Ms. Rowling: “My books are about death”

”Any guide to the Harry Potter books should have a lengthy entry on death,” Rowling said. ”It is probably the major theme of the whole seven-book series, and it appears in so many different ways.”

Class Assignment: Name up to three different ways in which the major theme of death appears in the Harry Potter series of novels. Discuss.

Alternative assignment: If death is not a “major theme” in these novels, identify one or more of those themes in which death plays some part. Discuss these themes and what light they shine on the mystery and meaning of death.


  1. The most obvious is Voldemort’s beliefs toward death vs. Dumbledore’s belief toward death. For Dumbledore, death is simply the next big adventure. For Voldemort, though, death is the end of everything. Voldemort believes death is something to be fled, seemingly at any cost. (Look at his name, for goodness sake!).

  2. Travis Prinzi says

    There are way more than three; there may even be a several sets of three that tie into particular issues. Off the top of my head:

    The Deaths of Harry’s Protectors:
    1. His parents
    2. Sirius
    3. Dumbledore

    Each of these had to die before Harry could “go it alone.”

    Deaths that echo Calvary:
    1. Lily
    2. Dumbledore (died offering mercy to his would-be killer Draco)
    3. Harry

    Deaths which reflect Christian atonement theology:
    1. Lily (Christus Victor)
    2. Dobby (moral exemplar)
    3. Harry (Christus Victor)

    Deaths which illustrate the sudden, unexpected, bitter-cold finality of death:
    1. Cedric
    2. Sirius
    3. Hedwig

  3. Travis and CBaker are correct, of course, in everything they have written about death in Harry Potter but I think Ms. Rowling misspoke when she said death is the major theme of her books. Death is certainly a subject explored from multiple angles in her novels — but a subject, however, profoundly explored, is not a theme.

    I think the alternative question in the original post, consequently, is the way to go. Using Travis’ examples we can see the theme of love’s victory over death and its various shapes in terms of sacrifice, memory, after-life, and self-understanding. Choice is another monster theme — and death, love, and sacrifice are the subjects that are this theme’s substance.

    I don’t think death can be a stand-alone theme. The choice to die, how to respond to death, love’s answer to death, etc. are questions to be explored, and, consequently, theme possibilities. Death is not a question in itself, unless Ms. Rowling thinks she was exploring the mystery of death head-on. Courtroom jitters or a shaky Quick-Quotes Quill perhaps.

    I beg for your comments and correction, as always, especially if you think this subject-theme distinction is a semantic position that can be turned on any formulation of theme.

  4. that we die, how we die, how we fear death, how we try to avoid death, how we try to cheat death, how we defy death, how we accept death, why we choose death, when we choose death, how death chooses us, how we transcend death

    we all die, we see death coming, death blindsides us, we die for a reason, and we die without reason, we fear death more than anything else, we try to avoid death at the cost of our mortal soul, we mock death, we use all our skill to come up with strategems to cheat death, we court death again and again without dying, we accept death with a smile, we plead for death, we choose to die to save a son, to save the world, to atone for a sin, death chooses us without rhyme or reason, we transcend death through the love we have for each other

    Lily, Fred Weasley, Snape, Voldemort, Grindelwald, Dumbledore, Harry, Lupin, Sirius Black

    death may not be a theme, but it is a question in itself, the biggest question we’ll ever face

    there is, fortunately, an answer

  5. HallowsFan says

    Seems to me “subject-theme distinction” is not merely semantics.

    Could it be that, in truth, Death in the Harry Potter series is more of a “motif” than a theme?

    Death occurs over and over again in the series… but the point of each death is not simply “death”, but rather “something about death”. And it is this “something about death” which can be regarded as a Theme (and not simply “death” itself).

    To say that Rowling was incorrect in saying Death is THE “theme” of her books:
    Nit-picky, perhaps. But not just semantics.

  6. I think “focus” or “subject to be explored from multiple angles” is better than theme or motif, but I’m not invested in that.

