Godric’s Hollow: Myth and Reality
by Jay Ortiz
What, then, can we determine from the actual text of the Harry Potter epic? Well, let us begin at the beginning. We learn very quickly that Harry Potter and his parents, James and Lily, were in hiding from Lord Voldemort in a place called Godric’s Hollow; that the Dark Lord found them there, and that he killed James and Lily, but that Harry somehow survived.(33) Harry was, at the time, only a few months older than one year, and therefore he has only the most ephemeral memories of what actually happened; basically, at the beginning, he remembers only a flash of green light, pain(34) and a high, cold, cruel laugh,(35) and something vague about a flying motorcycle.(36)
What we initially learn about what actually happened that Halloween and what Harry even to this day believes is exclusively derived from what other people, who were not present, say about it. The first account is given by Rubeus Hagrid, when he finally delivers Harry’s invitation to enroll at Hogwarts and realizes to his horror that Harry has never been told his parents were murdered by Voldemort:
All anyone knows is, he turned up in the village where you was all living, on Halloween ten years ago. You was just a year old. He came ter yer house an’ – an’ You-Know-Who killed em. An’ then – an’ this is the real mystry of the thing – he tried to kill you, too . . . . But he couldn’t do it. Never wondered how you got that mark on yer forehead? That was no ordinary cut. Thats what yeh get when a powerful, evil curse touches yeh – took care of yer mum an dad an yer house, even – but it didnt work on you, an’ thats why yer famous, Harry. No one ever lived after he tried to kill ’em, no one except you, an’ he’d killed some o’ the best witches an’ wizards of the age . . . an’ you was only a baby, an’ you lived.(37)
This story is repeated, wholly or in part but always in essentially the same form, by many people throughout the first six books. There is no reason to catalogue all of the tellers of the tale, or all of the times it is told, but it must be emphasized that – in its essentials – the story is always the same. It is what everyone in the wizarding world – and virtually everyone in the larger community of Harry Potter readers – believes.
Gradually, we learn additional background information (particularly the role of Dumbledore in suggesting that James and Lily and their son go into hiding protected by the Fidelius Charm, and the parts played by Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew in their betrayal),(38) until we are convinced that we know the entire story – but we do not.
It appears from a strict reading of the narrative that there were only four persons present at Godric’s Hollow: James and Lily Potter, who are dead; Lord Voldemort, who was reduced to something less than human by what occurred there; and Harry Potter himself, who was barely more than one year old and has only indistinct memories of what took place. As far as can be determined after six books, no one else knows what actually transpired that night between the time Voldemort arrived at the house and the moment Hagrid entered the ruins; only one of the four who were there can tell the entire story, and he has not.
There is, however, a likelihood that someone else was present, perhaps not in the house but near enough to have witnessed what occurred.(39) Dumbledore clearly knew everything that had transpired before he dispatched Hagrid to bring Harry to Privet Drive.(40) Although his description to Professor McGonagall of what occurred(41) does not eliminate the possibility that he himself was present, it seems unlikely. If he had been there (or had visited during the infamous missing day), he would have been able to rescue Harry himself rather than send Hagrid. Somehow, though, Dumbledore knew exactly what had transpired; therefore, someone else must have communicated that information to the headmaster.
In the absence of a witness, neither Dumbledore nor, by the time he spoke with McGonagall, the entire wizarding community, could have known that Voldemort had been defeated. All that anyone could have learned if he arrived on the scene after the confrontation was that James and Lily Potter were dead but Harry was not, and that Voldemort was missing. There would have been no way to know that Voldemort had attacked Harry and that when he couldn’t kill Harry Potter, [his] power somehow broke and thats why hes gone.(42) We are not, of course, told directly that there was a witness, much less who it may have been or why he did not attempt to intervene in the struggle, but Ms. Rowling pointedly left that possibility open on July 16, 2005.(43) In order for the significance of Voldemorts disappearance to have become public knowledge, there almost certainly had to be a fifth person present; if there had been no witness, no one would have even suspected he had been reduced to Vapormort after the attack. He would merely have disappeared most people would have assumed he just walked (or Apparated) away, and there would have been no reason for the widespread celebrations that were so uninhibited they were noticed even by the clueless Muggles.
