By Jack Holloway
“For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:21)
I finished reading the Harry Potter books in 2017. I was denied them as a kid, and so enjoyed them for the first time as an adult. I am actually glad of this, because as an adult I saw things that I maybe would not have seen if I had grown up with them.
One theme running throughout the series that I was particularly struck by was the fear of death. This issue comes up a lot in the HP books, and often in very essential ways. I would even say that the fear of death is one of the central issues (if not the central issue) of the series. Voldemort fears death, Dumbledore does not, and Harry has to navigate the two poles and overcome the fear himself.
This theme first appears in book one, The Sorcerer’s Stone. The Stone gave Nicolas Flamel the ability to create an Elixir that ensured lasting life for him and his wife. Because of this quality, the Stone is the object of Voldemort’s insatiable desire in his quest for new and enduring life.
At the end of the book, Nicolas and Dumbledore agree that the Stone should be destroyed. When Harry hears this he is amazed. “But that means he and his wife will die, won’t they?” he asks. Dumbledore confirms this and then explains, “To one as young as you, I’m sure it seems incredible, but to Nicolas and Perenelle, it really is like going to bed after a very, very long day.”
Whereas Voldemort is terrified of death and driven to acquire everlasting life, Dumbledore regards death as mere sleep, rest. He explains, “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure. You know, the Stone was really not such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all — the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them” (Rowling 1997, 297).
For Dumbledore, death is not scary or menacing, but promising and good. It is good that we die. That we don’t want to and are afraid of dying are signs that we do not know what is best for us.
Dumbledore’s attitude toward death is a decisive difference between him and Voldemort. Even as a child, as Tom Riddle, he hated the idea of death, remarking that his mother couldn’t have been a wizard because if she was “she wouldn’t have died” (Rowling 2005, 275).
When Riddle gets to Hogwarts, it doesn’t take him long to start trying to figure out how to defy death. It is what leads him to discover Horcruxes, and to decide to make seven of them. In Dumbledore’s words, he was a wizard “so determined to evade death that he [was] prepared to murder many times, rip his soul repeatedly, so as to store it in many, separately concealed Horcruxes” (Rowling 2005, 500). This revelation from The Half-Blood Prince is foreshadowed in The Goblet of Fire, where Voldemort refers to “the steps I took, long ago, to guard myself against mortal death” (Rowling 2000, 648).
Evading death is Voldemort’s chief motivation. “There is nothing worse than death!” he says to Dumbledore, who then remarks that Voldemort’s failure to imagine anything worse than death is his “greatest weakness.” (Rowling 2003, 814)
Voldemort thinks he has outsmarted death by creating the Horcruxes, and at every step of the way thinks he has made death subservient to him as he kills dozens of people, waving death around as if it were his best weapon—indeed, his most decisive, ultimate, and unconquerable weapon.
For Dumbledore, on the other hand, love is what is most decisive, ultimate, and unconquerable. Voldemort mocks this idea, saying to Harry, “love did not stop [Dumbledore] from falling from the tower and breaking like an old waxwork,” nor did it “prevent me stamping out your Mudblood mother like a cockroach.” And so he asks Harry what he considers to be the most terrible question: “What will stop you dying now when I strike?” (Rowling 2007, 739). In other words, love does not prevent you from dying, and is therefore weak.
Voldemort thinks he is master of death, and considers this to be his greatest strength, while Dumbledore considers his quest to master death his greatest weakness. It is this weakness that Dumbledore wants Harry to resist and overcome in himself, so that he can become the fiercest warrior against Voldemort and his regime, who appropriately take the name “Death Eaters.”
Dumbledore explains to Harry in The Half-Blood Prince, “There is nothing to be feared from a body, Harry, any more than there is anything to be feared from the darkness. Lord Voldemort, who of course secretly fears both, disagrees. But once again he reveals his own lack of wisdom. It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more” (Rowling 2005, 566).
But the unknown is certainly scary. Harry asks Nearly-Headless Nick desperately, “What happens when you die? Where do you go?” (Rowling 2003, 861). His fear of death is exacerbated by the incredible loss he experiences when people close to him die.
On his parents’ gravestone lie the words, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” a quotation of I Corinthians 15:26. “Isn’t that a Death Eater idea? Why is that there?” Harry asks, and Hermione explains, “It doesn’t mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry. … It means…you know…living beyond death. Living after death.”
