The owls are flying. If I had a fireplace, I am certain that the letters would be soaring down
the chimney, even as I write. My inbox is flooded and most of you have the same question: Who
are the two people who are going to die and who got a reprieve?
I feel obliged to answer, of course, being that the eminent MuggleNet has entrusted me with a
column. That said, I also think it my duty to remind you all that I am not JK Rowling.
Neither am I a Legilimens, a Seer or a Centaur. Any and all thoughts that I share with you are
simply my conjecture - no more informed or intelligent than your own. Let us take a look at the
cast, the circumstances, and what we know of our venerated author, and see if we can make some
sensible guesses. However, we must accept up front that they can only be guesses.
For those of you who read The
Spinner's End and yet do not know of what I speak, I offer a brief update. At her
recent interview with UK
afternoon talk show hosts Richard and Judy, JKR made the following statements:
JK: The last, the final chapter is hidden away although it's now changed
J: Is it?
JK: Yeah, one character got a reprieve.
R: Oh really?
J: I mean you are, I just...
JK: But I have to say two die that I didn't intend to die.
J: Oh no, two much loved ones?
JK: Well you know, a price has to be paid.
JK: We are dealing with pure evil! So they don't target the extras, do they? They go
straight for the main characters... Or I do.
R: We don't care about extras. You told your husband, obviously. You confided in him all
things, and you told him.
JK: Well, not everything, that would be reckless.
R: Well, yes, let's be honest: that would be stupid. But you did tell him which ones were
up for the chop. Apparently he shuddered and said, "Oh no, not that one."
JK: He did on one of them, yeah.
To consolidate, we learn that:
1. Jo considered the change in the ending to be "very slight."
2. Two characters that weren't intended to die now will.
3. The wording two more characters indicates that there are other death(s), besides the
two new victims.
4. One character that was intended to die now will not.
5. In Jo's world, the evil guys don't go after small time characters. They go after the major
6. Jo's husband was touched in some way to hear of one of the new deaths.
In order to have any chance to assess who has been reprieved and who has been consigned to
literary flames, we must first assess why and how JKR chooses her victims. Multiple readings of
the HP series indicate that very little is random. We have found many examples where seemingly
random choices in the storyline have proven later to be significant plot points. An example of
this is Harry speaking to the snake in PS/SS and then learning in CoS that Parseltongue is a rare
gift among wizards, and one particularly associated with both Slytherin and Voldemort.
Similarly, the deaths in the series can be filed into two basic categories: (1) random acts with
no major plot-based purpose, and (2) deaths of major significance to the upcoming plotline.
There are deaths that serve mostly as a general illustration of the cost of war and violence.
That is their purpose. Most of the very minor character deaths, and the deaths of anonymous
muggles, relatives of the main characters, etc., fall into this category. The trick is that we
won't know until Book Seven which deaths among minor characters carried other significance and
which did not.
So far, however, in JKR's world, deaths of major characters seem to be carried out for a reason.
And as much as it grieves me to say it, what we are discussing, based on the excerpt above, are
major character deaths. Jo emphasizes that the impact of the book is dependent upon loss of
those whom Harry and, through him, we the reader, have come to value. Jo has been clear that
Sirius had to die, and that we would find out why. I believe the same is true for Dumbledore.
So, why would more major character deaths be needed?
1. What's right and what's easy: we may be shown another self-sacrificial moment in
order to emphasize once more the tremendous cost of war, violence, power struggles and evil.
This would have to be a character that is dear to Harry, and to us, in order to have the impact
to push Harry forward. It would serve as a new shock and reminder to Harry about the strength
that is required to stay the course in extreme conditions.
2. A plot change or twist that JKR didn't originally intend. This could take the form of someone
who simply needs to be gotten rid of because they know something and Harry shouldn't learn it yet.
Or, it could be that a good bit of unexpected writing simply led a character into a situation
where Jo feels that the proper ending is the character's death. Our author has the right to
change her mind.
