As she knew it would, J.K. Rowling’s revelation of the title for the final adventure in the Harry Potter series has sparked a raging debate. Theories abound regarding the proper interpretation and methods of divination, including book-by-book comparisons of the subjects of previous titles, research into world mythology, and wild supposition. I have always found that when exploring an author’s work, the specific grammatical structure of the words they choose can be most revealing. Especially when you have the pleasure of deconstructing an author as knowledgeable and deliberate as our own Rowling, examining supposedly trivial minutiae often adds up to a large bonus in understanding.
This essay explores, from a purely grammatical standpoint, the possible interpretations of the title of the seventh and final Harry Potter book: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Rather than proving one potential meaning as eminently correct, exploring each theory exposes facets of the series’ climax and allows for a greater appreciation of the story itself and of Rowling’s ability to layer and dualize meaning. Before diving into theories, each pertinent word must have its specific part of speech and meaning defined. All reproduced definitions are taken from Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged and Dictionary.com.
1. Describes a noun or pronoun. Used, especially before a noun, with a specifying or particularizing effect, as opposed to the indefinite or generalizing force of the indefinite article a or an.1
1. causing death; deathly; fatal
2. like death
3. of, pertaining to, or indicating death, morbid
1. in the manner of death
2. very; utterly2
Third person present singular form of Hallow:
1. to make or set apart as holy; to sanctify
2. to respect or honor greatly; to revere3
(Ex: The Pope hallows blessed artifacts.)
Either way it is defined, “deathly” is obviously a modifier. If interpreted as an adjective, its object will be a noun. If as an adverb, the object will be a verb. When researching the word “hallows,” most dictionary sources only list one definition, that of a transitive verb. This inherently eliminates the adjective definitions of deathly, and the ensuing combined phrase has meanings like “reveres in the manner of death” or “utterly sanctifies as holy.” As a transitive verb, “hallows” requires an object. This means someone or something must accept the verb’s action. The question then becomes who or what is being hallowed / revered / sanctified? This would prompt generations of plot-theories, except for the grammatical fact that “the,” as an article adjective, categorically must refer to a noun. Syllogistically, “hallows” must be that noun, since it is already established that “deathly” is either an adjective or an adverb. Further, it sounds absurd to put the entire title together using these definitions: Harry Potter and the Very Sets Apart as Holy. Here’s where it gets interesting: The initial definitions of each word in the title grammatically lead to a dead-end. Some additional digging yields a few sources giving a nominative definition of “hallows:”
Plural form of Hallow:
1.(archaic) A holy person or saint4
Contextually and etymologically, this definition makes much more sense. All Hallows’ Eve becomes the evening before All Saints Day, or Halloween. Or The-Night-That-Voldemort-Killed-James-And-Lily. It is now possible to default back to the adjective definitions of “deathly” and substitute these meanings: “fatal saints,” “holy persons like death,” etc. This meaning is a plausible one for the title and gives a lot of fodder for plot theorists. These Hallows could be the Four Founders of Hogwarts, shadows of previous Avada Kedavra victims, ghosts, Inferi, Death Eaters, Dementors – anything and anyone else marked as death-like – even those with the threat of death hanging over them. Trivia buffs will note that some previously registered possible titles in the series were Harry Potter and the Hallows of Hogwarts and Harry Potter and the Hogwarts Hallows.5 This seems to make a good case for the founders as a likely interpretation, but other saint-like characters in the novel have passed away and could be included. Sirius, Dumbledore, James, Lily, and any number of worthy defenders of good could also be included. Rowling did not categorically state Harry Potter and the Four Deathly Hallows, and her disinclination to specifically label the saints as belonging to Hogwarts leaves this interpretation necessarily open. Without denying the four founders, this inclusive title acknowledges characters more directly involved in the plot. This literal translation of “hallows” leaves little but the identity of the saintly characters to be decided, and while exhausting available dictionary definitions, does not exhaust Jo’s well-known propensity to utilize a depth of common lore and cultural knowledge to convey her point.
“Hallows” is used colloquially as a term for Halloween night itself. Although lacking an accepted dictionary definition, this leads to some interesting possibilities. “Deadly Halloween” has a nasty ring to it, and could refer to either the actual night that Voldemort became Vapormort, a Halloween-night death in the seventh book, or both. Since Jo usually opens her stories right around Harry’s birthday, it seems unlikely that the ultimate climax would occur within a few short months of the book’s first scenes in July, but it could be a meaningful death without being Voldemort or Harry’s. Since Jo uses the word “deathly” rather than “deadly” itself, she also leaves this open to interpretation. Any occurrences could lead merely close to death rather than straight into fatal consequences or could again refer to Voldemort’s inability to actually die – he merely became barely alive. His current loveless existence can also be construed as close to death; and the power that he knows not, the ability to love, could ultimately leave him without the power to live. Naturally, this word is further surrounded in grey by the misty circumstances enveloping each dramatic Halloween night in the series and deviates from strict grammatical interpretation into plot-mapping guesswork better left to Jo and her editors.
