NY Times Sunday Book Review: Surprise! Christopher Hitchens Does Not Like Deathly Hallows

Did anybody else wonder what the New York Times Sunday Book Review editorial board was thinking when they decided to ask Christopher Hitchens, world’s brashest atheist and author of God is Not Great, to review Joanne Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? I don’t get it. I know he does book reviews for The Atlantic and The Times in addition to political commentary, but he doesn’t have any sympathy for the work, even where you think he might (can you say “Islamofascism”?).

You can still read the Hitchens review online today and Monday before it falls behind the NYT profitwall and I urge you to do so. You won’t be surprised that he urges readers to try Philip Pullman, public atheist, if they want a really good read….

More tomorrow, God willing, on the Literary Alchemy, Christian Content, and genius of Deathly Hallows. Stay tuned!


  1. Travis Prinzi says

    What an abysmal review. You’ve got people all over HP boards complaining that Rowling left too much evil in place at the end (as if, after thousands of years of prejudice and racism, Deathly Hallows should have ended with a massive group hug between the four houses, wizards, muggles, goblins, house-elves, centaurs, and giants), and Hitchens claims Rowling “an ending which suggests that evil has actually been defeated…for good”?

    I must be one of the few people on the planet who didn’t think that the whole middle section with the tents dragged on and on. I thought it was paced just fine. I think that Rowling caught us off guard by removing us entirely from the familiar rhythm of the Hogwarts school calendar. I think complaints about the pacing might die down after a few re-reads, when people can sort through DH knowing it doesn’t follow the typical pattern we’ve become so used to.

  2. The man’s intellect and moral compass are so warped, that it is hard to anything he says seriously. If he was any type of serious critic, he would review the work on its own terms, eager to enter the world of the author. The book can then either stand or fall on its own merits.

    I would recommend C.S. Lewis own work on the subject, An Experiment in Criticism ( http://www.amazon.com/dp/0521422817 ) and a thoroughly destructive review of Hitchens’s book here ( http://www.takimag.com/site/article/hitchens_hubris ).

  3. Aye. No brainer here. I mean, of course, the author of the review. If his extant knowledge of the forms he deprecates is to be understood from this review, I should judge it from the very shallow end of the brain pool, putting it charitably as one may. Alternatively, he bares an ignorance that is very nearly invincible when he compares a patronus to a daemon. And his knowledge of the current Pope’s lack of pronouncement on the series reveals less than a journalistic flare for investigation (that is being more than charitable, I must add).

    In short, CH condemns what he hasn’t bothered to read thoroughly, much less attempted to understand. That’s what I glean from the review. I do have a certain feeling for his proclivities and antipathies which are unrelated to the series. Not having read his other works, I must trust my decades long experience in reading reviews and works to guide my appreciation of his “review”: shallow end of the pool altogether. No smashingly brilliant work here. He even managed to work President Bush into the text. Charmingly, stupidly naively obvious – I trust he has a day job to pay the bills.

  4. Hi John,

    Well, I wondered too – especially when I read Hitchens NYT review (nice question a la Mr. Rodgers, John – underscoring that intentions have meaning – and some intentions are agenda-driven). This next article is from CSM [Christian Science Monitor] – “Opinion” writer Jenny Sawyer:
    Missing from ‘Harry Potter’ – a real moral struggle – read the whole review at: http://news.yahoo.com/s/csm/20070725/cm_csm/ysawyer

    Her bio says that she’s a children’s book critic – but how can you read this series and come up so short at the end? No real moral struggle? Interesting. I read some of her other ‘reviews’ of children’s literature; some of those were just as “interesting.” She’s just one contributor to CSM. (And here too I was wondering “what were they thinking?”) There are others who weigh-in with more favorable and more well-formed/informed reviews such as Yvonne Zipp’s “The Boy Wizard Takes His Final Bow” http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0723/p25s01-bogn.html Ms. Zipp’s review is a delightful read – so, all is not lost to one opinion – or one reviewer at CSM.

