Godric’s Hollow: The Avada Kedavra Curse?
And so he needed (or so he thought) for Lily to stand aside, rather than to die, so that he could cast the spell that would transform Harry into his final Horcrux. Obviously, she refused repeatedly, but Voldemort was not to be deterred. He cast the spell that killed her but it was not the Avada Kedavra curse, and it was not aimed at her. It was, rather, the spell that would transfer a fragment of his soul into Harry – but Lily was in the way. We do not know whether she physically placed herself in the path of the spell, or whether she protected Harry solely through her love for him, although it seems likely that she was struggling with Voldemort and therefore may have affected his aim. Either way, her love was a barrier against the spell.
But wait, many readers will say. Voldemort himself stated he attempted to kill Harry;(69) does this not imply, if not expressly state, that he used the Avada Kedavra curse, since we know of no other spell that kills? Once again, Ms. Rowling has herself given us the answer. What would have happened when Voldemort cast the spell that would have transferred a piece of his own soul into a person who already had a soul? It must be recalled that this was the first time Voldemort had attempted to transform a living being into a Horcrux, and Harry was something more than merely any living being more, for example, than a snake. He was a person who already possessed a complete and uninjured soul, a soul that was given him by his mother and his father. What would happen, when the Horcrux spell struck such a person? Ms. Rowling has provided the answer: that person would die, just as Ginny was clearly dying(70) when Tom Riddle gradually began pouring a little of my soul back into her.(71) The diarys slow transfer of its soul fragment into Ginny had nearly robbed her of her own soul and life when Harry intervened.(72) Even without Ms. Rowling’s disclosure, simple logic would lead to the same conclusion: to the extent that it is a soul that makes a person unique, it is inconceivable that any single body could contain two souls. If a human being is to be transformed into a Horcrux for the safekeeping of one soul, then the pre-existing soul of that person must be destroyed. Therefore, by casting the Horcrux spell at Harry, Voldemort was truly [trying] to kill him to destroy the very thing that created Harry’s unique identity, his very self – as he affirmed to Harry and the Death Eaters.(73) Would this kill the body that had housed Harry’s soul. Perhaps, but not necessarily, since that body would now house a different soul. But Harry or what made him Harry would no longer exist. If his body no longer contained Harry’s soul, then Harry himself would be dead, even if his physical body continued to live.
In a sense (to invoke our own cultural myth involving a snake), Voldemort was trying to take two bites of the forbidden apple. If, by casting the Horcrux spell at him, Voldemort were to succeed in killing Harry, then he would no longer have to worry about the prophecy, for he would have destroyed the one with the “power to vanquish”(74) him while his mortal enemy was still an infant and unable to exercise that power. If, on the other hand, Harry were somehow to survive, Voldemort would have substituted his own soul for Harry’s and, when they later faced each other, both of their bodies would have contained replications of the same soul Voldemort’s and therefore it would not matter to the Dark Lords immortality if Harry were to vanquish him. By choosing the Horcrux spell to kill Harry, rather than the Avada Kedavra curse, Voldemort was providing himself some insurance prudently, since no one could know with certainty what would happen if a person rather than an inanimate object was the intended Horcrux. Voldemort would be assured of survival either way, and surely that would have been worth the commitment of his final soul fragment.
So, what went wrong? Why did Voldemort’s ingenious, if evil, scheme fail? He was too impatient; he simply forgot the power of a mothers love. He should have killed Lily, rather than giving her the opportunity to stand aside.(75) As long as she lived, she would sacrifice anything to save the soul of her only child and she did save it.
Before proceeding any further, it must be repeated that, after killing James Potter, Lord Voldemort cast only one more spell, not two, at Godric’s Hollow. The myths related by Hagrid and others almost invariably imply that Voldemort killed James, then he killed Lily, and only thereafter did he attempt to kill Harry. The firm belief of most readers, therefore, is that Lily was already dead when Voldemort attacked Harry.
