A Muggle’s perspective on the influence of death in the wizarding world
This editorial was written for an essay contest at the Harry Potter Festival at Chestnut Hill College.
by Kerri C.
Death is one of the only constants in human life. No matter who one is, where one lives, or what one believes, it is an indisputable fact that someday he or she will die. The universality of death is reflected by its wide portrayal in literature. With the Wizarding World alternately recovering from, on the brink of, and in the midst of war, death is a particularly prevalent theme in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Despite its place in the fantasy genre, Rowling’s novels provide valuable real world insights into how death affects those left behind, illustrating psychological reactions ranging from galvanization to intimidation.
II. Effects on Characters
The loss of a person that one loves is bound to have a marked effect on one’s life. The death of a parent, sibling, or loved one does not merely affect a person temporarily. On the contrary, it leaves a mark on him that colors his decisions for the rest of his life, whether he is aware of it or not. J.K. Rowling evaluates the effect of death on the lives of those still living through many characters, several of whom belong to a post -war generation, but none so compellingly as Albus Dumbledore, Tom Riddle, and Harry Potter.
Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, the brilliant, flawed, benevolent headmaster of Hogwarts, is generally viewed throughout the first five books as Harry’s two-dimensional, flat in literary terms, mentor. Dumbledore’s main function in these books was to fulfill the “wise old man” archetype, the character whose only purpose is to guide the hero until he is strong enough to function on his own. Rowling does not begin to dissect Dumbledore’s motives until after his death; only in the seventh and final book does she bring his full backstory to light. His young adult life was marked by the deaths of his mother and his sister Ariana, who was killed in a duel between him and Gellert Grindelwald. Dumbledore and Grindelwald had dabbled in the Dark Arts, even going so far as to plan their shared world domination. However, Ariana’s death forces Dumbledore to address the immorality of these plans. In fact, the loss of his sister spurs Dumbledore on to his legendary duel with Grindelwald, and later into his lifelong status as a leading opponent of the Dark Arts.
Like Dumbledore, Tom Riddle loses his mother, Merope Gaunt, at an early age. However, Riddle’s mother dies shortly after giving birth to him, leaving Riddle to grow up in a Muggle orphanage. Her death contributes to his hatred of non-magical beings and catalyzes his all-encompassing desire to overcome death. During his time at the orphanage, Riddle develops astounding magical abilities for such a young child. He also learns to look down upon and eventually abuse those who do not share his abilities. This sense of superiority only increases his isolation and intensifies his ill will toward his mother for leaving him in such a position when she could have saved herself using magic. Merope’s failure in the face of death inspired in Riddle a determination never to succumb to the shameful weakness of death. This desperation, combined with his deep seated hatred of Muggles, motivated Riddle’s creation of horcruxes, mass murders, and his identity as Lord Voldemort.
Until he was eleven years old, Harry Potter knew virtually nothing about his parents, James and Lily. He had been raised by his nonmagical aunt and uncle in a situation somewhat similar to Riddle’s. However, there is a fundamental difference between Harry and Riddle: instead of blaming his parents for dying, Harry misses them and strives to honor their memory. Harry inherits more from his parents than his father’s Quidditch skills and his mother’s eyes; he also gains their example. Harry’s parents died to save him in a last, ultimate act of love. In Harry’s first year at Hogwarts, Lily’s sacrifice gives him protection against Voldemort through an ancient enchantment, allowing him to defeat Quirrel in the fight for the Sorcerer’s Stone. In his fourth year, James’s courage inspires him to fight against Voldemort in the graveyard, and to die fighting if necessary, rather than surrender. Finally, during the battle of Hogwarts, the memory of his parents and the parental figures he had lost helps him to accept death in order to defeat a greater evil. In the end Harry chooses love over fear, the same choice made by the mother he barely ever knew.
Loss is felt deeply by Rowling’s characters, and it changes them forever, either for the better or for the worse. Albus Dumbledore, Tom Riddle, and Harry Potter all experience the loss of a family member, and each reacts differently. Dumbledore loses his sister, and he reevaluates his decisions. Riddle’s mother dies, and it inspires hate and fear within him. Harry’s parents sacrifice themselves for him, planting the seeds of selfless love and courage in their son.
J.K. Rowling’s integration of death into the intricately constructed story of Harry Potter is nothing short of beautiful. The character’s reactions to the deaths that affect them are as varied as the concept is omnipresent, ranging from courage to cowardliness. This diversity ensures that the effects of death in the war torn Wizarding World come across as profoundly realistic. This realism shows that although death is present in all of our lives, the force of love can overcome the fear it inspires.