Essay: The Meaning and Role of Death in Harry Potter

‘It was over, he knew it, and all that was left was the thing itself: dying.’

Throughout Harry Potter’s life, the shadow of death hangs over him, a knife point dangling by a thread above his lightning-shaped scar, separating past and future. From the very beginning, we see the motif represented as something both unavoidable and yet not something to be feared. Luna insists that she will see her mother again sometime, and Sirius reassures Harry that it is ‘quicker and easier than falling asleep’. Rowling, through Dumbledore, repeatedly expresses the idea that ‘there are worse things than death’, and that the denial or betrayal of love can leave a person in a worse place than even their own destruction.

While the novels explore the theme of death, Harry himself teaches a huge amount about it to the reader. Both he and we grow up over the seven books believing the murder of his parents before the story line is even established fully to lend Harry’s character a huge measure of pathos. But we are both taught that the casualties of war do not only affect one particularly beloved person: as Petunia Dursley tells Harry, You didn’t just lose a mother that night in Godric’s Hollow, you know. I lost a sister.’ (from a cut scene from the Deathly Hallows Part 1 film). The series introduced young readers to their first encounters with grief and mourning, and developed with the reader’s emotional capacity.

‘I didn’t want you to die,’ Harry said. These words came without his volition. ‘Any of you. I’m sorry – ’

Harry displays a constant bravery and will to survive, besting Death throughout all seven books until the very end; but this is save for one vital moment: he must sacrifice himself in order to rid himself of the fragment of Voldemort’s soul which clings to him from the night his parents were murdered. It is after this realisation that he would have to make a ‘cold-blooded walk to his own destruction’, that we see the true meaning of the insights into the theme of mortality and its intricate ties with love. When Harry knows that he must die, ‘it must end’, he doesn’t cry for himself, he doesn’t despair for all that he is about to lose. Instead, he finally appreciates the miracle of life – ‘brain and nerve and bounding heart’. We only see Harry truly fall apart when he thinks of those he will be leaving behind. He describes how if he were to see any of those he loved in his final walk down to the Forest ‘would he ever have the strength to stop looking?’, strongly recalling Dumbledore’s warning and counsel from all those years ago, sitting before the Mirror of Erised with his family before him: ‘It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, Harry, remember that.’

The reader is taught, through Harry’s own experiences, that death can strike anywhere, at any time, on anyone. The sudden deaths of Dobby, Fred Weasley and Sirius all show this. When interviewed, Joanne Rowling said that her books are “largely about death”: the Harry Potter series explores everything about a person’s finite mortality, whether it be through the fairytales of Beedle the Bard, or through Hogwarts’ most wise Headmaster, Albus Dumbledore. It is for this reason that almost all of the deaths in the seven books are fraught with meaning.

‘Less substantial than living bodies, but much more than ghosts, they moved towards him, and on each face there was the same loving smile.’

In order to make it through his own death and resurrection, Harry is forced to put his faith in the dead – Dumbledore has left him the pathway to victory, but cannot guide him down it. He must believe that he won’t stray from it without Dumbledore’s guiding light of wisdom and power. But it is not the following of the tasks laid out for him that Harry struggles with as he, Ron and Hermione hunt for Voldemort’s Horcruxes. Instead, what Harry finds holding him back is doubt as to whether Dumbledore truly loved him. Once again, the theme of love is intertwined with that of mortality. It is love that saves Harry as a child, and when he lies on the Forest floor, Narcissa Malfoy is willing to protect him in return for knowledge of her son, Draco, and whether he survived. This motherly love is the constant force that drives death towards its final angle – that of something not to be feared, but to be embraced. Harry only manages to see his parents one last time when he accepts that his own end is inevitable – the Resurrection Stone only appears to him ‘at the close’. It is the manner in which the themes of love and death run in parallel which drives the two; their contrast pulls them together in a strange way. We are taught to understand that it is far easier to ‘greet Death as an old friend’ than it is to go to him unwillingly – in the words of Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, he became a ghost due to his fear of dying, and he is now stuck eternally as ‘neither here nor there’, an in-between world, the same in-between world that Voldemort experiences in the eleven years after his fall between James and Lily’s deaths and the beginning of Harry’s story: ‘Aaah … pain beyond pain, my friends; nothing could have prepared me for it. I was ripped from my body, I was less than spirit, less than the meanest ghost.’

In the end, all that truly matters is the power that love has to overcome death. Harry experiences the deaths of his only real family – and yet he manages to overcome the pain and suffering he endures as a result of this, and finds love. It is this that allows Harry to be more than just a typical hero; he is incredibly human, and thereby relatable: the true vision of a seventeen year old boy who is forced to be a man, an embodiment of readers who matured themselves over the course of the series and are thereby forced to come to terms with the deaths of the characters they have come to love as much as real people, characters who have been with them for their entire childhood. At this point, Harry and the reader are one, and the true role of death in the series finally comes into focus: that it is both an unavoidable fact of life, and that it is perfectly acceptable to never truly get over the death of a loved one, but also that while ‘no spell can reawaken the dead’, we can be reassured that those whom we have lost are not lost to the world – they live on forever in our memories. ‘The last enemy to be destroyed is death.’ – and after this, all that is left is eternal peace; all foes have been defeated, and the dead may reside in the hearts of those who loved them.

‘Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.’

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