Yet, this is simply not what happened. We know with absolute certainty that no spell was cast by the Dark Lord’s wand at Godric’s Hollow after he killed Lily Potter. There was only one, after James was murdered, and it was the one that killed Harry’s mother. When their wands locked at the Little Hangleton cemetery and the Priori Incantatem – “the Reverse Spell effect”(76) took place, “Harry’s wand force[d] [Voldemort’s wand] to regurgitate spells it has performed in reverse. The most recent first . . . and then those which preceded it”.(77) From the Dark Lords wand emerged the shades or shadows of Pettigrews silver hand and then, in reverse order, the five most recent victims of Voldemort’s killing spells: Cedric Diggory, Frank Bryce, Bertha Jorkins, Lily Potter and James Potter.(78) Placing the three that are relevant in their correct chronological order, Lord Voldemort murdered James Potter, Lily Potter and then Bertha Jorkins.(79) There was no spell cast by Lord Voldemort’s wand between the one that killed Lily Potter and the one that murdered Bertha Jorkins. In other words, after the spell that killed Lily, Voldemort did not cast a single additional spell at Godric’s Hollow. Therefore, if Harry was attacked at all, that attack was accomplished by exactly the same spell that killed his mother. Voldemort did not murder Lily and then attack Harry; he repeatedly told Lily to stand aside.(80) What actually happened was that, after he killed James, he then immediately attempted to kill Harry, and it was this single spell that literally changed the course of the wizarding world.
The spell he cast at Harry was intended to kill him, but it was not the Avada Kedavra curse; it was the so-far-unnamed spell that dark wizards use to create a Horcrux. Voldemort’s own wand told us that there was only one spell, and everything else in the narrative tells us that it was not Avada Kedavra.
The spell, aimed at Harry, was intercepted and deflected by Lily perhaps because she leaped into its path, or perhaps because Harry’s own soul was defended by her love. Either way, it did not directly hit its target. Voldemort’s precise description of what happened is crucial: “[m]y curse was deflected [emphasis added] by the woman’s foolish sacrifice.”(81) What this tells us is that the spell did not backfire; it was deflected and did not directly hit its target Harry and therefore Harry was not killed; Voldemort’s soul did not displace the boys own. However, the spell not only failed to strike Harry with its full force it actually did four things before its deflected power was exhausted. First, when it hit her, the spell was lethal to Lily perhaps because she was not the intended Horcrux, or perhaps simply because of its evil and its power. When she deflected the spell,(82) it was obviously violent, random and destructive, and three additional things happened: Harry suffered an injury to his forehead, Voldemort was reduced to something less than human, and the entire house was destroyed. Let us consider, not in chronological order, what each of these effects tells us.
First, despite the firm beliefs of virtually everyone in the wizarding and reading worlds that Harry survived the Avada Kedavra Killing Curse, there is absolutely nothing in the narrative that actually tells us this is the spell Voldemort hurled at Harry. In fact, what happened to the Potters’ house is strong evidence it was not. As Dumbledore explained to Harry, the Avada Kedavra curse does not usually leave any sign of damage;(83) it appears to be remarkably precise and surgical. The curse or spell that Voldemort cast at Harry — and that rebounded(84) [not backfired(85)] upon himself and hurled him into his Vapormort state caused huge devastation, however, destroying the Potters’ entire house and leaving it in ruins.(86)
Virtually every time we have actually seen it used, the Avada Kedavra curse has left no visible trace at all. When Mad-Eye Moody demonstrated it in his Defense Against the Dark Arts class, the unfortunate spider simply rolled onto its back, unmarked.(87) Frank Bryce merely crumpled.(88) After Voldemort murdered his father and paternal grandparents, ”[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. In fact . . . the Riddles all appeared to be in perfect health apart from the fact that they were all dead.”(89) Cedric Diggory simply fell to the ground.(90) The sole exception is Snape’s Avada Kedavra, which appeared to lift Dumbledore from the floor and hurl him over the battlements of the Astronomy Tower.(91) There was obviously more to Snape’s apparent murder of Dumbledore than met the eye, however, and it seems certain that we will learn more in the final book about what Snape actually did. For reasons of space if nothing else, this is not the place to enter into the Dumbledore is not dead debate. Ms. Rowling has told us that he is dead, and in the context of this analysis, nothing more need be said. We will leave the mystery of what actually happened on the Astronomy Tower for its proper place in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
We have, however, actually seen several Avada Kedavra curses miss their targets or be deflected. Voldemort’s poorly aimed Avada Kedavra curses in the Ministry of Magic did not appear to do any significant collateral damage. One glanced off the golden statue of the wizard, but did no other damage. Another simply missed and hit the security guards desk, which burst into flame but did not exactly bring the building tumbling down. A third directly hit a statue, which shattered, but again there was no further damage, while the fourth was simply swallowed by Fawkes.(92) The Avada Kedavra curse does not seem especially destructive except, of course, to the life of an individual it hits directly; the devastation of the Potters’ house in Godric’s Hollow simply does not appear characteristic of an Avada Kedavra curse. In particular, the Avada Kedavra curse that merely glanced off(93) the golden statue in the Ministry of Magic is exactly analogous to the curse Voldemort cast and Lily deflected in Godric’s Hollow. The Avada Kedavra curse that glanced off the statue did no damage; the spell that Lily deflected destroyed an entire building. It is therefore obvious that the curse Lily deflected(94) was not the same as the one that glanced off the statue; it simply was not an Avada Kedavra.
