Love and death are major themes in J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter books. She herself has said in a recent interview in recent interview in The Tatler magazine that “My books are largely about death.” And in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, one of J.K. Rowling’s chosen spokespersons, Professor Dumbledore, impresses upon Harry that his “ability to love” is “[t]he only protection that can possibly work against the lure of power like Voldemort’s.” (HBP23).
At the very beginning of the story we hear that Harry’s parents have died, and in due course both we and Harry learn that they were murdered. The shadow of death hangs over Harry; he learns that he, too, was intended to be a victim, but spared in a way no-one can explain. He narrowly escapes death again at the close of the first two books (The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets), and the third (The Prisoner of Azkaban) is concerned with his pursuit by an escaped murderer. At the end of the fourth book (The Goblet of Fire), a school-friend is killed before his eyes, and he himself barely escapes again. In the fifth book (The Order of the Phoenix) he loses his newly regained godfather, and in the sixth (The Half-Blood Prince) even his great and seemingly indestructible mentor, Dumbledore. Yes, death is a constant visitor to Harry’s world.
Rowling offers a number of reflections on death and its meaning. First and foremost, it is irreversible. “‘No spell can reawaken the dead,’” Dumbledore tells Harry and Sirius after the death of Cedric (GF36). On the other hand, death is not to be feared. When Harry is sad at the thought that, without the Philosopher’s Stone, Nicholas Flamel and his wife must die, Dumbledore assures him that “‘to the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure.’” (PS17) Harry finds it hard to come to terms with the fact that his godfather, Sirius, has gone and will not return. He questions one of the ghosts of Hogwarts, who has remained for five centuries after his beheading, but Nearly Headless Nick tells him, sadly, that the only reason he has remained is because he feared death too much, and failed to go on as he should. Because of this, he is “‘neither here nor there.’” (OP38) The wise know that death is not the end. Although Sirius has passed (quite literally, in the story) “beyond the veil,” Harry has a sense that within the mysterious veiled archway there are people hiding and whispering. His friend Luna Lovegood is sure that she will see her mother again (OP35).
At one point, Harry believes that he has seen his father, but it was not so. After an earlier experience of his parents’ last moments, he tells himself sternly, “‘They’re dead and listening to echoes of them won’t bring them back.’” (PA12) Harry has learnt to distinguish wishful thinking from reality. He probably remembers his first-year lesson from Dumbledore, “‘It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.’” (PS12) Now, however, Dumbledore says, “‘You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself most plainly when you have need of him. . . . You know, Harry, in a way, you did see your father last night. . . . You found him inside yourself.’” (PA22)
In contrast to this hopeful perspective, we have the quest of Tom Riddle (the self-styled Voldemort, the Dark Lord) for immortality. Riddle’s background, fifty years before, was similar to Harry’s—an unloved childhood without parents. But whereas Harry has grown up still capable of love, Riddle has devoted himself to domination of others and, if possible, immunity from death. Through his spokesman, Professor Quirrell, he declares, “‘There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.’” (PS17) He calls his followers “Death Eaters,” although there is no hint that he would share immortality with them. He boasts of having “‘gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality” (GF33), of the steps he has taken to guard himself against mortal death (GF33). We learn that this is because he has discovered how to split his soul in pieces, and conceal each part in a Horcrux. Every tearing of his soul requires him to commit a murder, taking the life of someone else. To preserve his own life he must deal death to others. (HBP23)
There is a telling exchange between Voldemort and Dumbledore in The Order of the Phoenix:
“You do not seek to kill me, Dumbledore?” called Voldemort. . . . “Above such brutality, are you?”
“We both know that there are other ways of destroying a man, Tom,” Dumbledore said calmly . . .. “Merely taking your life would not satisfy me, I admit— “
“There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!” snarled Voldemort.
“You are quite wrong,” said Dumbledore . . . . “Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness.”
What is worse than death is the denial or betrayal of love. This brings us to the second major theme. Harry learns that he escaped death because his parents, and especially his mother, were prepared to die for him. He was always Voldemort’s intended victim. His father, James, was killed trying to give his mother time to escape with her child. His mother, Lily, was even given the chance to stand aside and be spared. She preferred to protect him, and her love at the cost of her life gave Harry the protection that turned the Dark Lord’s curse against himself, robbing him of most of his powers for twelve years (GF33).
Several kinds of human love are depicted in the books—the love of parents for children, of husbands and wives, and of those who will marry one day, the love of friends. Any of these may require the supreme sacrifice. When Peter Pettigrew, the friend yet betrayer of James and Lily Potter, seeks to excuse himself on the grounds that Voldemort would have killed him, Sirius tells him, “‘THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED! . . . DIED RATHER THAN BETRAY YOUR FRIENDS, AS WE WOULD HAVE DONE FOR YOU!’” (PA19) The friendship of Sirius and Lupin and James for Pettigrew would have demanded their self-sacrifice rather than betrayal. That is what love is about.
