Welcome back readers! It’s been a long road, but we’ve finally reached the last book. At least now the division of my coverage of these books matches that of the movies (sort of). The first half of book 7 could easily be a one big set up piece, a “get to the fireworks factory” slog. Much as I love the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the journey to the final battle does tend to go on (and on and on). Instead, here we get a well-built story containing some excellent character moments and a really thoughtful progression of events (as we’ve come to expect from the author by now. Let’s take a look at what makes this “beginning of the end” so special.
Seven books in, Rowling is still finding creative ways to provide exposition. In a story as wide-ranging as this, there’s no avoiding it, as there are so many relevant events that take place outside of the main characters’ experiences. Since the Penseive was becoming such a tiresome device, it was refreshing to get intel on the past by way of Harry’s disguised conversations with Doge and Auntie Muriel at the wedding. Likewise, the use of Extendable Ears to eavesdrop on the refugee wizards and goblins’ conversation in the woods was a fitting way for our heroes to learn what’s going on in the outside world, since they are, by necessity, otherwise cut off from it. Both of these scenes might be considered too convenient, except that they serve multiple functions. In the case of the wedding, it provides some much needed lightness in a very dark story and reminds Harry of the simple pleasures in life that make his sacrifices worth making. And the refugee scene just makes sense; it would be totally natural that otherwise unlikely companions would find themselves lumped together under fear of persecution. They’d be seeking shelter in the same types of places Harry and company would be, so they’d be bound to run into one of these groups eventually. And these folks would logically be interested in discussing exactly the matters that the protagonists need to know about. Both scenes are textbook examples of excellent exposition that make logical sense and fit seamlessly into the narrative.
There are a lot of hard to read moments in this book that really confirm that the series has matured along with its audience and characters. Of course the deaths of Hedwig and Mad-Eye are upsetting, even moreso than the deaths we’ve read before in the series because they’re so dear to our hearts (and to Harry’s). But beyond that, this book offers moments darker than ever seen before. Detestable as Kreacher is, the combination of Hermione’s sympathy, in spite of his strong distaste for her, and our knowledge of Harry and Dumbledore’s experience with the potion from the basin in the cave makes his story so difficult to get through (and almost makes all that SPEW business worth it). And, in my opinion, the discomfort of that scene is relatively small compared with the excruciating flashback Harry experiences in Godric’s Hollow, detailing his parents’ final moments. It may be my perspective as a parent, it may be that I’d completely forgotten about this moment so it read as new. Whatever it was, reading as Harry relived his parents’ deaths was almost too much to bear and was more heartbreaking to me than anything else in the first half of this book.
Rowling has been incredibly active on Twitter lately, combatting trolls on current events. With the frightening parallels to past historical tragedy and the threat of history repeating itself these days, it’s not hard to see why. In the wizarding world, a small, hateful group has taken power over both the government and the press while the rest of the community bands together to #resist. The face of the government is a puppet, controlled by a behind-the-scenes hatemonger. The activities surrounding the Muggle-Born Registry smacks of recent government activity aimed at keeping “bad outsiders” out of our country. The Snatchers feel equivalent to the ICE raids happening daily. The Quibbler, a formerly frivolous media outlet, has become the trusted source for truth, the Teen Vogue of the Potterverse. Ron is constantly putting himself in harm’s way to protect Hermione because of her blood status, reminiscent of the way Germans hid Jews from the Nazis in the 1940s. Ron also offers the logic that the existence of Squibs proves Muggle-borns couldn’t steal magic if they wanted to. RON WEASLEY HAS A POINT, Y’ALL, but nobody is listening. All of this feels horrifyingly familiar. It was frightening on first reading, but not nearly as scary as it is to read now because these sorts of things are actually happening in real life and I. HAVE. CHILLS.
