So I’m just straight up going to tell you that when I went to start my post for these chapters — almost two weeks ago — I panicked. Utterly.
It seemed like such a great idea six months ago to assign myself two of my favorite chapters in the entire series, the chapters that probably mean the most to me personally, and the chapters that cemented my love for this series not just because they represent the beginning of the end of something that I love, but because they hit me in a place I normally hide even from myself. And they hit me there hard.
I also questioned my decision to put these chapters together (a decision I made more than six months ago), but when I remembered that I had done so because both are pretty short, it made sense. Unfortunately for Present Ashley, Past Ashley wasn’t thinking through the emotional implications, and Present Ashley is having to deal with the fallout.
All that is to say: bear with me if I start blathering.
– – –
In many ways, the internet is a wonderful place. But it’s also a very large place. When I went looking for a couple of interviews I’d read or seen with JK Rowling in order to properly write this post, I couldn’t find them. Not even evidence that they ever really existed anywhere except my head. So I guess you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you these things (and as Dumbledore says in the next chapter, just because it’s in my head, why on earth should that mean it’s not real?).
When I first started reading Harry Potter back in 1999, I was drawn to it against my will, and once I was in — sucked into that very special imaginary place only really great books can bring you, where you actually and truly forget that what you’re reading is not real, forget that you’re even reading in the first place — I never really questioned the experience. It was only years later when I was called upon to put into words just exactly WHY I had taken this story so far inside of myself that I’d essentially spliced it into my DNA that I realized I didn’t actually know why it was that this story about an orphaned boy who discovers he’s a wizard was so important to me. I’m the kind of person who takes stories way more seriously than most people to begin with, but my feelings for this story a kindhearted and sassy British woman thousands of miles away pulled out of her mind are seriously beyond the pale. And it’s really a hard thing to express to someone, that kind of love that is so strong it turns the thing being loved into something else, something that can’t really be expressed, but begs you to try anyway.
I thought it about it a lot at great length, actually, and the only thing I kept coming back to is that I wasn’t the only one to have had this strong reaction. That so many other people loved it so much told me that Jo had hit upon something while writing, some subconscious Jungian undercurrent, something so primal it transcended culture. What that ‘something’ was, I had no idea for a very long time.
Until I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that is. Until I read this very chapter.
Of course I can’t speak for everyone on this point. I can only tell you my own personal feelings on the matter, and you’ll have make up your mind for yourself if my thoughts are more universally applicable, but I think I’m right about this. (And of course, there are many, many, many reasons to love these books, a great number of which we’ve covered ad nauseam in this very re-read, but for me all of that is underscored by this one thing that is present from the very first page of the very first book.)
Of course, I’ve since had validation from Jo herself, but since those were the interviews I couldn’t find, I can’t quote them for you here. I can, however, paraphrase from my (increasingly poor) memory. For those of you who watch Game of Thrones or have read the books, you might already have gotten a hint from the title of this post:
For those of you unfamiliar (for shame!), ‘valar morghulis’ is High Valyrian for ‘all men must die.’ Death is a universal constant, which is one of the reasons I’m sort of surprised in hindsight that I didn’t pick up on it sooner. Harry is surrounded from minute one by death. It is his constant companion. His life is shaped by it in many ways. This whole series is permeated with death in a way that no other children’s literature that I’ve read is, so when I read (or saw) that interview with Jo where she stated that she wrote this series mostly to deal with her complicated fears and feelings surrounding death (which she had previously linked in other interviews to the death of her mother), it was just this lightbulb moment for me.
I almost feel silly admitting this publicly, as I’m sure there are many people who reached this conclusion long before I did, but I’m sure I’m not the only person equally fascinated by Rowling’s explorations surrounding and answers to her own fears — that I’m not the only person to be deeply moved and comforted by Harry’s story and where it ends up. Because in the end what Jo did, whether consciously or not, is to create a character who could do what I think most of wish we could do, and that is to embrace the fact that some day we are all going to die. Despite our terrors and our denials and our manufactured mental escapes, we none of us want to be afraid when that day comes. We want to spend out the currency of our lives on something other than waiting for the moment it will end. Quality of life (for house-elves, for muggle-borns) is something Jo dwells on at length (“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”). Who has the better life: the man who accepts death, creates for himself a peaceful and productive life surrounded by friends and family (Harry), or the man who spends his entire time on earth trying to avoid the inevitable, wasting every precious minute on a futile effort (Voldemort), afraid and alone?
