One of the great mysteries in OotP is what exactly happened to Sirius in the Death Chamber in the DoM. I’ve had many owls about this and also read a whole bunch of different theories on the subject. Today, I’ll try to sort things out a bit.
Let’s start with the text (as always). The Death Chamber (Dumbledore gives us its name on p. 721) is described as follows:
OotP, p. 682:
“This room was larger than the rest, dimly lit and rectangular, and the centre of it was sunken, forming a great stone pit some twenty feet deep. They were standing on the topmost tier of what seemed to be stone benches running all around the room and descending in steep steps like an amphitheatre, or the courtroom in which Harry had been tried by the Wizengamot. Instead of a chained chair, however, there was a raised stone dais in the centre of the pit, on which stood a stone archway that looked so ancient, cracked and crumbling that Harry was amazed the thing was still standing. Unsupported by any surrounding wall, the archway was hung with a tattered black curtain or veil which, despite the complete stillness of the cold surrounding air, was fluttering very slightly as though it had just been touched.
“Who’s there?” said Harry, jumping down on to a bench below. There was no answering voice, but the veil continued to flutter and sway.
“Careful!” whispered Hermione.
Harry scrambled down the benches one by one until he reached the stone bottom of the sunken pit. His footsteps echoed loudly as he walked slowly towards the dais. The pointed archway looked much taller from where he now stood than it had when he’d been looking down on it from above. Still, the veil swayed gently, as though somebody had just passed through it.
“Sirius?” Harry spoke again, but more quietly now that he was nearer.
He had the strangest feeling that there was somebody standing right behind the veil on the other side of the archway. Gripping his wand very tightly, he edged around the dais, but there was nobody there; all that could be seen was the other side of the tattered black veil. “Let’s go,” called Hermione from halfway up the stone steps. “This isn’t right, Harry, come on, let’s go.”
She sounded scared, much more scared than she had in the room where the brains swam, yet Harry thought the archway had a kind of beauty about it, old though it was. The gently rippling veil intrigued him; he felt a very strong inclination to climb up on the dais and walk through it.
“Harry, let’s go, OK?” said Hermione more forcefully.
“OK,” he said, but did not move. He had just heard something. There were faint whispering, murmuring noises coming from the other side of the veil.
“What are you saying?” he said, very loudly, so that his words echoed all around the stone benches.
“Nobody’s talking, Harry!” said Hermione, now moving over to him.
“Someone’s whispering behind there,” he said, moving out of her reach and continuing to frown at the veil. “Is that you, Ron?”
“I’m here, mate,” said Ron, appearing around the side of the archway.
“Can’t anyone else hear it?” Harry demanded, for the whispering and murmuring was becoming louder; without really meaning to put it there, he found his foot was on the dais.
“I can hear them too,” breathed Luna, joining them around the side of the archway and gazing at the swaying veil. “There are people in there!”
“What do you mean, “in there“?” demanded Hermione, jumping down from the bottom step and sounding much angrier than the occasion warranted, “there isn’t any “in there“, it’s just an archway, there’s no room for anybody to be in there. Harry, stop it, come away–”
She grabbed his arm and pulled, but he resisted.
“Harry, we’re supposed to be here for Sirius!” she said in a high-pitched, strained voice.
“Sirius,” Harry repeated, still gazing, mesmerized, at the continuously swaying veil. “Yeah…”
Something finally slid back into place in his brain; Sirius, captured, bound and tortured, and he was staring at this archway…
He took several paces back from the dais and wrenched his eyes from the veil.
“Let’s go,” he said.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to — well, come on, then!” said Hermione, and she led the way back around the dais. On the other side, Ginny and Neville were staring, apparently entranced, at the veil too. Without speaking, Hermione took hold of Ginny’s arm, Ron grabbed Neville’s, and they marched them firmly back to the lowest stone bench and clambered all the way back up to the door.
“What d’you reckon that arch was?” Harry asked Hermione as they regained the dark circular room.
“I don’t know, but whatever it was, it was dangerous,” she said firmly, again inscribing a fiery cross on the door.”
