Michael Gerson
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Tolkien describes the distinguishing climax of a fairy story as the "turn" -- the moment when fantastic and terrible adventures are transformed by sudden grace, "giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief." "A tale that in any measure succeeds in this point," he continues, "has not wholly failed, whatever flaws it may possess."

In the last of the series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," and in the current movie based upon it, Rowling reaches the turn. A boy who has played Quidditch, discovered girls, broken curfew and cheated death again and again discovers that he was intended for death, "marked for slaughter," all along. A scarred hero -- his birth prophesied, his character tested by the temptation of dark power -- realizes he must sacrifice himself for the sake of his friends. The "chosen one," it turns out, was not chosen for honor but for extermination. Death, he finds, can only be defeated when it is embraced. Harry's destiny requires a "cold-blooded walk to his own destruction."

These are the ambitions of Rowling's brand of children's literature. Harry's walk toward the Forbidden Forest gains the reflected emotional power of the walk from Gethsemane to Golgotha. It is the recycling of the greatest myth -- a myth that some also regard as true. And the final delivery from death is the culmination of all happy endings.

Rowling seems to anticipate the objections of those who dismiss myths as lies. Harry's enemy, Voldemort, does the same. "That which Voldemort does not value," she writes, "he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children's tales, of love, loyalty and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped."

Rowling's children's tale -- like the best that came before it -- has a sliver, a glimpse, of that power, beyond the reach of magic.

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Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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