Subplots, Themes, and the Final Confrontation

by Jay Ortiz

J. Subplots and Themes

To place Lord Voldemort’s Horcruxes –– and especially the sixth –– in context and to understand their significance in the overall plot of the Harry Potter epic, several additional, if perhaps obvious, matters must be addressed. The first is that the sixth will be the final and most important Horcrux that Harry must identify and understand before his ultimate confrontation with Lord Voldemort. At some point toward the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, only the fear that this Horcrux may not have been neutralized will stand between Harry and his destiny; for this reason, if for no other, the sixth Horcrux is the most important of them all. Whatever the sixth repository for Voldemort’’s soul fragments may have been, Harry will have to determine – with absolute certainty – that the object is no longer a Horcrux before he will dare to meet his adversary in their final duel. If a replication of Voldemort’’s soul still remains in its Horcrux, then it will avail Harry nothing to emerge victorious when finally he and Voldemort meet for the last time. The Dark Lord cannot be truly defeated as long as there remains a fragment of his soul that he might retrieve to restore his powers. Harry simply cannot risk sacrificing his own life until he is certain his potential victory will completely “vanquish”(148) – rather than merely wound – his adversary.

Secondly, there are numerous subplots that are likely to come together as prelude to or part of Harry’’s final confrontation with the Dark Lord. Perhaps the most obvious is what has come to be called the “life debt” that Peter Pettigrew owes Harry for preventing Sirius Black and Remus Lupin from killing him in the Shrieking Shack.(149) As Dumbledore explained:

“Pettigrew owes his life to you. You have sent Voldemort a deputy who is in your debt . . . . When one wizard saves another wizard’s life, it creates a certain bond between them.

* * * * *
“This is magic at its deepest, its most impenetrable, Harry. But trust me . . . the time may come when you will be very glad you saved Pettigrew’’s life.”(150)

Ms. Rowling told us this in the third book but, as we await the seventh, there has been no further hint as to the role this “life debt” may play in Harry’’s ultimate confrontation with Voldemort. Pettigrew has appeared since then only three times: helping Lord Voldemort to survive in his “Vapormort” state while listening to his plan to regain his full powers;(151) lending a hand (literally) at the eerie ceremony in the Little Hangleton cemetery when the Dark Lord returned;(152) and trying to eavesdrop on Snape’’s conversation with Bellatrix Lestrange and Narcissa Malfoy at Spinner’’s End.(153) In terms of the major plot, Pettigrew has had no relevance since the third book. Yet, every reader remembers the “life debt,” and wonders when and how it will be repaid. It is a certainty that sometime in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Peter Pettigrew will repay that debt, and that the repayment will in some manner include a betrayal of the Dark Lord.

Yet another subplot that has all readers wondering relates to Severus Snape and his true loyalties. Although virtually every other character distrusts him and wonders if Dumbledore was mistaken,(154) Snape has from the very beginning enjoyed the headmaster’s complete confidence.(155) Again and again, however, Dumbledore has refused to share the reasons for his trust in Professor Snape.(156) Even after the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, when Snape cast the Avada Kedavra curse that killed Dumbledore,(157) there has remained passionate debate among readers regarding his true loyalties – is he is one of the villains or one of the heroes? This question will be definitively answered in the final book, and the answer will unquestionably have great significance in Harry’’s final confrontation with Voldemort. This author, at least, is inclined to trust Dumbledore’’s judgment, and to believe that Snape’’s role –– although previously ambiguous –– will be disclosed to have contributed more greatly to Voldemort’’s ultimate defeat than any of us have yet imagined.

Regardless of Snape’’s true loyalties, the ambiguity itself is an important subplot in Ms. Rowling’’s story. These are not simply children’s books; they are much more than that. Right and wrong, good and evil, loyalty and treachery – none of these are absolutes, in Harry Potter’s world. Virtually the only absolute good – and the only unconquerable power – is love. As in the reality that Ms. Rowling’’s readers confront every day, Harry and his friends have to make choices, often based on partial or even erroneous information; her magical world, like our own, is composed not solely of good and evil, but of varying degrees of each. Dumbledore himself, powerful and wise as he is, makes mistakes – sometimes great ones.(158) Even Hermione, who begins with a rather tiresome respect for rules and authority, becomes capable of lying and rule-breaking and even violence when, in her rational judgment, the greater good (or the lesser evil) requires it.(159) Although to many he seems the very personification of evil, Lord Voldemort himself is the result of the choices that Tom Riddle made, based as much on his fears and insecurities as on his arrogance and power – and it was his own choice that, fatefully, designated Harry as the one with the power to vanquish him.(160) Harry too is reminded by Dumbledore, in the single, now-famous sentence that perhaps best encapsulates the entire moral context of the books, that “[i]t is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”(161)

