The Themes of
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
An Analysis of the Themes, Motifs and Symbols
- Good and evil: the Eternal Battle
The author (J. K. Rowling) has specified that the "conflict between good and evil" is a pervasive theme through all seven books. Such a common theme of all children's literature, it, not unexpectedly, drives nearly all of the book's action and is described on the page: "The Hero's Journey." Characters are categorized, based upon which "side" they are on, and reader frustration develops when the lines are not clear.
The antagonist, Voldemort, embodies evil and is a clear benchmark for the protagonist, Harry, to fight against. The author has provided two characters, foils if you will, which allows the reader to both: compare and contrast. Although Voldemort was shown to have been once a child, and an orphan like Harry, it is there that the similarities end. Harry is not so much a "comparison" as he is a "contrast." Voldemort, at least in his recollection, has never been loved, nor has he developed the capability to show it. While Harry wins friends, embraces diversity, and avoids but doesn't fear death, Voldemort does just the opposite: produces his own enemies, eschews anything but a "pure" race and is terrified of death. The sheer magnitude of his evil actions spawn's eddies of other thematic lines, such as: prejudice, bigotry, tyranny, narcissism and the like.
Dumbledore, on the other hand, did espouse wizardry power in his youth, similar to both his friend Grindelwald and Voldemort. Like Voldemort, he sought power over death; but, not for the same reasons. The comparison resides in their methodology: "Hallows not Horcruxes." Hatred and the hurt of others versus a quest for revered magical objects. Even then, however, Dumbledore adjudged himself unequal to the task of being Master of Death and took efforts all his life to avoid the temptation of power for fear of "unrighteous dominion."
In the classic, Greek tragedy form, Voldemort has "sold his soul" to purchase what he thinks is immortality; but, has in the process, caused his own destruction. His narcissism is so complete that he doesn't consider any other person or creature to have knowledge or skills of any consequence until a blunder demands otherwise. The price of evil becomes apparent. The Wagnerian Nemesis is: the notion that you are going to be the victim of the things that you sow.
- Coming of Age: Finding 'Who I Am'
After six years at Hogwarts, and in the wizarding world, Harry is still "discovering himself." He has been disliked and abused in the Muggle world; loved and revered in the wizarding world; hated, abused and nearly killed by wizards; and, shown affection by creatures of all kinds. Through it all, much of what makes him who he is, has not been lost. It's been said so often that it has nearly become a cliché despite all logic, he still has the ability to be selfless, considerate and (yes) show love and affection.
Physically, he has grown into a handsome young man who has outgrown several sets of pajama's and barely fits through the tunnel to the shrieking shack anymore. Educationally, he revealed himself as an average student, frequently utilizing help from Hermione. Magically, he was shown to be nearly inadequate to the task Dumbledore set for him. In fairness, however, besides giving him history lessons, Dumbledore wasn't shown to have aided much in Harry's magical education.
Harry's understanding of life's dilemma's came to completion in Hallows as he made the conscious decision for the "greater good"; but, it was the fact that he had amassed numerous friends which saved him, time and time again. While others ridiculed Luna, he befriended her. When others maligned Myrtle, he did not join in. He did not burn bridges with Cho or Victor, and gained the respect, if not loyalty, of his teachers. Even Kreacher and Griphook succumbed to his continued displays of respect... to an extent.
The quest against Voldemort, and his evil ideology, was truly traveled by the "fellowship" of Harry's friends. It was the "diversity" of joint effort, coupled with extraordinary bravery and selflessness, which was Voldemort's defeat. Harry has become a "true friend," selfless, courageous, considerate, persistent, and goal directed. He defends the weak and maligned, supports just causes, shows honor in restraint against excessive force toward enemies, and has the integrity to honor his commitments long after the rationale for making them has ceased. In short, he has become: his mother, his father, his mentor Dumbledore and (even) Snape, all combined.
From an orphan with no knowledge of his parents to the last direct descendant of Ignotus Peverell. From an insecure, humble boy... to a overwhelmed, unappreciated adolescent... to, finally, proving himself to be: the father he never knew.
- Choices: Making Life Our Own
The author has described "choices" as a recurrent theme in the books. "Its our choices," she had Dumbledore say, "that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." It would be naive to claim that an individual's life is completely an act of voluntary choice. Abilities, intellect, looks, environment and the like are all well beyond personal choice, and often present difficulties sometimes catastrophic. Harry didn't choose to be made an orphan; that, along with being shackled to the fragment of Voldemort's soul, was inflicted upon him. He didn't choose to live with his "bigoted" and abusive aunt and uncle; or, for that matter, even to have wizard abilities. In fact, pretty much all of the "driving force" behind his early life's agenda was set for him by the choices of others. He was often punished for, essentially, "being."
