“Death Is but the Next Great Adventure:” Harry Potter and the Art of Dying Well

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Reed, Ryan Edward
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Middle Tennessee State University
Since its publication in 1954, The Lord of the Rings has served as a foundational text of fantasy literature. Tolkien’s correspondence reveals that he regarded his novel as both a Christian text and a meditation on death and deathlessness. As such, the novel serves a similar function as an ars moriendi—a medieval guidebook on how to die well by emulating Christ’s model. Although Middle-Earth is a decidedly pre-Christian setting, The Lord of the Rings nonetheless espouses a Christian ideal that a good death is not a matter of how one dies but why one dies. Those who lay down their lives in defense of others or for the sake of a better tomorrow are posited as heroes, whereas those who live selfishly and ignore all chances of redemption die ignominious deaths. Tolkien, then, positions the quest for deathlessness as a rejection of what it means to be human and dramatizes this rejection by having those characters who gain immortality unnaturally become warped and twisted by the endeavor into grotesque caricatures of their former selves. J. K. Rowling has downplayed the influence of The Lord of the Rings on her Harry Potter series (1997-2007), yet while there are few cosmetic similarities to Tolkien’s novel beyond the broadest of strokes, the two works are remarkably similar thematically. Intentionally or not, Rowling’s Harry Potter novels are an even more overt example of a modern ars moriendi. Rowling foregrounds death and the pursuit of deathlessness from the very beginning of the series by having these ideas be not only thematic issues but also the primary drivers of the plot. Like Tolkien, Rowling’s view of death is shaped by an explicitly Christian perspective, and the various examples of good deaths that serve as lessons for both Harry and the reader reinforce the notion of selflessness and love as positive forces. Where Rowling differs from Tolkien is that she integrates her examination of an ignoble death with the quest for deathlessness into a single, salient example—Lord Voldemort—but still, she follows Tolkien’s model by having his quest for immortality bring about physical changes that leave him unrecognizable as a human being. Similarly, Harry himself serves as the most explicit example of a good death, for by the end of the series, he becomes a Christ-like figure, willingly going to what he believes will be his death for no other reason than because it will spare others from suffering and torment.
Death, Deathlessness, Immortality, Love, Rowling, Tolkien, Literature, Language arts