What I loved the most about the final book was what we learned about Dumbledore and the depth of his story, and how that is more the finale than Harry offing Voldemort. We're presented with the final and continuing stage of growing up as seeing the humanity of your elders and those in power over you, and learning what effect you can have on them, rather than theirs on you.
OotP remains my favorite of the books because that's when the story deepens past linear adventure story. In OotP Harry is at the top of his heroic arc when he successfully teaches and leads the DA. I think that structurally, that leaves both HBP and DH as somewhat anticlimactic--the hero doesn't really become all that more powerful in the next two books==maybe what some readers have seen as a lack of struggle for Harry. HBP definitely dragged for me. That book was really breaking with Harry and catching us up on the alternate and flawed heroes of the series, Snape and Dumbledore, without our fully knowing how the focus was being shifted. It was a narrative experiment, I think, that was not completely successful. I wonder if HBP would flow better for me now after reading DH.
There is internal learning in the last two books, but the real affect of that isn't something that can come out in the linear quest--its more about what Harry is learning about the human frailty of his elders. Though I don't think we see Harry applying those lessons to a great extent (I haven't decided if that's a weakness in the narratives) learning those stories with him is interesting in itself. And it does take a story that structurally focuses as much as possible on one protagonist, and spreads that focus to others; maybe not onto all the characters we want it to, but onto two generations of protagonists along with Harry: Snape and Dumbledore, whose choices and consequential developments are far more interesting than Harry's.
OotP wasn't such a favorite of mine because it was structurally the top of Harry's arc, but because that's when the history Harry was seeking, his Search for the Father got turned upside down, and we found out his father James was quite a bit of a jerk and bully.
I have a lot of qualms on how male-centered the narrative is--how when Harry ran into so many people who could tell him more about his mother he never seemed to pursue it because the Search for the Father was all, but perhaps JKR is doing something a little bit different with that, and critiquing that male-centeredness by having us question the father and making so much hinge on who Lily was in the end. Still Lily, seems to have functioned very traditionally as Good Mother, and Exemplary Love Object Bringing Men Closer to Go(o)d ala Dante's Beatrice, rather than as a having a developed backstory full of choices of her own. So I don't think there's quite a feminist critique of the tired old patriarchal narrative here, but making James not quite the exemplary role model is a nice twist for a simple maturation narrative. The series gained a great deal of depth at that point and different sides of the narrative started to open up and keep growing.
Snape's story is fascinating in how he remains so ambiguously heroic at the end, and the mystery is enticing--JKR weaved his story in such a way that we'll never know how much of what he was doing was from selfless motives out of care for others, and how much was just Gollum-like obsession with Lily as his love object. I like how Harry calls Snape the bravest man he knew in the end, but still qualifies it with a "probably" (the only thing that made that epilogue worth reading.)
But Dumbeldore's back history is the best part of all the narrative for me, and I was hardly interested at all in Dumbledore until the final book--I love how she did that--making the Judeo-Christian God the Father type Old Man With the White Beard into a frail human being needing Harry's, and our, approval in the end before he can move on.
Speaking of God the Father, I love the godless mysticism of her universe. We have souls and afterlives, but no God or gods at all to reward or punish human action here. How refreshing is that? And with Dumbledore as a god figure who is revealed as all but too flawed and human, we kind of get a Blakean turn here. The fundamentalist Christians really do have reason to fear such a book that has faith in human choices with no god figure to lean on or fear--go JKR, yay! I also love how Dumbledore gets to undermine the mythic quality of the Deathly Hallows tale and makes it a folk legend--heee.
What I love about Dumbledore's back history is the complexity of his family drama and how it puts the issue of being a Carer and its relationship to public life at the moral center of the series. The way Dumbledore is haunted past death by his failure to provide care to his disabled sister, and how his family tied love and secrecy together--the legacy of "The Family Secret" that so many families with mentally ill or disabled or violent members live warped under the shadow of--hampers his work for the rest of his life--this is heartbreaking.
I love what she did with this--that Harry's death scene was more about Dumbledore's remorse and comforting and forgiving him his weaknesses, than it was about Harry getting direction in "the underworld"--the ancestors depending on the living, the parent depending on the grown child. I also think it was vital that this story of failed caregiving was a male story, since caregiving is the expected role of women rather than a respected role of humans. Again, I can forgive the male centeredness of the series for this, almost--it was important, and even revolutionary, to present the role of Carer as what makes a male person a good person.
And it was very moving to have Aberforth judge Dumbledore on this, thinking his brother only had regrets like a Voldemort, not real remorse, and that he was only informed otherwise by Harry after his brother's death, highlighting the importance of listening to and transmitting stories in order to heal, and that this work is done cross-generationally.
The part of the book that lagged for me was the time the three spent alone in the wilderness--time you spend out in the Wilderness in an Adventure is Supposed to Be a Time of Real Growth through Revelations. It just wasn't enough for me. Yonmei put it best when she said here, "At one point Ron gets bored with the lack of narrative and walks out of the story . . ." I also feel that it was almost pointless to have Harry go through the period of being tempted by the search for the Deathly Hallows without it leading to some negative consequence--JKR doesn't allow him to make lasting mistakes, as Dumbledore was tried. Harry isn't really tried on this count. He doesn't yet have knowledge of Dumbledore's mistake here in order to learn from it and not make the same understandable mistake. This doesn't feel right to me.
What Harry does learn before the end is to lift the noose of secrecy when he tells Neville about Nagini, the flaw that Dumbledore never recognized in himself. I wish more was made of this though--of Harry recognizing this flaw in his father figure and determining not to follow it, of him letting more of the community in on the secrets as part of pulling together the final initiative in Hogwarts. I still think what we got of the battle of Hogwart's was just splendid; I wanted to see this figured as more of an important point of growth for Harry, as Dumbledore never got that chance.
Besides the Battle of Hogwarts, and the backstories on Dumbledore and Snape, I adored the visit to Godric's Hollow--the atmosphere and the hidden house were properly evocative, and the stupid Harry engaged in was very appropriate. The Gringott's adventure was a tip top rendition of a Dungeons & Dragons adventure--a model of How It is Done, which made it more than cliche and really fun, and the meeting with Aberforth was just right--interesting and sad (and you can't make me think about the goat if I don't let you) and hopeful. And I just love the variety of stories we get on Dumbledore, from Rita Skeeter's to the end.
Lastly, I have to say that I really like JKR's style of writing. It's a hybrid that isn't completely novelistic, and at times feels awkward to modern sensibilites from our being trained up on novelistic conventions. The way she imbeds stories within stories and thus gives big loads of expository chunks feels awkward to those used to novelistic styles of changing points of view--I know they did to me--every time I'd get to one, I'd find myself complaining, "You're supposed to show, not tell! This sounds like the villain's long, gloating revelation in a B movie!"
However, pre-novelistic romance texts from before the eighteenth century in the Anglo-European tradition often work in this very style--linear framing narratives that acquire more tales within the tale as characters wander into the text. These texts present storytelling events within their frames--they show the reader how to listen to stories. Learning to listen to and learn from the stories of others is what Harry learns to do throughout the series, so in this sense, JKR's style is very fitting of this theme.
And even though I'd have my novelistic grumbles every time an expository chunk presented itself, I have to say that these parts of the books were the most interesting and compelling; despite my mumbling, "you're supposed to show!", I'd be the most engrossed at these very points, kind of belying any attempt I'd make to complain, "but you're doing it wrong!" I can't argue with her style--it just works.
And I'm going to stop adding stuff to this post and just post it now.
Xposted to whileaway here