    The important thing is what Reyhan drills, as usual. Ms. Rowling presents, in Harry’s story, right and wrong ideas about understanding death, to include how to transcend death. It’s in the choices we make to love and our choices during our struggle to believe.

    Or something like that. Your thoughts?

  7. Interestingly enough, Dave (the Longwinded) is approaching the same issue from another angle back at the Hog’s Head. His thesis is that how Harry’s people approach death is a sign of their maturity or wisdom, with those who are willing to sacrifice themselves showing greater maturity or wisdom. One of the things he wrote was:

    “This notion of sacrificial love is not just an abstraction about the greatest good a person can do. It is the ultimate expression of connection to and control of one’s place and purpose in the world.”

    I initially rejected this thesis, wondering how death, the ultimate act of disconnection from the world, could be seen as an an expression of connection.

    Now, I’m not so sure. I think that JKR’s message about death is two fold: first, death is arbitrary, impartial and implacable. And second, that how we face death says a great deal about us, about how we face life, what is important to us, and what gives meaning to our lives.

    So if death is the ultimate question, the biggest question we’ll ever have to face, then the answer we give can either falter before it, if we can find nothing in our lives to give us the courage to face it; or our answer can transcend it, if we can embrace the meaning which gives us that courage.

    Or something like that.

  8. It rather surprised me that Rowling said it that way, not because I don’t see it, but because I think she has many themes all intertwined–love, choice, loyalty, the soul, are right in there with death. And it is that collection of themes, or whatever it should be called, and how they collide or parallel or compliment each other that makes the stories so vibrant and full of real people as they go through life.

    One of the things that I noticed when reading the books is that we as readers have the opportunity to explore many of the facets of death, which reyhan pointed out. But it’s only because Harry has so many different deaths in his life.

    I’ve always thought that Rowling gave quite an important gift to all of us, but to children in particular, by letting the readers work through the stages of grief along with Harry because we had come to care so much for the characters. Some children, and some young adults, have never had to cope with the death of someone in their family, or a friend, or even just an acquaintance.

    It was after the death of Sirius that I really started to see that our own personal experiences were so connected to the things Rowling wrote about death. Those of us who had experience the death of someone close to us seemed to have a better understanding of why Rowling chose to kill this particular character in such a sudden and senseless way.

    With the death of Harry’s parents, Harry mourned the loss of family, but not really of people he really knew.

    With Sirius, it was the loss and the randomness of death of someone he cared for deeply, someone who was a father/older brother figure.

    With Cedric, it was the loss of a classmate and friend. It’s the kind of death that teens deal with when a class mate is killed in a car accident or some senseless act of violence because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    Harry and Luna were intrigued by the archway and the veil in the Death Room, with Luna and Nick finally giving Harry the comfort that death is not an end in itself; he will be reunited with those he loved who have died.

    Then there was the whole exploration of what happens to the soul of a person who murders, in the deliberate actions of Voldemort.

    With the death of each of the characters, Harry has to go through the stages of grief, and consequently, his understanding of death changes with each one. The same is true for us. Each time we experience death, it changes how we understand ourselves and the world.

    Rowling explores what it means to willingly sacrifice oneself to save others, by dying for them–powerful, as was Harry’s discussion with Dumbledore at King’s Cross about death.

    So, in that sense, yes, I think death is a major theme. I think that in that comment, Rowling was giving us a little insight into her own thinking. She had to deal with the death of her mother at a fairly young age, and just as she was writing the first books. So even though the books are not her autobiography, I suspect that whatever Harry’s feelings are with each death, Rowling’s own feelings were the inspiration in her writing.

    But I think to ignore the other themes in the books is to miss the point of how we understand death. Rowling has given us all manner of death, but it’s how we understand it, how we respond, that shows who we are, and that allows us to grow.


