Shades of Death
William N. Wilder on Three Tales & the Demise of the Last Enemy
I’ve spent a lot of time reading fantasy literature over the past year or two. That is to say, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about death. First, there was the July 2007 publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This book was in many ways the fitting climax to J. K. Rowling’s delightfully imaginative and witty work. Nevertheless, it is not Harry Potter and the Happy Hallows (despite the alliterative possibilities) for a reason.
Then The Golden Compass hit the theaters last December, which led me to read His Dark Materials—the trilogy by Philip Pullman comprising The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. One thing is clear: However golden and amber his book titles may be,
Pullman works from a dark (and none-too-subtle) palette. In short, whatever else this fantasy literature may be, it is not pure escapism—unless grappling with death is your idea of escape.
I don’t think anyone would deny that death is a major theme throughout the Harry Potter series. J. K. Rowling herself once said that these 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.” For Voldemort, this includes the black magic and destruction of the Horcruxes. So he takes it to an extreme, to say the least.
Yet, to be fair, Voldemort is not alone in pursuing immortality. It’s a regular stock-in-trade in the witching world. There’s Nicolas Flamel, who makes the Sorcerer’s Stone. There are the Peverell brothers, who first possess the Hallows, and Gellert Grindelwald, who (with many others) continues to seek them. Even Dumbledore gets caught up in the chase.
It is precisely in this respect that Harry is different. Unlike the others, Harry overcomes the temptation to defeat death at any price. Indeed, his greatness lies in his refusal to make life and immortality (by means of the Hallows, for instance) his primary aim. As Dumbledore tells Harry after his willingness to die at the hands of Voldemort, he is “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.”
Indeed, as Dumbledore also said to Harry (though way back in the first book), “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” Not all feel this way, even among witches and wizards. Hogwarts itself is filled with characters—Professor Binns, Nearly Headless Nick, Moaning Myrtle—who are unprepared to board the train at King’s Cross, as it were, and simply go “On.” They turn back, through habit, regret, or revenge, to a shadowy half-existence in this world.
For me, one of the most poignant moments in The Deathly Hallows comes in Harry’s return to Godric’s Hollow. Reading from the gravestone of his slain parents, Harry misunderstands (and panics at) the final quotation: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” To Harry it sounds like a Death Eater idea and he says as much to Hermione. Her response: “It doesn’t mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry. . . . It means, you know, living beyond death. Living after death.”
Harry is not consoled. Real life is life in this world. As for his parents, “they were gone. The empty words could not disguise the fact that his parents’ moldering remains lay beneath snow and stone, indifferent, unknowing.” In the end, however, and without any real certainty of the hereafter, Harry is willing to give up his life for the sake of others. In so doing, he becomes, as Dumbledore admits, the true master of death. Even so, uncertainty and a pervasive sense of loss remain.
Death is no less prominent in His Dark Materials. Indeed, the tragic dimension of death is, if anything, greater in this work, because life is so closely tied to an existence in the body that cannot be sustained. Thus, here too, there is a delight in the physical world of sensory experience: the taste of bacon and eggs, the smell of roasting coffee, the warmth of a bed on a winter night—in short, “all the sensations that made up being alive.”
These are, in fact, the very sorts of things that make up the mental lifeline Dr. Mary Malone must fling to her physical self when she finds herself caught up in the Dust wind and drifting away from her body. Finally, by adding other sensory memories to these, she returns to her sleeping body, “now with a deep, slow ecstasy at being one with her body and her earth and everything that was matter.”
Here too, however, is the inevitable separation of the self from its body. The journey here is not so much moving “Onward” (as in Rowling) as Downward: a true descent into a Sheol-like existence devoid of meaningful sensory experience or memory. When Lyra, the protagonist in Pullman’s work, visits this underworld and speaks to the dead, “the ghosts crowded closer, feeding on her words, remembering the time when they had flesh and skin and nerves and senses, and willing her never to stop.” In Pullman’s world, the loss of physical sensation is the loss of all that really matters. There may be a spirit-ghost and a daemon-soul, but as Will once says, “the best part is the body.”
One might expect, then (as I did), the defeat of death in Pullman’s work to involve some restoration of the body—some revival at least of physical experience, perhaps some new exposure to the warmth of the sun or the wetness of rain or the beauty of nature. Such is not the case. Lyra does lead the ghosts to the upper world, but it is not to renewed sensation (much less physicality). It is to complete dissolution and annihilation. The end of death is, ironically, the end of all memory and all experience. Apparently, the complete loss of memory and experience in the physical world answers their partial loss in the underworld.
Death dies, then, in His Dark Materials, but the death of death is not life, even of the disembodied kind found in Rowling. The death of death is really the death of a deprived life, a “gift” given to the tortured witch (because the goddess of death, Yambe-Akka, “was merry and lighthearted and her visits were gifts of joy”) and, yes, to God himself, an old, doddering, and rheumy-eyed character who had simply lived and suffered too long. The death of death in Pullman is, well, euthanasia, which is, it seems, the best one can hope for.
Alongside J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman, one may set C. S. Lewis, yet another British writer who dabbles in alternative magic worlds. A very different vision emerges here. One thinks, for example, of The Last Battle, the seventh and final book in The Chronicles of Narnia. Here too, there is the same delight in the sensations of the physical world that one finds in Rowling and Pullman. Amazed at the new country in which they find themselves at the end of the book, Eustace says to the High King Peter, “I bet there isn’t a country like this anywhere in our world. Look at the colors! You couldn’t get a blue like the blue on those mountains in our world.”
Only slowly do the children realize—before they run and swim and climb with endless energy—that the new country is not so new. It’s very much like the Narnia they knew. Indeed, it is the real thing. As the Lord Digory goes on to explain, the old Narnia “was only a shadow or copy of the real Narnia, which has always been here and will always be here. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy.”
This version of Narnia is not, as it might be in His Dark Materials, merely an alternative and preferable universe into which one has gained some sort of magic access. It is, instead, the world for which all creatures were fitted, in all their physicality and sensuality and sentience (“‘And I’ve never tasted such good grass in my life,’ said Puzzle.”). Far from being the deprivation of human life and experience, it is the proper setting for the complete fulfillment of those things.
As such, the new world at the end of the Chronicles is a very different answer to the problem of death than the answers provided by Pullman and Rowling. When the children find out that they had died in the railway accident that catapulted them into Narnia, they receive the news with joy and relief. It is going back to the old life that represents loss; going “further up and further in” is all gain.
In this way the tragic nihilism of a man like Philip Pullman is met with the confident insistence that one need not choose between deprivation and oblivion. Because of the “good death” of one, there is the possibility of a true and full life for all. The Father (not “the Authority”) grants his children, whom he loves, the redemption even of their bodies.
Likewise, the agnosticism and doubt in J. K. Rowling is answered with the very words inscribed on the Potters’ gravestone: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” In its biblical context (1 Cor. 15), the way in which death is destroyed is through the resurrection of the body—past (in Christ) and future (in those who belong to him). To stoic self-sacrifice, one may add hope. One may thus come to King’s Cross with the King’s Resurrection. For Lewis (and some others), that’s no fantasy. It’s the true defeat of our last enemy. It is the true defeat of death.
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“Shades of Death” first appeared in the December 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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