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Harry Potter: The final conflict

August 3, 2007 | Page 11

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007, 607 pages, $35.

JESSIE MULDOON looks at a decade of the Harry Potter series.

J.K. ROWLING had a tall order facing her with the release of her latest, and final, volume in the Harry Potter saga. With millions of fans having read nearly 3,000 pages (not counting re-reading the books) over 10 years, the final installment had to be good. Very good. And it is.

While the series has been perhaps legitimately criticized as too long or weaker in some areas than others, it is undeniably a rich and layered achievement, with a satisfying conclusion, and closure.

As the series has developed, the characters became deeper, the plot lines more complex and darker. The first two books were adventures, with charming characters and quite a bit of humor and even parody. But, as the story unfolded, it grew more serious.

By the third and fourth books, Harry and his friends were dealing directly with death, and the increasingly ominous threat of Lord Voldemort's return. By books five and six, not only was Voldemort returning, but he was raising an army and preparing to take over the wizarding world.

It is in these later books, too, that the Order of the Phoenix, an underground anti-Voldemort organization, and Dumbledore's Army, the Hogwarts students' own version of the Order, emerge. A wizarding resistance movement of sorts.

While the later books are considered darker, they are also more complex, and the characters, good and evil, are developed in such a way that they are, well, not simply good or evil. In The Order of the Phoenix, for example, we learn that Harry's father was not the pristine role model that Harry imagines.

As revealed in a memory, we see the young James Potter cruelly taunting his classmate, the misfit, and generally unlikable Severus Snape. James a bully? Snape sympathetic? This discovery shakes Harry, and contributes to his own maturation.

The Deathly Hallows takes these realizations and fully explores them. This is perhaps Rowling's greatest achievement in the book. While the series can be described as an epic tale between good and evil, the individuals involved are not so easily defined.

This is most developed in Harry's memories of the departed, and beloved, Albus Dumbledore, former headmaster of Hogwarts School. Much to Harry's dismay, even Dumbledore has skeletons in his closet, and even more difficult for Harry to grapple with is why Dumbledore never shared this with Harry while he lived.

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THE PLOT of The Deathly Hallows is straightforward: Harry, joined with his closest mates, Hermione and Ron, will endeavor to find and destroy Voldemort's remaining Horcruxes--magical vessels in which Voldemort has stored pieces of his soul to ensure prolonged life. From there they will seek to kill Voldemort and destroy his army of Dark Wizards, or Death Eaters.

Harry, Hermione and Ron's path through this plot is, however, in no way straightforward. While on their quest they will encounter challenges and hardships that test their friendships and strain their loyalties. They will also find their quest for Horcruxes is diverted by another equally compelling and dangerous quest. This conflict of tasks will add ever more strain to the trio's relationship.

Understanding and confronting the death of his parents always remains one of Harry's goals, and in a chilling and equally heartbreaking scene, Harry and Hermione visit Godric's Hollow and visit the site of Harry's home as an infant, as well as his parents' graves.

While Harry, Hermione and Ron pursue their own quest, Voldemort and his followers pursue theirs: to rid the wizarding world of wizards who possess Muggle blood, and reform their world on the basis of "Pure Blood" supremacy. This political backdrop to the book is chilling. As Voldemort gains power, his followers take over the Ministry of Magic, and more and more laws against the rights of Muggle Borns and "Half-Bloods" are enacted.

We see scenes of Muggle Borns in hiding, or begging on the street in Hogsmeade, having lost jobs, and separated from families. Gangs of vigilante "Snatchers" roam trying to pick up Muggle Borns, and Pure Bloods have free reign to torture, even kill, unsuspecting Muggles.

The political symbolism of Voldemort's reign is unmistakable. As the Dark Wizards gain power, they erect repressive institutions not unlike in fascist Germany, or a more contemporary parallel--under the Patriot Act.

In fact, as the plots deepen, so do the politics of the Harry Potter series. While the first books were not political in any real way, Harry was portrayed as someone who was not impressed with snobbery, and rejected falling in with the likes of Draco Malfoy. Likewise, his best friend, Ron, is from a poor family, and Hermione is not even from a wizarding family. Harry stands up for Neville when he is being bullied, and befriends Hagrid, the half-Giant groundkeeper.

By the later books, written in a post 9-11 world, the politics become more explicit. While it is clear by the fourth book, The Goblet of Fire, that Voldemort has returned, the Ministry of Magic would rather suppress the information rather than admit it is powerless against Voldemort. People are falsely imprisoned to maintain a veneer of action and justice, and the media discredits those who speak the truth, like Harry. And Death Eaters are emboldened enough to march openly at the quidditch World Cup, in a dark parody of a soccer riot, terrorizing local Muggles.

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THE FIFTH book, The Order of the Phoenix, introduces a new character, Dolores Umbridge, to personify the Ministry of Magic's cruel ineptitude. She is posted at Hogwarts as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, but is really there to keep an eye on Dumbledore. She restricts teachers from teaching anything outside of a Ministry-approved curriculum and creates arbitrary rules that prohibit students from gathering and from even reading The Quibbler, a Wizard tabloid that prints an interview with Harry in which he states that Voldemort has returned.

By the end of The Order of the Phoenix, it is clear that the epic battle between good and evil has begun, in fact the last chapter is ominously titled, "The Second War Begins." The final installment is the full development of the battle between Harry and Voldemort.

Harry's motivation to defeat Voldemort is often complicated with his own personal desire for revenge, and in some ways the real threat of Voldemort's regime is better understood by people like the Weasleys, who have been members of the Order of the Phoenix for years, and have fought Voldemort before, and lost friends in the battle. As pure-blooded wizards who have consciously rejected that status, they are considered "blood traitors" and are nearly as disdained by the Death Eaters as Wizards with Muggle blood.

Voldemort's world would be one built on the supremacy of the "Pure Bloods" and the oppression of all else, and that defines the climactic showdown at the end of the Deathly Hallows. This point is denied by a review in The Nation by Lakshmi Chaudhry, which bizarrely criticizes the series for its "shallowness" and declares that Harry's struggle against Voldemort is simply to defend middle-class comfort and for "what George Bush would call "our way of life." This oversimplification of the fate of those deemed inferior under the rule of Voldemort does a disservice to the series.

Harry's early rejection of snobbery and judging people on the basis of money or blood shape his later development as a skilled fighter against Voldemort and all that he represents. That he isn't as politically developed as some of the other, older wizards are understandable. The characters are wonderfully contradictory, and while we may sometimes be frustrated with Harry's youthful self-absorbedness we never doubt that as he matures he comes to understand Voldemort's threat more fully, as he grows more committed to building the fight see him defeated.

This is encapsulated in an exchange between Harry, and his friend, the werewolf Remus Lupin, the type of being which would be forced underground and hunted if Voldemort were allowed to reign. Remus explains to Harry why he was willing to fight and sacrifice so that he could help in building a world where one "could live a happier life." As a werewolf, facing discrimination and persecution, this can only mean a world in which all creatures and people, regardless of blood purity, could live together as equals.

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