By Alan Jacobs
Waiting for Harry
Not long ago I got a phone call from an editor who had a request: Would I be willing to blog my reading of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for his magazine's website? Write an entry a day, recording my responses, until I had finished?
A flattering and intriguing request, which I had to turn down. For on the early morning of July 21st, I will go to my local Borders, pick up a copy of the book, and then return home, there to read without stopping until I know the fate of Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Lord Voldemort. The proposed blog could therefore only have a single entry, which would in effect be a review of the book—and since I have promised John Wilson that I will review Harry's final adventure for Books & Culture, I shouldn't do that for anyone else.
However, I have no hesitation in using this space to record my anticipations of this great event. What am I looking forward to? What do I expect? What do I dread? What do I want desperately to know?
What follows will presume knowledge of the first six books, so those who have not made it so far should perhaps take this opportunity to retreat. And those who have managed altogether to escape being drawn into the Potter vortex will find nothing to entertain them here, so, with a heart full of pity, I bid such folks farewell for now. I should also pre–emptively thank the people with whom I have discussed these matters at some length, especially Russell Arben Fox (whose Great Harry Potter Post appears here) and Michelle Gunderson.
R. A. B. When, in Harry Potter and the Half–Blood Prince, Dumbledore and Harry reach the obscure and well–protected place where Voldemort had hidden a locket containing a portion of his own soul, they find that the locket has already been stolen by someone signing himself R. A. B. Unless J. K. Rowling is throwing us quite a curve, those must be the initials of Regulus Black, the younger brother of Harry's late godfather Sirius Black. Regulus had been a disciple of Lord Voldemort's, and though Sirius did not think much of his brother, there was obviously more to him than met the fraternal eye. But how could he have stolen the locket? Albus Dumbledore, perhaps the most powerful of all living wizards, could reach the locket's hiding place only with Harry's assistance and only by incurring great damage to himself, damage that might have proved fatal to him had Severus Snape not killed him first. A relatively minor wizard like Regulus Black could not possibly have pulled off the locket's theft without extraordinary assistance. It may be that he did nothing of the kind, that R. A. B.'s note is a ruse planted by Voldemort to confuse anyone who sought the locket; but such an elaborate ruse, dependent on such powerful enchantments, seems pointless. So if Regulus did steal the locket, who—or what—helped him? I suspect that a certain ill–tempered house–elf may have been involved, but beyond that I have no guesses.
The Case of Snape. A great deal of speculation in the world of Potter fandom revolves around Severus Snape. Over and over again people ask whether Snape is a committed Death Eater spying on Dumbledore or a committed member of the Order of the Phoenix spying on Voldemort. This is a false dichotomy. Snape is a classic double agent: he is both a Death Eater and a member of the Order. Voldemort knows that Snape has been serving Dumbledore and working for the Order, and yet (to some degree) trusts him; up until the moment of his death, Dumbledore knew that Snape was serving Voldemort and meeting with other Death Eaters, and yet continued to rely on him. Each leader was willing to accept that information went to the other, was willing to pay that price in order to receive information in turn.
(At the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Dumbledore repents of his habits of secrecy: many elements of Harry's own history Dumbledore has withheld from Harry, but he now sees that withholding as "an old man's mistake." He determines to be more open, and indeed in Half–Blood Prince reveals a great deal to Harry, and moreover encourages Harry to be open with his friends Ron and Hermione. But late in the book, when Harry demands to know why Dumbledore trusts Snape, the old man, after a moment of what appears to be internal debate, decides not to tell him. Given all the reasons he obviously has to be skeptical about Snape, whatever has so decisively earned his trust must be remarkable. We'll soon find out what it is.)
To which of his masters is Snape ultimately faithful? As is the case with all double agents, that will be determined by his final act. I believe that in the last book Snape will be confronted with a choice, a choice which will determine his loyalties once and for all. Until that moment even he will not know which side he is truly on. But at that moment, I believe, he will make his most important decision: he will sacrifice his own life to save Harry Potter's. And even this will not answer all the questions about him, for it will be impossible for us to know whether he offers himself because he hates Voledmort and believes in Dumbledore, or because it is the only way for him to even the score with his old much–hated rival James Potter, who once saved Snape's life. As Rebecca West wrote, there's no such thing as an unmixed motive.
