I originally wanted this to be a full blown essay - complete with page references, but then life took over. At the same time, I have this need to get my thoughts out there in some kind of organized fashion ... before the book comes out and we all know the big answer. So this is me, putting my bet officially out there, in a somewhat less formal, more consise fashion.
I offer you this opinion based on a purely structural analysis, removing emotion from the equation. It is true, the idea of Harry dying is almost too much to fathom, but let’s put that aside for a moment.
Let’s also put aside any argument based on the idea that if he lives or dies it will be cliché. At this point, either ending is going to feel familiar. At the end of an epic story, the main character either lives or he doesn’t, so the claim that a happy ending is cliché is really as pointless as the opposite argument that his death is the same.
Putting those biases aside, looking at the series from a structural point of view, the previous books have told us that Harry is going to live.
1. Harry is on a Hero’s Journey.
Again, this is a concise version, but it seems many of you are very familiar with the works of Joseph Campbell.
Traditionally, from Odysseus to Luke Skywalker, to Buffy, the hero lives. The hero comes back changed from the experience, but he/she is free to live his life.
Harry Potter has been following this pattern fairly precisely – the call to action through Hagrid, his initial refusal to believe, the magical older man as mentor, the road of trials. There are many more comparisons, feel free to discuss them. The main point is, at the end of the story, the hero is free to live.
In the Odyssey, the hero is not only free to live, he is reunited with his wife. I propose this is the ending Rowling has set up with Ginny.
At the end of Half Blood Prince, Harry ends his relationship with Ginny, not because he wants to, but to protect her and because he has work to do. Ginny accepts his decision with the revelation that she never gave up on him. The obvious implication is that she isn’t giving up on him now.
Rowling has set up the happy ending. The separation with Ginny gives Harry something to return to after his journey. A life with her is his reward. Normally I would find this horribly sexist, but Rowling has bought her way out with Hermione. Also, Ginny Weasley represents not just a woman, but the family for which Harry has always longed.
Rowling has been slowly and carefully setting up Ginny and Harry from the beginning of the series. That much work does not fit a pay-off of only a few pages. If the relationship had continued beyond the end of the sixth book, I would be more worried that one or other would not make it out of the seventh alive. However, instead Rowling ended the relationship. There has to be a structural reason for this choice and I propose Rowling is setting the stage for Harry’s return and his happy ending.
3. The Folding Pattern
I know this information is already out and discussed, but just for fun, let’s look at it one more time.
Thematically, the books create a folding pattern, with Goblet being the spine. Goblet of Fire, the middle book stands out as different from the rest for many reasons – there is no quidditch, others schools spend the year at Hogwarts, the Yule Ball, the Triwizard Tournament, and finally Voldemort’s frightening return.
The other books tend to reflect upon each other.
Ginny has an overwhelming crush on Harry.
Introduction of Horcruxes and destruction of the first. (Though we did not know this at the time.)
Mystery: Who is the Heir of Slytherine?
Major portions of plot revolve around a book – the diary.
Draco is a major suspect. This turns out to be false, but his father is guilty.
History of Voldemort’s character . Voldemort appears in memory sequences as a teenage boy.
Hogwarts is attacked.
Harry has an overwhelming crush on Ginny.
Explanation and details on Horcruxes – destruction of second, and the beginning of Harry’s quest to find and destroy the rest.
Mystery: Who is the Half Blood Prince?
Major portions of plot revolve around a book – the potions text.
Draco is a major suspect. This turns out to be true. His task is assigned in direct response to his father’s failures.
History of Voldemort’s character is further developed. Voldemort appears in memory sequences as a boy, teenager and man.
Hogwarts is attacked.
Harry discovers Cho and develops his first crush.
Large focus on Harry’s relationship with his father. The map, the patronus, meeting his friends. Harry’s view of James is very pure. He almost idolizes him and wants to be like him.
Introduction of Sirius.
