. Perhaps too much: in one small book, she had to satisfy the desire of fans to see Voldemort destroyed, the Snape dilemma resolved, Harry mature and triumph, Horcruxes destroyed, Ron and Hermione grow into their relationship, Bill and Fleur marry, and the Ministry get what was coming to it. This aside from a supporting cast of characters from werewolves to house elves each needing their own resolution. The task was monumental, as great as Harry’s quest to save the wizarding world. I wanted to love this novel from the moment I and my friends stayed at Borders till almost three o’ clock in the morning waiting for the release.
The outer cover of this last installment is telling in its simplicity. Harry Potter no longer needs any introduction, the words simply state: “We now present the seventh and final installment in the epic tale of Harry Potter.” For someone removed from the current hype and fandom surrounding the works, that would sound like a most pompous statement indeed coming from what could be quickly dismissed as a boarding school series entwined with magic. In a decade or two, Harry Potter might not even stand out on the shelves, just another long series of paperback fantasy novels among hordes of predecessors and imitators alike. But even then, when the publicity has faded away and the children reading the book today are grown, I believe the series will still be worth reading. This final novel has cemented its place among epic coming of age stories.
From beginning to end Rowling’s final Potter novel is a treatise on death. Death surrounds Harry, as he and his supporters move him from his former safe-home of the Dursleys to confront his final coming of age. Every book up to this one has seen Harry working with a safety net, whether it’s the protections of the Dursley residence or the comforting and familiar halls of Hogwarts. But with age, safety nets must be removed, and finally we see Harry facing a world where everything has been shattered: Hogwarts, the Ministry, even Gringotts and Diagon Alley are no longer havens. The first innocent life lost among Harry’s friends is the simple death of Harry’s treasured owl, Hedwig, and the scene is as moving as the many deaths to come.
But with death, there is also redemption. A surprising moment begins the book as the traditional scene of Harry leaving the Dursleys is complicated by the quick and quiet redemption of a large and cowardly bully. Even Petunia’s hatred is eventually revealed as jealousy: how can I not sympathize with these two? Reading Harry Potter we are transported to a world where magic is real, but we know we cannot live there. Imagine living next to such a world and being unable to be a part of it—how much worse to be a muggle with a wizard living in the house!
But Dudley’s conversion from spoiled brat to a would-be friend is not the great tale of growth in the book. For that, we have Severus, and the final redemption of Severus Snape is everything I had hoped for. It reads like a summation of my greatest hopes for Severus: once, he had loved Lily, and for him love is his redemption. Lily Evans does not grace the pages of the Potter novels very often for a character that shaped the world of Hogwarts, beginning with Snape and ending with her dying protection for her son. As I read of Severus introducing Lily to her witch heritage, all I could think was how cheated I felt not getting to know Lily better, and not getting to see these stories flesh out. If I have one great sorrow leaving the world of Harry Potter behind, it is that Rowling has declared her intention not to pursue stories of the generations before and after Harry. Rowling has opened so many doors and given only a glimpse of these moments and characters, but the characters are worth much more attention than this.
There is a hectic pace to the work that prevents the pursuit of any such tangents. Harry is caught in a whirlwind of action and we are caught with him, seeing familiar faces come and go—and die—but not having time to stay and chat. If there is a great weakness to the work it is this: we are forced to run past when we’d rather linger, and the novel is over far too soon. Rowling pulls together the disparate threads of the series, but I still find myself with questions. What has been the effect of unexpected betrayals and aid been on Draco Malfoy’s character? Why on earth did Lily ever find anything of value in James Potter [I can only suspect that the Imperius curse was involved…]? If Harry was supposed to die…why didn’t he?
It would also be easy to attack Rowling for the many similarities between this work and other stories. A horcrux briefly possessed by each member of the trio bears a resemblance to a certain ring of power with a habit of corrupting its wearer, and the parallels to Lord of the Rings do not end here. But the world holds only so many stories, and the great ones are prone to repeat themselves. Rowling has visited possession before, first with Ginny and the early horcrux, Riddle’s diary, and later with Harry and the route Voldemort can take straight into Harry’s soul. More than invoking any particular work these battles pay homage to a traditional struggle in fantasy and in simply coming of age: the struggle for one’s self. Harry is in a constant struggle for control over himself: only when he reaches a state where the deaths of friends and the weight of the war have given him mastery over his emotions and his mind does he defeat Voldemort.
It is important, I think, that everything ends where it began for Harry when he first boarded the train to Hogwarts. It is appropriate that this is the same location to which he escapes in his head when near death: this place is a crossroads for the muggle and wizarding world. One line of the epilogue stands in poignant summary of the lessons learned in the final battle: “Albus Severus…you were named for two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew.” Much is the same on the King’s Cross Station as the next generation begins the trek to Hogwarts. Draco Malfoy is there, with his son, and Ron is already alighting new rivalries as he tells his daughter to make sure to beat Draco’s son on every test. But when Harry’s son is concerned about being sorted into Slytherin, a fate Harry himself once avoided, Harry has learned enough to say that the house of Slytherin is not so bad a place to be.
After all, every group, every class, every race, every religion has produced truly horrible people and truly good ones. The statement seems self-evident, but it takes Harry seven years of a fine Hogwarts education to learn its truth—and it takes some people far longer. [It is not clear Ron ever learns.] Harry’s realization comes too late for Severus, a man who dies hated and harassed by so many who owe him their very lives. This is the final message of Harry Potter, and it is a fitting message to close upon for a series that has crossed the world and entered the hands of people everywhere. Rowling started out with a world that was black and white, Slytherin and Gryffindor, Dumbledore and Voldemort. She has finally fleshed out her palette in shades of grey.