The Aeschylus Epigraph in ‘Deathly Hallows’

by John on October 20, 2008

After last week’s epic post (‘epic’ in length rather than in value of subject matter, I have to think, because few readers were moved to respond!) on the William Penn epigraph, I promised myself I would tackle the Aeschylus piece from The Libation Bearers that precedes it. This will be relatively brief (!) but, I hope, thought provoking. Greek drama is a little more along my lines of thought and study than late seventeenth century aphorism and epigram collections, if not by much.

The last time I wrote about Aeschylus at HogwartsProfessor was on my private boards in 2005, believe it or not. I posted a thread about Aeschylus and Greek Drama in the belief that (a) Ms. Rowling was rather obviously modeling Harry on Orestes to some degree (there are no other ‘young man coming into his own stories’ that I know which feature a boy with scar on forehead prophesied and determined to avenge the murder of his father) and (b) that this would be of some interest to other Potter readers. There were no responses to my thread on those late lamented boards. Given that the Orestes-Harry connection was the best hope of the Harry-Hermione shippers (Orestes in one form of his legend marries Hermione, his cousin, the daughter of Menelaus and Helen) as the alchemy of the books was of the Ron-Hermione and other shipping nut-jobs (overlook that, please), the non-response was a surprise.

Here’s hoping that, working from an actual Aeschylus passage within canon about Orestes, discussion here will be a little more lively even without the spur of romantic speculation. (For those of you struggling to remember just who Aeschylus is and to keep straight all the play references, please follow the links to Wikipedia under the relevant names and titles for a quick review.)

My plan is to lay out the passage Ms. Rowling chose as her opening for Deathly Hallows as it is in the context of The Libation Bearers and the Oresteia as a whole, what it means in relation to the Penn passage she selected as a complementary epigraph, and ultimately how it was meant to work in relation to the events of Harry’s final confrontation with the Dark Lord. I think it works, but, insomuch as Harry’s victory is not tragic or as cathartic as Orestes’ is in The Libation Bearers and the Hallows epilogue is no Eumenides, it cannot be the foreshadowing bit of genius any drop of the Aeschylean card invites a reader to imagine it must be. In communicating the traditional worldview and understanding of the relationship of living and dead succinctly and mysteriously, however, which ideas are the power and point of the Potter epic methinks and of Hallows especially, the epigraph is one of Ms. Rowling’s best touches.

My first thoughts on opening Deathly Hallows were not so profound. Ms. Rowling shaped the dedication to the book in the form of a lightning bolt scar, or, given the inability to have sharply drawn lines when crafting a literal word-picture, as a serpent. I thought that was a clever bit of work — until I saw the epigraph page, the first Harry Potter book to begin this way. This page with its two passages, right after the dedication snapshot, struck me as also being in the form of a picture. Forgive me, it was very late at night, remember? Anyway, it looked to me like smoke (the Aeschylus passage) rising from a block (the Penn piece), as if it were an altar sacrifice to the Muses. Could she be challenging her readers to read this book as a series of word paintings, sensitive to the actual shapes she gives them on the page? Daunting thought.

Fortunately, as intriguing and rewarding as it is is to read Ms. Rowling’s work as a series of paintings with layered meanings, the Aeschylus translation she uses (Robert Fagles, Penguin) has this passage in the exact shape that is presented in the Hallows epigraph. Any resemblance to smoke rising from a sacrifice on a pagan altar exists only, I’m afraid, in the greater reality of this reader’s head and primary imagination. As far as I know, the dedication was the last deliberate sketch in words in the pages of Deathly Hallows.

I cannot lay out the passage as Fagles crafts it and Ms. Rowling presents it, though the left justification of the words on the ‘page’ here is as true to the original as the more suggestive arrangements (most Greek manuscripts of the period, if memory serves, read left to right then right to left at line’s end, back and forth, all in capital letters and without spaces between words). Here is the Fagles translation:

Oh, the torment bred in the race,
the grinding scream of death
and the stroke that hits the vein,
the hemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,
the curse no man can bear.

