Fans have been theorising about it for years. And over the past few months as we now approach the final lap of this Harry Potter marathon, the media is becoming obsessed with this question as well. “Will Harry Potter survive?” It is a touchy subject for many fans, with both sides of the argument most passionately debated. And whilst this writer certainly holds her own opinion, if we are to attempt to uncover the likely outcome of the saga, it seems that there is a need to further investigate this theme of death that no doubt is crucial to the series and what it could mean for the fate of the series’ main characters.
The place where this recent media frenzy seems to have started was J.K. Rowling’s appearance on the U.K. television talk show Richard and Judy. Not only did she create immense speculation over the fate of many characters, she also talked about death more generally, agreeing that it was a major theme within the books.1
But what implications come with having death as a theme of the books? Certainly we have already seen the effects of death at work. The death of a main character has been the central turning point of the climax of the last three novels. Even prior to this, Harry had felt the effects of loss, through the death of his parents. We can observe right from the very beginning of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone the effect that having lost his parents is going to have on his life: living a meagre and difficult life growing up with the Dursleys. However, throughout the books Harry’s parents continue to maintain a presence in his life. Their presence is felt not only through what Harry learns about them from other characters, but from other magical encounters, such as the echoes that appear in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire during Harry’s battle with Voldemort or the image of his parents that Harry sees in the Mirror of Erised in the very first book. Yet these encounters are only fleeting. In regards to the echoes of Harry’s parents in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore himself says: “No spell can reawaken the dead.” 2 As Dumbledore’s knowledge of magic seems unparalleled in the wizarding world, I would say that it is fairly safe to take this statement as fact.
Yet through the years, Lily and James maintain a presence within the stories. Harry often has a strong motivation to live up to his parents, making them proud of him, despite their absence. We can see this in seemingly light-hearted instances, such as Harry’s determination to take after his father in his skills as a Quidditch player. We can also see Harry’s connection to his parents in a more significant way, such as in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry stops Lupin and Black from killing Pettigrew because he feels that was what his father would have wanted. Another significant feature in this book is Harry’s Patronus, which takes the shape of a stag, James’s Animagus form. This shows that even though Harry never really knew his father, the idea of him is what gives Harry his protection from the Dementors. This seems to show that whilst Harry’s parents are gone, they are certainly not forgotten. Though no spell can reawaken the dead, is it possible that the presence they have is due to their living on, not only in the memories of the living, but in another life? As readers we have come to learn so much about them, and are so frequently reminded of them, that it would seem unfair not to properly meet them and have Harry communicate with them. Could Harry’s world have an afterlife where we could finally meet these characters?
Basic Christian teachings acknowledge a belief in life after death. Whilst the body dies and decays, the soul, which at death is separated from the body, is transcended to another place, which many refer to as Heaven. If we link this back to Harry Potter we can see that at least one of these ideas already exists in the books: the concept of a separate body and soul. This is most evident when talking about Horcruxes.
The very concept of the Horcrux is to remove part of your soul and place it into another separate entity, so that even if your body were to die, you would still continue to live on earth, unharmed in some form. This very act would suggest that it is entirely possible for the body and soul to be separated. And since any of his Horcruxes would ensure Voldemort’s survival, it means that we can make the assumption that, in the series, the body is regarded as a vessel for the soul which contains the true essence of a person.
If we accept these facts, then a new question needs to be asked of the Harry Potter world. What happens to your soul when the body dies? The Judeo-Christian concept would argue that when your body dies your soul leaves this vessel, and transcends to the afterlife. The same idea could be true in the Harry Potter series, as evidence suggests. Perhaps the best evidence lies at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince during Dumbledore’s funeral. As Dumbledore’s body is burnt, out of the flames rises the shape of a phoenix. Some readers took this as a clue and speculated that Dumbledore was not in fact dead and would rise again, out of the ashes like a phoenix. However, in light of J.K. Rowling’s comments at the Radio City Music Hall reading in August, 2006, where she stated that Dumbledore was in fact dead and was not going to “pull a Gandalf,” 3 it seems that another explanation would be required. As it is unlikely that we are going to see Dumbledore alive again in this world, could it be that the phoenix rising up was a visual representation of his soul leaving his body, rising up to a new life? Like a phoenix, he is resurrected not to earth, but into an afterlife.
