Hallows 1: Overture

[Optional soundtrack to this post.]

Before you even read the first page, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows feels different. With the sole exception of Sorcerer’s Stone, the copies of the books I’ve been reading in this series have all been hardcovers, each purchased soon after that book’s original release. By and large, they’ve had nearly identical designs. All have had the wraparound cover art. And all have had the universally-used description on the inside of the dust jacket, giving the reader at least some sense of what the book would be about.

But not Hallows. Here, there is no description to be found. The obvious explanation is they simply didn’t need to include one. Those descriptions are usually to give a potential reader some sense of the book to encourage, or even persuade, the person to buy it. The conclusion to the HP series was perhaps the most anticipated book of all time; no one really needed to be persuaded to buy it. But beyond that, I think there’s a certain addition by omission at play. All the books in the series have somewhat enigmatic subtitles, but the prior books’ descriptions gave at least some hint at what the subtitle referred to. The absence of that in this concluding volume only enhances the mystery, especially since Rowling is in no rush to even mention the term “deathly hallows” early in the book.

And so we begin this final segment of our journey. Rowling wisely takes us first to Voldemort’s new lair, where he gathers his lieutenants and makes plans while amassing power and taking some time out to torture those who don’t share his ideals. Death Eaters are infiltrating everything, their power and control growing. We get a strong sense of the gathering storm Harry will be up against.

Not long after, we get our first big action scene, and I’ll touch on the big developments in it later. It’s the first of what will surely be many big, important clashes. But once (almost) everyone is eventually safe again at the Burrow, things soon calm down. Interestingly, though, it’s not just a routine breather before the next round of action. It’s more than that: it’s a final chance to see everyone together and happy. We might see some happy reunions at the end of the book after all the battles are done, but only after losing several people. Bill and Fleur’s wedding was a last hurrah for togetherness for many of these characters.

Which isn’t to say everything is rosy. The tonal shifts in Half-Blooded Prince, between its foreboding chapters and its lighthearted chapters, were too dramatic of shifts in my opinion; it didn’t work as well as a result. The early parts of Hallows manage this much better by keeping the darkness ever near the surface, even in relatively happy moments. It’s great to see Harry have one last birthday with the whole gang, talk about girls with Ron and books with Hermione. But our trio is almost always planning what they’ll need to do after the wedding, reminding us that all this joy will be fleeting.

The musical accompaniment to this post is Johannes Brahms’ “Tragische Ouverture,” or “Tragic Overture.” I felt the dramatic, elemental piece paired well with the foreboding sense of the early parts of Hallows. But I liked the choice even more after reading up on its origins. Brahms didn’t score the overture as the result of some trauma or tragedy. His last work had been the rather jolly Academic Festival Overture, and he just wanted to follow that with its emotional antithesis. He essentially wanted to write the grim for the sake of not being joyful.

The Burrow scenes in Hallows feel like the reverse of that situation: the characters are essentially choosing to enjoy certain moments just for the sake of not being overwhelmed by the possible negativity. The latter would be easier, given the various injuries and deaths already sustained. Yet there are real moments of brief enjoyment in early Hallows, and they might not be because characters are really so happy, but because, like Brahms, they just wanted to feel a different emotion while they could.

Molly Weasley is the best example of this. She knows what they’re facing, and she knows on some level that her son and her two surrogate children, Harry and Hermione, will have to go and fight. Yet she’s constantly disrupting the trio from planning, insisting that nothing impede on the happiness of birthday and wedding celebrations. I felt myself wanting to make the same choice. Nearing the end, characters and readers alike are encouraged to embrace this final calm before the storm. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, and all that jazz.

***************************************

I’ve gotten further, but this post covers the first 175 pages, or nine chapters, of Deathly Hallows. Other thoughts on this installment:

  • Hedwig becomes the first casualty (not counting the Muggle Studies professor whom we never really knew) in a book that will surely be full of them. I always enjoyed the way Rowling gave Hedwig a personality of her own, as she would get moody when Harry didn’t let her out enough or even if he used a different owl. I would go so far as to call her the second-greatest owl in fiction history. But Hedwig’s death is a point of divergence where I think the movie did better. In that version, she died flying in front of a curse to save Harry; in the book, she gets hit by a stray curse while still in her cage. Terribly sad either way, but I prefer her going down heroically, as that seems more like the kind of owl she was.
  • On the flip side, the book won big time in a prior point of divergence: explaining why Harry left Privet Drive with Hagrid. As I recall from the film, Hagrid said something about how he was the one who brought Harry there all those years ago, and he should be the one to take him away. Which is sweet and all, but by itself, incredibly stupid. Why on earth would sentiment trump protection? Why put Harry with the guy who can barely do any magic instead of a hardened auror like Mad-Eye? Well, the book explains, because the latter is exactly what the Death Eaters would expect. And indeed, that prediction proved prescient, and the diversionary tactic of having Hagrid take him probably saved Harry’s life. Much better storytelling there.
  • The second big casualty is Mad-Eye Moody. It feels appropriate that Mad-Eye dies off-screen; that character’s place has felt slightly awkward and uncertain ever since we learned that the version we came to know so well in Goblet of Fire was never Mad-Eye at all, but an imposter. Every time we saw real Moody since, he showed the same personality and characteristics as Fake Moody, but without the connections forged over the course of a book of heavier involvement. The depth of the reveal in Goblet was intricate, even if it didn’t really make sense. But when Moody died, and I felt fairly little impact from it, I wondered yet again, was that twist worth the lost relationships? I’m still undecided.
  • Before all that, we got our last glimpse of the Dursleys, and surprisingly, some redemption for Dudley. It was a nice moment, and Rowling handled it beautifully: it was kinda sweet without being over the top; there’s only so much redemption you can give any of the Dursleys.
  • Interested to see all of what’s behind the mystery of Harry’s wand acting on its own. I don’t really remember all the parts of that subplot, just that it ends with Dumbledore’s wand being super important.
  • The Burrow burned in the movies, but now that we’ve made it this far, I think it’s safe to assume it won’t burn in the books. Thank goodness. The house belongs on the list of Wonders of the World. All but one of the real Wonders are gone anyway. If the Burrow actually existed, wouldn’t you rather tour it than go see where the Colossus of Rhodes may or may not have stood?
  • Dumbledore’s legacy continues to be defined and redefined even after his death. His will gives final tools to each of Harry, Hermione, and Ron for their quest. And the biography about him, and Harry’s attempts to verify or disprove the information therein, is telling us more about him than we ever learned during his life. It’s interesting; it’s almost as if Rowling is managing to keep him on as an active character without ever actually showing him.
  • Finally, the calm is entirely over, and our trio is on the run with a mission they can barely hope to succeed in. After the fleeing and the settling in are all over, they’re by themselves, alone against the darkness.

1 thought on “Hallows 1: Overture

  1. I’ve loved each and every post, even if I haven’t always agreed with you (many times in spite of myself, because it might ruin something so precious to admit you’re right), but solid beginning. Love the Brahms stuff, and it was a fine musical accompaniment.

    That said, I have to take issue with placing Hedwig as the 2nd best fictional character. You choose wisely, but you’re overlooking perhaps his inspiration…

    That clip is gold.

    And next up…the terrifying Grand Duke from the childhood classic Rock-A-Doodle, voiced by Christopher Plummer:

    I’d place Hedwig third after those two, and above Bubo.

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