There are many themes in Harry Potter, but all the themes are woven together like a tapestry. The threads intertwine and crisscross each other such that if you follow any one of them it will eventually intersect with the main thread. That one thread that runs from beginning to end in Harry Potter concerns conquering death. Throughout the story the question of death is central and different views on conquering death compete with each other, offering the reader a variety of answers. At the beginning and again at the end, Harry finds there is only one true answer. He also finds that the answer is wrapped up in a paradox.
In The Chamber of Secrets Voldemort states that his desire was to become so powerful that others would fear to speak his name. As Voldemort means "flight of death" to fear to speak his name is a fear to speak of death. Just as we use euphemisms for death, such as passed on, passed away, or no longer with us, the wizards only speak of You-Know-Who, He-Who-Must-Not-be-Named, or simply the Dark Lord. When Harry speaks Voldemort's name without hesitation, the others around him cringe and berate him. But, like Harry, Dumbledore is not afraid of using Voldemort's name. At the end of The Sorcerer's Stone he tells Harry, "Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself." This is an important first step in conquering death. We must not fear to speak of it or call it what it is. As Dumbledore tells Harry, "After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure."
It is his fear of death that drives Voldemort to seek a means of becoming immortal and invincible. "There is nothing worse than death" is Voldemort's belief. To that end he fractures his soul and stores the fragments in the Horcruxes, protecting each with a curse. So long as one fragment of his soul remains, Voldemort is tethered to life. In so doing, he believes he has conquered death. The double flaw in his plan is that the Horcruxes can be found and destroyed, and although he cannot be killed, he can be diminished to a mere vapor. That is what happened in Voldemort's first attempt to kill Harry. The Horcruxes require abominable acts in their creation and are never foolproof. The one who seeks to conquer death by this means can never be free to live. He must always be on guard, must seek ever greater power and ultimately has not conquered death at all. His fear of death has conquered him instead, determining his course through life.
Voldemort is not the only one who seeks to conquer death. As a young man, Dumbledore also sought that end. Unlike Voldemort, Dumbledore studied and sought out the Deathly Hallows. At some point in his life Dumbledore encounters each one, but none of them provides the solution that he seeks. Worse, Dumbledore's desire for the Hallows gets him involved with Grindelwald, a forerunner of Voldemort. Dumbledore and Grindelwald sought the Deathly Hallows, but sought them for power. Their search and Dumbledore's desires for power result in tragedy when Dumbledore's sister is killed. That death changed Dumbledore's attitudes, and he no longer sought power in the same way again, giving up his quest for the Hallows. Harry faces a similar choice. He can seek the Hallows in hopes of gaining power, or he can seek the Horcruxes in the hope of destroying evil. Harry chooses the wiser path of finding and destroying the Horcruxes. Yet the Hallows and the Horcruxes will intersect in the final battle of Hogwarts. Having sought the right thing, Harry obtains both. In so doing, he will come to understand what it means to conquer death.
There are three Deathly Hallows, the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone, and the Cloak of Invisibility, each of which represents a possible means of conquering death. The three Hallows are described in the Tale of the Three Brothers, a wizard children's story embedded within Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
The first of the Hallows is the Elder Wand. It is "a wand more powerful than any in existence: a wand that must always win duels for its owner, a wand worthy of a wizard who had conquered Death." The second of the Hallows is a stone having "the power to recall others from Death." The third of the Hallows is Death's "own Cloak of Invisibility" and allows the owner to "go forth...without being followed by Death." Each of the three objects describes a way that men have sought to conquer death.
The Elder Wand represents conquering death by making the possessor invincible. As such, it represents power to resist death. Its flaw is that the possessor soon becomes careless, and the jealousy of others will eventually cause them to kill the owner at the first moment he has become vulnerable. The wand's power does not truly conquer death, only postpones it and only so long as the owner maintains his vigilance. We can see in the Elder Wand the solution that is most common in men's minds. They watch carefully over their health, avoid danger, and minimize risks, but eventually death catches up with them anyway. The most extreme form of this solution is that predicted by some today. They believe that with technology we can either remove the causes of death, or perhaps store consciousness in a machine and thus never die. As with the Elder Wand, resisting death by those means is only a hope and at best a temporary solution. Obviously, staying healthy and avoiding risk so as to be able to live life to its fullest is a wise choice. However, when we end up consuming life trying to resist death, never truly enjoying life as a result, we have not conquered death but become trapped by it. Seeking the Elder Wand becomes a fool's quest, yet one that many follow.
