Politics & Policy

Harry Potter & the Art of Dying Well

Ending with the end.


“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” This passage, without a reference to its scriptural source (I Corinthians 15:26), appears nearly half way through J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, the final book in her hugely popular series. Deathly Hallows marks a satisfying completion of the series, more dramatically captivating and more effectively orchestrated than any book in the series since Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. As both the title and the scriptural reference indicate, the book is preoccupied with death. While addressing our peculiarly modern obsessions, the reflection on death and its possible overcoming is hardly morbid. Ultimately, it is not even tragic; instead, it is a comic affirmation of the triumph of life over death, love over hate, and community over isolation.

These noteworthy themes have, in recent weeks, been smothered by silly debates over whether Harry will, or ought to, live or die. Indeed, the commercial hype over the book’s release has been matched only by the prepositioning of the cultural pundits on the quality and cultural significance of the books. For Harry Potter, it was not always so. Before critical attention and commercial success, there was simply a rapidly growing and deeply appreciative audience for an unknown writer. The astonishing popular surge in attention led to dire warnings from some groups that the books were the work of the devil. That, in turn, generated a reaction against what was seen as a parochial, fundamentalist critique. At this juncture, it was cool among the cultural pundits to be pro-Potter. But that affection wore off, in part because Rowling’s writing style, never to the level of a Tolkien or Lewis, became prolix and in part because pundits want to resist identification with anything that so many of the great unwashed might find palatable. (The most smug example of that tendency can be found in the recent Washington Post piece by “Book World” editor Ron Charles.)

Then there is the almost comical debate over Harry Potter and the reading habits of children and adults. On one side, there is the assertion, based on anecdotal evidence and books sales, that Harry Potter must be improving reading habits. On the other, there is hard, statistical evidence that reading has declined in recent years. But none of this establishes anything, one way or the other, about the Potter series. For that, we would need hard data studying the impact on reading habits of those who purchase and actually read Rowling’s books.

But what about the book?

The early pacing of Deathly Hallows is superb; because the central characters (Ron, Hermione, and Harry) are no longer attending Hogwarts Academy, in the wake of Dumbledore’s death and Voldemort’s takeover of the institution, the plot is freed from having to follow the rhythm of the academic year. Rowling’s formula had been to give us an initial scare in the opening chapters and then slowly to build up to a particular quest and its defining battle. In the middle parts of her books, however, Rowling had developed a bad habit of inordinate expansion and repetition, testing readers’ interest in the daily life of Hogwarts Academy and particularly in the politics of institutional gossip, teen angst, and petty competitions for recognition.

In saving the big battle for the finale, previous plots also delayed until then the deaths of major figures. In Deathly Hallows, there are significant casualties early, middle, and late and important revelations early, middle, and late. Through it all, Harry, much more clearly and forcefully than in the previous books, comes into his own, as he grows in confidence and judgment. What was becoming a bit tiresome in the last few books — the bottomless teen angst and Harry’s internal horrors — here achieves an equilibrium between external challenge and internal preparedness. In short, he becomes an adult and a leader.

Some of the best parts of this book could have been its worst: the reintroduction of characters and themes from previous books. Rowling insists on making this book a kind of comprehensive retelling of the previous six books. That means numerous references to previous plots, to significant places and objects, and to characters. Happily for devotees of the earlier books, the references pay off rather handsomely, as each character becomes increasingly aware that the time is now to take one’s stand on the great conflicts of the day. Thus, the ethical destiny of seemingly insignificant characters such as house-elves and central characters, such as Draco and Snape, about whom we have been suspicious but uncertain, are made clear. (In a welcome moment, a certain Weasley son regains his sense of humor and his sanity.)

Despite great loss, suffering, and sacrifice, Deathly Hallows has comic, not a tragic, ending. A clue that this might happen was inserted into Half-Blood Prince, which ends with general mourning for Dumbledore and with fear over Voldemort’s increased control of the wizard world. But it also ends with plans for a wedding, which is precisely the communal celebration with which many classic comedies conclude. Harry finds the prospect of a wedding, in the midst of so much anger, fear, and sorrow, “incredible and yet wonderful.” That’s the note of joy in the midst of sorrow that the final book, quite fittingly, hits more regularly and more accurately than have any of the previous books.

