Well, I’ve finished my journey back through the Harry Potter series, and I’ve had a few days (actually a couple of weeks because there’s been no time to write) to reflect on both the last two books and the series as a whole. My friend, Emily, and I frequently talk about the experience of finishing a really good book or a series with a strong world, fully-drawn characters, and a compelling plot: the sense of satisfaction at the completion, the sadness at leaving that world in which and those characters with whom you spent some significant time, the loss at not quite knowing what to do now that your visit is over, the warmth that comes from knowing you can revisit anytime you want. Finishing that kind of book is like a show-mance: highly emotional, intense, and usually all too brief. This was certainly the case for me as I finished my month and a half spent in Harry’s world of wizards and Hogwarts.
Book 6, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, tracks Harry and Co. as they navigate their 6th year at Hogwarts where Albus Dumbledore has been re-instated as headmaster. As the students study harder than ever, including finally learning Aparition, Dumbledore begins teaching Harry Voldemort’s history to further prepare Harry for the inevitable battle and reveals the key to defeating Voldemort: destroying Voldemort’s Horcruxes, or the special items that each contain a piece of Voldemort’s soul, his method for ensuring his own immortality. Book 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, follows Harry, Hermione, and Ron as they struggle to find and destroy the final 4 Horcruxes to ensure Voldemort’s downfall. This year they are away from Hogwarts while their friends keep the resistance alive now that the school is controlled by Voldemort’s lackeys, but the final confrontation takes place in the Great Hall of the only place that has ever felt like home to the two combatants. Spoiler alert: Harry wins.
These last two books mark yet another distinct shift in tone from the previous books because these are the two books where Harry and Co. are actively fighting Voldemort. Though Voldemort has all but physically disappeared from the sixth book, the preparations to fight him have begun in earnest. The Order of the Phoenix, a wizarding French Resistance, has been working hard protecting both wizards and Muggles alike, spying in the Ministry, and searching for allies to help bring down Voldemort. In the seventh book, Harry, Hermione, and Ron are on the hunt, destroying Horcruxes as they find them to weaken Voldemort before the final battle. It is this activeness in the fight and the assumption of more adult responsibilities that really mark the shift. These last two books are not children’s books, and some might not even consider them young adult books. The characters are at that cusp between physical adulthood and emotional adulthood, and the books reflect that. Adult characters stop trying to carry Harry’s burden for him as he continually asserts that Dumbledore left him, Hermione, and Ron, and only them, a job to do. Even if he is not an adult, age-wise, Harry is growing into that mentality, especially in the last book.
Aside from these adult responsibilities, the humor is more sophisticated and adult, and there are some pretty thinly veiled references to sex and other adult matters in the jokes as relationships rearrange and romance firmly enters the picture. The emotional lives of these characters are increasingly complex, and I think the scene in the forest in Book 7, where the Horcrux tries to seduce Ron into killing Harry by presenting him with images of Harry and Hermione in a romantic situation, exemplifies that to a tee. Though Rowling has not shied away from piling on the emotions for her young characters or readers, the quality changes when feelings of adult love and jealousy are introduced into the mix. It’s not just about fighting Voldemort anymore; now it’s about fighting Voldemort and establishing the adult versions of relationships so that life can actually continue once the Dark Lord has been defeated. Even expressions of grief have a more mature quality to them, as seen in Dobby’s burial scene, a moment of breathtaking beauty and sadness. And to all of you parents who are horrified that these last books are “too grown-up for [your] second grader,” of course they are! The characters are growing up, so the books are as well. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out.
Rowling’s masterful foreshadowing wraps up and resolves in many ways, but there are two in particular that I appreciated this time. Dumbledore’s look of triumph, which I mentioned previously, is made clear. I believe the moment is supposed to be fleeting but a bit unsettling when it first appears in Book 4. However, it is actually a moment of redemption, or at least understanding, for Dumbledore in light of his past mistakes. It is the moment he knows he has succeeded in keeping Harry safe, for Voldemort’s use of Harry’s blood ultimately gave Harry the power to defeat Voldemort. However, Rowling holds out on both us and Harry, revealing this information only at the moment when Harry needs it most. Additionally, in Book 3, Aunt Petunia has a surprising familiarity with dementors, having heard it from “that awful boy” as he was telling Lily about it. We assume, as does Harry, that the boy Petunia mentions with such distaste is James, Harry’s father, when, in fact, it is Snape, who has held a torch for Harry’s mother from the time they were children. Again, this is brilliantly revealed only at the moment Harry needs to know it most. Elements like these really highlight how Rowling developed as a writer from the beginning of the series to the end. The first book is a lovely children’s novel. The last is an emotionally wrenching musing on life, love, hate, revenge, and forgiveness. It’s a pretty extraordinary experience to watch a writer’s evolutionary trajectory develop so clearly.
Ultimately, this series is about the epiphany of truth, as Azar Nafisi puts it, in the growth from childhood to adulthood. Setting that process in a magical world emphasizes the importance of that truth over reality, allowing millions of readers to connect with characters who experience life under highly specific and uncommon circumstances. It’s not the circumstances that are important, but the lessons learned and emotions felt. Maybe that’s cheesy, but cheesy is good sometimes. I like it, anyway. For me, reading the series this time around was a pure joy. I immediately remembered favorite parts, but I also got to discover things a third time around. Not reading the series for five years gave me back that joy of discovery that comes from reading a really wonderful book for the first time. Maybe I’ll wait another five years and get to discover Harry Potter all over again. That sounds like a plan.