13 July 2006

Harry Potter will not die

Yesterday I made my case that J. K. Rowling's recent comments about characters dying in her next and last Harry Potter novel have been overinterpreted, if not simply overblown.

Rowling's job as an author (both a writer and a promoter of her writing) is to make us think that death's a possibility for any of her characters we care about. Fair enough. But I don't have that job, except when it comes to my own stories. So I will now reveal what will happen to Harry and his best friends in the next novel.


The Harry Potter books are very imaginative in their details, but in plot structure and in the metaphysical system underlying them they're a conventional set of narratives. They're genre novels. That's what makes them enjoyable.

Rowling has combined the forms of the British school saga (a tradition which dates back to Tom Brown's School Days and includes such luminaries as Kipling and Wodehouse) and the fantasy epic, to create immensely popular books for children.

School sagas are about growing up, preparing for adulthood away from one's parents but in a very structured environment. The whole enterprise loses its meaning if the main character dies before leaving school.

Classic fantasies are about the triumph of good over evil in an allegorical way that we can't be sure of in real life. (Come to think of it, a lot of school sagas are just as Manichean.) Sometimes the evil is vanquished entirely. Sometimes its power is simply broken.
Rowling herself described her villains as "pure evil." She didn't sit down ten years ago to write about them winning.

Finally, the Harry Potter books are children's books. As the Inside-Out Tea Cozy blog points out, it's very hard to find a story written for children in the last hundred years in which the main character dies--especially if that protagonist is a child. (Dead parents, best friends, and wise mentors don't count.) Sure, Hans Christian Andersen killed off protagonists: Steadfast Tin Soldier, Little Match Girl. But as a good, sentimental Christian he also made sure to give them some sort of immortality. There's no reason to think that Rowling planned a series that would end up breaking that deeply ingrained pattern in our culture.

Some people have written that dying would be a fitting end for a tragedy--but the Harry Potter books aren't tragedies. And unlike some callow heroes, Harry doesn't need to experience death in order to mature. He's suffered loss his whole life. He can grow up only by getting beyond that.

I'm not saying that Harry should or shouldn't die for the sake of young readers, or literature, or commercialization. I'm saying he won't die. He just won't. And what's more...


In all the Harry Potter books, boys get beat up more than girls.
At the end of HP1, Ron and Harry are knocked unconscious while Hermione is left unscathed. Harry has been to the infirmary for serious injuries in practically every book. Hermione has gone there for cosmetic problems: teeth and, um, fur.

Who's died so far in the series? Males on that list greatly outnumber females. The most prominent female death, that of Harry's mother, came about because she was doing a most traditional female thing: protecting her baby.
In HP6 Katie Bell [no relation] nearly dies not because of a violent assault but because she, well, touches a necklace.

Again, Rowling's values are, at bottom, traditional. She has created smart, athletic, powerful female characters, and then largely protected them. Though she sends boys out onto the firing range, she doesn't write so comfortably about violence against girls. Even so...


This statement may be a little more iffy than the last two, but I'm still betting the odds. Ron will be put in terrible danger, be injured, and lose a relative or two. (There are so many, after all.) But he won't die, either.

How then, folks might ask, will Rowling have a "much loved" character die? Well, she didn't say that she would. Channel 4's interviewers asked her if any "much loved" characters would be among those to die, and she avoided answering the question directly. As a novelist, she puts her answers in her books, not in interviews a year before.

And even if she'd said that a "much loved" character or two dies, these books' huge worldwide following means that practically every recurring character would qualify. Luna Lovegood, the weird girl introduced halfway through the series, has her own fanlisting with almost 1,500 fans. There's a site for finding out whether you should marry Fred or George Weasley, and they're identical and indistinguishable twins! There are even Snape fan clubs. The death of practically any character short of Voldemort and "fourth voice in quidditch crowd" will produce some complaints.

Tomorrow: What will happen in HP7 when it comes to death. Because it's not my job to keep this from you.


Anonymous said...

Ever since HP 1, we've been debating this question on child_lit and my question has always been, "Give me examples of similar children's books where the main character died at the end." To date no one has provided one that has convinced me that Harry might die. And your post reinforces my feeling that the three will survive. While the hope trope may seem an overused and trite thing, I do think there is something to it. That is, the notion that kids want to come out of a reading experience feeling hopeful about the future. I just can't see how killing off Harry would leave them with that feeling.

On another note, did you see my child_lit query about Abadazad? I'm curious if Oz folks know about it and what they think.

J. L. Bell said...

I haven't read any Abadazad books yet, but perhaps some other Oz fans peeking in on this site have. What do you all think?