Secondly, the rebounding spell hit Voldemort himself, and “I was ripped from my body, I was less than spirit, less than the meanest ghost . . . but still, I was alive. What I was, even I do not know . . .”(95) The Dark Lord was the victim of his own spell – a spell that should have killed him(96) but, for some reason, did not. What happened to him seems clear: The spell was partially successful and destroyed the one-seventh of his soul that was still in his body. He was, literally, ”less than spirit, less than the meanest ghost.”(97) To be less than spirit clearly implies that Vapormort was without a soul; what he was, neither he(98) nor we know, but clearly he was no longer human. His own description of himself makes clear that, whatever he was, he no longer possessed even a fragment of his soul.
As he told Harry and the Death Eaters, “it appeared that one or more of my experiments had worked, and therefore I had not been killed.”(99) Precisely what experiments did he mean? Clearly, his Horcruxes; one or more of them had worked, and it was only his soul fragments, encased in their Horcruxes, that prevented the rebounding spell from destroying him entirely.
For all the years between Godric’s Hollow and his regeneration at the end of Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts, Voldemort’s existence was pathetic – he was reduced to drinking unicorn blood, possessing the bodies of snakes and weak wizards, attempting to steal the Sorcerer’s Stone, trying to insert his soul into Ginny Weasley, feeding on a snake’s venom, and undertaking countless other desperate expedients to prolong his existence.(100) Yet, it does seem likely that what truly anchored Vapormort to the earth – what kept, although “less than spirit, less than the meanest ghost,”(101) nonetheless in a state that can barely be described as alive were the soul fragments encased in his Horcruxes. As Voldemort himself stated, his curse should have killed himself, but “one or more of my experiments had worked.”(102)
Some will argue that Dumbledore appears to have concluded the part of Voldemort’s soul that was in his body before the curse rebounded was not destroyed at Godric’s Hollow.(103) However, if Dumbledore’s actual words are examined closely, that is not what he said. His actual words were ”[t]he seventh part of his soul, however maimed, resides inside his regenerated body. That was the part of him that lived a spectral existence for so many years during his exile; without that, he has no self at all.”(104) It resides in his regenerated body; Ms. Rowling’s use of the present tense is significant, for the following sentence is stated in the past tense. It is there now, but that is not the same as saying that it had been there all the time. The exact words are crucial, and are characteristic of the care with which Ms. Rowling uses language.
What, precisely, did Dumbledore mean by “[t]he seventh part of his soul?”(105) The answer may lie simply in the common usage of the English language. The very first time Tom Riddle split his soul, to create the ring Horcrux, what happened? His soul was split into two pieces; the first remained in his body, and the second was deposited in the ring. Then, he split his soul again, to create the diary Horcrux; this time it was the third piece of his soul that he transferred into the Horcrux. The progression continues: the fourth fragment of his soul was deposited into the locket, the fifth into the cup, and the sixth into Ravenclaws relic. It was, therefore, the seventh part of his soul (106) (emphasis added) that he planned to transfer into a Horcrux at Godric’s Hollow. Dumbledore’s conclusion is entirely consistent with this analysis. The first piece of Voldemort’s soul was the one that was still in his own body when he cast the Horcrux spell at Godric’s Hollow, and the seventh piece was what he split off through Jamess murder to transfer into his sixth Horcrux. When the Horcrux spell was deflected by Lily and rebounded upon Voldemort, it did in part exactly what he intended it to do (except that it did it to the wrong person): it destroyed the pre-existing soul of the person (Voldemort himself) who was hit by the spell. In other words, Voldemort’s spell at Godric’s Hollow destroyed the first part of his own soul.