The resurrection stone represents conquering death by bringing the dead back to life. In the Tale of the Three Brothers, this turns into a trap. Although the holder of the stone can bring back the dead, they are not brought back to true physical life, but are separated by a veil. As a consequence, the mere image of those brought back by the stone leads to despair and eventually to the death of the holder of the stone. Those who dwell on the dead, endlessly longing for their return, can become trapped in depression and eventually despair. Despair leads to death, since the person no longer feels joy at living and ultimately has no life at all. In the worst case, despair leads to suicide. In another sense, the resurrection stone can represent those who consider their immortality to be held in memory by others still alive. Such a person can spend his whole life trying to do things that will live after he is gone. In the end, his life is consumed by fear of not being remembered and his choices in life are guided by that fear. Yet, even if a person achieves fame, his continued existence in the memories of others is only a phantom existence, not true life beyond death.
However, used wisely the resurrection stone does have an important power. When we think of those who are dead, bringing their lives to memory, their examples can be a benefit to us. For those who do not fear their own death, the comfort of others who have already gone beyond death can be a blessing rather than a curse. The examples of their lives are a means of avoiding despair rather than causing it. If they walked this earth, lived a full life, and embraced death when it came, then we have hope that we can do the same. This use of the Resurrection Stone is what allows Harry to pass by the Dementors on his way to confront Voldemort. The stone calls up shimmering images of those that he loves and have already passed from life to death. From their example he gains the peace he needs to avoid despair.
The Cloak of Invisibility is the most unusual of all the Hallows. It has the power to hide the person wearing it, and thus the person can avoid death in many situations. The puzzling part of the story is that the cloak is the one worn by Death. The wearer of the cloak is not visible to the living and thus, in effect, he takes on the form of death. And, having already cloaked himself in death, he can cast the cloak aside at anytime without fear of the consequences. This was the choice of the third brother in the tale, and he was praised by Death for his wisdom. One fairly obvious interpretation is that when we no longer fear death, having already embraced it, we can truly live. This is a paradox, to be sure, but a key element in understanding Harry Potter.
Dumbledore and Grindelwald considered the Cloak insignificant and did not even search for it. Since they could make themselves invisible, they did not consider the cloak as something that would increase their power. They fail to understand its power, in other words. Harry is the one who possesses the Cloak of Invisibility. When the time comes, he takes the cloak off, stands vulnerable in front of Voldemort, and is struck down as a consequence. In the visionary dream that follows, Dumbledore tells Harry,
"You are the true master of death, because the true master does not seek to run away from Death. He accepts that he must die, and understands that there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying."
Harry has learned the lessons of the Deathly Hallows and become the master of them. He did not seek the Elder Wand for power over others, and obtains it only to set it aside. He did not use the Resurrection Stone to bring back those at peace, but to enable his own self-sacrifice. He cast aside the Cloak of Invisibility when it was time to embrace his own death. There is one question remaining, however. What would lead a person to the point where he is willing to embrace death as a means of conquering death?
Harry's understanding did not come easily or quickly. It was the result of seven years of struggle, questioning, and searching for answers. He first comes to understand the need to pursue justice for others, even when it puts him at risk. In so doing he comes to understand that there are things worse than death. Turning to evil, or even allowing evil to exist in the world, solely to protect oneself is a life worse than death.
When he faces the Mirror of Erised and removes the Philosopher's stone, Harry demonstrates another important virtue. He does not seek power over death for himself. He can remove the stone from the mirror because he only wants to prevent it falling into the wrong hands. The destruction of the Philosopher's stone shows that continuation of physical existence alone is not the answer to conquering death.