3. Emotional impact. This is pretty self-explanatory. The death of a character we love is an
emotional journey for the reader and for Harry. It is a catharsis, which is very much a part of
a good story. Nothing of worth is achieved without some sacrifice. And it might be the thing
that galvanizes Harry to take some action that is required of him in order to succeed.
4. There may be a connection forged between the living wizarding world and the world behind the
Veil. This connection would probably not be literal or lasting. It might be very mysterious and
esoteric. And it would serve to aid Harry in his quest to defeat Voldemort. It might be
connected to why Sirius had to die as he did. Both Dumbledore and Percy Weasley bear the name
Percival, which means "pierce the valley" or "pierce the veil." The valley, in this case, is the
valley of the shadow of death. Sirius' death may serve that connection in some way, since he
died at the Veil, or perhaps Dumbledore's phoenix symbol will allow him a brief moment to
influence events when his help is most needed. Perhaps Percy will finally take his stubborn head
out of the sand and make his contribution by being the Weasley who "pierces the veil."
Death is, as we all know, a major theme in the series. JKR was grieving for her mother while
writing PS/SS. The theme of death runs throughout the books. The whole series begins with a
double murder. However, the investment we have in the targeted characters has escalated over
the course of the series.
When we first read PS/SS, James and Lily meant nothing to us. We met them after they were killed,
so we accepted their deaths easily, as a fait accompli. The only other death in PS/SS was
Quirrell, and we were all happy to see him get his comeuppance. Like Lily and James, all of the
other people whose deaths were discussed (the Bones family, etc.) were already dead when we heard
In CoS, there is a different sort of mystery, and while we met someone who had been murdered
(Myrtle), again, this happened before we knew her. PoA does not have any character deaths,
though we are briefly introduced to Cedric at this point, and see him as a boy whose integrity
we can admire.
GoF changes the tone of death for us. We know that Bertha Jorkins has been murdered, but we
never knew her, and she sounded rather annoying. Old Frank, the Riddle's caretaker, is an
example of senseless killing but, once again, we don't know him. We do, however, directly
witness his death: a first in the series. Mr. Crouch's death isn't so terribly upsetting to
the reader, because he hadn't been painted in a sympathetic light. At that point, we think that
maybe his poor son was innocent, and we are a bit shocked at his coldness.
I would point to Cedric's death as the first time in the series that we met with a character
death that had a real emotional impact on the reader. Cedric was someone we liked and admired.
No, we didn't actually want him to beat Harry, and we assumed that somehow Harry would triumph,
but we liked Cedric. How could you not like Cedric? He was loyal, bright, kind, fair, honest
and full of integrity. He also stood on the brink of his adulthood, just seventeen, and full
of tremendous potential to put all of those good qualities into the world. Jo constructed his
life and death very carefully, to make a specific point. She allowed us to get to know this
young man and all of his potential, and then killed him senselessly. Cedric's death was not
planned by Voldemort. He died because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was an
inconvenience. It is one very typical kind of war death, particularly when the war is not being
fought on an open battlefield, but secretly, nefariously and without any value for human life.
This is how Voldemort fights. It is the ultimate manifestation of evil: senseless murder.
Voldemort had no investment in Cedric's life or death. He wasn't targeting Cedric. He simply
disposed of someone who was in the way, just as we might swat a fly that threatens our summer
picnic lunch. This was the meaning and purpose of Cedric's life and death. Then it got worse.
In OotP, we lose one of the most beloved characters in the series. JKR lets us get closer and
closer to Sirius as Harry does. Over three books, we come to count on him to take care of
Harry, and therefore of us. He was a little wild, not too concerned with rules, dashing and
fun, and willing to allow Harry more latitude and freedom than the other adult influences in
Harry's life. His death was heroic and senseless. Sirius risked everything because
Harry needed him. He was a skilled and powerful wizard and was uninjured and fighting with
strength and confidence when he died. So how did it happen? Remember, Bella's jet of light
was not green. To be precise, she fires a red jet at him, which he dodges. She fires a second
jet. The color isn't specified, but it seems to have been Stupify, or Petrificus Totalis, based
on Sirius' reaction. It might have been Avada Kedavra, but usually we are told that the jet of
light is green. And, if it had been green, Harry would not have been so expectant that Sirius
would hop up and walk back through the Veil, alive and well. It seems that Sirius died, not
from Bella's curse, but by falling through the Veil. In fact, it's very likely that Sirius
might not have died if he weren't over confident at the moment, taunting Bellatrix, standing
precariously close to the Veil and, in fact, so immersed in the rush of a good fight that he
didn't realize that Dumbledore had arrived and everyone else had stopped.