  9. Perhaps the theme she is referring to is “Mastery of Death.” If this is her over-arching theme, the varieties of death and responses to and preparations for it make sense — and Harry’s journey to this Mastery makes sense.

  10. John,

    You need to define the word “master”.

    No one can avoid their own death or keep someone else from dying – at least not for long. So death “masters” us all in the end. So in what sense are you using the word “master”? How we prepare for it and how respond to it, there being better ways and worse ways? Perhaps what we need to “master” is our fear of death, as Lily and Dumbledore and Harry all do.

    Pat, you bring up an interesting question. Way back when OotP first came out, and we were dismayed by the death of Sirius Black (not knowing of the far worse carnage to come!) JKR told a young reader that there was a reason why Sirius Black had to die. Now that we’ve read the series all the way to the end, I ask myself: why did he have to die?

    Was it to show that death can be random and senseless?

    Was it to help teach Harry not to fear death, because of the certainty of meeting his loved ones on the other side?

    Was it to help him overcome Voldemort, by understanding that love was the answer to fear and death?

    Was it to give Harry his honour guard, his support group, during his walk to his death in the Forest?

    Was it to give him specifically these reinforcements, his parents, and their closest friends, the generation which had preceded his own? I think JKR has alluded to this, at least to the symmetry of this. And she seems to have a very organized mind: she meant all along for Hagrid to carry Harry out of the Forest. Did she mean all along for Lily, James, Sirius and Lupin to walk with Harry to his death

    Compare this ritualized death with the quick and brutal deaths of James Potter, Sirius Black, Cedric Diggory, Remus Lupin, and Severus Snape, to mention a few.

    It seems to me that one of the things JKR was doing throughout the books was assembling the pieces of a final ceremony, as ritualized in its way as the death of Aslan (but much better conceived and executed, if you’ll pardon the pun). And the ritual of sacrifice and resurrection through the power of love is the answer – much older than JKR, of course – to the question of death.

    Or something like that.

  11. Reyhan, you write: “…how we face death says a great deal about us, about how we face life, what is important to us, and what gives meaning to our lives. ”

    So true, so true! This is the one BIG idea that jumped out at me so far because I believe this observation encapsulates what Rowling is saying about Death. Per a previous interview, she indicated that she had already decided on Harry’s fate in Book 7; therefore, the events of his life in the preceding volumes were informed by her desired conclusion(s). That being the case, Death was very much a theme…nd subject and whatever else we would call it…for Rowling throughout the work, with Harry’s triumph over his fear of loss (of self and others) the crowning moment. Is this not what we should be about in our own lives? Doesn’t Scripture remind us that to hear those wonderful words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” we are to live in a certain way? And are we not given the Gospels to share with others that they, too, would come to know the Giver of life Himself? Pat is quite on the mark: “…Rowling has given us all manner of death, but it’s how we understand it, how we respond, that shows who we are, and that allows us to grow.”

    Perhaps Rowling initiated her work with the theme of Death; however, she also provided us with the theme of Triumphant Living. But as we in Christ already know, to [physically] live is to be absent from the Lord, but to die is to be in His presence (pj’s translation). Therefore, the question is, “How will we live that we may die and be at peace?”

  12. Death is essential to the series; my playwriting professor said character is plot, and you don’t have Harry as he is without the death of his parents. In theatre, I think this would be called the inciting incident– that event before we enter the scene that starts the action. Without the death of his parents, Harry would be no one special, really– it’s their death which defines him, sets up his experiences growing up (having to live with the Dursleys), and makes him “famous.”

    Harry makes this event a theme very explicitly. What does he most desire as shown in the Mirror of Erised? His dead parents. What would he prefer infinitely to the fame he has? His parents, alive and with him. Why is the situation with the Dursleys so saddening? Because they don’t even try to be like real parents to him. That loss is definitive.

