(After the cut, for those who are unspoiled. Sorry.)
From here, the difficulties multiply. While old favorites like Hagrid and Snape languish offstage, Rowling layers on the magical objects: The three “hallows” of the title join the seven “horcruxes” in a baffling panoply of talismans (Tolkien, it turns out, was wise to stick to a single ring) that’s further complicated by the extra horcrux that turns out to be lodged in Harry’s scalp, the piece of Voldemort that’s lodged in his wand, the Potter blood that runs magically through the Dark Lord’s veins, and the “who’s on first?” debate over which master Voldemort’s wand will recognize during the final showdown. As the magic become increasingly incomprehensible, Rowling repeatedly finds herself slamming on the narrative brakes at crucial moments to explain exactly why Voldemort can’t die unless Harry does, or maybe why Harry can’t die as long as Voldemort’s alive, or … oh, never mind. (It’s as if Sam, Frodo and Gollum had taken a timeout during the showdown on Mount Doom to get a lecture from Gandalf on the finer points of ring lore.)
Worse than the confusing metaphysics, though, is the predictable plotting. There was a feverish predictions game among the Potterphiles of the blogosphere before the final volume hit the shelves, and it’s a bad sign for Rowling that an awful lot of their guesses and theories seem, in hindsight, more interesting than the finished product. Yes, some predictabilities were built in to the saga: We knew going that good would triumph over evil, that Voldemort would perish and that most of our much-loved cast would live happily ever after. But within that framework, The Deathly Hallows includes a host of roads not taken, complications not considered, tragedies, temptations, and redemptions left unexplored. Rowling repeatedly gestures at complexity: In the horcrux that gives voice to Ron’s hidden resentment of Harry; in the hints that Draco Malfoy might actually turn heroic in the end; in the gestures at temptation for Harry himself. But she raises these possibilities only to let them drop again: Ron’s Harry-envy is never mentioned after the horcrux is destroyed; the Malfoys never display any trait more morally impressive than loyalty to their kith and kin; and Harry himself never seriously considers doing evil so that good may triumph, and we are treated instead to endless encomiums to his moral purity. (Though as Eve Tushnet points out, for such a Christ-like guy he’s awfully free with the Unforgivable Curses). None of the primary good guys turn out to be bad, or even baddish; and the only murky character who finds redemption is Snape, in a twist that most readers saw coming a long distance off.
The sense of tragedy, too, is carefully contained: A slew of second-tier characters perish, but none of their deaths are half so wrenching as Dumbledore’s in The Half-Blood Prince. (I’m pretty sure that Rowling planned to kill of Hagrid and chickened out.) Harry’s death-that-isn’t, meanwhile, feels like something of a cop-out, an attempt to jerk some tears without dealing in anything so dark as the semi-tragedy of Frodo’s fate in Lord of the Rings, or anything to explicitly theological as Aslan’s magical resurrection in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.