Mailbag: Revisiting the Albus-Severus Suicide Pact

A young reader wrote to me several weeks ago to thank me for my books and ask a question. He closed by saying he aspired to someday making his living by just reading, writing, and talking about Harry Potter, what he imagined was a “dream life.”

I couldn’t really encourage him in this aspiration — the Potter Pundit category is rapidly becoming a crowded space! — but he is right to say that my job, if you can call the time I spend as one of the Hogwarts Professors here a job, is delightful. Almost all of my interactions with serious readers in person, online, and by correspondence is edifying, enlightening, even challenging. I respond to all my mail, to my wife’s distress as I fall further behind on deadlines, even when it is only challenging.

As an example of mail that is really “only challenging” (and perhaps to discourage young readers wanting to one day be a Hogwarts Professor?), here is an e-exchange I have had this week with a reader of How Harry Cast His Spell who passionately objected to my discussion of the Dumbledore-Snape assisted suicide on the Astronomy Tower in Half-Blood Prince. It ate up a large part of my day — and got us exactly nowhere. Considering how few and far between these type of back-and-forths are, though, and how much I learn from readers of my books, I write it off as an acceptable loss.

For those of you with different takes on the suicide pact, please jump right in — and Happy New Year, All-Pros!

Dear Hogwarts Professor,

First of all I would like to say that I absolutely love your work on Harry Potter. Rather than spending a whole introduction praising its scientific merits, however, I would like to offer some criticism on one particular point.

It concerns your answer to FAQ 2 (about the euthanasia of Dumbledore at the ‘expense’ of Snape) in How Harry Cast His Spell, page 250, also seen in the light of your answer to FAQ 3 (about Harry using an unforgivable curse). My criticism can be formulated in two points:

1. I see an inconsistency between your condemnation of Dumbledore’s euthanasia and your justification of Harry’s use of the ‘crucio’ curse (or, rather than ‘justification’, the way you explain it away).

On page 251, you state that the arguments some people use to defend Dumbledore’s euthanasia ‘ultimately fail on ethical grounds’. I will get back to this statement in my second point, for whether this is true or not is a separate discussion; however, I don’t think your condemnation of someone killing a man who is practically already dead in order to save another boy’s soul is much in line with your ‘putting in context’ of Harry use of the ‘crucio’. Concerning the latter event, you state:

Voldemort’s imminent arrival at the castle, the context of both Harry’s and McGonagall’s use of the Unforgivable Curses, means the battle of Hogwarts has begun. Their use of the strongest possible magical spells on the enemy is no more surprising or a moral failure than Molly Weasly’s using a Killing Curse on Bellatrix at the battle’s climax.

Come on, professor. Forgive me, but this seems to me a piece of flawed reasoning quite absent from the rest of your excellent work. Snape can’t ‘kill’ Dumbledore to save Malfoy’s soul, but Harry may use an Unforgivable Curse because ‘the battle of Hogwarts has begun’? Even less instructive is the Molly parallel; for how is her action not morally flawed? And do you mean to say that in war, it is okay to kill people?

By the way, doesn’t Harry use the Imperius Curse at Gringotts? You do not say anything about that particular point, which seems to me to need a Machiavellian justification much like Dumbledore’s euthanasia.

2. You condemn Dumbledore’s wish to be killed by another person, obviously on Christian ethical grounds. Of course, one can have a long discussion about that, but what matters here is what is stated in the books.

You are right that we learn that Dumbledore wasn’t such a good man after all. However, you have left one specific passage out of your account. On page 548 of ‘Deathly Hallows’ (Bloomsbury first edition), Dumbledore discusses his motives for his request to Snape. Snape asks: “What about my soul?” Dumbledore replies:

“You alone know whether it will harm your soul to help an old man avoid pain and humiliation.”

To my mind, such a reasonable statement means that Rowling’s views on Dumbledore’s euthanasia, or the meaning of it seen separately from the author’s intention, cannot be explained away in a non-ambiguous manner. I think Dumbledore’s statement is a clear signal that here we have to do with a moral gray area for which there can be no strict rules. A person has to decide for himself whether he thinks helping someone commit suicide is in line with his moral integrity.

I hope you will find the time to answer these points. With sincere thanks for all your work on elucidating the meaning of these books.

Claccicist [sic]

———- Forwarded message ———-

Dear A.,

Thank you for your kind letter.

In answer to your two questions:

And do you mean to say that in war, it is okay to kill people?

Yes, that traditional and conventional view is exactly what I meant. In a ‘take no prisoners’ battle between combatants who understand the conflict in those terms, the restrictions on the Unforgiveable curses are off. Hence, Harry’s use of the Imperius and Cruciatus curses and Molly’s use of the AK in Deathly Hallows when ‘the gloves are off’ are perfectly justified. Severus Snape’s murder of the dying Albus Dumbledore in Prince even on the Headmaster’s request is not justified by the war because the battle has not yet been publicly joined and neither is a combatant or even an enemy.

A person has to decide for himself whether he thinks helping someone commit suicide is in line with his moral integrity.

We agree, certainly, that this choice is the individual’s to make. We disagree, though, about whether assisted suicide is ever the correct choice. You see gray area here and I see only moral relativism and a desire to escape the obvious: murder outside of combat is only one person’s taking the place of God in deciding the life limits of another person. Only the godless find that difficult to grasp. The individual’s perception of his or her own “moral integrity” is not the standard of right and wrong in such decisions.

Ms. Rowling’s presentation in text suggests she wants readers to embrace this ethical difficulty and wrestle with it. She argues with several other plot points that doing wrong in the service of “the Greater Good” is the rationale of fascists and evil doers. If you think Dumbledore’s execution is a cut-and-dried argument for euthanasia, again, we must disagree.

Thank you again for your thoughtful note and questions.



———- Forwarded message ———-
From: A.

