The last few chapters of The Lord of the Rings have felt a bit like a victory march. Since the unexpected triumph at Helm’s Deep, things proceeded along a consistently optimistic path. Everyone celebrated their success in “The Road to Isengard.” They reunited with old friends in “Flotsam and Jetsam.” And they confirmed their victory over Isengard in “The Voice of Saruman.” Things felt cheerful, and relatively relaxed: an unexpected dynamic for the close of a second act (after all, third-act dawns tend to look brighter thanks to the second-act darkness that comes before). Things seem calm. And then Pippin looks into the palantír.
The sudden shift in tone and momentum that results from this event shocks Book III out of its more lackadaisical pace and reorients the narrative. It’s an old trick – triggering a disaster (or near-disaster) just as soon as things seem safe and promising. But Tolkien utilizes it well here. Not only does Pippin’s encounter with the palantír inject the narrative with a shot of adrenaline, but it does so in a thematically coherent and satisfying way. It touches on the dangers and necessity of inquiry. It takes a look back to Saruman. And – maybe most importantly – it paves the way for Book IV, for Frodo and Sam.
The Palantír and Sauron
Pippin’s theft of the palantír and his experience with it happens quickly. The entire encounter with Sauron lasts perhaps half a paragraph. It’s an interesting storytelling choice: Tolkien dispenses with the possibilities inherent in playing out the drama of the encounter live, and instead lets what occurred slowly unspool itself to the reader.
To the reader, Pippin looks into the orb, sees some lights, and then something happens – he goes rigid, he cannot look away, he screams. It’s obvious that something is wrong. When Gandalf rushes up to him Pippin cries out in a “shrill and toneless voice” and shrinks back from Gandalf. “It is not for you Saruman,” he says. “I will send for it at once.”
When you know what’s happening, the impact of those words hits home immediately. But when you’re reading for the first time, the real import of what just happened only reveals itself as Pippin begins to tell the story of what happened:
I saw a dark sky, and tall battlements…And tiny stars. It seemed very far away and long ago, yet hard and clear. Then the stars went in and out – they were cut off by things with wings. Very I big, I think, really; but in the glass they looked like bats… I tried to get away because I thought it would fly out; but when it had covered all the globe, it disappeared. Then he came. He did not speak so that I could hear words. He just looked, and I understood.
“So you have come back? Why have you neglected to report for so long?”
I did not answer. He said “Who are you?” I still did not answer, but it hurt me horribly; and he pressed me, so I said: “A hobbit.”
Then suddenly he seemed to see me, and he laughed at me.
I found this passage to be fascinating. Tolkien has always been adept at crafting dream sequences, or pseudo-dream sequences. They feel enough like little myths in the center of a story that he slips into a distinctive, comfortable style: dark skies, tiny stars, tall walls. Things are evocative, but disconnected. This scene adopts this style fully, but as the readers makes their way through it, it becomes underlined by a distinctive sense of urgency. Rather than just a dream or vision of some kind, it becomes increasingly obvious that the danger is real. Pippin is in communication with Sauron himself.
Sauron’s depiction here is also really interesting. He is offhand and awful, casually cruel and powerful. His first line of dialogue makes him sound almost like a vaguely-annoyed middle manager. Nothing he does is overtly awful or overwhelming or terrifying. But at the same time, these three little lines of dialogue make him seem far more unsettling than Saruman ever was (despite the latter’s more desperate attempts at grandeur). Sauron here is casual, flippant. He doesn’t seem to care much that Saruman has not reported – he doesn’t even initially realize that he’s talking to someone different. When he asks Pippin who he is and doesn’t receive an answer, he doesn’t bother with cajoling or manipulation. He simply hurts him. And when he does get an answer, he just laughs.
It’s the inverse to Gandalf’s laughter in the last chapter. Gandalf laughs when a malicious spell is broken without success; Sauron laughs when he feels it has broken someone else. Tolkien doesn’t try to articulate how awful Sauron is, how powerful or full of grandeur. He just makes him cruel.
“We have been too leisurely. We must move.”