To combat the expected feelings of futility, the author let him discover, early on, the effect his choices could have on his life's outcome. While there were several other options, the sorting hat put him in Gryffindor, largely due to his personal choice. Harry's similarity to Voldemort was pointed out to him several times; but, he was different! And it was because of the fact that his choices were different; choices that he made without knowing their significance. "I think," he told Draco, "that I can decide who the right sort are for myself, thanks." He chose his actions based upon their context to others, and "greater" good, and not upon "self" aggrandizement or preservation, as is common in the Slytherin house.
Harry had to deal, early, with the choices made by his own father. The author described James as a "spoiled," only child who was "talented, reasonably good looking, and loved... in short, everything Snape didn't have." He wasn't kind to the outcast Snape, and such actions "have consequences... and we know what they were," she told us. Sirius had a similar issue with Kreacher, and produced nearly identical consequences.
For whatever reason, however, Harry's choices were not along the same lines as his fathers, even though they could have been! He could have alienated Moaning Myrtle very easily; but then he wouldn't have received her help in the bath or lake. He could have joined in the teasing of Luna Lovegood; but he wouldn't have had: her help in the ministry, information about the "veil" or thestrals, found a horcrux, or, lets face it, escaped from the Dementors. Borrowing Arthur Weasley's statement to Harry: "It was a lucky day for the Potter family" when Harry let Luna make him her friend.
Harry's similarity to Regulus Black was made more clear in Hallows; and the choices they both made. Even the choice that Dumbledore pointed out to Fudge, had its fruition in Hallows he became the man "history recorded who stood aside while Voldemort regained power."
The author showed Voldemort being similar in some ways to both Grindelwald and Dumbledore. In their youth, they all found a predilection toward achievement and academics, and the personal recognition and power they could bring. Only Dumbledore, however, showed the way to take charge of, and improve, one's own shortcomings he avoided accepting positions which would play to his base nature, and repeatedly turned down offers of political power. He showed the remorse necessary to overcome childhood dalliances. Something Grindelwald only learned in later years... and Voldemort never did. Even in the end, the author made it clear that Voldemort still had redemptive choice; but, of course, "there was no hope possible."
It may be human nature that, even when wizards were driven into hiding, instead of looking after each other, they created their own hierarchy and persecuted within their own society. The Weasley's showed us the exception. They had everything the pure bloods value but choose to totally disregard it. "They value different things and much better things," Rowling says. "They value ingenuity... brain power... and human goodness."
- Bigotry: The Fulfillment of Arrogance
Bigotry is the active part of a narcissistic personality and its excessive love or admiration of oneself. It is a psychological condition characterized by self-preoccupation, lack of empathy, and unconscious deficits in self-esteem. Along with its cousin, racism, its psychological precondition is anxiety, usually over inferiority on some level. Contempt of the "other" provides a reassuring feeling of identity, even if false. Philosophically speaking, racism is the result of a world view that does not leave any conceptual room for the strange or the unknown. A bigot is a prejudiced person who is intolerant of opinions, lifestyles, or identities differing from his or her own.
The author has publicly stated that Bigotry is not only a theme prevalent in her books, but a personal angst as well. She gave us characters on both "poles" of the scale. If Voldemort is the "alpha bigot," Luna Lovegood is the "anti-bigot," with acceptance and tolerance of "all opinions and lifestyles." The damage that prejudiced thinking causes was pointed out by: Hermione and S.P.E.W.; the sorting hat and "unity between houses"; and, the Tri-Wizard Cup's cooperation between schools.
Because its formation is related to deficits in self-esteem, which are un-checked by a consideration for others; the Slytherin house, with it's self-preservationists, not unexpectedly contains many. And, it explains why even within "oppressed" groups, such as goblins, there still can be bigotry against wizards and house elves. The sorting hat's worry, that it was "bringing about the very thing I fear," was not at all unfounded. A collection of the prejudiced, spawns institutionalized bigotry. Harry seemed to show a natural antipathy toward anyone thinking they were superior, poignantly portrayed with Dobby's death and burial.
- Tyranny: The Demise of Liberty
A government in which a single ruler is vested with absolute power, especially when exercised unjustly or cruelly; or, dominance through cruelty and injustice in the exercise of power or authority over others. The same characteristics which make a bigot produce a tyrant when given opportunities of rule. Most are insidious, some are benign and don't begin with oppressive intentions; but, eventually all try to maintain their power by becoming increasingly oppressive.
