The Youngest Brother’s Tale

This review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows originally appeared in Books & Culture in 2007. 


A little more than a hundred years ago, a number of British educators, journalists, and intellectuals grew exercised about the reading habits of the nation’s children. The particular target of their disapproval was the boy’s adventure story — the kind of cheap short novel, full of exotic locations and narrow escapes from mortal peril and false friends and unexpected acts of heroism, that had come to be known as the “penny dreadful.” Surely it could not be good for children to immerse themselves in these ill-made fictional worlds, with their formulaic plots and purple prose; surely we should insist that they learn to savor finer fare.

Then came riding into the fray a young man — twenty-five at the time — named Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who, though a journalist and an intellectual himself, repudiated the hand-wringing of his colleagues and planted his flag quite firmly in the camp of the penny dreadfuls: “There is no class of vulgar publications about which there is, to my mind, more utterly ridiculous exaggeration and misconception than the current boys’ literature of the lowest stratum.” Chesterton is perfectly happy to acknowledge that these books are not in the commendatory sense “literature,” because “the simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such an invisible dramatis personae, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac.”

Nor should our nurses have done so, because what matters most about the penny dreadfuls is the soundness and accuracy of their moral compass, and their power of inspiring their readers to discern the significance of moral choice:

The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared … . The average man or boy writes daily in these great gaudy diaries of his soul, which we call Penny Dreadfuls, a plainer and better gospel than any of those iridescent ethical paradoxes that the fashionable change as often as their bonnets.

And above all, what Chesterton loves about the penny dreadful is this: “It is always on the side of life.”

I have been meditating on these thoughts in recent days, as I have scanned cyberspace for the many and varying responses to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final tale of the Boy Who Lived. It is a story full of exotic locations and narrow escapes from mortal peril and false friends and unexpected acts of heroism; it is a story which suggests that courage is splendid and fidelity noble. Of course, that’s not enough for some people; and for others it’s precisely the problem.

We already know that some Christians mistrust the Potter series because of its depictions of magic; we already know that some critics (Harold Bloom most prominent among them) deplore the books’ lack of literary grace. But another and different set of critics has emerged here at the end of the series, for whom the evident traditionalism of the books is their greatest flaw. One of the participants in Slate.com’s Book Club thinks that the novel, and its epilogue in particular, “feels awfully bourgeois in its concern with little other than our heroes’ marriages and children.” (I did not know that concern for marriage and children was the exclusive province of the bourgeoisie; but that’s why I read Slate, to learn stuff like that.) And as I scanned the blogs I lost track of the number of people who complained that the epilogue, and indeed the whole series, is defaced by “heteronormativity.” Not a gay or lesbian couple in sight — though, if it makes anyone feel better, I have seen that a few readers of the previous book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, think that Harry’s obsession with finding out what Draco Malfoy is up to marks a welcome homoerotic interlude.

What could one say in defense of these books, so unliterary, so unsophisticated in their morality and style, so bourgeois, so heteronormative? Perhaps only this: that J. K. Rowling has produced, in the vast, seven-book, thirty-five-hundred-page arc of Harry’s story, the greatest penny dreadful ever written.

Chesterton is among the ablest defenders not just of penny dreadfuls but also of the fantastic imagination more generally: “The things I believed most [in childhood],” he wrote a few years after defending the boys’ stories, “the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic.” But of course such books can also defend themselves. As George Orwell once noted, poems and stories defend themselves best of all simply by surviving; but it is also the case that works of fantasy can openly consider and debate their own terms, their own way of truthtelling. Think of how Sam Gamgee, in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, pauses at times to ask what sort of story he and Frodo are in, and how it might later be narrated. Or that moment early in the book when Boromir expresses skepticism about the information he has received from Gandalf and others: “But what I have heard seems to me for the most part old wives’ tales, such as we tell to our children” — to which Celeborn replies, “Do not despise the lore that has come down from distant years; for oft it may chance that old wives keep in memory word of things that once were needful for the wise to know.”