But there is a cure in the house,
and not outside it, no,
not from others but from them,
their bloody strife. We sing to you,
dark gods beneath the earth.

Now hear, you blissful powers underground –
answer the call, send help,
Bless the children, give them triumph now.

(emphasis on ‘them’ in original translation)

A quick look at the original Greek and a more literal translation confirms the high regard Fagles enjoys among classicists. As Michael Gilleland wrote:

Rowling quotes Robert Fagle’s translation of the end of the kommos, sung by the chorus. In A.F. Garvie’s edition of the Choephori (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), this passage is found at lines 466-478. Here is the original Greek:

ὦ πόνος ἐγγενής,
καὶ παράμουσος ἄτας
αἱματόεσσα πλαγά,
ἰὼ δύστον᾽ ἄφερτα κήδη,
ἰὼ δυσκατάπαυστον ἄλγος.

δώμασιν ἔμμοτον
τῶνδ᾽ ἄκος, οὐδ᾽ ἀπ᾽ ἄλλων
ἔκτοθεν, ἀλλ᾽ ἀπ᾽ αὐτῶν,
δι᾽ ὠμὰν ἔριν αἱματηράν·
θεῶν <τῶν> κατὰ γᾶς ὅδ᾽ ὕμνος.

ἀλλὰ κλύοντες, μάκαρες χθόνιοι,
τῆσδε κατευχῆς πέμπετ᾽ ἀρωγὴν
παισὶν προφρόνως ἐπὶ νίκῃ.

Here is a more literal translation:

O trouble bred in the family, and discordant bloody stroke of doom, alas woeful cares not to be borne, alas pain hard to stop!

It is for the house [to apply the] absorbent remedy for these [wounds], not from others outside, but from themselves, through savage bloodstained strife. This is a hymn to the gods beneath the earth.

But paying heed, o blessed ones under ground, to this prayer, send aid to the children, graciously, for victory.

Another translation available online, that of Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, communicates the literal sense more clearly, if not quite with Fagles’ poetic elevation:

CHORUS
I hear these prayers and shudder. 580
This doom’s been long delayed,
but it does come for those who pray.

Oh, family bred for torments,
for the bloody strokes
of harsh discordant ruin,
for pains beyond enduring,
grief that can’t be staunched. [470]

For all this evil there’s a remedy,
not from some stranger,
someone outside the house, 590
but from within, the cure
that blood strife brings,
their savage bloody fight.
To gods beneath the ground
we sing this hymn.

Hear us, you blessed gods of earth,
hear this supplication, and assist
with your good will these children.
Give them the victory!

Philip Vellacott, whose translation for Penguin of the Oresteia was supplanted by Fagles,’ takes a different approach to the passage entirely. He reads it as a dialogue between Orestes and Electra:

Orestes: O the curse of our house! Spirit of Murder!
Discordant Strokes, and blood unnatural!
Electra: Hideous pain, sorrow intolerable!
All: Oh, when shall suffering end?
Orestes: This is no way but this to staunch the wound
That bleeds our race.
None from outside can help; we must ourselves
Cure our own case –
Electra: Since blood must match with blood, and wrong with wrong.
ALL: We have done. May the powers below accept our song.
Chorus: Gods of the earthy shade,
Grant all we pray for; aid
The weak against the strong;
Smile on our hopes and bless
Our deed with full success.
(Penguin, 1956, pp 120-121)

For all this translation’s failings, and, frankly, short of rhyme scheme requirements or being based on a different manuscript tradition, I find them inexplicable, it does convey something Fagles’ and the others do not, namely, the context of the passage. Electra has been sent by Clytemnestra to Agamemnon’s tomb to pour a libation because she has had a dream about being murdered by a serpent she has birthed and fed at her breast. At the tomb, Electra prays with the Chorus of slavewomen for her brother Orestes to return from exile and avenge their father’s murder and her disgrace.

