The Two-Way Mirror #11: Avada Kedavra
Poetic Justice in the World of Harry Potter
The Avada Kedavra curse opens the Goblet of Fire, is formally taught by Impostor Moody in DADA, and makes the first victim of the series in the climactic chapter “Flesh, Blood, and Bone.” It is a killing unforgivable curse that no one has ever been able to block (with the exception of baby Harry). On the up side, it seems to be an ideal way to go painlessly: “A team of doctors had examined the bodies and had concluded that none of the Riddles had been poisoned, stabbed, shot, strangled, suffocated, or (as far as they could tell) harmed at all” (GoF 4). What makes the Avada Kedavra curse so horrible is simply that it kills. It isn’t bloody and painful like the curse Snape once directed at James: “there was a flash of light and a gash appeared on the side of James’s face, spattering his robes with blood” (OotP 647). It seems to me that if anyone is going to use magic to kill someone, the most civil way to do it is the Avada Kedavra curse. This painless simple act of will and pointing of a wand seems to parallel an author’s disposal of a character (that can die only painlessly being fictional) with a poetically justified personal decision, and a carefully coordinated twist of the pen.
Part I: Sirius
Is there poetic justice in Sirius’s death in the Order of the Phoenix?
Sirius is capable of using Avada Kedavra on another human being. Lupin and Sirius were most likely going to use Avada Kedavra on Peter Pettigrew in the Shrieking Shack, given that it seems the most “humane” way to “execute” someone. Right after forgiving each other for their reciprocal mistrust, Lupin and Sirius decide to kill Peter for his betrayal of their trust:
“‘And will you, in turn, forgive me for believing you were the spy?’
‘Of course,’ said Black, and the ghost of a grin flitted across his gaunt face. He, too, began rolling up his sleeves. ‘Shall we kill him together?’
‘Yes, I think so,’ said Lupin grimly.”
It seems highly ironic that Lupin and Sirius should take the time to forgive each other right before deciding not to forgive Peter – as if they are dangling a precious treat before Peter’s eyes, one that they will not share with him.
But the troubling fact is that they were going to kill someone, use the unforgivable Avada Kedavra curse, supposedly the worst that the Dark Arts have to offer. First of all, how could that be magically possible? The Marauders’ clique seemed to be defined by a hatred of the dark arts that its chief member, James, brought to it. That would mean Lupin and Sirius never practiced Avada Kedavra, and apparently this isn’t a very easy curse:
“‘Avada Kedavra‘s a curse that needs a powerful bit of magic behind it – you could all get your wands out now and point them at me and say the words, and I doubt I’d get so much as a nosebleed.'”
Lupin and Sirius are powerful wizards, no doubt, but Sirius has been greatly weakened by Azkaban, and Lupin is looking rather shabby these days and even peaky since it is full moon. And we have seen how much practice difficult spells need to be perfected. Harry is a very powerful wizard, and he manages to repel a hundred dementors in the end with his Patronus, but when he first tries the spell he doesn’t produce so much as a puff of smoke.
Or did Lupin and Sirius practice this form of magic behind James’s back just in case they ever wanted to do a Death Eater in? Is there something we don’t know about Lupin’s and Sirius’s attitude towards dark magic? Was James entirely different from the other three, rather than Peter being entirely different from Sirius, James and Lupin? Perhaps only James truly abhorred the dark arts and would never touch them no matter what?
The physical aspect of the Animagus shapes the friends took reveals on a symbolic level some of their similarities and differences. James was the greatest of them all in size, a stag, with a crown of antlers suggestive of the attribute of a king. He was the leader of the pack. Lupin and Sirius were like Animagus brothers, the dog and the werewolf. In coat, shape, and color, though they were greater in size, they resembled the rat more than the stag. And they didn’t have antlers like Prongs did. On the other hand, neither did they have a Wormtail. They stand in a category of their own, somewhere between the black and white extremes of magic, but capable of both. Lupin may be closer in spirit to James (Moony, high up like Prongs) and Sirius may be closer to Peter (Padfoot, down below like Wormtail).
Harry, James’s own son, has now used the Cruciatus curse… What would James have done? Come to think of it, given it was his first time performing the spell, Harry didn’t do so badly. Perhaps Lupin and Sirius, with their age and experience (they are only in their early thirties though) could manage an Avada Kedavra okay even the first time. What would James say? (Not that James was a saint). Harry brings that up when he decides to forgive Peter. James would not have wanted his friends to become killers.