    I enjoyed Dave Bruno’s article posted in Christianity Today (online) – Aug. 8 – “Harry Potter 7 is Matthew 6.” Found at:
    A good read for content, connections and his “mini blast” at the JKR detractors – Dave relates his theories for the Godric’s Hollow gravestone biblical texts (obviously) through the “eyes of a believer.” I found his connections about “eyes” (Lily, Harry, and Snape) more than worth the “click” on the link to his article also.

    Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote –
    “It is only with the heart that one sees rightly – what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
    While we can find and may choose any number of emotions to “hang our hats on” when reading negative reviews – from being saddened by some to being downright outraged by others – in the end I think that JKR’s voice and her intentions will win the day. Intentions matter and I think that JKR’s “heart-gift” will shine in the end and so, “believe it or not” the freedom of choice will prevail as will the debate.

    I suppose Christopher Hitchens might choose to be offended by my belief that God loves him, gives him breath, and talent as a writer in spite of the fact that he chose to use his talent to write God is Not Great – among other things. There’s the rub Chris – it cuts both ways… Smile Chris, God loves you and so do I, but I choose not to agree with or support your beliefs or your writing. I also choose to investigate both sides – even in the face of negativity, opposing viewpoints, and belief systems I may find offensive. Why? That’s what critical thinkers do… and I’d like to think I’m choosing what is right and not what is easy. You say you do that too? Careful Chris – you could be leaning toward the enemy.

    Kathy Couture [KJC]
    From SHP – The Secrets of Harry Potter

  5. Travis I agree I thought the middle part was fine. These kids were lost and confused. Harry was continuously venting that frustration towards Dumbledore. And I think chapter with the Doe w as one of the most beautifully written chapters in the book.

    Deathly Hallows though has gotten a very positive response from fans over all. It’s brilliant. IMO. But some people like this guy, well whatever. Some people can bitch and whine all the like. not everyone is going love this book. Just as others dislike others in the series and juts as other hate the series all together.

  6. The only part of this review that flared to life for me a bit was when Hitchens publically scratched his head over his young daughter, elbow flattening the pages of a Harry Potter book, laughing out loud. A-ha! I thought. At least his daughter understands the beauty and artistry of these books. How sad that he doesn’t, or perhaps can’t.

    I wish the Times had let his daughter write the review!

    I was already grinding my teeth by the time I got to the “I recommend they graduate to Pullman” line. Graduate?!!

    For a fine critique of Pullman, by the way, I recommend Dickerson and O’Hara’s *From Homer to Harry Potter.*

  7. A good sign that Jo Rowling Christian belief has infuriated our friend Hitch. It has made our day! We wonder how long it will take other humanists to realize that it wasn’t the Christians who should have been protesting, but the secular humanists. Oops.


  8. Arabella Figg says

    Oh, dear. I pray no one goes near Mr. Hitchins with a pin. It could bring on complete global warming and the end of life as we know it.

    I simply couldn’t read the whole thing. I have a difficult time with “Anton Ego” writers whose self-important prose is so intrusive . A wealth of words doesn’t disguise a paucity of content (tip to essay test-takers everywhere). His alleged review could likely be distilled to “I don’t like it, I don’t get it, therefore no one should.”

    There are better reviews by better writers.

    Mrs. Fleasley is hissing, better go find out the problem.

  9. Let’s not tar Pullman’s magisterial series just because Hitchens recommends it. I took a look at Dickerson and O’Haara’s discussion, and I just didn’t get it. First, a lot of it seems to be about genre-policing. Second, they’re wrong about the source material. Pullman’s work derives directly from a variety of sources, “gnostic” Christianity, Milton, etc. What’s odd is that they talk about these traditions in the beginning (although there’s not a single reference to Paradise Lost in the book, let alone their treatment of Pullman), yet don’t seem to get that this is what Pullman’s doing. On this point, see “Fighting since Time Began”: Milton and Satan in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials” by Stephen Burt, in Milton in Popular Culture. Anyway, I don’t mean to disrupt a much-deserved bash-fest of CH. What a waste of a review slot.

