Saying Goodbye to Harry Potter

What a lot of commotion over a book. Not since 19th century New Yorkers anxiously crowded the Manhattan docks to be the first to discover the serialized fate of Dickens's Little Nell have people gotten so excited about fiction. And the scope of this frenzy might make even Dickens blush with envy.

The camping out and queuing up to be the first in line as book stores started selling the last installment of the saga of Harry Potter at midnight Friday—the parties, the contests, the costumes—all this has happened before with the unveiling of each installment since the midnight sales started with the fourth volume. This time, though, the hoopla soared to unprecedented levels that not even the well-oiled publicity machinery of publishers could have ignited. For weeks now, the rumors have flown over the Internet: Harry lives! Harry dies! This week things reached a new pitch of excitement as books fell into the hands of eager fans despite the closely monitored embargo of the 12 million copies—when you have 12 million copies of anything, sooner or later something's going to fall off a truck. (And instead of just bowing to this inevitability with grace, Scholastic, J. K. Rowling's American publisher, responded with the overkill of Death Eaters, threatening legal action and frostily requesting that anyone who might have secured a loose book not even look at it until Saturday morning.

Once the book was on the streets, copies were quickly photocopied and posted online. Spoilers went to work posting the fates of various characters—and got a lot wrong. Even more diligent fans set to work retyping the book—and calling for volunteers to help them speed the copying along. Most astonishing, someone posted a bogus version of the novel that ran to well over 600 pages. That it wasn't much good is totally beside the point—has anyone ever done this before: sat down and composed an entirely fake version of anything on the eve of the real thing's debut? Not even Rowling herself is capable of envisioning such a fantastic thing.

No book, no matter how wonderful, could ever hope to live up to that sort of expectation. But let's say it plainly right here: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" comes as close as any novel could. It's not perfect, not without its flaws, and at 759 pages not without more than a little windiness. But when set against this final installment's achievements, this book's flaws seem mighty inconsequential. Writing a decent sequel to a good novel is hard. (Speaking through Ron at one point in the novel, Rowling admits as much when she slyly cracks, "It's a damn sight harder making stuff up when you're under stress than you'd think.") Writing six of them is almost unheard of, but that is the scope of Rowling's accomplishment. Each of the Harry Potters deserves to stand on the shelf with its mates, and the last one more than fulfills the promise of the first six.

After a leisurely start, including a wedding scene at the Weasley's that just seems to go on and on, Rowling hits the accelerator and never takes her foot off the floor for the next 500 pages. "Action-packed" is a pale description of this novel's many battles between the forces of good and evil. Rowling is not especially gifted with dialogue or subtle characterizations. Sometimes she explains things too much or too often. But she has a true storyteller's knack for incident and  plot twists and what may modestly be described as a genius for fleshing out her fantasy vision of a magical world with a host of details that make that world seem more real than the reader's own. To cite but one example: the pensieve, the bowl into which one may submerge oneself to see the memories of another. Even readers too young to get the pun built into that word, will be taught unconsciously to look more closely at words, to look for meanings beyond the obvious.

More than that, though, Rowling succeeds because she refuses to condescend to her readers. (Well, most of the time: there is a moment, as the final climax approaches, when the younger students at Hogwarts are shooed away because they're "underage"—but wait: this is to be the battle to see who rules the world, if good or evil will triumph, and we're worrying about kids being underage? Or is this another wry joke from Rowling at all the overcautious parents who worry about what young readers are being exposed to? It never pays to underestimate this cagey lady.) This last installment is a fitting cap to the series because it does not merely tie off loose ends but extends the scope of the story. It is darker, as she's promised, but more important, it goes deeper. People die, yes, including a few that readers care about. But that is not what the book is about. The series is not about whether Harry lives or dies, but about how he faces life and death. More specifically, it is about growing up—about the pains of growing up. In the last installment, Harry faces life largely on his own—he even comes to seriously doubt the motives of his most treasured mentor, Albus Dumbledore. Most important, he comes face to face with his own mortality, with the necessity of seeing life and death as entertwined.

The sadness that many readers will experience—oh, all right, the tears they will shed—when they close the cover on this novel have nothing to do with the fate of the characters and everything to do with maturity. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" is about, more than anything else, the end of childhood. The readers who have grown up with this series—who have read it, as it were, in real time as it unfolds—are themselves at that end. Saying goodbye to Harry is like saying goodbye to a piece of themselves. Rowling has honored their patience with a work as sincere and profound as anything they could reasonably ask for, with the added bonus that any time they want to relieve that childhood, they only have to pick up volume one and begin again. And if that's not magic, what is?