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The Hallowing of Death: Sacrifice, Salvation, and the Death of the Superman in Harry Potter

by Jamie Paris and Susan Johnston


""The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, 268 and 1 Corinthians 15:26

"Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love." – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, 578

This paper argues that it is love that defeats death. We claim that the Harry Potter books articulate, through the response of Rowling’s “abandoned boys” to their suffering, a covenantal theology in which the duty of care toward others does not constrain but enables human freedom and flourishing. As Harry Frankfurt’s The Reasons of Love demonstrates, it is through caring for and loving another that the boundaries of the self become meaningful. The actual and metaphorical orphans of the Harry Potter series, Tom Riddle, Severus Snape, Albus Dumbledore, and Harry himself, are heirs to a fractured custodialism where the aboriginal covenant of care and love was broken; each responds to this fracturing with a new covenant. For Snape, Dumbledore, and Potter, this new covenant rearticulates the boundaries of the self in ways that permit selflessness, because the root of the covenant is in loving sacrifice for another. As the tomb of Lily and James Potter in Godric’s Hollow makes clear, this greater love, which lays down its life for another, is finally how death may be destroyed. In stark contrast, Tom Marvolo Riddle becomes the hideously malformed Lord Voldemort by eschewing the re–formation of self in loving selflessness. He responds to his mother’s death by seeing death itself as that which must be avoided, at all costs, and so shows himself both as incapable of love in this covenantal and custodial sense, and as unable to grasp how, for his enemies and his allies, those we love shape the boundaries of our subjectivity. Voldemort misunderstands love, in part, because he has lived without love, and has never been anyone’s beloved (Frankfurt 59; OotP 736).

We argue that Voldemort, like the other abandoned boys, chooses both his end and his ends. Thus the series prefers a profoundly Christian covenantal theology, predicated on the willing sacrifice of the loving self for others, to the Nietzschean position of Voldemort, who insists on the sacrifice of others to the god of his own self. Scott Hahn unpacks the Christian idea of the familial covenant by noting that Adam and Eve fail to protect the greater good of their covenant, with each other and with God, preferring the lesser good of their natural lives (64–73). Over seven books, Harry Potter learns to prefer some goods over his own natural life; this preference becomes explicit in Deathly Hallows, where Harry realizes that his friends would prefer to die for him, and that his death may stand in for their sacrifice. Crucially, the essence of Harry’s love is sacrificial and thus life–giving (Hahn 73); as Frankfurt notes, “[b]y its very nature, loving entails both that we regard its objects as valuable in themselves and that we have no choice but to adopt those objects as our final ends” (56). The loving self, then, is bounded by the necessities of the beloved and the covenant that this entails; by contrast, Voldemort’s love is monstrous, a covenant with his own unbounded and unconstrained self. This is clarified in Voldemort’s speech to the defenders of Hogwarts, in which he mendaciously insists that Harry died “trying to save himself while [they] lay down [their] lives for him” (DH 583). Voldemort sees Harry’s love for his friends at work in his willingness to die, and understands that he must give that love the lie in order to defeat it, but he cannot see that such self–giving love is strength rather than weakness. Just as, for Nietzsche, the “first principle of . . . philanthropy” is that “[t]he weak and ill–constituted shall perish . . . .And one shall help them to do so” (“The Anti–Christ” 116), Voldemort’s misapprehension of the power of love means that he imagines Lily Potter to have perished out of weakness, rather than out of the strength of her love for Harry. Nor can he imagine that Narcissa might be motivated to say that Harry is dead when he was not because doing so would allow her to return to the castle and to Draco sooner (DH 581–582). Voldemort, who has never known a parent’s love, cannot conceive that mothers may prefer the needs of their own children to the lesser good of their own lives.

We are not alone in proposing a Christian reading. McVeigh argues that the Harry Potter series is in fact Christian in theme. Importantly, he argues that the spirit of the Potter series belongs to the High Church tradition, “mak[ing] assumptions [which] grow out of a sacramental view of the universe, the belief that the world for all its heartaches is comic and that truth is always on the startling other side of the real and concrete” (200). As he further argues, “[w]ere Christianity a Rowling target, the Dursleys would likely be pious churchgoers; in fact, they are pedestrian materialists, those recognizable btes noirs of virtually all Christian writers” (203). American pastor John Killinger defends the series from its Christian critics by noting the prevalence of Christian mythology in Harry’s world. Killinger brings out the Christian significance in many of the key moments in the series, and reads the battle between Harry and Voldemort as refiguring the personal battle between Christ and Satan. For Killinger, “the Harry Potter stories will keep alive for a whole generation, even in this age of microchips and super transistors, a sensitivity to the spiritual realities that lie at the heart of what it means to be human and inhabit a universe of competing energies such as the one in which we dwell” (9). For Killinger, Harry is a Christ figure. Yet while we see Harry’s sacrifice as profoundly Christian, we do not see Harry himself as a Christ figure; we argue instead that Rowling posits a theology in which all are called, like Christ, to lay down their lives in sacrificial love. Unlike Snape and Dumbledore, Harry has never fallen, never succumbed to the temptations of power; at the same time, he is also a flawed and mortal character, prone to anger, prone to self–pity; nor is his sacrifice finally any different in kind from the self–sacrifice which redeems Snape and Dumbledore, and perhaps even Narcissa Malfoy.