All of this would be enough to shock the chapter into motion. Gandalf realizes immediately that haste is of the essence (thank goodness we’ve left the Ents behind). Even after the palantír, though, there’s a sense of safety. Through a mix of sheer luck and hobbit toughness, Pippin managed to get through his encounter with Sauron unscathed (nice job, Pip!). If anything, their situation has improved. Gandalf no longer feels the need to probe around the palantír and possibly expose himself; Sauron is distracted by the fact that he thinks a jewelry-laden hobbit is likely locked up in Isengard. Aragorn takes guardianship of the palantír, leaving it in good hands and setting up some of the events of Book V.
And then the Nazgul arrives:
The bright moonlight seemed to be suddenly cut off. Several of the Riders cried out, and crouched, holding their arms above their heads, as if to ward off a blow from above: a blind fear and a deadly cold fell on them. Cowering they looked up. A vast winged shape passed over the moon like a black cloud. It wheeled and went north, flying at a speed greater than any wind of Middle-earth. The stars fainted before it. It was gone.
It’s another great description, deploying that most Tolkien-y of Tolkien-prose-tricks, long sentences punctuated by one or two short ones as the end. And the havoc that it causes is amazing. It can be easy to forget how much of a holding pattern Sauron has been in for the entire book, how much he felt like a distant, abstract threat. This was only compounded by Saruman’s increased prominence.
But then, in the space of three pages, we have Sauron speak to Pippin and a Black Rider flying over the camp, blotting out the stars. Gandalf seems frantic – in the space of a few minutes he changes plans, splintering the company into three and flying off into the night at high speeds, Pippin in tow. It’s a great end to Book III, a sense that danger and uncertainty has broken over the camp like a sudden, unexpected thunderstorm.
“All Wizards Should Have a Hobbit or Two in their Care”
Two more final points before we finish up. First – I appreciated how hobbit-centric this chapter is. It feels fitting for the book as a whole and it serves nicely to set up a more hobbit-heavy future for readers. Merry mentions Sam by name (the first time anyone mentions either Frodo or Sam in a while). Through the palantír, Sauron thinks that Pippin is the ringbearer. And near the chapter’s start, Gandalf mentions to Merry that he and Pippin were likely of great interest to Saruman, and weighed heavy on his thoughts.
The focus on hobbits – plus the sudden, unavoidable reorientation towards Mordor and Sauron – serves nicely to set up Book IV, which will backtrack to our other two hobbits, who’ve never let Mordor stray too far from their thoughts. It’s subtle, but it is a nice balancing act by Tolkien that he was able to make this chapter function as both a capstone to this book and a transition to the next one.
And finally, I also just really enjoyed Gandalf and Pippin together in this chapter. Their scenes together are always really delightful and they bring out the best in each other as characters. But I also appreciated how Pippin’s little arc in this chapter functions as a counterpoint against Saruman’s. It isn’t hard to read Saruman’s story as one that condemns overeager inquiry – he’s always trying to create, mold, shape, investigate. Gandalf even seems to confirm that “Alas for Saruman!” he says in reference to the palantír. “It was his downfall, as I now perceive. Perilous to us all are the devices of an art deeper than we possess ourselves.”
And at first, in this chapter, it feels as if Pippin is falling into a similar pattern. He’s resentful at the chapter’s start that Gandalf would not be more forthcoming with his information. When Merry chides him not the meddle in the affairs of wizards – “for they are subtle and quick to anger” – Pippin responds with exasperation. “Our whole life for months has been one long meddling in the affairs of wizards,” he says. “I should like a bit of information as well as danger.”
Pippin seems to be ultimately punished for this attitude: his curiosity exposes him to an all-powerful dark lord (and Gandalf yells at him). But at the same time, there’s a caveat to this message in the chapter’s coda. As Gandalf and Pippin ride towards Minas Tirith on Shadowfax, Pippin peppers Gandalf with questions. And Gandalf answers, willingly.