Sirius' death leaves Harry bereft, but not alone or unprotected. It is an emotional thunderbolt
to Harry and to us. Harry needed Sirius in his life. His audacity, courage and maverick
sensibilities were useful to Harry. And, I would argue that the loss of that influence at a
time when Harry is ready to step up and become his own man also seems very necessary. With
Sirius around, the tempering and wise influence of Dumbledore would have always taken a back
seat in Harry's esteem. Not that he failed to venerate and respect the late Headmaster. But
his stronger emotional ties were with Sirius and his viewpoints. And Sirius' viewpoints were
somewhat stuck where they were before he spent twelve years in Azkaban, wrongly accused of
betrayal and mass murder. Sirius taught Harry audacity. But he needed to go so that Harry
could turn fully and trustingly to Dumbledore, whose influence would finally mature our hero
into the young man who will find the wit and wisdom to defeat Voldemort.
There may be other reasons for Sirius' death, but we don't know them yet. We must await Book
Seven and see what Jo has in store for Harry and for us.
Finally, in HBP, Harry loses that wise counsel, strength and power that has stood guard over
him throughout his life. Harry is now unprotected. He is on his own. And, as of the
Radio City appearance in New York, Jo has
confirmed that Dumbledore is, indeed, dead. So what happens to Harry now? Though he has made
tremendous progress towards realizing his potential, he still seems woefully underprepared for
the task at hand. Yes, he has help. And yes, he has plenty of adults who are more than anxious
to step into Dumbledore's place in Harry's life. Scrimgeour would be thrilled to have Harry
turn to him for guidance. Mrs. Weasley would love to enfold him in her arms and try to convince
herself and Harry that he is safe. And all of his friends will do what they can to help the
cause that they all believe in. But none of them bears the scar, and with it the responsibility
to take the lead in the fight against Voldemort. Dumbledore had to go. As long as Dumbledore
was alive, Harry would stand behind him. As long as Dumbledore was alive, Harry would not feel
the clear responsibility to stand firm, trust himself, and do what needs to be done. He would
rely on Dumbledore's wisdom, experience, skill and power to lead him. And the Hero must
ultimately be his own leader. In order for Harry to become the full and unchallenged hero of
his own story, we had to say goodbye to Dumbledore.
It should be noted that we have seen several other deaths of more minor and/or unknown characters in OotP and HBP. I suspect that some of those may prove to be more pertinent than we now know. Ollivander's disappearance and Amelia Bones' murder stand out to me as possibly significant events. But many of them will most likely amount to nothing further than an illustration of the mounting loss and insanity of pervasive evil. It's partly a numbers game. If only a few, selected people die, the war isn't a war. It's a personal murder story. It's the scope and impersonal slaughter that makes it a wizarding world crisis. Many deaths are in the books simply to show the mounting numbers of casualties and the cost of evil.
If deaths in the HP series are planned and carried out with this care, how can three major characters have had a change of fate at this late moment in the series? Let us look, character by character, and see what we can deduce.
Harry: I will not go into a debate over Harry's fate in this article. I believe he will live. I always have. However, what I will say, which several of you have argued in your emails as well, is that a change in Harry's fate would not be considered a "slight" change in the plot of the Harry Potter series! I feel quite confident in saying that, after sixteen or so years of writing the story of Harry's young life, Joanne Rowling did not wake up a few weeks ago, partway through Book Seven of a seven part series, and change her mind about whether Harry lives or dies. Perhaps I will have to sit at my computer in a year or so with three-egg omelet all over my face and bear all of you pointing and laughing at me. But I reiterate: Harry is not one of the three characters under discussion. If Harry was meant to die, which I do not believe he is, that has not changed. If Harry was meant to live to reap the fruits of his seven-year struggle, he will still live.