Whether or not Sirius has had experience performing the unforgivable curses, he does criticize those who used them against Voldemort’s supporters, so that it seems he would never use them against a person out of sheer principle:
“‘Well, times like that bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. Crouch’s principles might’ve been good in the beginning – I wouldn’t know. He rose quickly through the Ministry, and he started ordering very harsh measures against Voldemort’s supporters. The Aurors were given new powers – powers to kill rather than capture, for instance. And I wasn’t the only one who was handed straight to the dementors without a trial. Crouch fought violence with violence, and authorized the use of the Unforgivable Curses against suspects. I would say he became as ruthless and cruel as many on the Dark Side.'”
Ethics can become quickly relative where one’s own passions and interests are concerned. The reader might understand how 12 years in Azkaban for a crime he didn’t commit, the death of his best friend, and the loss of more innocent lives caused by the betrayal of another friend he trusted and to whom he gave his own secret-keeper role would bring out the worst in Sirius. Even Lupin, who suffered much less because of Peter, was just as ready to take justice in his own hands and murder Pettigrew (perhaps it is the loss of Lily that added fuel to his fire). Lupin was not as impetuous as Sirius though. He insisted on explaining things to Harry first. Rowling shows us the complexity of the human psyche through the half-principled decisions certain characters make.
There are consistencies in the inconsistencies of Sirius’s moral character. We have caught Sirius in another situation showing a blind spot where his own morality is concerned while having a very sharp eye for others’ failings. J. K. Rowling has brought up this example as well, referring to Sirius’s comment on Mr. Crouch’s treatment of his house elf:
“‘She’s got the measure of Crouch better than you have, Ron. If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.'”
Nevertheless, we know how Sirius treated Kreacher (deserving of it though the nasty elf was). Dumbledore reminds Harry after Sirius’s death:
“‘Sirius did not hate Kreacher,’ said Dumbledore. ‘He regarded him as a servant unworthy of much interest or notice. Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike…. The fountain we destroyed tonight told a lie. We wizards have mistreated and abused our fellows for too long, and we are now reaping our reward.’
‘SO SIRIUS DESERVED WHAT HE GOT, DID HE?’ Harry yelled.
‘I did not say that, nor will you ever hear me say it,’ Dumbledore replied quietly. ‘Sirius was not a cruel man, he was kind to house-elves in general. He had no love for Kreacher, because Kreacher was a living reminder of the home Sirius had hated.'”
Dumbledore’s description of the situation fits perfectly with Greek tragedy. Sirius was a good man, but he made a tragic error. And wizards in general have made a greater error that goes hand in hand with Sirius’s and for which they are “reaping” their “reward.” I don’t think Sirius’s death is a case of poetic justice in the sense that he got what he “definitely” deserved. We may remember, though, that as a student he almost sent Snape to his death in the underground passage with the transforming Lupin. But he revenged for Snape’s malevolent snooping about as much as Snape himself might have, so that the score seemed even between them, though Sirius and James appear to have started the whole conflict, unless we can say Snape started it simply because, well, he exists. Nevertheless, good writers prepare the reader psychologically for accepting the punishment or death of a character, even a loved character. Greek tragedies always assign a tragic flaw to the hero that suffers misfortune at the end of the play:
“A perfect tragedy should… be arranged not on the simple but on the complex plan… the change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us… Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited [note: not in a tragedy, but overall Harry Potter is not a tragedy; it only contains tragic subplots, so Voldemort is good to go]. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear…. There remains, then, the character between these two extremes – that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous – a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families.” (Aristotle, Poetics, Part XIII)
Sirius is a wizard born into the most noble and most ancient house of Black; he was, along with James, the height of cool in school; in the Pensieve he appears to Harry as the most handsome guy around; he was talented and daring; and he was Harry’s father’s best friend and Harry’s godfather. He was not depraved, nor particularly vicious, nor eminently good and just. He had a bit of a noticeably disdainful streak in him. Sirius is set up as a possible tragic hero according to the rules of classical Greek tragedy. Perhaps Rowling’s formation as a Classics major taught her a few tricks of the trade.
