Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows shows how very, very far J.K. Rowling's tone in these book has transformed from the original lighthearted romps of early books like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone or Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The truth is, it would be impossible to keep up the punny delight of those early books, given the weight of what's going on in this one – the seriousness of Harry's quest necessitates the seriousness of the tone. Harry's basically going through the biggest crisis of his life here, and the whole world is weighing upon his shoulders. So, of course, given that we pretty much see the world through Harry's experiences, our vision of it is a lot darker in this book than in the previous ones. We go through the same things Harry does, including his tormented decision to give himself over to death, which makes for a pretty quiet, thoughtful, and sometimes scary ride.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows follows the formula that Rowling uses for all of the Harry Potter books (and that many authors of book series use in order to maintain their "brand" identity) – all seven of the titles in the series are Harry Potter and the (Blah Blah Blah). Rowling's titles skillfully seize upon the central mystery of each of the novels, so that her readers, and often her characters as well, are kept guessing at their meaning. This is especially true from Book 5 (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) onward. In this case, the "Deathly Hallows" are the three mysterious objects at the heart of the story. Harry, Ron, and Hermione have the incredible task of figuring out what these are and how to use them in order to defeat Voldemort – which is to say, to save the world.
In a more poetic sense, we might also read more into the "Deathly Hallows" portion of the title; "hallows" are relics or holy objects, and "deathly" – well, y'all can figure out what that means. This title alerts us to the fact that there's perhaps more at stake here than the usual, run-of-the-mill magic objects; there's an air of sacredness and gravity here that suggests that this installment will really be a matter of life and death.
Rowling played around with two other possible titles as well: Harry Potter and the Elder Wand and Harry Potter and the Peverell Quest (source). Which of the three do you like best? (In our opinion, she could call it Harry Potter and the Crumple-Horned Snorkack for all we cared – we'd still be lined up at the bookstore at midnight!)
So, there are two endings to this book – the close of the Harry-Voldemort plot arc, and then the epilogue, which takes place nineteen years later.
First of all, everything we've been wondering about over the course of the last seven books comes to a head in the final confrontation(s) between Harry and Voldemort. The beginning of the end comes when Harry realizes (through Snape's memories) that his destiny is to die (well, shoot). This seems to answer the question everyone's been asking, especially since Book 5, The Order of the Phoenix, when it was revealed that either Voldemort or Harry will survive: will Harry die? Seemingly, yes.
However, things aren't always as they seem. Harry struggles with getting ready to die, and becomes firm in his resolve to sacrifice himself for the good of the whole world – and that's the important thing, apparently. He basically offers himself up to Voldemort, and it's this act of sacrifice, which is a parallel to what his mother did for Harry himself) that saves everyone.
(Spoiler alert! Well, I guess we're already past that…) Harry doesn't actually die, though; instead, the part of him that preserved a segment of Voldemort's Horcruxed soul dies, and Harry, Voldy-free, is reborn. It's Harry's death and purified rebirth that everything hinges upon here – Harry's been a savior figure all the way through (you know, the Chosen One, the Boy Who Lived, and all that), and now his "death" to save humanity makes the whole Christ-like aspect of his destiny even more clear. Religion has otherwise been carefully absent from the Potter books as a whole – Christmas happens every year, but seems only to have holiday-spirit ramifications for our wizarding friends – and so it's unclear what we're meant to make of this parallel. We'll just leave it at that for now… read into it as much or as little as you like.
So, OK, Harry saves humanity through his willingness to sacrifice himself. Well, then, what's a guy to do after he accomplishes his destiny by saving the world as we know it at age seventeen? Here's where the second ending jumps in. We see Harry, Ginny, Ron, and Hermione sending off their kids on the Hogwarts Express nineteen years later (nineteen years later because, according to Rowling, she doesn't want to promote teenage pregnancy! [source]).
