(Note: This article may contain spoilers)
At the end of the stunning Book 7, when Harry Potter sacrificed his life to rid the world of Lord Voldemort for once and for all, the reader is left saddened and yet strangely heartened. We watched this boy grow from meek underdog to confident young man; we supported him through all his trials and tribulations. Indeed, we were as much as part of his life as we was in ours. And yet few would feel that there was a better way to have ended this epic. Harry Potter’s death, was sad, yes, but it felt “right.” But still… did he HAVE to die?
“Potter is a classic archetype,” says Robin Auerbach, distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Maryland in College Park. “The unlikely or conflicted hero who, upon finding himself, sacrifices himself for the greater good. You see Harry Potter in the myths of many cultures, even as recently as The Matrix. Potter’s death feels right because it fits into a pattern that is so familiar to us subconsciously.”
Barbara Canting, associate professor of history of literature at Syracuse University agrees. “I say this as a Catholic, but the retelling of Jesus Christ follows a common archetypical story arc. He begins as a poor shepherd’s son and becomes a god. But the power of his story, his ascent from obscure prophet to the son of God for millions, stems from his death and what it symbolizes. He died for your sins’ isn’t much different from Harry Potter died to destroy Voldemore [sic].”
So given our collective cultural gestalt, Harry Potter’s death by fiery immolation wasn’t too surprising. And although his physical body would be beyond repair, his death is combined with other symbols of varying religious weightiness that give us a sense of reassuring hope.
For instance, the phoenix that appears at Harry Potter’s tombstone in the epilogue should come as no surprise to any reader of Egyptian mythology or X-Men comics. And then there’s the final image of the full moon casting light on the broomstick-shaped mausoleum, which is encircled by vines of blooming, open roses. Is Rowling simply being phallic or is she foretelling resurrection? Time (or more likely, money) will tell, but Cho Chang clutching her stomach during the procession is a dead giveaway.
Besides fulfilling our subconscious need for familiar stories, did Harry Potter have to die in terms of this particular story?
Technically, no. Although the prophesy, in no great amounts of subtlety, infers a Potter/Voldermort duality, there were any number of ways of splitting him into two. Setting himself on fire with his wand, spectacular as the scene played out, might not have been necessary. Voldemort may be the negative manifestation of Potter, but isn’t that what exorcism, or therapy, is for?
But sitting on Dumbledore’s couch a good drama does not make. And drama, as Canting points out, is what drives self-reflection: “He is the unlikely hero who slowly grows from Nobody to Somebody, a figure we can all relate to, and aspire to be. Because we are all – except for the very few and the very lucky – Nobodies who wish for greatness. We experience his sacrifice deeply because we transpose our lives onto his. And so when he struggles with the evil inside him and forces himself to take his own life, we wonder, Would we have done the same?'”
This introspection may be too heady for children, or adults, who simply miss their hero. We will grieve, but we will also grow stronger and braver and more compassionate, just like a certain black-haired, bespectacled boy who, yes, had to die for us.