Having examined this central theme of death, and how it plays out in Harry’s fate, let’s take a look at a two other subplots in the books that reflect, illustrate, and enrich this theme, adding another layer to it. Most significant are the Deathly Hallows, the origin of which is described in the legendary “Tale of the Three Brothers.”
“There were once three brothers who were traveling along a lonely, winding road at twilight. In time, the brothers reached a river too deep to wade through and too dangerous to swim across. However, these brothers were learned in the magical arts, and so they simply waved their wands and made a bridge appear across the treacherous water. They were halfway across it when they found their path blocked by a hooded figure.This tale illustrates the key ideas about death in Harry Potter. The first brother boasts proudly of conquering death, as if he had overpowered a foe in battle. But his pride betrays him, and death takes him. “Taunting death…means pitting oneself against a wily enemy who cannot lose” (Albus Dumbledore, The Tales of Beedle the Bard p. 95). As we have seen, the way to defeat death is not that of a conqueror, but of humble and selfless submission to death.1
And Death spoke to them. He was angry that he had been cheated out of three new victims, for travelers usually drowned in the river. But Death was cunning. He pretended to congratulate the three brothers upon their magic, and said that each had earned a prize for having been clever enough to evade him.
So the oldest brother, who was a combative man, asked for a wand more powerful that any in existence: a wand worthy of a wizard who had conquered Death! So Death crossed to an elder tree in the banks of the river, and fashioned a wand from a branch that hung there, and gave it to the oldest brother.
Then the second brother, who was an arrogant man, decided that he wanted to humiliate death still further, and asked for the power to recall others from Death. So Death picked up a stone from the riverbank and gave it to the second brother, and told him that the stone would have the power to bring back the dead.
And then Death asked the third and youngest brother what he would like. The youngest brother was the humblest and also the wisest of the brothers, and he did not trust Death. So he asked for something that would enable him to go forth from that place without being followed by Death. And Death, most unwillingly, handed over his own Cloak of Invisibility.
Then Death stood aside and allowed the three brothers to continue on their way, and they did so, talking with wonder of the adventure they had had, and admiring Death’s gifts.
In due course the brothers separated, each for his own destination.
The first brother traveled on for a week or more, and reaching a distant village, sought out a fellow wizard with whom he had a quarrel. Naturally, with the Elder Wand as his weapon, he could not fail to win the duel that followed. Leaving his enemy dead upon the floor, the oldest brother proceeded to an inn, where he boasted loudly of the powerful wand he had snatched from Death himself, and of how it made him invincible.
That very night, another wizard crept upon the oldest brother as he lay, wine-sodden, upon his bed. The thief took the wand and, for good measure, slit the oldest brother’s throat.
And so Death took the first brother for his own.
Meanwhile, the second brother journeyed to his own home, where he lived alone. Here he took out the stone that had the power to recall the dead, and turned it thrice in his hand. To his amazement and his delight, the figure of the girl he had once hoped to marry, before her untimely death, appeared at once before him.
Yet she was sad and cold, separated from him as by a veil. Though she had returned to the mortal world, she did not truly belong there and suffered. Finally the second brother, driven mad with hopeless longing, killed himself so as truly to join her.
And so Death took the second brother for his own.
But though Death searched for the third brother for many years, he was never able to find him. It was only when he had attained a great age that the youngest brother finally took off the Cloak of Invisibility and gave it to his son. And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life.
The second brother is also proud; he wants to bring people back from the dead. The resurrection stone, which the second brother uses to accomplish this, does not cause true resurrection in the sense of final victory over death, of passing through to the new and greater life on the “other side” of death. In this sense Rowling’s use of the word “resurrection” is very different from the Christian use of the word. The resurrection stone only revives the dead, giving them a “feeble imitation” of life, somewhat like that of the ghosts at Hogwarts. The dead are not meant to be “dragged back” to this mortal world, where all life ends in death (much as people are not meant to remain behind as ghosts, as Nearly Headless Nick discovers). Once one has passed through death, it is not natural to go back; one must be left free to go on, beyond death.2 When loved ones die, we are to follow them through death, not try to bring them back to this side of death. The second brother does not truly understand death, and thus he cannot overcome it, and death takes him as well.
The third brother is humble and wise – he understands death, perceiving that one must come to a place where death is no more, and that to do this, one must embrace death. And so the third brother greets Death as an old friend. So here again, in the legend of the hallows, we encounter much the same idea as before: death is to be embraced, not escaped. Yes, it will be defeated in the end, but the road to that victory goes through death, and beyond – to a place where death is no more.
1 In the end, Harry, being the true master of death and of the Deathly Hallows, realizes this and chooses to give up the Elder Wand in order to ensure that the trail of bloodshed it left through wizard history would end. As we will see later, Voldemort fails to understand the nature of the Elder Wand, which causes him to make a fatal error.
2 In the end, Harry learns this and is able to give up the resurrection stone even though it has come into his possession.