The idea of life after death is also hinted at with the mysterious veil that we first see at the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Many people have speculated that this could be the passageway between this life and the next, and that the whispers that can be heard behind it are the voices of the departed. The veil also continuingly flutters as if people are passing through it, suggesting even more that this is indeed a passageway to the next life through which the dead will pass. We see Sirius fall through this veil at the end of the book and it is instantly declared that he is gone. There is no attempt to get him back, no spell to reverse what has happened. As no spell can awaken the dead, this finality of Sirius’s departure through the veil seems to fortify our speculation of it being a portal to the next life.
After Sirius’s death in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a grief-stricken Harry discusses death with both Nearly Headless Nick and Luna Lovegood. Whilst Nick claims to “know nothing of the secrets of death,” 4 Luna remains confident that they will see their loved ones again. She claims that the dead are, “just lurking out of sight.” 5 Here, Luna is solidly showing her belief in life after death. And although Luna often believes many strange, unimaginable things, this time Harry feels that she may be right. Just as they could both see the Thestrals, they could both hear the voices behind the veil. These two events may be connected. Because both Luna and Harry have had more experience with death, maybe they are more susceptible to these voices, and to the afterlife.
The Harry Potter books have always been met with controversy from more fundamental Christian groups who say that the books promote the occult. Many fans will often respond to this by pointing out the moral lessons learnt by our hero, including the reoccurring lesson of putting others before one’s self. J.K. Rowling has thus far refused to comment on these connections between her books and Christianity. An interview with her in 1999 claims that she will not talk about any links between Christianity and Harry Potter until all the books have been released.6 Furthermore, in another interview when asked if she was a Christian, her tantalising response is:
Yes, I am, which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God. Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that, I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what's coming in the books.7
This statement implies that should J.K. Rowling talk in depth about her faith, it would reveal an important clue concerning the ending of the series. Her comments seem to imply that some basic Christian theology lies at the heart of the Harry Potter novels. Whilst this could be a great number of different things, I can’t help but think it likely it will involve the Christian ideals about life after death, as death is such a major theme in these books. It would also make perfect sense as to why J.K. Rowling would be unable to talk about such things until the very ending of the series, as our discovery of which characters live or die and what then becomes of them won’t happen until the very last chapters of the last book.
However, if we are to accept the concept of an afterlife in the Harry Potter world, a problem quickly emerges. Christian teachings show different levels of an afterlife. In particular, traditional Catholic teaching will say that the good and just will go to heaven, the condemned will go to hell, and those in need of forgiveness and redemption will go to purgatory until their souls become fit to enter the realm of heaven. At the centre of this is God, who ultimately passes judgment on where our souls should go after our death. The Harry Potter novels don’t show any evidence of a God or any mention of a formulated religion. So although it is possible to accept the idea of a life after death, it becomes difficult to divide this concept into a heaven and hell, without a mention of an omnipotent judgment figure that will decide which souls belong where. Perhaps there is no heaven and hell, as we would expect it, but instead an afterlife that is different and fitting for each beholder. For example, should Harry encounter it – a character who is moral, loyal and pure of soul – he would be quite at ease, perhaps reunited with lost family and friends (which I will explore in more depth later on). On the other hand, should someone like Bellatrix Lestrange – an evil and ruthless person – encounter an afterlife, she would pay for these offences by continuing to struggle with them in the next life, perhaps encountering the victims of her past offences. At this point, though, we enter the realm of speculation as although evidence for an afterlife can be found in the world of Harry Potter, there is nothing to suggest what this afterlife might be like.
If what I have theorised so far is correct, I want to discuss its implications in two ways: first of all, what this concept of an afterlife means for Voldemort and his mortality and secondly, what it means for Harry.
Voldemort’s greatest fear is death, and he has gone to many extremes and desperate measures to try to secure his own immortality. We know that he has done this by splitting his soul numerous times, creating Horcruxes that mean that even if his own body were destroyed, he would survive through the means of the bits of soul in another Horcrux. The only way to kill him would be to destroy every Horcrux; meaning every disembodied part of his soul, and then finally the body and remaining soul of Voldemort himself. By doing this, Harry is essentially completely destroying Voldemort. There is no way that he could live on in this world or the next, because both the body and soul parts of him are destroyed. Unlike Dumbledore, whose intact soul escaped its body after death and therefore is able to live on in an afterlife, Voldemort has already split his soul and put it into various objects making it vulnerable. So by the time each Horcrux has been destroyed, there may be so little of his soul left in his body that once the body is dead, Voldemort himself is not just dead, but destroyed; no body, no soul, no part of him able to survive. He is just gone, which of course is his greatest fear. Had he not been so keen to avoid death by creating his Horcruxes, he may have been able to live on in another life, or at least his soul would have been present on earth in the form of a ghost (someone who is afraid of death, and therefore chooses to remain behind).