Voldemort: Like Harry, I do not for a moment think that an alteration in Voldemort's fate would be a "slight" plot change. I think Voldemort, who is already on borrowed time, is soon to be defeated. And though he might possibly survive in some altered state (such as a demented version of his former self) I don't believe that his fate has changed at this late date. I think if anyone is likely to die or be reduced to a harmless shadow of his former self, it is Voldemort. Some of you have asked if she might have changed her mind and plans to have Voldemort die but Tom Riddle survive. Again, I must return to what should now be a familiar if boring argument: too big a change to be considered slight, and too late in the process. This ending may, indeed, be JKR's plan. But, if it is, I would bet that it always has been, and things have not changed now.
Ron & Hermione: In this case, I lump the two together because the same argument holds true. Ron and Hermione's fates are too interwoven with Harry's. Again, I believe they will both live. I think that the trio must be united and survive. However, if Ron is really meant to sacrifice himself or Hermione is meant to die a horrible death that sets Ron into a pattern of revenge, or any of the other scenarios many of you have sent to me, I don't believe that would have changed partway into writing the last book. That would not really be an insignificant change. Granted, it wouldn't be as huge as changing Harry or Voldemort's fates, but it would be a major change.
Now that the trio is out of the way, it gets more dicey.
Ginny: Before HBP, Ginny might not have come in line next, behind the trio. But I believe she does now. She will be a driving force in Harry's quest, however active a role she ultimately takes. Yes, Harry broke up with her. But I don't think we've seen the end of that relationship. JKR did not write the redheaded fireball, ever increasing in her confidence and power throughout the series, to drop her now. That said, it is slightly harder to speculate about Ginny's fate. If I were writing the series, Ginny would not have been plotted to die, and she still wouldn't. Part of the Hero's journey is earning the company of his lady fair. Ginevra, Ginny's full name, is Italian for Guinevere, the Queen of King Arthur of the Round Table. Guinevere is much maligned as a character, but in early renditions of the story (before Mallory's 15th Century classic) Guinevere was captured by the evil one and rescued by Arthur. This very much mirrors Ginny's first role in the series, in CoS. She was captured, and Harry had to brave many terrible dangers to rescue her. Guinevere was the Queen of the realm. Tracing the history of her legend is difficult and there is no clear road. Stories were oral, verbal traditions and they varied over time and cultures. Different versions give us different Guineveres. However, the name was picked by the author, and it is significant. She is the Hero's partner. I doubt that her fate would change at this late date. However, it is not outside the realm of possibility. If JKR wanted to write an ending that gives Harry victory that is tainted by the unavoidable pain of war - a poignant reminder of all the victims who were sacrificed in the effort to defeat Voldemort, Ginny could be a very touching victim. Again, I am inclined to think this will not be so. I think that Harry will be surrounded with so much loss by the end of Book Seven that allowing him to hold Ginny, along with Ron and Hermione, would not be construed as a sappy, falsely happy ending. But I must concede the possibility is there.
Hagrid: I'm worried for Hagrid. I have been worried for Hagrid for several years, and most particularly since the death of Dumbledore seemed to take another step in the Alchemical journey from black to white to red. I fear that Hagrid will make a tremendous sacrifice to push Harry over the edge to victory, and he will pay with his life. That said, there is every possibility that I am off base and Hagrid has not been intended to die. Changing Hagrid's fate would be major to the fans who love him. But would it necessitate a major plot turn? More than a "slight" change to the books outcome? Not necessarily. Since I have had Hagrid marked for death, I might hope that it was Hagrid who received the stay of execution. However, it could be just the opposite. Perhaps JKR was planning to allow Hagrid to live. However, as she is writing she realizes that there is a missing element... the catalyst to the final step on the road to Alchemical perfection. She realizes that, though she planned to have Hagrid survive, she hadn't really planned a future for him. She can kill him off, and use his death to catapult Harry on some final leap in the journey towards victory. Hagrid's position is precarious.