It's this scene that offers us the reassurance that Harry really did succeed – the fact that we're left at good ol' Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, where the magic really began back in Book 1, means that Harry actually did manage to preserve the world as we know it – and, furthermore, to make it slightly better. The enmity between the Houses of Hogwarts is something that Harry and his peers are trying to put in the past; when Harry tells young Albus Severus not to worry about being Sorted into Slytherin, we catch a glimpse of the equal, unprejudiced, and unsegregated world that Harry's trying to make. In the end, everything's as it should be, finally. Whew.
Before the release of Deathly Hallows, Rowling said on numerous occasions that the last word of the book was "scar." But, you might have noticed, that's not actually how it ended up in the printed version. The last words in your book are "all is well." What happened? Here's what Rowling had to say in a 2007 interview:
For a long time the last line was something like: "Only those who he loved could see the lightning scar." And that was in reference to the fact that as they were on the platform, people were milling around. And that Harry was kind of flanked by, you know, his loved ones. So they were the only ones who were really near enough to see it, even though peo– other people were looking. And it also had a kind of ambiguity. So it was – is the scar still really there? But I changed it because I wanted a more – when I came to write it, I wanted a very concrete statement that Harry won. And that the scar, although it's still there, it's now just a scar. And I wanted to say it's over. It's done. And maybe a tiny bit of that was to say to people, "No, Voldemort's not rising again. We're not going to have Part Two. Harry's job is done." So that's why I changed it [to "all is well"]. (source)
So the last words leave us with the feeling that, though Harry's world has been torn apart by war, eventually the community is able to rebuild itself even stronger.
From the very beginning, one of the most magical things about Harry's world has been its proximity to our own. We love to think that if we just look closely enough, we might notice that our wacky next-door neighbor seems to wear these crazy robes all the time and has trouble using household appliances… Any evidence that wizards are out there, practically living alongside us mere Muggles, could be enough to believe that Harry is real, and so is magic. Fine by us!
And, in staying so close to our own realm, we witness both the Wizarding world and the Muggle world start to collapse a little bit here, with Voldemort's plans to basically enslave the Muggles (that is, us) under wizard domination. Unbeknownst to them, Voldemort poses as much a threat to Muggles as he does to the wizarding world.
In keeping with this dominant sense of danger, the setting of this book is hard to pin down – if anything the "setting" of most of Book 7 is constant movement. Sure, Harry, Ron, and Hermione touch upon a few significant places in their journeys – notably, the infiltration of the Ministry of Magic, Harry's mournful homecoming to Godric's Hollow, and the brief and restful stay at Bill and Fleur's home, Shell Cottage. But, for the most part, the first three-quarters of the book are marked by our trio's never-ending flight.
However, the book, like Harry and Voldemort, comes "home" in the end, to the one place that's central to all of the books – Hogwarts. It's fitting that the book and the series as a whole should end with our hero and our nemesis facing off at Hogwarts; the school is the only real home that both Harry and Voldemort have ever known. And, in a way, since we see things through Harry's eyes, it's the only home in the books that we, his readers, have ever known, too. Rowling's novels take us on journeys through many magical, weird, and wonderful places – but, in the end, it's always Hogwarts that remains the beacon of the wizarding world and of Harry himself – a symbol of learning, acceptance, companionship, and loyalty.
One brief note on the chronology – according to author J.K. Rowling, the timeline of the books have them take place in real time in the 1990s, based on when she started writing the book in 1990. The events of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows thus fall in 1997 and 1998.
Oh, the torment bred in the race,
The grinding scream of death
And the stroke that hits the vein,
The hemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,
The curse no man can bear.
But there is a cure in the house,
And not outside it, no,
Not from others but from them,
Their bloody strife. We sing to you,
Dark gods beneath the earth.
Now hear, you blissful powers underground –
Answer the call, send help.
Bless the children, give them triumph now.
(Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers)
Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass, they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.