In addition, the presence of a witness would resolve another troublesome plot issue: why did Bellatrix Lestrange and her fellow Death Eaters believe that Frank Longbottom had knowledge of the present whereabouts of [their] exiled master?(44) Dumbledore clearly was a believer in protection in depth; at Privet Drive, he did not rely merely on the protection of Harry afforded by his mothers family, nor on the charms and spells that, as at Hogwarts, he probably placed around the Dursleys house. He also provided for a sentinel – Arabella Figg(45) – to observe and report. Similarly at Godric’s Hollow, it seems highly unlikely Dumbledore would have failed to post a look-out to supplement the protections of the Fidelius Charm. If there was such a witness, it seems highly likely that it was Frank Longbottom – Neville’s father, who was an accomplished Auror and had already defied Voldemort as many times as James Potter.(46)
If Frank Longbottom had been surprised and stupefied by Voldemort, he might have been unable to assist James and Lily but he would have witnessed what occurred. And, when Voldemort was struck by the spell intended to kill Harry, Longbottom would have been released from the stupefying spell, just as Harry was the moment the headmaster died on the Astronomy Tower – too late to help James and Lily, but in time to send word to Dumbledore. This would explain how the news of Voldemort’s defeat became known so quickly. And, Frank Longbottom’s presence as a witness as the last person to have seen Voldemort would explain why Bellatrix Lestrange, Barty Crouch Jr. and the other Death Eaters would have believed Frank had knowledge of the [Dark Lords] present whereabouts.(47) Horrified as we have been at the torture of Frank Longbottom and his wife torture by the Cruciatus Curse so severe that both were driven insane we have never understood why Bellatrix and the others might have believed he knew where they could find Voldemort. If, though, Frank Longbottom had been the last person to actually see Voldemort, it would have been logical if nonetheless appalling for Bellatrix to have subjected him to the Cruciatus Curse.(48)
Since no one else was present (except perhaps Frank Longbottom, who cannot now tell anyone what happened), the details of what actually took place at Godric’s Hollow remain largely unknown. Harry’s survival has, in the wizarding world, been transformed into a cultural myth and, as in all myths, fact and belief have become merged. One element of belief as opposed to fact has become central to the story of the boy who lived,(49) and that is that Harry is the only person known to have survived the Avada Kedavra Killing Curse.(50) Mad-Eye Moody makes that specific statement in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,(51) but its substance is repeated – over and over – by literally dozens of characters throughout the first six books, and everyone — including Dumbledore and Harry himself – believes it to be true. Yet, there is no direct evidence in the narrative that Lord Voldemort did cast the Avada Kedavra curse at Harry, and every reason to conclude that he did not.
To suggest that Lord Voldemort did not cast the Avada Kedavra curse at Harry is to invite surprise, consternation, and probably accusations of heresy from the countless readers who believe in the very depths of their souls that Harry, alone in all of wizarding history, survived the Killing Curse. Yet, no one except Harry and Voldemort (and perhaps the now silent Frank Longbottom) were present when and if it happened; James and Lily were already dead, and there were no other eyewitnesses. Harry clearly does not remember and, interestingly, Lord Voldemort nowhere says that it was the Avada Kedavra curse that rebounded and stripped him of his powers. In short, it is absolutely irrefutable that, except for hearsay by individuals who were not present, there is no textual evidence that Harry survived the Avada Kedavra curse – but there is firm evidence in the actual narrative that it did not happen.
(33) SS, p. 12.
(34) SS, p. 29.
(35) SS, p. 56.
(36) SS, pp. 25-26.
(37) SS, pp. 55-56.
(38) POA, pp. 204-205, 365.
(39) Many readers have speculated that Dumbledore, since he could become invisible even without an invisibility cloak (SS, p. 213), was present at Godric’s Hollow, but there is absolutely nothing anywhere in the text that supports such a theory.
(40) SS, pp. 10-16.
(41) SS, pp. 10-12.
(42) SS, p. 12.
(43) In an interview given after publication of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Ms. Rowling pointedly refused to answer the question whether or not there was someone else present at Godric’s Hollow, even when it was asked directly (Mugglenet and The Leaky Cauldron Interview with J.K. Rowling, July 16, 2005); therefore, it is possible and indeed it seems likely that she may have a surprise in store for us in the final book.
(44) GOF, p. 595.
(45) OOTP, pp. 20-24.
(46) OOTP, p. 842.
(47) GOF, p. 595.
(48) GOF, p. 594-595.
(49) SS, p. 17.
(50) GOF, p. 216.
(51) GOF, p. 216.