There are various pairs of “star-crossed lovers” presented to us, and it is the temptations they surmount that proves the reality of their love. Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacour are to be married (despite Bill’s mother’s reservations). When Bill is injured and horribly disfigured fighting the Death Eaters, Molly Weasley thinks Fleur will no longer wish to marry him; but Fleur is not so shallow. Bill has been hurt because he is brave, and, “‘I am good-looking enough for both of us, I theenk.’” (HBP29) Lupin is loved by Nyphadora Tonks despite the fact that he is a werewolf. He has held back from her because of his disability, and because he has not wished to burden someone he feels deserves better. He must learn that love is stronger. Hagrid’s relationship with Madame Maxime looks unpromising, but before Dumbledore’s funeral she throws herself into Hagrid’s arms (HBP30).
We are given insights into the comfortable love of a long-married couple in Arthur and Molly Weasley (in HBP5 she is embarrassed that Harry overhears that she likes her husband to call her “Mollywobbles” in private). But Molly suffers because of her love for her husband and children, fearing for them and in her mind seeing them dead (OP9). Even Petunia Dursley and Narcissa Malfoy love their sons Dudley and Draco, in their own way.
Rowling depicts human love with insight, wit and affection. The growing attraction between Ron and Hermione is one of the principal sub-plots of the series. Neither Harry nor Ron like Hermione much to start with. She is shrill and bossy. But they come to accept her when they have to rescue her—as the author says, “from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other . . ..” (PS10) Hermione’s integrity, loyalty and wisdom will enable them to survive greater trials over the years. For some time, Ron is still somewhat dismissive of her work ethic, but he comes to appreciate it as exams approach. When the Yule Ball approaches in the fourth year, and he needs a partner, the penny drops: “‘Hermione, Neville’s right—you are a girl.” (GF22) He even notices that she has had her teeth straightened (GF23). But she has already been asked, and it is his jealousy of Viktor Krum that makes him aware that Hermione means more to him. She is ahead of him: “‘Next time there’s a ball, ask me before someone else does, and not as a last resort!’” (GF23) There are further (fairly comic) estrangements, until Ron is nearly killed, and hearing her voice at his bedside, where she has stood, “clench-jawed and frightened-looking,” he wakes and croaks her name, “‘Er-my-nee.’” (HBP19)
Harry’s own love-life is more subtly recorded. He is friend to Hermione, but Rowling never gives us grounds to suppose this will ever be more than friendship (TLC pt. 2). His first adolescent attraction is to Cho Chang, his opposite number in the opposing House Quidditch team. “Harry couldn’t help noticing . . . that she was extremely pretty. She smiled at Harry . . . and he felt a slight lurch in the region of his stomach that he didn’t think had anything to do with nerves.” (PA13) Next year he invites her to the Yule Ball, but she is going with the doomed Cedric (GF23). In The Order of the Phoenix he begins to establish a relationship, but it founders because Cho misunderstands his feelings for Hermione, who has sage advice for him.
“It might have been a good idea to mention how ugly you think I am.. . . ”
“But I don’t think you’re ugly,” said Harry, bemused.
“Harry, you’re worse than Ron . . . well, no, you’re not,” she sighed.
In fact, not even Harry at this stage knows who will prove to be his lasting love.
The gradual stages by which the Harry-Ginny relationship unfolds has been well recorded in the Lexicon by Water Witch and Tim Lambarski; and (outstandingly) by Red Monster (“Giving Her the Power,” on The Sugar Quill website). To repeat what they have written would be superfluous. However, the story is not yet over. At the close of The Half-Blood Prince Harry recognises that his love for Ginny and hers for him is not only his strength, but potentially his weakness. If Voldemort discovers how much Ginny means to Harry, he will attempt to paralyse Harry by threatening her. Ginny may not care about the danger to herself, but she sees the point. They resolve to hide their relationship entirely while Harry goes on his (possibly hopeless) quest to defeat Voldemort (HBP30).
This theme will clearly form an important element in the final book. Harry has been saved from the start by love, the love of his mother (also, be it noted, with dark red hair, just like Ginny). Dumbledore has told him several times of the power of love:
“There is a room in the Department of Mysteries that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than the forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there. It is the power held within that room that you possess in such quantities and which Voldemort has not at all. That power took you to save Sirius tonight. That power also saved you from possession by Voldemort, because he could not bear to reside in as body so full of the force he detests. In the end, it mattered not that you could not close your mind. It was your heart that saved you.”
The mysteries studied include Thought, Time (with the Future as an off-shoot), and Death. What is more wonderful and terrible? Many years before, Voldemort had argued with Dumbledore:
“The old argument,” he said softly. “But nothing I have seen in the world has supported your famous pronouncement that love is more powerful than my kind of magic, Dumbledore.”
“Perhaps you have been looking in the wrong places,” suggested Dumbledore.
We return to Dumbledore’s words to Harry at the end of The Philosopher’s Stone:
“If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realise that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign . . . to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection for ever.”