(William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude)
OK, first up: Aeschylus (spell that ten times fast). The Libation Bearers is the second play in a trilogy called the Oresteia (originally performed in Athens in 458 BC), which depicts the fall of the house of Atreus after the Trojan War. This particular play by our man Aeschylus is all about revenge – in The Libation Bearers, the murdered King Agamemnon's son, Orestes, returns home after years in exile, and, along with his sister Electra, plans to exact vengeance for the death of his father. Unfortunately, the murderer is none other than his mother, Clytemnestra, which leads to a whole new chain of consequences (detailed in the third play, The Eumenides – but that's another story). Why, you may ask, would Rowling reference this rather grim tale? Well, aside from the obvious revenge narrative going on here (Harry is avenging his parents, and everyone else that Voldemort killed), there's also an appeal to death going on. Oddly, this passage asks the gods of death and darkness to "bless the children" and help them on their mission.
Speaking of odd relations to death, let's look at the William Penn quote too. This second epigraph is a somewhat sweeter message with a similar theme. Penn reminds us that the dead never really leave us (and in a good way, not in an undead, zombie kind of way); rather, they're with us in our hearts always. Basically, if you love someone, a part of him or her will always be with you, no matter what happens.
Both of these epigraphs speak to the most significant theme of Deathly Hallows – the pressing need to confront the boundary between life and death, which turns out to be less solid than you'd imagine. In this final book, Harry comes to terms with everyone and everything he's lost; the question is, how much can he draw upon those people, even though they've departed this world?
United, the three Deathly Hallows – the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone, and the Cloak of Invisibility – make their possessor the so-called Master of Death (this isn't child's play, folks). However, this isn't like an official title or anything; rather, it's a kind of symbolic way of saying that the successful possessor of all three Hallows is someone who has come to terms with death and therefore has attained a kind of mastery over it. As we see through the various histories surrounding the objects, the Hallows can't be used wrongfully to dodge or cheat death, like in the cases of the first two Peverell brothers. Instead, the Master of Death must come to understand the limitations and natural rules that apply to the powerful objects.
It's revealed that any desire for personal gain immediately cancels out the possibility of mastering one of the Hallows; when Dumbledore is tempted to use the Resurrection Stone to bring back his family and apologize to them, it fails. Only Harry, with his final acceptance of death, is able to unite the three Hallows for the first and last time, and become the Master of Death. He does so simply through his willingness to go with Death, without fighting or resisting, like his long-ago ancestor, Ignotus Peverell.
So, really, we see that the Hallows aren't actually about conquering death, or gaining power through magic, or anything like that – in the end, they're just symbols for the fact that death is an inevitable part of life, not to be feared or reviled.
Like the Hallows, mastering death is also the goal of the Horcrux, a Dark, Dark, super-Dark kind of magical object. However, unlike the Hallows, there's no good way to use a Horcrux. As we learned in Book 6, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a Horcrux is a kind of vessel in which an evil wizard stores a part of his soul; as long as that vessel stays intact, the wizard clings to life. The catch is that a Horcrux can only be created by ripping the soul apart by the worst means possible – murder. Voldemort, cold-blooded, snake-faced, casually-murdering villain that he is, has created seven Horcruxes, more than anyone ever has before. As we know, Voldemort really doesn't want to die. Like, ever. And really has no problem with murdering. Bad combo.
A Horcrux can be anything, as we've seen here, ranging from inanimate objects, like a cup or a locket, to living creatures, like Nagini or Harry. The Horcruxes that Voldemort has chosen are symbols of his desires and plans. As one notable example, he's stored three snippets of his soul in relics of the Hogwarts founders, Ravenclaw's diadem, Hufflepuff's cup, and Slytherin's locket. These represent his profound longing to attach himself to the deepest-rooted lineage in the wizarding world, that of Hogwarts School. This desire clearly emerges from his own doubts and fears about his background. As a half-blooded wizard (his father was a particularly unmagical Muggle), the young, pre-Voldemort Tom Riddle chafed at the idea that any part of the magic world might be hidden from him, and the objects he chooses as Horcruxes reveal his deep yearning to master all aspects of wizarding knowledge and life. Each Horcrux thus is a symbol of some aspect of Voldemort's own insecurities, and so it seems fitting that their destruction ultimately brings about his downfall.
