Harry Potter and the End of the Road

A journey that began over a decade ago, with lines of a story written on napkins at a coffee shop by a woman who was too poor to buy proper paper, finally reached its end this week, with the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (which had a record 12 million copy first-run printing), the seventh and final installment in the series about a young orphaned wizard that took the world by storm, reawakening children to the joys of reading and making the author, J.K. Rowling, one of the richest women in the world.

For the public, the voyage began in September of 1998, with the 309-page Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which introduced the world to a magical realm of witches and wizards, of goblins, giants, and trolls, of good and evil, and of little Harry Potter himself, a young, unloved boy of eleven, parentless and forced to live in the cupboard under his aunt and uncle’s stairs, ignorant (by design) of the magical world. Young Harry is equally ignorant of his celebrity status within the magical community as “The Boy Who Lived” — the hero who, at the age of one, ended a Dark Lord’s (whose name people are still afraid to speak) reign of terror upon both the magical and “Muggle,” or non-magical, worlds, by causing the evil wizard’s killing curse — which had already killed Harry’s parents — to rebound upon him, vanquishing Lord Voldemort, as he is known, and leaving Harry with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead.

As Harry journeyed through his new-found life, attending Hogwarts School of witchcraft and Wizardry, learning the truth about a great many things, the reading audience — which grew and grew with each installment of this literary phenomenon — travelled with him, learning about his life and his world, and also learning a little something about themselves.

Fans of Harry Potter struggled along with him to comprehend the new challenges and hardships he faced as he grew up, feeling anger, pain, joy, and love along with him, and valuing the loyalty of his friends as much as he himself did. They befriended the half-giant Rubeus Hagrid, Hogwarts School’s loyal-to-a-fault gamekeeper; they loathed the slick, greasy Severus Snape, who hated Harry as much as Harry hated him; they learned from the wise and seemingly invincible headmaster, Albus Dumbledore (and fell with him from the Astronomy Tower when Snape killed him at the end of the sixth book); they searched, along with the protagonist, for clues and answers to many questions, including why Voldemort sought specifically to kill him in the first place, why Snape loathed him so much (and whether the oily head of Slytherin House was really on the side of good or of evil), what really happened on the night his parents were murdered, and what it was that Harry himself had to do to vanquish the Dark Lord once and for all.

Such was the gift of Jo Rowling, once a single mother who was “on the dole” in Britain, and whose incredible ability to spin a multi-layered, multi-volumed tapestry of a story pulled her out of the unemployment line and placed her on a pedestal as one of the great authors in recent history. For these are no mere children’s tales; any single volume of Harry Potter contains more references, allusions, derivatives, and subplot lines from classical mythology, Greek, Latin, the Renaissance, eastern mysticism, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Shakespeare, Norse mythology, Christianity, and many, many others than could ever be absorbed on first reading. Beyond this cultured basis, each story is brimming with clues and hints (along with a double-helping of red herring) as to the larger mystery of the entire series — a mystery which many readers only gradually realized existed in the first place.

The Harry Potter stories are not independent tales; the complex tapestry of information, riddles, and clues which Rowling weaves in each volume not only requires multiple readings to fully grasp, but is more necessary for comprehension of the series’s overall plot than most ever knew. Simply calling it a mystery, though, does no justice to the series itself, or to Rowling’s skill. The book is a morality play writ large, with good facing evil at every turn, with shades of gray in between; as Harry’s godfather, the short-lived Sirius Black, says in book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, “the world is not simply made up into good people and Death Eaters” (followers of Voldemort). As with most stories in this genre, Harry is provided a mentor (Dumbledore) whose words and wisdom he takes as absolute, incontrovertible truth — and through trials he must learn of that mentor’s fallibility and, in essence, mortality.

Which brings us — seven volumes, nine years, and four thousand, one-hundred and seventy pages later — to the end. Voldemort has returned, Dumbledore is dead, and Harry has been growing older — and his life more dangerous – with each increasingly-dark installment. The trend of darkness continues in this final book; with Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic both being taken over by Voldemort and his Death Eaters, injury, torture, and death are commonplace, both for children at school and for adults in the outside world. Already thrust into de facto adulthood by the loss of any father figures he might once have had — as well as by the fact that the Dark Lord Voldemort has long since sworn that he will stop at nothing to finish Harry off once and for all — the protagonist, and the reader along with him, must cope with the fact that his continued existence seems to bring death and danger to those he most loves, and who most love him.

Several key characters, whom readers have gotten to know over the course of the multi-volume series, perish in this story, giving their lives to a cause, though it means that they leave behind loved ones of their own.

The seventh volume consists of Harry, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger’s quest to fulfill the last mission assigned them by Dumbledore before his death. They must seek out four remaining Horcruxes (objects in which Voldemort has stored bits of his shredded soul, thereby preventing him from dying) and destroy them, before going up against the Dark Lord himself. However, like in the other stories, a crossroads is reached, and a decision must be made — in this case, whether to continue in the seemingly futile pursuit of the Horcruxes, or to change course and go after three magical objects called Hallows, which are said to make the holder the master of Death itself.

In Deathly Hallows, Harry travels back in space and time to Godric’s Hollow, where he learns more about his parents’ death and about Dumbledore’s mysterious life and family; he learns even more about the value of friendship and of fate; and the greatest theme of the first six books is reinforced — that who and what we are is nowhere near as important as the choices that we make.

The choices made by central (and controversial) characters from the series are revealed in Hallows, with more information being given, and the complexity of some individuals — from Severus Snape to Harry’s aunt, Petunia Dursley — being revealed.

Choice is central not only to the development and revealing of ancillary characters, but to the fate of Harry himself (and, by extension, of the wizarding world). After thousands of pages of learning, growing, and fighting, the end of the saga comes down to a final choice to be made by the protagonist, involving the decision not only whether (and how) to use the tools he has acquired on his quest, but, in the mold of Aslan and of Christ, whether to make the ultimate sacrifice in hopes of saving those he loves.

Chief among Rowling’s many achievements in this series is her success in making Harry a real teenage boy, with very real concerns, fears, and emotions. He is no more a cardboard construct than the reader is, and as a result, an entire generation of readers has been drawn to him and to his story.

In Hallows, the elegant, intricate tapestry which Rowling spent the past decade weaving becomes much more clear, as seemingly insignificant (or long-forgotten) characters, incidents, and objects — from a rusty object in a hidden room, to a pair of wandmakers, to an old dark wizard mentioned on the back of a Chocolate Frog card — come back, and show their importance to the overall narrative. The story flows, the characters struggle, and, in the words of one major individual, “magic many of us have never encountered or imagined” comes to life, with the odds seemingly reaching impossible heights by the time that Harry is forced to make his final choice.

The ending of the Harry Potter saga should satisfy all who have followed the boy wizard since he was introduced to the world, wearing broken glasses and hand-me-down clothes, a decade ago, if for no other reason than the simple fact that it provides closure. The pieces fit together and, though answering every question would take Tolkien-esque appendices, the mystery and the narrative are satisfyingly sewn up into a nice, tight ending, leaving the reader — whether die-hard Harry Potter fan or simply casual reader — with a bittersweet certainty of people’s final fates. Regardless how well Rowling told the final story, a lack of closure would have left readers eternally unhappy and unsatisfied. However, she achieved that final task masterfully, and as the reader turns to page 759 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, they really will be able to say — through the tears of joy and of loss — that they “have stuck with Harry to the very end.”

And that is a reward in itself.