Harry Potter and death in western literature

I just came across this article, published before the release of Deathly Hallows, the final Harry Potter book. I wanted to quote a some of it because I want to begin to think about the whole question of how death is handled in western lit. It does strike me, as is noted in the article, how often the hero is rewarded, so to speak, not with reward, but with death, and not just with death, but also with being cut off from participation in the events or the world that comes after his or her accomplishment(s). I can certainly relate to that scenario, in that it’s very realistic, it’s very much humanity’s experience, century in and century out.

But that trend just throws into more relief the exceptions to that rule: when a literary world (like the society of witches and wizards in the Potterverse) depicts the opposite, when it depicts and celebrates and makes the reader experience the opposite: a universe in which there is Something beyond, even if that Something remains mysterious (and thankfully, quite undogmatic). And that Something doesn’t just exist, It is Something, It is a tangible power. It’s a power that actually does something, so to speak, in the background, underneath and within the world.  It’s a power that protects, though in subtle ways, and in ways that the characters cannot control and in ways that suprise and mystify them.

I suppose one could say, Well, the Harry Potter books are simply an example of “Christian” literature, and that explains the difference. But are the Harry Potter books Christian literature in the sense of other Christian literature like The Pilgrim’s Progress or Lewis’ Narnia series? In a way, I think yes. But in a way, I think not really — that’s it’s something more/different. Really, I’d like to think about it more.

Anyway, here’s the article:

A mythologolical argument over Potter ending
Just because it’s children’s literature doesn’t mean it can’t have dark events

The Associated Press
Updated: 6:58 a.m. PT July 5, 2007

NEW YORK – Brace yourselves, Harry Potter fans. No matter how desperate you are for Harry to live, some experts in classic literature and mythology say that finishing off the young wizard would make sense — in a literary kind of way.

J.K. Rowling has never shied from darkness in her phenomenally successful series — it started with the murder of Harry’s parents, continued through his discovery that an evil wizard was trying to destroy him, and has included pain and torture and the deaths of major characters.

She’s already promised two deaths in the seventh and final book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” coming out July 21, and has refused to commit to Harry surviving. But she couldn’t kill Harry off, could she? She wouldn’t do that, would she?

“If you look at the tradition of the epic hero … there is this sort of pattern that the hero delivers people to the promised land but does not see it himself,” said Lana Whited, professor of English at Ferrum College in Ferrum , Va., pointing out examples from King Arthur to Moses to Frodo.

Greek mythology has plenty of examples, like Hercules, who was killed at the height of his strength, said Mary Lefkowitz, a retired classics professor who taught at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

“There’s no long promise of happiness,” she said. “You may have brief moments of glory and then the darkness comes.”

And don’t be fooled into thinking a happy ending is automatic just because the main characters are young, said Anne Collins Smith, assistant professor of philosophy and classical studies at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas.

“Just because it’s children’s literature doesn’t mean it can’t have very dark events in it,” she said.

Doesn’t make sense to kill him
Others aren’t convinced, saying that Rowling’s story about Harry and his adventures is less influenced by classical mythology than it is by other storytelling traditions.

Philip Ray, an associate professor of English at Connecticut College, said Rowling was part of a tradition of British writers like Edith Nesbit, writing stories where children are the focus and have grand adventures.

Since Harry is about to finish his years at Hogwarts, Ray said, “I think it would be very unusual for a book like this to kill off the main character at a time when he’s about to graduate from school.”

The books are about Harry’s development into a young man, Ray said.

“For Rowling to have put Harry Potter through all seven volumes just to kill him off, the point of all development would be wasted,” Ray said. “Death strikes me as being the strangest ending of all.”

And even though the series has a dark aspect to it, Rowling hasn’t set it up in such a way that Harry paying the ultimate price would make sense, said Tim Morris, who teaches English at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“I don’t get the sense that J.K. Rowling has set us up for that kind of sacrifice,” he said. “The first six books haven’t given a sense of that tragedy to me. It’s generally hopeful.”

Whited acknowledges that reader outrage would be high if Harry died, and that it might seem cruel to younger readers, who aren’t familiar with classic literary story arcs.

“I’m sure J.K. Rowling would get some howlers if Harry Potter did not survive,” she said.

But even if he lives, don’t be surprised if it’s a hard-fought victory, she said. Another aspect of the classic hero myth is that even if he wins, it’s not without some loss.

“There are always sacrifices, compromises along the way,” she said. “If Harry doesn’t die, one of his friends will.”

URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19570787/


3 thoughts on “Harry Potter and death in western literature

  1. What comes to mind for me is Oregon author Ursula LeGuin’s wonderful youngadult/adult series The Wizard of Earthsea with the young but maturing wizard Ged. This award winning trilogy has expanded in recent years to add the 4th book Tehanu and then a series of wonderful more books about the dragons. Certainly much dark goes on here too, which is not so unusual for children. After all, the Grimm fairy tales are pretty grim, or some of them pre-Bowdlerization (if I have the right term). If you don’t know LeGuin’s work, definitely check her out! Rowling’s conclusion (now that we know what it is, but not spoiling it for other readers :-) ) seems just right.

    ps: Laura – glad to find your blog and to know that you are the one who posted to mine!

  2. Hey, Sara.

    I didn’t know LeGuin was an Oregonian! Cool. I need to check her stuff out.

    Thanks. I’m glad you find my blog, too. I like the title of yours — Thinking In Air. It conveys the abstract and elusive nature of ideas (and writing), but also it conveys the reality of ideas and the “concrete” importance of writing — in that air is real: hard to touch (we don’t touch it, it touches us) but something we bodily experience every day. If that makes sense… :-)

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