But Orestes is already there, and, through a series of signs — locks of hair he has left at the tomb, foot prints she recognizes — his presence is revealed to her. The remaining part of the first act in this two act play is a series of invocations to father and mother by Orestes, Electra, and Chorus at the tomb to prepare and inspire Orestes for the vengeance he is to exact in the next act at his mother’s hearth. The Chorus passage that is an epigraph, short of their song between acts, is the most important of this lengthy peroration to the murder of Clytemnestra.

In the context of the Oresteia as a whole, this choral song is the middle point of the middle play (a fourth play, something of a masque not introducing new story points per se or reordering the facts of the drama — think of it as an epilogue? — has been lost). In Agamemnon, the father is murdered by the mother. In The Libation Bearers, the father’s murder is avenged by his children. In the Eumenides, the Furies attack Orestes for his matricide and he seeks relief in court (!). The Hallows epigraph, literally and figuratively, is the turning point or pivot of the Oresteian Trilogy in which the drama of the first play reaches its end, the cause of the end play has its beginning, and the action of the center piece crystallizes.

So what?

Well, three things come to mind.

First, the passage is an invocation of “the dark gods beneath the earth” to “bless the children” and “bring them victory now.” The Chorus believes only the players on stage, most notably Orestes and Electra but also Pylades, Prince of Phocis and Orestes’ de facto brother in spirit, can avenge Agamemnon and restore something like justice and order to the world. It falls on them, like it or not, and they will need all the otherworldly help and inspiration they can get. Hold that thought for a second.

Next, Electra’s first invocation for help, her prayer for Orestes to return, had already been answered unknown to her as she speaks. She was sent to offer libations to sooth the spirit of Agamemnon but prays instead for an Avenger; Orestes and Electra and Chorus then pray together with the Chorus for Agamemnon’s spirit to rise and bless them. Orestes, who will announce his death in a bit of ironic play-acting before his mother in the next act, essentially dies to himself here and becomes the serpent of his mother’s dream as well as the vehicle of justice and of his father’s spirit. To avenge the regicide and murder of his father, he must become a matricide himself and someone as accursed and haunted by the Furies. Hold on to that thought, too.

Last, the event around which the first act of The Libation Bearers turns is Electra’s prayer and recognition of her brother Orestes. Euripides makes a point of mocking Aeschylus’ unlikely story points (locks of hair? foot prints recognized from child hood runs in the sand? right…) in his retelling of the Oresteia; that playwright gives Orestes a forehead scar instead in an allusion to Odysseus meant to be demeaning to Orestes and Aeschylus. However silly (or meaningful) the Aeschylean references to head and feet as Electra’s points of recognition, however, the central event of this pivotal act is prayer and a revelation that is cast as a recognizing. That’s the third thing to remember.

The first point you’re holding on to is the surface reading of the epigraph from Aeschylus. Orestes, Electra, and Pylades are Harry, Hermione, and Ron story parallels about to undertake a sacrificial mission to avenge the murder of a parent (or two), fulfill the destiny prophesied for the boy who lived, who knowingly embraces his almost certain death. For the action of Deathly Hallows, this scene and prayer is a great lead in. The defeat of the Dark Lord and restoration of order and justice all come down to the Terrible Trio and their acting their parts. And we get a boost from the shades of Harry’s parents in the Forbidden Forest.

The second point is the moral reading of the epigraph which points to the alchemical drama and resolutions at hand. To avenge a murder, Orestes/Harry must die to themselves and commit a murder on top of this death-to-persona. In order to slay the Heir of Slytherin, Harry must acknowledge that soul part in himself that is serpentine and Voldemort’s, if only to die with it. It is this acknowledgment and death to self in which he transcends death and the murder he will commit. Just as Harry’s soul is not rent by the death of Voldemort in the Great Hall, a death for which he is, of course, responsible even if Voldemort essentially self-destructs in his inability to feel remorse, Orestes is ultimately freed from the Furies pursuing him after Clytemnestra’s murder. An Avenger’s destiny involves contradictions — murdering murderers because of the evil of murder being only the most obvious — but contradictions that can be lived with or transcended if the Avenger acts impersonally or dispassionately. [Note, too, Orestes' identification with the serpent of Clytemnestra's dream and the story parallel of Harry's learning he is a Horcrux.]