Introduction to Marauders and their history.
Harry uses a fantastical animal as a means of transportation. Buckbeak becomes symbol of life/freedom.
Introduction to the idea of prophecies and their role in Harry’s story. Prophecy of Voldemort’s rise.
Sirius escapes from Azkaban.
Harry and Cho date, kiss and end their relationship.
Large focus on Harry’s relationship with his father. Memory sequences. Harry insecure about his feelings re James. Harry must accept the fact his father was a human who made mistakes and had faults.
Further history of Marauders.
Harry uses a fantastical animal as a means of transportation. The Thestrals are a symbol of death.
Prophecy is pivotal plot point. Revelation of the prophecy that is key to Harry’s connection to Voldemort.
Death Eaters escape from Azkaban.
So what do we know about the first book that will help us with the last?
On one point I think we can all agree – Voldemort will die. The series began with his original defeat, the spine marked his return, the end will include his final demise. But what about Harry?
I believe it is most important to note that Philosopher’s Stone does not begin with Harry’s birth. If it did, I would worry the end of the series would include the end of his life as well. It would be an obvious conclusion to a life story. However, the series is not Harry’s life story, it is the story of his connection with Voldemort, and the first book begins with the day that connection was created.
The series will end not with Harry’s death, but with the resolution of that connection. Harry will severe the prophesized connection by defeating the monster that killed his parents, and he will finally be free to live out from under the evil shadow that has haunted him his entire life.
Other possible folds?
Philosopher’s Stone also began with Harry being put into the custody of his aunt and uncle. Deathly Hallows will mark the end of that relationship.
Stone featured a baby dragon rather prominently. Goblet involved a mother dragon guarding her eggs. Recently released American cover art also depicts Harry, Hermione and Ron riding a dragon. Is this Norbert? Or perhaps, to complete the cycle, an aged dragon?
Harry, Ron and Hermione had to complete a series of trials to get to the Stone. In Deathly Hallows, the search for each of the Horcruxes will likely serve as another series of trials.
One fear – Ron Weasley sacrificed himself so that Harry could go on to face Voldemort during the chess match. I see it as very much within Ron’s character to make that kind of choice again. I very much hope Ron makes it out of the book alive, but I also see it as likely that we will visit this theme again.
4. A Coming of Age
It is true that Harry is on a hero’s journey, the books are also in part a war story, but at its heart, the series has always been a coming of age. We meet Harry as he is entering adolescence. In fact, we meet him just before the wizarding world deems him old enough to begin his magical training, symbolizing his training for manhood.
We have seen Harry experience his first true friendships, his first experiments with leadership, his first crush, his first kiss, his first familial loss, and his first functioning romantic relationship. A great deal of the joy of reading the books comes from watching him passing through hurdles and learning lessons that we all recognize.
It is a coming of age set in a world of magic, but it is a coming of age none the less.
It is especially interesting to note that the series will end just as Harry is officially considered a man in his world. The decision to make the age of seventeen the age for legal adulthood seems to be a conscious authorial choice. It must have structural significance.
I propose that choice was made partly so Harry could practice magic outside Hogwarts, as will be necessary on his quest, but also because Rowling has purposely brought us to the end of Harry’s coming of age.
The question then is, has she really brought Harry into adulthood only to kill him?
I think not. It just doesn’t fit.
What we have are four very concrete structural elements to tell us how the series will end. Harry is on a hero’s journey – the hero comes back changed, but is free to live his life. Rowling has used the romance subplot to set up the happy ending. The folding pattern implies the books will end not with Harry’s death, but with the severance of his connection to Voldemort and his freedom. And finally, the books gave us a seven year window, structured with finite precision to encompass his coming of age. The series will not end with Harry’s death, but rather the end of his childhood.
So there it is. No quotes. No page numbers. Alas. But at least now my opinion is out there, carved in internet stone. And I can either say “HA!” or live forever in shame. Whoohoo!