Will Harry die?

By Brian Bethune | Macleans Magazine

The experts weigh in on whether Harry Potter has a chance in the final book

J.K. Rowling: The final chapter is hidden away, although it has now changed very slightly. One character got a reprieve, but I have to say two die that I didn’t intend to die.

Aghast interviewer: Two much-loved ones?

Rowling: Well, you know. A price has to be paid. We are dealing with pure evil. They don’t target the extras do they? They go for the main characters, or I do.

– British TV interview, June 26, 2006

So she does, and never more than when she killed Headmaster Albus Dumbledore in her last book. As H-Day approaches, the July 21 publication date for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final volume in the most popular literary series of all time, it’s the memory of author J.K. Rowling’s ruthlessness with Dumbledore, the beloved and kindly father figure of father figures, that most troubles the Potter Nation. Across the world millions of children, and just about as many adults, are obsessing over the ultimate question: what will happen to the Boy Who Lived (until now, anyway)? Will Harry die?

It’s not the only question to be answered or loose end to be tied, of course, in a series that’s been building to its conclusion for a decade. The boy wizard debuted at 11 in 1997’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. That book and the two volumes that followed, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999), were classic children’s lit, slender (by Rowling’s recent standards, anyway), charming, exciting and just frightening enough. Readers were introduced to the difference between the Muggle (non-magical) and wizarding worlds, to enduring friends and enemies, eccentric professors at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and the exciting school sport of Quidditch.

From there the story grew ever more absorbing and ever darker: with 2000’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, featuring the death of a good character, the series began the move into the young adult genre that was cemented by books five and six, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The surface dazzle of the stories – the magic, action, and humor – is immensely appealing, but underneath that Rowling plants real hooks for readers, elements from the entire spectrum of Western mythology and children’s literature. Arthurian legends and Dickensian plots jostle with the lessons of growing up, the pain of being different, and school and school relationships. Toss in Harry’s personal tragedy (orphaned at 15 months when his arch-nemesis, the evil Lord Voldemort, murdered his parents and tried to kill him) and Rowling’s narrative skill, and it’s evident why Harry’s fans are more than enthralled with his adventures. They care about him, and especially about the possibility of his death.

And that’s a lot of people. More than 325 million copies of the first six Potter novels have been sold in 63 languages. The film versions of the first four books all rank in the top 20 highest-grossing films of all time; a fifth movie – and sure megahit – will be in theatres on July 11. Their creator is a billionaire, the first person to reach that level of wealth by writing stories. Harry’s global reach fascinates academics like Daniel Nexon, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington. Nexon can cite Harry’s appearance in Turkish editorials discussing that country’s possible entrance into the EU, in Swedish parliamentary debates decrying Anglo-American socio-economic policies, and in a stream of American political adversaries comparing U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney to Voldemort. “It’s not so much whether you think such comparisons are correct,” Nexon adds. “It’s the fact that people can make them and that their listeners understand.”

Potter devotees also keep mass excitement ratcheted up through the Internet’s numerous Harry sites and their frequent conventions. Fans, most of them women and many dressed as their favorite characters, meet to swap plot theories and fan fiction – Harry-themed stories, straight or gay, written not by Rowling but by her readers. The conventions also feature an at-times surreal meeting of distinct cultures, as fans obsessed with whether Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood will become a couple also listen to papers like “Freud and the Fetishistic Phantasy” delivered by the growing army of academics interested in the Potter pop culture phenomenon.

What are Harry’s devotees expecting to find when they finally crack open the cover at midnight on July 21? It doesn’t bode well for the optimists among them that British bookies, spooked by the amount of money that was backing the dead hero outcome, closed off betting on Harry’s survival in early June and reopened it on a “Who will pot Potter?” basis. (Voldemort, of course, is the favorite at 4 to 5; those looking for the long-shot pay-off can take Harry’s toxic Muggle relative, Uncle Vernon, at 100 to 1.) At the other end of the spectrum are the true believers, fans too emotionally involved to even contemplate Harry’s demise. “There’s no way, no way in Hell, Harry dies,” avers Melissa Anelli, webmaster for the Potter fan website, the Leaky Cauldron. And why is she so certain? “I wish I had a better answer,” she says, “but I feel it, I just feel it.”