The only security is to maintain legitimacy — an unbroken accountability to the people through the framework of a written constitution which provides for: public election of key officials, division of powers, avoiding concentration of power and providing checks and balances. Tyranny operates by principles which can be recognized, in its early emerging stages; and, if the people are vigilant, prepared, and committed to liberty, countered before it becomes entrenched.
The Potter literature contains several examples of tyrants, and pages were devoted to explanation that "if you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals." And, "Voldemort himself created his own worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!"
Voldemort and Grindelwald were tyrants, of course; but, we saw others act in tyrannical ways. Snape uses his classroom as his own private kingdom and maliciously controlled his students with fear especially Harry. Fudge and Scrimgeour, while more legitimate, used tyrannical methods to maintain their own power and played right into the hand of one much more skilled and with less a conscience.
We watched the full cycle of tyranny as Umbridge took over Hogwarts. And we saw the devastating effect it inflicts on humanity, when people of her mind-set, are given "free rein." The Muggle-Born Registration Committee ought to blaze, like Fiendfyre, into readers' anxieties, being all to similar to Hitler's Nazi's.
Apparently the political structure of the wizarding world is such that it is prone toward development of tyranny. Fudge, as do all tyrants, put maintenance of his own power above the needs of the people. It seemed all to easy for him to control the media and implement tyrannical "laws" into Hogwarts. The principles of tyranny are well known and written about (see sidebar), but recognizing the danger signs are often missed until too late.
Scrimgeour seemed to have come to power, in some way not easily understood by American readers; but, was just as obsessed with maintenance of his power as his predecessor. Ostensibly acting for "public protection," he stretched to put himself "above the law." Perhaps the fantasy genre's "Imperious" curse served to embellish the ease with which a government can be "infiltrated," but the modern day "payoff" equivalent isn't that dissimilar. There is nothing more destructive than "a vested interest masquerading as a moral principle."
"Those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it," we were told. Who, like Harry, "had leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well." Once a tyrant is firmly entrenched it is often, even in the real world, only with blood that they are removed.
- Death: And Its Meaning to Life
The saga began, dealing with the aftermath of death; and ended, essentially in the same position. Harry's life story had its gestation in the dementor-like mist of his "mother's" struggles to deal with the progressively fatal disease of her own mother his "grandmother." Imagination had been fostered, values learned and natural abilities encouraged; until, with the now renowned verdant flash of light, the handsome 11-year-old with glasses broke from the mist and "simply strolled into (Joanne Rowling's) mind, fully formed." A boy who didn't know that he was a wizard, until he received acceptance to wizarding school; and, whose personal story of dealing with death and adversity, simply MUST be told!
Harry, as the boy would be known, began the life "inflicted" upon him in the home of his abusive step-parents, the Dursley's. The self-serving arrogance and lust for power, of a man he had never met, had created an orphan and defined Harry's life for the next seventeen years if not forever. It was the man's inordinate fear of death which drove him to make Horcruxes, in an attempt at "immortality." The initial capturing of Harry's story consumed Rowling's efforts, and possibly provided moments of respite from her own struggles. She admits that Harry's initial "death scene" had been written in a somewhat "cavalier fashion," and despairs that she had never told her mother about her new "imaginary friend."
Within six months, Rowling's mother had died, and she could now tell by experience, just how "superficial" her depiction had been. The subsequent blossoming of the wizarding world into print, occurred within the context of her admitted "struggling with religious belief," and the effects of loosing her mother. It is in the viewing of Harry's life and world in this context, which gives his story its most poignancy. His scar came from his mothers selfless sacrifice motivated by love. The Mirror of Erised, which "shows a person's deepest desire," revealed to Harry the vision of the author, to see her mother. The mirror was followed by Hagrid's "photo album," "priori incantatem" and the "resurrection stone," all of which enabled continued relationship with deceased loved ones.
It is simply no surprise to us, that Rowling's depiction of Dementor's and their depressive effects, is all too real to be fiction. Their "kiss," of becoming too intimate, is accurately described as "sucking the soul," and their difficult healing as "forcibly recalling happiness." The protective Patronuses come in form unique to every wizard, like the healing from depression. Even our physical appearance, we are shown by Lily's eyes, can call forth intense remembered feelings of love.
Harry's life was filled with loss. In fact, if it hadn't been for Rowling deciding NOT to let Arthur Weasley die from a snake bite, being Harry's "father-figure" would have been all too much like Voldemort's curse on the DADA position way too deadly. Of Sirius Black, Albus Dumbledore and Remus Lupin, all of who Rowling called "flawed father figures," only Arthur Weasley escaped death, showing the "absolute evil of what Voldemort is doing." Rowling found that in order to keep her feelings about the story in perspective, before writing anything else, she had to write an "epilogue," which could remind her where the characters would end.
