The wizard of us.

Harry's story has ended. But the last burst of Pottermania has revealed some uncomfortable truths ab

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

J K Rowling Bloomsbury, 608pp, £17.99

I may as well come straight out with it: I haven't read any of the first six Harry Potter books, nor have I seen any of the films. Despite that, Harry - and his creator, J K Rowling, come to think of it - feels as familiar to me as the way our letter box goes "ting" whenever there's a gust of wind. Harry's omnipresence in our popular culture is such that you pick him up by osmosis: you know that his parents are dead, and that King's Cross has a secret platform; you find yourself giving a correct description of Quidditch in a pub quiz without recourse to a mental image of the game being played.

Then again, I could also tell you what the current top five singles are, despite wishing they'd all go in the bin and be replaced by some proper music sung by proper pop stars. Pop trivia delights a pub-quiz mind. The question is whether Harry Potter is more important than that, and whether his story coming to an end - Rowling's seventh Potter novel is, she insists, also the final one - means that he will quickly disappear from, or endure in, our collective memory.

It's too early to tell, as someone once said, but then it is hard to imagine how a generation of children raised on the books will either instantly forget them or regard them with only ironic affection when they've grown up, as they will Heelys or Shrek the Third. Because of the era in which Rowling has raised him, he is as much a brand, and therefore a gimmick, as he is a hero for all times. That's a shame, of course, because he is such an old-fashioned creation: the bespectacled dork who has strength inside him sufficient to conquer evil.

Either he's changed us or we've changed with him. The Potter series is unique in that it has been marketed to both children and adults - with separate covers, of course, should any of us get the impression that we're all just infantilised lummocks in need of comfort. It's that very lack of boundaries between the generations that has made me avoid the books like the plague over the years, despite repeated exhortations from other adults to read them.

It doesn't feel quite right that adults are reading books intended for children. Childhood is all about the ability to fantasise about omnipotence in a time of powerlessness. By the time you're into adulthood you really ought to have mastered your relationship with the outside world to the extent that you don't pine for soft bosoms and wizard costumes. Fans of Harry tell sceptics that they've lost touch with their inner child, and that there's nothing wrong with a ripping good yarn.

Nothing wrong with adulthood, either, I'd say to that. Or at least there oughtn't to be. Grown-up life is stressful and confusing, though, and the temptation to escape is more easily succumbed to when it can be sated with little effort. Think of how much easier it has become to escape in the ten years since the first Potter book: budget flights; giant TVs; books at half their retail price next to the loo rolls. Anything for a breather.

Also in the past decade, that same cultural osmosis has imbued us with the idea that you can "live the dream". If you're a Potter fan from America or Japan, you needn't merely content yourself with imagining what Platform 9¾ at King's Cross looks like: if you're worth your salt, you should get on a plane and see it with your own eyes. Don't just dream of Harry, be him. It might be an idea not to try to magic your way through the platform wall, though. Then you wouldn't be Harry, just some div with a black eye.

Again, quite why the idea of a child meeting the dark challenges of the adult world with courage and humility appeals to so many adults is unclear. The same goes for 35-year-olds who re-create the same battles with their Star Wars figures as they did in 1980. One can only assume that they're attempting to remake the past in a way that lets them win. There's a huge temptation here to make some analogy between this phenomenon and the current divorce rate, with the ideal of love standing on Platform 9¾, and our lack of preparedness for the reality of love being the thing that gives us the black eye.

So, amid scenes of a mass retreat from adulthood, let's see what can be gleaned from Harry's last outing. To a first-time reader, the artlessness of Rowling's writing is shocking. I used to walk past the legions of adult Potter readers on the train and the Tube and think, "Well, there must be something in it." Now, having schlepped through 607 pages of clunky and clichéd non-style, I know that the something can't be her turn of phrase.

This book could easily have been half the length. Either Rowling refuses to be edited or the later Potters have been written with an eye to looking good on a bookshelf. The first 200 pages, in which Harry makes a heroic (if perfunctory) dash from the Death Eaters and goes into hid- ing with the obsequious house-elf Kreacher, are simply dull.

The next 200 are not only dull, but also repetitive and mostly inconsequential. Rowling does little to give a sense of time passing during Harry's months on the run from his nemesis, Voldemort, except to note that the ground is either crunchy with ice or dry with leaf-fall. You know what season it is, but only because she's told you: you don't really feel that summer has turned to autumn, then winter. Rowling's obsessive emphasis on detail rather than broader scene-setting dissipates tension and makes the action, when it does happen, seem random.

She does a fierce and moving about-turn in the last hundred pages, as though the middle section were the result of much mental faffing on the way to clarity. It suddenly becomes clear why she wrote this book, and why Harry exists. There are still too many paragraphs padded out with ellipses and endless repetitions: we're reminded approximately twice a page that Voldemort has either a "high, clear" or a "high, cold" voice. But the final couple of chapters have a rapturous quality that gives a rounded impression of Harry's mastery of his circumstances.

To tell you what those circumstances are would render the whole 600-page - or 3,500, if you've read the whole lot - effort pointless. Suffice to say that, if the previous books have represented Harry's long walk to freedom, then he does, in a way, reach his destination. It feels as though, for the past ten years, Rowling herself has been chasing, or slogging towards, mastery of her own feelings about death and adult responsibility, using Harry as a conduit.

For children who have grown up with Rowling as their chief storyteller - like some distant, but constant relative whom you turn to at times when you feel your very existence threatened by those closer to you - this knowledge will be invaluable. For adults, though, I still wonder how so many get a kick out of such (mostly) indifferent writing.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?