But, what happened to the soul fragment (the seventh part of his soul) that Voldemort intended to transfer into Harry? Once again, from the text, the answer appears clear. The Horcrux spell was deflected by Lily, killing her. Although deflected, it nonetheless did hit Harry, before it rebounded upon Voldemort himself. What struck Harry, though, was apparently a glancing blow, since his mother had interfered with it. Clearly, it did not hit him directly enough to destroy his own soul Lilys love assured that but it did hit him strongly enough to create no ordinary cut; it was ”what yeh get when a powerful, evil curse touches yeh” (emphasis added).(107)
The order in which everything happened is the key. The spell hit Lily first, killing her, but she deflected it, and the next person it struck was Harry not directly enough to kill his own soul, but powerfully enough to create the lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead. Only then, after it had been deflected off Harry, did it rebound and strike Voldemort. It is the Dark Lords own words that differentiate between deflected and rebounded, and tell us the order in which they occurred: ”My curse was deflected by the woman’s foolish sacrifice, and it rebounded upon myself.”(108) It was not deflected back at him – it was deflected somewhere else (i.e., it hit Harry), and only then did it rebound. And, in the course of its wild and random path, it destroyed the entire house. From this description – derived solely from Ms. Rowling’s narrative it is clear that Voldemort cast the Horcrux spell, not the Avada Kedavra.
(69) GOF, p. 652.
(70) COS, p. 307.
(71) COS, p. 310.
(72) COS, pp. 307, 311.
(73) GOF, p. 652.
(74) OOTP, p. 841.
(75) POA, pp. 179, 239, 240.
(76) GOF, p. 697.
(77) GOF, p. 697.
(78) GOF, pp. 665-667.
(79) Actually, there were at least three additional spells that Voldemort cast after the one that created Pettigrews silver hand but before the wands locked, but which did not emerge from his wand the Cruciatus curse that he cast at Avery, the Cruciatus he cast at Harry, and the unnamed spell that caused Harry to bow (GOF, pp. 648, 657, 660). Although they are not strictly relevant to what happened at Godric’s Hollow, this does seem to create an inconsistency since none of these emerged from his wand; why were they omitted? One possible answer is that the only spells regurgitated by a wand under Priori Incantantem are the ones that are significant e.g., Killing Curses. However, the wand did emit Pettigrews hand, which was not a Killing Curse and certainly the Cruciatus is significant. The most probable answer has more to do with plot constraints than with internal consistency: if Ms. Rowling had included every spell cast by Voldemort’s wand, the list would have been lengthy and would have attracted premature notice by readers. By listing only the six, Ms. Rowling gave us the essential information, without creating unnecessary emphasis or confusion.
(80) POA, pp. 179, 239, 240.
(81) GOF, p. 653.
(82) GOF, p. 653.
(83) HBP, p. 366.
(84) GOF, p. 653.
(85) COS, p. 331.
(86) POA, p. 206.
(87) GOF, p. 216.
(88) GOF, p. 15.
(89) GOF, p. 4.
(90) GOF, p. 638.
(91) HBP, p. 596. Even so, Dumbledore’s body does not seem to have been marked by the curse.
(92) OOTP, pp. 813-815.
(93) OOTP, p. 813.
(94) GOF, p. 653.
(95) GOF, p. 653.
(96) GOF, p. 653.
(97) GOF, p. 653.
(98) GOF, p. 653.
(99) GOF, p. 653.
(100) See, e.g., GOF, pp. 654, 656.
(101) GOF, p. 653.
(102) GOF, p. 653.
(103) HBP, p. 503.
(104) HBP, p. 503.
(105) HBP, p. 503.
(106) HBP, p. 503.
(107) SS, p. 55.
(108) GOF, p. 653.