Not that Harry isn’t afraid.
“Terror washed over him as he lay on the floor, with that funeral drum pounding inside him. Would it hurt to die? All those times he had thought that it was about to happen and escaped, he had never really thought of the thing itself: his will to live had always been so much stronger than his fear of death. Yet it did not occur to him now to try to escape, to outrun Voldemort. It was over, he knew it, and all was left was the thing itself: dying.”
In fact, narratively it’s imperative that Harry feel this fear, and that we fear it right along with him. This is one of my favorite passages in the books, and I think some of Jo’s finest writing. How aware he is of his body:
Slowly, very slowly, he sat up, and as he did so, he felt more alive, and more aware of his living body than ever before. Why had he not appreciated what a miracle he was, brain and nerve and bounding heart?
Particularly his heart, which “leap[s] against his ribs like a frantic bird”. It beats faster and faster inside of him, like an internal countdown (which: when you think about it, isn’t that what it always is all the time, for all of us?).
He needs to feel that fear and think those thoughts, because he needs to have something to overcome. Harry is no movie hero (ironically), rushing to his death with bravery, not a second thought to be had. Harry is a human being, and he fears death. He feels betrayed by Dumbledore, who in this instant Harry believes kept him safe all this time to fashion him into the weapon that could defeat Voldemort, and more importantly, into someone who would do so regardless of what it cost him, regardless of what lies and half-truths he’d been told his whole life:
“Dumbledore’s betrayal was almost nothing. Of course there had been a bigger plan; Harry had simply been too foolish to see it, he realized that now. He had never questioned his own assumption that Dumbledore wanted him alive. Now he saw that his life span had always been determined by how long it took to eliminate all the Horcruxes. Dumbledore had passed the job of destroying them to him, and obediently he had continued to chip away at the bonds tying not only Voldemort, but himself, to life! How neat, how elegant, not to waste any more lives, but to give the dangerous task to the boy who had already been marked for slaughter, and whose death would not be a calamity, but another blow against Voldemort.” (emphasis mine)
What’s most gutpunching about this realization, is that despite his own feelings about it, Harry realizes Dumbledore was right. He will give up his life to stop Voldemort killing more people, because Harry has been shaped by his life (by his death-filled life) to value certain things more than most people. Harry has never sought riches or recognition. As a child, he only wanted to be loved, to fill the hole left by the parents he never knew. And then the hole after that left by Sirius. Harry has never sought glory or power, having been given a bit of both against his will, and found they didn’t make him happy (in fact took away his happiness and caused strife in his personal relationships). Having not had much of friendship or kindness or love in his formative years, it is those things he values most. It is because of that also that he values other people over himself (what Dumbledore calls ‘selfless’ next chapter), because what good is being alive if you don’t have someone to share it with (something he knows from firsthand experience)? And just before Harry was broken by his circumstances, before his life had a chance to crush him, he was given a lifeline and a home at Hogwarts. He was given friends and family (if only surrogate). He was given love and respect. And so he chose to preserve a world where those things were still possible rather than remain alive at the price of their extinction. And it’s frankly astounding that Jo built him this way, such a perfect vehicle, building a protagonist throughout seven books who was always destined for this moment, to do the thing that she feared most: not only to die, but to come to terms with death (and like the third brother in the tale, able to live a full long life afterwards, greeting death like a friend, or to put it another way, “to the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure”).
And so Harry takes a long walk across the grounds of Hogwarts, through the forest, towards Voldemort. He tells no one he’s going (only stops to tell Neville about the need to kill Nagini). He walks alone to his death, telling no one he is a Horcrux, that he’s giving himself up to save them all. Because it’s what he can do, so he will. And it’s here that he figures out the last of Dumbledore’s riddles. He pulls out the Snitch Dumbledore left him in his will, and whispers to it: “I am about to die.”
