Monday, January 25, 2010
A young boy's parents are violently murdered. His mother, in fact, died protecting him from the murderer (Voldemort). His is sent to be raised by a family who at best neglects him, at worst abuses him. He continues to be stalked through his adolescence by the same murderer who took his parent's lives. Some pretty heavy stuff, especially for a series of children's books. In the Harry Potter series the theme of death comes up over and over again. (If you're not familiar with the series, please read the Wikipedia page linked to above.)
In one interview the author, JK Rowling, commented, "My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry's parents. There is Voldemort's obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price, the goal of anyone with magic. I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We're all frightened of it." Given that so much of her books are about death, I wanted to take a closer look at how death is viewed within the series.
First off, death in the series is irreversible. No spell can bring back the dead. In a world with so much magic, death seems to be one of the few absolutes. There are ghosts who are said to have feared death so much they didn't cross over. There is magic that allows the dead to be seen. But nothing that brings them back.
For the most part death is something carried out by the evil on the good. This is a tendency of many children's books/movies. Even given this, death isn't always portrayed here as the ultimate bad. "To the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure." (Sorcerer's Stone) There are conversations that suggest there are worse things than death, namely being unable to love.
Voldemort, the bad guy, has a fear of death and seeks to escape it, even to the point of killing others to achieve immortality. He even calls his followers Deatheaters. Interesting that this quest for immortality, seeing death as the worst thing that could possibly happen to you, is an evil quality in the books.
One issue that I did have with the books, the deaths tended to be glazed over a bit. When major characters are killed off, there is some initial anger, a little sadness, but then it really doesn't dwell too much. Maybe I'm expecting too much depth from a children's book.
Overall, I think Rowling handles a difficult topic reasonably well and in an entertaining fashion. I would probably give it an A for entertain value, a B for the treatment of death, but a C for the emotional follow-through. I would be interested to know how children reading the books would view it.