As we see in OotP, there’s one room in the DoM for every mystery. There’s the room of Time, the room of Prophecy, the brain-room (Intelligence?), the planet-room (the Universe?), the ever-locked one (Love?) and the one we have here: the Death Room.
The room is compared to an amphitheatre and the courtroom of the Wizengamot. This indicates that this is not only a place for study, but a place for “show” as well. I’ve heard the theory that the Death Room might be used to carry out the death penalty in the wizarding world. Definitely a possibility. Although, the wizard version of the death penalty seems to be the Dementor’s Kiss, which is described as “worse than death.” Why would you then have a regular death penalty, I wonder? Note the heavy references to ancient Greece and its theatres. This could be alluding to the Greek tragedies, the fatality of life, etc. I haven’t found any Greek legends about either an archway or a veil. If you have, please send them to me; I’d be greatly interested.
I don’t think it’s that great a mystery what the veil and the archway represent. They represent death. When you pass through the veil you die. I base this on the following arguments: 1) it’s called the “Death Chamber;” they probably would call it something else if Death wasn’t the subject of study in there; 2) Sirius dies when he falls through it (I’ll get back to that); and 3) Harry feels very attracted to this archway.
This attraction that the veil represents is what I find most intriguing. Harry finds it beautiful, feels “a strong inclination” to walk through it and is “mesmerized” by it. Ginny and Neville are “entranced” and Harry and Luna can hear voices behind it. Hermione is scared of it but can’t hear the voices and neither can Ron. This repartition is very interesting. Note that we have almost the same one with the Thestrals: Harry, Neville and Luna can see them, Ginny, Ron and Hermione can’t (p. 672). Harry, Neville and Luna have a connection to Death, having witnessed it themselves. Ginny does too, for though she hasn’t technically seen Death, she has been very close to dying herself (CoS). Ron and Hermione on the other hand, don’t have that connection. Hermione feels fear of the unknown in the Death Chamber, nothing else.
Harry is the one who seems most affected by the veil, which is totally logical. Harry’s parents are dead, he watched Cedric die, and he’s been very close to snuffing it himself on several occasions. He’s been very close to Death, but he doesn’t know it. He’s mystified by it and drawn to it, as we can see for example in PoA where he has big problems producing a Patronus because he yearns to hear his parents’ last moments. He knows quite a few ghosts, and he’s seen the shadows of his parents come out of Voldemort’s wand. Death is a very “living” thing to Harry Potter; it’s something that exists very close to his own existence. I think the voices represent exactly this: the closeness between the living world and that of the dead. Luna’s very open on this matter, which could be why she too can hear the voices. (We don’t know if Neville or Ginny can hear them; it would have been interesting to find out.) Also, let’s not forget what Dumbledore said in PoA, that the ones we love never truly leave us, even in death. This is very true for Harry. His mother lives on in him in the protection she gave him, his father in the form his Patronus takes. Sirius will, too, in some way.
So, what actually happened to Sirius? I’ve read articles arguing that he actually didn’t die, that someone else took Polyjuice Potion and pretended to be him, etc. I must say that I disagree. This is what the text says:
OotP p. 710-711:
“It seemed to take Sirius an age to fall: his body curved in a graceful arc as he sank backwards through the ragged veil hanging from the arch. Harry saw the look of mingled fear and surprise on his godfather’s wasted, once handsome face as he fell through the ancient doorway and disappeared behind the veil, which fluttered for a moment as though in high wind, then fell back into place.”
This is how I interpret it: Sirius was hit by Bellatrix’s spell (probably a stunner or an impedimenta jinx as it was red) and fell. The spell didn’t kill him; the veil did. He fell through the archway, marking the border between the living world and that of the dead, and consequently went over to the other side. He died.
Okay, let’s answer to some arguments saying that Sirius didn’t die.
1) What if someone went back to when Sirius was still at 12 Grimmauld Place and took a Polyjuice Potion to transform into him, then that person went to the Department of Mysteries, knowing their fate was on the other side of The Veil, but Sirius would have never even been in the Department of Mysteries. It is highly possible, except, who would do that?