It’s a nice correction. Or maybe better, it’s a nice nuance. When Gandalf asks Pippin what he wants to know, this is how he responds. “The names of all the stars, and of all living things, and the whole history of Middle-earth and Over-heaven and of the Sundering Seas,” laughed Pippin. “Of course! What less?” Pippin’s knowledge is rooted in a desire to understand; Saruman’s in a desire to shape and to acquire. It’s such a key difference in Tolkien. As Gandalf said, “all wizards should have a hobbit or two in their care.”
- I had forgotten (or never knew?) the etymological connection between Osgiliath and stars. It’s such a lovely name for a city.
- Another rare Tolkien naming failure: Tirion upon Túna. The first half is good; the second half is not.
- “A beautiful, restful night,” said Merry to Aragorn. “Some folk have wonderful luck. He did not want to sleep, and he wanted to ride with Gandalf – and there he goes!” Merry was honestly on fire this entire chapter. Merry is so great.
- I found it really sweet that Gandalf’s desire to look into the palantír and remove it from Sauron’s control was not based on pride or a conflict of power. Gandalf just really wanted to use it to look back at Tirion and Fëanor.
- The last bit of this chapter has always stuck with me: “As he fell slowly into sleep, Pippin had a strange feeling: he and Gandalf were still as stone, seated upon the statue of a running horse, while the world rolled away beneath his feet with a great noise of wind.” It somehow manages to be peace and ominous at the same time, though I couldn’t tell you how.
- Prose Prize: “Ents in a solemn row stood like statues at the gate, with their long arms uplifted, but they made no sound… Sunlight was still shining in the sky, but long shadows reached over Isengard: grey ruins falling into darkness.” It feels fitting to give the Ents one final appearance, before the Company move out of Isengard, and to make that final appearance feel so picturesque.
- We’ve made it to the end of Book III! It’s been such a delight talking about Tolkien to all of you. I’m looking forward to continuing it with Book IV – I was really fond of this section of The Lord of the Rings when I was younger, so I’m excited to see how it holds up on this read-through. We’ll check in on Frodo and Sam around mid-July. I’ve missed them!
All film stills are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), courtesy of New Line Cinema. The painting of Gandalf and Pippin riding to Minas Tirith is courtesy of Ted Nasmith.
Kel Protects Everybody in Page
Well, except for herself that is. First published in 2000, Page deals with Kel’s next three years of page training. It takes her on a journey through growing up. It also showcases just how powerful her protective streak is. In this book, Kel protects so many people. While First Test largely focused on distinguishing itself from Song of the Lioness, Page is able to start working on the backbone of this series as a whole. Pierce uses Kel’s protective streak as a way to talk about the various problems in Tortallen society.
Ghân-buri-Ghân and the Pressure of the Past
So. My guys. Ghân-buri-Ghân. I have been low-key dreading this chapter since the start of our re-read, wondering what useful things I could possibly say about a white British professor in the 1950s indulging in an obvious and unfortunate noble savage trope. I mean, there’s a reason that even Peter Jackson—not exactly a bastion of inclusivity and racial sensitivity in his depictions of Tolkien—decided to just leave this bit out.
I’d love to give you a little turn here and reveal that hey-guys-actually-Ghân-buri-Ghân-isn’t-so-bad. But, well… Ghân-buri-Ghân is not great. He could be worse? But that doesn’t seem to be the most useful measuring stick. So instead, let’s take a look at why Ghân-buri-Ghân is in this story at all. And why he is the one to set the stage for one of the most striking passages in Tolkien, where Théoden arrives at the walls of Minas Tirith at dawn and thunders across the Pelennor that only a chapter ago seemed soaked in despair.
Ghân-buri-Ghân and the Wild Men
Let’s start with the obvious: Ghân-buri-Ghân and the Wild-men are dehumanized and exoticized pretty consistently from the start. Within a page or two of his introduction he is compared to a beast, a rock, and a plant. The Wild-men are “remnants of an older time,” Elfhelm tells Merry. And they are “wild and wary as the beasts.” Ghân-buri-Ghân himself is “gnarled as an old stone” and his beard “straggled on his lumpy chin like dry moss.” Merry has difficulty telling him and the other Wild-men apart from each other. And while the Wild-men are never given any explicitly racial characteristics, they are characterized by habits that would be associated with “exoticism” from a European colonial perspective: grass skirts and communication over distances by drums.
