Sunday, 13 January 2008

'The next great adventure': portrayals of death in Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, unlike the rest of the books in the series, opens with two epigraphs. JK Rowling has said that “if [she] could use them at the beginning of book seven then [she’d] cued up the ending perfectly. If they were relevant, then [she] went where [she] needed to go.” The second quotation, from William Penn’s More Fruits of Solitude, concerns death, which Rowling had previously described as "possibly the most important theme" of the books:

Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one
another still. For there must needs be present, that love and live in that which
is omnipresent. In this divine glass they see face to face; and their converse
is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may
be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever
present, because immortal.


As she hoped, this quotation does sum up the philosophy expressed throughout the seven book series, of love surpassing death, which is arguably even more of an important theme, or the most important aspect of the most important theme. The way in which death and its relationship to love is handled throughout the series is reminiscent of the same theme's handling in an earlier seven book fantasy for children, C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia.

That Rowling's approach to death and love shows remarkable parallels with Lewis's first became apparent at the end of Philosopher's Stone, when Dumbledore begins to explain to Harry just what happened when Voldemort killed his parents and why he survived:

"Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand,
it is love. He didn't realise that love as powerful as your mother's
for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign ... to have been
loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is
gone, will give us some protection for ever. It is in
your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed and ambition,
sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this
reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good."

PS, p.216
When I first read this, I was instantly reminded of the 'deeper magic from beyond the dawn of time' from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, another thing overlooked by the antagonist and which has power over death:
"It means," said Aslan, "that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a
magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back
only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little
further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned, she would have
read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a
willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead,
the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards."
LWW, p.150

Of course, this idea is far older than either writer - The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is an allegory of the Easter story with Aslan's self-sacrifice consciously imitating that of Christ, and Rowling has herself talked about the Christian influences on her work, so it is perhaps no surprise to find such similar treatment.

Love can be seen to transcend death in two ways - by robbing it of its power, and by living on beyond it. These could be seen as two sides of the same coin - the fact that love outlasts death automatically detracts from its power to hurt - but in the context of the fantasy fictions created by Lewis and Rowling, as in the story of the death and resurrection of Christ, the first is given a far more literal interpretation, as like Jesus, love enables both Aslan and Harry to be resurrected after their sacrificial deaths. This interpretation of the power of love over death is more akin to the heroic myth, as described by Joseph Campbell, than to the more theological consolatory aspect of eternal love and life through love:

At the return threshold, ... the hero re-emerges from the kingdom of dread
(return, resurrection). The boon that he brings restores the world (elixir).