Given Jo’s well-deserved reputation for word-play and intricate verbal content, there is also the third grammatical possibility of using “hallows” as a verbal substantive – a verb functioning as a noun. Typically using a form of the present participle, these grammatical tricksters can also use the present form: “She futilely attempts to climb the tree” vs. “Her attempts to climb the tree were futile.” In exploring this, the most striking possibility is that “hallows” could describe a ceremony in which something or someone is hallowed. Harry Potter and the Fatal Blessing Ceremony has especially dramatic connotations given Fleur and Bill’s upcoming wedding and the possibility of Tonks and Remus’ relationship taking a serious turn. No graduation or commencement ceremonies have been described at the end of students’ final year at Hogwarts and the start-of-term feast hardly seems to qualify as a blessing ceremony, but these also stand as possible fulfillments of this interpretation.
If it is objects rather than people being hallowed, the obvious extrapolation is the mysterious means used to create a Horcrux. Entombing a shred of defiled soul into an object must be the ultimate morbidity short of death itself – and as much speculation surrounds the necessary ritual as the identity of the actual objects. The mention of the act sparks debates centering around Voldemort’s underground years after his murder of Hepzibah Smith and the potential involvement of the evil wizard Grindelwald. If Rowling is in fact using “hallows” as a verbal substantive, I can think of no more deathly ceremony than the creation of a Horcrux.
Revered, death-related relics, the Horcruxes themselves fit each criterion of the title.6 As things, they are necessarily nouns and could fill the appropriate blanks: Harry Potter and the Morbid Objects. In fact, Harry Potter and the Horcruxes was proposed as a title by many fans before Rowling’s announcement. Here, “Deathly” could describe their connection to Voldemort’s murderous soul or even the surely enchanted and protected environs surrounding them. The problem arises in finding grammatical support of Hallows meaning a noun other than “saint.”
If “hallows” is taken to mean the Horcruxes, the only definitional connection is through the archaic reference of the relics found by King Arthur’s knights in their search for the Holy Grail.7 Interestingly, there were four artifacts, termed Holy Grail Hallows, presented to the Knights in their quest – symmetrically, Harry must seek four Hallows before reaching his ultimate goal. At first appearing to be a tenuous connection, the parallels between these legendary artifacts and the objects of Harry’s quest are significant. The Holy Grail Hallows are generally depicted as a sword, a spear or lance, a plate or stone, and the grail itself, although each version of the medieval legend varies. Symmetrically, Rowling has already mentioned Gryffindor’s sword, Slytherin’s Locket, and Hufflepuff’s cup; the remaining object belonging to the founders could easily be analogous to the lance or stone; perhaps a wand or a crystal ball. This still leaves another Horcrux to be identified, as Rowling has left it reasonably certain that Gryffindor’s sword has not been tainted, but this cultural and literal reference to Hallows as sacred objects rather than sacred persons provides strong support for the Horcruxes themselves being the titular subject.
Exploring the title’s individual words, each on their own and then as a contextual whole gives a much deeper understanding of the potential of Harry’s final adventure. Every defined stratum exposes a richer, more layered meaning within the words themselves, and gradually builds into multiple interpretations of the title, each with their own intriguing individual merits. Lending structure to conjecture, the definitional deconstruction allows for further and more satisfying speculation on critical plot-points in the story itself. Whatever interpretations of the title you adopt as your own, it’s certain that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be an engrossing read and rather than finally putting a cap on all our suppositions, will only allow for even deeper delving into J.K. Rowling’s world: imaginatively, philosophically, and grammatically.
1. Dictionary.com, s.v. "the."
2. Webster's New International Dictionary, 3rd. edition, s.v. “deathly.”
3. Ibid., s.v. “hallows.”
4. Wiktionary.org, s.v. "hallows."
5. U.K. Patent Office. registered 24 July 2003 by Seabottom Productions Ltd.
6. For an explanation of Horcruxes, see Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 496–7.
7. University of Idaho, “The Fisher King.”
Dictionary.com. Random House, inc. http://dictionary.reference.com (accessed 28 January 2007).
U.K. Patent Office. http://www.patent.gov.uk/t-find-text?detailsrequested=C&searchtext=Harry+Potter...statusselected=A (accessed 28 February 2007).
University of Idaho. “The Fisher King.” http://www.uidaho.edu/student_orgs/arthurian_legend/grail/fisher/ (accessed 1 February 2007).
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005.
Wiktionary.org. http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki (accessed 28 January 2007).