Volume 26, Number 1, Fall 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

By J. K. Rowling

Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
Fall 2007

J. K. Rowling’s fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was a finalist for the 2004 Prometheus Award. I didn’t vote for it. It had an all too convincing portrait of the abuses of authority; but its apparent cure for those abuses was to have the head of the Ministry of Magic realize his errors and make things better. There was no suggestion that a ministry that could abuse its authority that way had too much power to begin with, or that the problem wouldn’t really be solved until that power was taken away. So, all things considered, I didn’t find enough libertarian substance to the story.

Now, with the seventh and last novel available, it’s possible to judge the series as a whole, and to see past novels in the context of the entire series. And while Rowling still doesn’t show us a systematic reform of the entire Ministry of Magic, or a declaration of the rights of wizards, she offers some content that will be of interest to libertarians.

To start with, Deathly Hallows shows that the changes at the end of Order of the Phoenix did not solve the Ministry’s problems, and that Rowling never intended them to. The Ministry now has a new man at the top, and an even worse one, whose principal goal appears to be enlisting Harry Potter in a propaganda campaign to reassure the public. And in the course of this novel’s events, the Ministry proves a ready tool for outright totalitarians. Harry and his friends become the key figures in an underground resistance movement.

Equally important is the ideology put forth by the oppressors. It starts out from the distinction between mages and nonmages, or “muggles,” which I found disturbing when I read the first book in the series; in this book, it’s completely clear that Rowling meant it to be disturbing. Here we see it claimed that only the children of mages have true magical ability, and that children of muggles—”mudbloods”—gained their apparent magical ability by stealing it from real mages. From this the Ministry of Magic concludes that they have no right to magic and must be punished for the theft—and that as part of this, they must be forced to confess to stealing their magical powers, in a process much like Stalin’s show trials. The claimed theft is oddly parallel to the idea that wealthy people gained their wealth by stealing it from the working class, which invites a reading of the Ministry’s ideology as a variant of socialism. It’s worth remembering Karl Marx’s comment that anti-Semitism was the socialism of the ignorant, in which people who resented wealth and capitalism focused their feelings on a distinct racial group. In Rowling’s story, “mudbloods” become the focus of a campaign of racial hatred.

It’s also worth noting that Rowling has continued to develop as a writer. In this novel, she takes some real chances, starting with not sending Harry and his two closest friends back to Hogwarts at all. This is no longer a “school story,” but a story about adult concerns. Past novels have shown the deaths of a few characters—notably Cedric Digory, Sirius Black, and Albus Dumbledore—but this final novel shows multiple deaths, as part of the struggle against magical tyranny.

I wouldn’t call it an entire success. The long sequence in the middle that Harry spends in hiding could have been shorter; reading it feels like reading the part of The Lord of the Rings where Frodo, Sam, and Gollum travel through Mordor, except that it goes on much longer. And the novel is complicated by having not one set of plot tokens, but two: the seven horcruxes in which Lord Voldemort implanted parts of his soul, which must be destroyed to defeat him, and the three deathly hallows that are needed for the final battle. Readers may find all this a bit much to keep track of. But it shows us a struggle with some real substance, and it casts a revealing new light on the events of the earlier novels. For both reasons, it’s worth reading.

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