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.
There is no greater moment in romantic history than when Lily Evans tells James Potter, “I wouldn’t go out with you if it was a choice between you and the giant squid.”
Lily Evans. What a woman.
I remember the first time I read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and how enthralled I was in Lily and James’ relationship from the moment he hit on her and she refused to take his shtick. It’s not quite Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, but that vibe is there, and it only gets better.
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For all intents and purposes, Lily and James should have been the quintessential star-crossed lovers — she was a Muggle-born and he was a pureblood living in the First Wizarding War, during a time of classist upheaval and subsequent genocide. While we know few details about the first war, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows proves just how dangerous Voldemort’s regime is for Muggle-borns, who are forced to go on the run, lie about their ancestry, and are subjected to bigotry from background checks to verbal taunts to physical torture. Lily would have fared no better in the first war than the likes of Dean Thomas and Hermione do in the second.
We see in “Snape’s Worst Memory” that James is both eager in his affections for Lily, and a public setting doesn’t faze him in the slightest. This, I think, is more significant than what’s let on. Despite James’ superior social status, he isn’t daunted by Lily’s parentage; in fact, it only factors in when Snape calls her a “Mudblood,” which serves to infuriate James, and it’s the only time within the memory that we see his good humor diminished. It’s clear that for however easy-going and cavalier James is, he has his limits, and it’s a rare thing to see a privileged fifteen-year-old react so seriously to prejudices that don’t affect him. It’s also clear that James would have these standards regardless of his feelings for Lily, since — as Lupin tells Harry later in “Career Advice” — “James […] always hated the Dark Arts.”
Now, since we know so little about Lily and James’ romantic relationship, this is pure conjecture, but I personally imagine that one of the reasons Lily fell for James is because he didn’t care about her blood status, and he didn’t treat her differently because of it. He defends her against Snape’s slur, but it’s likely that James — much like the Weasleys — had a moral objection to the word, and would have stood up for anyone on the receiving end of it. Since Lily and James fought for the same side in the war, they obviously shared their morals and drive to rebel against a system that hurt people.
While the social pressures weren’t enough to keep Lily and James’ relationship from blossoming, their deaths are certainly of the “star-crossed lovers” variety, at least in the scope of tragedy: They were young — only twenty-one, which means they had four years together, give or take, and only a year with their son. J.K. Rowling also made it a point to reveal in “Bathilda’s Secret” that Lily and James’ deaths are remarkably similar: Both died trying to protect their family, and the scenes are reminiscent of each other as well:
“The green light filled the cramped hallway, it lit the pram pushed against the wall, it made the banisters glare like lightning rods, and James Potter fell like a marionette whose strings were cut….”
“The green light flashed around the room and she dropped like her husband.”
Now that I’ve thoroughly bummed myself out, I have to switch tempo. As heartbreaking as Lily and James’ deaths are, there’s just enough off-page evidence to confirm that their life together must have had a few laughs — because love isn’t all about unrequited affection and wistful looks across the Hogwarts grounds, nor is it totally encompassed in JKR’s admittance that “James always suspected Snape harboured deeper feelings for Lily, which was a factor in James’ behaviour to Snape.” As endearing and perhaps immature as all that is, love is — if you ask me — more about happiness than anything else.
James’ sense of humor is apparent when he’s with his friends in “Snape’s Worst Memory,” and his mischievous side proves itself in the manifestation of the Marauder’s Map. Lily, meanwhile, is often portrayed in fanfiction as a carbon copy of Hermione, although it’s heavily suggested that she has more in common with the Marauders. Even when she’s protesting James’ treatment of Snape, her “furious expression had twitched for an instant as though she was going to smile.”
Rowling has offered insight into Lily’s good humor as well when she said, “Just like her son, Lily was not averse to testing the limits of the Statute of Secrecy, so you can safely assume she will have had a few warning letters — nothing too serious, though.”
Hand to god, I would worship at the church of Lily Evans, should one ever exist.
It’s also vital to note that despite what we see in “Snape’s Worst Memory,” JKR has taken steps to prove that while James was obviously a goner, Lily never hated him half as much as her shouting would suggest:
“Oh, well, he always made a fool of himself whenever Lily was around,” said Sirius, shrugging. “He couldn’t stop himself showing off whenever he got near her.”
“How come she married him?” Harry asked miserably. “She hated him.”
“Nah, she didn’t,” said Sirius.
Rowling further addressed Harry’s question in a 2005 interview with MuggleNet, who asked, “How did they get together? She hated James, from what we’ve seen,” to which Rowling responded, “Did she really? You’re a woman, you know what I’m saying.”
Well played, Queen Rowling. But the original question — “How did they get together?” — still stands, and we’re still waiting for that backstory, JKR. We all know you know it, and it’s time to share with the class.
Since I’ve plainly admitted my place on the Lily/James ship, I’ll further admit that my fangirl status is largely influenced by what that small interaction in OOTP did for me. The second time I read the series in full was when I was twenty and in a bad relationship that I didn’t realize was bad, and there was something about Lily and James’ interaction that struck a meaningful chord with me.
It wasn’t until a year later, after my relationship had ended, that I realized what that chord was — I wanted a love like the one I read about, however implausible that sounds. I wanted someone who would try, someone who was willing to make a fool of himself because he didn’t think it was foolish at all. I wanted someone who would respect me, who saw me as a whole human being worthy of being treated as such, no matter what may or may not be wrong with me. I wanted someone who would stand up for me, who would stand by me, who would fight alongside me instead of with me. James’ behavior towards Lily was the opposite of what I’d had, and somewhere in my subconscious I recognized that, and it helped me to get out of my situation. Lily and James helped me to realize that I was worth more than that.
That, to me, is what really cinches Lily and James as the Potterverse’s designated lovers. For however little we know of their romance, it manages to resonate in a personal way; and if it does that for me, it must have done that for others, too. And although the happiness is more between the lines than anything else, there is so much happiness to be found amidst the tragedy of Lily and James’ story.
So, once again, JKR, if you ever want to spill the very specific beans about how these two ended up together… I’m telling you, we’re all ready for that prequel.
All art credit goes to the immensely talented burdge.