Feature Articles

A DEATHLY HOLLOW? by Oisín McGann

(Poetry Ireland News, September/October 2007)

And so it ends. Ten years and seven books later, Harry Potter has finally cast his last spell. I write this in the knowledge that a review of Harry Potter and The Deathly Oisin McGannHallows is somewhat redundant. Who cares what reviewers have to say?

Once again, Joanne Rowling has produced an action-packed page-turner full of imagination and thrills. But this was the end of a series, and unlike other kinds of books, the individual plot and the development of characters do not present the only great challenges. Deathly Hallows, like The Return of the King, The Last Battle, or Return of the Jedi, has a lot of tidying up to do.

Harry is about to turn seventeen, marking the end of the protective spell left by his mother. The Death-Eaters are hunting him, and they are setting up an ambush even as the Order of the Phoenix prepares to rescue him. The first few chapters feature a bewildering number of characters – at least a dozen on either side, not counting all the incidental ones who duck in and out – attempting to tie up loose ends from the other books. It slows the pace and makes the telling complicated. This problem lurks all the way through the book, with some very drawn-out explanations of various characters’ fates interfering with the plot’s drive.

Rowling tackles this problem further into the story by having Harry, Hermione and Ron become fugitives as they embark on the quest set for them by Dumbledore. They must find the Horcruxes – the talismans created by Voldemort to house the fragments of his soul. The story is now more focused on the three main characters as they tackle the problem of finding and destroying the Horcruxes and deciphering the link between Harry and Voldemort – while trying to avoid the predatory Death-Eaters and foil Voldemort’s machinations to take over the Ministry of Magic.

In every children’s story, there is the problem of grown-ups. Responsible adults don’t let children fight dangerous villains. This benevolence is normally avoided by having a threat that the kids are aware of, but one that remains unrecognised by the grown-ups. However, in Deathly Hallows this is stretched to the breaking point. After six books, everyone knows Voldemort is out there, and yet Dumbledore – and, to a lesser extent, all the other powerful adult magicians – all appear ready to let a schoolboy take on this super-powered ‘Hitler’ alone.

At the same time, the Death-Eaters succeed in turning the public against Harry and his supporters. People seem very easily convinced that thing long-standing hero has suddenly become a sly and villainous conspirator. Despite this new handicap, Harry has to reject all assistance and keep his quest a secret throughout, and the reason why – when it is finally given – falls a little flat. I’m ready to believe in a magical world, but the human interaction must still be realistic.

On top of the long-winded explanations, there are two scenes where the gears really grind; a seemingly endless flashback of Snape’s life that could have been rendered much more gracefully – he remains one of my favourite characters – and a deus ex machina appearance by Dumbledore.

But the same qualities that made the other Harry Potter books so popular are still to be found here: there is the same invention, escapism, and that contrast of horror and whimsy, although much of the humour of the earlier books has disappeared. This has evolved into a dark, brooding story and though Harry has not developed hugely as a character over the series, his doubts in his fundamental beliefs are an enlightening challenge to young readers.

Harry’s last, thrilling confrontation with Voldemort marks the end of an era, and many will be wondering if anything will fill the empty hollow that has been left. For writers like myself, there is a mixture of gratitude and relief. For years, Harry Potter has created opportunities, expanded marketing budgets and shone light on the world of children’s books worldwide. But this star’s gravity has also distorted the industry and contributed to a culture of hype that has done almost as much harm as good to publishing.

As the curtain is lowered on Harry Potter’s adventures, however, it must be said that Joanne Rowling truly cast a spell over her readers...and there is no greater achievement for any storyteller. I hope her own phenomenon will not prevent her from telling us more stories.

Oisín McGann’s latest novel, for readers aged 12 and upwards, is Ancient Appetites (Doubleday, 2007).

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