Lupin: I must be calm. With every voice in my head screaming, "NO! NOT LUPIN!!"... I must admit, he is a possibility. I was encouraged, when Lupin and Tonks got together, that it boded well for both of their survivals. This is especially true since JKR has indicated that the two of them were destined for each other for a long while before we witnessed the hospital scene. Their budding love was just beginning to take hold, and I thought there might actually be one happy, surviving couple outside the trio at the end of the series. I have always worried for Lupin. The Marauders have a very inconvenient habit of dying young, and I have always thought Wormtail to be destined for a certain death. I have feared that JKR might feel a need to kill off the whole generation. I have persuaded myself that she might, instead, allow one link to Harry's past and bloodline to survive... one teacher figure to be there at the last to see James and Lily's son save the world. I hope that I am right, but I admit, this interview shook my courage a bit. I hope that Lupin is safe. If he was slated to die, I hope he is the one to get the reprieve. If he was slated to live, I hope that his fate is unchanged. I must concede that his fate, while of supreme importance to me and a host of other fans, might not bear more than an immediate emotional impact on Harry. He would be a sentimental loss, a sad victim whose whole life was compromised and diminished in many ways by the evil that Voldemort unleashed. Allowing Lupin to live or deciding to kill him off would have a tremendous effect on the emotionality of the book for many fans, but might not be seen by the author as a significant change to the ending.
Tonks: Same as Lupin. An emotional loss, especially if she dies and Lupin must now survive without her, or visa versa... but not a significant plot change.
The Weasleys: I lump together the rest of family, since I think most of the same rules apply to them. They are all in a different category in Harry's life than Ron or Ginny. Harry likes all of them, except Percy. And I don't think Harry hates Percy. I do think he was hurt by Percy's attitudes and doesn't respect Percy's choices. He loves Mr. and Mrs. Weasley. He is friendly with Bill and Charlie. He is friendly with Fleur, who is soon to be a part of the family. He has a particular fondness for Fred and George, and, aside from Ron and Ginny, they are the most important Weasleys in the series. I am actually quite worried for Fred and George. I think that it would have a high emotional impact to kill one or the other of them. They are so joined at the hip; such a "pair" of characters that having one of them die would deliver an extra poignant punch, as the survivor would have to go on without his twin.
I wonder if the character who got a reprieve might be either Fred or George. Perhaps JKR intended to kill them both, and then decided that the impact of letting one of them live would actually be stronger than killing both.
Behind Fred or George in impact would be Mr. or Mrs. Weasley. I worry a bit for Molly. She is so worried about everyone else. I can see her racing forward to protect her litter and losing her own life. She could be one of the ones whose fate could go either way. Arthur has come perilously close to losing his life already and I tend to think that was his brush with death for the series, and he will survive. If he loses Molly, it would be a devastating cross for him to bear.
The other Weasleys would not make a huge impact on us, I don't think. We like them all, we'd be sad to see them go, but we haven't developed long-term, close relationships with them as characters. Molly herself has said that it would be a miracle if they all survived. JKR certainly isn't against writing miracles, but I do believe Molly is correct: the numbers are against her family.
McGonagall, Neville, Luna
I put these three on the same level as the Weasleys, Tonks and Lupin. We love them. We want them to survive. But their deaths might not make a significant plot change. McGonagall might be someone who will tough it out and retain the Headmistress position for another 50 years. She is one tough cookie, and I think that the restoring of a right order at the end of the books could include McGonagall in the Head's office. She might die, certainly, but I see her as a stabilizing bridge between the past and the future of Hogwarts. I think she'll make it. It is, though, very possible that she is one of the characters under discussion. She is a major character, and her survival or death would not necessarily make any significant change to the ending of the series.