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, (Princeton University Press, 1949) p.246
In terms of Harry's story (Aslan and Narnia is a more complicated case, as Aslan has already been portrayed as God-like) this results in a compelling narrative pull for having Harry live beyond his sacrificial death. This could have set up a dichotomy with what we as the readers have been told over and over throughout the series - death is not to be feared, death is not the end, "after all, to the well organised mind, death is but the next great adventure" (PS, p.215). However, whatever Dumbledore might say, consciously facing death is not that easy, and Harry needs all the consolation about death he has obtained in order to help him walk into the forest to face Voldemort at the end of Deathly Hallows. It should be said that his being scared when it comes down to the actual moment does not negate his essential understanding of what he must do - likewise Aslan craved the comfort of Susan and Lucy on his walk to the Stone Table, and Jesus confessed his fear in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is rewarded for his understanding however by being offered the chance not to die, to return and live out his life, to complete his heroic journey, but in the knowledge that eternal life awaits him someday, unlike Voldemort, who has maimed his immortal soul beyond all recognition ('You have less to fear from returning here than he does.', DH, p.578).
Overcoming death is a central concern of both authors, but they have taken pains to show that there is a right and a wrong way to go about it. In Harry Potter, it is Voldemort's relentless pursuit of immortality (and belief that there is nothing worse than death) which drives his descent to evil, as he seeks out the blackest magics to safeguard his life and then goes way beyond what any wizard had ever imagined by creating multiple horcruxes, which of course drives the vicious circle ever on, as the more he maims his soul, the less human he becomes. It is notable that it is one of the first things he assumes about magic, that it can overcome death ('My mother can't have been magic, or she wouldn't have died.', HBP, p.257). But as implied in the scene in 'King's Cross' at the end of Deathly Hallows, Voldemort's methods only result in him being denied the opportunity that Harry and other wizards have of living beyond death:
It had the form of a small, naked child, curled on the ground, its skin raw and
rough, flayed looking, and it lay shuddering under a seat where it had been
left, unwanted, stuffed out of sight, struggling for breath.
DH, p.566
Lewis also explicitly includes a character who takes the wrong course to obtain immortality, the White Witch. In The Magician's Nephew, she is introduced as a queen who has destroyed her entire world and then put herself into an enchanted sleep so that she can live until someone comes who can take her to another world. She piggybacks into Narnia (via London) with Diggory and Polly, and after overhearing Aslan tell Diggory about the apple tree in the garden, climbs over the wall, takes an apple and eats it, heedless of the warning on the gates ('Come in by the gold gates or not at all, / Take of my fruit for others or forbear. / For those who steal or those who climb my wall / Shall find their heart's desire and find despair.', MN, p.146). This grants her "endless days like a goddess. But length of days with an evil heart is only length of misery and already she begins to know it." (MN, p.162). Of course, like Voldemort, the Witch is eventually killed, all her efforts ultimately in vain, but not before she has caused great harm to many people.
In contrast, Lewis's 'good' characters are all offered eternal life, through their love of Aslan. The Chronicles of Narnia has to be almost unique, at least amongst books written for children, in having all its characters die at the end, but in writing an eschatological myth for his subcreation (to use Tolkien's term), Lewis is able to discourse on the consolation of life through love after death, in terms strikingly similar to those Dumbledore would use half a century later.
But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their
life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover
and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great
Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every
chapter is better than the one before.
The Last Battle, p.172
In keeping with Lewis's overt adherance to Christian theology, this eternal life is only offered to those that believe in Aslan, others are either consumed by the false god Tash (to whom their belief has given life - ie, they get what was coming to them) or remain trapped in the stable of non-belief:
They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own
minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they
cannot be taken out.
LB, p.140
The 'right' way to obtain immortality is therefore shown in both Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia to be essentially selfless, in contrast with the selfish pursuit of the evil characters. True immortality can only be achieved by embracing death, a position clearly symbolised by Rowling in her use of the phoenix motif - representing continued life through death, as well as two other aspects important to her work as a whole: loyalty and faithfulness, and the healing power of grief, both very human aspects of love.
The importance of human love in this philosophy is largely irrelevant to Lewis's work, focused as he is on the divine. By contrast, the love that overcomes death in Harry's world is very human. Throughout the course of the series, Harry loses a lot of people who are close to him, and the cumulative effect of their deaths motivate him ever more to find a way to defeat Voldemort. And it's not just Harry who is motivated in this way - by the end we come to understand that the persistence of love beyond death is responsible for the actions of Dumbledore, and even more importantly, of Snape:
From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe: she landed on the
office floor, bounded once across the office and soared out of the window.
Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to
Snape, and his eyes were full of tears.
"After all this time?"
"Always," said Snape.
DH, p.551-2
But hand in hand with this idea is the one that "the ones that love us never really leave us" (Sirius to Harry in the Prisoner of Azkaban film), and this brings us back to the epigraphic quote from William Penn, the wording of which even reflects the moment where Harry sees his parents in the Mirror of Erised in The Philosopher's Stone, as well as the pivotal moment where he turns the Resurrection Stone on his way into the forest to confront Voldemort for the last time, bringing back the shades of his parents and friends to comfort him on his lonely walk to his death:

Beside him, making scarcely a sound, walked James, Sirius, Lupin and Lily, and
their presence was his courage, and the reason he was able to keep putting one
foot in front of the other.

DH, p.561

Sirius even tells Harry that 'we are part of you', and this moment is emblematic of the way that throughout Harry's story, he has been accompanied and guided by those who have died for him, his parents helping to show him how the Mirror of Erised works, helping him to fight off the dementors (whether or not Harry believed it was James, the fact remains the patronus is a stag), Dumbledore showing him what he must do to find the horcruxes and defeat Voldemort, Snape passing on his memories of Lily and showing him the final step required of him, and finally Dumbledore showing him the way to live in their meeting in the King's Cross of Harry's mind. In this way, the accumulated experience of death, inextricably bound up with love, enables Harry to perform his own act of heroic self-sacrifice, but also, Christ-like, to live beyond it and bring his knowledge of love back as his boon for the world.

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