If you’re like me, you were probably pretty upset by the ending of Book 6 the first time you read it. (You do know how it ends, right? If you’re trying to avoid spoilers...well, you’re reading the wrong series of articles.) The reader being upset by the ending is a credit to Rowling’s talent. She gets her reader as emotionally invested in the events as the characters are so that, even if we might see the ending coming through literal analysis, we still feel like we got hit by a bus when we get there. It’s all very well done. Let’s take a look at how we get there.
First of all, you’ve got Malfoy. We’ve actually seen relatively little of him throughout the book, we only perceive his activities through other’s observations. We only know what Snape and Narcissa discussed in the beginning and how Harry perceives him. Harry’s obsession with Malfoy is his tragic flaw. On original reading, you may want to side with the hero against Draco’s scheming, but with perspective, it’s easier to agree with Hermione (and sort of with Ron) that he needs to chill with that. However, neither gives a compelling enough reason for him to stop, other than they don’t believe him. At least Harry does feel guilty when he is reminded that the obsession distracts him from the cause of getting Slughorn’s memory, but not enough to stop him doing it. Someone needs to smack him in the head and explain that he is buying into fake news and not dealing with the real issue. Stop being so bloody-minded!
Later on, when Harry faces off against Malfoy in the bathroom, it’s a real heartbreaker. Harry’s use of Sectumsempra against Malfoy is maybe the worst thing he’s ever done. Malfoy is so pitiable here. He’s made every wrong choice, of course, but he was set on the wrong path from the start. Unlike Harry, he had his parents from the start and came up in the wizarding world, but went as bad as a kid can go at his age. Still, he can’t follow through with his orders and feels guilt over it. I certainly hate him less now than I did, thanks to the great job Rowling does at bringing nuance to her characters. It would be so much easier to just hate Malfoy because he’s Bad. But he believes his own hype and has every reason to. It’s reckless of Harry to use an untested Dark spell on him and if he could pull his head out of his own ass for a second, he might well recognize the loneliness he’s felt himself and have a different reaction to Malfoy’s pain. I want to believe that if Harry was able to use compassion on Malfoy instead of emulating him by lashing out, that scene in the Astronomy tower might have gone a lot differently. When they go low, we go high, Harry.
Where we get to see Harry hate, we also (FINALLY) get to see him love. Beyond being incredibly satisfying, Ginny and Harry’s first kiss should be a huge red flag to readers. It’s Writing 101 that if the hero gets a moment of happiness, dark times are right around the corner. Because the kiss makes Harry so happy, the reader must know that whatever comes next is going to be really really bad. (In our house, perception of this phenomenon is called Having Seen TV Before.) But we all rooted so hard for this couple that, even having read the book before and knowing what’s coming next, it doesn’t immediately stand out as a foreshadowing. After the Very Bad Thing happens, Ginny being able to get Harry to leave the scene is a beautiful expression of how perfect they are together. She knows exactly what to do for him and he trusts her implicitly. It’s so simple and underplayed, but brilliant. Which makes their breakup simultaneously perfect and stupid. On one hand, Ginny’s acceptance of it makes her awesome in that she understands the pressure that Harry’s under and why he feels like he has to do it. On the other hand, I wish she’d put up some protest because the idea of protecting your loved ones by distancing yourself from them is dumb and she’s smart enough to know that it is.
We also get to see the best of Harry in this book. I try really hard not to use quotes when I write these pieces (or else we'd be here all day), but there’s one I think that’s really important to include here.
“It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew - and so do I thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents - that there was all the difference in the world.”
Well if that’s not the most important passage in the series, I don’t know what is. This moment happens when Harry is considering Tom Riddle’s search for immortality. Whereas numerous other moments in this book (and in the whole series) point out how similar Harry and Tom are, this one crystallizes the singular difference that makes Harry a hero and Voldemort a villain, not to mention what makes Harry a Gryffindor and Tom a Slytherin. It’s not so bold a statement for Dumbledore or Harry’s parents to acknowledge this difference as responsible adults with good souls, but for Harry have known this difference since age 11, the first time he ever faced Voldemort in the first book, is absolute justification for a fierce rush of pride.
