Top critical review
Deathly Hollows -- Deadly Disappointment
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on November 4, 2007
The last Harry Potter book is a severe disappointment on several levels. Superficially, the book is far too long. The most obvious examples are the several tedious passages of Rita Skeeter's tabloid prose. Real tabloids are usually poor reads for obvious reasons and fictional tabloids are that much worse because even the pretext of reality cannot be maintained. While the tabloids are the worst example, the trio's wandering through the hinterland of England is not much better, making the reading wonder if this is not metaphorical for writer's own mental wanderings when writing the book. In previous books, the interludes between action sequences gave the Rowling an opportunity to create some depth to an otherwise one dimensional struggle between one dimensional middle class, predominantly white, good people, and one dimensional aristocratic, predominantly white bad people. She fails to create that depth in this book.
Which leads us to the final, very predictable showdown between good (Harry Potter) and evil (Lord Voldemort). Unfortunately, the final confrontation leaves us wanting on several levels. Over the course of the larger story, we have found that Riddle/Voldemort has made the classic literary trade of self-deformity for a rapid rise to power. Voldemort's consuming drive for ultimate power blinds him to the tender mercies of love and the importance of friendship. Of course, his monstrous ego always forces him to discount his enemies as too weak and incompetent (e.g. Harry, Hermione and Ron). These personal themes are set against a tableau of Voldemort's more general campaign to subjugate or wipe out the Mudbloods and those pureblood's sympathetic to their plight as well. Of course Voldemort's is, in part, if not entirely motivated, by his own self-loathing of his mediocre origins.
This racial/ethnic motif runs strongly throughout the series with Voldemort and crew taking over the workings of government and the press to brings inquisitions, illegal imprisoning and even murders, but for all the obvious analogies with Hitler and Nazi Germany of the 1930's, such as a half-blood leading the purge of those less than pureblood echoing an Austrian of unassuming lineage leading campaign to establish Germany's Arian race, the author never brings her villains to implement a final solution for the mudbloods. After all the posturing, threatening, and thuggery as well as the savage hatred Voldemort supposedly possesses for these undesirables as presented over several volumes, Rowling holds back at the end to show us a Voldemort whose bark is far worse than his bite.
Which leads to the more general observation that the last book ultimately fails on the two horns of the portrayal of Voldemort's weakness and his ultimate demise. Swords and sorcery tales often hinge upon the villain. Beowulf, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and even Star Wars are some very notable examples. Authors need to make a decision in crafting their villain, either to make the villain distant and abstract or provide them real substance.
Here, the author can not commit fully to one or the other, leaving us with a very one dimensional villain. Through several volumes, Voldemort is simply, "He who must not be named." a very bad wizard, who did very bad things. Slowly, we learn more about Voldemort, his motivations and background, but the back-story is a little thin, and not quite convincing. Voldemort is apparently driven to crave power, and dominion, in part due to a sense of ancestral inadequacy and because he does not understand the value of love and friendship. In turn, his less than aristocratic background drives him to hate normal humans (mudbloods) and even mixed birth wizards.
If Voldemort were to remain a faceless shadow, this thin character sketch would probably be enough, but Voldemort returns to the living to interact in a very tangible way with the other characters in the story. Becoming corporeal, one expects at least a two dimensional character to become part of the story. Unfortunately, Voldemort is as one-dimensional as possible. He believes he is the greatest wizard, most brilliant, visionary, etc. He hates Harry Potter especially because Harry survived Voldemort's first attempt at killing him. Harry has survived because Voldemort underestimated him. Once Voldemort has achieved power he will kill or subjugate all the little people. Yes, Voldemort is evil. He is very evil. He does very bad things. Bad Voldemort.
However, one dimensional evil becomes dull. We never truly have any deep insight into Voldemort's motivation other than he is a megalomaniac with low self-esteem concerning is humble beginnings, and his megalomania drives him to be evil. As result, Voldemort becomes dull as he is nothing but posturing, threatening and menace. Alive he is just as much a shadow as when he was dead. This is a major failure of the book as one can not build up the villain over several books to leave us with a one-note villain in the flesh. The reader expects a certain degree of infamy, bordering on charismatic greatness, and Voldemort simply does not deliver.
This leads to Voldemort's fundamental flaw. He does not understand love or friendship. Rowling makes this point several times throughout the books through several characters and incidents. Thus, with this buildup, one would expect Voldemort's demise to be predicated on his fatal flaw. It is not. Unfortunately, this unexpected turn is not satisfying but appears very ad-hoc. Voldemort dies to fatal error in logic.
It turns out that Voldemort is after an all powerful wand. However, he can not simply take the wand, but must defeat the current wand bearer or the person that killed the wand bearer, to be able to truly wield the power of the "super" wand. Through an error in logic, which I will not bore you with here, Voldemort kills the wrong man. Thus, the wand does not perform well for him. Furthermore, Voldemort must be careful, not to attempt to kill the rightful heir to wand with the wand itself. Otherwise, the wand may "turn" on Voldemort.
As you might have guessed, Harry has bested the person that killed the original wand bearer, making him the rightful heir to the wand. Harry realizes the situation, and makes sure to face Voldemort in personal combat. Voldemort, apparently entirely ignorant of the possibility of blow back from a wand that he has studied for years, blithely attacks Harry with super wand, even though Harry is clearly very confident to the point of bating him. As expected, the attack backfires and Voldemort drops dead on the spot. Stupid Voldemort. Very stupid Voldemort.
Voldemort's demise is less than satisfying on several levels. First, his quick demise is rather anti-climatic. Don't we get even one evil wizard monologue? More importantly, Voldemort's demise comes off as completely hackneyed. Rather than die due to something related to his fatal character flaw, he dies due to an error in logic. Which is all the odder because Voldemort was never characterized as dim, ignorant about the wand he sought for so long, or uninterested in the transmission of power. In fact, the point was explicitly made that when it came to power or items of power Voldemort was an expert. Thus, we are left with a villain whose demise was due to his own ignorance in the very area he was supposed to be renowned.
Some may point out that this is a children's story and that some license should be granted to make the book digestible for children as well as not too traumatizing. However, our children, especially in today's culture are not naïve. Rowling should have thought more carefully, making Voldemort a villain worthy of a several thousand page epic.