Death is a core theme in the Harry Potter series. From the unseen murders that precede the first book’s opening lines to the many deaths that close out the final chapter, death is prevalent in the series. For many of the series’ young readers, the Harry Potter books provided their first encounter with death, grief, and mourning.
Far more than merely shaping the minds of a generation - encouraging them to read, etc. - J.K. Rowling shaped their emotions. This is not an unusual side effect. Everyone can recall characters from their childhood, from books or television shows or movies, whose deaths were a significant turning point in their emotional maturity. Rowling’s work is no different, though it has arguably had influence on a much larger number of young people than anything that came before. And that group - Generation Wireless, as it were - banded together after the death(s) in the Harry Potter series to share their pain, provide support, and to remember.
The death of Sirius Black provides a strong example of how such encounters affected the readers. Fan videos - such as the one included here - were crafted as memorials to the fallen character. Fansites sprang up as gathering places for Sirius fans where his memory could be kept alive. Through stories and artwork and tributes and more, fans were able to express their feelings and deal with the loss of a beloved character. They experienced the stages of grief just as if they had lost someone flesh-and-blood, someone they knew and cared about. For those fans, so emotionally invested in the world Rowling created, Sirius was real and his death carried all the weight of a real death.
Sirius’ death - and the fans' reactions to it - is just one example of many. The Potter series is full of instances where the story presents young readers with situations that challenge them emotionally, stretching and defining their maturity. There is a depth to the series that transcends mere entertainment: for many, Harry Potter played an essential role in their emotional growth, exposing young readers to situations in the text long before they ever experienced them in real life.
The Finality of Death
Thanks, Kelly, for kicking the week off with a great post! You raise a lot of issues - especially concerning fan engagement and interfacing with the books/films - that I think will continue throughout the week.
I have always admired Rowling's willingness to confront death in an unflinching manner. Unlike other works of fiction that kill off characters only to have them return in the afterlife or in ghost form - Star Wars and Lost come to mind - Harry Potter deals with the finality of death, which, as you evidence in your post, contributes to the heartbreak of the series. Yes, we see dead characters in flashbacks and memories, but their deaths are final. They don't return to the "real world" of the fiction. Sirius stays dead; Dumbledore stays dead (spoiler alert!); Snape stays dead. This makes their sacrifice all the more poignant and meaningful.
Also, as you touch on, Rowling has a willingness to treat her readers - children and adults alike - as mature and emotionally complex individuals who are able to confront the finality of death, and this allows the text to expand beyond the limits of the fictional world. I don't have children myself, but I imagine many conversations between parents and their kids about what death means and what happens after we die. This emotional complexity might be part of the reason why the world of Harry Potter has become the cultural phenomenon it is.
Really interesting thoughts.
The thing that strikes me about Rowling and death are not so much the ones that move the plot lines forward. What I mean is that Sirius's death, while unexpected, pushes Harry's character development forward. Dumbledore's death, while really unexpected, is totally necessary for the overall story to continue.
I find the deaths of characters like Dobby and Fred Weasley more intriguing for precisely the reason Drew mentions above - it's Rowling treating her readers like adults. Sometimes, people die. Randomly. Not the people you sort of "expect" to die, but people you always sort of thought would just be there. Is there any -reason- to kill Fred Weasley? Not really, except that this is a battle in a war, and sometimes people we really like get hurt and even killed in war, and we didn't expect it to happen, and we are really mad and upset that it happened, but that's just it: it happens. And, in turn, we learn how to cope with a different kind of loss. We miss Dumbledore because he was good and wise and a father figure, but we miss Fred (and, for me, Hedwig) in a really different way - we miss them because they never really hurt anyone and they didn't have to die and there was no real -purpose- to them dying. They were collateral damage, and those deaths are really hard to deal with sometimes.
CONFRONTING DEATH AND MATURING
Harry's fame revolves around this theme of death. His parents were murdered as an infant, and throughout his young-adult life, Harry is consistently confronted with the death of both friends and foes. Harry is even considered "The Chosen One": the person who is expected to kill Lord Voldemort.
I believe that many avid fans of the series can identify with the characters' grief and their struggle to understand what death symbolizes. In particular, children who lost a parent or both parents at a young age can find some sort of solace from reading about (and probably identifying with) Harry.
As the series progresses, Harry begins to understand and confront the grief losing parents can have, even on a child too young to truly remember them. As kids who have lost parents mature, they begin to understand what that loss truly meant to themselves, others, and the world.
From when Harry first learned that his parents did not die in a car crash, to standing over their graves in Godric's Hollow, we've witnessed Harry's maturity and attempt to understand death on many different levels, and that's why Rowling's work can be so poignant.
Beginning of the End
And of course we now have the series itself drawing to a close and a different kind of death.
The end of the franchise akin to a family member being diagnosed with an incurable illness. Is their hope that the subject (text) can be saved? Would it be fair to extend life? Would the quality of that life not be impaired/corrupted?
The storylines along with the cast of course invariably convey the very signs of aging. Those who began their secondary school education with young Harry Potter and saw out each term (length of a book) are now - as it comes to its close - in their first/second year of University/on a gap year. So many US/European twentyish year olds have literally grown up alongside Harry Potter and like Mr. Radcliffe may hold some part of their childhood whilst being firmly across the threshold of adulthood too.
The final instalment then carries with it that most acceptable of deaths. One which is unprescipitated. Not too overally dramatic. More a 'passing away'. A slow fade out. And Rowling leaves us possibly with that most 'adult' of responses to that most natural of deaths. Life must go on...
One of the things I always
One of the things I always admired about these books, in addition to the themes of death and loss, is the way that the books stretch not only in length but complexity as they go on, reflecting the emotional maturity of the characters. In the first book, Harry is a child and the book really reads as a children's book. With each new tome, the emotional and narrative themes seemed to deepen, so that by the end the books are very nearly adult. Certainly, young adult. I recall reading the first one and finding it a charming and imaginative tale, and becoming increasingly emotionally invested with each book. The Order of the Phoenix in particular grabbed me and wouldn't let me go.
I can't help but compare the HP books with another epic, popular book series that has been made into movies. I don't have any great point to make here, except maybe to mourn the arrival of Twilight.
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