Three and a half thousand years ago, if you’d wanted to know something definitive about death and what comes next, you could have turned to The Book of the Dead. The ancient Egyptian funerary text listed all the fears that death contained, and the spells that could be used to ensure you arrived safely on the other side. Though this current generation is more familiar with PlayStation than mummification, most have come in contact with a much more modern encyclopaedia on the end of life. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books and films have investigated every hope and fear associated with death for the past fourteen years. And as the producers of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 have been proclaiming at the top of their voices, ‘It all ends’ on July 15.
It seems improbable that anyone in the western world could be unaware of the basic details behind the bespectacled boy who grows up battling the most evil wizard of all time. The curtain closed on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 last November with our reluctant hero crouched over the grave of Dobby, his latest friend to succumb to Voldemort’s plans. In the final chapter Harry and his friends will return to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to destroy the mystical devices keeping the dark lord alive and face the prophecy that has shaped both: “Neither can live while the other survives!”
Dark? I should say so. The first instalment of this two-parter was so grim that I publicly labelled its promoters as irresponsible, despite its M rating. However true the production was to the book, the distributors would still have to answer for marketing such a dread-filled film to children well outside its official age-bracket. The second film is set to continue the dark war-time feel with Harry’s beloved school looking like London after the Blitz and his friends caked in equal quantities of mud, blood and suffering. Parents beware: HP8 is no Disney classic.
But taking too much offence would be like complaining that hospitals are too cluttered with sick people. The Harry Potter series struggles with death at every turn because this is what the author intended. JK Rowling told Britain’s Telegraph:
“My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry’s parents. There is Voldemort’s obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price.”
Rowling conceived the series while her mother was dying of multiple sclerosis and was even writing chapters the hour she passed away. She believes that Voldemort’s fear of death is a very human one, and confesses it’s one she shares. Consequently through seven books and eight films Harry has had to confront the sadness associated with lost parents, the horror of murdered friends and the injustice of loved ones taken too soon. And from the first film, The Philosopher’s Stone, fans have known that Harry stood in direct opposition to death. Hagrid, his gigantic friend, informs him he is famous because, “You’re the boy who lived.”
But you have to look closely to realise that there are two different ‘deaths’ duelling in Rowling’s fantasy. On the one hand we have the vicious, terrifying demise that snatches people away – Harry’s parents in the first film, Moaning Myrtle in the second, Cedric Diggory in the fourth, his godfather Sirius in the fifth, Dumbledore in the sixth… But it’s the same Sirius who tells Harry in The Prisoner of Azkaban that death doesn’t have to be filled with the sadness:
“It’s cruel that I got to spend so much time with your parents and you hardly knew them. But know this: the ones that love us never truly leave us. You can find them in here.”
– and he touches Harry’s heart. For JK Rowling death can be a disaster, but it is also a doorway to immortality, and not just in the memories of others. For all the criticism she has suffered from religious commentators, the author presents a very Christian view of the afterlife in HP8. Our response to death depends very much on our preparation for it. Voldemort clings to life because this world is all he has. But when Harry meets a resurrected Dumbledore in the book version of the film, he learns that mastering death begins with the realisation that it’s not the end:
“[Harry] 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.”
Rowling admits she struggles with her faith, but still choose to identify herself as a Christian. And she makes no apologies for using the last book to inscribe ‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death’ (1 Corinthians 15:26) on Harry’s parents’ grave, and ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:21) on Dumbledore’s family plot.
“They’re very British books, so on a very practical note Harry was going to find Biblical quotations on tombstones [but] I think those two almost epitomise the whole series.”
Nothing will turn the Harry Potter series into a Gospel tract. But the creator wanted her audience to realise amidst the tears that death itself will one day die. Where we go to from there depends on what we valued while we were alive. If we hold grimly to those things that are passing away then we’re likely to end up as disappointed as Voldemort. But if we value those treasures that come to us from beyond this vale of tears, then that is the first step to discovering there is much better in store.