Dear Hogwarts Professor,

Thank you for your reply, for which I am very grateful. I hesitate to continue the discussion, for I fear that I will seem over-tenacious. However, I do hope you will bear with me for just a little longer.

First of all, your reply to the first question in a sense clearly resolves the contradiction that I accused you of making. In that sense, I would have to retract the ‘come on, professor..’ statement. However, in my mind there still remain difficulties. In essence, my point is the same, but let me sharpen it and make it more explicit.

[See my response below for A.N.A.’s questions.]

Thank you again for your time, especially should you find it worth your while to send an answer again.

Yours Sincerely,


———- Forwarded message ———-

Dear A.,

Thank you for these follow-up questions. I am not interested in engaging with you on philosophical or religious issues; please find another forum or author for that. With that in mind, here are my responses to your questions:

1. You haven’t said anything about the use of the Imperius (on an innocent minority – Goblins) at Gringotts.

I am not sure what the difference would be in using a curse improperly on “an innocent minority” rather than an “innocent anybody” beyond political correctness, but, to your larger point, the Imperius curse is not used for Harry’s personal or private advantage and does no harm to the Goblin. He uses it in his wartime efforts to defeat the Dark Lord, which, given his impersonal and non-injurious use of the curse, justifies it. Harry’s signature use of “Expelliarmus!” when a killing curse is justified, even warranted, speaks to the passion rather than logic of your charge.

2. Even assuming that killing someone in war is morally okay (and not contrary to Christian teaching, of which my knowledge is intellectual rather than spiritual) – what about torture? For that is what Harry does. Isn’t torture a violation of every accepted moral principle? Same goes for mind control.

Torture is, indeed, unjustified even in war, in which the murder of combatants in battle is a given if not a moral good. You are asserting, I have to guess, that Harry’s use of the Cruciatus curse to knock out Alecto Carrow is “torture.” I think that is a stretch, to say the least, because Harry does not use the curse to extract information or for personal sadistic pleasure; he uses the curse to knock out an enemy combatant rather than kill him with an AK or just knock him down with “Stupefy!” Given that Harry was probably justified, as a man whom Carrow understood as an enemy combatant he should kill on sight or hold to be killed, in killing Carrow, his use of the Cruciatus Curse in extremis seems something akin to merciful.

3. According to your moral view, morality shifts when a battle has clearly begun. But on what moral principle is this view based? On which teaching of Christ is this based? I don’t remember him saying to love your enemy except when in battle. Please forgive me this point which will probably seem to you ignorant and pedantic, but what am I to do? By what criterium do you decide that the situation of battle changes things, but that the situation of someone’s soul being at risk does not? Why does a battle justify killing? For you can choose not to participate in the battle, or let yourself be killed. Does risk of death justify killing? Or is the killing justified by the fact that the outcome of the war will affect the fate of many people? But isn’t that just ‘greater good’-philosophy?

Please find a good book on Just War theory (Jus in Bello). The criteria of right behavior in starting a war and during war are spelled out in Christian tradition and western philosophy fairly neatly. I write a literature weBlog, not a political philosophy and comparative religion forum, and I correspond with folks about literary issues. Your questions about the teachings of Christ are not ones I choose to address here at any length. There are thousands of sites for you to explore these ideas with others interested in them. My job at Hogwarts Professor and in correspondence with readers is exploring the artistry and meaning of Harry Potter and other great books, rather than their use as transparencies to argue philosophical, religious, and ethical questions from a partisan perspective.

Please read the passionate questions you listed above; I’m confident that you can see the anger in each one, the accusation of ignorance and hypocrisy, as well as just how far off the subject of Snape assisting Dumbledore to death you have drifted. Your argument is with Christianity, not my opinions, Ms. Rowling’s argument in story, or fictional Harry’s actions; I doubt you argued your way into your beliefs on this matter so I’m confident there is no point in my trying to argue you out of them.

One last point about euthanasia and godlessness. Doubtlessly, you know the works of the Stoic Epictetus – a deeply religious man. His views on euthanasia seem to me the most sensible: one should not commit suicide for just every reason, but if you are affected by disease etc. in such a way that you cannot function properly, that is God’s sign that you should leave life. One may agree or disagree; my point is simply that belief in God and euthanasia are not a priori incompatible. And that calling euthanasia a ‘grey area’ is not the same as moral relativism; for there can still be a criterium for when euthanasia is justified, as, according to you, there is a criterium for when killing is justified. Epictetus was considered a Christian guide to life for centuries.

Epictetus was not a Christian or a “deeply religious man,” but a philosopher with an abstract belief in a metaphysical postulate God, a philosopher whose morality and asceticism has been admired by many Christians. His arguments about the appropriateness of suicide — quite different, of course, from assisted death or murder-by-self-justification — reflect an enlightened pagan perspective. We disagree about euthanasia and belief in God being incompatible, and, again, as my correspondence with readers and web site are not forums for discussing these issues outside of specific authors’ presentations of them in fiction, I ask that you take your concerns elsewhere for the argument you desire.

Thank you again for your questions.




From: A.

Dear Hogwarts professor,

Thank you once again for your considerate reply. I will of course respect your wish not to debate on philosophical or religious issues; and concerning the interpretation of the books, I now have your valuable thoughts to think about.

However, I do not agree with your characterization of my objections, line of argument, and motives. I can imagine you have better things to do than listen to me, but I myself can’t just leave it at that, because I think you are being just a little bit unfair. You assert I use ‘passion rather than logic’; you think my questions are ‘angry’; and worst of all, you say that I have ‘drifted far off the subject’, and that my argument is with Christianity, not with you or the books.

The Gringotts imperius question was motivated, not by passion, but solely by your point that Harry’s use of the crucio at Hogwarts was justified by the fact that the battle of Hogwarts had begun. I was simply wondering how this would work for the Gringotts event. (I am not satisfied by your explanation, but neither am I totally unconvinced by it; I promised, however, not to continue the ethical debate.)