Brave talk, but hardly reassurance enough for the legions of worriers out there. Emerson Spartz, the founder of MuggleNet, estimates the fan base is divided into “two-thirds who think Harry will make it and a third who think he’ll die.” Paranoids range from novelist Stephen King, who pleaded with Rowling not to do a Sherlock Holmes with her character and shove him over the Reichenbach Falls as Arthur Conan Doyle did in 1891 with his over-mighty creation, to 10-year-old Kelly McKibbon of Ottawa. Evidently a close reader of the sacred text – known collectively, like the Holmes stories among their devotees, as “the canon” – Kelly wants her hero to survive but fears the worst. “It will be hard to get the Horcruxes and kill Voldemort. I think Harry might die.”

Horror master and fifth-grader have each zeroed in on one of the two commonly cited reasons – as opposed to pure, quasi-parental anxiety – to fear for Harry. Conan Doyle killed Holmes essentially to keep his wildly popular character under control, because the demand for stories about him kept the author from his historical novels, which Conan Doyle – virtually alone in the world – valued over Holmes. Rowling evidently has control issues, too. In the same interview where she cheerfully announced her revised reprieve/execution count – and fans should bear in mind she was only referring to small changes in the body count in what’s liable to be a bloodbath of a book – she also commented sympathetically on her predecessor’s impulse. “I can completely understand the mentality of an author who thinks ‘Well, I am going to kill them off because that means there can be no non-author written sequels, as they call them, so it will end with me.’ [Otherwise] after I am dead and gone, they would be able to bring back the character and write a load of …”

That, of course, is exactly what happened to Holmes after Conan Doyle’s death. Since he entered the public domain, the Sleuth of Baker Street has flourished in a surreal Victorian world where he interacts with contemporaries both real (Sigmund Freud, Jack the Ripper) and fictional (Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde, Dracula). Rowling must know the same will happen to Harry regardless of what she does with him, should the boy wizard’s entrenchment in popular consciousness prove to endure. Fifty years after her death, authors are likely to have Harry taking on commissions from Muggle Prime Minister Tony Blair and saving the planet from the machinations of terrorist wizards.

Rowling, whose flair for marketing matches her sense of humor, must have enjoyed the screaming HARRY WILL DIE headlines that followed her remarks about character-cide and the tide of betting they inspired. If the idea of killing the main character to control his afterlife is a red herring, though, the Horcruxes are not. Through six books, Harry has steadily learned, at an increasingly bitter cost, more about life and about how his own fate is intertwined with Voldemort’s. The final volume will open with him about to turn 17, the age of majority in the wizarding world. It will be a hollow formality for a boy forced to grow up brutally early by the loss of his mother, father, godfather, and mentor – all killed in the struggle against the Dark Lord. More on his own than ever before, Harry now knows why Voldemort didn’t die 16 years ago when the killing curse he directed at Harry rebounded off the child and struck him.

Voldemort, whose lust for power is matched by his fear of death – his name means “flight from death” – had previously used some of the darkest of Dark Magic to divide his soul into pieces. One fraction remained in his body; the remainder were hidden in other objects, known as Horcruxes. All those Horcruxes, not just Voldemort’s current incarnation, would have to be destroyed for him to truly die. Two have already been eliminated, one (a diary) by Harry, the other by Dumbledore (a ring). Dumbledore reckoned there were four more. Although Harry will clearly have to destroy them before tackling Voldemort himself, he doesn’t know where any of them are; worse, he only has guesses as to what some of them are. They’re shrewd guesses, as Dumbledore’s instincts usually were, but they’re not sure things, and millions of fans beg to differ.

They think Harry himself is a Horcrux, accidentally created that Halloween night when Voldemort’s killing curse backfired. That’s why Harry has his famous scar (other victims of such curses, let alone those who managed to block the spells, show no marks): it’s the sign and seal of the entry of a piece of the Dark Lord’s soul. And that’s why Harry and Voldemort can see, however darkly, into each other’s minds.

It’s a good argument, one with nasty implications. However divided fans might be about Harry’s prospects of exiting the series as the Man Who Lived Happily Ever After, they are as one in their fervent expectation that Voldemort gets his. Harry’s death, in short, would be a tragedy; Voldemort’s survival would be an outrage. And if all the Horcruxes must be destroyed for Voldemort to die, well, some think it’s time to start planning the boy wizard’s funeral.