It was Voldemort's crippling fear of death which enticed him to make his "Horcruxes." It was Dumbledore's annoyance at the disruption of death which prompted him to search for "hallows." Both Molly's and Voldemort's boggart's reveal their fears of death. Voldemort killed for SELF-preservation; Molly came alive in battle for preservation of her loved one's. Narcissa, in her weak, but none-the-less valid emulation, risked everything to try and retrieve her son.
The resolution of the story only came after we had received council about the meaning of being the "master of death." Voldemort's method, with Horcruxes, would always fail and could never produce anything even close to true "immortality." Even Dumbledore, judged himself unworthy in two of the three necessary traits. Only Harry, who had never set out to even attempt the quest, was the "one man in a million," who could: take it (the wand) not for gain but to save others from it; use it (the cloak) to protect and shield others as well as oneself; and, to use it (the stone) to enable one's own self-sacrifice. Only Harry was the "worthy possessor of the Hallows," and thereby the "Master of Death."
Voldemort's evil echoed into the end of the book with the creation of yet another orphan: Teddy Lupin. "The most devastating thing about war," Rowling claims, "is the children left behind." The epilogue, she said, was written to "show that Teddy was okay, happy, relating to Harry... and had a girlfriend."
- Love and Friendship
Love, as a word in English, has, unfortunately, been diluted in meaning to range from simple pleasure, to sexual attraction, to something worth dying for. It can describe an intense feeling of affection, an emotion or an emotional state. The ancients gave these different aspects their own words (see sidebar); and, scriptural instruction is quite descriptive. "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4)"
The characters in Harry's life are so well developed, that it isn't at all difficult to determine who is capable of having and expressing love. Petunia and Vernon struggled between "possessing" and "loving" even Dudley, who they cared about. Snape, unlike Voldemort, had been loved and could love; but, like Voldemort, chose not to. Hermione and Ron began as friends; but, by "taking the blows," found an often misunderstood and neglected pathway to love service. Readers never saw the development and explanation of either the "veil room," or the "love door" in the ministry; but, there is no doubt that the author felt it is of greater significance and power than almost any other.
Harry truly became "his mother's son" as his choices led him to the same level: "no greater love has a man than he who would give his life for a friend."
Friendship, on the other hand, is a type of interpersonal relationship which is not found exclusively among humans; but, is shared with animals with rich intelligence, such as the higher mammals and some birds. Individuals in a friendship relationship, will seek out each other's company and exhibit mutually helping behavior. Friendship is an emotion expressed in such a way that another feels wanted and important; and, there will be feelings of loss or loneliness when the friend is absent.
"Who is my friend?" the ages have asked. Harry (and readers) would have to be blind not to recognize what the author showed as her answer. Arrogance and Bigotry are the reverse images of self-confidence, respect and friendship. It is possible and probable that those in Slytherin house consider themselves friends; but, clearly their selfishness must be limiting, beyond that of Gryffindor's and other houses.
The "hero" in any "cambellian" style of story (see Hero's Journey) must "work and play well with others" because the "journey" is never accomplished alone. The DA, especially Luna, Peeves, Nearly-Headless Nick and even Moaning Myrtle were not only of strategic help to Harry, but absolutely critical in his success. Professors were as helpful as Harry would let them be; and, Neville, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore and even Crabbe were destroyers of Horcruxes, with Him.
The setting of Harry's world is an "island" of pseudo-medievalism within the modern world. Castles, armor, forbidden forests full of fantastic beasts and races of goblins and elves festoon the "Potterworld" experience. The government is clearly not democratic, as witnessed by the extreme ease with which "felony's" are ignored, and its basic "structure" so readily altered. There is a "Wizengamot" (parliament) and a "minister," but clearly not "elected by the governed." The economy is not well explained but there definitely are financial classes of people.
Wizardry in Harry's world is considered "typically atypical." When he is "home" he is a "freak"; but, when at his "other home" he, magically, is nothing special if only it weren't for Voldemort's decisions. Harry is "driven" by a "prophecy," of sorts; which, Dumbledore took great pains to describe as "non-binding," but with only limited success. There are the rings, and swords of magical nature, and spells with incantations which seem hauntingly familiar, like they might be true. In Hallows, Rowling has recapitulated nearly all the creatures of previous books, giving them the chance to "choose a side" for good or evil.