Thus, the ambiguities in Snape’’s role serve a larger purpose than merely to mask his true loyalties; they demonstrate, with great clarity, that it is often difficult to differentiate between right and wrong, that sometimes appearances are not merely deceptive but affirmatively incorrect, that motivations and actions sometimes have little apparent correlation – that, in other words, life itself is complex and confusing and uncertain. As difficult as our own choices may be, Snape demonstrates that it is often impossible even to identify the choices made by others, much less to understand their motivations. On that level – regardless of the role he will play in the final book – Severus Snape is the definitive answer to those who condemn these books based on absolutist grounds of good versus evil; neither life nor these books is quite that simple.

Finally, although not technically a subplot, there is another fundamental theme that recurs throughout the books, and that, one must suspect, will be brought to fruition in the final confrontation between Harry and Lord Voldemort – the theme that murder is wrong in an absolute moral sense.(162) Not only is it “an act of violation . . . against nature,”(163) but it is an act so evil that it “rips the soul apart.”(164) It appears that, in the morality of Ms. Rowling’’s magical world, killing – except in self-defense or in the defense of others – is simply never justified. Just as love is an absolute good, murder is an equally absolute evil. Thus, although Peter Pettigrew betrayed his parents and caused their murders at the hands of Voldemort – although, in any system of justice in the civilized world, he would have earned the harshest penalty allowed by law – Harry intervenes and prevents Sirius Black and Remus Lupin from killing him: “I’m not doing this for [Pettigrew]. I’m doing it because – I don’t reckon my dad would’ve wanted them to become killers – just for [Pettigrew].”(165) Instead, Harry tells his father’s friends, “[h]e can go to Azkaban . . . . If anyone deserves that place, he does.”(166)

This is not by any means an act of mercy: incarceration at Azkaban, Ms. Rowling makes clear, is indeed the proverbial fate worse than death. To be imprisoned there, without hope of release or escape, is to be surrounded by the prison’s guards, the dementors, who ““leech all the happiness out of ‘‘em,””(167) who literally “”suck the happiness out of a place.””(168) As the Minister of Magic says, ““most of the prisoners in there sit muttering to themselves in the dark; there’’s no sense in them.””(169) Dementors “”[s]ort of freeze your insides,””(170) and ““[feed] upon . . . hope, happiness, the desire to survive.””(171) As Lupin explains to Harry:

“Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them . . . . Get too near a dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself . . . soul-less and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.

“[Azkaban] is set on a tiny island, way out to sea, but they don’’t need walls and water to keep the prisoners in, not when they’’re all trapped inside their own heads, incapable of a single cheerful thought. Most of them go mad within weeks.”(172)

No, there is simply no way that sparing Peter Pettigrew’’s life was an act of mercy; to consign him to the non-existent mercies of the dementors was a supreme act of vengeance on Harry’’s part – just revenge for the murder of his parents, perhaps, but certainly cold and hard and without any trace of pity. However, the significance of this goes even deeper into the mores of Ms. Rowling’’s magical world. Harry was not merely saving Peter’s life, worthless though he obviously and justifiably regarded it. Rather, he was saving Remus and Sirius from committing what is the only truly unforgivable act – murder. He was preventing them from tearing their own souls apart – however justified their killing of Pettigrew might have been, it was not worth the damage it would have done to themselves.

There is yet another significant decision to refrain from killing, even when otherwise appropriate, at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The battle that occurred in the Ministry of Magic between the members of the Order of the Phoenix and the Death Eaters could, when both Voldemort and Dumbledore appeared, have been the final – as well as the first – battle of the second war. Clearly, although at great cost, the Order of the Phoenix had prevailed over the Death Eaters,(173) except for Bellatrix Lestrange, who was overtaken and attacked by Harry as she fled. When he was unable to conquer her by his own first attempt at an Unforgivable Curse,(174) Harry in effect himself summoned Voldemort. It must be remembered that Harry had failed miserably at Occlumency, and that Voldemort was still reading his thoughts; thus, when Harry informed a horrified Bellatrix that the glass orb containing the prophecy had been smashed,(175) Voldemort – enraged at the failure of his followers and unwilling to listen to Bellatrix’s “sniveling apologies”(176) – appeared in person to exact revenge upon Harry.(177)