  10. Let’s not be too hard on Christopher Hitchens. I enjoy reading him. He writes well and intelligently. As far as his review of DH and the HP series, in general, I agree with his review about the DH book itself. It did drag a bit in the middle. I did miss having Hogwarts as the backdrop. He-who-must-not-be-named and the Death Eater’s weren’t very smart villains. His mistake is that he takes the books too seriously. They are children’s books. There are some unexplained motivations and a few inconsequential plot holes. Hitchens seems to be reviewing them as if they should meet the standard of a Dostoyevsky novel. Nonetheless, there is much more to the books than meets the eye (as Mr. Granger and others have pointed out so well) and that is what all the excitement is about. It was a poor choice to ask Hitchens to review the book.

  11. colorless.blue.ideas says

    Travis: The more I reflect on it, the more I think that “the middle section in the tents” may really have been too short. But J.K. Rowling did an excellent job within the page limits she had, so I’m not complaining. “Despised, rejected of men”, alone (except for Hermione/ Wisdom/ Hagia-Sophia); I am slowly recognizing the genius of that section.

    Kathy C from SHP: Thanks for the links to the reviews; your analysis does a good bit of nail-hitting on the head. Jenny Sawyer’s review was just strange, condensable to “here’s a neat idea for a story I’d like — why didn’t she write it instead?”

    I admit to admiring some of Christopher Hitchen’s current-events writing, but even there I’ve noticed a tendency to “wing-it” instead of checking small details. When it comes to God, however, he has a very narrow-pass filter: only evidence which agrees with his presuppositions
    is considered.

  12. Yes, Travis — I agree about the middle “tent” section — having just finished reading the book out loud (the true test of pacing), it held up just fine, thank you. I think people who did expect the framework of the school year may indeed have felt a bit unanchored, and will appreciate more on a second read (as I have come to appreciate the heretofore unappreciated-by-me epilogue).

    And yes, Arabella Figg — A lovely post, linking Hitchens to Mr. Ego from Ratatouille. I will keep the image of the pin-pricked Hitchens before me for a good laugh.

    …Hitchens’s review was, after all, predictable. Some months back he wrote a boot-licking paean of praise to Philip Pullman in Vanity Fair. I remember thinking at the time, “Sure hope no one ever lets him have a go at Harry.”


    Somehow I find myself praying for a “road to Damascus” Jesus-right-up-in-his-face experience for Mr. Hitchens…

  13. Arabella Figg–
    My husband and I just shrieked with laughter when we read your post! Of course, I’ve never been able to go even part of the way with Hitchens anyway. I’m not one of the people who think he writes well. I could have told you he wouldn’t like DH. The man brags that he chose Socialism as his religion, over Christianity. How could he begin to understand DH?

    I also did not think there was anything wrong with the middle section. I guess it just wasn’t what people were expecting.

  14. Arabella Figg says

    Thank you Janet and Trish for your kind words. Glad I could give you a laugh. I always wonder about people who write such pedantic, pontifical, pompous bloviation. Do they talk like this at home? Or spare their loved ones to take it out on the public?

    I thought the middle section was just right. The churchyard chapter and the one following where Harry sees the night of his parents’ death through LV’s eyes (I never guessed he’d find out that way!) and The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore were so powerful. Once the DEs got hold of the Ministry, Harry had to become a fugitive and harrowing it was. A further stripping of who Harry was and what he thought he had, including his poignant conviction that he was Dumbledore’s man through and through. I think it interesting that the last thing stripped from Harry was relational and centered around belief.

    Long enough to get the job done, but not so short you didn’t feel his absolute isolation.