Harry also learns the power of sacrificial love when his mother's death protects him from Voldemort's touch. Harry is protected because he carries the blood of the one who loved him enough to die for him. Later Harry learns another power of love. His love of others, shown in grieving for their deaths, protects his mind from being invaded by Voldemort. Harry also develops close friendships and learns to love others and be loved by them. His desire that they not die is part of his motivation for facing his own death. In the Triwizard tournament Harry rescues other students from under the water, putting his own life at risk, even though he was not required to do so. Later, he will not run from a confrontation with Voldemort since to do so would leave others to die in his place when he could have prevented their deaths through his own sacrifice.
Harry also grows in courage. It is the path he chose when he was sorted into Gryffindor. That choice was later shown to be accurate when he pulls the Sword of Gryffindor from the Sorting Hat in the Chamber of Secrets. He can pull the sword from the hat because he has maintained his courage and integrity in the face of death. To conquer death takes courage and integrity.
The wounds Harry suffers in fighting the Basilisk are cured by the tears of the Phoenix, a bird that has the power of resurrection, of being reborn in its death. In the battle at the Ministry of Magic, Harry sees the Phoenix swallow a curse intended for Dumbledore, dying because of it yet able to be reborn. Harry sees that there is a power from death that can protect and heal even the most serious wounds.
In his confrontations with the Dementors Harry learns the nature of despair, how it can destroy the soul of a person leaving a hollow shell. Physical life alone, without joy in the soul is torment and it is better to die than live that way. He also learns the means of conquering despair when he finds that memories of love and joy produce a force that drives back despair. Harry also avoids despair by understanding that there is life beyond death, that death is not the end, but only the beginning of "the next great adventure." He is reminded of this fact by Hermione when they stand in front of the Potter's tomb. Even so, Harry is nearly overcome by grief at by loss of those he loves. It is only later when he uses the Resurrection Stone to recall their images that the despair is driven away. Their transcendence of death gives him the hope he needs.
Above all else, Harry learns that it is virtue, not knowledge, not power that conquers death. At the battle in the Ministry of Magic, Harry is nearly possessed by Voldemort, but Voldemort's attempt fails. Had Voldemort taken control, he could have destroyed Harry. Dumbledore explains the reason Harry survived:
"There is a room in the Department of Mysteries," interrupted Dumbledore, "that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there. It is the power held within that room that you possess in such quantities and which Voldemort has not at all. That power took you to save Sirius tonight. That power also saved you from possession by Voldemort, because he could not bear to reside in a body so full of the force he detests. In the end, it matters not that you could not close your mind. It was your heart that saved you."
Harry's heart is good. He has courage, compassion, humility, integrity, a desire for truth and justice, and above all love. When the inner man has become those things, evil cannot penetrate into the person's being, cannot bring about death of the soul. Thus, to drive out evil with good is to conquer death as well.
The link between Harry and Voldemort is the greatest challenge Harry faces. At the moment when Voldemort tried to kill the baby Harry, a fragment of Voldemort became lodged in Harry and Voldemort inadvertently created a seventh Horcrux, one that he does not know about. In transferring a portion of himself to Harry, Voldemort has given Harry power that Harry would not have otherwise had. But that power comes with a price; it produces a painful link between the two. When Voldemort is near, angry or violent, the searing pain blinds Harry. This creates a paradox for Harry. Voldemort cannot be killed unless all the Horcruxes are destroyed, thus Harry must die in order for the evil to be removed. He was marked for death from the beginning, and there is no avoiding it. Harry's journey through life, with Dumbledore's guidance, is what prepares him for the moment where he realizes the truth: there is no escaping death. Harry cannot run from Voldemort as that would leave the evil in existence. He cannot overpower him because Harry contains a piece of the evil that Voldemort has become. They are forever linked.