While Harry’s heroism is bold and obvious, Snape equally becomes a hero, but in an arguably more difficult way. It really sucks to be him, never moreso than in the end of this book. Leave aside that he has to commit murder and not just anyone, but the one person who trusts that he is on the side of right. Then he has to get Draco out to preserve his Unbreakable Vow. He has to maintain his cover as a Death Eater for his own safety. He has to prevent anyone killing Harry on orders from both sides of his cover, while probably wanting to do so himself after having his own dark spells used against him. And when he manages to succeed in all those things? His reward is to go even deeper undercover on the side he doesn’t believe in, abandoning the safety of Hogwarts, knowing that the only person who believed he’s not evil is dead by his own hand, on orders from the victim himself, in the name of the cause. If you can look at all that and not root for Severus Snape at this point, I’m not sure we can be friends.
Like Dumbledore himself did, I think we’ve avoided the ending as long as we can. If you don’t believe me, know that I have had a draft of this open for several days before I could summon the energy to write about the last 5 chapters of this book. Let’s start with Chapter 25, The Seer Overheard. Dumbledore deciding to leave the grounds after Harry’s report on what happened in the Room of Requirement is a mistake I do not understand. He’s known all along that Malfoy is up to some shit and he values the word of Trelawney more than most. He doesn’t need to buy into Harry’s anti-Malfoy campaign to believe that something is up and he should have at least stuck around long enough to check it out. The horcrux mission is important, but the locket isn’t going anywhere. When Harry feels responsible for Dumbledore’s death at the end, I want to dunk his head in the Penseive, take him back to this moment, and explain that Dumbledore was the master of his own undoing. As big a mistake as that is, he also does one of the smartest things he’s ever done in this scene in insisting that Harry follow his orders no matter what. He knows Harry is loyal, but he also anticipates that terrible things could happen which might cause Harry to go rogue and knows Harry well enough to know that he very well might do the brave but dumb thing if he’s scared and unsure. This forethought ensures success on the Horcrux mission and beyond.
Have I mentioned before that Dumbledore is a motherfuckin’ boss? He sacrifices himself from the moment he spares a second to protect and hide Harry, allowing the opportunity for Draco to disarm him. (Side note: I love how the first spell they learn keeps coming up as incredibly useful. It shows that so much forethought was given to the magical curriculum. It’s equivalent to a character using simple math to solve a complicated problem in a non-magical story and I LOVE it.) Not only does Dumbledore protect Harry, but he also protects his would-be assassin by not blowing his cover (thereby protecting him from losing his family) because the safety and happiness of his students literally matters more to him than his own life. Dumbledore is so CALM in this scene, likely because it has been anticipated and prepared for. Therefore I was calm while reading it and noticed how methodical Dumbledore was being about getting Malfoy and the Death Eaters to reveal as much info as possible to hidden Harry. Dumbledore’s final plea is all about his acceptance of what the plan has to be and letting Snape know it’s ok to carry out the assassination. The book and really the whole series hinges on Dumbledore being pretty much smarter than anybody else. Once you know what’s going to happen, you can see and appreciate the threads of his plans throughout the series. It adds gravity to Harry’s reaction. Of course we’re going to have the same emotional response he does upon first reading, but we have the benefit of re-reading without emotion to see that if Harry had been able to view the situation without emotion, he would have realized what Dumbledore was doing.
All the displays of love in the wake of Dumbledore’s death are a really beautiful tribute to him, if unintentional on the part of the characters (though not on that of the author). Love as a powerful form of magic that conquers everything else has been a theme from the beginning, when Lily’s love protected Harry, so it’s nice to see that theme repeated here in the darkest hour thus far in the series. It’s a powerful reminder from the author that we may have just lost one of our champions in the battle, but we still have our most powerful weapon. There are even some lasting examples of Dumbledore’s love from beyond the grave. Harry’s loyalty to Dumbledore’s last wish and subsequent refusal to tell McGonagall about their mission protects her and anyone else from harm. Dumbledore had to anticipate that Harry might have to pursue Horcruxes without him, knowing he might have to offer himself up for martyrdom for the cause.So, the exception that Harry may tell his friends about the mission allows him to have allies when he continues on his own. In these ways, Dumbledore takes care of his army even after he’s gone.
This was a particularly heavy read during a particularly heavy time, but thanks to Rowling’s talent it’s not a slog. It’s going to get even heavier, but it’s also going to pay off huge and knowing that is really going to help getting through the last book, so I’m really looking forward to revisiting the first half of Deathly Hallows with you all next month