Wizarding ability in Harry's world, does seem to have some, undisclosed, genetic relationship and therefore occurs in families. Not surprisingly, parents with the endowment, and who have undergone maturation into wizards, find educational and experiential opportunities for their offspring who are similarly endowed. There is incomplete gene penetrance, however, and spontaneous mutations are not unheard of, or uncommon. It is unfortunate, but these natural phenomenon's are facilitated with labels. The terms squib and muggle-born were coined to describe the two mentioned conditions, respectively. Such labels, along with "muggle" (non-magic folk), "Mudblood" (muggle-born), and "half-blood" (mixed parentage) are used by people, like Lucius and Draco Malfoy, to whom it matters, and expresses their prejudices. To them, like Hitler's Nazi's, a muggle-born is as bad as a muggle and even one non-magic grandparent makes you "half-blood."
- The Hallows:
New to this book, the Hallows are objects, constructed by three powerful wizards, the Peverell brothers (Antioch, Cadmus and Ignotus), which supposedly "cheat" death. The "Elder Wand," or "Death Stick" is a wand which is inordinately powerful and "must always win duels." The wand also seems to have a stronger or heightened tendency to use death or other avarice to "decide" upon its loyalties. As we are told: "Wands choose the wizard" then grow together in their use. A wand passes "loyalty" to a person who has won it from its previous owner. The "Invisibility cloak" is more than other ordinary such cloaks with spells on them. This is larger, to cover several people at a time and resists spell damage and age. The cloak is passed from father to son. The Resurrection Stone will, when turned over three times, bring the visage of selected deceased persons back to an uncomfortable existence in the mortal world. It has the mark of the "Hallows" on it and somewhere, along it's ownership pathway, fell into the hands of the Gaunt descendants of Slytherin who turned it into a ring. It further was un-noticed by Tom Riddle who turned it into one of his Horcruxes. The owner of all three Hallows, if they can be united, is said to become the "Master of Death."
Dumbledore assessed that neither Grindelwald, from whom he won it, nor Gregorovitch were worthy possessors of the wand. He could be it's master, because he could use it, without killing, and never brag about it to others. The cloak, Dumbledore said, was useless to both him and Voldemort, because they could be invisible without it; but, Harry was it's true owner because he would use it for both himself and others. The stone was not Dumbledore's or Voldemort's; because, the first would use it to bring back his peacefully dead sister into an existence she didn't belong in order to apologize, and the latter had absolutely no one dead that he wanted to bring back. Harry was the one in a million person who could unite all three; because, he didn't fear death, and would not use the Hallows for himself, but for the good of others.
These are silvery conjurations of extreme difficulty and reflect the personality characteristics of the wizard. As far as we know, their appearance is not under conscious control, but it can change forms under times of emotional turmoil. It is made from an incantation during the thought of an extremely happy memory and has the power to overcome the depressive effects of dementors. Dumbledore invented a way to use patronuses as communication devices for the Order of the Phoenix.
Harry's is a stag, like his fathers. Dumbledore's is a Phoenix, Hermione's an otter, and Ron's a terrier. It was Snape's patronus turning into a doe, like Lily's had been (the counter-part to James' stag), which convinced Dumbledore that Snape's change of heart was true. Tonk's patronus changed into a werewolf when Lupin was rejecting her. Other patronuses were: Arthur- weasel; Kingsley- lynx; Luna- hare; Ernie- boar; Seamus- fox; and Umbridge- a kitten.
- Facial Features:
The shape of a persons nose has been used consistently through the books to indicate the level of "wizardry" in a person's family tree. Dumbledore's is described as long and pointy, Harry's as "pointy but not as much as his father's." When Marvolo Gaunt told a half-blood ministry official that he had "seen noses like yours down in the village," the response that "I don't doubt it if your son has been let loose in the village," meant that partial blooded wizards had shorter noses. Hermione's is short- being muggle-born; Ron's quite pointy- being pure-blood. Occasionally Rowling uses the description of "a long pointy nose" in a pejorative sense to connote "pure-blooded" and probably bigoted.
- The next generation:
As this is the final book in the series, no foreshadowing, per se, would be expected. The "next generation" was introduced in the epilogue, however, raising interest about what might happen to them.
- Literary ambiguity:
The series has spawned a very substantial, and vocal, fan base which has very explicitly published "questions" which need answering in the final book. Rowling is known to frequent the web sites where these are listed, so is aware of them. But, not all of the questions were answered, leaving them, some think, excruciatingly unresolved fodder, perhaps, for yet another book. Additionally, Harry's final thought: "The scar had not pained him for nineteen years, all was well," is neither definitive nor conclusive; and seems to be just "tempting fate." What could happen, for example, if we waited 20 years? Another book, perhaps?