Mail Bag: Love vs Death or Love vs Violence?

A note with follow-up from Peter Barber about the core issue and victory depicted as story transparency in the Hogwarts Saga (shared with his permission):

Dear Dr. Granger,

I’ve a problem with your reading of Harry Potter which I hope you will consider.  I notice you make great moment of the binary love versus death, whilst I’m convinced you’ve missed Rowling’s intended binary of love versus violence – the refusal of reciprocity (turning the other cheek) – which is indispensible to our Lord’s manifestation of love, and is that which conquers death.  I feel you’ve left a critical piece out of the puzzle in this regard, amounting to a misrepresentation of the essential theme of this narrative which ties it most directly to the Love of the Father in the Gospels, in Jesus Christ.

Harry never wittingly behaves in a violent manner, and outstrips other members of the Order in this regard, who view his preference for a decidedly non-violent yet powerful spell, expelliarmus, as immature and potentially self-destructive.  Both enemy and ally view his preference as a weakness, and yet Rowling makes clear that his love is his greatest strength. Would you please respond to me on this issue?

Peter Barber

I responded:

Dear Peter Barber,

Your prayers.

You make an excellent point — which Brett Kendall at Fordham made in 2007 before Deathly Hallows was published and which Deathly Hallows confirmed. You can read his exploration of the Expelliarmus curse and its importance to the Hogwarts Saga at

My only misgiving is that, unless I have misread you (a fair to excellent possibility, alas), you make this an either-or matter rather than a both-and question or a matter of proportion. Harry’s victory over death is a function of his sacrificial love and dying to himself, I’d suggest, which love takes the form of an aversion to us-them self-definition and predilection to violence.

But I think your point is a good one, and, with your permission, I’ll post it for discussion at HogwartsProfessor. Thank you for sharing your insight, whatever you decide about allowing me to post it.



Post: I’m not a doctor of any kind; the ‘Hogwarts Professor’ sobriquet is just a mark of the usual internet sophistry

Mr. Barber responded this morning with another challenging, thoughtful, and helpful perspective:

Dear John,

Thank you for your speedy reply.  It may seem like a subtle distinction but I think it remains  the most important element of Harry’s persona for the reader to emulate, and the central theme of the work.  I’ve noticed your appreciation for what you call ~ iconology as approach, and so I would draw your attention to the semiotics of the Gospels, indeed of the entire biblical revelation.

The essential contrast is persons whose actions are depicted with the metaphor of the ravenous tomb/grave/sheol (the first murder of Abel, the first proverb of the Proverbs (1:9ish), and Jesus’ description of the religio-political leaders as ‘white-washed tombs’ – Rowling noticed this I think, and so ‘death-eaters’, which is almost a straight translation of ‘sarcophagus’, the Greek of the Gospels) with those who, rather than consuming the other for the preservation of self, defer in love (as you’ve stated, and Jesus makes plain in many places and actions, including, ‘he who seeks to save his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it’), and so do not become sheol/death/grave by murdering, and they even empty tombs (are not devoured, and release others who have been).

To murder is to die, to die is to be a murderer.  This is what Jesus (and Rowling) means by death, I think, and the first resurrection/rebirth Jesus offers.  The Bible equates ‘sin’ with ‘violence’ (see Flood narrative), and violence must be understood as a general modus vivendi, not simply as aggression, or extreme instances like murder.  Jesus and the prophets before him make this clear, and Rowling understands completely with Riddle’s horcruxes, as he dies when first he murders.

There is much more to this…  In Potter, in the Bible, and in contemporary hermeneutics.  In Potter, I think of Fawkes’ eating of the death-curse in love for Dumbledore during the duel at the Ministry, as the opposite image to the ‘death-eaters’.  Although at first glance they seem to be the same, the difference is both subtle and of immeasurable significance.  This subversion of vision/paradigm is the heart of the Gospel (‘Be Thou my vision’).

There is more on this opposition of love and violence, and if you’re not already familiar (you’re clearly far more well read than I), I recommend the work of Rene Girard and his distinction of what he calls the Johannine/love Logos versus the Heraclitean/violence Logos.  I’ve noticed a parallel understanding in Tolstoy, the Law of Love and the Law of Violence.

I’m perfectly okay with you posting my previous comment if you think it will help discussion.  I’d also like to thank you very much and very sincerely for your insights into the series, especially the alchemical framework, of which I was largely oblivious.

Thank you again and best regards,

Peter Barber

I blush at the thought that I am more well read than Mr. Barber, which obviously is not the case, and open the floor to discussion. Your comments, corrections, and any other contributions to this brief conversation are coveted.


  1. My first thought is, of course, how blessed we are here to have this kind of readership. Like our Headmaster, I am constantly impressed, humbled, and challenged by the folks who join us for this kind of amazing discourse. The Fawkes images is super, and parallels Harry’s misreading of and subsequent frustration with the gravestone scripture references. Thank you, Mr. Barber, for your insights and the permission to share them.