I have always believed, like many of you, that Neville is destined to teach Herbology. If that is the case, Professor Sprout may be a casualty of the war. Or, we may just hear that some years later, after Professor Sprout dies of natural causes, Neville takes over her position. However, we must remember that Neville has a huge score of his own to settle, and it's not with Voldemort. Like many of you, I think Neville will have to face Bella. Perhaps he'll have help from Harry or others, but perhaps not. Will he die in his efforts? Neville seems to be a possible candidate for a change of fate.
I think that Neville's new wand is significant. Why put that into OotP and HBP? We know that his first wand was his father's, and it broke during the battle at the Ministry. We especially hear that not only does Neville get a new wand, but one of the last that Ollivander sold before his disappearance. Several of you have written to me about this possible connection between Ollivander's disappearance and Neville and his new wand. It may be that this new wand will somehow figure into Neville's success against Bellatrix. Or even, as some of you have suggested, aid Harry against Voldemort, seeing as how Harry's own wand cannot battle Voldemort's. Neville's fate might have changed - I must admit it's possible. Speaking purely from intuition, I don't think so. I think Neville will survive. I think he has been waiting to spring out into his maturity since we first met him chasing Trevor all over the Hogwarts Express. I think he will take care of Bella for Harry (who will be rather busy with other issues) and will end up teaching Herbology.
Luna has always seemed to be in a precarious position to me. She floats, unperturbed, through most events in her life. She is very comfortable with death, and seems not to have tremendous fear of that undiscovered country. Luna's fate could easily go either way, but it seems that a change in fate for her would not be out of the realm of possibility. Of the much loved younger characters, I would worry most about Luna and one of the Weasley twins.
Virtually everyone else in the series falls into the same category: an emotional loss of a character we have come to love, but not a plot alteration that would seem significant in relation to the whole story of Harry's struggle against Voldemort. And then there are the bad boys...
Snape, Draco and Wormtail
We have a lot of emotional investment in Snape and Draco, as well. But it is a different sort of investment than we have in Harry's allies. I believe Snape may fall into the category of Harry, Voldemort, Ron and Hermione: he is too important for his fate to change at this late date. If Snape is going to die, and I think he well may, I don't think that will change now. I am of two minds on this: I think he's too important for a change of fate, and yet I can also see the possibility. As with everything else about Snape, we can only guess.
Draco showed flashes of being redeemable in HBP. JKR led us, I believe, to desire that outcome. Perhaps she intends to save him and have him change his views and loyalties. Draco could be someone whose fate could change without it changing the overall outcome of the book. If he was slated to survive, I could see how writing might lead Jo to reconsider that decision. The dangers that Draco was playing at might be too much to overcome. Perhaps the lesson in the character of Draco is that you can't always go back. There is a Rubicon of sorts in a character's life, and once crossed, there is no going back. To me, it seems that Rubicon would have been crossed if Draco had killed Dumbledore. He did not do so. In my mind, that means he hasn't crossed the Rubicon. But perhaps he's too far offshore to go back.
I have always assumed Wormtail will die. Always. When considering the possibilities for this editorial, I remembered that Dumbledore's words on the subject were that the day would come when Voldemort would regret having a servant in Harry's debt. So, it seems he has a major contribution to make towards Harry's success. Perhaps my unforgiving vitriol is premature? Redemption is a possibility. I tend to think that Wormtail can only be redeemed by an extreme act and that it will cost him dearly. He is portrayed as lacking talent and imagination by everyone from the Marauders to McGonagall to Voldemort, and yet he has managed some powerful magic and shrewdness in his life. If he decided to put his cunning to Harry's use, he might prove valuable.
In sum, while I believe we can assess the likelihood of a change to a character's fate, I don't think we can accurately predict what that change might be. There are too many variables about which we have so little information. But this we know: there are at least three character deaths in Book Seven, as of now. And one person will be spared.
So, let the speculation continue, as we all argue for the survival of our favorite characters. What a testament to JKR and her work, that she has written scores of characters that are so dear to so many. How marvelous that we have come to feel such investment in their fates. And how hard it is to wait for all of the answers.