In this case, it was a re-read. This is the one I have read the fewest times and then only as part of a full re-read of the series. It has been some time since I last picked it up. It was a copy I bought recently, with the new cover, for the benefit of a student who was reading the series for the first time. Our old copy was missing and this poor girl has had other times when she got to the exciting bit of a series and the next book was missing. Oh, she loved it! She hadn't even seen the films, so the entire universe was new to her, or as new as it can be when people are always talking about it. Seeing her enjoy it was a pleasure for me.
So, I took this one home, determined to finish it before the holidays. As it happened I didn't succeed. I finished last night, just before bedtime.
It made me think about the series in general. What do I love about it? A lot of things. I love the references to folklore, the playing around with Latin for her spells, the humour, the mediaeval bestiary creatures(and those she has invented). J.K Rowling is a woman of some education and it shows, but never in an attempt to teach her readers. If they learn something and perhaps follow it up with a bit of research, that's great, but otherwise just enjoy, kids!
And I love the way the characters develop. Who would have expected that Neville Longbottom, the comic relief of the first book, would be the one to lead the rebellion in the last book and stand up to the Dark Lord? Yet there were indications throughout the series that it was not for nothing he had gone into Gryffindor rather than the more obvious Hufflepuff. (By the way, I loved that Newt Scamander was a Hufflepuff).
Harry is a decent young man, but not a saint. Yeesh, the author must have left his dialogue on caps lock in Order Of The Phoenix! And when he quarrels with his friends it's usually his fault. Hermione has to remind him, in Goblet Of Fire, that they are on his side. And he's a brilliant sportsman, but only average academically. However, things come back to him when he needs them. Interestingly, the most important ones are things he learned from Snape. In Half-Blood Prince he saves Ron's life with a bezoar, something Snape told his students in the first Potions lesson in the first novel. Harry's signature spell, "Expelliarmus" , was in that duelling scene in Chamber Of Secrets, when Snape used it to Disarm Lockhart. It saves Harry from Voldemort and enables him to defeat that Dark Lord in the last few scenes of Deathly Hallows.
In this book, we really learn, as does Harry, that the Chosen One is not chosen to be a sort of rock star, but more like the sacrificial lamb, there to save his people but not himself. In a scene taken straight from C.S Lewis, he walks into the Death Eater camp, knowing he isn't going to walk out again. He does the task in front of him without complaint, just gets on with it.
There are Tolkienesque elements in this book too. The locket Horcrux has definite elements of the Ring. It doesn't tempt you with power, but it does bring out all your negative thoughts and emotions in order to defend itself. And I think that, while Ron gets the worst of this particular version of the Ring, Harry is the Frodo of this novel.
The Death Eaters in power are very much the Nazis. The whole "pure-blood" thing reeks of "blonde, blue-eyed Aryans" - even more so because, just as Hitler was hardly an example of the blonde, handsome Aryan, Voldemort is hardly a "pure-blood." And early in the series Ron says that if wizards hadn't married Muggles they would have died out long ago. Nobody is pure-blood! Well, maybe the Gaunts, but look at what inbreeding did to that family. Crazy, the lot of them.
In this book, Dumbledore turns out to be a vulnerable human being like everyone else. There was certainly a build-up to this in the last novel, but here is where it's clearest. And the afterlife Dumbledore tells Harry that he is the better man, as is his brother Aberforth. He's not Gandalf after all, just a human being who got it terribly wrong once, in his teens, and has blamed himself ever since.
It occurred to me while reading that epilogue that the Hermione in that scene is already Minister Of Magic, as is revealed in The Cursed Child. But then, you can change things. I don't think this was already in the author's mind; perhaps it was suggested by the author of the play script. And a black Hermione is also new canon; in this novel she goes pink with embarrassment a few times. You might or might not see a blush on an African face - and I never have seen a blush on my African students - but they don't go pink. That's for us whities.
Well, it's fine with me. I keep hearing JKR had planned this series out in elaborate detail from the start(though she did change her mind about a couple of characters who were originally going to die and didn't). It's nice to know even she can change her mind.