Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Death as a theme in Harry Potter

I'm most of the way through Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and I've been meaning to post a few thoughts as I read, but that hasn't happened.

But I do want to post some of my thoughts about one of Rowling's most recent comments that the series has the main theme of death. In many ways, I understand what she is saying, but it seems to me that it's so much more than just death. In having Harry deal with death from the very beginning, we see that he understands it differently as he gets older. He also comes to understand death differently each time he is confronted with the death of someone else.

There was the senseless and cruel killing of his parents when he was a baby. But he didn't really know his parents, so the loss is one of possibilities never realized. It's the sort of thing that we experience as we try to imagine what life would have been like had our grandparents, aunts or uncles, or in some cases, a parent, lived. We long for, as did Harry, something that we should have had but cannot recapture, no matter how hard we try.

For me, it was the realization that my father, who died when I was not quite eleven years old, would not be there for my first date, first dance, high school graduation, college, marriage, children. . . all those things that a child takes for granted. It was also the realization, at some point, that even though I was old enough to remember my dad, I was not old enough to really know who he was as a person. So the loss of a parent in childhood is very different than the loss of a parent when we are adults. I very keenly feel the loss of my mother, who was part of my life until I was in my 40s. My image of her changed from being just my mom to being a delightful, sometimes frustrating, always complex woman, one whom I admired deeply even when we disagreed on rare occasions.

But back to Harry. In each of the books, he does deal with death. In the first one, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, he sees the unicorn that has been killed for evil purposes. It's not the death of a person, but the death of something described as pure and innocent. In a sense, that is the beginning of the death of Harry's own innocence. It's his realization that there is someone intent on killing him--not easy for anyone, but especially not an easy concept for an 11 year old. By books end, he has already decided that he is willing to sacrifice himself to prevent Voldemort from regaining power. The result is the death (though Harry does not see it), of Quirrell after Voldemort had no further use for him.

The second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry and the rest of the school are threatened with death throughout, with Harry hearing a disembodied voice saying it wants to kill, and in a vicious way. Saying it wants to "rip, tear, and kill" wouldn't exactly make for sweet peaceful dreams. It's a wonder Harry got any sleep that year.

The threatened death (of Ginny) doesn't happen, but only because Harry and Ron figured out where to go to try to rescue her. The help they received in learning of her whereabouts was from Myrtle, who had been killed by the Basilisk fifty years before. Harry comes very near losing his own life once he finds Ginny and the memory of Tom Riddle in the Chamber of Secrets. But he is saved from death when he shows his loyalty to Dumbledore and asks for help, a prayer, uttered in desperation:

Help me--help me--Harry thought, his eyes screwed tight under the hat. Please help me--[COS, p. 319]

Harry's plea is answered, though not in any way he might have expected. (Just as our own prayers are sometimes answered in unexpected ways, I might add.) Inside the Sorting Hat, the Sword of Gryffindor appears. He is still not safe from death. It's only after the Basilisk has been blinded by Fawkes, Dumbledore's phoenix, that Harry manages to kill the Basilisk. In the process, Harry's arm is pierced by a Basilisk fang, and Riddle tells him that it was all for naught; Harry will soon be dead, his mother's sacrifice having bought him only a little time. After pulling the fang from his injured arm, Harry sees Fawkes once again, Fawkes with his healing tears. Fawkes once again guides Harry by dropping the diary in his lap, and Harry stabs the "heart of the book" with the basilisk fang, ending the threat of the memory of Tom Riddle. If we had not realized before just how special Harry is, we should see it now. At age twelve Harry chose to act to prevent the death of his friends by risking his own life--not the ordinary choice for a twelve year old or for many adults either.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book has Harry facing death in almost a more theoretical way. He is haunted throughout the book by the voices of his parents as they are killed whenever a dementor comes near him. Harry, Ron and Hermione are horrified as they hear the executioner kill Buckbeak, the hippogriff.

But in the process, Harry comes face to face with the person he believes is responsible for betraying his parents to Voldemort. In learning the truth, he spares Pettigrew's life, the real betrayer, not for the sake of Pettigrew himself, but to prevent his father's best friends from committing murder. It's in this book that Rowling begins to have Harry learn the meaning of the soul, the purity of the soul and the importance of that purity and innocence. What happens to a person who is "soul-less". It's an existence, according to Remus Lupin, that is worse than death. Without the soul, a person's body continues on, but the very essence of the person is gone.