The last point, Electra’s prayer followed by revelation as recognition all of which precedes and substantiates the Chorus passage used as epigraph, brings us to Penn and the ideas of spiritual vision in both More Fruits of Solitude and Deathly Hallows. The “light of the body is the eye”, and this light is the logos of the mind and conscience, the inner principles of created things, and the unity of existence. It is this logos or Word in everyman (John 1:9) that prays, that speaks to us as conscience, and that understands and knows through recognition of itself and its absence in other people, things, and ideas. Penn speaks to the bond of this “inward light” being the eternal life together of Friends, meaning those who know themselves as vehicles of the Light of the World (John 8:12); Rowling represents this noetic faculty of soul and its purification symbolically through Harry Potter and his seven adventures. Harry as Logos is the “inside of the head” that is more real than the outside, i.e., the logos mind of Electra’s conscience, prayer, recognition, and, ultimately, her vengeance.

Simple as 1, 2, 3, right? In the Aeschylus epigraph we get pointers to the surface story points of Deathly Hallows, its more challenging moral and allegorical meanings, and, for those willing to do the meditative slow mining Ruskin urges the serious reader to, the iconographic or anagogical depths of Harry Potter. The series finale is relatively comic compared to any part of Aeschylus’ Oresteia — remember Peeves’ song capturing the “scope and tragedy of the thing” (page 746) — but Hallows does communicate a large part of the archetypal freight in the Oresteia, not in spite of but because of our assimilation into the story and identification with the Trio. Considering how few readers even know who Orestes is, Aeschylus fans should be cheering Ms. Rowling’s up front pointers to The Libation Bearers and the Greek ‘Boy Who Lived’ with forehead scar rather than looking down their nose at her work.

If you want to read more about Deathly Hallows‘ four layers of meaning and the iconographic tradition of literary criticism, not to mention our “suspension of disbelief” in the story that makes possible our imaginative experience of its meaning, please purchase The Deathly Hallows Lectures: The Hogwarts Professor Explains Harry Potter’s Last Adventure. And write to tell me what you think of it!

About Aeschylus’ epigraph, though, I ask you for your comments and corrections right away. Especially if you think my “smoke from the altar” first impression is as likely an interpretation as the other three connections with Penn and Hallows!

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

SeaJay October 20, 2008 at 2:08 pm

John, for the record I just want to say that I really enjoy and value reading your revelatory pieces – and I have purchased all your HP books : )

I know it must be disappointing for you those times when no folllow up comments are forthcoming and if I thought could add anything useful by way of analysis to the conversation believe me I would, and hopefully I will.

John October 20, 2008 at 2:43 pm

Thank you for this assurance someone is out there — and for buying my books! Sorry to be such a whiner…

revgeorge October 20, 2008 at 3:02 pm

John,

The problem with your pieces isn’t that they aren’t any good or engaging, it’s that they are too good & too engaging & too packed with literary analysis goodness. It takes a while to process them & then to find something concise to comment on. So, the problem is, you are too good! ;)

John October 20, 2008 at 3:13 pm

Well, now that I’m satisfied that I get the epigraphs, that’s the last of Aeschylus and Penn I’ll be discussing around here.

Tomorrow, I answer some mail and post a discussion question from a reader who argues that Mad-Eye Moody is an allegorical figure. I won’t spoil it for you, but I expect you’ll have more to say about her suggestion than you have about any Harry-Orestes parallels.

inked October 20, 2008 at 4:14 pm

Initial response: Romans 12:1-2

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God
that you present your bodies a living sacrifice,
holy, acceptable to God,
(which is) your reasonable service.
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed
by the renewing of your mind,
that you may prove what (is) the good and acceptable and perfect
will of God.

