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Archive for Thursday, July 5, 2007

The boy who lived? Potter could die

Mythology supports possibility of main character’s death in final book

July 5, 2007

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J.K. Rowling's seventh and final Harry Potter book is due in stores just after midnight on July 21. Some literary and mythology experts say that the death of the book's main character would hold with the tradition of the epic hero.

J.K. Rowling's seventh and final Harry Potter book is due in stores just after midnight on July 21. Some literary and mythology experts say that the death of the book's main character would hold with the tradition of the epic hero.

— Brace yourselves, Harry Potter fans. No matter how desperate you are for Harry to live, some experts in classic literature and mythology say that finishing off the young wizard would make sense - in a literary kind of way.

J.K. Rowling has never shied from darkness in her phenomenally successful series - it started with the murder of Harry's parents, continued through his discovery that an evil wizard was trying to destroy him, and has included pain and torture and the deaths of major characters.

She's already promised two deaths in the seventh and final book, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," coming out July 21, and has refused to commit to Harry surviving. But she couldn't kill Harry off, could she? She wouldn't do that, would she?

"If you look at the tradition of the epic hero ... there is this sort of pattern that the hero delivers people to the promised land but does not see it himself," said Lana Whited, professor of English at Ferrum College in Ferrum , Va., pointing out examples from King Arthur to Moses to Frodo.

Greek mythology has plenty of examples, like Hercules, who was killed at the height of his strength, said Mary Lefkowitz, a retired classics professor who taught at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

"There's no long promise of happiness," she said. "You may have brief moments of glory and then the darkness comes."

And don't be fooled into thinking a happy ending is automatic just because the main characters are young, said Anne Collins Smith, assistant professor of philosophy and classical studies at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas.

"Just because it's children's literature doesn't mean it can't have very dark events in it," she said.

Others aren't convinced, saying that Rowling's story about Harry and his adventures is less influenced by classical mythology than it is by other storytelling traditions.

Philip Ray, an associate professor of English at Connecticut College, said Rowling was part of a tradition of British writers like Edith Nesbit, writing stories where children are the focus and have grand adventures.

Since Harry is about to finish his years at Hogwarts, Ray said, "I think it would be very unusual for a book like this to kill off the main character at a time when he's about to graduate from school."

The books are about Harry's development into a young man, Ray said.

"For Rowling to have put Harry Potter through all seven volumes just to kill him off, the point of all development would be wasted," Ray said. "Death strikes me as being the strangest ending of all."

And even though the series has a dark aspect to it, Rowling hasn't set it up in such a way that Harry paying the ultimate price would make sense, said Tim Morris, who teaches English at the University of Texas at Arlington.

"I don't get the sense that J.K. Rowling has set us up for that kind of sacrifice," he said. "The first six books haven't given a sense of that tragedy to me. It's generally hopeful."

Whited acknowledges that reader outrage would be high if Harry died, and that it might seem cruel to younger readers, who aren't familiar with classic literary story arcs.

"I'm sure J.K. Rowling would get some howlers if Harry Potter did not survive," she said.

But even if he lives, don't be surprised if it's a hard-fought victory, she said. Another aspect of the classic hero myth is that even if he wins, it's not without some loss.

"There are always sacrifices, compromises along the way," she said. "If Harry doesn't die, one of his friends will."

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