“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” This passage, without a reference to its scriptural source (I Corinthians 15:26), appears nearly half way through J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, the final book in her hugely popular series. Deathly Hallows marks a satisfying completion of the series, more dramatically captivating and more effectively orchestrated than any book in the series since Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. As both the title and the scriptural reference indicate, the book is preoccupied with death. While addressing our peculiarly modern obsessions, the reflection on death and its possible overcoming is hardly morbid. Ultimately, it is not even tragic; instead, it is a comic affirmation of the triumph of life over death, love over hate, and community over isolation.
The early pacing of Deathly Hallows is superb; because the central characters (Ron, Hermione, and Harry) are no longer attending Hogwarts Academy, in the wake of Dumbledore’s death and Voldemort’s takeover of the institution, the plot is freed from having to follow the rhythm of the academic year. Rowling’s formula had been to give us an initial scare in the opening chapters and then slowly to build up to a particular quest and its defining battle. In the middle parts of her books, however, Rowling had developed a bad habit of inordinate expansion and repetition, testing readers’ interest in the daily life of Hogwarts Academy and particularly in the politics of institutional gossip, teen angst, and petty competitions for recognition.
In saving the big battle for the finale, previous plots also delayed until then the deaths of major figures. In Deathly Hallows, there are significant casualties early, middle, and late and important revelations early, middle, and late. Through it all, Harry, much more clearly and forcefully than in the previous books, comes into his own, as he grows in confidence and judgment. What was becoming a bit tiresome in the last few books — the bottomless teen angst and Harry’s internal horrors — here achieves an equilibrium between external challenge and internal preparedness. In short, he becomes an adult and a leader.
Readers of the final book are left to puzzle over, not just the mysterious powers of mercy and self-sacrifice, but also explicit references to the New Testament, the one from Corinthians cited above and a passage from Matthew, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Harry encounters these statements on tombstones and knows neither their source nor their precise import. In that respect, Harry is a stand-in for most modern readers. Although he never explicitly formulates it this way, Harry’s great quest in Deathly Hallows leads him toward an understanding of the meaning of these scriptural passages, an understanding not just theoretical but eminently practical.
Beyond her creation of memorable characters and plots that will likely remain part of the cultural vocabulary for years to come, Rowling has crafted — and this is no mean achievement — a mythical universe at whose center stands the cultivation of the virtues of remembering, and preparing for, death.