This is the meaning in the prophecy that is the center of action in The Order of the Phoenix. As the prophecy stated, "Either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives." Initially, the prophecy is interpreted such that one of the two, Harry or Voldemort, must die. However, like most prophecy, the statement is vague and open to interpretation. "Neither can live" tells the truth. Both Harry and Voldemort must die, or both must live, since they are forever linked together. Harry cannot kill Voldemort because the fragment of Voldemort contained in the scar tethers Voldemort to life. If Voldemort kills Harry, destroying the Horcrux in the process, both will face death. Otherwise both will remain alive. The realization of the true meaning in the prophecy is what causes Harry to seek out Voldemort, stand defenseless, and allow Voldemort to kill him. He knows that in doing so, evil will destroy itself.
Yet, Harry is "the boy who survived." He survived the initial attack when he was a baby, and he will survive the attack when he is an adult. Harry does not realize this yet when he offers himself up to Voldemort's attack. He does not realize, although all the clues are there, that Voldemort will only destroy the Horcrux and not end Harry's life. Later he will understand. Murder produces death in the murderer and Harry's survival depends on his voluntarily laying down his life in order that the evil within him will be destroyed. Only through death is the curse destroyed. It is a paradox, but one that tells us how to conquer death. Only those that embrace death can conquer it.
When Voldemort strikes Harry down, it appears that all is lost. Harry wakes up, however, in another place, naked, clean, and renewed. He takes on a new set of clothes, and gains the final understanding that he needs to destroy evil. He sees Voldemort for what he truly is, no longer something to be feared but only pitied. Harry wakes up on the forest floor a new man with the scar he carries no longer painful nor a threat to him. He has conquered death and is renewed with life. He is, as Dumbledore said, the master of death because he did not avoid it.
This paradox is the same one that Jesus spoke of.
The one who loves his life destroys it, and the one who hates his life in this world guards it for eternal life. If anyone wants to serve me, he must follow me, and where I am, my servant will be too. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. Now my soul is greatly distressed. And what should I say? ‘Father, deliver me from this hour'? No, but for this very reason I have come to this hour. (John 12:25-27)
Voldemort seeks to save his own life in this world, yet destroys it. The ghosts in Hogwarts were afraid of death, sought to hang on to life, and became shadows never knowing the pleasures of life. Peter Pettigrew sought to protect his life by faking his death, spends many years transformed into a rat, and loses his life in the end anyway. Still, the paradox remains. How can one lose life and save it? The answer to that puzzle is explained by Paul in the epistle to the Romans:
Or do you not know that as many as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life.
For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be united in the likeness of his resurrection. We know that our old man was crucified with him so that the body of sin would no longer dominate us, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (For someone who has died has been freed from sin.)
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that since Christ has been raised from the dead, he is never going to die again; death no longer has mastery over him. For the death he died, he died to sin once for all, but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you too consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:3-11)
What must die, the Apostle Paul says, is the evil that is within us. We, like Harry, are scarred from sin and that scar must be removed that we might live. We cannot remove it by our own knowledge or power, only by death. What gives us the willingness to accept that death is the promise of a new life that will replace the old. We must be "born again" as Jesus told Nicodemus in the Gospel of John chapter three. When the blood of the one who loved us enough to voluntarily die for us is in us, it provides a protection from evil. Yet, to accept that protection we must throw off the old man, let it die, and be reborn as a new man through the power of the resurrection. The hope of being reborn is what gives us the courage to face death without fear.
That the Christian interpretation is what Rowling intended is made perfectly clear by the inscription on the Potter family tomb: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." That is an exact quote of 1 Corinthians 15:26. The entire fifteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Corinthians speaks of death and resurrection. The one who destroys the enemy is Jesus Christ. Harry is not an allegorical Christ, but clearly he is brought to life through death by a power other than his own. That power is symbolized in the story by sacrificial love that voluntarily lays down its life. That is what Jesus did for us. His sacrifice provides the power that will bring us to life, and thus we do not need to fear death. We follow the footsteps of Jesus, going to death voluntarily for the benefit of another in the sure knowledge of resurrection to come.
Throughout the Harry Potter story, evil is associated with self-centered behavior and good with self-denying behavior. This is key to understanding the story, and is key to understanding the Christian gospel. We live not for ourselves, but for another. In dying to self, we gain life. We conquer death through love.