Harry Potter and the Order of Archetypes: Harry Potter, the Martyr
In a weekly series, staff writer Katie Majka takes a look at some of our favorite witches and wizards, and how they fit into literary and social archetypes.
Everybody loves a hero, and nobody is more beloved after their death than someone who suffers for it.
We see this in life as well as literature, the latter of which mimics the former in order to resonate with us as much as possible. Every story has its hero—the more selfless, the better, until they transcend heroism and achieve martyrdom. Self-sacrifice is key. From sweet, sensible Simon in Lord of the Flies to the gritty, arguable Dally of The Outsiders fame, literature is inundated with different types of sacrifice. Perhaps the most famous (no matter your religion or lack thereof) is Jesus Christ, whose story has spanned so many thousands of years because, ultimately, it’s the tale of one man who died for the sake of all humanity.
And so many thousands of years after the fact, Harry Potter follows suit.
Harry does not ask for his hero status, nor does he initially earn it; rather, it is thrust upon him by his mother’s sacrifice. Lily Evans-Potter is truly the original martyr of the series, running headlong into the end of Voldemort’s wand to save her son’s life, and she passes both that virtue and the protection it elicits along to Harry. While Harry is hailed as the one who vanquished the Dark Lord, he does not really achieve that until series’ end—it’s Lily who keeps Voldemort at bay for so long, as her love for her son rendered Voldemort’s Avada Kedavra moot, and it’s through her bond with Harry that puts him on the path to martyrdom.
While the Boy Who Lived’s continued existence marked the beginning of a peaceful era in the Wizarding world, his arrival at Hogwarts acts as a sort of “second coming.” As with Christ’s foretold reappearance that kick-starts Armageddon, Harry’s reemergence also marks the beginning of a war-torn era that ends in the ultimate face-off between good and evil because, as Sybill Trelawney put it, “Neither can live while the other survives.”
When Harry dives into Snape’s memories and recognizes what Trelawney’s words truly mean, he accepts it as his duty. He sacrifices himself for the sake of the Wizarding world—a world which both celebrated and blacklisted him to suit its own needs, a world to which he belonged and continued to save, no matter the inhabitants’ behavior towards him. Harry has seen the pinnacles of death and destruction, he has lost loved ones left and right, he has been abused and tormented; Harry has seen the worst of the world and still believes that it’s worth saving. Even when that world does nothing to deserve redemption, Harry makes sure that it has the chance.
When Harry turns the Resurrection Stone in his hand and calls upon his parents and their friends, he says, “I never wanted any of you to die for me.” If it hadn’t hit the audience before, it did right then—Harry didn’t ask for the life he was handed. It’s clear throughout the series that he would have preferred it otherwise, that he would rather have his loved ones beside him. Life has been unkind to Harry, but he fights for it nonetheless. He could have turned bitter and spiteful, but he recognizes that that’s the kind of hatred that tore his life apart in the first place, before it could really begin.
And so, in the end, Harry looks past all the hurt and the hate, and he forgives. He shakes hands with Dudley, saves Malfoy from an otherwise certain death, and honors Snape’s memory in the name of one of his children. No matter their sins committed against him, his friends and family, or the world they share, Harry forgives his enemies by accepting Dudley’s apology, recognizing Snape’s sacrifice when others wouldn’t remember him, and understanding that Malfoy had no more choice in his actions and fate than Harry had in his own. When you set Harry’s compassion against the cruel backdrop of his childhood, it’s a wonder that he keeps his arms so open to love at all.
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But when Harry takes what he believes to be his final walk into the Forbidden Forest, the driving force behind his sacrifice is love—love for his friends, his makeshift family, and love for the world to which he belonged, no matter how it rejected him when the stakes were the highest.
Part of Harry’s sustainability as one of literature’s most celebrated heroes is that he not only suffered in the pages of a book, but his suffering mirrored so many of ours in the real world. Many of Harry’s fans grew up with him, through his own darkness and ours, and every one of Harry’s victories makes it seem possible that we may achieve our own. From our Malfoys to our Snapes to our dementors to our Voldemorts, we all have our foes to fight and an inner darkness to combat against. We have all lost pieces of ourselves, and the grief that follows can create a hole in us that turns us bitter and cynical. Whether we have lost loved ones to death or circumstance, whether our biggest demon is internal or external, our obstacles are at once uniquely ours, and relatable to so many others. No one is a stranger to tragedy.
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of “Harry should have stayed dead,” as though the finality of his death would have been more poetic, more literary, more reminiscent of Shakespearean tragedies. But Harry’s story is his own, and I love that his sacrifice not only saved the Wizarding world, but his own life as well. It goes to show that we can all fight ‘til the death but come out of it alive. To me, Harry’s resurrection is an encouragement, a fight song for us all to rally around: We can defeat our darknesses, and we can survive them. As long as the world keeps spinning, we can march on. While Harry’s childhood is marred by tragedy and his destiny already written, he forges on to not only become a hero, a legend, but a person in his own right.
Throughout the series, it is suggested that Harry could have been the worst of the worst, violent and fearsome and hateful, but he never succumbs to that possibility. Harry is goodness incarnate—flawed, yes, but that only makes his goodness more attainable for us. He is an example to us all that nothing is worth fighting if we have nothing to fight for, and there’s always something to fight for, no cause too small; if it matters to you, then it matters, period.
Harry Potter, you are too good for this world. And that’s precisely why we need you.
Harry Potter and the Order of Archetypes is our brand new character deep dive study.