Clearly – because Harry had not included it in the thoughts Voldemort had read – the Dark Lord was not yet aware that Dumbledore was on the scene.(178) However, when Dumbledore appeared in the great hall, Voldemort immediately commenced an aggressive attack on the headmaster, repeatedly hurling the Avada Kedavra curse at him. Dumbledore calmly deflected all of his increasingly frantic curses, although once he had to be saved by the intervention of Fawkes, who swallowed the curse and was consumed in flames.(179) Yet, under mortal attack himself and with the opportunity to rid the magical world of its greatest scourge (or at least to eliminate one more of his soul fragments), Dumbledore himself chose not to attempt to kill Lord Voldemort, even in a one-on-one duel in which he clearly was the stronger:

“’You do not seek to kill me, Dumbledore? . . . . Above such brutality, are you?’
“’We both know that there are other ways of destroying a man, Tom,’ Dumbledore said calmly . . . . ‘Merely taking your life would not satisfy me, I admit – ‘
“’There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore,’ snarled Voldemort.
“’You are quite wrong,’ said Dumbledore . . . . ‘Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness.’”

Like Harry in the Shrieking Shack, Dumbledore made a choice that he would not kill or sanction the killing of a truly evil person. No matter how great the crime, no matter how great a benefit to civilization the elimination of that person might be – even, in this case, when himself being attacked – Dumbledore, like Harry, chose not to kill. Yet, his restraint cannot be construed as mercy: there are indeed things that are worse than death, and Dumbledore’’s total lack of pity is clear from his statement that ““[m]erely taking your life would not satisfy me.””(181) Dumbledore, again like Harry, clearly intended that the evil person whose life he was intentionally sparing would in fact suffer a fate more horrible than death. Vengeance, retribution and punishment were clearly intended; yet, killing the evil-doer was neither justified nor sufficient.

This premise – that no crime, no evil, is sufficiently terrible to warrant the damage to one’s own soul that would result from execution of the perpetrator – is a fundamentally moral judgment that seems to underlie all of the Harry Potter books. Retribution and punishment are appropriate, but to descend to the level of the murderer is unacceptable.

Yet, if this is one of the two most fundamental moral absolutes in Ms. Rowling’’s world, we must somehow reconcile it with the apparent requirements of the Lost Prophecy of Sibyll Trelawney, uttered in Dumbledore’’s presence in a dingy room at the Hog’s Head:


As Dumbledore explains to Harry, the prophecy might have applied either to Neville Longbottom or to Harry, and it was the choice made by Voldemort that determined their respective fates. Nonetheless, it is now clear that Harry is “the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord,” and, based on the prophecy, Harry concludes and Dumbledore seems to agree that either he must kill Voldemort or Voldemort will kill him:

“’[S]o does that mean that . . . one of us has got to kill the other . . . in the end?’
“’Yes,’ said Dumbledore.”

It is clear that Voldemort will, at the end, attempt one final time to kill Harry. He believes the prophecy: “Voldemort continues to set store by the prophecy. He will continue to hunt you . . . which makes it certain, really that –.”(184) The Dark Lord is truly evil, and is not bound by the morality that governs Dumbledore and Harry and, hopefully, their world and ours. Yet, it is less clear that Harry, in order to “vanquish”(185) the Dark Lord, must in fact kill him. As Harry understands and Dumbledore concurs, “I’ve got to try and kill him,”(186) but trying – even intending – to kill him is not the same as actually doing it. Although Dumbledore could not undermine Harry’’s resolve by suggesting to him that his goal had to be anything less – that in fact he could fulfill the prophecy without having to cast the Killing Curse – the fundamental moral logic of Ms. Rowling’’s story suggests that Harry will not, at the end, rip apart his own soul in order to defeat Voldemort. It must be recalled that Harry is the one with the power to “vanquish the Dark Lord,”(187) and as Dumbledore has reminded Voldemort, “your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness.”(188) Harry must be prepared to kill, in self-defense if for no other reason, and Dumbledore had to assure that he was ready to do that. Yet, the conclusion, particularly in view of Ms. Rowling’’s apparent abhorrence of murder, seems inescapable: Harry’’s destiny is to “vanquish” the Dark Lord, not to kill him, and Voldemort’’s death is not necessarily – or even desirably – the only way he can accomplish that mission. Who among us would not like to see Lord Voldemort suffer something “much worse than death”? Who among us would not cheer if Voldemort’’s fate were to become “”soul-less . . . [and] . . . left with nothing but the worst experiences of [his] life.””(189)

