“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Thursday, December 10, 2009

“I was afraid of death. I know nothing of the secrets of death, Harry.”

As we have seen, Harry’s love for his friends draws him to death. Voldemort’s ceaseless pursuit of immortality puts Harry himself face-to-face with death multiple times, forcing him to come to terms with his own fear of death. What he comes to realize as a result of his ongoing battle with Voldemort, and in particular because of conversations with Dumbledore and revelations before the final battle (which we will examine in detail later), is that the secrets of death can only be fully understood if one faces death and submits to death, if one passes through death to what lies beyond. Only if one is willing to die can he understand death – and overcome it. This is a paradoxical and (because of that) beautiful theme, which is, in my view, completely true – what Harry learns of death is of great value for us, here in the real world.

Harry first becomes acquainted with this idea after the death of his beloved godfather, Sirius Black. Remembering that some dead wizards of the past remain at Hogwarts as ghosts, Harry runs excitedly to ask his ghostly friend Nearly Headless Nick if Sirius would come back in this form. Nick’s answer is not exactly what Harry was looking for:

“Wizards can leave an imprint of themselves upon the earth, to walk palely where their living selves once trod…I was afraid of death. I chose to remain behind. I sometimes wonder whether I oughtn’t to have…Well, that is neither here nor there…In fact, I am neither here nor there…I know nothing of the secrets of death, Harry, for I chose my feeble imitation of life instead.” (OotP 861)
According to Nick (and Rowling), these “secrets of death” are known only to those who go “on,” those who choose to embrace death and let go of their mortal lives. Death is part of what it means to be human – we are meant to go on, to pass through, to take the plunge. As Dumbledore tells Harry in The Philosopher’s Stone, “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure” (PS ch. 17).1

In all this, we see that Harry’s understanding of death grows in exactly the opposite direction as Voldemort’s. Whereas Voldemort clung to life only out of fear of death, “[Harry’s] will to live had always been so much stronger than his fear of death” (DH ch. 34). Whereas the Dark Lord scorns death and flees from it in fear, Harry is drawn to death and learns that there are secrets to be found in submitting to death – he accepts it as an essential part of his humanity, and his love for his friends encourages him to face it.

1 Also contributing to the theme of death are thestrals, the mysterious flying horse-like creatures that can only be seen by those who have seen death. Rowling explained this idea in an interview: “When you find out about the Thestrals, you find that you can see them only when you really understand death in a broader sense, when you really know what it means.” This is what the series is all about – understanding what death means.

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