To Tolkien’s credit, he does push back against this idea a little bit, largely through Ghân-buri-Ghân’s repeated refusal to be patronized. He repeatedly calls out Éomer for treating him like a child and for interrupting him. He has his own ideas and agenda that extend beyond helping the nice horse lords who happened to stop by. Though on a side-note—Tolkien also manages to make the Wild-men seem preternaturally chill when he casually reveals that they are helping Théoden and his men despite the fact that the Rohirrim, in the past, apparently hunted the Wild-men for sport. Jesus, Rohan.
So. We have a scenario where Ghân-buri-Ghân is given a solid sense of agency in his appearance but is also loaded up with baggage associated with colonial attitudes towards the “uncivilized” peoples of the world. But none of this really answers the question: why is Ghân-buri-Ghân here? Why is he in the story at all? It’d be easy to have the exact same thing happen, but simply have the knowledge of the hidden path lie with one of the Rohirrim or Théoden himself. It would streamline the story and skip the necessity of a whole different group of characters. You could even as gone so far as to simply start the chapter with Théoden’s arrival on the field, and combine it with the next’ chapter’s battle.
Past and Present in The Return of the King
Of course, that’s not what happens. Instead, our next chapter features the imminent fall of Minas Tirith being averted by two sudden arrivals. Théoden and the Rohirrim appear, shepherded there by the Wild-men. And Aragorn and the Dúnedain arrive, backed by the Dead Men of Dunharrow.
Now, I’m not totally sure what this means. I’m open to ideas, and it’s something that I’ll be continuing to think about (the perils of writing an article the day it’s due, sorry friends). But in any case, it seems intriguing to me that both our kings—Théoden and Aragorn—make their triumphant arrival at Minas Tirith thanks solely to the aid of mysterious and unexpected forces of the past. Aragorn calls up a ghost army. Théoden is guided by a people that—as noted in this great article by Ethan Campbell —are directly tied to wodwos, the wild, forest-men of medieval romances like Gawain and the Green Knight. This commonality is only highlighted by Merry’s observation that the Wild-men reminded him of the Púkel-men that lined the way to the Paths of the Dead at Dunharrow.
Neither case is really attributable to plot dynamics. Both of these things could have happened without the last-minute, unexpected assist. So the fact that they do, and that they happen in such tight thematic parallel, makes me think that there must be something more intentional at play. Though it’s hard without more extended interactions with either group, I think it’s at least possible to make the case that this double assist serves as a nice thematic underpinning of Tolkien’s repeated idea that the past is something to be remembered but not necessarily blinded emulated.
While Aragorn’s past is literally what qualifies him for the throne—and what gets him his ghost army—Théoden’s and Rohan’s interactions with their past are much more ambivalent. It’s obvious to the reader that the Wild-men have been mistreated in the past. The same can be said for the treatment of the Dunlendings in The Two Towers. The fact that Minas Tirith is delivered largely thanks to a ghost army who betrayed their leaders in the past and a small group men who have been betrayed themselves, creates an interesting note of moral and historical complexity in a scene that could otherwise easily be read as a standard clash of good and evil.
The Charge of the Rohirrim
Even without that complexity, though: Théoden’s charge and the arrival of the Rohirrim is such a stirring narrative moment. It would have been so easy for it to be cheesy: Widfara’s sudden claims that “the wind is turning” and the dawn is coming are standard fantasy tropes. But man, the execution of it. This is Tolkien at his best.
The Rohirrim’s easy arrival at the wall and painstakingly slow walk across the outer fields makes it feel as if the Riders are literally entering into the tone of the last chapter. The world is filled with darkness, despair, gloom and fire. Merry is horrified. Théoden seemed “to shrink down, cowed by age.” Effort seems wasted, and there seems no place to go. And then, there’s the turn. It’s good enough that I want to look at the whole thing in full:
Then suddenly, Merry felt it at last, beyond doubt: a change. Wind was in his face! Light was glimmering. Far, far away, in the South the clouds could be dimly seen as remote grey shapes, rolling up, drifting: morning lay beyond them.