In the final book, Rowling makes explicit some of the most important philosophical and theological themes from the entire series. There is, for example, the project of controlling nature and overcoming death. As Alan Jacobs noted in his early essay on the Potter series, magic is not so much an attempt to seduce readers to the occult as it is an invitation to reflect on technology and the modern project of rendering humanity masters and possessors of nature — the goal, Descartes famously boasted, of his scientific method. From the very first book, in which the sorcerer’s, er, philosopher’s stone promises immortality and power, Rowling reflects on the dark arts and on the question of whether the pursuit of desirable ends justifies the use of any means whatsoever. In so doing, the books address both a) the uses and abuses of mere technique or technology and b) the ethical theory called utilitarianism, the calculation of means by reference to the “greater good.” If it were not clear from the previous books, it is made palpable here — utilitarianism, which is subject to the self-interest and self-delusions of those who wield power and who thus determine what is the “greater good,” is a source of great evil.

The quixotic project of overcoming mortality through technological power is also a violation of the bodily conditions of human life. Indeed, the modern world is given to extremes on the topic of death and the body, from the resolute refusal to acknowledge or embrace aging and mortality to a nihilistic celebration of the death-wish. What is striking in the final book is the prominence of the theme of reverence for the dead body. In Goblet of Fire, Harry risks his own life to return the murdered body of his friend Cedric to his parents; then, in Half-Blood Prince, after Dumbledore’s death, he wonders, “Had they take Dumbledore’s body yet? Where would it rest?” and announces his plan to visit his parents grave. In Deathly Hallows, much is made of the fact that, instead of using magic, Harry physically digs the grave of one of his fallen fellow warriors. Reverence for, and remembrance of, the dead are hallmarks of virtue and of a well-ordered community.

Our attitude toward death defines in many ways how we live. The medieval theme of memento mori, the virtuous cultivation of the memory of death, acts as a counter to modernity’s vacillation between unhealthy obsession and tragic forgetfulness.

This theme is powerfully coupled with repeated, dramatic illustration of the unnaturalness of the project of overcoming death by any means whatsoever and of the way the practice of evil arts, murderous arts, destroy the practitioner. In the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore informs Harry that Voldemort’s pursuit of immortality has “mutilated” his “soul beyond the realm of what we might call usual evil.” The passage beyond customary evil illustrates repeatedly one of the classical claims about virtue and vice, namely, that vice is its own punishment, that it harms the perpetrator as well as, if not more than, the victim. Having committed heinous acts, Voldemort, early in the series, leads a parasitic life, inhabiting the bodies of others and feeding off the innocent blood of unicorns. There is here an affirmation of the Augustinian thesis that evil is non-being, that its very existence is dependent on the prior existence of goodness. In a telling scene toward the end of Half-Blood Prince, when Draco Malfoy threatens to kill a disarmed Dumbledore, Dumbledore instructs a stunned Malfoy, “it’s my mercy, and not yours, that matters now.”

Readers of the final book are left to puzzle over, not just the mysterious powers of mercy and self-sacrifice, but also explicit references to the New Testament, the one from Corinthians cited above and a passage from Matthew, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Harry encounters these statements on tombstones and knows neither their source nor their precise import. In that respect, Harry is a stand-in for most modern readers. Although he never explicitly formulates it this way, Harry’s great quest in Deathly Hallows leads him toward an understanding of the meaning of these scriptural passages, an understanding not just theoretical but eminently practical.

Beyond her creation of memorable characters and plots that will likely remain part of the cultural vocabulary for years to come, Rowling has crafted — and this is no mean achievement — a mythical universe at whose center stands the cultivation of the virtues of remembering, and preparing for, death.

Thomas S. HibbsThomas S. Hibbs is the dean of the honors college and distinguished professor of philosophy at Baylor University.


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