And then comes one of the most powerful passages of the entire series: “But they were not living, thought Harry: They were gone. The empty words could not disguise the fact that his parents’ moldering remains lay beneath snow and stone, indifferent, unknowing. And tears came before he could stop them.” (Rowling 2007, 328-29)
Here lies Harry’s greatest challenge. How will he reckon with death? His fear of death and his grief lead him also to want to become the master of death, and he finds this possibility in the Deathly Hallows: the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone, and the Cloak of Invisibility. He thinks to himself, “Three objects, or Hallows, which, if united, will make the possessor master of Death…Master…Conqueror…Vanquisher…The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (Rowling 2007, 429).
Dumbledore had also been seduced by the Deathly Hallows. He explains to Harry at the end that the Hallows are “a desperate man’s dream,” and “a lure for fools.” Dumbledore “was such a fool,” as he tried to unite the Hallows and become master of death. He asks Harry, quite tellingly, “Was I better, ultimately, than Voldemort? … I too sought to conquer death” (Rowling 2007, 713).
And so Harry had to decide if he was going to pursue the Hallows, or the Horcruxes. If the latter, he would defeat Voldemort, if the former, he would try to defeat death, and so would become like Voldemort. “I thought it was You-Know-Who we were supposed to be fighting,” Hermione reminds him (Rowling 2007, 436), but he still struggles with the decision.
Ultimately, Harry decides in favor of the Horcruxes, only to discover that he himself is the final Horcrux, meaning that he must die if Voldemort is to die. The moment of truth has arrived. Harry has to face death and give himself up to it. It is here where he encounters utmost devastation. He can hardly walk.
But he does do it. He sacrifices himself. And his self-sacrifice comes out of a love more powerful than death, the same love that drove Dumbledore to sacrifice himself, and his mother before that.
When Harry gives himself up to death, he has an experience (an epiphany? a theophany?) in which he meets Dumbledore, who says to him, “You had accepted, even embraced, the possibility of death, something Lord Voldemort has never been able to do” (Rowling 2007, 711), and so, “You are the true master of death, because the true master does not seek to run away from Death. He accepts that he must die, and understands that there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying” (720–21).
The fear of death appears throughout the series, beginning in the first book, and finding its resolution in the final book. The great enemy and fool is Lord Voldemort, whose chief motivation is to evade death. The wise friend is Dumbledore, who happily gives himself up to death and whose chief motivation is love. The great hero is Harry, who has to struggle to overcome his fear of death, put his faith in love, and sacrifice himself for others.
For it was Dumbledore’s faith in love which gave him the ability to sacrifice himself and put his trust in Harry. He was so certain that love is ultimately decisive that he did not fear death, but became subservient to it, risking everything in giving up his power and putting it in the hands of a boy. This is why he says, “Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love” (Rowling 2007, 722).
We find a real life example of Dumbledore’s outlook in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was arrested and executed for resisting Hitler. In prison he wrote, “if we want to be Christians it means that we are to take part … in the responsible action that in freedom lays hold of the hour and faces the danger, and in the true sympathy that springs forth not from fear but from Christ’s freeing and redeeming love for all who suffer” (2013, 772).
He also wrote, “liberation consists in being allowed to let the matter out of one’s hands into the hands of God. In this sense death is the epitome of human freedom” (2013, 808).
His last recorded words before he was hung were, “This is the end—for me the beginning of life.”
Similarly, it was Dumbledore’s faith in love that empowered him to so decisively and unwaveringly resist and oppose Voldemort. He knew that he himself could not defeat death, but that only love can. Life, then, is not about surviving, but is about love. When you give yourself up to love in faith, you can trustingly give yourself up to death.
Jack Holloway is a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary in New York. You can find his blog at http://jdhollowayiii.blogspot.com.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 2013. The Bonhoeffer Reader. Edited by Clifford J. Green and Michael P. DeJonge. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Rowling, J. K. 1997. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic Inc.
Rowling, J.K. 2000. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Scholastic Inc.
Rowling, J.K. 2003. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Scholastic Inc.
Rowling, J.K. 2005. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Scholastic Inc.
Rowling, J.K. 2007. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Scholastic Inc.