But at that same moment there was a flash, as if lightning had sprung from the earth beneath the City. For a searing second it stood dazzling far off in black and white, its topmost tower like a glittering needle; and then as darkness closed again there came rolling over the fields a great boom.
At that sound the bent shape of the king sprung suddenly erect. Tall and proud he seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had ever heard a mortal man achieve before:
Arise, riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield shall be splintered,
a sword day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!
With that he seized a great horn from Guthláf his banner-bearer and blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder… Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and he sprang away. Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them. Éomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to shore, but Théoden could not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire through his veins, and he was borne upon Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! It shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them.
It’s such a wonderful, visceral passage, filled with alliteration and momentum. All those B’s and F’s! The way Tolkien moves from sentences structured along the lines of A, but B (Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them) to a series of shorter and shorter clauses creates a syntax that seems to accelerate along with the riders themselves. It’s a near-perfect passage, a bright release after chapters of mounting dread.
- I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on Ghân-buri-Ghân’s diction and speaking patterns. On one side I could sort of see the argument that he’s simply speaking the way anyone would speak in language they aren’t comfortable speaking. Lots of dropped articles, overly-literal translations. But at the same time it just sounds SO MUCH like a stereotype of “uncivilized” speech, like an American Indian in an old western flick. I want to give Tolkien more credit, as a linguist, than indulging in something like that. But I’m not sure it’s warranted.
- Another chapter-related note from Ethan Campbell’s article: Théoden’s speech to his riders before their charge is heavily influenced by the famous Old English poem about the Battle of Maldon. If you are intrigued, Tolkien wrote a fan fiction sequel and published it in a scholarly journal (which is my new professional goal now, I guess).
- Elfhlem and the rest of the company seem to be find with turning a blind eye to Merry’s presence. I’m assuming that they know that Dernhelm is Éowyn as well? It seems pretty likely to me—they have “an understanding,” as Merry notes. And I like the idea of the Rohirrim deciding to cover for her.
- Tolkien continues to get a kick out of the Enemy ironically undermining their own plans through excessive, thoughtless badness. This time through Éomer: “Our Enemy’s devices oft serve us in his despite. The accursed darkness itself has been a cloak to us. And now, lusting to destroy Gondor and throw it down stone from stone, his orcs have taken away my greatest fear. The out-wall could have been held long against us.”
- Merry wished he was a tall rider like Éomer and could blow a horn or something and go galloping to [Pippin’s] rescue. This is such a charming little sentence that nicely underlines how out of his element Merry is here. He doesn’t even quite know what a tall rider would do to go save some one. Blow a horn? Or something?
- Tolkien taught me this week that “writhe” can be an adjective, as in “writhen mountains.” Into it.
- Prose Prize: … last two paragraphs? Honestly, just go read the last page or two. It’s Tolkien at his best, using his prose to craft a wave of momentum, his tone elevated and archaic but crackling with energy at the same time.
- Contemporary to this Chapter: Faramir is wounded, the Pelennor is overrun, the siege of Gondor continues. Off to the south Aragorn is seizing the fleet at Pelagir. Over to the east Frodo gets himself captured and then freed from Cirith Ungol.
- Next time we finally come to the Battle of Pelennor Fields. Bring your own tissues! I am already sad!
All images are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), courtesy of New Line Cinema.
Encroaching Darkness and Endings
Presented by “Harry Potter and the Reread Project”
So it’s been a while since I’ve published the last Harry Potter Reread piece, as unfortunately other obligations kept my away from my favourite book series. To recap quickly, the last reread post essentially took a longer look at most of the Trio’s camping trip: Ron majorly freaked out, abandoning his friends, returning to save Harry’s life and earning the right to destroy a Horcurx in the process, Dumbledore’s goodness was questioned more and more and Harry hit what’s probably his lowest point in the books so far. Ultimately, the Trio decides to visit Xenophilius Lovegood, is tricked and trapped by him and only escapes by the skin of their teeth.