There are moments like this in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. About a quarter of the way into the story we discover that Albus Dumbledore, the old headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry whose murder was the shocking culmination of the sixth book, has made provisions in his will for Harry and his two best friends. To Harry he gives the Golden Snitch from the first game of Quidditch Harry ever played; Ron gets a little device that puts out lights, called a Deluminator. These gifts are more than they seem to be, of course, but it’s Hermione’s gift that’s particularly intriguing. Not surprisingly, since Hermione is an obsessive reader and haunter of libraries, her gift is a book; but it’s not a guide to advanced magic, or the kind of historical or scholarly study that she delights in. Rather, it’s a collection of children’s stories, The Tales of Beedle the Bard, the wizarding world’s equivalent of Aesop’s Fables or the Mother Goose tales.

This is strange, and neither Hermione nor her friends know what to make of it; had Dumbledore lacked the foresight to give her a copy in the original ancient runic script — which she must use her scholarly expertise to read and translate — Hermione might have set the book aside altogether. And somewhat later on, when Harry begins to think that one of Beedle’s stories, “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” might be essential to the quest they are pursuing, Hermione is incredulous. Perhaps she has reason to be incredulous, given that the only person they know who takes “The Tale of the Three Brothers” seriously — who believes it to be historically founded — is one Xenophilius Lovegood, best known in these books for his obsessive pursuit of a purely imaginary beast called the Crumple-Horned Snorkack.

“Xenophilius” means “strange-lover,” not incidentally, and the funny thing about the truly strange is that sometimes it’s real. “The Tale of the Three Brothers” proves to be pretty much what Mr. Lovegood thinks it is, though, being like most of us foolish and greedy, he completely misunderstands the tale’s meaning; and in the event we see that this little story contains not only vital clues for Harry but also a message which, had the evil Voldemort been able to read and profit from it, could well have saved the lives of many, and even saved the Dark Lord’s own soul. But Voldemort has no time for fairy stories, old wives’ tales: they are childish, they are primitive, they offer nothing to the man who seeks to go farther than any wizard ever has in conquering death.

Had he paused in his career of violence and vengeance to read “The Tale of the Three Brothers” — the very idea is of course absurd — Voldemort would have been interested to note the presence in that tale of a certain object of magical power, an object which obsesses him in this final book in much the same way that the immortality-granting Philosopher’s Stone did in the series’ first installment. But would he have been able to see and understand what Beedle’s little story teaches about that object, about other like talismans, and about death? Of course not. “That which Voldemort does not value,” says a wise but deeply flawed man late in this book, “he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing.” Having discerned to his own satisfaction what magic is worth knowing and what books are worth reading, the Dark Lord strides with absolute confidence towards the end of his own story, an end prefigured in Beedle’s little tale. For he is surely the double of that tale’s eldest brother, whose younger siblings find their counterparts in this book also.

The key theme of the whole series is the opposition of death and love: the devastation wrought by those whose fear of death causes them to shun love as a weakness, and, in contrast, the rich rewards in store for those who will not allow the fear of death to block love, who know that love risks all for the beloved. Preceding the events of the first book are the sacrificial deaths of James Potter, in a vain attempt to save his wife and son, and of Lily Potter, in an equally vain attempt to save Harry. In the fourth book of the series the deaths resume: Cedric Diggory in that one, Sirius Black in the next, Albus Dumbledore in the sixth. In this final installment the named dead exceed a dozen, and many more remain unnamed. Among those whom Harry knows and cares for, all of them, in this book and in the previous ones, die for someone they love, or for something they believe in.

Though romantic love appears in these books, its role is relatively small: the three chief objects of love in the series are family, friends, and school.

It may seem odd to put school on the same level as family and friends, but there is no question that Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is as central to these stories as Harry Potter himself. J. K. Rowling sees that school — a school like Hogwarts, anyway — can be loved not as an alternative to friends and family but rather as a means of solidifying and clarifying one’s love of friends and family. In these books, children who pass through the barrier at Platform Nine and Three-Quarters and board the Hogwarts Express are indeed in some sense leaving their family, and that not only is frightening for them but is also, for their parents, “like a little bereavement” — so we are reminded on the final page of this book. But those parents had also attended Hogwarts, and their characters had been formed there, so we can also say that by sending their children to Hogwarts they strengthen bonds among the family’s members.