You say seeing the use of the crucio as ‘torture’ is a ‘stretch’. You can hardly blame me for this interpretation. ‘Crucio’ means ‘I torture’; Neville’s parents are tortured to insanity by it; Harry fears suffering the same thing at the end of Prince; and the whole treatment of the Unforgivable Curses by Moody in Goblet strongly suggests the context of war crimes during the second world war (people claiming to have been imperiused by Grindelwald, clearly reminiscent of the ‘Ich habe es nicht gewusst’-defence). Harry says, after using the curse, that he understands Bellatrix’ comment that ‘you have to really mean it’. That seems a sign that Harry is really ‘into it’, that he wants his victim to suffer. He could have used tons of spells, but he chooses to use the one with which Hermione is tortured at Malfoy Manor. I do not wish to invalidate your point; you may well be right. The only thing I’m saying is that I don’t agree with the word ‘stretch’. It seems to me that it is the apologist that, in principle, has to do the stretching.

Which brings me to the larger point, my alledged argument with Christianity. The only thing I wish to argue is that, in the books, Harry is just a little bit (not meant ironically!) less of a Christian than you make him seem, and that the author ‘Rowling’ is too. I hasten to add that, since you know her, you’re more of an authority than I am; my point is simply that I am talking about the books. I’m just saying that the moral complexity of the works is just somewhat greater than you make it seem.

This complexity can be solved by, for example, your own view that Harry, after sacrificing himself, becomes enlightened, and from that point on refrains from using those horrible curses. I simply say that a serious argument can be made for a. the unjustified nature of Harry’s use of the curses within the context of the books before his enlightenment and b. the justified nature of assisted suicide within the context of the books.

For that second claim, I have given a textual passage. It was you who chose to cite from it the sentence “A person has to decide for himself whether he thinks helping someone commit suicide is in line with his moral integrity” and attack it by calling it moral relativism (it was this that triggered my Epictetus reply – not my desire for philosophical debate). It was you who started the discussion about ‘right or wrong’. You did not say anything about the way in which Dumbledore’s statement (which I simply refrased) is to be interpreted. For in the whole series, Dumbledore is the one and only authority on the soul. It is he that teaches Harry about it. Is it, then, so strange to take a quote of Dumbledore’s on the soul and put it forward as an argument?

Finally, my questions about the criterium. It is here that you see the most anger. But it is far from that.

In your interpretation of two moral issues, you bring forward two (Christian) moral principles: a. killing someone in war is justified; b. killing someone for some greater good at that person’s consent, outside of war, is not justified.

1. I do not see that these points are clearly stated in the books.

2. If these principles are, for example, in the New Testament, then a good case can be made that they are also active in the Potter books, for there is no doubt that Rowling knows the New Testament. To my knowledge, point (a.) is not in the New Testament; hence, I wonder how you see its activeness in the books, especially when it is not stated there.

3. In the view of points 1. and 2, I start to wonder where you get this principles from. Which is why I ask: ‘On what teaching of Christ is this based?’ Not to attack you as a hypocrite, nor out of anger; I simply wish to know how this principle got in the books. If you say, ‘there is a whole tradition’, then I am satisfied in so far as the ethical discussion goes – no harm done. But the question remains: what guarantee is there that the principle is active in the context of the books?

4. What is emphasized in the books, is that there are things worse than dying: maiming your soul. Is it, then, so strange to think that, within the context of the books, someone’s soul being at risk is more of a justification of killing than the context of war, in which only non-spiritual life is at risk?

Again, all I’m saying is: I am debating about the books.

I only wished to argue that in the books, it may be possible that both the person Harry and the subject of euthanasia are treated with more complexity than you argued; you, on the other hand, invoke ethical principles, of which there is no direct mention in the books, to justify or condemn the behaviour of the characters. I do not deny that the Potter books are Christian; I just think that that fact doesn’t justify fitting every moral issue that arises in the books into that paradigm without justification based on the context of the books. And it is on this point that I found your replies lacking – though not in the least completely unconvincing; definitely stuff to think about!

Thank you for your attention.

Yours Sincerely,


From: John

Thanks for your letter. I think I’ll let my comments in response to your previous notes stand; your passionate objections to them only invite me to repeat them.

Just one point of clarification. You suggest I know Ms. Rowling personally. I have not met her or corresponded with her. I know her only as you do, from her books, interviews, and



  1. Here are my thoughts on the issue of the justification of Harry’s DH crucio of Amacus and Snape’s tower-top AK kill of Dumbledore (DD for short below). I am at present not near to my copies of the books (although I am in the same town as them, would just need to go back over to the other house to get them to find citation page #s), but I am pretty sure on the references I use and would be able to provide page #s and actual quotes pretty handily (as I am sure is the case for many of us, in addition to full readings and reference checking of paper copy, I have listened to Jjm Dale’s readings of the books more times than I can remember on driving trips, and so I feel pretty secure on the accuracy of my refs even without the books in front of me, but, of course, any good argument needs to be able to provide concrete citations at least on request).

    I would disagree about Harry’s use of Crucio falling under just war theory (meaning disagree with it being justified under that theory), even with the battle begun. There is no real clear and present danger to Minerva, and no difference, in regards to her situation (or the larger battle), between the end result of the crucio and the end result of a stunning spell like Luna used on Electra. Harry’s comments seem to indicate he was seeking to cause pain for the sake of causing pain, “I see what she meant, you have to mean them,” referring back to Beletrix’s comments in book 5 on really wanting to cause pain. The analog with killing in war time would be that even in a just war, it is possible for killings to take place that are still culpable murders, even within a war that is just and given the principle that killing in the cause of just war can be morally acceptable.