A Dangerous Dream
The fallout of the visit in Ottery St. Catchpole seems, at first look, to be much smaller than the fallout from being trapped in Godric’s Hollow. Godric’s Hollow cost Harry his wand, which he thought of as his most powerful weapon against Voldemort. Visiting Xenophilius Lovegood, on the other hand, shows Harry a way to beat Voldemort: becoming the master of the Deathly Hallows and thus, supposedly, death himself. Unfortunately, Harry learning about the Hallows spectacularly backfires. Much like Dumbledore himself, he becomes so obsessed with the idea of the Hallows that he loses track of everything else for a while and starts to neglect his actual mission-
That’s, however, entirely understandable. When the Trio goes to visit Xenophilius, they are entirely out of other ideas, as Hermione admits. Dumbledore left the Trio with a monumental task and, as has been pointed out continuously ever since the seventh book was published, with very little pointers as to how to accomplish said task.
Additionally, Harry has been doubting Dumbledore more and more since his death, especially because of how little help and preparation he has actually received. Believing that Dumbledore actually did place all of the pieces to saving himself in front of him restores at least some of the faith in his mentor, maybe even in the most crucial aspect of his relationship with Dumbledore. Assuming that the Hallows are real and Dumbledore meant for Harry to find them means that Dumbledore didn’t leave him entirely unprepared and is thus proof that Dumbledore cared about him.
That this leads to a fairly massive conflict between Harry and Hermione is about as unsurprising as Harry’s obsession with the Hallows. After all, Hermione’s narrative job is to be the voice of reason and to balance out Harry’s – and sometimes, Ron’s – hotheadedness. Considering that hotheadedness, it’s also no surprise that Harry messes up and uses Voldemort’s name when he’s fighting with Hermione. The Trio then gets captured and taken to Malfoy Manor, where Bellatrix tortures Hermione and reveals the location of the next Horcrux by chance. After their escape and Dobby’s death, this is what Harry chooses to focus on, rather than continuing his quest for the Hallows.
While JKR leads up to this choice quite interestingly, there are a two aspects of the chapters surrounding that decision that annoy me. For one, we never really get Harry’s actual reasoning for why he decides to give up on the Elder Wand. Until the end of the chapter, JKR doesn’t even make it explicitly clear that this is what Harry decided and just alludes to an important decision having been made instead. Then, when she does make it clear that Harry has decided to prioritize information about the next Horcrux over keeping Voldemort from taking the Elder Wand from Dumbledore’s grave, Harry simply justifies it by saying that Dumbledore didn’t want him to have the Elder Wand. Later on, JKR lets Harry think that he can’t satisfactorily explain what lead to this decision because the internal arguments that lead to this decision – that JKR never actually put on the page – sound feeble to him in the aftermath of the decision.
Additionally, Hermione had to get tortured for Harry to arrive at the decision that Hermione had been arguing for for weeks. There’s a very “woman in the refrigerator” dynamic about this, though she does survive. But making female characters suffer to further the character growth of male characters is an age old dynamic, and it’s not especially enjoyable to read.
The Goblin issue
What also isn’t especially enjoyable to read is the portrayal of Griphook and goblins in general. Creating a fantasy race that is obsessed with wealth, untrustworthy, cunning, hooked-nosed, and then having them decide to take a neutral standpoint in the war against, well, Wizarding fascism comes with its own host of unfortunate implications.
There’s a very good essay on JStor called “Knockers, Knackers, and Ghosts: Immigrant Folklore in the Western Mines” pointing out the connection between “knockers”, folklore creatures that goblins can be said to be based upon, were explicitly connected to the ghosts of Jewish people. The idea of the goblin as a fantasy creature developed from this point onwards, and essentially became a staple of fantasy literature, much like dwarves, dragons, unicorns, werewolves and giants. According to Ronald James’s essay, the belief that the Knockers were Jewish ghosts was lost when the folklore migrated to the American colonies. However, folk creatures linked to the knockers and goblins especially retained the attributes stereotypically associated with antisemitic caricatures of Jews: greed and untrustworthiness.
