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Harry's Heroic Journey

By Melissa L. Walls Lawson

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Read the archived discussion of this essay here.

The Nerve to Kill

It is unlikely that Harry will ultimately perform the Avada Kedavra on Voldemort. It is true that most heroes of myth kill, but remember that Harry also has a more human component than many others in the archetype. Outside of the series, Rowling worked for a lengthy period for Amnesty International, “the organization that campaigns against human rights abuses all over the world,”17 including capital punishment. Before Rowling gives Harry a true possibility to murder another (other than when the opponent is in a spectral form), we hear the vile Dursleys’ view of state-sanctioned death: “‘When will they learn,’ said Uncle Vernon, pounding the table with his large purple fist, ‘that hanging’s the only way to deal with these people?’ ”18 Slughorn represents the opposite view in this instance, calling murder “an act of evil – the supreme act of evil.”19 Harry must hold the same view at heart; he cannot kill Sirius even when he believes that Sirius is the one who betrayed James and Lily. He also refuses to allow Sirius and Lupin to murder Pettigrew even though has every right to do so.

Harry later tells Dumbledore of his concern that he allowed Pettigrew to escape, but Dumbledore reassures him that the decision is the same James would have made and is one of which he should be proud. During his fateful graveyard duel with the Dark Lord, Harry does not attempt to reciprocate the attacks, but only to protect himself and escape. Snape argues that Harry has not “the nerve or the ability”20 to perform an Unforgivable Curse, a debatable point. Bellatrix LeStrange gives the reader some of the most important information about Unforgivable Curses that we have encountered as she taunts Harry in the Ministry of Magic, saying “You need to mean them, Potter! You need to really want to cause pain—to enjoy it—righteous anger won’t hurt me for long.”21 While defeating Voldemort is important to Harry, inflicting pain and serious injury on others is not what typically pleases him. Therefore it may be necessary for Harry’s nemesis to be defeated in another manner.

Dumbledore reminds Voldemort during their battle in the Ministry of Magic that there are worse ways than death to defeat a man. We know that the dementor’s kiss is a horrible way to destroy people, but we cannot be sure that this is the process to which Dumbledore refers. However, it is possible that Slughorn begins to address this question in Half Blood Prince when he tells the young Tom Riddle that “existence in such a form…few would want it, Tom, very few. Death would be preferable…You must understand that the soul is supposed to remain intact and whole. Splitting it is an act of violation, it is against nature...”22 Would Harry’s soul split if he chose to kill Voldemort? Is this a conscious decision or a natural reaction when one murders another? While Voldemort’s death is beneficial to the wizarding and Muggle worlds, it may harm Harry’s own soul.

The Boy Who Lives

The greatest suspense surrounding the much anticipated Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows seems to be whether Harry will live or die. Though Harry is a unique hero, his tale so far has followed the general guideline of the Hero’s Journey, in which the hero typically survives the final battle. According to Campbell, the last step in the hero archetype’s experiences is “to return to us, transfigured, and teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed.”23 A brush with death—though not necessarily death itself—strengthens and adds meaning to our hero’s life. In the end he must survive his ordeal with the dark and powerful arch-villain, so this pattern leads many to believe that Harry will get through Deathly Hallows intact.

Perhaps the most convincing argument for Harry’s survival is also the simplest: “HE HAS TO LIVE, he is the Boy Who Lived isn't he?” From the beginning, our expectation has been that Harry is someone special: someone who has survived under the most incredibly dangerous circumstances. He is not immortal, but his life is protected by the magic of love and he has extraordinary abilities. At the same time we, as readers, discovered along with Harry that he was a wizard, we also discovered that he had an evil nemesis who wanted him dead. From this moment, we began rooting for Harry to stay alive despite Voldemort’s efforts to the contrary; so many readers would feel deflated if Voldemort got his wish in the end and Harry’s life ended. Even if Voldemort is killed in the process, he will succeed in one of his goals if Harry dies as well.

A relationship with Ginny helps Harry’s chances for surviving…a lot. Harry may have found someone who is not an equal, but a powerful witch who understands his motives and decisions. It would only benefit the wizarding world if these two remarkable, intelligent, and good-hearted people at least were given the opportunity to create their own family. Even though Harry’s parents died young, they were able to birth one of the most impressive wizards to be seen in recent years, so it would be a shame if their child were not given the same hope for his future.

In addition, some of the symbolism in the stories can be used to support the theory that Harry will live. As the phoenix is a symbol of both life and death and Fawkes’s feather ties Harry and Voldemort together, it is possible that Harry will live through the ordeal as Voldemort dies, an extension of their yin and yang balance. Like day and night, perhaps Voldemort and Harry must take turns existing to create harmony in the universe. If that is the case, Voldemort has already had his turn; we have seen his darkness reign for years. If Harry survives, light will take its turn in power and harmony will be restored.

Although Harry’s hero characteristics require that he be willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the world, that does not mean that he will be forced to make that decision. Harry symbolizes the best in ourselves and in some ways our ideal. Many readers would feel that Jo was pushing a pessimistic world view if that ideal were killed, even if he were killed for a noble cause. Some would argue that if both Harry and Voldemort die, that would take the “triumph” out of “good triumphs over evil.”

Even Potter fanatics cannot make up their minds on whether Harry will survive the final spar with Voldemort, or even whether everyone wants our hero to live or die. It is apparent that Rowling cannot please everyone because each reader has a unique desire for Harry’s future. Many optimistic readers hope that the epilogue chapter will be Harry’s reflections on the rest of his life as an old man, nearing a natural death. This idea is a strong possibility with some adaptation. However, because Harry follows in the same vein as archetypal heroes, it is just as likely that he will survive the showdown with Voldemort, only to perish in a later combat.

