Spell in the binding

Published March 29, 2007

The sky is on fire, and so is the Harry Potter fandom.

On Wednesday, J.K. Rowling's U.S. publisher, Scholastic, and her United Kingdom publisher, Bloomsbury, released images of the covers for the seventh and final Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Hallows will be published on July 21, with a record-setting first printing of 12-million copies. But speculation about its plot and its hero's fate has been raging since readers closed the covers of the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

The cover images released Wednesday will certainly stoke those fires. Those fabled medieval monks who debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin had nothing on Potter fans, who within five hours of the release had generated more than 30 pages of deconstruction on the popular Leaky Cauldron site, www.the-leaky-cauldron.org.

A couple of jokers remarked that the U.K. cover, with Harry and his chums Hermione and Ron tumbling out of a portal, looks a little like the old Charlie's Angels logo. But most posters are serious as, well, death about what the images portend.

Scholastic's U.S. edition has a cover by Sarasota artist Mary GrandPre, who has done all the U.S. covers. It wraps around the book, Harry on the front, evil Lord Voldemort on the back.

In the U.K., Bloomsbury will publish two editions, identical except for their covers - one aimed at adults, the other at kids.

The grownups' cover is austere: a locket with an ornate "S" picked out in blue-green jewels, perhaps a horcrux in which Voldemort stores a bit of his soul.

The U.K. children's cover and the U.S. cover are richer in signs and portents. Both feature a fiery red and yellow sky. Is it a sign of cosmic destruction or dragon attack - or maybe of the phoenix, the bird who returns to life from the flames?

On the U.S. cover, Harry stands in a crumbling structure that suggests an ancient coliseum, or maybe a train trestle to Hogwarts. Standing near Harry is a cloaked Voldemort. Neither holds a wand. Behind them are ghostly figures; framing them are torn curtains the veil between life and death?.

The U.K. kids' cover, by Jason Cockcroft, shows Harry and his friends tumbling through (or maybe being sucked into) a round portal with that burning sky behind them.

Harry and Hermione have bleeding wounds on their arms; riding on Harry's back is what looks like a house elf, brandishing a sword. In the foreground is a pile of gold coins, jewels, bottles and pieces of body armor. Fire is reflected in Harry's glasses.

Are they breaking into a vault at the goblin bank Gringotts, or falling into a pensieve in search of memories, or raiding some treasure cache of Voldemort's?

And how can the millions who want to know possibly wait until July?

Colette Bancroft can be reached at bancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

On the Web: Download the U.S. cover at www.scholastic.com. For U.K. covers, go to www.bloomsbury.com/harrypotter.