Why Did Harry Live?
“The first question that I have never been asked–it has probably been asked in a chatroom but no one has ever asked me–is, ‘Why didnt Voldemort die?’ Not, ‘Why did Harry live?’ but, ‘Why didnt Voldemort die?'”
This is the important question to consider, according to JKR, and by making this statement at the Edinburgh Book Festival she has since spawned numerous speculations. I have been reminded of this remark lately having read editorials which attempt to illuminate Voldemort’s survival, most recently the excellent piece Blood Ties and Ancient Magic by simplybecky.
I must confess that it is in my nature to be contrary, and when specifically instructed to do something, I have an urge to do just the opposite. So my initial response was to consider instead, “Why did Harry live?” I doubt that JKR made this remark as a red herring, but her specific statement drew my attention to the fact that this question had not been satisfactorily answered in the text either.
JKR reminded us that we don’t really know why Voldemort didn’t die. Of course, the answer to that question had been alluded to in the books. In PS/SS, when Harry asks Hagrid what had become of Voldemort, Hagrid replies:
Some say he died. Codswallop, in my opinion. Dunno if he had enough human left in him to die.
When I first read PS/SS, I assumed that perhaps Voldemort was so evil, or so lacking in human emotions, that he could not die a human’s death. Now I know better. There is a method to the magic in the HP world. Like a branch of science, there are important, non-negotiable rules which are taught to the students of Hogwarts. JK Rowling explains these rules down to the most minute detail, whether it is why Colin Creevey’s camera works or why house-elves can apparate inside the castle walls. Her comment demonstrated again that Voldemort survived not because of any vague notions of good and evil, but because he took specific steps towards immortality.
That which is ambiguous in the books should stand as a marker; it is a sign that the matter is important and that in due course it will be explained. The issue of “Why Voldemort didn’t die” is thus similar to the question of “Why Harry didn’t die” because the answer to that question has also been explained in a vague, insufficient manner.
Why Harry Survived
There were four people in Godric’s Hollow the night that Voldemort gave Harry his scar. Two are dead, one has no solid memory of the incident, and the fourth is Voldemort. I defer to his version of the events, as told to the Death Eaters in GoF.
“You know, of course, that they have called this boy my downfall?” Voldemort said softly, his red eyes upon Harry, whose scar began to burn so fiercely that he almost screamed in agony. “You all know that on the night I lost my powers and my body, I tried to kill him. His mother died in the attempt to save him — and unwittingly provided him with a protection I admit I had not foreseen…I could not touch the boy.”
“His mother left upon him the traces of her sacrifice…This is old magic, I should have remembered it, I was foolish to overlook it… but no matter. I can touch him now.”“I miscalculated, my friends, I admit it. My curse was deflected by the woman’s foolish sacrifice, and it rebounded upon myself.”
If evil is too vague a description for the magic that kept Voldemort from death, how can “Lily’s love” be a sufficient description for what saved Harry?
We know that Lily protected Harry with her sacrifice. This protection lingered in his blood, and was enough to enable Dumbledore to later protect Harry so that he would not be touched while in the house of his mothers blood relations. But how did this protection, this form of ancient magic, come about?
James and Lily knew that Voldemort wanted to kill them. They had defied Voldemort three times and must have known how powerful and terrible he was. Therefore, I am sure that they considered it to be a very real possibility that Voldemort would find them at Godric’s Hollow. I have trouble believing that they even fully trusted Peter Pettigrew; I’m sure that they did indeed suspect that someone close to them might betray them. This is evidenced in PoA, when Sirius discloses that no one told Lupin about Sirius and Pettigrew’s Secret Keeper switch because of the widespread fear and distrust in those times. Thus, the Potters must have realized that there was a strong likelihood that Voldemort would eventually find them, if not at Godric’s Hollow, then somewhere else, and attempt to kill them.
So the young parents desperately wanted to save their son’s life. More than just their love for him, if they knew about the prophecy, it would have occurred to them that if Harry were to die the chance to vanquish Voldemort might die with him. Even if they did not know explicitly what the prophecy said, I am sure Dumbledore hinted to them at the very least that Harry specifically was at risk from Voldemort, and saving his young life was of utmost importance. Therefore I am convinced that, as in the case of Voldemort, certain steps were taken to protect Harry. The final defense was Lily’s sacrifice.