Inside is Marvolo Gaunt’s ring, the resurrection stone clearly encased inside of it. Harry turns it three times and his departed loved ones appear beside him. And you will excuse me if I say no more about this after-death Marauders reunion, even though I had planned to, because I am incapable of even thinking about this part without bursting into wracking sobs.
I could probably quote you every fucking line in this chapter and be justified in doing so, but I will only allow myself one more:
“He and Voldemort and Snape, the abandoned boys, had all found home here . . .”
So why did Voldemort and Snape not turn out like Harry, despite their similar childhoods? Shouldn’t they all have valued love and friendship and family above all? I suppose you could always say it was their natural inclinations and their own choices, but I think there’s a narrative answer to be found here as well. Voldemort was born the product of a besotted witch who used a love potion to coerce a man into marrying her, and when that man abandoned her, she quite literally gave up on life and on her newborn son, not caring enough to do more than name him after the father who preferred to pretend he didn’t exist. From his first second of existence, Voldemort was touched by hate and manipulation, and knew nothing of love. On a purely symbolic level, he didn’t have a chance. Similarly, Snape was the product of an abusive household. We know almost nothing about his mother, except that she allowed Snape to be neglected and abused, and his father was the one doing the abusing. He is not a mentally healthy man. His best instincts are buried so deep they might as well not exist at all. And then we have Harry, born from love, left with a literal legacy of protection from that love, and parents who died so that he might live (in Lily’s case, for no other reason). Now tell me which one of those men would value love and friendship over their own life, when given the choice. Voldemort never could. And Snape only could do so after losing the only person he ever cared about. But Harry could. Voldemort Avada Kedavra’s him right out of existence while he stands there willingly.
And it destroys me. Every time. Because I don’t think I could ever do the same.
– – –
So thank you, Jesus, that Harry’s death is so immediately followed by this chapter, which moves us out of the realms of metaphysics into the denouement. And of course, it features the return of Dumbledore, a privilege Harry earns by learning to live without him.
This is what we as the audience have earned after seven books, and after a book filled with upsetting revelation after revelation. Not all of the loose threads are tied up so neatly, but we get enough of them to see the whole picture. While the crumpled remains of Voldemort’s soul mews indecently under a bench, Harry and Dumbledore have their most straightforward heart to heart of the series.
Dumbledore explains the rest of the puzzle to Harry: how he didn’t intend for Harry to die, only to believe he was going to do so in order for Voldemort’s own curse to kill the Horcrux living inside Harry (and as we learn in the following chapter, Harry’s sacrifice for the people fighting in Hogwarts also enacts a protection like the one Lily granted him — curses don’t stick to them). How the protection from Lily transferred over to Voldemort when he took Harry’s blood in Goblet of Fire (explaining that momentary gleam of “something like triumph” in Dumbledore’s eyes that fandom attempted to deconstruct for years), and how that protection yet tethers Harry to life. How Dumbledore left all the clues for Harry, fearing that Harry would succumb to the same temptations he himself did in regards to the Hallows, but suspecting and hoping he wouldn’t. How it was the central struggle of his life, to overcome his own ambition, his destructive desire for power.
And my favorite bit, because I think intent is important, Dumbledore explains to Harry that he was only fit to possess the Elder Wand, the meanest of the Hallows, because he took it only to save others from its powers. He tells Harry:
“You are the true master of death, because the true master does not seek to run away from Death. He accepts that he must die, and understands that there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying.”
And really that’s Jo’s whole thing, that’s her answer, and I think it’s a good one. Be kind. Make a better world.
“Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all those who live without love.”
This might sound weird, but I don’t think Voldemort was the villain because he hated muggles and muggle borns and killed people, or even because he sowed complete chaos in the world and ruined lives and families, preying on the weak and murdering the strong. Voldemort is the villain because he valued and feared precisely the wrong things in life, and he responded to the common fear of death with more fear. Like most bullies (and other people ruled by fear), he had little understanding of life as it is, preferring to shape and contain the world into something he could understand and control rather than learn to deal with his own issues. He is Harry’s perfect foil. And the one thing that could have alleviated his fears — love — is something he never understood or even wanted.
It’s late and I’m finding it hard to end this monstrously long and overdue post with something pithy and witty and profound. So instead I shall just leave this here and let you draw your own conclusions.