This fusing of the “school story” with deep commitments to friendship and the integrity of loving families is only possible in the context of that peculiar institution, the British boarding school. It’s true that there are still a few Americans who stay in one place long enough to send their children to the same primary and high schools that they themselves attended; and it’s true that many more delight in sending their children to the universities from which they themselves graduated. But it’s the upper-class British practice of having very young children — Hogwarts brings them in at age eleven — attend school far away from home that creates the unique combination of fear, anxiety, the conquest of fear and anxiety, pride, independence, and nostalgia that we see raised to maximum pitch at Hogwarts.

Likewise, the intensity of life at Hogwarts — and the experience is indeed intense, even in times of peace and calm — means that the friendships formed there are of particular intimacy. This is a note struck in the first book, when certain peculiar circumstances lead Harry and his friend Ron to cooperate with that annoying little know-it-all Hermione Granger. (“There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.”)

At Hogwarts, then, the challenges of boarding-school life are multiplied, several times over, by the fact that it is a school of witchcraft. In the world Rowling has created, witchcraft is very powerful and therefore very susceptible to going astray. Leaving aside the dangers generated directly by the Dark Lord and his minions, Harry breaks an arm and (later) fractures his skull playing Quidditch, Ron has his leg snapped by the bite of a giant hound, Neville breaks his wrist falling off his broom, Hermione gets accidentally transformed into a kind of cat person, countless students find themselves burned or otherwise disfigured by potions gone awry or jinxes well-delivered, and so on. Some of Rowling’s most creepily delightful inventions concern the patients at St Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries; and the experience of Luna Lovegood, whose mother died when a spell she was casting backfired, is not unusual. Many of these problems are fixed with relative ease, but even so, the wizarding world is one in which disease, injury, and death seem to be around every corner.

I think that’s one of the reasons people find this world so fascinating: our culture is so deeply risk-averse, so determined to punish anyone who might cause injury to us or our children, or even might fail to take precautions to prevent us from being injured, that we can scarcely imagine an environment in which risk is so blithely accepted and injuries dealt with so matter-of-factly. But it is just because Hogwarts is a place which allows young people to take such risks — and therefore to test themselves and grow in capability and confidence — that its students and graduates love it so much. Harry’s story culminates in a great Battle of Hogwarts in which people who love the school return to it to fight for it. But they are not the only participants: the figures in the school’s many portraits cheer them on, wizards animate the suits of armor that normally stand in the hallways and rush them clanking into the fray, and — in a moment comical but also oddly touching — Professor McGonagall cries “Charge!” and leads a platoon of galloping classroom desks to confront the school’s enemies. Hogwarts is fighting for its own life.

Despite their acceptance of risk, wizards feel the threat and misery of death as we do. Molly Weasley is the character who most often reminds us of this: having lost brothers to Voldemort’s Death Eaters in the first stage of the war, she is continually fearful for her childen, desperate to shield them from danger. But she cannot shield them, and it has been clear for several books now that not all of them — she has seven — are likely to survive to the end.

What happens to people when they die? Wizards don’t seem to know much about that. One of the curious things about this fictional world is its complete lack of religious teaching: God is not mentioned in any of the books, except in an exclamation or two (“Thank God!”). So when the young Harry starts to think about this question, he doesn’t really know where to turn. The first book in the series tells of a man with the power to make himself immortal who chooses to die instead, and when Harry is surprised to hear this, Dumbledore tells him that “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” Throughout the series that idea — it is Dumbledore’s governing principle — is repeatedly opposed to Voldemort’s belief that death is the worst thing imaginable and that it must therefore be mastered, “eaten.”

Harry is not wholly satisfied by the little that his headmaster says on this subject; plus, things keep happening which cause Harry to question Dumbledore’s insistence that the dead are fully beyond this world and cannot return to it. In the fifth book Harry even interrogates the Hogwarts ghost, Nearly Headless Nick, only to discover that ghosts are people who feared leaving this world, feared going Beyond, and as a result find themselves still in the world of the living but no longer of it. Nick can’t help.

As Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows begins, Harry is forced to think about death more than ever, because the adults dearest to him have died, and have died trying to save or help him: his parents, his godfather, his mentor. The quest he shares with his friends Ron and Hermione — to destroy the Horcruxes of Lord Voldemort, the objects in which he has hidden portions of his soul — gradually opens a doorway into another one which is meant just for Harry, the quest of the Deathly Hallows. The meaning of that quest is revealed to Harry, though he does not at the time understand it, in one of the most moving scenes in the whole series: his pilgrimage to Godric’s Hollow, the village where he was born and where his parents died. There he finds his parents’ tombstone, upon which is written an epitaph: The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.

Were Voldemort to read this epitaph, he would surely be impressed, and perhaps see it as a terse and accurate summation of his life’s goal. That’s why Harry is shocked: his parents’ tombstone reminds him of the Death Eaters. (Surely the epitaph was chosen by Dumbledore, who also chose another one in that very graveyard: it is also a verse from Scripture.) Hermione tells him that the phrase means something different, but I doubt that she any more than Harry knows that it is a quotation from 1 Corinthians 15, where St. Paul explains the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The formal quest of the Deathly Hallows begins soon after this, and from there the story increasingly focuses on one overwhelming question: What does it mean to defeat death? Voldemort thinks he knows. The legends that have attached themselves to the Deathly Hallows — three powerful magical objects that, those legends say, give to their possessor “mastery over death” — yield an answer less wicked in its implications but no less mistaken. The proper answer to the question is found in “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” and in 1 Corinthians 15, for those who have ears to hear. In the second half of this final Harry Potter story we watch our hero discern this answer, confront its implications, and discover whether he has the courage to face them. For courage is required; great courage indeed.

Many readers have already exclaimed that Harry’s final quest marks him as a clear Christ figure. This is wrong, seriously wrong, and I think J. K. Rowling goes out of her way to tell us so. People (characters in the books as well as readers) think that Harry is a unique person of unique power, but at a dozen points in the series we are clearly shown that he is not: he is called the Chosen One, but he is chosen by Voldemort, and Dumbledore emphasizes to Harry the sheer contingency of this choice. The work of the Cross is done by Christ alone; Harry always has help. (It’s worth emphasizing that while each of the Horcruxes is destroyed, each is destroyed by a different person.) At his moment of agony Christ was abandoned; at the end of his quest Harry is supported and comforted. As my friend Jay Wood has noted, if Harry resembles a biblical figure it is not Christ but rather Stephen the Protomartyr. But the comparisons with Stephen are limited too: for a more precise analogue, I encourage you to rummage through your children’s books until you find an old copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard. Surely you have one. Read the story of the Three Brothers, and pay particular attention to the youngest. You’d be surprised what you could learn.

It should be obvious at this point that the Harry Potter books amount to something more, far more, than your average penny dreadful. But they belong, firmly, to that moral universe, even as they expand it beyond what we might have thought possible. Many years ago Umberto Eco wrote that the greatness of Casablanca stems from its shameless deployment of every narrative cliche known to humankind: “Two cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us. For we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.” The Harry Potter books are like that: every trope and trick of the penny dreadful raised to the highest power and revealed in all their glory.

It seems to me especially important to keep in mind the “plainer and better gospel” of the penny dreadful when we consider the much-maligned epilogue of Deathly Hallows. Is it really so vital that we learn what professions the surviving characters chose to follow? If a genie allowed me to look into a portion of my own son’s future for a moment, would I ask “Oh please, please tell me, what’s his line of work?” Or would I prefer to know whether he marries, and whether he has children, and whether his childhood friends remain his friends always, and whether those bonds of affection continue into the next generation? The answer seems to me obvious. But perhaps that marks me as incurably bourgeois.

What do we choose to imagine, when we choose? The answer is always revelatory, which is one of the reasons Chesterton was right to say that “the simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important.” The Harry Potter books remind us of this, and they can be, if we read them rightly, both a delight in themselves and a school for our own imaginings. They have many flaws, but I have not dwelt on them here because I forgive J. K. Rowling for every one. Her seven books are, and thank God for it, always on the side of life.