    Death is really the bookends to the series. The whole quest of book seven is to seek the death of the horcruxes. And it only ends when every single bit of Voldemort has been destroyed. And I would liken Harry’s King’s Cross experience to baptism– the evil living in him dies, and he rises without it (not as clear a parallel as in The Silver Doe, but I think it works). He dies to evil and rises again in new life.

    Several have suggested that life advances by death. Die to the womb to be born to the world. Die to childishness, be born to adulthood. Die to single life to be born to married life, and die to mortal life to be born to eternal life. And this goes for less obvious ‘deaths’ as well– die to selfishness to be born to selflessness, et al. Each year, Harry experiences a fundamental change, a death to his ‘old self’ and a birth to his ‘new self.’

    I started this post last night when the thread first emerged in my RSS feed, but I’m sure in the dozen-hour plus hiatus there have been many erudite and thoughtful replies. I hope this contributes in some small way to the usual brilliance of discussions here.


  13. Only one character really and truly is shown to die such that it is irremediable and irredeemable because of choice….Voldemort. His limitation of understanding and self-referentiality make him “beyond help”. Self love is the ultimate negation because it is death to all but oneself and one’s futile effort to be as God and ultimately there is no interaction possible within the divided self that has sought to save its own life. Those who move out of this posture have the possibilities of eternity before them and the promise is that those who lose their life for His sake and the Gospel will gain it.

    The interesting feature of this is the elegant commentary it allows in the range of responses to these two options: Voldemort to Harry. In between we have a smorgasboard of varying levels of responses (as noted earlier) but all of these allow in some way for elevation of another above the self and hence redemption. Pettigrew even has his moment of hesitation which results in his death but saves Harry! And the despicable Malfoys run heedless of danger to save Draco from the consequences of their errant choices and fears.

  14. Gladius Terrae Novae says

    I think the books are very much about death. The list by reyhan shows just how much it crops up in the series. The protagonist is one who has escaped death, thereby making him famous, continues to defy death and eventually chooses and death and therefore overcomes it. The motivation of the antagonist throughout the story is to escape death. There is a repeating message that all Harry’s protectors, protecting him from death, fall victim to death until he accepts death.
    All the redemption are the answers to the qusetion of how to deal with death. A major point in the last book is that death cannot be escaped, but it can be defeated. And the theme of love- that is the answer to the question of what can defeat death. Rowling herself said that when she came up with these books she was dealing with death. I think the books are very much an exploration of death with death as its main theme, all the rest being merely answers to questions about death.
    How morbid! 🙂

  15. I think that death is a possible theme of the Potter series, but only when approached from the relationships different characters have towards it. We’re not discussing death per se, rather, we are looking at a bunch of characters who deal with death and interpret death in a number of different ways, some of which are foolish, others wise.

    The Death Eaters, for instance, approach death as something to be feared and avoided if at all possible. This is why they are death eaters. They want Voldemort’s immortality-by-proxy. But they are fleeing death, just as Voldemort is.

    Luna’s father (no, I’m not going to dare try spelling it) and all who desire the Hallows, young Dumbledore and DH’s Harry included, are also fleeing from death. They want invincibility, the power of death. They have not learned the lesson of the youngest and wisest Peverell brother.

    In the end Dumbledore and Harry learn that death is an inevitablity in this world of ours. Obviously it is an enemy, and it will be destroyed at the last, but before then it’s gonna get ya. The wise man, knowing that he will get the last laugh, submits to the curse of death, and as Harry found out, by not fearing death, you take all sting from it. You’re coming *back*.

    And so, yes, I think death is a theme, or at least a motif – but not by itself. THe story is not about a person who gives up on living and in a fit of despair throws themselves into the arms of death, only to stay that way. Rather, it is the story of a person who learns that death will be defeated only by embracing it, because love, not pain, makes the world go around, and love conquers all.

  16. Arabella Figg says

    Perhaps Rowling was, in an interview, simply stating a point through a shortcut; perhaps she said more, but it wasn’t given.