From Harry’s outing as a Parselmouth in Chamber of Secrets through the revelations of Order of the Phoenix, Half–Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows, Rowling insists on the resemblance of Harry to Voldemort and to Snape, the “abandoned boys”; again and again, the moral consciousness of the novels, Albus Dumbledore, insists, as he does in the movie version of Order of the Phoenix, that “it isn’t how you are alike, it is how you are not!” (OotP WideScreen Ed. DVD). Part of this difference lies in the nature of each character’s abandonment: as Harry says after sending Lupin away, “Parents . . . shouldn’t leave their kids unless – unless they’ve got to” (DH 177). Orphaned and abandoned to the unloving neglect of Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, Harry is nonetheless preserved from evil by his mother’s self–giving love, a love which persists beyond and thus defeats death. In this sense, Harry is far different from the likewise abandoned Tom Riddle, whose utter self–absorption and incapacity for sacrifice goes back not only to his abandonment by his deceived Muggle father, Tom Riddle Jr., but to his mother’s exploitative enchantment of his father. Indeed the Voldemort family covenant, revealed to us in Half–Blood Prince, testifies to the failure rather than the triumph of custodialism; Merope, herself unloved and uncared for, the flawed object of her father’s absorption with pure blood and lineage, in turn sees the handsome Tom Riddle Jr. as an object of her desires rather than as an end in himself. In this way the Riddles invert the custodial covenant exemplified in Lily Potter, for they see others always as a means to their own ends rather than what Kant would term ends in themselves (35–36).

Harry, like Voldemort, is left alone, but his abandonment more closely resembles Dumbledore’s than it does Voldemort’s, a function of that self–sacrificing love which sees both Dumbledore’s and Harry’s parents lay down their lives in loving service to and care for their children. Even here, though, Rowling presents a clear hierarchy of custodial goods, in which Dumbledore’s father, whose vengeance on the Muggles who harmed his daughter leads to his imprisonment in Azkaban and consequent inability to care for his any of his children, is revealed as misapprehending the duty of care. For vengeance is far different from custodial sacrifice, properly understood in the novels as the supreme act of sacrifice committed by Lily, who, as Rowling tells us,

could have lived and chose to die. James was going to be killed anyway. . . . he died trying to protect his family but he was going to be murdered anyway. . . . James was immensely brave. But the calib[re] of Lily’s bravery was, I think in this instance, higher because she could have saved herself. . . . She did very consciously lay down her life. She had a clear choice –. (Rowling. Interview with Melissa Anelli and Emerson Spartz)

It should be clear by now that Rowling consistently asks us to understand one character in relation to another. In this way, the neglected, possibly even abused Severus Snape (OotP 521–22; DH 532, 535) is linked not only to the mistreated Harry and to Voldemort, but in his loathing of James Potter, the “big Quidditch hero” (DH 541) who overshadows him, to Ron Weasley. For even Ron, whose large and loving family functions for Harry as the model of the love he seeks, is in many ways the forgotten son, significantly connected with Harry in his struggle for attention. When, in Deathly Hallows, Voldemort torments Ron, he reminds him not entirely untruthfully that he is “second best, always, eternally overshadowed” (DH 306). We recall, here, Ron’s earlier encounter with the Mirror of Erised, where the forgotten son, “who has always been overshadowed by his brothers, sees himself standing alone, the best of all of them” (PS 157).

Ron’s sense of difference, in fact, is what links him to the more obviously abandoned boys in these books: Snape, Potter, Voldemort, and Dumbledore. As Ren Girard reminds us, “[f]ar from being radical and progressive, the current glorification of difference is merely the abstract expression of an outlook common to all cultures. There exists in every individual a tendency to think of himself not only as different from others but as extremely different, because every culture entertains this feeling of difference among the individuals who compose it” (Scapegoat 21). If this is true, then differences in Harry Potter are not cultural or racial, or even gendered, but exist as long as there are “I” and “thou.” The four Houses of Hogwarts will serve to elaborate this point. While the Sorting Hat asserts a House identity for each student, these identities are neither absolute nor essential; they speak to potential and to choice. As Dumbledore notes, when Harry wonders about his own potential for Slytherin House, “[i]t is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities” (CS 245); Professor McGonagall echoes the point on the eve of the Battle of Hogwarts, telling Slughorn that “[t]he time has come for Slytherin House to decide upon its loyalties” (DH 484).

