Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let
us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.1
“You'll stay with me?”
“Until the very end,” said James.
“They won't be able to see you?” asked Harry.
“We are a part of you,” said Sirius. “Invisible to anyone else.”
Harry looked at his mother.
“Stay close to me,” he said quietly.2
When reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for the first time, several chapters brought me to tears, but none more so than chapter thirty-four, “The Forest Again.” The deep realization that death is his ultimate destination weighs heavy on the mind and heart of Harry, and it consequently weighs heavily on the reader. When interviewed after the book release, J.K. Rowling stated this was the chapter that brought her the most grief as well.3 Subsequent readings, however, brought to mind the above passage from chapter 12 of Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews. Theologically, the idea is that the great people of faith who have gone before us have showed us the way. The truth of their lives will be a guide for us in the decisions that we are to make, and in the actions that we take. In this essay, I will explore the close development of this theological idea and the progression of Harry's walk into the forest to his death.
Earlier in his Epistle to the Hebrews, Paul has listed the names of the great patriarchs and matriarchs of faith, and the deeds that they had done in the name of their faith.4 Paul reaches back to the beginning of recorded people of faith and recalls the deeds of those on whom he leans for direction and for inspiration.5 They are people to whom we the faithful should look for illumination. In the same way, Harry leans on those who appear in the forest. As you may recall, he has pulled himself this far, but his strength has ebbed, and he needs to lean on someone to complete what he has set out to do. From watching Severus Snape's memories in the Pensive, he knows that death is what he has been saved for. He must die for Voldemort to die. He must destroy all of the items that were turned into Horcruxes, housing pieces of Voldemort's soul. And then he must give himself up for death, ensuring that Voldemort will have no more ties to his body, and his soul will leave it completely. He has been given an odd gift by Dumbledore; he instinctively knows what is inside of his broken snitch, and he releases it. As the cold rock hits his hand, he calls them forward, for “he was not really fetching them: They were fetching him.” He hears them approach, and words fail him.6 James, his father, Lupin, his teacher, Sirius, his godfather, and Lily, his mother, arrive to shepherd him the rest of the way on his journey. He will now look to this cloud of witnesses, as Paul looked to his, to give him strength.
As Paul lists those who have gone before, he also makes sure to account that they are not without flaws.7 By his emphasis on these flaws, instead of it detracting from the work that they had performed, their human flaws made their work all the greater.8 In the same way, when Harry finally meets his escorts, he has become acutely aware of their flaws. Watching through his own eyes or the memories of others, he now sees those that he loves much clearer. James, whom Harry has idolized from childhood, was cruel and mean to those he did not like.9 His beloved godfather, Sirius, was hot-headed, ill tempered and set his own death into motion by his ill treatment of his own house elf.10 Lupin, who had always shown and taught restraint and thoughtfulness as a teacher, was willing to leave his pregnant wife to take off on an adventure with Harry only months before.11 And Lily, while acclaimed as kind and gentle, closed her heart to someone who loved her, even if Snape gave her every reason to.12 Harry now saw them, not through the eyes of a child, but through those of an adult, and yet he loved them and greeted them with great relief. Paul's cloud of witnesses was powerful and important to his ministry because of their faith; Harry's cloud of witnesses was powerful to his journey because of their sacrifice.
Paul states that “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.” 13 In Paul's understanding, while we can look back and admire their actions, it is the fact that we look to them, take lesson from them, emulate them, that is the greatest reward. By looking to his cloud of witnesses, and struggling to be like them, just as he says we must do in our own lives, God has presented to these witnesses a legacy and privilege which is God's alone to give. In much the same way, Harry realizes that by the sacrifice of his loved ones, he believes that what he is called to do will have the same effect. This supreme sacrifice is the faithful conclusion for Harry of all that he has learned from those now surrounding him. Faith in God enabled Paul's forebears to do wonderful, miraculous and spirit-filled things - things which Paul himself was trying to do. Faith in the power of good over evil as demonstrated by James, Lily, Sirius and Lupin is what compels Harry to this battle with Voldemort. Harry has learned. Harry has grown. Harry has taken his lessons to heart and come away a changed man. This too is what Paul is compelling each of us to do in his letter.
So, from these two documents, what am I to take away? I do not own an invisibility cloak or resurrection stone. I am unlikely to be imprisoned for my faith.14 If I am fortunate, I will not be called on to die for what I believe, like both Paul and Harry were. So why did this chapter, this idea, affect me so deeply? The idea of the cloud of witnesses has long been of great comfort to me. That those that I have loved and who have died, as well as those who I have never known, but still hold in great esteem, are always with me. When I am faced with challenges or fears, I can look to them for strength and guidance. To find a modern version of this idea, in a beloved novel, was delightful to me. Both of these men remind me that all that I need to complete great things are the skills that I already carry within me. Every lesson that I (indeed we) need, every tool that we are to carry into the arena of life, is one that we have within ourselves, and has been given to us by someone who has gone before. Paul urges his readers to “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” 15 Paul was speaking of Christ, but had the words been spoken to Harry, he could have been thinking about all of the dead who had gone before him, not just those who surrounded him now. The line stretches from his father through those standing with him, to Dumbledore and Moody and Dobby, right through to the untimely death of Fred and Tonks, to the surprising and sacrificial death of Severus Snape. Death is not the end, but is instead a conduit for love that makes this sacrificial act tolerable. Harry knows that while the earthly existence of his loved ones was done, they live on in him, and he is completing the mission, the ministry of their lives, by doing this one last act. For Paul, nothing that would be required of him would be so great as what he knew had been done by those who went before.
Harry uses his cloud of witness for strength and comfort. The dead rise to aid Harry in what seems to be his final steps. When their job is done, their physical manifestations again evaporate,16 but the memory of them stays with Harry. And it is fair to assume that by his actions in the forest and later in the castle, Harry too becomes part of a cloud of witnesses for future generations of witches and wizards.
1. Heb. 12:1–2 (NRSV).
2. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 700.
3. Rowling, “Interview with Meredith Viera,” Part 1.
4. Heb. 11.
6. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 698–99.
7. Heb. 11.
8. Heb. 12:12–13.
9. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 674.
10. Ibid., 198.
11. Ibid., 212.
12. Ibid., 675–76.
13. Heb. 11:39–40 (NRSV).
14. Acts 27.
15. Heb. 12:3 (NRSV).
16. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 703.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007.
———. “Interview with Meredith Vieira,” Part 1. Today Show (NBC), 26 July 2007. http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2007/0726-today-vieira1.html.