Dumbledore told Harry in his first year that there were things worse than death, but for an eleven, twelve, or thirteen year old that's hard to imagine, as he looks forward to the rest of his life. So for the first time, Harry has to grapple with what that means. He's in a position at the end of this book to save the lives of two--Buckbeak, who has been killed, and Sirius Black, wrongly accused of Lily's and James's betrayal, who faces the rest of his life without his soul, the sentence imposed on him by the Ministry of Magic.

Not only does Harry manage, with Hermione's great help, to save Buckbeak and Sirius, but he also begins to see that he is not as alone in life as he thought. His father is with him always, found within himself. Death robbed Harry of his father and mother's physical presence, but not of their love. Their love lives on in him, and in their friends, Sirius and Remus. Not a bad message, that. And it's one that will be repeated to Harry at the end of the fifth book, by Luna Lovegood, who is the most accepting of the characters concerning death.

In the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, we see Harry dealing with death as it happens. It's the sudden and senseless death of Cedric. They have become friends, though not as close as Ron or Hermione, but friends, nonetheless. Harry is powerless to prevent Cedric's death; he sees it, is horrified and devastated, but then he must now face Voldemort. Any previous threats to Harry's life pale by comparison with the ominous intentions of Voldemort and his assembled Death Eaters.

It's in this book that Rowling has Harry deal with the death of a fellow student, someone who had done nothing wrong, someone who had unknowingly crossed the path of evil. Real life is like that. People die who are just in the wrong place at the wrong time and there is no way to make any sense of it. Dumbledore shows Harry and the school that it is fitting to honor the memory of such a person, but that we must also remember the circumstances of his death. This is the sort of death that teens must sometimes deal with, when a classmate is killed in a car accident or a drive-by shooting, or a shooting at school. They are senseless, random, unjustified in any way, but so very real, leaving friends and family with unanswered questions and heart ache that can take years to heal.

We see the aftermath of Harry's reaction to Cedric's death in the beginning of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. He is filled with anger that spills over into all his relationships, even with his closest friends. It is the anger of having seen something so horrible, yet not having any resolution. Voldemort was not caught and punished, and worse yet, was that Harry was disbelieved by many and purposely discredited, along with the only other public figure who did believe him--Albus Dumbledore. His close friends believe in Harry still, but for much of Order of the Phoenix, Harry endures feelings of isolation, even ridicule, all because of a death that he witnessed. In all of that, the worst part, which is not mentioned in the book, is that Harry seems to receive no counseling at all. He is left to work through his emotions, his understanding of what happened, on his own.

The end of the fifth book finds Harry once again confronted with the sudden death of someone for whom he cares, Sirius Black, his godfather. It happens in an instant, unexpected, just as was Cedric's death. But this time, Harry feels even more responsibility; it is because he allowed himself to be manipulated by Voldemort that Sirius was even there. The death of someone close to us is hard enough to bear; it is worse still, almost unbearable, if we feel that we are responsible in any way. While Harry acknowledges his part in Sirius's death, as does Dumbledore, it is too much for Harry to accept. It doesn't take him long to place the blame on someone else, someone he doesn't like, and is certain that he hates. Severus Snape is very often the scapegoat for anything wrong in Harry's life.

How often do we do the same thing? When something goes wrong, it's much easier to blame someone that has made our life difficult or unpleasant than to accept our own part in it. Rowling gives Harry hard deaths to handle, and thereby gives the readers the opportunity to examine our own views, our own experiences, our own emotions. There are no easy answers to how to cope with the death of loved ones. But as I mentioned before, it is Nick who was afraid of death, tells Harry that Sirius would have gone on, he would not have wanted the life chosen by Nick of being "neither here nor there" [OP, p. 861]. More importantly, it is Luna Lovegood who tells him that death is not the end, those we love who have died are there, lurking just beyond the veil [OP, p. 861].

In looking at our views of death, Rowling also allows us to explore our views of life. What truly makes a life valuable or worth living? What happens to a life that is lived selfishly, or to one that is lived with love for others? What happens to a person who is consumed by anger or bitterness, compared to one who is full of compassion and love and acceptance of everything in life, the good and the bad. At the end of Phoenix, Rowling throws in one more thing with which Harry must come to terms, and that is his hatred for Snape, and the necessity of forgiveness and redemption.

Death is a very strong theme throughout the books, especially in the last two, which I will save for another post. But it's not the only theme. The theme of love, forgiveness, redemption, friendship and loyalty, are equally as present and as strong. Perhaps she sees death as the main theme because it is the one that is dealt with throughout. It is through all the other themes that Harry is finally able to come to some resolution of the deaths of his parents, which were at the very beginning, the very heart of the story.