The Next Great Adventure

Death has a prominent place in all epics even though there is not a death requirement written into the plan. Beowulf is able to defeat Grendel, but later dies when attempting to defeat a dragon, much as Dumbledore defeated Grindelwald and then was murdered in his attempts to help Harry defeat Voldemort. Although Arthur is a successful and well-loved king for many years, he knows that Mordred, his son who murders him, will be able to heal the schism in his country. The execution sentence in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is lightened because Gawain confessed his sins and was absolved. Shakespeare’s King Hal of the Henriad did not literally sacrifice himself, but sacrificed his old ways in order to become a more effective king. Odysseus is one of the only true exceptions: we do not see his death in the end, but this is because he and the gods are willing to sacrifice all of his crew in order to ensure his safe return home, a decision that is highly unlikely to appear in a series so filled with love. Even epics that could be considered written entirely for children often feature the death of significant characters, as in The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. Rowling seems to agree with this pattern.

My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry's parents. There is Voldemort's obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price, the goal of anyone with magic. I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We're all frightened of it. 24

A story that has concentrated so much on blood, love, and sacrifice requires a significant one for the protection of the wizarding world. Could this sacrifice be Harry’s own? Many argue that Harry will be killed simply so Rowling isn’t under pressure towrite sequels at a later date. This is highly unlikely, as the only time she has allowed her real concerns about writing the Harry Potter series to enter her narrative has been through the character Rita Skeeter. However, this does not mean that it is impossible that Harry will die—only that it is improbable that Jo will kill off her own literary “son” just because she does not want to write another Harry Potter book.

In each of the installments of Harry’s tale, death plays a larger and more important role. We see death in Rowling’s work, ordered by Voldemort but not performed by him. However, the real violence involved has escalated in significance, if not action, each time we have seen it. Sorcerer’s Stone begins with the vague description of Harry’s parents’ deaths, and he learns about the limitations of magic when he meets Dumbledore by the Mirror of Erised, when he “learns to accept the fact of mortality and his place as the latest link in a chain of succession.”25 No characters die in the reader’s view, but Harry sees a hooded figure bending over a murdered unicorn, which is often a symbol for innocence. Harry stabs the diary with a basilisk fang and therefore kills the shadowy apparition of Tom Riddle in order to save the quickly fading Ginny in the second book. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry sees visions of the Grim surrounding him. Even though these are misinterpreted visions of Sirius, it cannot be ignored that the Grim is an omen of death in many cultures; an omen that appears to haunt Harry. In addition, he hears his mother’s voice and believes he sees his dead father. Goblet of Fire draws to its close as Harry witnesses the murder of Cedric Diggory, a good hearted boy who is another innocent, and a vision of his parents appears so that his mother’s spirit can give him the wisdom to combat Voldemort. These apparitions of his parents are notably absent from the plot after this point; Harry has seen death for the first time and is able to comprehend its importance. He then must experience the painful losses of parent figures Sirius Black and Albus Dumbledore, necessary steps on his hero journey that teach him to have faith in his own abilities as a powerful wizard.

The books also suggest a strong possibility that Harry himself is a Horcrux, in which case he would need to sacrifice himself in order to kill the portion of Voldemort’s soul dwelling within him. We have known since we met Harry that he has uncanny ties to the Dark Lord, and we learn more of the depth of this connection in Chamber of Secrets, when Harry encounters the diary-Horcrux. In addition to speaking Parseltongue, Harry is able to see through Nagini’s eyes, he can sometimes understand Voldemort’s thoughts and emotions in a vague way, and he has been known to see other events surrounding his nemesis, such as the death of Frank Bryce in Goblet of Fire. Could Voldemort—either intentionally or not—have placed a piece of his soul into Harry on the night he killed Harry’s parents? Astute readers will realize that there is too big of a “maybe” left at the end of Half-Blood Prince; Dumbledore’s speculations are generally sound, yet he is only guessing about the Horcruxes. The possibility remains that there is one Horcrux Dumbledore hadn’t counted on—Harry himself.

Time and time again, Rowling tells us directly and through her characters that choice is the primary difference separating Voldemort and Harry. As our hero’s mentor reminds him, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”26 Fawkes’ feather, a portion of a phoenix who himself both symbolizes life and death simultaneously, ties the two together in a yin & yang of time and timelessness, life and death, destiny and free will. If Harry is the antithesis of Voldemort, who chooses to live in a vampiric fashion through murder, it would reasonably follow that Harry’s choice would be to die to save others. Voldemort is terrified of death because “For the selfish, self-centered person, death is the ultimate end.”27 His legacy would not matter to him because he would not be alive to enjoy it. However, because Harry is neither selfish nor self-centered, he would not hold the same view. As Albus Dumbledore teaches him, “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”28

Love is an overwhelming theme in these books and the theme of self-sacrifice bleeds through the pages. What love could be stronger than a sacrificial one that can provide ultimate protection as Lily did for Harry? Sirius agrees as he rants at Peter Pettigrew for revealing the location of James and Lily, “ ‘THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED!’ roared Black. ‘DIED RATHER THAN BETRAY YOUR FRIENDS, AS WE WOULD HAVE DONE FOR YOU!’ ”29 Harry’s tale began with a sacrifice so that he could live, so his own sacrifice would bring the story full-circle.

While most of Jo’s hints, literary and in interview, lean toward Harry’s death that doesn’t necessitate that he will die—she is fond of teasing us with enigmatic hints to throw all but the most careful readers off balance. But would his death mean Harry is unsuccessful? Absolutely not. Harry’s primary concern is that the wizarding world is safe for those he loves. If his own death is the way to accomplish that, Harry is one of the many archetypal heroes who are willing to accept that fate.

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