    Harry’s is obviously different than Bella’s in that she uses pain to extort information. But such an instrumental usage is accidental to the core meaning of torture, which is simply the intent and execution of causing pain (think of Weston/Un-man with the frogs on CS Lewis’ Peralandra: clearly not attempting a material gain such as info etc, but also clearly torture). I think Harry’s comments surrounding his own crucio on Amacus reveals a clear vengeance motive, and that it can be argued that the crucio serves no justified goal that could not have been served just as easily by a stunning spell. Culpability for his actions may be mitigated by factors of war-time psychological phenomena, but that seems to me like it is going into a realm other than the philosophical/theological realm of just-war theory, going into the realm of psychology and its interplay with the moral categories of just war etc.

    I view the Snape->Dumbledore AK under a different heading: intel tactics. This is not to say that it justifies under the heading of just-war theory, for which one would have to examine it under the heading of whether the negative possibilities of not doing it this way constitute a clear and present danger (as Molly and Bella clearly does). But I do think it worth mentioning that DD is a tactician and that Aberforth is right in a way: he is a damned wiley one. If it were to become known that DD died, and not by Draco’s hand, and not by Snape’s hand (and Snape’s comments to Bella and his exposition to DD of the Voldy book 6 plan, as found in Snape’s memory collage in DH, lead one to believe that these are the only 2 live options in Voldy’s mind … even if he doesn’t really believe Draco is a live option, he has to present it as such to everybody else), Voldy could be smart enough to put 2 and 2 together and realize something was up regarding something precious of his own on which he had put strong protections (like the horcruxes) … after all, who but Voldy himself (in his mind) could come up with magic dark and powerful enough to defeat the great DD by accident or booby-trap? Thus, DD’s logic would be that, if he is a goner anyway and Snape is (in DD’s mind) really just putting the most opportune spin on an already fait accompli (as sure as the chudley canons finishing last in the league), it may as well be used to the advantage of protecting intel (and maybe strengthening Snape’s position in Voldy’s confidence) and thus giving Harry the more time and better chance on the HC mission.

    Of course, as we know, DD isn’t putting all these motive info eggs into Snape’s basket. “Assisted Suicide” and “Mercy Killing” may be his way (in JKR’s portrayal, and maybe even in her own thinking) of making it easier for Snape to pull the trigger. I think it can be argued that Aberforth is right about Albus’ questionable tactics. In order to pull off the kill effectively, Snape needs not only to feel some ease of conscious going in (thus mercy-killing rationale), he also needs to mean the curse … that loathing and hatred etched in every line of his face needs to be real for him (sort of like EXTREME method acting).

    I think we see evidence of DD giving him some motivation for it to be real by digging at him, meanly, manipulatively. It does not come until Snape’s memory collage in DH, and it is from the Yule Ball in GOF (and thus cannot be taken as direct evidence concerning DD’s operation of the tower-top tactic, but I think it goes to the overall tactics of DD), but I think 2 things are important about the “sometimes I think we sort too soon” comment. The first is that it serves no material purpose in the plot other than character exposition. The parts of DD talking to Snape about Harry needing to die are vital info for the plan. The history of Harry’s parents is important personally for a resolution of himself and Harry (even if he is just thinking of it in terms of a resolution between himself and “Lily’s Child”). But that dig after the Yule balls only really possibly connects with one thing: the tower murder.

    And that is the second thing, that for the author it is not so much exposition of Snape’s character (Snape himself on the page is doing quite a good job of defending his own character and doesn’t need authorial arrangement to do it … even though obviously the dialog is written by the author, but I hope you know what I mean), I think it is exposition of DD’s character – the manipulative tactician maybe guessing that such kinds of actions may be necessary by the end (how do you fight an adversary like Voldy without sinking to his level at least a little? and maybe Snape is more right about DADA than we like to admit, and Hermione is right that Snape sounded more like Harry than Harry likes to admit … at least this is a question I think JKR wants us to think about when she is, as I argue, deconstructing DD beyond what happens in Rita’s book and Aberforth’s speech). Maybe all along DD has had an occasional sideline project of little digs at Snape in order to hold that negative emotion in a savings account in case it is needed in a case like this.

    (And the fact that it generates a negative emotional response on Snape’s part is evident from the look Harry sees on his face, which is completely logical in that DD is calling into question something that Snape takes very personally as part of his own core identity – his Slytherin affiliation … DD is, I think, sly digging at Snape’s own positive understanding of his own identity, in a sense attacking something Snape sees as a core part of who he is)

    (And the fact that intel is a prominent element/motif for the mechanics of the plot is evident precisely in the fact that it is the goal of at least the majority of the instances of Bella using the crucio.)

    All of this goes to an argument for a picture of DD the down-and-dirty manipulative tactician here: both digging at Snape somemtimes, and planning the specific circumstances of his own death to maximize intel issues (and allowing possible damage to Snape’s soul as acceptable “collateral damage”). I mentioned this reading to a friend’s sister-in-law, who is herself among the more “liberal” set (and teaches lit on the college level), who generally tend to be more “down with” deconstructionist readings, and even she said (a little reproachfully lol, but I know her well enough to know her good opinion of me has not really lessened), “well … I guess … if you really want to deconstruct Dumbledore THAT much.” But I think it is necessary to the resolution conversation in King’s Cross having it’s full potential effect.

    3. Having said point 2, I think that Prof Granger’s clarification in one of his responses, the clarification of a concrete final result that goes outside or beyond authorial intent, is an important question. The way that Rowling has DD address what I talked about in point 2, because of what exactly DD says (helping a dying man etc), opens the door for and has distinct implications for euthanasia issues. And so, in addressing the meaning of the text one has to examine those implications, especially if it could be demonstrated that the situation did not present enough of a clear and present danger (in the arena of intel protection or its necessity) to justify the tactic of Snape materially killing DD, because then its positive side would disappear and the negative side (possible endorsement of assisted-suicide and other euthanasia) becomes more drastic (you would then have more trouble using even the principle of double effect as a justification for the action).