Identity, for Rowling as for Girard, is not destiny, and in this vein we may note that Girard’s treatment of difference emerges from his work on stereotypes of persecution. Far from perceiving persecution as a function of the violent loathing of ineradicable difference, he argues that “persecutors are never obsessed by difference but rather by its unutterable contrary, the lack of difference” (Scapegoat 22). We need only observe the half–blood Voldemort’s harrying of Muggles and Mud–bloods to see that his obsession derives, not from a loathing of Muggle difference, but of their likeness to him; it is the task of the Muggle–born Registration Commission to make plain such discriminations (DH 203–220). Indeed the Commission goes to the heart of the paradox of identity in Rowling’s work; we are what we do, despite the ontological difference that defines who is and who is not magical; we are the sum of our choices, despite the circumstances of our birth. Just as Girard does not exculpate the persecutors, even as he charts what he sees as the universal social origins of persecution, so too do McGonagall and Dumbledore insists on the necessity of choice. And it is to the choices of the abandoned boys that we now turn. As Dumbledore insists, “it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be!” (OotP 614–15).

Each of the orphans, real or metaphorical, deals with a tragic loss. For Voldemort, it is his mother; for Dumbledore, his sister; for Snape, Lily Potter; for Harry, as for Neville, it is both his parents. Even Ron loses a brother. But they all react differently to these losses. Snape’s selfish and possessive love for Lily is refined by the fire of her death into the sacrificial love with which he takes custody of her son. Dumbledore turns away from the Dark Arts, turns away from power, recognizing his own selfishness and sinfulness in the terrible outcome of his temptation to power. Each character finds in tragedy, not weakness but strength, the strength to resist evil in pursuit of the greater good. But for Voldemort, the lesson of his mother’s death is, as he teaches Quirrell, that “[t]here is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it” (PS 211).

Thus from Philosopher’s Stone forward, Rowling suggests that Voldemort’s worldview is neo–Nietzschean. While Voldemort can value loyalty, bravery, and education, these things are instrumental for him, valuable only insofar as they serve his ends: power and immortality. Their value is not intrinsic to the virtues themselves. By contrast, Harry and Dumbledore do view the world in terms of good and evil. When Dumbledore tells Professor McGonagall that the dark lord had powers that he will never have, McGonagall quickly observes that the issue is not that Voldemort has more powers, but that Dumbledore is “welltoo noble to use them” (PS 14). This nobility Voldemort sees as a weakness, a weakness he implicitly eschews in his repeated declarations that he is the most powerful wizard alive. In the final battle between Harry and Voldemort, Harry repeats McGonagall’s assertion that Dumbledore could have done everything Voldemort did but “he knew more than you, he knew enough not to do what you’ve done” (DH 592). Voldemort, in contrast, argues that the issue was not one of knowledge, but one of the will. He tells Harry, “[y]ou mean he was weak!Too weak to dare, too weak to take what might have been his, what will be mine” (DH 592). For Voldemort, the world can be divided only into those who have the will to act, and those who do not.

We want to describe Dumbledore and Harry as principle–based ethical thinkers. According to ethicist Margaret Somerville, “principle–based or deontological ethicists believe that some things are wrong no matter how much good could come from them, and therefore these things must not be done. Their first consideration is whether any given course of conduct is, in itself, inherently wrong” (24). For example, Harry refuses to soften his condemnation of Professor Lupin’s offer to leave his pregnant wife and unborn child to help Harry and his friends on their quest (DH 117). Harry here privileges the principle of care and the duties of parents towards their children over other possible goods, like having help on his own quest, or the glory Lupin could have gained by being a part of Harry’s struggle, because it would be inherently wrong to aid someone to abandon one’s own child. By contrast, Voldemort is willing to use any means to attain his ends, and none of these means seem to be inherently wrong to him. The unforgivable curses he and his followers use, Avada Kedavra, Crucio, and Imperio, all violate the Kantian principle that we must treat people always as an ends, and never as a means to our own ends. Voldemort is incapable of either love or remorse in the text precisely because he is incapable of seeing another as valuable in himself.