The uncommon skill and power Harry has is the ability to love. “‘Big deal!’” he just manages to avoid saying to Dumbledore (HBP23), who assures him that this is, in fact, a great and remarkable thing, given his history. “Love is strong as death, passion hard as the grave. . . it blazes out like fire.” (Song of Solomon, 8.6) These Biblical words remind me strongly of Rowling’s repeated allusion to the “hard, blazing look” on Ginny’s face, first as she throws herself at him after the Quidditch triumph (HBP24), and then again after Dumbledore’s funeral (HBP30). This is no sentimental love. She meets Harry’s gaze and he knows that they understand each other perfectly, and that when he tells her what he must do she will accept his decision because she would not have expected anything less from him (HBP30).
There can be no doubt, at the end of The Half-Blood Prince, of the love that Harry and Ginny have for one another, growing and deepening towards maturity (even if he is still not quite seventeen, she not quite sixteen) over six years. It is surely this power—along with the love of Ron and Hermione, of Bill and Fleur, of Lupin and Tonks, of Arthur and Molly Weasley, of the departed Lily and James, Sirius, and Dumbledore; even perhaps the inadequate loves of Petunia and Narcissa for their children—that will in the end defeat Voldemort. J.K. Rowling believes in love, and in its capacity for self-sacrifice. There can be no greater love than to risk one’s life for one’s friends. However, those of us who have come to love Harry and his friends hope that they will triumph, through love, without the need for this final sacrifice.
Who owns a story? When an author writes a book, are the words on the page the definitive version of the plot and characters? Does what the author have to say outside the world of the book have the power to add to the meaning of the book itself?
In response to a question from a Jewish fan, J.K. Rowling recently explained on Twitter that the Harry Potter series includes a Jewish wizard, Anthony Goldstein.
Goldstein’s name is recorded in an early notebook in which Rowling listed the original forty students whom she imagined attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Within the series, however, he only appears as a minor character in the fifth and sixth novels.
Within the same Twitter question-and-answer session, Rowling also “revealed” that the school was similarly diverse in its inclusion of gay and lesbian students. She shared an image created by a Canadian LGBTQ organisation that reads, “If Harry Potter taught us anything, it’s that no one should live in a closet.”
Both Jewish and LGBTQ news sites have reported these brief comments by Rowling in positive terms. The Harry Potter series, which totals some 4,000 pages in US editions, did not give millions of readers any clear sense that Hogwarts was home to Jewish or gay and lesbian students. However, Rowling’s declarations on Twitter are not only newsworthy, but a cause for pride.
Similar feelings of celebration were evident when Rowling announced in 2007 that she had “always thought of [beloved headmaster Albus] Dumbledore as gay”. Likewise, very few people had gathered from the books themselves that Dumbledore was homosexual. Although subsequently his penchant for “plum velvet” and high-heeled boots were interpreted as clues to his sexual orientation.
With both of these announcements, some fans have also questioned whether these extra-textual announcements carry any weight. If it was not possible for readers to detect that a character was gay or Jewish then how could they possibly be considered as positive signs of increasing representation and inclusion of minority groups in popular culture?
Admittedly, there is an argument that attempts to depict a character as being of a particular race, sexuality or religion could appear tokenistic. Should Rowling, for example, have made more of Anthony Goldstein’s Jewish identity by mentioning his observance of Hanukkah, or need for kosher meals at banquets in the Hogwart’s Great Hall?
Nevertheless, depicting a character like Dumbledore as having fallen in love with a man as a matter of course could have done much to present gay and lesbian relationships as unremarkable. In an imagined world in which the supernatural is possible and the limitations of reality are few – something for which the books have been criticised by religious extremists – it speaks volumes that a gay relationship cannot be represented to the degree where it is discernable.
To figure out to what degree Rowling’s comments should influence our interpretation of the highest-selling book series in history, we can turn to a standard idea within literary criticism.
In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes challenged the traditional practice of analysing literature by focusing on the motivations and biography of a work’s author. Barthes argues that looking to the author for a text’s explanation not only limits it to a single meaning, but also denies the influence of other texts (intertextuality) and the responses of the reader in producing meaning.
Indeed, Barthes famously suggests that individual readers produce their own, different interpretations of the same texts, dismantling the idea of the author as the creator of a text’s definitive meaning. As Barthes describes the process of removing the author as the explanation of a text, “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”.
Barthes and Michel Foucault, among others, contributed to changes in the study of literature under the umbrella of the poststructuralist movement. Scholars abandoned the search for a work’s “true meaning” – as imparted by the author – to marshalling a variety of critical approaches relating to gender, sexuality, and class, for example, to expose the shifting meanings of a given text.
When we study literature today, we are not interested in answering what we think an author truly “meant”, but what readers understand it to mean. We examine the words within a book, their interaction with other stories in all kinds of media, and their reflection of and influence upon the world in which they have been written.
If we approach Rowling’s Twitter comments armed with Barthes, we can say that what she “always thought” of a particular character, or whether she always imagined gay and lesbian students at Hogwarts are irrelevant to how we interpret the Harry Potter series.
Though the final Potter book was published in 2007, Rowling seems eager to retain an influence on how we understand her books by revealing ostensibly new information about her characters. Whether these character points were announced to readers via Twitter or alluded to within the Potter books, however, the meanings that we as a diverse international community of readers wish to take from them trump Rowling’s intentions as an author.