I have already discussed the problems in deciphering heaven and hell in the Harry Potter world. However, for Voldemort to be completely destroyed would be his own personal hell. He has gone to so many extraordinary lengths to ensure his survival that to be completely vanquished would, for him, be a fate much worse than a metaphysical hell. Voldemort is a person who seems to need to be in control of himself and his own destiny. The visits to his past in the Pensieve in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince demonstrated his ability to manipulate people and to always be in command of each situation in which he finds himself. Incidentally, this may be why he found Dumbledore such a fearsome and infuriating opponent, as Dumbledore was not someone capable of being controlled or backing down to any sort of pressure and who considered death “the next great adventure.” 8 Voldemort would fear death because it is an uncontrollable force. He would have no power over what would happen to him when he died, where his soul would go, or what it would endure. It was probably the fear of this unknown force that fuelled Voldemort’s fear, and led him to create his Horcruxes. Having a Horcrux ensures that even his soul, the one element of himself whose fate he can’t control, becomes controllable. For Voldemort, it is so vital that he remains in control of his soul and that it remains on this earth, that it has more value in an inanimate, controllable object, like a locket, rather than inside his own perishable body. Whether Voldemort actually believes in some form of life after death is debatable, but his obsession with keeping himself alive seems to be not only a fear of the finality of death but fear of losing control of his own fate.
The second idea I want to discuss is how the concept of an afterlife may affect Harry’s journey. Many fans will shudder at the idea of Harry not surviving the series. However, I would argue that they are approaching death in the wrong way. Dumbledore himself says that one of Voldemort’s biggest weaknesses was his failure to understand that there are things much worse than death.9 Indeed this seems to be true, yet as I have argued, creating his Horcruxes actually leaves Voldemort far more susceptible to complete destruction. Yet Harry, whose soul is pure and whole, need not fear death. In fact, I would go as far to say that by dying he may in fact bring the story full circle and give it a happy ending.
If Harry were to die and pass through the veil into the next life, he would most likely be reunited with many people he has lost, Dumbledore and Sirius obviously, but most importantly his parents. As I have said at the beginning of this essay, his parents have maintained this presence throughout the series. In the very first book, when Harry looks into the Mirror of Erised he sees his parents standing next to him and his family that he never knew standing all around him. As we of course know, the mirror shows the deepest and most desperate desires of a person’s heart. And although later in that book, the image in the mirror changes for Harry, the idea of being with his parents seems to continue to be Harry’s greatest wish. Could there be a happier ending, then, than for our hero to finally get this wish? For the eleven year-old boy standing in front of that mirror is finally able to get what he truly desires, which is the eternal happiness of being surrounded by his family and loved ones. We can also relate this to the prophecy at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which states that “Either must die at the hand of the other, for neither can live whilst the other survives.” 10 This can still hold true if Harry were to die, because whilst Voldemort would be completely destroyed, body and soul, Harry would in fact live on in the next life.
This is not to say that Harry should go so far as to wish for death, or take his final confrontation with Voldemort any less seriously because he would not be afraid to die. Most people fear death in some way, and I don’t think Harry is any different. He is only seventeen, and still has a lot to live for. He feels a certain amount of regret at not being able to live a normal life. Being “The Chosen One” heaps a lot of responsibility on his shoulders and it would certainly be nice for readers to see him come through his battle with Voldemort, alive and able to live a normal and happy life. Although Dumbledore has remarked that there are things much worse than death, he has done his utmost to keep Harry alive, by watching over him and protecting him. Whilst Dumbledore acknowledges that there are things worse, he still doesn’t mistake the seriousness of death, and its finality. Perhaps he has witnessed the suffering that Harry has endured, and is determined to see that Harry enjoys some of his life in a normal manner before his life on this earth meets its end. After all, as satisfying as the afterlife may be, it isn’t the same as living a happy life.