Other fans, like Spartz, the former webmaster, manage to combine acceptance of the Harry-is-a-Horcrux theory with a firm trust in his survival. “I know some people think the only way the series ends neatly is for Harry to sacrifice himself, but I think that’s a terrible moral message. The books are all about making the right, hard choices, not the easy ones; what does it say if your character makes all the right, hard choices and he still doesn’t survive? Life sucks and then you die?” Unfortunately for Spartz, the answer is yes, quite conceivably – if bad things didn’t happen to good people in Rowling’s fiction, Harry’s parents would still be around.

There are, of course, those who think Harry should die. Some are tired of the fuss, while some think it would raise the books to another level, make them more mythic, profound, and well, literary. Others have a didactic purpose. Last summer, a journalist argued in the Guardian newspaper that Harry’s demise would be one more valuable lesson from the books: “Children have to learn to deal with death sooner or later, it’s the reason they have hamsters for pets.” A Times writer struck a similar mordant note – let Harry be killed, because that “would be less confusing than for him to grow up to be an accountant.” This presumably says something about the many-splendored varieties of British class prejudice. Although there can’t be that many parents who would rather see their offspring die than become accountants, it was actually written within the context of a meditation on how modern society hides the fact of death. In other words, more grist for Nexon’s mill: whatever your topic, whoever you’re addressing, there’s always room for a Harry Potter reference.

In any event, Harry’s would-be killers, like Spartz on the other side of the debate, are arguing from a moral, if-this-were-a-just-universe angle. It might enlighten fans more (and comfort them more) to ponder the arguments of some experts with a cooler, more distant perspective. James Krasner, an English professor at the University of New Hampshire, is one academic who appreciates the series as literature.

I read a lot of 19th-century novels and the Potter books are very good at what 19th-century novels are good at: plotting. Plotting is Rowling’s genius. I can’t think of anyone else except Dickens who could create 50 characters and make them all satisfying and funny and believable, make all their twists and turns come out straight and neat – and make readers care about them all. They may not be the deepest characters, but that’s Dickens too. As E.M. Forster said about him, perhaps his characters are all 2-D, but he – and Rowling – move them around so fast you don’t notice.

So Krasner expects The Deathly Hallows to be, like its predecessors, an essentially 19th-century novel. A large number of those are in the children’s literary canon, even if they only ended up there because subsequent generations shoved them downward, so to speak (Treasure Island, The Jungle Book, and the Holmes stories are thought of as young people’s books, although that was not the case when they were written). The reason so many are in the canon is the value we place on Victorian popular literature’s twin virtues: exciting stories and happy endings. “No, Harry won’t die,” Krasner confidently asserts. “And he shouldn’t die. It wouldn’t be as good a story if he did. It would be like Bach going atonal in the last few bars of a cantata: you wouldn’t say ‘How interesting. That must be what makes it art.’ Harry’s death would be so out of step with the rest of the books – a violation, for one thing, of the basic school story. There’s never been one of those where the main character dies.”

Heather Mitchell also raises the school story aspect. A Ph.D. student in English literature at Duke University in North Carolina, Mitchell is in charge of public relations for the next Potter conference, Prophecy 2007: From Hero to Legend, which will be held in Toronto from August 2 to August 5. “I think Harry will live. I read these books as Bildungsromans, coming-of-age stories, which end with the central character becoming an adult, not dead,” says Mitchell the academic. “Besides,” laughs Mitchell the fan, “they’re kids’ stories!!”

Over at Toronto’s Space channel, producer Mark Askwith has a different take. Certainly, the buzz is all about Harry: “Everybody in my field – the land of geeks and sci-fi – knows him. I ran into Joss Whedon [creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer] in San Diego in the midnight lineup to buy Book 6.” But Askwith purports to have “no idea whether Harry will live or die,” and little interest in what he thinks is “not the story’s most compelling aspect.” But, for the record, he thinks Harry will live. Probably. Maybe.

Then again, in Rowling’s scenario – this is it, there ain’t no more Potter stories – it does make a lot of sense to kill him off. Her books are about endings, but also about coping and moving on. And there’s the question of whether Harry is a Horcrux and what that means to their – his and Voldemort’s – common destiny. For Voldemort to go, does that mean Harry has to as well?

