The second chapter of the Ravenclaw Reader homes in on the theme of death in Harry Potter. The main paper is written by John Dunne: ‘The Death of Death in the Death of the Boy who Lived” According to his Academia page, he’s studying at St Andrew’s for a PhD under Tom Wright’s supervision. Finding this out helped explain to me why he felt a need to refer to Wright’s slogan of “life after life after death” (p.36): whether this is a description of Paul’s viewpoint that the apostle would have recognised is a moot point. The (very brief) response comes from John Granger, an early advocate of Christian readings of Potter.
This essay certainly addresses a major theme in the books, and Dunne helpfully explores many of the key ways in which Rowling depicts death in the books. He is particularly concerned with the second part of his title: “The Morality of Mortality in Harry Potter.” He wishes to tease out whether death is, as the citation of Paul on James and Lily Potter’s headstone has it “the last enemy that shall be destroyed” (1 Cor 15:26 KJV in Rowling’s citation) or whether death is something to be embraced. Dumbledore’s description of Nicholas Flamel seeing it as “the next great adventure” (an echo of Peter Pan’s “to die will be an awfully big adventure”?) in the first book is taken further in the ‘Tale of Three Brothers’ in the last: there the youngest brother “greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly” (Deathly Hallows p.332).
I am not sure that the questions Dunne raises are the ones I see as most natural. Rowling, it seems to me, uses Paul’s quotation mainly because of its embeddedness in the broader Christian story of sacrifice of love in death leading to triumph of life in resurrection and the defeat of evil. I don’t think she’s interested in its specific Pauline location. The snippet of conversation Dunne discusses, I think, also makes this point.
‘”The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” … A horrible thought came to him, and with it a kind of panic. ‘Isn’t that a Death Eater idea? Why is that there?’
‘It doesn’t mean eating death in the the Death Eaters mean it, Harry,’ said Hermione, her voice gentle. ‘It means … you know … living beyond death.” (Deathly Hallows p.268 – the ellipses are Rowling’s pauses not my excisions)
It is those who follow Voldemort who hold that death is to be either inflicted or avoided. It is they who make it an enemy in the books. Harry Potter’s triumph is that he learns to embrace it in self-sacrifice in order to find the path of life and peace, as he sees it, for his friends and his world. He expects to die in the forest, fortified only by his faith in the presence of his own personal communion of saints: Lily, James, Lupin and Sirius. Granger’s response rightly emphasises the sacrificial nature of the death that destroys death (p.47-48). It is in giving up the attempt to master death that death is mastered.
It is both Harry’s embrace of death, and Voldemort’s fear of death, that leave me disagreeing with Dunne’s strongly argued point that Voldemort is a personification of death as enemy to be defeated (pp.30-41). Despite his subtitle, mortality does not have a morality. Mortality is a condition, a constraint, a non-moral fact of life. Morality comes in how we live with this human condition. All Voldemort’s evil is about his refusal to be human, his desire to be special. As Dumbledore comments after reliving his memory with Harry of that day he told Tom Riddle he was a wizard: “Riddle was perfectly ready to believe that he was – to use his word – special.” (Half-Blood Prince, p.258).
Generally, I like the film adaptations. There are some things I think they get wrong, and by far the worst of those in my book, is giving Voldemort a special effects death. Rowling, I think, is very careful in her treatment. The final duel of the wands is the climax of a conversation after the battle has paused, and at the end
Voldemort fell backwards, arms splayed, the slit pupils of the scarlet eyes rolling upwards. Tom Riddle hit the floor with a mundane finality, his body feeble and shrunken, the white hands empty, the snake-like face vacant and unknowing. (Deathly Hallows p.596 my emphasis)
It comes to us all, even those who have gone beyond all normal magic and humanity in trying to avoid it, and instead tried to master death by power, skill and sheer brutality. Voldemort in death is no-one special, just shrunken mundane Tom Riddle, who had fled mundanity all his life, and for whom death was the ultimate symbol of the ordinariness he was fleeing. The morality at the heart of the story is one of embracing a common humanity not resisting it. Our creatureliness is bounded by our mortality, ultimate sacrament of contingency, on the planet, on one another, and on one who created all things.