Moreover, Voldemort is more than willing to lie to attain his ends, often using lies that are calculated for maximum effect. When Harry and Voldemort are fighting over the Philosopher’s Stone, Voldemort tells Harry not to be a fool because it is “[b]etter [to] save your own life and join meor you’ll meet the same end as your parentsthey died begging for mercy” (PS 213). Likewise, when Voldemort is presenting what he thinks is Harry’s dead body to the resistance at Hogwarts, he tells them that “[Harry] was killed trying to sneak out of the castle grounds killed while trying to save himself’” (DH 585). Lying, killing, and torturing are all justifiable means for Voldemort because he has made a god of himself, and in the immense monstrosity of self–love which takes only the self as beloved, all others become mere means to the ends of his self–glorification. In this way, Rowling’s depiction of Voldemort comments directly on the implications of a pure–power ideology that rejects the very possibility of good and evil, and ethics along with it. We contend that such an ideology of power depends on the rejection of that custodial and sacrificial love which can lay down its life for the beloved; quite differently, Voldemort’s covenant with his followers calls on them to lay down their lives to preserve the small, mean thing his life has become. Thus, for example, Snape must die that Voldemort may master the Elder Wand (DH 527).

But let us pause here to unpack this question of desire and the beloved. For Nietzsche, as we have seen, neighbour–love is a vice rather than a virtue, something which must be overcome by loving ourselves, first and foremost. The tragedy of Nietzschean thought, in our view, lies in the narrowness of his perception of the human self; unable to see another as what George Eliot called “an equivalent centre of self” (193), he sees that we must either be ends–in–ourselves or means to the ends of others. Nietzsche imagines neighbour–love as “endwarfing” (Zarathustra 184–90), because he cannot conceive how one might take another’s ends as one’s own without becoming merely a tool of those ends; thus does he attack idea of the equality of souls as “falsehood” and “pretext” (“Anti–Christ” 186). And so for Nietzsche, “love” is always – and only – what Girard has termed “desire.”

For Girard, desire is always mimetic, always triangular; it does not emerge spontaneously in response to a beloved other, but as an imitation of the desires of some kind of rival or mediator, some model (Deceit 1–26). Mimetic desire, in other words, is predicated on envy and on rivalry as well as on imitation; this is why, for Girard, mimetic desire is easily subsumed into the murderous rages of the mimetic rivalry that produces and is produced by it (Adams 63). We may think here of Ron, maddened with rage, taunted by Riddle–Harry and Riddle–Hermione: “Least loved, always, by the mother who craved a daughter . . . least loved, now, by the girl who prefers your friend” (DH 306).

Girard’s point here might be clearer if we distinguish between mimetic desire and mimetic love; mimetic desire would then refer to the envy and rivalry which takes as its model some mortal rival, and as the beloved some beloved object, who must be possessed in order that the model may be defeated or surpassed: thus do the Riddle–Harry and the Riddle–Hermione represent Ron’s desires and his dreads to him (DH 306); thus Snape’s revulsion for James Potter reaches its nadir in the rivalry for Lily (DH 541). Such desire must be seen, in the novels as in Girard, as fundamentally selfish and its objects as possessions, but it must also be seen as a deformation of that love which – again, for Girard as for Rowling – is an imitation of Christ. Girard commends this mode for its extreme openness to the other (Adams 64), an other whom we must note is no longer an object, a means to the selfish ends of the desiring subject, but an end–in–herself. While Harry, like Ron, struggles with the selfishness of mimetic desire – think, for example, of their behaviour at the Yule Ball (GoF) – both come to see those they love as ends–in–themselves, ends for whom they would lay down their lives. Thus Harry, Ron and Hermione are each willing to go to Voldemort to destroy Nagini, in order to spare the others (DH 517). Their mutual love, then, is self–sacrificing and custodial; it is covenantal in our sense of the term.

Finally, our reading of covenant and sacrifice understands the books as a volley in the culture wars: Rowling is here proposing a Christian understanding of sacrificial love as the antidote to a Nietzschean atomism which prefers and preserves the self as the only object of love at the expense of the family and the community. In the desperate last stand at Hogwarts, the books finally reject a pure pacificism which can prefer any peace above all, even the dubious good of an unjust peace. Here it is worth recalling that peace once meant, for Christians at least, not simply the absence of conflict, but the kind of wholeness and completion we observe as the new generations assemble on Platform 9 . Such peace recalls the life–affirming peace which the Gospel of John records has been left to us, the fruit of Christ’s self–sacrificing love (John 14:27). What is more, Harry’s life–giving sacrifice connects this greater good of the community to the great good of the family covenant, in which the loving self comes to be and which itself is the seed–bed of sacrifice. The peace re–established in the final scene is one premised on covenant and custodialism; indeed, we must conclude that for Rowling as for Dumbledore, covenantal love is our last, best hope for a just and meaningful peace.


Works Cited

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