Now, some people would say that Snape has already proved his perfidy by murdering Albus Dumbledore, atop a tower of Hogwarts Castle. But I am among those who believe—and I went on record with this view pretty early on—that Snape killed Dumbledore at Dumbledore's (silent) orders. The case, very briefly: (1) When Snape bursts out onto the battlements, he and Dumbledore just stare at each other for a moment. Which could mean nothing, but the chapter preceding that one and the chapter succeeding it emphasize Snape's extraordinary skill at Legilimency, that is, mind–reading. It would be surprising indeed if Dumbledore did not take advantage of that skill, which he himself also possesses. So I believe that when the two men seem to be just staring, they are in fact conversing. (2) When Dumbledore finally does speak, he says only, "Severus … please … "—at which point Snape raises his wand and pronounces the Killing Curse. Harry thinks that Dumbledore is pleading for his life, but if there is anything at all that we know about Dumbledore, it is that he has no fear of death (about which more later). And he does not say "please don't" but rather just "please." But why would he do this? Why would he order Snape to kill him? Well, that leads us to …
Draco Malfoy. At the beginning of Half–Blood Prince we learn that Lord Voldemort has given Draco a great and dangerous task, one which terrifies his mother Narcissa. Snape tells her that he knows what the Dark Lord has commanded Draco to do, though neither of them ever says what the task is, and I doubt that Snape does know—I think he's faking it. In fact, he's probably guessing that Draco has been asked to kill Harry Potter, which would explain his eagerness to take the Unbreakable Vow to finish the job if Draco fails. Not until we see Dumbledore and Draco on the battlement do we know what Draco has been ordered to do—kill Dumbledore—and I suspect that until that silent conversation with the Headmaster Snape remains in the dark as well.
I am guessing about such matters, of course, but this we know: though Voldemort has a devoted servant at Hogwarts, an immensely powerful wizard, and one in daily contact with Dumbledore, he does not choose that man to assassinate his great enemy, but rather gives the job to an inexperienced and not–especially–talented teenage boy—a boy who, at the moment of decision, cannot summon the will to finish Dumbledore off. Why did Voldemort choose a strategy which he must have known was almost certain to fail? Even if he did not fully trust Snape—especially if he did not trust him—assigning him the task of murdering Dumbledore would have been the best possible test of faithfulness. Did Voldemort, then, primarily desire something other than the death of Dumbledore? Narcissa Malfoy fears so: she thinks that Voldemort is deliberately endangering Draco in order to punish his incompetent father Lucius, who has failed the Dark Lord on several occasions.
If what Voldemort really wanted was to see Dumbledore dead, he could have come up with several more reliable means to get that done than entrusting it to Draco. Yet he was insistent that Draco and Draco only make the attempt. So when Snape returns to the Dark Lord with the news that Dumbledore is dead but by his hand, not Draco's, what will be Voldemort's response? My guess is that his wrath will be great, because his orders were not followed. But why did he give such orders in the first place? At the very least he would, by making Draco a murderer, draw Draco deeper into his world, make Draco more like himself—which is precisely what Dumbledore wants to avoid, thus his lengthy stalling conversation with Draco until Snape's arrival. But surely there must be more to it than that. All we know, though, is that Voldemort wanted Draco to be the murderer, not Snape; Dumbledore wanted Snape to be the murderer, not Draco. So, though the Headmaster loses his life, you could say that he wins that round with the Dark Lord. But what are the consequences of that "win"? How much does it matter? Was it important enough for Dumbledore to give up his own life for it? How could that be?
Horcruxes. The act of murder, we learn in Half–Blood Prince, tears off a piece of the murderer's soul. But it is possible for a powerful wizard who knows a certain spell to make a Horcrux, that is, to transform an inanimate object—a locket, for example—into a permanent container for that piece of soul, so that it cannot easily be damaged or destroyed. For as long as even a portion of a person's soul survives, the person survives. We have strong reason to believe that Lord Voldemort has made six Horcruxes, so that his soul is divided into seven parts—seven being, as he said himself, the most powerful magical number—which division offers him powerful protection from what he most fears, death. At the end of that book Harry has commenced a quest to find and destroy each of Voldemort's surviving Horcruxes.
Among Potter fans, an idea which has gained in popularity over the last two years is this: When Voldemort tried unsuccessfully to kill the infant Harry, he made Harry himself, or perhaps the scar which the boy received at that moment, a Horcrux. There are two problems with this theory. First, we are told that when a Horcrux is made the soul is placed in "an object outside the body," but it is not clear how that "object" could be someone else's body, since there would already be a soul located there. Second, the theory assumes either that Voldemort didn't try to kill Harry at all—which contradicts Voldemort himself, who says that he tried to kill Harry—or that a Horcrux can be made accidentally.
I do not think it possible that a Horcrux could be made without intent and care; but the idea that despite what he has said Voldemort did not mean to kill Harry at all, but rather to make him (or his scar) into a Horcrux, is intriguing. I have been extremely skeptical of the whole scar–as–a–Horcrux idea until one thought came to my mind. It concerns Godric Gryffindor. Bear with me for a moment, please, as I descend into the bottomless cavern of sheer speculation.
- Dumbledore believes that Voldemort wanted four of his Horcruxes to be associated with the four founders of Hogwarts: Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Voldemort's own ancestor Salazar Slytherin.
- But one problem with this scheme, if indeed it is Voldemort's scheme, is that the only known relic of Godric Gryffindor, a great sword, rests safely in the office of the Headmaster of Hogwarts.