(The translation is from the Greek Orthodox Study Bible, 2008.
The parenthetical words are added to the English translation from the Greek to make the sense clear.)

“…present your bodies (physical and symbolic of the whole person)”
“…a living sacrifice (where sacrifice is dying AND resurrecting)”
“…holy (set apart)’
“…acceptable (because patterned after the universal Man/Logos)”
“…which is your reasonable [Greek:logike, from logos; logos-like, logoi)”
“…service (Greek:latreia, literally “bow down”, hence ‘worship’)
“And do not be conformed (fashioned in mind and character)
“to this world (period of time, age)
“but be transformed (metamorphed)
“by the renewing of your mind (Greek:nous – intellect&heart&mind – the faculty by which apprehends and sees God)”
“that you may prove (test, examine, scrutinize, and recognize, approve, and deem worthy)
“that good and acceptable and perfect (lacking nothing for completeness)
“will (choice, inclination, desire, pleasure) of God.”

Whether or not JKR intended the smoke & altar implications by the epigraphs styling and formation on the page, she certainly seems to have translated them iconographically properly in the text. She might also have utilized Romans 12:1-2 as her sole epigraph if I read the text of DH and the epigraphs and St. Paul aright.

Betina October 22, 2008 at 10:44 am

I’ve just discovered your blog (is it a blog? I don’t even understand where am I but still I’m going to comment… oh well) and your thought- and argument-provoking comments about the epigraph from The Libation Bearers.

When I read the Deathly Hallows the second time it impressed me what a pertinent and powerful epigraph it is (though the singing to the dark gods beneath the earth seemed rather out of context). So regarding the “three things that come to mind” the first one seems resoundingly true, especially the first and the third paragraphs can be read virtually literally, with all the “torment bred in the race” and “blissful powers underground” that “answer the call” and “send help”.

The second point about the “alchemical drama” also rings true, at least in its main part. My major objection is that I don’t think that Ms. Rowling wanted the reader to feel that Harry’s soul was in any danger due to his actions in the Great Hall, and it is only fair because Harry is not Orestes. He avenges his parents (and saves the wizarding world along the way) but definitely not through matricide, and he does not actually kill. He aims to disarm, using one of the most innocuous dueling spells (as was emphasized by Lupin).

I am not sure that I have a full grasp of your third point about revelation through recognition but as far as I get it, it seems to me too far-fetched. Why should this epigraph bring us to think about Electra’s recognition and not, for example, Orestes, who leaves the traces? The epigraph is the speech of the choir and does not bring attention to any particular character, speaking about “children of the house” all lumped together. Overall, an idea of recognition/revelation is heavily exploited throughout the series as is necessary for a story which relies on mystery as a constructive and driving element of the plot and is not that specific to the Deathly Hallows; I’d say it is too obvious and too general to be so subtly hinted by some out-of-epigraph scene of The Libation Bearers.

John October 22, 2008 at 11:40 am

Welcome to HogPro.com, Betina!

The anagogical level of meaning in the Aeschylus is best understood when reading it alongside the Penn and in the context of the eye/mirror symbolism of Deathly Hallows. About the Penn epigraph, go to the post linked at the top of this thread (the Penn epigraph breakdown is more thorough than the Aeschylus — it was long enough that I didn’t repeat much of it here).

My only complaint with the translation Ms. Rowling chose is the word “blissful” to describe the powers underground; the word in Greek is ‘makares,’ for which context and later usage at least (see Matthew 5) suggest “blessed” is better, especially in what is an invocation. If the chorus is talking to an angry Agamemnon, how does “blissful” ring to you?

It also misses the connection Ms. Rowling is trying to make to Penn’s “inward light” and to her own King’s Cross ‘logos land’ through Aeschylus. The dead are “blessed” in living in the unity of existence beneath and within appearances, the sacred principle of creation, the Logos. “Blissful’ misses this entirely, while ‘blessed’ is a pointer.