  2. I agree with Elizabeth. Just when I think everything has been discussed, someone brings up a new point or points that expand other things we have talked about.

    I do have one question for Mr. Barber. It is in regard to this statement:

    To murder is to die, to die is to be a murderer.

    I didn’t follow that. How is it that dying makes one a murderer when we will all die at some point. Can you elaborate on that and explain it more fully please?

  3. Sylvie D. Rousseau says

    Two comments on Peter Barber’s very interesting post:
    1. To die is to be a murderer: I paused on the phrase but almost immediately assumed that Mr. Barber refers to eternal death, to the sin prompted by the Homicide from the origin, through which death entered in the world. In a sense, all humans are guilty of the original sin, for without the Grace of God we would all be murderers.
    2. Sarcophagus literally means flesh-eater. A literal Greek translation of Death Eater would be something like Thanatophagus. The term Death Eater, to me, relates to the French name Voldemort, which has two exact translations: Flight of death and Theft of death. I think the second meaning is to be preferred in the context: Riddle’s purpose is to escape death, in other words to cheat, or rob, Death, and he gives that name to his followers to assert this purpose.

  4. Peter Barber says

    I apologize for my long absence… frankly I didn’t expect these wonderful responses! I would like to reply to both Eeyore’s and Sylvie D. Rousseau’s comments. For your shared query about the relationship of death to murder/violence, I’d like to offer two suggestions:

    1) read Proverbs 1:10-19, carefully noting especially verses 12 and 18-19. Then also read 1 John 3:14-16. Note that these 2 passages are consistent in equating murder with death. Death is a state we are in when we hate the Other, and would and do violently (in the broad sense of the term) prefer ‘my’ life over the Other’s life. In John’s Gospel 5:24, Jesus tells his audience that they are all dead, even while he speaks to them! That Jesus and the Bible contain the notion of violence=death as a ‘world’/cosmos in which we live, which we belong to, by which we ‘live’, gain life/being at the expense of others, is clear. This is why Paul declares ‘In [Jesus] we live, and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). Jesus is a new way, a new paradigm, a new cosmos/kingdom that we can- and are made to be a part of. And a kingdom of love is by Biblical and Jesus’ definition a kingdom of non-violence, non-reciprocity. It is a kingdom in which we lay down our lives for our enemies. In fact, we don’t call anyone enemy. I think Rowling demonstrates this with Harry himself, in his capacity to love Tom Riddle – to be non-violent toward him and give him the chance for remorse/repentance that could still, possibly, restore his shattered soul – despite all that Voldemort has done to him and his family.

    2) If both Eeyore and Sylvie would send me their email addresses, I’d be happy to send you a copy of an article I have forthcoming on this very issue. It explains in greater detail the equation of murder/violence with death. My email:

    As to Sylvie’s second comment, I defend my reading first by reiterating that I did say death-eater was an ‘almost direct’ translation of sarcophagus. I said this because I wished to emphasize the imagery of the Tomb/Grave as consumer of the dead, a ‘dead-eater’, and humans metaphorically as ‘tombs’ therefore, as Jesus himself calls the religio-political leaders (e.g. Matt 23:27). And a sarcophagus is a type of grave… the first stage of burial in some cultures. ‘Flesh-eater’ is also a title for the Devil in Aramaic, or so I’ve been told, which is telling (See R. Brown’s commentary on John’s Gospel). In John 8 Jesus indicates that humans can choose between two ideological fathers, the Devil and the Father… children of the Devil forcably take temporary ‘life’ ( or Rowling says, ‘half-life’) via recurrent murders and lies (covering over the murder… just as a grave covers over its contents…), and children of the Father are givers of life, freely… not grasping and not withholding: a generous love. I’m convinced that Rowling has an understanding of the Gospel in these terms… I believe she wrote under a sort of inspiration, even.

    Thank you all for dialoguing on this, and for your insights and comments on Harry Potter. This is a delightful space for talking about Rowling’s fantastic portrayal (in my opinion) of the Gospel, written with a clarity of insight and expression that is rarely achieved.

  5. Sylvie D. Rousseau says

    Mr. Barber,
    Thanks for your additional explanations on the question of death/murder and for your offer to send an article. I’ll send you an e-mail.
    As for the second question, I admit that I did a bit of hair-splitting. Death Eater can of course correspond to Sarcophagus. Now that I think of the irony of Voldemort calling his faithful servants something akin to whitewashed sepulchres, it makes more sense than what I thought before, but I suppose the different meanings don’t rule out each other.

  6. “To murder is to die” jumped out at me because of its relevance to The Knife of Never Letting Go, which I just finished reading. I just wanted to mention that even though I don’t currently have any insights to share. I’ll need to think through this blog post, Harry Potter, and The Knife. I have yet to read HogPro’s Chaos Walking content because I’m just starting The Ask and the Answer.

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