- When Harry fought against the great basilisk in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, he pulled that very sword out of the Sorting Hat, and Dumbledore told him that "only a true Gryffindor" could have done that.
- Harry takes the Headmaster to mean simply that the Sorting Hat did the right thing when it placed Harry in Gryffindor House—but what if there's more to it than that? So far, we have learned nothing at all about Harry's father's family, though that is his wizardly side (his mother came from Muggle stock); in fact, Rowling has been curiously silent about that half of Harry's ancestry. We do know one interesting fact, though: that Harry's parents lived in a village called Godric's Hollow—and the only Godric we have met in the six books so far is the great Gryffindor. Could it be that, just as Voldemort is the only known descendent of Salazar Slytherin, Harry is a (or the) descendent of Godric Gryffindor?
- If so, that would make him, from one point of view, a "relic" of Gryffindor, and therefore a potentially fit location for a Horcrux. It is at least possible that when Voldemort came to the infant Harry's house that fateful night he had something other than Harry's murder on his mind. In any case, I feel sure that we will learn much more about Harry's ancestry in the seventh book, and that it will illuminate the nature of the bond between him and Voldemort. We may even discover that there is a reason why—this is something Voldemort's ghostly image notes when he meets Harry in the Chamber of Secrets—why they even look alike.
Death. During a question–and–answer session in Edinburgh in 2004, Joanne Rowling said this: "There are two questions that I have never been asked but that I should have been asked, if you know what I mean." She continued, "The first question that I have never been asked—it has probably been asked in a chatroom but no one has ever asked me—is, 'Why didn't Voldemort die?' Not, 'Why did Harry live?' but, 'Why didn't Voldemort die?' The killing curse rebounded, so he should have died. Why didn't he?" I think that question has since been answered, in large part anyway, with the revelations concerning Horcruxes: Voldemort didn't die because he had concealed portions of his soul in certain objects.
Then: "The other question that I am surprised no one has asked me since Phoenix came out—I thought that people would—is why Dumbledore did not kill or try to kill Voldemort in the scene in the ministry. … Although Dumbledore gives a kind of reason to Voldemort, it is not the real reason." Actually, Dumbledore doesn't give much of a reason at all: when Voldemort notices, and comments contemptuously on, Dumbledore's restraint, the old wizard replies, "Merely taking your life would not satisfy me, I admit." But he does not say why it would not satisfy him—though it is interesting to note his implication, which is reinforced by other events in the scene, that he could take Voldemort's life if he wished to.
It is also interesting that this exchange immediately leads into a renewal of the central debate between the two great wizards, one which continues, in one form or another, throughout the series: "There is nothing worse than death," says Voldemort; "you are quite wrong," replies Dumbledore. Elsewhere Voldemort claims that he has done more than any wizard in history to defeat death; he even calls his followers Death Eaters. Dumbledore, by contrast, states near the end of the very first book—after he has thwarted Voldemort's quest to gain the Philosopher's Stone, which guarantees immortality—that "to the well–organized mind, death is but the next great adventure." I believe that, by the time we all come to the end of the series, this will be understood as the single most important sentence in it.
What every fan of the books most wants to know is simply this: Will Harry survive? I do not think he will. I believe that, in one way or another, he will choose death: his life will not be taken from him against his will, as though Voldemort is right in believing that death is the worst thing that could happen to someone; instead, he will give it up, trusting that what Dumbledore told him about "the next great adventure" is true. In the sixth book he twice identifies himself as "Dumbledore's man through and through"; when faced with death he will, I believe, prove himself to be just that.
That there is something beyond death, in the world that J. K. Rowling has made, we know. For one thing, there are the ghosts we meet in Hogwarts. And from one of them, Nearly Headless Nick, we learn that ghosts are those who refuse to leave this world, who fear to learn what lies Beyond. Which indicates that something does indeed lie Beyond. In the Department of Mysteries at the Ministry of Magic, there is a veil through which one can pass into the realm of the dead—that is how Sirius Black dies—and Harry and his friend Luna Lovegood both hear quiet, incomprehensible voices through that veil. I expect that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will take our hero through that veil—perhaps quite literally—and into that other world. Perhaps his final confrontation with Voldemort will even happen there, or will take the two of them there, so that Voldemort will finally discover just what he has been so afraid of. And will Harry's parents be there, and his godfather Sirius? It seems to me likely. It means much, I think, that Dumbledore's bird Fawkes is a phoenix—the animal that represents resurrection—and that Harry Potter's wand, like that of Lord Voldemort, contains at its core a feather from that phoenix.
Rusell Arben Fox has written thoughtfully about these matters, and he calls our attention to comments that Joanne Rowling has made about her own religious beliefs. I'll close with her words. "Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what's coming in the books. … This [talking about religion] is so frustrating. Again, there is so much I would like to say, and come back when I've written book seven. But then maybe you won't need to even say it because you'll have found it out anyway. You'll have read it."
Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois, and is writing a book about original sin. His Tumblelog is here.
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