Death with Harry

My mother tells me she heard on the radio a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan say that the only times he escapes the unbearable tension of being in a war zone are “when I’m with Harry.” It’s a little more evidence for my contention that the Harry books, far from dark, are at every moment comforting and amusing.

So different from Jane Austen. There’s tension for you! Particularly in Emma and Northanger Abbey. In fact I had to stop reading the latter last night because it was too much for me: there was Catherine, against her better judgment out for a jaunt with the unspeakably vulgar Mr. Thorpe when she should have been looking for Miss Tilney in the Pump Room, and I couldn’t bear it! I will not be able to finish the book (though I know, of course, from my previous 14 readings that it all works out in the end). At this moment I do not need to deal with this anxiety.

Anyhow, I’ve been thinking about death in the Harry books. There are four kinds: two regular, and two special and restricted to a single character.

1. First there’s normal death. We have ample evidence that this involves an afterlife in which loved ones are reunited, and also that an aspect or aura of the dead can remain or be recalled, in photographs (a bit), or in portraits or with the Hallow stone (quite a lot, but it’s still not the real autonomous thing).

2. Second there are ghosts, dead people with unfinished business who can’t quite get off the ground. We’re given an explanation of this phenomenon and of why some few people become ghosts instead of moving on.

3. There’s Dumbledore. Dumbledore’s dead and not a ghost: he ought to fit into pattern one. But his portrait is way too powerful and alive — it can have all sorts of new ideas and mastermind events in way the aura-portraits can’t; it offers real, warm, living (albeit disembodied) communication from beyond the grave — and, worse, he can show up as a spectre in Harry’s mind telling Harry true things he didn’t know before. None of the other dead can do this: they just show up to offer their tag lines or cheer the heroes on, like good auras should.

4. Finally there’s Sirius, strangest of all. Sirius dies in a way that in all respects fits into pattern one, except for one thing: he takes his body with him.

I’ll give her everything except Sirius. The first two ways are consistently worked out — that’s fine. We know Dumbledore is god or something, so he can break the rules — that’s fine too. But, no, you can’t die and leave no body, and you certainly can’t do so with no explanation of what it’s all about, and I don’t need habeas corpus to tell me so.


10 thoughts on “Death with Harry

  1. That’s useful! I think we’re getting somewhere here. Both Elijah and Mary herald the Christ, yes? So do you suppose JK felt she needed to have a bodily ascension before her final sacrificial scene, the death of Dumbledore? The timing works out.

  2. I don’t think Mary works, actually — too Dumbledorean. I’m no recovering Catlick, but my understanding is that the BVM remains involved with humanity — interceding and what not.

  3. Oh, but Sirius intercedes, absolutely — providing a house, a sense of family, etc. Very maternal-type stuff. Mary’s involvement with humanity is more in being asked for intercession with the big cheese (and in appearing in grilled cheese sandwiches, but that’s another story) than anything really hands-on.

  4. I’m starting to think that this question is tied to the question of whether Dumbledore or Harry is JK’s big Christ.

    If Sirius is Elijah, that would do for a Christ-Dumbledore or a Christ-Harry.

    But if Sirius is the BVM, then Harry has to be the Christ, because Sirius is Harry’s parental figure, his “godfather,” but really the one who, like a mother, delivers him (on a flying motorcycle, granted). So Harry would have these two sets of parents, mother Lily and father James, and mother Sirius (BVM) and father Dumbledore (God the Father).

    Or maybe JK is weaving both types of imagery together.

  5. Well, Harry does return from the dead to save the world, while Dumbledore sorta transcends death, remaining in whatever post-life realm Harry meets up with him in…

  6. Yeah. But Harry stays alive-alive after the sacrificial death, while Dumbledore follows his sacrificial death with a single say-goodbye visitation (at King’s Cross) and then stays dead, and he’s also the source of help from heaven: ruler in heaven. I think Dumb fits the bill a bit better, but I also think she’s splitting the role.

  7. Yeah, I think you’re right — perhaps a splitting of the human and the divine functions (and hence Harry’s descent into entirely tedious suburban family life — no offense to any suburban families here present — once the world has been saved)?

  8. Right, I took this descent to back up my theory that Harry isn’t Christ but the “good Christian,” who gives his life that he might gain it (Matt 10:39), after the Christ, Dumbledore, is already dead. But it might mean a split between human and divine functions.

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