    I see the series as a large tapestry, woven through and defined by many threads. If you stand too close, all you see are the threads; if you stand back to look at the whole, you see that the individual threads intersect to produce a revealed and understood picture.

    Love, death, choice, relationship are very large threads. The tapestry without them would make no sense. They define the picture. But, as Reyhan notes, none stands alone.

    Nzie, you touched on a point I was intending to make before I read your comment. The series is full of many small, yet critical deaths–the death of Harry’s happy childhood; the death of Hagrid’s future as a wizard; the death of relationship through quarrels or estrangement; needless deaths due to carelessness or selfishness; the “death” or loss of Remus’ continued presence and skill at Hogwarts after he’s outed; the continual death of innocence via characters (unicorn, Charity) or experience (Harry’s trials), and the death of loyalty; the death of WizWorld’s integrity; the living death of Neville’s parents; the death of Percy’s place in the Weasley family; the death of character through bitterness, jealousy and bad choices (i.e., Snape); the death of self in pursuit of either righteousness, evil or comfort, over and over.

    The tapestry is permeated with death and if you removed that large black thread, the whole interweaving would fall apart.

    YET, having said that, we move to Reyhan’s points. The tapestry is not about death, but about the intersection and effect, together,of all the threads with which it’s made, including the larger “theme” or “motif” threads, or whatever one calls them. So, if you removed the love, choice, relationship, etc., threads which intersect with and make meaningful the death thread, the tapestry would make no sense at all.

    Thankfully, Rowling has given us one great “yarn” of a story!

    Kitties don’t like puns, they have no sense of humor at all…

  17. I love the tapestry analogy. We could have a lot of fun with that, tracing out the greater and lesser motifs.

  18. Arabella Figg says

    Yeah, Reyhan, and then, like the Blacks, burn out the stuff we don’t like! 🙂

    Kitties just bury stuff they don’t like…

  19. Could we not presume, then, that the events common to all people: birth, change, & death would be the alternating *warp* (lengthwise) threads of this tapestry and then the *woof* threads worked across the warp would individualize the design according to each person’s experiences?

    I’m thinking someone else should grab hold of the shuttle on this analogy and start weaving some better examples as I’m sure I’ve just knotted my yarn in a nasty, snarling mess!

    pj, more comfortable with sewing needle and thread…

  20. Patricia McKillip wrote a story, Solstice Wood, based on a similar analogy about a group of women, members of the Fiber Guild, who use knitting and weaving and embroidery to build and protect the boundary between our world and the world of fairies. Talk about an extended metaphor. McKillip’s ability to integrate the concrete and the abstract into a seamless whole is awe inspiring.

  21. Arabella Figg says

    The late, great Lloyd Alexander had three “Fates” or “Oracles” in his wonderful series, The Prydain Chronicles–the hags Orddu, Orgoch and Orwen (revealed also as beautiful beings), who amusingly trade identities (one of the story’s delights). At the series’ end, they come to give protagonist/hero Taran, struggling with a critical decision, the tapestry he’d previously glimpsed without seeing in their cottage.

    Taran closely studies the fabric “and saw it crowded with images of men and women, of warriors and battles, of birds and animals. ‘These,’ he murmured in wonder, ‘these are of my own life.'”

    Orddu tells him, “Of course. The pattern is of your choosing and always was.”

    Taran replies, after some confusion, “My choosing? Not yours? …Yes, once I did believe the world went at your bidding. I see now…The strands of life are not woven by three hags or even by three beautiful damsels. The pattern was indeed mine…. But here it is unfinished.’

    “‘Naturally,’ said Orddu. ‘You must still choose the pattern, and so must each of you poor, perplexed fledglings, as long as thread remains to be woven.’

    “‘But no longer do I see mine clearly,’ Taran said. ‘No longer do I understand my own heart. Why does my grief shadow my joy? Tell me this much. Give me to know this, as one last boon.’