Yet Harry still has a journey to make before the climax of book seven, both physically and personally. Although we have seen him grow up a lot over the course of the series he still has a long way to go toward accepting the mission he has and carrying it out. If Dumbledore was right about love being the tool that the Dark Lord knows not, Harry really needs to learn what this means and learn how love can save him and all he cares about. And if this means sacrificing himself in order to save those he loves, then this is what he must do. Should Harry need to make a choice to live or to die to save others, the Harry we know would make the choice to die, as his parents made that choice to save him. I believe he will continue to do what is right until the very end no matter what the cost. However, as I have previously said, should such a decision need to be made, Harry would still be rewarded for it, by not only saving others, but transcending to a new life where he would very possibly be reunited with his loved ones, who have made a similar sacrifice. Whilst learning about love, he also needs to understand a lot more about what death means. Particularly when Sirius dies, we see his mix of emotions, of anger, devastation, and regret. The only person able to comfort him is Luna with her life after death philosophy. He needs to understand these concepts of love and death, two things which Voldemort rejects, before he can face him in a final confrontation.
Should Harry survive the war, his life would never be peaceful. Being initially “The Boy Who Lived” and then “The Chosen One,” he would next become known as the one who destroyed Voldemort. His life would continue to be wrought with unwanted attention and would never be “normal” by most people’s standards. He would also still be haunted by the memories of those lives lost during the war and of his parents. To make this story come full circle, and to truly achieve his peace of mind, Harry would need to be reunited with these people in death.
At the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Harry regrets his missed opportunities to ask Dumbledore questions. Although they may seem trivial now he has gone, Harry begins to wonder where Dumbledore learnt to speak Mermish, and laments that he will never get a chance to find out. A million questions like this, things that should have been done or said, will continue to haunt Harry throughout his life. Although people deal with loss every day and can still lead happy and normal lives, as a character, and for us as readers of the books, we need to see these things resolved. We need to see Harry able to talk to those whom he has lost, to tell them all the things he has been longing to say. Especially in Sirius’s case, whose death was so sudden and final, there is a need for us as readers to see this relationship resolved; for Harry’s guilt and feelings of responsibility in Sirius’s death to be eliminated. Whether this should mean Harry should die at aged seventeen or seventy remains open for debate. Maybe he should be given the opportunity to enjoy life before meeting his end. However, from a reader’s point of view, I can’t see how all the issues within the books can be happily resolved without Harry eventually being reunited with those that he has lost in the next life.
The theories discussed in the essay depend upon this idea of there being life after death, and thus enabling us to once again see those that have died. Although there seems to be a lot of evidence for this in the books as I have pointed out, there is no substantial proof. In which case we would need to consider other ways for Harry to resolve the problems he faces in losing the people that he loves. If death is in fact final, in all respects, Harry needs to find a way to deal with his loss and unanswered questions, in order to live a happy and fulfilled life. Yet whether or not there is an afterlife, Harry needs to continue to consider what is right, and act in a loving and self-sacrificing way. He needs to continue to care for those still on earth, whilst attempting to make those he has lost proud of him. By behaving in this moral way, he will take the first steps of his journey to true peace of mind.
1. Rowling, Interview on Richard and Judy.
2. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 605.
3. Ibid., “Evening,” paragraph 39.
4. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 759.
5. Ibid., 760-61.
6. Tucker, “No End in sight,” paragraph 14.
7. Wyman, "Author has frank words,” paragraph 21.
8. Rowling, Philosopher’s Stone, 215.
9. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 718.
10. Ibid., 741.
Rowling, J.K. "An Evening with Harry, Carrie and Garp." Radio City Music Hall, August 2, 2006. Transcript, AccioQuote!. Member of the Floo Network. http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2006/0801-radiocityreading2.html.
———. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.
———. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.
———. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.
———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.
———. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury, 2005.
———. Interview with Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, Richard and Judy, Channel 4 (UK), June 26, 2006. Transcript, AccioQuote!. Member of the Floo Network. http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2006/0626-ch4-richardandjudy.html.
Tucker, Ernest. “No End in sight for Pottermania.” Chicago Sun-Times, October 22, 1999, 6.
Vardy, Peter. The Puzzle of God. London: Fount, 1999.
Ward, Keith. “Eternal Life.” In Christianity: A Short Introduction. London: Oneworld Publications, 2000.
Wyman, Max. “You can lead a fool to a book but you can’t make them think: Author has frank words for the religious right.” The Vancouver Sun (British Columbia), October 26, 2000.
The Harry Potter Lexicon. Member of the Floo Network. http://www.hp-lexicon.org/.
The Leaky Cauldron. Member of the Floo Network. /.