Again, the Penn epigraph post here at HogwartsProfessor and the eye symbolism chapters in my book should help de-mystify my third layer interpretation of the Aeschylus epigraph. Thank you for joining us!

Betina October 22, 2008 at 2:02 pm

I followed your advice, and now I see your point in the Logos/eye discussion but I am not converted. I think I am a rather down-to-earth reader who does not venture far beyond the hedge of the Text proper.

About the blissful vs. blessed, I don’t have any opinion about the most appropriate translation of the original, but just want to note that in the context of the book, if one takes “blissful powers underground” as the dead loved ones (Dumbledore in his ability to plan and guide even after his death, Harry’s parents, Sirius, and Lupin in the Forest Again), then they are indeed rather blissful than blessed, as they bring help and answer the call. Our (as readers) ignorance about what happens beyond the veil/in the afterlife squares well with what Ms. Rowling says about her beliefs: “I do believe in an afterlife, although I’m absolutely doubt-ridden and always have been but there you are.”

Also, don’t you think it’s funny that Harry, clearly, does not recognize that what happens “inside the head” is more real than the outside, given that he asks about it Dumbledore? I, for the record, don’t think that Dumbledore revealed Harry some eternal truth about the primacy of spiritual vision. Rather, his answer supports the idea of incognizability (my spellchecker does not like this word but still) of the life beyond life (which was expressed by different characters in the series).

John October 22, 2008 at 3:35 pm

I suggest that the difference between seeing the last words at Harry’s ‘palatial’ King’s Cross as evidence for incognizability and as a pointer to spiritual vision is what filter you bring to the text.

My filter is traditional English literature and, specifically, the symbolist stream in which Ms. Rowling writes (as a subversive, a la MacDonald, Orwell, et alii). This stream of writers use eye and mirror symbolism to pint to the meaning of the scripture passages and the epigraphs the way Ms. Rowling has, They write on four levels, Dante to Lewis, again, as Ms. Rowling does.

The only indication the interpretative framework (filter) you bring to the text is your citation of Ms. Rowling’s interview statements about her doubts (with respect to faith). That perspective, sometimes called The Personalist Heresy or Author First, has its champions (Tillyard being the most famous, but the idea that only the author knows what his or her books really mean is dominant in the academy).

I think, though, ultimately, it’s a dead end. The author can only answer questions about “what s/he meant when s/he wrote x” or about “what they think;” questions about what a book means can only be found in the book. If meaning were the sole possession of authors, we would read their interpretations of books rather than their books.

I think Ms. Rowling understands this. She is very careful not to answer questions about meaning, she gives helpful answers about passages she thinks are especially meaningful (four in Deathly Hallows to date), and she avoids, quite frankly, interviews with serious readers who read beyond the surface of her books.

I think she has read George MacDonald. He said, when asked why he wouldn’t explain his fairy tales, that the question presupposed he knew all of what they meant and that he was such a poor artist his admirers and readers couldn’t understand his work:

“But a man may then imagine in your work what he pleases, what you never meant!”

Not what he pleases, but what he can. If he be not a true man, he will draw evil out of the best; we need not mind how he treats any work of art! If he be a true man, he will imagine true things; what matter whether I meant them or not? They are there none the less that I cannot claim putting them there! One difference between God’s work and man’s is, that, while God’s work cannot mean more than he meant, man’s must mean more than he meant. For in everything that God has made, there is a layer upon layer of ascending significance; also he expresses the same thought in higher and higher kinds of that thought: it is God’s things, his embodied thoughts, which alone a man has to use, modified and adapted to his own purposes, for the expression of his thoughts; therefore he cannot help his words and figures falling into such combinations in the mind of another as he had himself not foreseen, so many are the thoughts allied to every other thought, so many are the relations involved in every figure, so many the facts hinted in every symbol. A man may well himself discover truth in what he wrote; for he was dealing all the time things that came from thoughts beyond his own.