    “‘Dear chicken,’ said Orddu smiling sadly, ‘when, in truth, did we really give you anything?’ Then they were gone.”

    I think this gives a good picture for understanding the weaving of Harry Potter’s tapestry. His choices and character (often unknowingly, with many threads over which he had no choice or control) determined the revealed tapestry of his life. But the series itself is a larger tapestry, an interweaving of everyone’s choices and the events that shaped them.

    You don’t have a beautiful, defined tapestry without both dark and light colors for contrast. Rowling chose most to use the dark threads of death, depression and despair in her design. Yet these throw into brilliant contrast the light threads of love, relationship, faithfulness, humor, growth and personality.

    And what a tapestry she wove!

    Speaking of threads, Tuna Yumgood, when a kitten, ate a toy’s 18″ string before I caught her. The Magical Creatures specialist had to use a costly kitty Puking Pastile to remove it, at a time we were squeezing knuts till they squealed. We always like to say Tuna “unstrung” our Thanksgiving dinner. So much for our “fancy feast.” (true story of a former cat)…

  22. Puffy Griffinclaw says

    I am very inrigued by how the Hallows point toward different methods to master death. The Elder Wand is a weapon, an offense to fight or ward off death. It seems an angry representation. The Stone in comparison is sadness, not to ward off death but to bring back others from death. The Cloak allows one to hide from death, and at first I thought this must be a fear response. But fear can only be overcome with a positive affirmation, a loving affirmation; so perhaps the Cloak represents not a fearful hiding from death but rather that by cloaking oneself in that affirming love, death is no longer fearful. It has been de-fanged.

    This same de-fanging of death seems to be echoed in Harry’s “trademark”, the disarming spell. In disarming opponents, he literally takes their weapons away. By affirming or accepting and not fearing death, Harry takes “death as a weapon” away from his enemies. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. It seemed that from the transformation Harry undergoes while digging Dobby’s red earth grave to his final golden battle with Voldemort, his life was an extended “Expelliarmus”. I suppose you could take it back to his second Halloween, too, but it was so notable in DH it was almost a Via Dolorosa.

    Perhaps it’s a pretty simple analysis, but it’s what I’ve been reflecting on. As I’ve only recently discovered this thoughtful venue, I thought I might share it.

  23. Arabella Figg says

    Puffy Griffinclaw, you’ve brought out some very interesting points. I think you’re spot on about the Hallows being different methods to master death; the first two were futile because they were about self.

    I never did feel the youngest brother was fearful of death; to me he was saying, “You’ll have me, but not yet.” It was an acceptance delayed. This fits well with your affirmation idea.

    I loved your connection between the youngest brother’s “de-fanging” of death and Harry’s trademark disarming his enemies of the weapon of death; his life as an extended “Expelliarmus” from his first defeat of LV on Halloween, and the Via Dolorosa of Dobby to Voldemort. Your thinking is brilliant, in my book, far from a simple analysis. I’m going to keep this in mind when I next reread DH.

    Personally, I look forward to other contributions from you.

    Uh-oh. Rumbleroar just hurled a contribution on the rug…

  24. It seems the first death that creates the whole series is the death of Voldemort’s/Tom Riddle mother. She was a witch and a pure blood wizard and chose not to use it to live. Tom thought it was weak, and as a result look what happened to him. He never really had true love, a family or real true close friends, most feared him. Then because of this vanity to trump death, we see the death of Harry’s parents. Before that he killed his own father. Very much a symbolism of athiesm if you ask me. Now we have another orphan, Harry. He also mournes but in a differnet way. We have other deaths, mostly caused by voldemoert and company. Harry and DD never really kill anyone. Even DD gave up his life to be killed to save another, Draco. If I had to choose three deaths this would be the ones and why. They are the most significant. Of course the finally ends with Voldy making a choice in the end and chooses death with a price. Eternal hell. No ressurection, no afterlife in heaven, just death.

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