    Speaking of isolation, the kitties want some attention…

  15. Arabella Figg says

    Stephen King has a great review of DH in this week’s Entertainment Weekly, called “J.K. Rowling’s Minstry of Magic.” I enjoyed his different approach. No probing for deeper meanings, but a nicely written review all the same. Here’s the link:

    http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20044270_20044274_20050689,00.html – 27k –

    Oops, little Flako just got spooked…

  16. Thanks, AF, I enjoyed the reviews and the site info!

    So, wonder what Christopher Hitchens thinks of Stephen King? Before and after Mr. King’s appreciation of JK Rowling, I mean! Anyone here know? Any pertinent reviews by CH of SK?

  17. Just yesterday, I ran across this blog entry on Potter, which is interesting for the number comments that are similar to Hitchens’ review:


    Pharyngula is a very popular blog run by PZ Myers, a devout atheist, and most of the commenters are his cheerleaders. Most of them. like Hitchens, don’t understand the Potterverse nor its popularity, and also recommend moving on to “real” fantasy such as Pullman. Most of the comments (including Myers in his original post) imply that they only read the first two books, and decided the entire series was pure formula (actually a somewhat reasonable conclusion after PS and CS). Strange for a bunch of people who normally make conclusions only after looking at the evidence.

  18. That last sentence should read “Strange for a bunch of people who normally rabidly claim to make conclusions only after looking at the evidence.”

  19. Grebmar,

    The reactions of reviewers like Pullman and the folks on that atheist blog, remind me of something Tolkien wrote to a fan who expressed appreciation for the beauty and even at times, the holiness, he felt in LOTR. See below for Tolkien’s comments. “Dust and ashes.”

    “You speak of “a sanity and sanctity” in the L.R. “which is a power in itself.” I was deeply moved. Nothing of the kind had been said to me before. But by a strange chance, just as I was beginning this letter, I had one from a man, who classified himself as “an unbeliever, or at best a man of belatedly and dimly dawning religious feeling … but you”, he said, “create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a viable source, like light from an invisible lamp.” I can only answer: “Of his own sanity no man can securely judge. If sanctity inhabits his work or as a pervading light illumines it then it does not come from him but through him. And neither of you would perceive it in these terms unless it was with you also. Otherwise you would see and feel nothing, or (if some other spirit was present) you would be filled with contempt, nausea, hatred. “Leaves out of the elf-country, gah!” “Lembas – dust and ashes, we don’t eat that!”

  20. Arabella Figg says

    When people don’t “get” the most popular series in the world, in literary history, one wonders why they don’t seriously question “why don’t I get this?”

    I would broaden this further to those of all beliefs who cling to cherished interpretations. Are we willing to set them aside to look at something honestly and differently? Christians fall into the same trap as the atheist if we grip, with tightly-closed eyes, to longheld tenets because new findings and interpretations inconvenience our preconceptions.

    Atheists and rigid believers aren’t that far apart in how they approach that which is outside their respective theological/doctrinal boxes. Nevertheless, I’ll keep pins off my person if I ever meet Mr. Hitchins and friends.

    Oops, Flitquick just found a pin on the floor…

  21. Did you read PZ’s clarification? He puts Rowling in the company of a great many top-rank children’s fantasy authors and then compares the whole bunch very positively to typical bestsellers.

  22. Yes, I saw that clarification, but it seems to me a contradiction for him to place Rowling among the greats when he thought the writing was too formulaic and he was no longer interested in the rest of the series. As he should, he emphasizes that great children’s literature is also great literature on its own, but his treatment of Rowling doesn’t seem consistent. If HP (meaning all seven volumes taken as one story, as it is meant to be) truly is great children’s literature by this definition, then why not finish reading the series?

    My note was mainly directed at the comments to Myers’ post, not so much Myers himself.

  23. PZ’s clarification begins:

    Don’t get me wrong, I thought the first book had quite a few virtues and was an enjoyable read, and the themes that people thought were commendable were present right from the start. I just don’t think it gained anything by being repeated 7 times (so the last one is different? Then it should have been a two-book series.)