Lupin’s description of the fate of those who fall prey to the dementors does indeed seem just and fair, when applied to one as evil as Lord Voldemort, and such a fate – or one similar to it – would be a fitting fulfillment of the prophecy. It is possible to imagine a number of ways in which Ms. Rowling could chronicle Harry’’s triumph that would result in such a satisfying outcome, but all of them must somehow account for another statement in the prophecy:


Ms. Rowling has indicated she chose the words of the prophecy with particular care, and readers have analyzed this portion of it endlessly. Some have speculated that “the hand of the other” is a reference to Peter Pettigrew,(191) who it will be recalled lent a hand to Voldemort to enable him to resume his full powers,(192) and have concluded that it will be Pettigrew, repaying the “life debt,” who will actually kill Voldemort. This certainly is a possibility; when Voldemort is about to kill Harry, Pettigrew could well intercede. If this speculation is correct, he and Voldemort would kill each other, and the literal words of the prophecy would be fulfilled. “Either” (Harry or Voldemort) would have died at the hand of “the other” (Pettigrew), and until Pettigrew too died “neither” (Harry nor Voldemort) could live. Thus, if this is the meaning of the prophecy, both Voldemort and Pettigrew would have to die (probably from the curses they hurled at each other as Pettigrew repaid his “life debt”) in order for Harry to live. This theory is imaginative and logical, and has its attractions, not the least of which is that Harry himself would not be required to kill. Yet, for this author at least, the theory seems too cute, too contrived. And, too, it has a fatal flaw: it would have been Pettigrew, rather than Harry, who had the “power to vanquish the Dark Lord.” Perhaps Harry’’s “power” to save Pettigrew’’s life might, arguably, have been the “power to vanquish” that the prophecy recited, but that seems a stretch – and it would rob Harry himself of the right he has surely earned to avenge the murders of his parents, his godfather and his headmaster. True retribution and punishment would require Harry to be the direct – not a remote – cause of the ultimate downfall of the one who murdered James and Lily Potter and at whose behest Sirius Black and Albus Dumbledore were killed.

However, the extraordinary care with which Ms. Rowling phrased this portion of the prophecy does more than create the dilemma; it provides the answer as well. Voldemort “must die at the hand” of Harry Potter; that is not the same as saying that Harry must kill him.


K. The Final Confrontation

We are, ultimately, left with an ambiguous phrase in a vague prophecy, which seems to require that either Voldemort will kill Harry or Harry – against his nature – will kill Voldemort. Either seems somehow unsatisfactory, and this author at least suspects that Ms. Rowling has something else in mind.

What if the final spell cast in all the Harry Potter books turned out not to be the Unforgivable Avada Kedavra Killing Curse, but rather the supremely powerful, positive and uplifting Expecto Patronum?(193) Suppose, in the final confrontation, Voldemort does not choose to face Harry alone, but instead – aware that Harry fears them even more than he fears the Dark Lord(194) – decides to bring along one of the dementors to distract Harry and render him more vulnerable. Suppose, too, that Harry’’s Patronus – which so obviously is emblematic of his father – once again drives the dementor away. Suppose, finally, that in its rage and frustration, the dementor – which is blind(195) and can only “feel [its] way toward people by feeding off their emotions”(196) – suddenly transfers its attack to the only other person it senses(197) to be present – Lord Voldemort – and delivers to him the Dementor’s Kiss.(198) The dementor would literally suck the last fragment of Voldemort’’s soul out through his mouth,(199) leaving the Dark Lord “soul-less . . . [and] . . . left with nothing but the worst experiences of [his] life.”(200) Afterwards, Lord Voldemort would “just – exist. As an empty shell. And [his] soul is gone forever . . .lost.”(201) Would that not, for Voldemort above all others, be something “much worse than death”?(202) Would it not fulfill the prophecy that Harry had “the power to vanquish the Dark Lord”?(203) Who would argue that Voldemort did not “die at the hand of”(204) Harry, if Harry’’s Patronus caused the last fragment of Lord Voldemort’’s soul to become the between-meals snack of a dementor? And, finally, Harry would be able to “live,” and remain true to his moral compass, and be reunited with Ron and Hermione, and Ginny – for it could hardly be argued that Voldemort, deprived finally of the last mutilated and maimed fragment of his soul, any longer “survives.”(205)