As for the other members of the core trio, Askwith is sure Hermione, the cleverest witch of her generation, will pull through, and Ron too, though the less-than-brilliant Weasley boy “may well lose an eye or a limb, stumbling into something way over his head.” Meanwhile, some of the so-far good guys will be tempted by the Dark(Lord’s)Side: “There’s definitely a whiff of Star Wars about all this.” Isn’t this a rather detailed scenario for a guy who thinks Harry’s fate is not overly important? “Obviously, I’ve given this way too much thought.”

There is a touch of Stars Wars, of course, about the Potter series. There’s also, for that matter, “a little touch of Harry in the night” – as Shakespeare wrote about his identically named hero in Henry V – around the boy wizard’s courage and leadership. The Lucas films-Potter books comparison, though, rings truest in terms of their equivalent pop culture reach. More evident within the novels is an embedded trove of Western mythology and folklore. And it’s not just a matter of trolls, three-headed dogs, goblins, forbidden forests, and witches in pointy hats. Harry has more in common with King Arthur than he does with Luke Skywalker, though the Jedi knight too has his Arthurian overtones.

While minor characters can have Dickensian names like Argus Filch or Mundungus Fletcher, more important figures are given French-derived names – Rowling was once a French translator – that sound very Arthurian: Draco Malfoy (dragon, bad faith or faith in evil) and Gilderoy Lockhart (gilded – i.e., false – king, closed heart). Arthur and Harry were both secreted away as babies, raised without knowledge of their real identities, and watched over by a great wizard. Harry, like Arthur, proves he is a true heir to his lineage by extracting a sword no one else could, in his case, not Excalibur from a stone but Godric Gryffindor’s blade from Gryffindor’s hat. The Arthurian parallels may not be welcomed by many fans: the greatest cycle of Arthurian stories is found in Sir Thomas Malory’s sadly named Le Morte D’Arthur. The great king’s adventures culminate in his death. (Then again, perhaps Malory’s famous couplet – here lies Arthur, the once and future king – offers grounds for hope.)

Harry may even have a Mordred in reverse to deal with. Arthur’s nephew/son was his open supporter and secret foe; whether professor Severus Snape, Harry’s apparent enemy, was ever – or, in fact, remains – a key ally against the Dark Lord is the other hot topic within the Potter Nation. Snape is clearly the most complicated character in the Potter universe. Harry and Voldemort are both half-bloods (of mixed and wizarding descent) who offered unambiguous responses – one good, the other evil – to the pain they endured growing up. Snape, too, is a half-blood who suffered through a bitter childhood, but his adult self is a far more nuanced creation.

“That’s part of Rowling’s impressive dark touch,” comments Krasner, the literature professor.

All that preoccupation with discrimination and bullying. Rowling takes this stuff to new levels: in a traditional school story, like Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the bully would be bad and the hero good without much further explanation. But Snape’s recollections in Book 6 of the torments inflicted on him by Harry’s father and godfather go some way to explaining his unpleasantness, not to mention his disposition toward Harry. Obviously, Rowling sees bullying as a major issue with life-long implications.

If Snape is fighting for evil, and manages to do harm to people Harry cares about, there will be more than a touch of the biblical sins of the fathers about it.

No one would go so far as to say Snape was a good person, but many observers are willing to predict he’s on the side of good. Krasner thinks so, though his 14-year-old son disagrees, to the tune of a $25 bet. There is plenty of evidence for both views. Snape did kill Dumbledore, after all, but when a grief-stricken Harry tried to kill him, Snape merely parried the spells while offering Harry crucial advice. If the former Potions Master should turn out to be on the side of the angels, it will mean Harry has been pretty much wrong about Snape from start to finish, and recognizing that will probably be the last step in the education of Harry Potter. “The entire series has been more Harry vs. Snape than Harry vs. Voldemort,” says Steven Vander Ark, a children’s librarian and Prophecy 2007 presenter. “The books are as much the story of Snape, who I think is a hero, as they are of Harry – the only reason we don’t see that clearly is that we see everything through Harry’s eyes.”

