"Unity without verity is no better than conspiracy." - John Trapp

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Death in Harry Potter

Shortly after starting the Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling's mother died. Rowling admits that it had a significant impact on the seriers and told Meredith Vieira in an interview for Dateline that how the characters in the Harry Potter's novels viewed death defined them. Aside from the theme of love, death is the most significant theme in the book. Some might even argue it is the most signficant theme. As such, I'm only skimming the surface of what Rowling says about death in Harry Potter.

WARNING: There be spoilers ahead!

Death is present from the start of the series, and controls events that transpire in the stories past. The death of Harry's parents, James and Lily Potter, starts the series off. But the cause of that death, Voldemort, kills them in an attempt to get to Harry. Why?

Voldemort fears death. This fear leads him, in the backstory of the books and not revealed until book 6, to create horcruxes. Horcruxes are places where pieces of a soul can be stored so that a person need not fear death. The horcrux can be used to revive the person who has died. Voldemort has his horcruxes in place to protect against his demise. Interestingly, to create a horcrux, Voldemort has to kill - an exchange, if you will. To protect his own life, Voldemort must sacrifice another.

Also in the backstory, there is a prophecy, revealed in book 5, that a boy will battle Voldemort to the death. Voldemort attempts to kill Harry as an infant to prevent the prophecy. This is an act reminiscent of Herod's killing of all the children under two after the wise men do not return from visiting Jesus. Herod wants to kill Jesus, the Messiah, who Herod expects to be an earthly king and would therefore end his dynasty. But, while he is surrounded by death, Harry is "the boy who lived" (the reason why will be discussed in the following post, if the Lord should will).

Death is so significant because it is final. While, as I discussed in the post on the afterlife, something of the person continues on after death, you cannot really come back from death. Harry's parents, despite his hopes after seeing their forms at the end of Goblet of Fire, will never return to him. He has to live with the deaths of those that he loves.

And death visits Harry repeatedly throughout the series, but especially starting in book 4 with Cedric. Then Sirius dies, Dumbledore dies, Moody dies, Dobby dies, Snape dies, Fred dies, Lupin dies, Tonks dies, . . . All the deaths are to a greater or a lesser degree sacrifices to save Harry. Until Harry must decide whether he will follow their examples.

Harry has committed himself, after much wrestling, to Dumbledore's path of destroying the horcruxes. What happens, then, when you discover that Nagini is not the last horcrux, but that you yourself are a horcrux. Harry walks to his death, willing to sacrifice himself for others. For Voldemort to be defeated, the piece of Voldemort's soul that is within Harry must die. The horcrux must be destroyed.

So Harry responds to Voldemort's call, and walks out alone, under the invisibility cloak, to meet him. Harry does not attempt to defend himself when Voldemort again uses the killing curse on Harry. The first time Harry survived because of his mother's intervention. Now, there is no one to intercede.

After his sacrifice, Harry awakes in King's Cross. He is whole, not even needing his glasses. But he is not alone:
[Harry] had spotted the thing that was making the noises. It had the form of a small, naked child, curled on the ground, its skin raw and rough, flayed-looking, and it lay shuddering under a seat where it had been left, unwanted, stuffed out of sight, struggling for breath.


In King's Cross we see the contrast between what Voldemort's fear of death and Harry's acceptance of death has made of them. Voldemort is beyond help, while Harry is healthy.

It would be easy to mistake the Harry Potter series as embracing death. Is Snape's killing of Dumbleore and assisted suicide?

First, Harry did not run from death, but neither did he embrace it. The walk to Voldemort was difficult, particularly as he reflected on what would be lost. He required the support of those who had sacrificed themselves for him.

Second, Snape does kill Dumbledore knowing that Dumbledore is dying anyway. But the act is not to relieve Dumbledore's suffering, but to protect Draco. Had Draco been forced to kill Dumbledore, irreversible damage would have been done to Draco. I'm not saying that I agree with Snape's actions; I don't think they are justifiable. But the scene is not, I don't think, an argument for mercy killing.

Third, and most telling, is the graveyard scene on Christmas Eve. Harry and Hermione are searching for Harry's parent's grave. When they find the grave, on the marker are these words: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." The words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 (v. 26) where he is defending the resurrection. It contains (v. 3-4) Paul's wonderful summary of the gospel: "3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures."

Whatever else Rowling may mean by using this quote, death is defined as an enemy, and one day it will end. I hope and pray that it also means that Rowling has the hope of the resurrection. That this quote is more than something in a book, but is a rock on which she can stand. I hope this is true for you as well.

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