Everything that happens in a plot must seem necessary, according to Aristotle, or else the book is bad:
“Of all plots and actions the episodic are the worst. I call a plot ‘episodic’ in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence.” (Poetics Part IX)
Sirius’s death makes perfect sense in the scene of the Veil Room. The immediate cause of his death is a case of oversight. Not of Peter, or of Kreacher, both of which were underestimated and overlooked in a way that allowed them to become powerfully dangerous – Sirius imagined no one would think a “weak, talentless thing” like Peter would be James’s secret-keeper (PoA 369) – but of Bellatrix. Nevertheless, it is still the same character flaw that does Sirius in. He becomes short-sighted because he is disdainful. In the case of Bellatrix, he gets unwisely cocky with his enemy:
“Harry saw Sirius duck Bellatrix’s jet of red light: He was laughing at her. ‘Come on, you can do better than that!’ he yelled, his voice echoing around the cavernous room.
The second jet of light hit him squarely on the chest.
The laughter had not quite died from his face, but his eyes widened in shock.”
Sirius’s death occurs in a way that can make anyone say: “He had it coming” or even better “He asked for it.” Although we love Sirius, a bit of poetic justice brought about his downfall right at the moment when he was displaying his character flaw for all to see (probably showing off to his godson, Harry).
Part II: Cedric
Sirius was the second death of the Harry Potter series. But what about the first death, Cedric? Is there any “poetic justice” to Cedric’s death?
Cedric is presented as a perfect human sample in the novel. No wonder the Goblet chose him as champion for Hogwarts. He is extremely handsome, keeps his wand in perfect condition (*grins*), is captain of his Quidditch team, is probably a top student, and plays fair to the end, showing his superior moral qualities during the Triwizard Championship. Why should he die? Why the sacrifice of such a beautiful piece? Cedric is set up as a tragic hero in that he is “illustrious” on his own merit. But where is the tragic flaw or error (other than getting “Harry’s girl” which is not bad for starters)?
J. K. Rowling has prepared a small, hidden, but unforgettable reason for Cedric’s demise. He paid for his father’s “sin” of underestimating Harry. He did not deserve this fate, of course. It wasn’t even his flaw. And if it was, no one deserves to die for a character flaw such as this, or for any character flaw. Yet, no matter how small the flaw, it does make misfortune more acceptable for the reader in the end, no matter how great the misfortune. That revengeful streak in some or all of us gets satisfaction on some level. The notion of poetic justice ought to make perfect sense to the imagination of a Slytherin, though maybe not so much in the eyes of a Hufflepuff.
The flaw of Cedric is his need to compete with Harry where it is Harry’s “territory” to succeed. The last time Cedric competes with Harry, it is at being noble and playing fair. This does not literally bring about Cedric’s death as Sirius’s oversight did, but the acts of being fair and square in the tournament were crucial to bringing Harry and Cedric closer to imminent death. In trying to be fair, each champion helped the other advance closer to danger, so that fairness was tainted, as in Greek tragedy, by blindness. It is thus that Oedipus married his own mother because he did not know who she was. At the end of the famous Greek play, he blinds himself as punishment for not having seen before. Harry invites Cedric to share in his glory of holding the Triwizard cup, but he is unwittingly inviting him to compete with him in the ultimate contest, that of facing Voldemort…
We see that Cedric is not particularly effective at being fair and noble in his weak defense of Harry when Amos Diggory does a most outrageous number on him:
“‘Ced’s talked about you, of course,’ said Amos Diggory. ‘Told us all about playing against you last year…. I said to him, I said – Ced, that’ll be something to tell your grandchildren, that will… . You beat Harry Potter!’
Harry couldn’t think of any reply to this, so he remained silent. Fred and George were both scowling again. Cedric looked slightly embarrassed.
‘Harry fell off his broom, Dad,’ he muttered. ‘I told you . . . it was an accident….’
‘Yes, but you didn’t fall off, did you?’ roared Amos genially, slapping his son on his back. “Always modest, our Ced, always the gentleman… but the best man won. I’m sure Harry’d say the same, wouldn’t you, eh? One falls off his broom, one stays on, you don’t need to be a genius to tell which one’s the better flier!'”
I never could get this passage out of my head, and what stuck out was especially the weakness of Cedric’s defense of Harry. While after the actual game Cedric argued vehemently for the annulment of the match, he seems to have lost some of the fervor by now, or even to need on some level the belief of his father that he is better than Harry. “Harry fell off his broom” is hardly an argument for Harry’s skill at Quidditch, and the argument “it was an accident” makes me wonder how much of what truly happened did Cedric actually tell his father. He may have “accidentally” omitted some details so that his dad would think him the better player and not know about the dementors and how they affected Harry. This is a pardonable omission, considering Cedric didn’t do it in front of a big audience, but in front of a parent whom he wants to be proud of him. Perhaps the reason Cedric is slightly embarrassed also has something to do with a bit of a guilty conscience. It would be much harder for Amos to taunt Harry for being affected by dementors worse than his son. There is dramatic irony in Amos’s surmising that Cedric will talk to his grandchildren about beating Harry. Cedric did not beat Harry at surviving Voldemort, and for that reason he will not be there to have children or grandchildren to whom to brag about beating Harry at Quidditch (not that it would be in Cedric’s character). Like blind Oedipus, Amos failed to see the big picture… the dementors, and Voldemort.
