Monday, August 6, 2007

Shirts and Skins; Jets and Sharks; Horcruxes and Hallows

What the hell is a Hallow?

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Didn’t that title bother anyone? It’s one of the most widely known books on the planet now, and the title has a word that I doubt many people can define.

And shouldn’t it be “deadly” hallows? “Deathly” sounds wrong there.

I wanted to see if I was the only one baffled by the opening salvo of the final Harry Potter book, and so I checked in with the astute guys at

"Deadly is more likely to mean capable of causing death.
Deathly is more likely to mean having some of the characteristics of death."

As for Hallows—that’s far more complicated.

Here’s a post from James M, May 3 2007

"Hallows" is most familiar to us in the phrase "All Hallows Eve", which gave rise to the word "Halloween." In this case, "hallows" means "saints". The part that makes it confusing is to put the word "Deathly" in front of "Hallows." "Deathly Saints" doesn't make much sense. It is curiously ambiguous, which is not a bad choice for a title. As Panjandrum said, another meaning for "hallows" is "holy relics" or "revered objects." It's not a common use of the word, though. Well, the word itself is not common, for that matter."

Then James. M quotes another poster (in May) about what hallows might have to do with the story. Apparently, if you are up on your Grail legends, things are a little more clear.

SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t read HP & the Deathly Hallows, stop reading here!

“A story where hallows play a crucial role is the grail legend, where the Fisher King is the guardian of the four hallows, which include the Grail itself, the serving dish (or stone or pentacle), the sword or dagger, and the spear.

There had been much speculation from Harry Potter fans about whether the grail legend might play a part in the final Harry Potter book, even before publication of the title, and a connection between the four founders of Hogwarts, their relics, and the four hallows in the grail legend has been suggested. It is known from the books that Godric Gryffindor's relic is a sword, Helga Hufflepuff's relic is a cup (chalice), and Salazar Slytherin's relic is a locket (pentacle), presumably leaving Rowena Ravenclaw's relic as a spear or wand.”

It turned out that Rowena Ravenclaw’s relic is a diadem, and in fact, a Horcrux, not a Hallow. And therein lies some of the novel’s weakness.

The largest plot points turned out to be Horcruxes versus Hallows, but these ideas were not deftly woven from book 1, but stuffed into the last 2 books (with a little backpeddling to include Tom Riddle’s diary and the Invisibility Cloak from book 2).

The seven Horcruxes are the receptacles that Voldemort used to hide pieces of his soul to remain immortal. They are created at the point of a murder, the ultimate soul-splintering act. He didn’t realize he had actually created 8 Horcruxes, that a piece of his soul went into Harry when he killed his mother. Each of these receptacles has to be destroyed to vanquish the Dark Lord. This whole little matrix was introduced in book 6.

But the idea of Deathly Hallows—which will allow their owner to defeat Death-- only comes into the story beginning on page 405 of DH with the tale of the three brothers. There are only 3 Hallows, not 4, so they don’t correspond to the 4 Hogwarts houses. They are the Invisibility Cloak, the Elder Wand, and the Resurrection Stone, which, in a twist, is ALSO a Horcrux, although Voldemort apparently had no knowledge of the Hallows.

Is everyone following this?

And everything hinges on the Elder Wand, although even the Wikipedia synopsis of that extremely important plot point is hard to follow.

Nothing here is as masterfully drawn as Tolkein’s world. And there is one of the all-time clunkiest of desperate expositions in the penultimate chapter.

But these criticisms miss the real gift of the series: the enjoyment of spending time with Harry, and with Ron and Hermione.

At the beginning Harry was funny and sincere in his attempts to learn about the magical world he was not raised in. His friendship with Ron and Hermione has the aura of the Musketeers’ deep unity. This desire for special friendship appeals to children, teens, and adults equally. Just ask the guys of Entourage.

One thing Rowling did right in DH is to set the trio off from the rest of the characters in a mission that bound them tightly to one another. We see them struggle and falter, give up for a bit then persevere, find moments of humor in the darkest hours—it’s a good read and a good yarn. And in its depiction of not giving up in the face of overwhelming odds, it’s inspiring.

Since we’ve been with them for 10 years, we know these three pretty well. That’s the joy of the overall series, as with any relationship. One of the best little scenes is when Harry and Hermione are trying to get out of the Ministry of Magic.

“Harry,” said Hermione, “how are we going to get out of here with all those dementors outside the door?”

“Patronuses,” said Harry. “As many as we can muster; do yours, Hermione.”

Hermione can’t get hers to materialize.

“It’s the only spell she ever has trouble with,” Harry told a completely bemused Mrs. Catermole. “Bit unfortunate, really . . . .”

It’s a sweet scene, and we are smiling and thinking the same thing as Harry. We know how talented Hermione is—since she first appeared on the train to Hogwarts in book one and fixed Harry’s glasses, she has done remarkable spells way ahead of her years.

The climatic Battle of Hogwarts has energy and British bravado: it has echoes of Gunga Din, and when the ancient armour get off their pedestals to pitch in, the spirit of Dunkirk.

As for the resolution of Harry’s plot: I assumed that he didn’t die. Rowling cheats the issue a little by giving him a near-death experience--like we’ve seen in countless tv shows—where he is given the choice of going back to earth, or moving on to the light.

Well, the Potter pandemonium is over. It brought a unique spotlight to the rare crossover world of children/teen/adult reading. The movies will now play out, while we wait to see if Rowling is a one-universe writer, or the next Agatha Christie.