ABSTRACT: This essay examines different attempts throughout the series to master death. It looks at mastering death through immortality, acceptance and sacrifice comparing the attempts of different characters to ultimately accomplish the same goal of mastering death.
'When you say "master of death"-' said Ron.
'Master,' said Xenophilius, waving an airy hand. 'Conqueror. Vanquisher. Whichever term you prefer.' (DH, British Edition 333)
J.K. Rowling has often said the central theme of the Harry Potter series is death. This idea of death as a key element comes to the forefront in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, particularly through the Deathly Hallows storyline. Xenophilius Lovegood claims that possessing the three Deathly Hallows (the elder wand, the resurrection stone and the cloak of invisibility) makes one the master of death (DH 333). Yet mere seconds earlier we hear Hermione read the Tale of the Three Brothers in which Ignotus Peverell greets death as an equal and gladly departs this life with him while only ever possessing one of the Hallows (DH 332). Has he not mastered death? We hear yet another definition of the mastery of death from Voldemort who claims to 'have gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality' (GOF 566) through the use of Horcruxes. At this point had Voldemort not mastered or cheated death? Harry struggles throughout Deathly Hallows with the concept of mastering death as he is surrounded by so many differing opinions. Xenophilius had his opinion of what makes someone the master of death, Ignotus had his and Voldemort certainly had his, but the inevitable question is, who's right?
The term "Master of Death" is derived from the Deathly Hallows, the idea of holding this title is synonymous with obtaining the three hallows. Of course the real litmus test for this theory would be if someone had possessed all three hallows at one point in the series. Unfortunately this never happened, although there were two times in particular where this came very close to occurring. The first is in Half-Blood Prince when Harry has just procured the Horcrux memory from professor Slughorn, and he goes to Dumbledore's office under his invisibility cloak (HBP 460). At this point the elder wand and resurrection stone are both in Dumbledore's office, therefore for the first time in the series all three Deathly Hallows are in the same room (HBP 461). The irony is that during this scene in which the Hallows are nearly united the subject being discussed and indeed the chapter title is Horcruxes. This gives us our first Hallows vs. Horcruxes debate; which one truly makes someone the master of death? Looking at this particular scene Voldemort's proposition of the Horcruxes seems much more daunting than the Hallows possessed by Dumbledore and Harry. Dumbledore even mentions in the King's Cross chapter of Deathly Hallows that 'I doubt Voldemort (sic) would have been interested in any of the Hallows other than the wand (sic) (DH 577)'. At this juncture in the story the Horcruxes have kept Voldemort alive when he surely would have died otherwise. The Hallows on the other hand tempted Dumbeldore to put on the ring which would have led to his premature death were it not for Snape killing him on the astronomy tower before the curse could fully take hold (HBP 556). When the Hallows are first brought together in Half-Blood Prince it is fairly obvious that possessing them did not make Harry or Dumbledore the master of death.
The next closest anyone gets to uniting the Deathly Hallows is right before Voldemort destroys his own Horcrux, that has attached itself to Harry, by trying to kill Harry. Harry has the invisibility cloak, is the master of the elder wand and the snitch finally opens giving him the resurrection stone (DH 560). The elder wand itself is also in very close proximity to Harry as Voldemort has been using it for several weeks at this point. During this confrontation Voldemort should have killed Harry. Harry walks into what he believes to be his death and Voldemort performs the killing curse on Harry, but Harry doesn't die (DH 564). Although Harry is the closest anyone gets throughout the series to possessing the three Hallows at this particular moment it is not the Hallows that keeps Harry alive. The invisibility cloak allows Harry to arrive in front of Voldemort undetected and on his own terms, but he eventually casts the cloak aside revealing himself, rendering the Hallow unimportant (DH 563). The stone Harry uses to talk with his parents, Sirius and Lupin who give him words of encouragement but do not influence his confrontation with Voldemort (DH 560). If Harry had cast a spell he may not have died since the Elder Wand would not work against its master, but it would not have killed Voldemort either because there were still two Horcruxes remaining (Harry and Nagini). What saved Harry from death was his willing embrace of his own death, much like that of Ignotus in the Tale of the Three Brothers.
Lily's sacrifice that saved Harry's life, and provided him with protection throughout his childhood is one of the defining moments of the Potter series. Lily could have been spared as Voldemort offered her three chances to step aside before he delivered the fatal blow (DH 281). Much like Harry in the forest sixteen years later, she refused to prioritize her survival over the well being of others. This protected Harry and once again helped him evade death. Clearly Lily did not master death in this moment though. Although she would rather die than let her son be killed, she did not intend to die that night. Her death was a heroic one but unlike Ignotus she did not die when she had hoped as an old women. They both passed on a legacy to their children, Ignotus's son the cloak and Harry his life, but neither truly mastered their own death. The question is did Ignotus, Harry and Lily master death or merely evade it?
The most adamant attempt to master death is of course that of Voldemort. How could it not be with the name Voldemort literally translating to "fly from death" en francais? Voldemort tries to master death through the use of horcruxes. Although he may be correct when he claims to have gone further than anyone on the path to immortality (GOF 556), he proves once again that completely escaping death is impossible as Harry kills him (DH 595). It is clear that horcruxes aid one in mastering death, but they do not make one the master of death. In this sense we see the flaw with horcruxes is not in the magic but in the method. As Slughorn informs Tom Riddle in Half-Blood Prince the only way to split the soul is murder (HBP 465). Though the ownership of a horcrux the wizard or witch has distanced himself or herself from death, but the process of killing someone has brought them closer to death. Dumbledore tells Harry that 'Voldemort himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress?' (HBP 477) This is exactly the same fate that befalls those who make horcruxes. They make their own worst enemies in the loved ones of the people they kill. Voldemort does this to the tenfold, he makes seven horcruxes, more than any other before him, but he also creates a group of very determined enemies who bring about his death. Harry, Ron, Hermione, Neville, Dumbledore all suffered at the hands of Voldemort and all sought to fight for those they lost, in the process each of them destroy one of his horcruxes. Theoretically if someone were able to make a horcrux without killing anyone and by extension without making any of these same enemies then maybe they could master death. Unlike the Philosopher's Stone nothing could be gained by "stealing" a horcrux so this person would not have the same enemies Nicholas Flamel had. However it is made very clear that murder is the only way to split the soul. Horcruxes do more damage than good on the quest to master death or in Voldemort's case to fly from death.
Harry, Lily, Ignotus all accept death throughout the series, but they do not master it. Lily dies as she sacrifices herself, Ignotus dies just like any other man, and there is nothing to suggest Harry mastered death in his later life. There is no mastering death and that is one of the key themes driving this series. Although many will claim by the end of the series Harry has mastered death by casting away the temptation of the Hallows and embracing his own death, evidence from the text shows his acceptance of death only prolonged death in certain situations. Harry finally seems to come to this same conclusion at the end of the series when he ignores the Deathly Hallows, a chance to become "master of death". Would the Deathly Hallows have brought Harry closer to immortality, especially after he had already come closer to death than any other character in the series? Probably, but truly mastering death is impossible and after what he has gone through Harry knows this as well as anyone.