    It’s hard to take the man seriously after this criticism. The opening of a theme (and there are at least four primary themes in the series) equates with its development and conclusion? And his mentioning of Ms. Rowling with a variety of children’s literature greats (“even Lewis”) is so patronizing that it’s hard to see how this message clarifies his meaning other than to say he isn’t bashing Kid Lit per se just Bad Lit.

    It fascinates me that secularists and fundamentalists, Ivory Tower mavens and neo-Puritans, have found such common ground in despising an extraordinary popular bit of writing and literary achievement. They part company on Pullman, of course, but on Harry the ends of the culture war spectrum meet. Arabella has a point, I think.

  24. Arabella is exactly right. As I tell my students, atheists such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers and fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell, etc., may be polar opposites in faith, but extraordinarily similar in their absolute certainty about the nature of the universe. I think that both sides would consider as unacceptable Rowling’s statement about her struggle to believe and the ambiguous nature of religious experience evident in DH . Faith, of whatever kind, is, or should be always a struggle. Atheists and the religious, if they are intellectually honest, should admit doubts about that belief at least occasionally. Harry’s struggle to believe and follow Dumbledore reflects that doubt, and I am not sure that all Harry’s doubts are removed, since as Dewyn wrote in a comment on another thread, Harry’s visit with Dumbledore at King’s Cross still leaves room for doubt that Harry really spoke with a dead Dumbledore and didn’t just have a powerful hallucinatory experience. Then again, what is the difference between a true revelatory experience of God and a hallucinatory experience deriving from extreme stress?

    I am continually impressed by the depth of Rowling’s work and how she managed to draw together so many different threads–Christian, alchemical, literary, etc, and hold them all together through how many thousands of pages with an excellent story.

  25. __________________
    grebmar62 Says:

    August 17th, 2007 at 4:03 pm
    Harry’s visit with Dumbledore at King’s Cross still leaves room for doubt that Harry really spoke with a dead Dumbledore and didn’t just have a powerful hallucinatory experience. Then again, what is the difference between a true revelatory experience of God and a hallucinatory experience deriving from extreme stress?
    Oh, they’re not that hard to tell apart. Hallucinations are, much more often than not, auditory, not visual– and certainly not tactile, as when Harry touched Dumbledore’s arm. They’re not normally shared (which doesn’t apply to Harry, but would apply to, say, the resurrection appearances of Jesus, which happened to so many people in so many different circumstances that they can’t be written off as hallucinations, unless you’re willing to write off everything we know about hallucinations) and they don’t make sense. They arise from disordered input which the brain tries to make sense of, and they tend toward paranoia. Now if we had Voldemort’s version of King’s Cross, and if Voldy met Dumbledore, he might be inclined to write it off as hallucination. At least I’m sure he’d be feeling the paranoia!

  26. colorless.blue.ideas says

    You wrote that Hitchens “chose Socialism as his religion, over Christianity. ” Currently he has abandoned socialism (a number of years back) and is focussing more on libertarianism trending towards classical liberalism (‘conservatism’ in the U.S.). That to me is a positive trend and an indication somewhat of a seeker personality. Who knows, it may not take a Damascus experience for him to realize Jesus’ love for him. We should pray for him.

  27. “Who knows, it may not take a Damascus experience for him to realize Jesus’ love for him. We should pray for him.”

    Indeed. I think I read somewhere that Peter Hitchens, who is a Christian and Christopher’s brother, thinks the Hound of Heaven may be baying at his heels. He does sound like he protests too much, doesn’t he?

  28. I’m going to play atheist’s advocate and wonder what the big deal is. So Christopher Hitchens did a review of Deathly Hallows, why is this offensive? He is, or rather was, one of the greatest English authors of his generation, its fitting he would write on such an important cultural topic. And he was fairly nice to the series in general, even admitting how much he enjoyed reading it. He just doesn’t find the series, particularly the final chapter, to be that brilliant. Like in many ways, I do not agree with him, but he is far too brilliant a man for me to call out, and its simply his opinion. I thought it was very cool that he offered his opinion, and I think his respect for the series more than shined through.

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