    So, hope that wasn’t too laborious of an explanation of my position on the issues (sorry I didn’t cover the imperius, but I basically agree with Prof Granger on the justification of it and not seeing the goblins as a minority as impacting that reading of it as justified)

  2. I really hesitate to make any comments at all, but here goes anyway.

    I’ll start with the agreement, reluctantly made on Snape’s part, about his role in Dumbledore’s death. It made me uncomfortable when I read it the first time – shocked me at that point, actually. And when it was explained in “The Prince’s Tale” it made me even more uncomfortable. Neither suicide nor euthanasia are acceptable in my view, though I understand why someone would choose either one. By having Snape do the deed, Rowling has given the reader the challenge of sorting through that murky moral ground. Is it any different, worse or better, that Dumbledore is dying, but not brain dead? In our Muggle medical care, if someone is deemed brain dead then the family with the doctor’s guidance might choose to turn off the machines that are keeping the person from dying. I purposely didn’t say alive, because just breathing and having a machine making your heart keep beating is really not living, as far as I’m concerned. I hope and pray I’m never in a position where I have to make that sort of decision.

    So, is Rowlling actually having Snape assist in Dumbledore’s suicide/euthanasia or is it something more like turning off the machine because Dumbledore is already dead. Yes, I know, he is still functioning, but clearly dying. If we go back to the first Potions lesson with Snape when he tells the class that he can teach them to “bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death”. We learn later that Dumbledore’s withered hand is the result of a curse that would have killed him if Snape had not stopped the death – “stoppered death”. So when Dumbledore says, “Severus, please”, he is asking Snape to release him from a life that has continued longer than it would have without Snape’s intervention – the equivalent in the Muggle world is that Dumbledore is asking that Snape turn off the life support and allow him to die. I wonder if Rowling put that dilemma in the book because it is something that her family struggled with when her mother was dying from multiple sclerosis? I don’t think she gives a clear answer in the book and perhaps that is intentional – there isn’t a clear answer, but it’s something families should discuss. Do you want to be kept alive even when you would naturally die without heroic measures, or do you have DNR (do not resusitate) on file with the doctors and the hospital? By the way, I’m not asking for an answer, nor do I want to get into a discussion about what is right – I just brought it up as a possible reason for the way Dumbledore’s death was handled.

    One of the things that bothered me the most about Harry using the Cruciatus curse was that it wen against everything he had ever stood for. Dumbledore always talked about Harry being of pure heart and that he chose to do the right thing even though it wasn’t easy. And then Harry and McGonagall both go against those very high ideals and use an Unforgiveable Curse when they really don’t need to do it. By that point in the story we have seen numerous things they could have done to incapacitate the Carrows, but they chose a form of torture.

    I don’t think it matters whether it is in time of war or in time of peace or to gain information or not – torture, causing someone pain because you can, is not any better or more justified because you are on the right side of the war.

    I actually hated that Rowling had Harry do that. And I don’t understand why she would, given thatn she worked for Amnesty International for a short time. In the Harvard speech she said that part of her job was reading letters from people who had been victims in their own country and how horrific it was to read it and know that, in some cases, there would never be any help for them.

    So, why? What was the point of having Harry torture someone, even someone as horrid as one of the Carrows? How does that fit with his being pur of heart? How does that fit him to sacrifice himself to save the Wizarding World? It makes him as flawed as everyone else. Perhaps that is the point she was making. War is terrible. It brings out the best and the worst in people, in all of us. The horrors of war lead good people, moral people to do things or make choices they would never make in time of peace.

    That’s the only explanation I can come up with that allows me to have any understanding of what Harry did. And I still don’t like it and probably will always cringe when I read that part of the book.

  3. Sorry for all the typos. It’s late and I was distracted by someone still celebrating the New Year – sounded like they tried to blow up the neighborhood and it put me off doing a thorough spell checking before I hit submit.

    I’ll just add the part I left out. I find it very disturbing that Harry took any satisfaction that he was able to use the Cruciatus curse to cause pain. After he had experienced that kind of pain in Goblet of Fire, I would think that he would never want to do that to anyone else. Yes, it was war, but at the end of the war, those who survive have to come home and be able to live with what they have done. Not a good choice, Harry.

  4. Please consider that I am not as well read as the other posters, as well as being older and at a different place in life.
    I thought that Harry had just gone through the shock of seeing his fellow students tortured by the Carrows, the scars and bruises told him that the war on decency had been well started. ( It reminded me of the war on the Jews in the second world war that was at first under the surface of the normalcy and quite accepted as a consequence of the new regime. Possibly you could do an analogy of the earliest Christians under Roman rule) The crutiatus curse was the coin of the realm at Hogwarts
    He struck out with a short lived crutiatus curse , just returning what the Carrows had given out. However, it was followed by the comment that the “blood was thundering through his ears”. Harry was a true warrior at that point, and it was the only point .
    After that, the warrior was subdued, and he became a different sort of warrior.
    As for Dumbledore. It seemed to me that he was the master alchemist. He alone know that they were playing out a huge alchemical drama in real time.
    He knew he had to die as the white persona and his biggest task, after preparing Harry through his various stages was arranging his death so the pieces went together to provide a solution.
    Death was just the last frontier for DD, and the transition there was not the black/white thing that we see. It was simply time to unstopper death. I think that Snape had adequate remorse for his act,his soul was wounded as happens when innocence is lost.

  5. wow, John, sorry for the aggression from that reader.

    As for just war, I can’t follow you on that one personally. Too much of William Penn and MLK in me, I suppose.

    As for the inconsistency between the two arguments (the two examples), I affirm that they are different scenarios, and though they work on the broad scene of things, I doubt that they can be as ying/yang as A. makes it seem.