The fact that a classic fantasy creature that she uses in her writing is clearly influenced by antisemitic stereotypes is, of course, not at all JKR’s fault. But the way she handles it is. And she does handle it fairly badly, especially considering that with other fantasy creatures, she tries to subvert their typical portrayal. I’ve already written about how successful that endeavor is with giants and werewolves, but with goblins, it seems like she barely even tried. Harry is told not to trust goblins in the very first book already, and although Hermione points out that wizards have marginalised goblins for centuries, that distrust ultimately seems to have been justified.
At the same time, there’s a certain irony to the Trio aiming to deceive a goblin, who is used to deception by wizards and thus inherently doesn’t trust them, and being outsmarted by him. One could, of course, argue – like Harry does himself – that promising Griphook Gryffindor’s sword but never specifying when he’d get it and then keeping it until the Horcruxes are destroyed is technically not a deception. Griphook would have gotten the sword at some point, after all. But it’s still a dishonest way of treating an ally and Griphook taking the sword is just him making sure that he got what was promised to him.
One thing I liked about the interactions between the Trio and Griphook was Hermione passionately telling Griphook about fighting not just for wizards, but against all injustice in the wizarding world. It’s essentially a plea for an universally respectful and fair approach to politics that doesn’t fight against the marginalisation of just one group. The contradiction between that appeal and the Trio’s actual way of treating Griphook is pretty obvious, however.
I do get why Harry decides to act the way he does. I also get why he uses the Imperius curse when breaking into Gringotts. It’s essentially a “the end justify the means”-situation. In Harry’s opinion, fighting Voldemort justifies acting in ways that he would normally condemn. Considering what Voldemort is meant to represent, I don’t have a problem with that.
What I do have a problem with is the narrative framing of Harry’s usage of the Unforgivable Curses: there is no moment in which Harry struggles with having used the Imperius curse and when he tortures Amycus Carrow, it’s present as a moment of strength and victory. McGonagall even calls it “gallant”. And while Harry using the Imperius curse in Gringotts can be read as either seeming like an absolute necessity to finish the mission in the moment when he uses it or as something that Griphook manipulated him into, there’s no excuse or reason behind him using the Cruciatus on Carrow.
Considering how much effort JKR put into showing how horrible both the Cruciatus curse and the Carrows are, this could have easily been framed as a moment that Harry breaks, repays the cruelty the Wizarding World has shown him with cruelty, and actually emotionally struggles with. It would have even been fairly easy to include a short scene in which Harry, on the way back to the Room of Requirement from the Great Hall, doubts his actions. There is, after all, a scene in which Harry doubts whether he is turning into Dumbledore, who doesn’t trust anyone, when he is faced with the choice of letting the other DA members help. And how great would it have been if Harry had wondered for a moment what the war was doing to him, realised the risk of it turning him cruel and angry and decided to make a conscious effort to never be cruel? But unfortunately, that’s not the route JKR goes.
The trio breaking into the Ministry to steal Slytherin’s locket on from Umbridge is, as I already discussed, one of my favourite parts of Deathly Hallows. It’s a perfectly executed “undercover mission gone wrong”-plot but with the darker twist of showing what a turn for the worse the Ministry has taken. Something similar is true of the break-in at Gringotts: while it doesn’t go as in depth with its description of the horribleness as the Ministry scenes, there’s the gut-wrenching scene of a man attacking Bellatrix, Voldemort’s right hand, for taking away his children. It’s an act of complete desperation, underlined by the fact that people without wands are treated as less than human.
The break-in at Gringotts has the same basic structure as the break-in into the Ministry: there is a long period of planning, of which the readers see fairly little, there are unforeseen complications during the very first stage of the operation that force the heroes to improvise: splitting up in the Ministry, Imperiusing Travers and Bogrod, which are mostly caused by the heroes own unpreparedness – not doing more research on the ministry workers they are impersonating, not realising that the goblins know that Bellatrix’ wand was stolen. This ultimately forces them into heroic acts to escape, like freeing the Muggleborns who are awaiting trial and the imprisoned dragon. That’s not really surprising: it’s essentially the classic heist-movie plot. Additionally, while both break-ins allow the heroes to accomplish their goal of retrieving a Horcrux, they also set them back.