This is nothing more than a theory. It has no more substance or validity than the hundreds or thousands of other theories that are being passionately debated as readers eagerly anticipate July 21, 2007; its only virtue is that, unlike most of the other speculation about the conclusion of the Harry Potter epic, it requires no assumptions. No missing facts have to be supplied, or invented. Everything required for it has already been given to us in the first six books. We do not have to fill in any gaps, or imagine things that might have happened; everything we need is already right in front of us – and would we have expected anything less from J.K. Rowling? This author rather anticipates that the final answers, when we read them in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, will be even more unexpected and yet, at the same time, at least equally logical.

Of only two things can we be certain: Ms. Rowling will yet again amaze us, and we will wonder why we did not see the answers sooner. Still, even if it has no other value, this theory does demonstrate that a consistent and satisfying conclusion can be achieved without recourse to anything that Ms. Rowling has not already disclosed to us – and, because none of us have yet fathomed her mind, that will be a genuinely astonishing accomplishment.



(148) OOTP, p. 841.

(149) POA, p. 375.

(150) POA, p. 427.

(151) GOF, pp. 6-15.

(152) GOF, pp. 637-642.

(153) HBP, pp. 23-24.

(154) See, e.g., HBP, pp. 548, 549.

(155) See, e.g., OOTP, p. 833; HBP, p. 549.

(156) See, e.g., HBP, p. 549.

(157) HBP, p. 596.

(158) OOTP, p. 839.

(159) See, e.g., SS, pp. 155-156, 177-178, 190-191; POA, pp.326, and most delightfully p. 293.

(160) HBP, p. 510.

(161) COS, p. 333.

(162) Murder as an absolute evil is a fitting counterpoint to love as an absolute good. The two are mirror images of each other, and stad at the very opposite ends of Ms. Rowling’’s scale of morality.

(163) HBP, p. 498.

(164) HBP, p. 498.

(165) POA, p. 376.

(166) POA, p. 376.

(167) POA, p. 221.

(168) POA, p. 97.

(169) POA, p. 209.

(170) POA, p. 97.

(171) POA, p. 237.

(172) POA, pp. 187-188.

(173) OOTP, p. 805.

(174) OOTP, p. 810.

(175) OOTP, pp. 811-812.

(176) OOTP, p. 812.

(177) OOTP, p. 813.

(178) OOTP, p. 813.

(179) OOTP, pp. 813-815.

(180) OOTP, p. 814.

(181) OOTP, p. 814. To some extent, of course, Dumbledore may have been motivated by his knowledge of the Horcruxes, and his awreness that “killing” Voldemort would not finally end the Dark Lord’s potential to do evil. Yet, he could have eliminated another soul fragment. His forbearance indicates that, in his morality as in Harry’’s, the destruction – the killing – of even a fragment of a human soul is simply wrong.

(182) OOTP, p. 841.

(183) HBP, p. 511.

(184) HBP, p. 512.

(185) OOTP, p. 841.

(186) HBP, p. 511.

(187) OOTP, p. 841.

(188) OOTP, p. 814.

(189) POA, p. 187.

(190) OOTP, p. 841.

(191) Peregrin. “The Other” — The Third Person in the Prophecy.

(192) GOF, pp. 641-642.

(193) The Avada Kedavra curse, it should be recalled, is genuinely evil, and requires an intent to kill. The Expecto Patronum, on the other hand, is derived from happy memories, and is supremely life-affirming. From all we know of him, which would be more appropriate for Harry Potter, as he faces Lord Voldemort for the last time?

(194) POA, p. 155.

(195) GOF, p. 684.

(196) POA, p. 371.

(197) GOF, p. 684.

(198) “They call it the Dementor’’s Kiss. . . . It’’s what dementors do to those they wish to destroy utterly . . . . [T]hey clamp their jaws upon the mouth of the victim and – and suck out his soul . . . . You can exist without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working. But you’ll have no sense of self anymore, no memory, no . . .anything. There’s no chance of recovery. You’’ll just – exist. As an empty shell. And your soul is gone forever . . .lost.” (POA, p. 247).

(199) GOF, p. 703.

(200) POA, p. 187.

(201) POA, p. 247.

(202) OOTP, p. 814.

(203) OOTP, p. 841.

(204) OOTP, p. 841.

(205) OOTP, p. 841.