    As for euthenasia — do you think there’s any sort of paralell between Dumbledore and the Samurai? Or do you think that goes back to the war time gig? I’m thinking of “the last samurai” who offed themselves even outside of the war, attempting to eradicate the race for the sake of purity or w’e.

  6. I’m sorry that Eeyore was so disillusioned when Harry used the Cruciatus curse on Amicus Carrow in DH. I was cheering. He was a 17 year old in the middle of a war and having Prof. McGonagall spit at by Carrow sent him over the edge. It really added to the characterization of Harry, even at such a late point in the story. Eeyore’s insight into the JK Rowling euthanasia/MS possible connection was really great. Anyone who has had to make the decision to withhold further treatment from a terminally ill loved one would have no moral dilemma with it, I know I didn’t.
    I have to disagree with Merlin about DD baiting Snape. Yes, he was a brilliant tactician, but he didn’t need that to convince Snape to AK him. He knew from experience that Snape would do anything to atone for his past mistakes. DD had been there too, attracted to the dark side and causing the death of someone he loved(his sister.) He was all too familiar with the suffering. The hatred and loathing Harry saw on Snape’s face at DD’s death was self-directed. Imagine having to pay for the sin of causing the death of a loved one by killing someone else you love. Yes, I think Snape definitely loved DD in a comrade sort of way.
    As an aside, my 13-year old and his mates were on youtube last night laughing over the Potter puppet pals and I was amazed to see how many tributes to Severus Snape there were! I got looking at them and over an hour went by, and I felt as if I had barely scratched the surface. There’s something about that character that is fascinating the public. John did say in one of his books that he was akin to a modern-day Sidney Carton. Anyone who has made a big mistake in their past that deeply hurt another person can appreciate Severus Snape!

  7. Carrie-Ann Biondi says

    Wow–so much provocative posting on this thread! All that I’ll add to the commentary for now is a small parallel in relation to something that D.V. says above about Harry’s use of the Cruciatus Curse:

    “However, it was followed by the comment that the “blood was thundering through his ears”. Harry was a true warrior at that point, and it was the only point .”

    This makes Harry sound kind of like Achilles’s rage when he finds out that Patroclus has been killed–he goes a bit beserk…. We see Harry struggle at different points with his anger, as do many other literary heroes before him.

  8. I think this topic has brought up the two big morally problematic issues I have with the entire series. Throughout the series, the adult Dumbledore is always presented as the one paragon of correct moral reasoning. Yet he urges Snape to commit an evil act “for the greater good.” In traditional Christian theology, it is never acceptable to commit an evil act no matter what the reason. Intentionally killing an innocent man certainly falls within the traditional scope of an evil act.

    Within the series, Rowling even makes it clear that the act itself is evil. Snape clearly points out that Dumbledore is not concerned with the state of Snape’s soul from the act. This seems to me an acknowlegement that the act itself is evil.

    This is a different scenario than removing extraordinary medical measures as mentioned by others above. It may have been morally acceptable for Snape and/or Dubledore to cease using the “stoppering of death” potion that was artificially keeping Dumbledore alive. That would be the equivalent of removing extraordinary medical care. The equivalent of the curse that Snape used would be smothering a critically ill patient with a pillow.

    I think that Harry’s use of the cruciatus curse was also morally problematic. Rowling made it clear in the book that Harry really had to mean the curse for it to work. I interpret that to mean that Harry really had to want to cause the pain to another person for the curse to work. Since other means were available to disable the opponent, he used this curse because he desired to cause pain.

    I think that either of these failings could have been redeemed within the final book. As written, nobody inside the book ever questions the morallity of these two actions. All it would take to redeem the treatment of Harry’s act is for Harry to feel remorse for his action once he had time to think about it. In similar vein, all it would require to clarify how morally objectionable Dumbledore’s act would be for Harry to feel revulsion at the plan.

    Since Rowling made no attempt to clarify the morally objectionable nature of these two actions, my conclusion would be that she believes that they were in some way morally justified. If so, I strongly disagree with her.

  9. Wow…fabulous comments. I don’t have anything to add to the critical discussion except to remind that death had been unstoppered when DD drank the locket potion. His “symptoms” of imminent death are pretty-close to textbook. Though I would personally consider DD to have died from a mortal wound (the locket potion), his bodily digression is pretty textbook for a terminally ill person, right down to an energy surge between the time that he asks for Snape in Hogsmeade (proceeding descriptions of DD are of a man incapicatated) and the instant before Snape’s AK wherein he loses all color, winces and cannot hold himself up on the Tower in front of Malfoy.

  10. Hi everyone, let me introduce myself as the culprit behind this discussion; I sent our Hogwarts professor the mails. First of all, happy new year to everyone, especially to our professor.

    First off, some points of clarification.

    I have come to the conclusion that Mr. Granger was right after all about the way the euthanasia question is best interpreted within the context of the books (I will come back to this). I have let him know this and apologised for some of the assumptions I made in my e-mails and for the sometimes somewhat aggressive tone. He has gracefully accepted my apologies. I hope he will change the introduction to this post and make it less negative: I hope he can now affirm that being Hogwarts professor is a great job after all.

    The reason I sent prof. Granger these e-mails was not that I care so passionately about these subjects, but because these were the only points of HP-interpretation in his books with which I disagreed. I read the books a year ago and had thought about writing him for a long time. Only last week did I do so. Waiting a year is hardly the action of a passionate, angry atheist looking for a fight.

    Also, I think that my points are not so irrational and passionate as prof. Granger says they are. In my third mail, I explain at length the motives behind my questions, providing clear textual arguments. The rhetorical questions in the second mail (What justifies….? What teaching of Christ…?) were, as I explained in the third mail, not meant as an attack on prof. Grangers integrity, but were aimed at discovering the justification for fitting a certain moral paradigm on the book without full textual justification. I think the current debate is also a sign that I might have been on to something.