Even if he’s on Harry’s side, for many fans Snape’s murderous creepiness makes him their most acceptable potential loss. Perhaps he can prove his worthiness by somehow saving Harry from his Horcrux dilemma, even at the cost of his own life, providing the blood sacrifice that the mythic pull and increasingly dark tone of the series seem to demand. In this reading, Snape, although utterly inappropriate as an innocent sacrifice, could do a passable imitation of Sydney Carlton, the Dickens character in A Tale of Two Cities who went to the guillotine in place of a more deserving man: “It’s a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done.” Convenient, some commentators think, but too cheap at the price, in terms of readers’ emotional response. “You want a Christ figure to lay down his life? Snape, whatever side he’s on, simply isn’t good enough for the role,” says Krasner. He and Askwith agree: try Neville.

Despite Rowling’s own declaration that the poor Herbology prat is not the Chosen One who will take down Voldemort, Askwith and Krasner wonder about Neville Longbottom’s continuing prominence. He’s “hiding in plain sight,” according to Askwith, while Krasner recalls Chekhov’s rule: a gun shown in Act I has to be fired by Act III. “You know all prophecy stories follow the same path,” Krasner adds, referring to a prophecy that indicated that either Neville or Harry would be Voldemort’s mortal foe. “Every effort to divert them from their ordained course always goes into bringing them to pass. So I think Voldemort’s choice of Harry as his predicted mortal enemy, far from making him the Chosen One, will only reconfigure everything: Neville will be the one who ends up dying for the cause and thereby fulfilling the prophecy.” Since Harry is untouchable in Krasner’s opinion, Neville is the only possibility left.

If you’re going to have a good character die redemptively, a character who is close to the hero, but not so Ron/Hermione close that his death would devastate readers, who better than Neville, the tortured innocent?

Given the professionals’ depth of immersion in Harry’s universe, it’s no surprise that regular fans’ emotional involvement is so intense. At her first Potter convention, recalls a laughing Heather Mitchell, “I put on my little academic suit to deliver my paper, I get up on the podium and there are nine people dressed as Snape in the front row alone. At the back, I could see pointed witch hats bobbing up and down when they agreed with what I said or shaking side to side when they didn’t.” But fans’ costumed role-playing is no weirder than what the scholars get up to, according to Mitchell.

The insanely close reading, the search for queer overtones in the Remus-Sirius relationship or, for that matter, among Chaucer’s pilgrims – all that’s just standard academic discourse.

The Toronto conference, Prophecy 2007, is liable to be the most electrifying Harry gathering yet, and perhaps the most exciting there ever will be. It’s not the presentations that will make it so – although fans can attend sessions on such intriguing topics as “Snape and the Eucharist” or “The Queering of Harry Potter: Slash Fan Fiction as Social and Political Commentary” – but the timing, less than two weeks after the Deathly Hallows release. As Vander Ark, a walking encyclopedia of all things Harry and a fixture at conventions, remarks, “It will be the first – and last time – that everybody knows the whole story, and has just learned it.”

Until then, though, Harry’s defenders have only their impressive supply of hopes, scenarios, and fallbacks to see the Boy Who Lived safely through to adulthood. It’s not that sort of book, they argue. It would be immoral for him to die; the plot doesn’t require it. Even if the plot does require it, there’s always Snape; if Snape isn’t good enough, take Neville. The weight of the arguments seems convincing, particularly the power of convention in children’s literature.

And yet … and yet … and yet. One reason to pause is Vander Ark’s comment that “every book, I’m always surprised by something Rowling’s done.” Another comes from the author’s own words. The absence of overt religious symbolism in the books disguises a key fact about their creator. No one in the Potter universe has any religious faith whatsoever: there’s no churchgoing, no clergy, no comfort offered Harry that his dearly departed are in “a better place” (or even a worse one); more tellingly, no hint that there ever were such people, practices or beliefs. But Rowling, frequently denounced as a satanic proponent of the occult by fundamentalist critics, is a Christian herself, a member of the Church of Scotland, to be precise.

Seven years ago, she told a Canadian journalist, “Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that, I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’s coming in the books.” Any conceivable guess derived from those words will point down a tragic path. Rowling’s key theme is that self-sacrificing love is the ultimate power in the universe. In Christian terms – and the theme could hardly be more Christian – the willing victim, both powerful and good, is Christ himself. In Harry’s world, Snape is powerful and Neville is good, but just one teenage boy is both. If atonement, willing atonement that pays for all, is required in Deathly Hallows, only Harry can pay the price.