Exactly, who would do that? In order to use a time-turner in this way, the person going back in time would have to be one who was present in the fight (or he/she wouldn’t know about it). But if that person was present in the fight, he/she can’t at the same time have been there as Sirius Black. Thus, for this to work, this person would have had to go back in time, taken on Sirius’ appearance, got somebody else (who wasn’t in the fight but who was in the Order) to take on his/her own appearance, etc. But then this person would die in the fight and be unable to go back in time, and so on. Who, indeed, would do this? Also, let’s not forget that it takes ONE MONTH to prepare the Polyjuice Potion (CoS). It’s not something you just whisk together in five minutes. I’d say that this theory is very far from “highly possible”…
2) Harry needs to think that Sirius is dead in order to protect him from Voldemort as Voldemort knows how much Harry loves Sirius and could try to get to Harry through him.
This is about as probable as the theory saying that Lupin is, in fact, James Potter on Polyjuice Potion. (I’ll do that one next week.) Not at all probable, that is. One reason is that it would be extremely cruel to Harry to pretend that Sirius is dead if he wasn’t; another that Lupin reacts too fast when he tries to keep Harry from following Sirius. If the veil was simply a doorway and didn’t kill you, why would Lupin fight so hard to keep Harry from going in there and retrieve Sirius? Why wouldn’t he go himself, seeing as Sirius is his best friend? It just doesn’t make sense. In “The Lost Prophecy,” Dumbledore explains to Harry that he didn’t tell him about the prophecy because he wanted to make life easier for him, that he didn’t want him to suffer. If Sirius wasn’t dead, would Dumbledore really lie outright to Harry, causing him enormous, unnecessary pain? No, he wouldn’t. It would be extremely out of character.
3) If Sirius is dead (which he isn’t), then what the heck was PoA for? If not to give Harry dreams that would be crushed? I thought Rowling cared about Harry. If she did, she wouldn’t want to cause him more emotional pain than the awful trauma he has already faced.
I must admit that I had taken Sirius off the “Book 5 death list” for this precise reason. Surely JKR wasn’t going to kill off Sirius when Harry had already lost both his parents. I, too, was very, very sad when I realized that he was dead. I can see now why she did it, though: Harry needs to experience Love in all its forms to be able to vanquish Voldemort in the end. He needs to know the force which is “more wonderful and more terrible” than everything else (and I believe that this force is Love) in all aspects. He misses his parents but hasn’t really felt the sorrow of their deaths. He saw Cedric die, but that wasn’t a person he truly loved. He has now experienced the strongest and most terrible of all feelings: to watch a loved one die. The death of Sirius is in a way the logical progression of the previous deaths in Harry’s life. His parents’ death was a “half” experience (love), Cedric’s death too (loss). Sirius’ death puts the two parts together (love + loss), making Harry really understand the mixed wonderfulness and terribleness of Love. (Plus, it saved him from Voldemort possessing him.)
4) I heard in an interview before OotP was released that Rowling said she would be killing off a character whom she enjoyed writing about. If she enjoyed Sirius so much, then why would she make his fans hurt like this? The answer is: she doesn’t enjoy writing about him as much as the Death Eaters. Weren’t some Death Eaters killed?
In OotP, exactly two people die: Sirius and Bode. JKR said indeed in an interview that one of Harry’s “fans,” an important character would die, and that this would be a “terrible death” to write. None of the Death Eaters dies in the battle in the DoM, no students or teachers die during the year. Bode can’t be the one JKR was talking about because 1) he was introduced in OotP and 2) he wasn’t an important character. Did anyone cry when Bode was killed by the plant? I don’t think so. A “terrible death” means what it says: that it hurts. I don’t think JKR enjoyed killing off Sirius (remember how she said she cried for a long time after doing it) but that it was necessary to the plot (as I’ve analyzed above). She didn’t do it to be mean. TheHarry Potter books, though perceived as such by a lot of people, aren’t fairy tales for little children. They’re dark and getting darker. They are, despite all the magic going on, more realist that fantastic, I think.
I think we probably haven’t seen the last of Sirius, though. He’ll come back in some form. Not as a ghost, I don’t think, but he’ll be present. As Luna said,
“Oh come on, you heard them, just behind the veil, didn’t you? … They were just lurking out of sight, that’s all” (OotP, p. 761).
See you next week. I’ll be doing the Lupin = James theory then.