I am proposing that while the Fidelius Charm was performed in order to protect all three Potters, additional measures were taken to protect only Harry. Lily’s sacrifice was therefore not done “unwittingly”; rather, she had decided that if Harry’s life was threatened, she would sacrifice herself for him as part of a protection spell, a form of ancient magic. The passage of protection through blood was therefore deliberate on Lily’s part.
This form of old magic is not to be confused with Dumbledore’s blood protection spell for Harry. As Voldemort recounts in GoF,
Dumbledore invoked an ancient magic, to ensure the boy’s protection as long as he is in his relations’ care. Not even I can touch him there…
This spell was instated after Lily and James had already died. I am referring to ancient magic performed by Lily before Harry’s death that would be analogous to the “old piece of Dark Magic” that revived Voldemort at the graveyard.
However, Voldemort himself announces that Lily passed on this protection “unwittingly.” I considered this possibility. Perhaps her emotions were so strong that terrible night that magic came without being called, such as when Harry blew up Aunt Marge, or when Neville bounced all the way down the garden after his Great Uncle Algie accidentally dropped him out of the upstairs window. It is a possibility that we cannot rule out. Nonetheless, there are several reasons why I believe that Lily’s sacrifice was done purposely to pass protection on to Harry.
First, as expressed above, I am sure Lily and James were made aware of the danger they and Harry were in by Dumbledore, and they must have established other, perhaps more sophisticated means of protecting specifically Harry.
Secondly, Harry is the only person in the history of the wizarding world to survive the Avada Kedavra curse. After killing a spider with the curse in GoF, Moody tells his class:
“Not nice,” he said calmly. “Not pleasant. And there’s no countercurse. There’s no blocking it. Only one known person has ever survived it, and he’s sitting right in front of me.”
For Harry to have been the only known survivor of this curse, I am certain that there must have been something intensely unusual about what happened that night. I don’t believe that if one person dies for another, it can be expected that the person who lives is guaranteed protection, regardless of the amount of love that was involved in the sacrifice.
The wizarding world was going through extremely dark times, and there was a great deal of death, and also a great deal of bravery. Lily dying to save Harry, though powerful, cannot have been the only occasion where someone died to save someone else. James sacrificed himself for Lily and Harry, yet Lily did not survive. Moreover, James’s protection does not linger on in Harry; the ancient magic is clearly associated with his mother’s blood rather than his father’s.
Thirdly, any other steps that could have been taken to protect Harry, I believe, must have been done by the Potters alone. This is because Dumbledore doesn’t know why Harry survived. In the first chapter of PS/SS, McGonagall asks Dumbledore how a baby could possibly have saved itself from the powerful Voldemort:
“We can only guess,” said Dumbledore. “We may never know.”
Though I had imagined that Dumbledore would likely be behind the survival of Harry, it does not seem to be the case based on this comment. Therefore, his final protection was up to his parents.
So if one accepts that there was more to Harry’s survival than what we have been told, what else could have been involved? We know that Harry’s protection resides in his blood, otherwise Dumbledore would not have been able to protect Harry when he was at the Dursleys. Blood often seems to be a central component of ancient magic. Therefore I imagine that Lily constructed a complex spell with her blood that would enable Harry to survive if she sacrificed herself for him.
I think it is important to briefly point out that the deliberateness of Lily’s sacrifice would not draw away from her love of her son or the bravery of her actions. The power of her emotions would be crucial to any such magic. As we saw with the Patronus, charms and spells are only as powerful as the emotion behind them.
I found it interesting that JKR mentioned the question “Why Voldemort didn’t die” so closely to the question of “Why did Harry live.” The answers have similar components. Blood is involved, along with ancient magic, and the death of a parent. Love and Hate are central. As these components were the ingredients to a spell performed by Voldemort at the end of GoF, perhaps they were also ingredients to a spell performed by Lily.
There are many interesting alternative arguments on Harry’s survival which involve his possible ancestors or unknown powers. However, I still think Lily’s sacrifice is a fundamental part of the equation, only that there is more to Lily’s sacrifice than what we have been told. It is a central theme in the books; many others have died, but Lily’s death is by far portrayed as the most powerful.
There is probably a great deal more to this ancient magic and to Harry’s survival than I would ever be able or even attempt to imagine. Based on the reasons given above, it seems most likely to me that Lily performed some ancient magic of her own to protect Harry, however I realize that for all of the questions I brought up, it is only one of many potential answers. The wonderful thing about the series is that there is always a multitude of possibilities.