Speaking of Ron, let’s look at how he evolves over the course of the first half of this story. In the beginning, Ron is typical Ron; an ass focused on “How to Charm Witches,” rather than the important matters. His failure to take their situation as seriously as the others leads to his explosion and separation from his friends. Ron is a complete fucking moron for leaving, of course, but his immediate regret reveals that he’s not mad at them, he’s mad at himself for not realizing before now how bad things are and how hard the struggle truly is going to be. And who can blame him? Ron’s seen tough times throughout the series and he’s always contributed to their victories, but in the end Harry’s always triumphed and he’s always been along for the ride. Now, triumph seems far beyond their grasp and his frustration with the situation is taken out on his friends. Thankfully Rowling allows Ron to redeem himself and show growth, both through magical intervention (by hearing his friends through the Deluminator) and via his thrilling heroics. His relationship with Hermione remains complicated, but their story is not over at this point. As much as I want them to JUST KISS, her beating the crap out of him on his return feels more right.
And speaking of Hermione, her resourcefulness continues to impress. When she revealed that she used a Summoning charm to obtain the books about Horcruxes from Dumbledore’s office, I was legitimately surprised it had taken her this long to resort to that kind of tactic, but pleased with the logic that it couldn’t have been done prior, as Dumbledore’s protective charms on the objects in his office died with him. It’s one of many examples of Rowling being very careful to set up obstacles in such a way that our heroes can’t just magic their way out of anything. It’s the same thing that makes superhero stories interesting; it’s enjoyable to read about characters who have abilities that we don’t, but if they can just do anything they want, what’s the point? (Rules really do make the game more fun, you guys.) I really adore the way Hermione and Ron are falling in love in a totally unconscious way; they bicker and fight like an old married couple already, but they also always reach for each other to protect each other in moments of fear and danger. It’s quite endearing and makes for a great payoff later in the book. Hermione also gets some great, smaller moments of Being Right, including scolding Harry’s doubt of Dumbledore in the face of false reports from biased sources and her understanding of wizard-house elf relations being the key to getting the first Horcrux of the book. My only gripe with her in this section is her insistence that Harry use Occlumency to fight Voldemort. It’s within character, of course, but a bit grating, since she doesn’t seem to get that it’s one of those talents you can’t master at will and have to know how it feels to be able to do it (not to mention what a handy literary device it is).
Dumbledore may be dead, but he is still such a presence in both Harry’s life and this book. As we learned from Lin-Manuel Miranda “you have no control/who lives, who dies, who tells your story,” and that all comes across heavily here. Harry’s regret in not having asked Dumbledore more questions, about the mission and about himself, before his death is so relatable. Harry’s commitment to confirming the truth about Dumbledore mimics Dumbledore’s own commitment to confirming the truth about Riddle in the previous book, though Harry isn’t consciously aware of the lesson he’s learned from the mentor who would be proud of Harry for investigating his background. Throughout the series, I believe that the journey of Harry and the reader is meant to be parallel, but here we find out that those journeys are also parallel to that of one Albus Dumbledore. Harry shows the same naivete in believing Skeeter’s book as Albus showed in believing in Grindelwald as a young man, as the reader shows if they believe what Harry believes, which a younger reader might, but an older, more critical reader is better equipped to see the author’s misdirection. It’s all terribly clever of Rowling and a bit easier to see on a reread when the reader is not so caught up in the tension and excitement of the plot. And while we also know there are plenty of similarities between Harry and Voldemort, this part of this book serves to crystallize the difference between them. Harry is as driven and arguably reckless in pursuit of his goals as Voldemort is, as we see in the mission to retrieve the locket from the Ministry. And he could have gotten away with it much more cleanly had he only stunned Yaxley and Umbridge and slipped away under the Invisibility cloak. But Harry is our hero and he cannot leave the innocent Muggle-born prisoners in the hands of a corrupted Ministry. So as we prepare for final faceoff between these two, it’s nice to have their differences confirmed as much as their similarities.
I’m leaving off here, after the destruction of the first Horcrux, with so much more to come. Normally I finish writing before I move on to read the next section, but I confess this time to being too invested to stop reading this time, so I’m already super pumped to bring you the exciting conclusion. See you all next month!