This is where the poetic justice plot thickens. Just like in the conversation between Harry and Dumbledore in which Harry yells that Sirius did not deserve to die because of the way he treated Kreacher, in a conversation between Harry and his friends Harry shouts that Cedric did not die because he, Harry, is the better wizard:
“‘You don’t know what it’s like! . . . . you two sit there acting like I’m a clever little boy to be standing here, alive, like Diggory was stupid, like he messed up – you just don’t get it, that could just as easily have been me, it would have been if Voldemort hadn’t needed me -‘”
Would anyone go to Amos Diggory now and say that seeing that Harry survived Voldemort and Cedric died, it doesn’t take a genius to tell which one is the better wizard? That thought must haunt him though, on some level, a thought that is tragically deserved… But it would be horrible to say it to Amos. Nevertheless, though he was unaware of it, Amos was being that horrible to Harry. In essence, he was telling him, although he was unaware of it because of the tragically forgotten (by whom?) “detail” of the dementors: Cedric’s parents were not killed by Voldemort in front of him like yours were, Harry. It doesn’t take a genius to tell who’s the better wizard. In tragedy, individuals are punished for the meaning of what they do and say, even if their intentions were different. The reason Cedric stayed on his broom is the same reason Harry was not killed by Voldemort: personal history, not personal skill. And the full circle of unfairness is completed when Cedric loses a fight he cannot win for reasons outside his control, like Harry lost the Quidditch match.
Sometimes poetic justice is called poetic because it is beautifully appropriate (one who did not listen to those who begged him to let them live ends up begging the tribunal to let him die) or because it is fortuitous, such as in Aristotle’s example of appropriate accidents:
“… Tragedy is an imitation… of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. We may cite the statue of Mitys at Argos, which fell upon his murderer while he was a spectator at a festival, and killed him. Such events seem not to be due to mere chance. Plots, therefore, constructed on these principles are necessarily the best.” (Poetics Part IX)
When a murderer is killed by a falling statue it seems like a perfect example of poetic justice. The weaknesses that bring about Cedric’s and Sirius’s deaths, however, seem too small to allow for such great retribution (especially in Cedric’s case). It is horrible to think of it. Harry argues hard and heatedly in each case against the apparent poetic justice in the deaths of Sirius and Cedric. Sirius did NOT die because he was not kind to Kreacher. Cedric did NOT die because he was not as good a wizard as Harry. It is striking how similar the arguments are, or rather how similarly Harry argues against the very reasons that poetically prepare the demise of these two characters. Either Rowling attempts through Harry to get us to think differently of misfortune, not in terms of “poetic justice” – in other words revenge, extremist in the case of Sirius and especially of Cedric -, or else she puts these reasons in the books and places the defenses in Harry’s mouth in order to pull at his psychological strings and have the reader frown and wonder: “Methinks he doth protest too much.” What inner conflicts pull Harry’s ideas in different directions? If Kreacher was responsible for Sirius’s death, Harry is also responsible for listening to Kreacher, and Sirius is responsible for not being careful with Kreacher. Cedric died, but perhaps that does mean that Harry is in fact “better,” as much as he denies it and refuses and is angered by any such suggestions. As in the scene when Harry fights with his own jealousy when Ron gets the prefect’s badge, there are certain personal psychological monsters that he has to face with the deaths of Sirius and Cedric, and which can most easily be done away with by placing all the blame on chance and none on retribution. How does Harry feel and think about his father after he finds out the unpleasant facts that make him judge him? After the chapter on Snape’s memory, a certain amount of poetic justice begins to characterize James’s death as well. How much can Harry forgive? He seems to have reached his limit with Peter, as there was no forgiveness left for Bellatrix, though in her case his anger was fresher.
There are those who argue that all the Marauders will die. But does poetic justice point in that direction?