    I apologise to everyone if my tone was offensive. Apart from some arrogance on my part, this probably has partly to do with the academic milieu I grew up in (Netherlands). That said, I honestly never intended to truly transgress the limits of politeness. By saying ‘come on, professor’, I might have made that mistake; on the other hand, I do not see anything wrong with the questions in the second mail, which prof. Granger labels as ‘angry’.

    That said, let me turn to the subject. I am very, very pleased to see that a truly interesting debate has been sparked by my correspondence with prof. Granger. And, if I may say so, it seems that I’m not the only one who has some problems with the moral (in)consistency of the books. It seems that all relevant points for both sides have been made and I found every post instructive.

    I think that we can learn from this discussion that the moral judgement of the behaviour of some fictitious character can take place on three levels, and that these levels can easily get mixed up.

    1. Presentation. How is the act, and its consequences, presented by the author?
    2. Context. Is this presentation consistent with the moral logic that underlies the books?
    3. Philosophy. How does this relate to our own world views?

    – 1 and 2 can easily get mixed up because on the one hand, it is difficult to draw a sharp line between the specific presentation of some event and the larger context of the books; and on the other hand, the moral logic underlying the books is partly shaped by a particular instance.
    – 2 and 3 can easily get mixed up because the moral logic of a book is often not made explicit. We fill in the gaps ourselves by using our own moral paradigm. In the case of HP, this is especially relevant: for since the books are Christian, it is tempting or even methodologically necessary to fill in the gaps by ‘copy-pasting’ Christian ethics.

    Let me first post this comment and then, in the next post, show how this scheme would apply to our discussion.


  11. Right then, first off, the EUTHANASIA question. Here, level 3 is clear, but level 2 and 1 much less so.

    Level 3: It is obvious Christians and non-Christians would disagree on the issue whether euthanasia, or assisted suicide, is ever justified. I never meant to disrespect the Christian view; I attacked it, not by itself, but because I thought it inconsistent with the Just War-stance (which I now see not everyone agrees with).

    Level 2: Nowhere in the books did I find a clear statement on the general point whether assisted suicide is ever the right thing to do. And, not being a Christian, I was not predisposed to fit the Christian moral paradigm on the text without question.
    What I did see was that it was constantly emphasized how much more important the soul (spiritual life) is than life. Therefore, I thought I had good reason to imagine that Malfoy’s soul being at risk proved enough justification for assisted suicide – in any case, much more of a justification than ‘battle’.
    What I totally missed, however, was that saving Malfoy’s soul, and winning the war, are only part of the considerations that are relevant here. If we look at the text, we see that Dumbledore’s motives are also egoistic: he wants a quick, clean death. Note how the whole thing is emphatically presented as a request from Dumbledore: he asks ‘a favour’, he pleads with Severus on the tower. That is, in my eyes, a sign that this is not simply war tactics.
    So, the context of the soul being more important than life can only ever justify the euthanasia in part.

    Level 1: Here, I thought I had only Dumbledore’s statement to go on, that only Snape knows whether his soul will be harmed or not. I thought these words, from the one authority on the soul in the books, to be a clear sign that it was okay.
    I completely missed the implicit points made by the plot, however. Snape’s passionate objections are a sign that something is wrong; much more importantly, the fact that the Snape-elderwand idea is the only part of Dumbledore’s plan that goes wrong, with the consequence of Snape dying a horrible death, seems to me extremely significant. I base this on the assumption that in HP, characters usually get what they deserve.
    In my defence, these points are hard to see. For the presentation of the deed is complex. First it happens, and we’re mad at Snape; then we see that Snape did it at Dumbledore’s request. I myself was too preoccupied with being relieved that Snape was a good guy after all to notice that something was still wrong.

    Conclusion: I think the points on the presentational level (the pleading; Severus’ objections; Severus dying and Dumbledore acknowledging the plan didn’t work out) make it clear that Rowling wants us to see that Dumbledore’s wish and Snapes compliance are morally condemnable.
    The reasons that this may be hard to see (for a non-Christian?) are, in the first place, that there are so many revelations at the same time in ‘The Prince’s Tale’; secondly, that the action has several meanings and motives behind it; thirdly, that there is no explicit statement about its morality.
    Dumbledore’s remark about Snape knowing best whether his soul will suffer damage is probably best interpreted as a sign that Snape, if he did the deed with the right intensions, at least will not suffer lasting soul damage, i.e. is only punished in this life, not in the afterlife.

  12. One final, important point: seeing Snape’s compliance with Dumbledore’s request as a moral mistake not only fits the plot better, but also puts the crown on the tragic presentations of Snape. Whatever he does, there is always a contradiction involved. He cannot even grant a simple request with good intentions without there being an opposite, tragic consequence.

    I will leave the Unforgivable Curse question for the moment. I have long transgressed the limits of decorum with my long-winded expositions (apologies) and, furthermore, all relevant points have been made. Look at Order of the Phoenix page 715. Harry’s godfather has just been murdered, ‘Hatred rose in Harry such as he had never known before’, and EVEN THEN he can’t use the ‘crucio’. Bellatrix: ‘Righteous (!) anger won’t hurt me’ and ‘you need to really want to cause pain’.
    When his godfather is murdered, Harry feels only ‘righteous anger’; but when McGonagall is spat in the face, he can amass the feelings of hate needed for the curse?

