Growing Up Potter: Death and Maturity in the Harry Potter Fandom

Curator's Note

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.


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.

Rowling has explicitly stated in interviews that she doesn't believe in talking down to children, and her work in the Potter series reflects that.

Kids know when they're being preached to, and they don't like it. Rowling's a very honest writer in that she doesn't sugar-coat things for her younger readers: there are consequences to people's actions, bad things happen, death is final, and things aren't as simple as "good" and "bad". What she does in her books is present a realistic worldview that jives with what her readers experience in their own lives. In life, things have that same complexity, that same ambiguousness, and the similarity between text and life helps drive home the lessons Rowling presents without her having to do it herself. There's no preaching, as the readers come to the realization of their own accord.

I find Rowling's determination to be honest with her young readers to be one of the most admirable qualities of the Potter books. Not to mention the fact that it most likely aided in the popularity of the series.


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.  

One thing I love about Rowling is her ability to let those "unneccesary" deaths just be. She doesn't have to attach a purpose to them, she doesn't have to make them mean anything; it's just life, and sometimes people die.

I think it all goes back to her being honest with her readers. In most "children's" books, character deaths either occur off-page (someone's an orphan at the beginning of the book because their parents died years ago) or have a direct function in the text (such as Dumbledore's death). The deaths that we see are made easier to bear and understand because they have a purpose. But what about when people die for no reason at all? As you say, those deaths are hard. You can't take solace in any higher reason - they're just dead.

Rowling could easily have included only "meaningful" deaths in the series and left it at that. Sure, it might have seemed strange that there was no collateral damage in an all-out battle against evil, but they're children's books, right? It's standard fare. Instead, she gave her readers the real story: people die, it doesn't always make sense, it hurts, and you have to learn to deal with it. I really respect that honesty and that willingness to be dark, to be a bit brutal with young readers.

While I agree that there is a real bravery in Rowling's willingness to present the death of minor characters, and that this is a bold move given the state of contemporary children's literature, we should be cautious not to overstate her achievement, or understate what is possible in children's media. Yes, she could have spoonfed more, but she could have pushed harder too.

The deaths of Fred and Hedwig are certainly peripherary to the plot, but neither of them actually presents the possibility of meaningless death. If we accept the list of deaths on Wikipedia , Luna's mother, Rowena Ravenclaw, and the loose ends of the Black family tree may have died meaningless deaths, but all of that is backstory. Once Harry goes to Hogwarts, every death is caused by the central conflict somehow, and is thus meaningful in a way that we should not mistake for an unambiguously presentation of human reality. It would be very different if the books actually offered the grotesque possibility of death by accident, disease, or even death caused any conflict or injustice outside of the series' central struggle.

You are right to call these deaths "collateral damage," because that phrase is a military technology that gives death teleological orientation, making it as meaningful as the struggle that justifies the expenditure. The deaths of Fred and Hedwig are those of minor heroes made meaningful by a war of absolute significance. Martyrs. We are allowed to mourn how arbitrary these deaths are only for a moment before they are swept into moral schema of the novels. To situate all death within a great conflict of this sort might be a form of honesty, but it is the honesty Barthes calls "Operation Margarine:"

"To instill into the Established Order the complacent portrayal of its drawbacks has nowadays become a paradoxical but incontrovertible means of exalting it."

Don't get me wrong, the books do make children talk about death, and that is important work, but we should not mistake this presentation of death for honest meaninglessness. These deaths are thrilling, but they are moralized in a way that TV news makes quite familiar. For confrontation with meaningless death children would do better to read Old Yeller or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

 For sure, Rowling could have pushed harder. Could she have had Fred Weasley drop dead on the Quidditch pitch of a massive embolism? She certainly could have, but I'm not sure that would have been any more poignant or thought-provoking. There is some measure of realism that cannot (and, I might argue, should not) be captured by prose narrative. That is to say that, though neither "random" nor "meaningless" in a denotative fashion, the deaths of minor heroes like Fred and Hedwig are what we might call "random enough." 

Even the death of Old Yeller isn't "meaningless" in the context of the story. In point of fact, Yeller dies a hero - he has fought off the rabid wolf, and while he has to be put down, his death is in service to his own bravery. It is part and parcel of the narrative. 

The problem with, as you say, an unambiguous presentation of reality is that those things rarely make narrative sense. There is a certain amount of creative leeway one has to afford an author in order for the plot line to continue to make sense. There's a reason why only a certain segment of the population was into David Lynch. For most people, things have to have coherent narrative connection. 

(Although, again, I agree that Rowling could have pushed harder. I mean, if you want to get really close to the kind of meaningless death in children's literature you are referring to, Bridge to Terabithia pretty much traumatized an entire year of my childhood...)

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. 

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 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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