I see very little justifying reason for Lupin’s death. He wanted to murder Peter along with Sirius, but it was Sirius’s plan more than Lupin’s, and one “murderer” has already paid the debt for that “crime.” Lupin also “betrayed” Dumbledore’s trust as a student, and he is a werewolf. For these actions and for this condition he gets enough poetic punishment by leading a miserable life and by having to resign his position as teacher at Hogwarts. Perhaps he was a bit passive in his lack of attempt to restrain James’s and Sirius’s abuse of Snape. But James has already poetically paid for that abuse. Nothing else justifies Lupin’s demise. For Lupin to “deserve” to die, he will have to reveal an error or flaw that we have yet to see. Could his supposed hidden love for Lily qualify as such?
In the case of Peter, since he is such an obvious villain that it would be boring to just see him killed without further ado, is there anything to justify inversely a partial redemption? Aristotle’s Poetics emphasizes the importance of dramatic reversals in tragedies:
“Besides which, the most powerful elements of emotional interest in Tragedy – Peripeteia or Reversal of the Situation, and Recognition scenes – are parts of the plot.” (Part VI)
Peter Pettigrew is a character in a tragic subplot. He has become, if not illustrious, infamous, yet he is not pure evil, but rather has the tragic flaw of cowardice (not exactly the flaw of a hero, but perhaps he has the potential or the desire to be courageous, being a Gryffindor). The reversal will bring about a redemption for Peter, but the tragedy will be that he will not be spared: he will die a (semi)hero. A good reversal can’t come out of nowhere. Little hints, as meager as they may be, must be planted along the way to foreshadow the final turn of events. In the case of Peter, we may remember that he bit Goyle’s finger for Ron and Harry once (“his finest moment”), and that he attempted to dissuade Voldemort from using Harry for his rebirth. These two rather ridiculous or feeble acts of good will in so villain of a character are nevertheless like the donation of a penny made by a destitute person: they count a lot in the eye of poetic justice. They prepare us psychologically for the possibility of seeing further good come from Peter, something a little bigger.
James is dead and we have been given poetic justice reasons for his loss in “Snape’s Worst Memory.”
And Sirius is dead. But Rowling suggests to us that this wasn’t just to satisfy “poetic justice.” She strongly asserts Sirius had to die. The higher reason behind Sirius’s death is a mystery worth thinking about. What else besides poetic justice makes a character’s death seem necessary? Clearing the field for something that can’t happen with Sirius around is one possibility. What can’t happen with Sirius around? Perhaps the deaths of Sirius and James will allow Snape to get over his hate. That would mean he could develop a new relationship with Harry. Rowling has said in several interviews that we should definitely “keep an eye on Snape” after what we learn about him in GoF. Since we learn that he was once a Death Eater, does that mean he will be evil in the end? In that case, whom else, or what else could Sirius’s death affect?
I will let the readers reflect on which characters other than the Marauders could snuff it in order to satisfy “poetic justice” or other “reasons of necessity.” The least interesting reason to kill someone I think is that “we can do without them.” Would a good author kill a character just because she can? Or would she do it because she must? It all depends on the conscience of the author. How well do we know our author? How much does she think about the reasons for the death of a character before she sets steely pen to paper?
I read in the Chamber of Secrets Discussion room a comment about how depressive some readers have gotten and that that is not at all in the spirit of the Harry Potter books. Certainly the Harry Potter books embody good humor in every line. But Rowling takes quite a few steps towards tragedy, just enough to see how far she can go before humor becomes impossible. Sirius’s death is preceded by humor, and he dies with laughter frozen on his face, but shock in his eyes. Harry’s dramatic scene of suffering in Dumbledore’s office is punctuated by former headmasters in portraits saying “Really!” The saddest moment I can think of in the books, the one that brought tears to my eyes when I first read it (the only one I think that made me cry), was Ron being “funny” in the Department of Mysteries:
“‘Harry,’ said Ron, giggling weakly, lurching forward, seizing the front of Harry’s robes and gazing at him with unfocused eyes. ‘There you are…. Ha ha ha… You look funny, Harry…. You’re all messed up….’
Ron’s face was very white and something dark was trickling from the corner of his mouth.”
I can’t think of anything sadder than this moment of “comic relief.” In fact, wasn’t another “funny” moment terribly tragic in Harry’s, Ron’s and Hermione’s eyes: Neville’s mother giving him gum wrappers? We can sense the level of comedy depending on the situation to which the author applies it. Rowling is an expert at testing the possibilities of humor in the face of misfortune. Not all happy thoughts can produce a good Patronus, especially when those dementors are approaching in big numbers. But Rowling makes a heroic effort to produce a Patronus that can repel even a hundred dementors. Her books are in the end all about happiness.