Harry Potter is the literary phenomenon of the past century, and while our society has had no difficulty celebrating J.K. Rowling’s work, the literary community has been somewhat slower in figuring out exactly what the series has to say.
We tend to think of Harry Potter as an escapist delight, but Rowling’s work also expertly constructs a poignant extended theme that has more in common with King Lear than most English professors might care to admit. This theme at the core of Rowling’s wizarding world speaks directly to a universal human reality: The struggle to come to terms with our mortality.
Death is obviously big in Harry Potter. Death initiates the core conflict of the series; death escalates in each text; death creates the tool by which Harry can defeat Voldemort; and death resolves the conflict in the end, since Voldemort’s death is the end of the war itself. Death recurs throughout the series, but recurrence is not enough to constitute a theme.
Literary theorist Roger Fowler notes that: “A theme is always a subject, but a subject is not always a theme: a theme is not usually thought of as the occasion of a work of art, but rather a branch of the subject which is indirectly expressed through the recurrence of certain events, images or symbols. We apprehend the theme by inference — it is the rationale of the images and symbols, not their quantity.”
Thus, a theme is a comprehensible viewpoint that emerges from a pattern of recurrence — a statement, if you will, that we perceive through progressive repetition and associated symbolism. Without that statement, a pattern is just a motif. If the author is using that pattern to say something, however, the pattern becomes a theme.
So what role does all this death play in the Harry Potter franchise?
Death in Potter
In his first adventure, Harry is tempted by the life-prolonging “philosopher’s stone” of legend.
At the end of that story, Harry is only able to obtain the stone from the Mirror of Erised because he does not want to use it. In this, he immediately establishes his contrast to Voldemort, who desperately seeks the stone in order to extend what the centaur Firenze calls “but a half life, a cursed life.”
Upon hearing this, Harry wonders “If you’re going to be cursed forever, death’s better, isn’t it?” thus showing us Harry’s internal perspective on Voldemort’s choice.
Dumbledore himself confirms Harry’s viewpoint at the end of the novel by telling Harry that “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” If we put these pieces together, the death theme Rowling uses is all laid out within the very first book.
As the series progresses, it is death that defines Harry’s character development. Cedric’s death leaves Harry traumatized. Sirius’s death shows Harry the high cost of Harry’s mistakes and the extent to which death can alter his future. Dumbledore’s death, of course, leaves Harry rudderless and vulnerable, forcing him to mature to a new level of personal responsibility.
By Book Seven, Harry’s own death represents the ultimate boon that bestows upon him the power to at last defeat Voldemort, whose vulnerability is created by horcruxes, dark magic used to protect him at the expense of his living soul.
As Harry marches to his death, “Every second he breathed, the smell of the grass, the cool air on his face, was so precious.” In this moment, as Harry accepts death, life itself becomes sweet, even beautiful — a sharp contrast to the cursed life that Voldemort cannot escape from.
This contrast is again the pivot-point of the mortality theme that Rowling develops. Voldemort looks like death, he brings death wherever he goes, his army are the “Death-Eaters,” and several aspects of his iconography associate him with the Grim Reaper of legend.
It would be easy to conclude that Harry is simply fighting death in the series, but that role is actually reserved for Voldemort himself, whose name can be translated from the French to mean “flight from death,” not death itself.
The entire series is then the story of an antagonist struggling to deny death, matched against a protagonist who is maturing toward accepting it. If this sounds cynical, Severus Snap agrees with you when he laments that Dumbledore has “been raising him like a pig for slaughter.”
In spite of this objection, Snape is willing to die for the cause of righteousness, just as James and Lilly were, just as Sirius was, just as Dumbledore was, and just as all the casualties of the Battle of Hogwarts were. Even Harry’s poor owl, Hedwig, chooses to die to protect something she loves.
When perceived as a pattern, heroism in Harry Potter means accepting death. In contrast, fighting against death is analogous to raging against the storm for Shakespeare’s King Lear, who, like Voldemort, is reduced to a cursed existence in consequence.
The notion of death in fantasy literature might seem counter-intuitive for a genre that’s commonly associated with escapism. The reality, however, runs contrary, and Rowling’s theme is well within the norms of the genre.
J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, once wrote an essay called “On Faerie Stories,” in which he describes the prominent role of death within the fantasy genre. Tolkien writes that:
“Few lessons are taught more clearly in [fantasy] than the burden of that kind of immortality, or rather endless serial living, to which the ‘fugitive’ would fly. For the fairy-story is specially apt to teach such things, of old and still today.”
For Tolkien, fantasy is a genre that frequently engages with themes of mortality and provides us with “consolation” for our universal fear of death. He refers to his own example, the elves of Middle Earth, to show how he portrays immortality as undesirable.
Tolkien’s elves don’t ever have to die — and their lives are miserable as a result. Though less evil than Voldemort, the nature of their immortal existence is actually quite similar to that of Rowling’s villain — again, a cursed existence.
The Tale of the Three Brothers
The strongest encapsulation of the mortality theme in Harry Potter is the story within the story, “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” which is told in the final Harry Potter book. Three brothers face death and respond in three different ways. Only the one who ultimately accepts death is spared a brutal and humiliating end. “And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life.”
That “the boy who lived” is also the boy who died is not a paradox. Indeed, Rowling’s argument is that only by accepting our inevitable passing can we truly live a life of meaning and purpose.
To fly from death is to relinquish all the things that make life worth living. This is more than just a clever little message buried in a whimsical boy wizard story —indeed the resonance of this theme within all human beings may in fact be a huge part of the novel’s ubiquitous appeal. Harry Potter, you see, has something to say.