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The end of childhood

Mark Harris reads ”Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”

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SPOILER ALERT!

Massive, eight-legged spoiler alert: This column discusses the ending of the new Harry Potter book. So if you haven’t read Deathly Hallows, consider what follows to be the Forbidden Forest and, as Hagrid might say (perhaps more often than necessary), ge’ ou’!

There’s so much to say about the final volume of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga, but let’s get right down to the very end: The woman understands closure. I don’t mean the fact that Harry survives and Voldemort bites the dust; really, was it ever going to be otherwise? No plotter as responsible and as fond of symmetry as Rowling would have titled the first chapter of the first book ”The Boy Who Lived” without meaning it. And the pleasures of speculation aside, I don’t think many readers seriously imagined that after almost 10 years and over four thousand pages, Rowling, holding the hearts of the world’s children in her hands, would trot off to cash her check after typing out ”As Voldemort twirled Harry’s limp corpse merrily over his noseless head, he sneered at the defeated children of Hogwarts and roared, ‘Get to work, slaves!’ The End.” Good defeating evil isn’t closure. That’s just getting to the end of the story, which is the minimum promise made by any good storyteller.

But Rowling does much more, both on the way to her destination and after she reaches it. The effect of page 751, with the words ”Nineteen Years Later” set starkly against a patterned page that announces in clear visual terms that this narrative is now over, is breathtaking. In essence, Rowling is telling you that you’ve heard the story — the whole story — and that she is now going to gently pry you away from it. I’ve heard some griping that the epilogue of Deathly Hallows is too tidy, but the poignant combination of tenderness and sadness with which it unfolds is, to me, the author at her considerable best.

If I were as enthralled by runes and riddles as Hermione, I could point out that the initials of 37-year-old Harry Potter’s younger son, Albus Severus Potter, are A.S.P. — in other words, snake, which, as we know, is rarely good news in the wizarding world. I might also note that Draco Malfoy’s decision to name his child Scorpius portends trouble (since so often in Rowling, nomenclature is character). And cynics might remark that Harry and Ginny’s three children, Ron and Hermione’s two, Draco’s son, and teens Teddy Lupin and Victoire, all deftly established in just a few pages, could easily populate Hogwarts: The Next Generation should Rowling decide to go there.

But I don’t think Rowling is up to anything so encoded or calculating; what she’s doing brilliantly in those last few pages is honoring the single most ancient convention of closure in all of fairytaledom — ”…and then they got married and lived happily ever after” — while coloring that final scene with a dark mark of earned sorrow and loss. The end of this epic is about saying goodbye — our goodbye to Harry, Harry’s goodbye to his own childhood and to his dreams of finding a perfect, untarnishable father figure (having learned bitterly, time and again, that there’s no such thing), and then, Harry’s goodbye to his own son, for whom he has made the world safer. Significantly, the last images of this tale come not from the perspective of 11-year-old Al Potter, boarding his first Hogwarts Express, but from that of the adult Harry, his hand frozen in a farewell wave that feels to him like ”a little bereavement.” It’s a measure of how maturely Rowling has treated even her youngest readers that, by the end of the Potter series, they will understand what that pang means. That’s closure — closing a story, and closing a circle.

Much has been written about how effectively Rowling scavenges from pop culture, and Deathly Hallows does some friendly pilfering from sources as diverse as The Wizard of Oz and James Cameron’s Aliens (see page 736, where Mrs. Weasley goes all Sigourney Weaver on Bellatrix Lestrange). But in its progression from childhood to adulthood, mirrored in the growing complexity and ambiguity of its story lines, Rowling’s work is, it scarcely needs saying anymore, singular. As I finished her serene final paragraphs, I couldn’t help but think of another, very different seven-part British epic, Michael Apted’s Up series of documentaries, which first checked in on the lives of fourteen 7-year-old English schoolchildren in 1964, and has revisited them every seven years, most recently in 2005. The ”children” are now 49 years old, some with kids and grandkids of their own, and it’s terribly moving to see their focus shift from themselves to future generations. Being British, Apted and Rowling are both fascinated by the question of class, specifically whether the life into which one is born is one’s destiny. The Harry Potter books are, aside from everything else, about the journey from a childish belief that heroism is inherent in who you are to a more adult understanding that it lies in what you do — not in fate but in human agency. It’s a story worth telling again and again. To J.K. Rowling, who has told it so well, what else is there to say but a slightly bereaved Thank you.