MISSED LEVER THREE: Wasted time, wasted opportunities. The 200 pages in the wilderness short-circuited the rest of Rowling’s final novel, which was already in trouble, given the time she had wasted in book six. Now, don’t get me wrong – Half-Blood Prince might go down as the best top-to-bottom novel in Rowling’s series (it’s certainly my favorite), but it felt like Rowling was just killing time until her final chapter. In an interview, Rowling once said that she considered dealing with a lot of the material she covered in Half-Blood Prince much earlier in her series, specifically in the second volume, Chamber of Secrets. That would have been wise, seeing as how both novels include a lot of tempo-killing flashbacks to Voldemort’s youth, as well as horcruxes.
With that knowledge in mind, I looked back over the entire series and regretted Rowling’s scattershot approach to it. She wrote two perfectly pleasant boarding-school adventures before she found her sea-legs and launched into a grand, epic narrative that she managed to sustain through books three, four and five before the wheels invisibly came off in book six. It took the seventh book to make us realize they had come off.
In short: We didn’t get to see graduation, dammit.
I know I’m being glib, but looking back, it seems that Rowling would have been well served to combine books two and six into a larger and stronger novel, and she should have made Hogwarts a six-year school instead of a seven-year one. I submit that book six should have ended with Dumbledore’s funeral and graduation. That would have made the quest for the horcruxes the kids’ first great challenge as Hogwarts grads – their first great challenge as adults.
But I’m nit-picking. Let’s talk about the one lever Rowling successfully managed to throw, which will lead us directly into the last lever she missed.
SUCCESSFULLY THROWN LEVER: The need for Harry’s sacrifice. The instant we finished reading book six, all of us speculated about the mechanics of the climax of Rowling’s series, right? Would Harry be a horcrux? Would the horcruxes be what Dumbledore suggested they’d be? I myelf suggested that Harry’s wand would be a horcrux, leaving Harry to summon magic with merely his will.
Many of us predicted that Harry would be a horcrux, and even though Rowling fulfilled that prediction, she still managed to out-think a lot of us by making Harry an unwitting horcrux that had to die. Voldemort unintentionally soldered a shard of his soul onto Harry, and this meant that in order for Harry to vanquish Voldemort, Voldemort had to kill Harry.
By now, everyone seriously reading this essay knows how the book panned out – the meeting with Dumbledore in the afterlife, the final battle in the Hogwarts Great Hall – so I’ll only offer this:
I loved this choice, and no one can take away the bittersweet joy I felt as I walked with Harry on his final march toward his doom. Just think of how this ending would have been if Rowling had had the courage to follow through with it. Just think of how it would have retroactively tinged Dumbledore’s every conversation with Harry with grief. Think about it: What if Dumbledore knew that Harry was doomed to die when he was 17? What if Snape knew that?
This leads me to the final failed lever:
MISSED LEVER FOUR: No important deaths. Before the release of Goblet of Fire, Rowling said that a lead character would die. She wound up killing Cedric Diggory. To be sure, Cedric was a lead character in the novel Goblet of Fire, but he wasn’t a “main character” in the sense that all of us fans thought.
In other words, she cheated, and she did it again in book seven.
To her credit, Rowling did kill two lead characters in the series: Sirius Black and Dumbledore, but then during her promotional interviews for book seven, she said that a lot of characters would die, including two she didn’t expect to die. She also said that she gave one character “a reprieve.” Rowling wound up killing several memorable characters in book seven, including Mad-Eye Moody, Remus Lupin and Dobby, whose death sparked one of the book’s most effective scenes (Harry burying the house-elf the old-fashioned way). Unfortunately, the brute effectiveness of this scene annoyed me because it was for fucking Dobby.
Like one of her literary forebears, Rowling started out writing a kid’s book and wound up writing a war novel, but unlike Tolkien, Rowling didn’t have the courage to kill anyone who mattered. Tolkien made Frodo his novel’s great casualty of war. Frodo returned from his journey shattered, and by sending Frodo to the Grey Havens (essentially heaven), Tolkien drove home the fact that Sam was the hero of his epic tale, and that he was a hero not just for helping to destroy the ring – he was a hero for having the fortitude to say goodbye to his old friend and build a family.
For years I predicted that Ron would die at the end of Rowling’s books, but while reading Deathly Hallows, it occurred to me that Harry simply had to die. Prophecy had decreed he enter this world to stop Voldemort, and he spent his life as a kid who was never quite normal – always off-center, always looking to belong but never quite finding his place.
Looking back, I feel cheated that Harry turned into just another boring parent on platform 9 and Three-Quarters. I wanted Harry to be a something like a jinn – a concept from time-travel theory. You know how in the movie Somewhere in Time, Chrstopher Reeve’s character gets that pocket watch from an old woman, and then he goes back in time to give it to her when she was young, but the watch itself has no real origin – it just exists in a circular timeline for no discernable reason? That’s a jinn. The idea of one fills me with wonder and makes me think of Harry Potter’s curious place in the wizarding world.
Again, pretend for a moment that you’re Albus Dumbledore, and you know of the prophecy of the boy who lived. Intellectually, you know that this innocent child must die for the greater good of the wizarding world – but then you meet this child right after his 11th birthday, and he’s more extraordinary than you expected, and over the years, you continue to advise him, but the whole time you know that he’s doomed to die for the greater good – and yet you never tell him. You consider this omission one of your great failures in personal character – and yet you never tell him. You can’t tell him.
You can’t tell him. You never tell him. You simply trust that your closest confidante – a broken-hearted, lion-hearted man – will relay this tragic information.
And you trust that the boy who lived will choose to die.
These books will always have an esteemed place on my shelf – but what a shame.