“But surely you would explain your idea to one who asked you?”

I say again, if I cannot draw a horse, I will not write THIS IS A HORSE under what I foolishly meant for one. Any key to a work of imagination would be nearly, if not quite, as absurd. The tale is there not to hide, but to show: if it show nothing at your window, do not open your door to it; leave it out in the cold. To ask me to explain, is to say, “Roses! Boil them, or we won’t have them!” My tales may not be roses but I will not boil them.

So long as I think my dog can bark, I will not sit up to bark for him.

If a writer’s aim be logical conviction, he must spare no logical pains, not merely to be understood, but to escape being misunderstood; where his object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an aeolian harp. If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it. Let fairytale of mine go for a firefly that now flashes, now is dark, but may flash again. Caught in a hand which does not love its kind, it will turn to an insignificant ugly thing, that can neither flash nor fly.

MacDonald respected his readers enough to write books that operated on several levels (“barked,” looked like HORSES). He thought it absurd and insulting to be asked to interpret the stories: ‘insulting’ because the question supposes he is such a poor writer that his books don’t convey the meaning to the reader themselves and ‘absurd’ because multi-valent texts, if given a single meaning or ‘key,’ cease to be multi-valent.

Harry doesn’t recognize he is the symbol of the logos-mind because that would require his understanding he is a character in a novel whose story is meaning-laden. I guess that could happen — quite the postmodern twist that would have been for him if Dumbledore had spilled those beans! — but it would have rather ruined the effect of the finish, no?

I have put my interpretative filter on the table. Do you mind showing your cards?

Betina October 22, 2008 at 7:47 pm

Oh, it’s a tall order for me. I am far less articulate about my filter. What I consciously acknowledge is that I am a naive reader who basically does not look much further than the text (and here you can ask what about my quote from the interview; I suppose I used it because it fitted my understanding of the text and was readily available off the top of my head).

Explicit comments on afterlife in the text include the following: Nearly Headless Nick says that most wizards go on, while he “knows nothing of the secrets of death” for he was afraid of death and stayed behind; Luna says that the dead lurk behind the Veil. Dumbledore says that “death is but the next great adventure” which implies a venture into unknown (but then, my whole point is that he himself does not know). Perhaps there are more, but I don’t remember any other really pertinent. These ones make me think that in Potterverse there is afterlife as evidenced by Nick and existence of ghosts in general, but its precise nature is not common knowledge/common belief.