What’s interesting is that although the basic structure of the chapters is the same and they both work with very similar premises, the break-in at the Ministry feels a lot less triumphant than the break-in at Gringotts. One the one hand, I think it’s because the Ministry chapter explores the dynamics of a Voldemort-ruled Wizarding world much more in depth than the Gringotts break-in. On the other hand, I think it’s because it’s clearer what the break-in at Gringotts is leading up to. The goal of destroying Voldemort is no longer in the far-off distance. Of course, it’s entirely possible that that’s an impression I have based on the fact that I’m reading the books for the hundredth time and that first-time readers perceive it entirely differently.
And Familiar Faces
The second-to-last part of Deathly Hallows brings back a whole bunch of characters that have essentially disappeared for either most of the book or even most of the series. Griphook and Ollivander, for example, were both introduced in Philosopher’s Stone but essentially became completely irrelevant afterwards. That they returned and became crucial in driving the plot forward in the final book is a fairly classic JKR move and, as I’ve mentioned before, one of my favourite aspects of the series.
Then there’s, of course, Dobby. Another thing I’ve already mentioned earlier during this project is that I never really got the love many fans of the series have for him and instead have been rather torn about him. That’s probably why his death isn’t especially high on my list of sad scenes in Deathly Hallows, even though I’m able to see why it’s an objectively sad scene. After all, Dobby engages in the ultimate act of rebellion for a house-elf, turning against his (former) masters, and pays for it with his life. And Dobby is set up to just be an unequivocally morally good being: he is loyal to the point of blindness, he has no intention to harm anyone, he is willing to make sacrifices and push past his own fears to achieve his goals. At the same time, I find his portrayal rather ambiguous. It’s clear that his admiration of Harry is based more on the way Harry treats him than on believing in the values Harry represents and Dobby’s always shown to be rather child-like intellectually, to the point of being incapable of thinking his actions through logically. Looking at the series and his role in it as a whole, his death seems like the logical conclusion of the way his character is set up.
Another character development that seems like the logical endpoint of a journey is Neville, though that could and should have been better executed, in my opinion. As much as Neville is shy, awkward and clumsy at the beginning of the series, the seeds for his great entrance in Deathly Hallows as leader of Dumbledore’s Army at Hogwarts have been there ever since he confronted the Trio in the common room. That he had it in him to be a fierce fighter if necessary became clear when he insisted to go to the Ministry to rescue Sirius and held his ground against the Death Eaters.
Unfortunately, he fades into the background for most of The Half-Blood Prince and is essentially irrelevant in Deathly Hallows until he reappears. That means that his development from a guy who’s usually shy but good under pressure to a complete badass who stands up to violent Death Eaters to the point where they consider murdering him happens entirely off-page. It’s not unbelievable for him to develop in this direction, but it would have been better writing to actually see more of this development.
Which is a statement that is true of the entire Hogwarts-subplot. Other people have suggested in the comments that Deathly Hallows would have been better if it had been split between the narrator accompanying Harry and someone who’s at Hogwarts, but I disagree. I think moving away from the classic school setting into a underground resistance setting as well as splitting the narrative focus between settings for more than one chapter would have been a too radical break from the established style of the series. However, JKR finding a way to keep Harry in touch with people in Hogwarts – Aberforth giving a piece of the two-way mirror to one of the members of Dumbledore’s Army, for example – would have made it possible for the readers and Harry to be up to date on what is happening at Hogwarts without creating the narrative split. Additionally, Harry knowing what was going on at Hogwarts and being torn between his actual mission and wanting to help his friends would have been amazing and heart-breaking to read about.
The next piece of the “Harry Potter Reread Project” takes on the final bit of Deathly Hallows, as Voldemort returns to Hogwarts, “possessed f that cold, cruel sense of purpose that preceded murder”.