  13. amusing how we read things differently. I came to this site exploring some of my fellow christians’ views, but never has it occured to me to read this as euthanesia. If anything, this was the part that most promted in my mind the memory of Christ’s sacrifice. I think what makes the difference for me is that this isn’t just about Dumbledore being a dying man. It’s about Bellatrix having tricked Snape into making an Unbreakable Vow – he was to help Draco kill Dumbledore, and, should he still fail, to finish Dumbledore off himself. In short, that left them with 3 options.
    1) Draco killing Dumbledore, damaging his own soul but releasing Snape from further duties
    2) Draco not being able to kill Dumbledore and Snape refusing to do so either, resulting in Snape dying from breaking his vow and Draco and his family being finished off by Voldemort
    or 3), the path which they choose to take: Dumbledore taking the fall, saving both Draco and his family from Voldemort’s rage and Snape from dying. He was going to die soon anyway, and he merely sooths Snape’s conscious by telling him he’s basicly substituting one death with another.

    There’s no use in Draco dying for failing, Snape dying for breaking his vow and Dumbledore dying weeks later from earlier injuries and lack of counter potion. I agree with Arjan that this adds to the tragic that always surrounds Snape . Moreover I actually see a good deal of christian symbolism in the headmaster dying at the hands of the man he’s thereby saving.

  14. To Sabine, great post! I’m not sure, however, whether Snape made the unbreakable vow before or after he promised Dumbledore that he would kill him. I believe it is ambiguous in the books, but I think we are meant to believe he made the promise to Dumbledore first, as the revelations in ‘the prince’s tale’ in Hallows are meant to modify our interpretations of what happened in Prince. Thus, Snape’s vow is to be seen in the light of his earlier promise to Dumbledore. (The irony! Snapes unbreakable vow is, in a sense, meaningless, but his ‘curt nod’ to Dumbledore’s ‘your word, Severus’, makes all the difference in the world.) If so, then the vow can not be part of the justification for the killing of Dumbledore.

    I completely agree that (if that is indeed what you are saying) the whole plan seems morally justified. I do think, however, that Rowling wants to get the point across that it isn’t, although she does so quite subtly. But the plot points are there, I think, as I wrote in my earlier posts.

    The point of Dumbledore’s death being reminiscent of Christ’s sacrifice is very interesting, and I would like to offer a thought to everyone on this point. As the readers of the series know, everything in the book has its counterpart: the people, the places, the events (e.g. the unbreakable vow versus the promise to Dumbledore). It would seem that there are also two Christ-like sacrifices: that of Dumbledore and that of Harry. And I agree with Sabine (again, if I interpret you correctly) that Dumbledore’s sacrifice is the more reminiscent of that of Christ: killed by a traitor, after drinking ‘the cup of poison’ in the cave. In Harry’s case, there is a very conspicuous absence of a traitor: even when it seems the inevitable conclusion that he has been betrayed (after the seven Potters fiasco) he says ‘I trust all of you’ – and he is right! Moreover, where Christ and Dumbledore are abandoned by their friends, Harry conspicuously accepts the help of his. Also, where Dumbledore’s death is inevitable, Harry has a real choice; Christs death is in this respect too perhaps more like (although by no means identical to) Dumbledore’s, as Christ had a fatal duty to fulfil.

    My point is this: can it be that Rowling seeks to replace an in some respects somewhat ugly story of a sacrifice by a better, cleaner, less tragic one? One where there is a scapegoat (in the bible, Judas) who has to play an ugly part in a necessary plan (which we get first in the form of the Albus-Severus pact), with one where there is a hero who has a real choice and no-one needs to take the blame for his sacrifice (Harry)?

    (I am not trying to attack Christianity here – this is a sincere attempt to make sense of the books.)

  15. ditto to you, Arjan :0 I never stopped to think he could’ve made his promise to Dumbledore earlier, but it’s been ages since I read Hallows. I always interpreted Snape twitching @ Bellatrixes adition of that bit of the vow as an indication that it was there and then that he was tricked into making it. I shall give The Prince’s Tale another read.

    My point was indeed that I think these actions are moraly justified, and maybe even that I find it a bit of a stretch to arrive at the subject of euthanasia, though I suppose Rowling opens that door herself by having Dumbledore ease Snape’s conscious like that. I do appreciate she does not take the killing of another man lightly and is consistent in her image of it being something that is destructive to the soul, but in the greater context of the story I really don’t find it all that moraly questionable. I’m a little more confused afters stumbeling upon another post on this site identifying Dumbledore’s sacrifice pricely as I did and I’m not intirely sure how it can be both euthanesia and sacrifice, but then I just started reading stuff on here.

    I think the point you make about about the two christlike sacrifices is very interesting. (and does not sound like an accusation at all) I don’t know if she’s trying to replace anything, or even if Dumbledore’s is really the more christlike; it just hit it home the most for me, not really because of the traitor part but because of Snape doing the killing and him dying if he hadn’t done it. Okay, maybe i do think it’s more christlike x) I guess up to now I’d have said Rowling just depicts two different impressions of Christ’s sacrifice, but you are right to say her pairs are never just there for no reason. Choice vs necisitty? Killed by man vs. killed by evil itself? On the other hand you cld argue Harry’s is more like Christ, even because of the choice, assuming it was a sacrifice in the actual sense of the word and Christ died for man, whereas Dumbledore was dying anyway. I’m just thinking out loud here, but you do raise an interesting point.

  16. i know this is quite a while after this discussion. I have spent much thought on this question and finally “did a search.” most results were frustrating and i stopped reading comments before Sbark’s. The whole thing seemed to confirm my largely negative reactions to participating in this type of forum for many, many topics.

    but, the issue kept nagging. so, i just came back and finished reading the comments. although i disagree with her conclusion, Sbark’s comment was the only one that at all seemed truly well reasoned and pertinent. that’s rare and was very appreciated.

    for me, things got better after that. Sabine seemed clear and thoughtful. i never got the sense that Arjan was being aggressive at all.

    much thanks to all three!

  17. and yes, i noticed afterwards that “i” and “the” were capitalized. i’m on a phone and couldn’t review in entirely before posting. dratted autocorrect! lol

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