Nana May 31, 2013 at 12:29 pm

I agree, as usual, with your interpretations above, John, but I’m also attracted to Ms Rowling’s practical side. I believe she often has ulterior motives and is exceptionally clever in using her devices in more than one way. Jo has said that she always wanted to include these pieces as epigraphs for DH. She hoped she would be able to use them depending on how the six front books developed. Her statement was that if the two passages were still relevant enough to put in the front of the book, then she knew she had cued up perfectly her ending.
I thought a lot about the meaning of these two passages. Both beautiful and profound, but what did she mean by putting them there? Of course she seldom means what she says directly. She is master of artful misdirection. I think she wanted to make sure the mystery was preserved. Certainly we can be sure of that, considering to what great lengths both she and her publishers went to maintain plot secrecy. She was determined that everyone would have a fair chance to read the book without being spoiled. And we are thankful that she cared so much for our experience. She could just as likely not given a toss what happened after the writing was over. She did her part, the books were out. We could have been on our own. But she didn’t feel that way. She had written something a great many people loved and she wanted to make sure we had the best possible experience of her Great Work, her Magnum Opus. In fact, she was heavily invested that we should do so.
In order for us to have this “maximum” experience, she wrote her story like a great mystery and of course the final mystery, the most important mystery at the narrative level was whether Harry would survive. Her desire then, was that the first six books would be written in such a way that we could imagine the possibility of Harry’s death. The full emotional impact of her story of transformation, transcendence, and Love’s victory over Death really depended on our belief that Harry was walking to his death in chapter 34. The great alchemist Dumbledore elaborates in Kings Cross that it was essential for Harry to believe this also. It was only possible for Harry to survive if he believed there was no chance at all. And so it was for us too. In order for us to share in the great transformative experience of this story, we had to believe all along that Harry might die and in the end that he was going to die.
So when she began to write DH and asked herself if these epigraphs were still relevant, she was delighted to see that they were. The death of Sirius in OotP and DD in HBP heightened the possibility of Harry’s demise. It now appeared she was an author capable of killing off her hero. After the greatest Wizard of all time flew over the ramparts of the Astronomy Tower, it was pretty difficult to imagine how Harry was going to triumph. It was easier to speculate how and when, and in what form, DD was going to return to save the day. But in DH, Harry states with great certainty that DD is definitely dead. Message: stop looking there for a way out.
So what is the meaning of these two excerpts? While they are certainly meaningful and apropos, I think their function was more important than their meaning. She had managed to retain the tension and all the mystery was intact. She had left no doubt in our minds after six books that anything was possible and that Harry might die. Yes, she had perfectly cued up her ending. We were ready. So what does she put in the front of the book? Two short pieces that are intended to imply that Harry is going to die. They sound like something we should read for comfort at the end after he dies. They read like they are gently preparing us for the inevitability of his death. And after reading them, it was with a sinking heart that I proceeded to the Dark Lord Ascending. Those two passages put us firmly on the path to the Forbidden Forest. Their presence at the beginning of the final book set us up and directed our attention away from other possible endings, a haunting reminder whenever we found an excuse to hope. It was like extra insurance for her to balance against any assumptions that a hero cannot die. Even in the dedication she kindly gives thanks to us for sticking with Harry “until the very end.” That and the two epigraphs seemed like the final nails in Harry’s coffin. She masterfully put up this sign post because it had to be that way. We had to believe. If we were to experience and understand the nature of his sacrifice, we had to believe. I, for one, am grateful she took so much care.

Giusi May 31, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Hi John,
sorry if I can’t “find something concise to comment on”, but I’m an Italian student of Latin and Greek literature (so I’m well informed on the topic) working for a thesis about Harry Potter. I read your piece, and it struck me a lot. It was… enlightnenig, thank you!

Natassia February 6, 2014 at 5:53 pm

Hi John,
Lately I’ve been giving a lot of though to this topic, in particular an intertextual reading of Harry Potter through the lens of the Oresteia and I was wondering whether this theory had any validity.

Harry and Luna enter in the Ravenclaw commonroom in search of the diadem. There, they encounter Alecto who’s been searching the castle for them. They stun her, but Amycus comes running, followed shortly by Professor McGonagall. He is crucioed into unconciousness by Harry, who then reveals himself to his professor. At last, before they’re about to leave, Professor McGonagall imperioes the groggy Amycus, sending him to lie next to his sister, before binding them with ropes that “snake” around the Carrows.

I draw analogies to this passage to the Erinyes hounding Orestes.
Harry, as an Orestilian figure, is being hunted down by the Carrows, one of whom is named Alecto (the Latinized form of the Greek, allekotes “implacable”). They enter the Ravenclaw commonroom, which like Athens, is a center of knowledge, reason, and learning (obstensibly) like the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. Also like the oracle of Apollo, to gain access to the knowledge contained within, one must decrypt a riddle (or oracular response). Note that both Carrows will be rendered unconcious while in the commonroom. Although Amycus is angry that his sister has gone missing and has summoned Voldemort, Minerva (Athena) McGonagall serves as mediator between Amycus and the students. Finally, with McGonagall imperio”ing” Amycus, she, like Athena from Eumenides, transforms the Death Eater, bind the sibling together with silver ropes that “snake” them together like the chthonic god residing below Athens.

Although I may be reading too much into this passage, I think there is some validity in my analysis. Why else would JKR include that passage into the epigraph of HP7?

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