NOTE: I took down my post about "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" last week in deference to readers who were concerned about spoilers in the post's comments. No spoilers in this revised post, but I have no power to Obliviate your memory if spoilers appear in the Comments. If you're still reading the book and don't want to know what happens, don't click on the Comments.
Our family has now lived through one of the great popular literary events of the past 100 years: We have completed reading the final installment of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.
I'm a bit relieved the hooplah's over, though with it goes a large chunk of our son's childhood.
We've read Harry Potters to our son since he was 5. Read them to distract him when his throat was on fire from a tonsillectomy. Read them on camping vacations around the firepit. Read them on Christmas vacation when boredom crept in. Read extra chapters as bribes for doing chores. Read them at Halloween to make Harry Potter-inspired costumes as realistic as possible. Read them at bedtime and and listened to many pleas to stave off lights-out for just a few more pages, just until the next chapter..
Our son has drawn countless illustrations of exciting scenes from Harry Potter. I confiscated one doodled during Mass that was inspired by "The Chamber of Secrets," in which a stick figure Tom Riddle tells Harry, "Your brid has blinded the snak but it can still here you!"
Critics (including me) will continue to grouse that Rowling is not the best literary stylist. People "stride" and "soar" too much, and the comma splices get annoying. But parents (including me), teachers and librarians will continue to marvel over how much this series has done to inspire reading among that hardest of hard-sell groups: adolescent boys. The last person to do so on such a grand scale might have been Thomas Malory.
And there's plenty of Malory--and Dickens and Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Beowulf and the Mabinogeon and T.H. White and St. Guthlac's hagiographer--in Rowling, and, of course, enough to fuel thousands of English lit dissertations for decades to come.
But I leave that to the academics.
As a parent, I appreciate that Rowling offers an alternative to the pablum that passes for children's entertainment, the pointless video game duels or saccharine play-nice-nice stories in which the bully is always reformed with kindness and understanding. Rowling acknowledges straight up what kids already suspect--that there are still dragons to be slain, and sometimes the fiercest are the ones inside ourselves.
Rowling does not insult the intelligence of children who are learning that life is not black and white. She confirms that life is made up of gray areas and imperfect people, and that kids must rely on knowledge, faith and courage to see them through. I thought of that when I listened to a story about the 2005 documentary "Children of Beslan." A boy about my son's age tells that while terrorists held people hostage in his elementary school, he kept up his courage by thinking about Harry Potter: "I remembered that he had a cloak that made him invisible. And he would come and wrap me in it, and we'd be invisible, and we'd escape."
The child in Beslan did not hang onto Harry in order to escape into a pleasant fantasyland, but because Rowling has assured kids in book after book that they have within them the most powerful magic of all, the power of love that allows them to be brave and endure, and that that in the end, that's what makes all the difference.
Harry's not a new story at all, but one that bears repeating and savoring in every generation.