We've been slowly learning about the odd and powerful Expecto Patronum spell since Harry was first taught how to cast it in Book 3, The Prisoner of Azkaban. While at first, a wizard's Patronus seemed merely to be a kind of protective measure – the only sure-fire way to combat the dreaded despair brought on by dementors – they appear now to be more than that. As we've seen in this book, wizards can send their Patronuses to communicate with others far away (both Kingsley and Mr. Weasley do this amazing trick early in the book), and they can also accomplish tasks for the wizard; witness, for example, Snape's deployment of his doe Patronus to guide Harry to Gryffindor's sword. Now that's one handy Patronus.
Speaking of Snape, we also learn in this book that Patronuses can communicate more than we think about a person. In earlier books, the Patronus seemed to be a kind of manifestation of the wizard's personality, or something deeply connected to that person. For example, Hermione's otter Patronus or Ron's energetic terrier both seem merely to demonstrate personality traits – perhaps Hermione's cleverness and her affectionate nature, or Ron's, er, doggedness (ba-dum-ching!) and determination. Similarly, Luna Lovegood's is a hare, showing her rather hare-brained (but quick) persona.
Harry's Patronus has always been slightly different, though – it's a stag, James Potter's Animagus alter-ego, which represents the protection and love of a father Harry never knew. The stag Patronus is a kind of connection to Harry's past, indicating that the Patronus can also be shaped by relationships, and by the people or things that give the spell-caster strength. This idea is emphasized even more in Book 7. Both Lily Evans and Severus Snape's Patronuses (Patroni? What is the plural, anyway?) represent the loves of their lives in slightly different ways. Lily's is a doe, the natural companion to James's stag; Snape's is also a doe, but it functions kind of the way that Harry's stag Patronus does, serving as a reminder of the person he loved and lost, Lily. Rowling explained that a "Patronus often mutates to take the image of the love of one's life (because they so often become the 'happy thought' that generates a Patronus)" (source).
A person's Patronus is thus always an important marker of their personality, their relationships, and their motivations, so whenever you see someone's Patronus mentioned in any of the Harry Potter books, pay close attention – it will always be significant!
Gryffindor's sword is one of the relics of the Hogwarts founders, along with Ravenclaw's diadem, Hufflepuff's cup, and Slytherin's locket, and it's the only one not made into a Horcrux by Lord Voldemort. This is no ordinary sword, mind you – like the other objects, it carries with it the aura of its heroic owner, and is a symbol of Godric Gryffindor's distinguishing trait, bravery. The sword seems to recognize a "true Gryffindor" when it sees one, and it has a way of appearing when Gryffindor is in need – in this book, it magically appears in the Sorting Hat when Neville requires it to chop off Nagini the snake's head (Chapter 36). The sword is an enduring symbol of the values that Gryffindor House represents, and it acts – seemingly of its own will sometimes – to staunchly protect these values.
Well, this is where it all started… and this is where it all ends. Throughout the seven books of Rowling's series, Hogwarts has remained a kind of beacon of everything that's good about the wizarding world – a love of learning, adventure, and good companionship. The young witches and wizards enrolled there learn about more than just charms and hexes, if we're to take Harry, Ron, and Hermione as examples; like any good school, Hogwarts also teaches its students how to care for each other, and for the world around them. It's fitting, then, that the last battle of the wizarding war should take place in this space of learning – between Voldemort's small-minded and prejudiced forces of destruction and the hopeful, diverse citizens of the magical world, united at last by Harry.
Since Potter-world is related to our world, but not actually in it, there aren't really any references to speak of. Basically, it refers back to earlier Harry Potter books, but not to anything outside that self-contained universe. Sure, there are hints of things that pertain to us – Grindelwald's attempted world domination in 1945 reminds us of Hitler's with its goals of (wizarding) racial purity, etc. Still, there are no direct shout-outs to anything in our so-called real-life world here.