Choice or Chance?

The Ambiguous Ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

By Avogadro

The Harry Potter series is esteemed and loved for many reasons: the rich fantasy world, the beloved characters, the humor, the suspense-driven plots, the meaningful choices... and the way the plot fits together like a tightly constructed jigsaw puzzle. The endings of the Harry Potter novels are filled with "oh, yeah!" moments in which everything suddenly fits together in new and unexpected ways: the revelation of Tom Riddle as Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the unmasking of Peter Pettigrew in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and the true identity of the Prince in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. At the end of each Potter novel a final resolution is reached and the loose ends are neatly tied up.

Except in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Deathly Hallows includes a full resolution for many issues, and Rowling's post-publication interviews provided closure for more details, for example with the very welcome (to me) news that Dolores Umbridge was finally made to pay for her crimes.1 However, the climax of the Deathly Hallows ’ the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort ’ seems to leave several loose ends and ambiguities.

The climax of Deathly Hallows occurs when Harry sets off to sacrifice himself and allows Voldemort to hit him with the Killing Curse. The Horcrux within Harry is destroyed, Harry survives through his blood connection with Voldemort, and Voldemort's power is broken as a result.

This is the way I read it, but it leaves many unanswered questions. What exactly is the role of Harry's final sacrifice, and how did it defeat Voldemort in the end? Is the outcome the result of Harry's choice, or is it due to the chance acquisition of the Elder Wand? Harry's self-sacrifice seems to be the critical point at which Voldemort's power is broken, but the story of the Elder Wand points towards a resolution in which the outcome is determined mainly by chance. The following is an attempt to identify the loose ends in this, the most important final piece of the Harry Potter puzzle, and give my view that choice, not chance determines the outcome. Perhaps Rowling will provide help at some future date!

The question of choice versus chance runs throughout the Harry Potter series. The question appears first at the end of Chamber of Secrets, when Riddle/Voldemort tells Harry that "it was merely a lucky chance that saved you" 2 after he is told that Lily's sacrifice was the reason he had not been able to kill baby Harry. Dumbledore subsequently tells Harry that "it is our choices [¦] that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." 3 Throughout the series, Voldemort continues to insist on chance as the cause of his downfall, right up to the bitter end.4 Dumbledore, by contrast, insists on the importance of personal choice in determining outcomes, rather than either chance or fate. Rowling has said that Dumbledore often speaks for her5 (and Voldemort certainly does not), so it seems that she would also believe in choice rather than chance. Although Harry Potter is a magical world in which fate (such as the house assignments made by a magical hat) at first appears to be dominant, Rowling is clear that hers is not a fate-dominated world. Professor Trelawney, the bumbling Divination teacher, almost always gets it wrong, and even though the world of Harry Potter contains magical prophecies, the prophecies come true only because people choose to act on them.6 Even the magical hat takes people's choices into account, as Harry reminds his son in the epilogue.7 Rowling herself has written that she does not believe in fate, but in "hard work and luck, and that the first often leads to the second." 8 Not fate, then ’ but is the outcome due to choice or chance in the end?

In piecing together the puzzle that is the conclusion of the series, it is first necessary to consider the history of the Elder Wand. The story of the Elder Wand (which is critical to Voldemort's downfall) provides the type of tightly-fitting resolution in which everything is explained. The Elder Wand is a uniquely powerful wand, but its special powers are only available to its true owner. For all others it is just a wand like any other.9 The Wand recognizes as its true owner only the one who has conquered its previous owner.10 Many Dark wizards have thought that it is necessary to kill the previous owner to gain the Elder Wand,11 but this is apparently not correct: Grindelwald,12 Dumbledore,13 Draco Malfoy14 and Harry15 all gained true possession of the Wand without killing the previous owner. According to legend, the past owners of the invincible Elder Wand met their downfall because they boasted about the Wand and thus attracted attention to it.16 Gregorovich made this mistake,17 leading Grindelwald to steal the Wand and defeat Gregorovich in the process. Dumbledore then gained the Wand by defeating Grindelwald.18

Dumbledore was clever enough to keep his ownership of the Elder Wand secret and planned to die undefeated, so that the Wand would have no master and would no longer confer such deadly power upon an owner.19 Unfortunately, that "did not work as [he] intended." 20 Voldemort eventually found out that Dumbledore had the Elder Wand, and naturally thought that Snape, Dumbledore's killer, had become its master.21 However, Snape's murder of Dumbledore was arranged by Dumbledore and represented no defeat.22 In fact, it was Draco Malfoy ’ who had earlier disarmed Dumbledore ’ who had become the Wand's owner, though he never knew it and never actually possessed the Wand.23 Then, because Harry accidentally defeated Draco, Harry became the Wand's master. This lead to Voldemort's final downfall: Voldemort used the Elder Wand against Harry and was killed by the backfire of the spell as "Harry [¦] saw the Elder Wand fly high [¦] spinning through the air towards the master it would not kill." 24

Voldemort's mistake in thinking that Snape rather than Draco was the master of the Wand may have been a mental lapse (overlooking Draco's disarming of Dumbledore), or it may have followed from Voldemort's Dark thinking that the Wand only recognizes the one who killed its previous owner. Even if he had known about Draco, it would not have mattered: Harry had already disarmed Draco when Voldemort found the Wand. Thus, in the end, the ownership of the Elder Wand was determined when Harry accidentally snatched Draco's wand out of his hands.

Rowling has written that

I really wanted, very consciously, for the history of the wizarding world to hinge on this moment where two teenage boys (Harry and Draco) have a physical [fight]. They don't even do it by magic. [¦] That sort of puts all of Voldemort's and Dumbledore's grandiose plans in their place, doesn't it? You just can't plan that well, that something can go wrong and it went wrong ¦ It went wrong because Harry managed to pull this wand out of Draco's grip.25

From the Elder Wand story it appears that the fate of the wizarding world was really determined by chance, and that's the way Rowling wanted it. Let us add here (with words in honor of Xenophilius and Luna Lovegood): OR DOES IT??

Considering what we know about Harry's self-sacrifice and the role of Harry's blood, a very different scenario emerges. Here is what we know for sure.

1. Harry is a seventh Horcrux. A fragment of Voldemort's soul lives in Harry, "and while that fragment of soul... remains attached to, and protected by Harry, Lord Voldemort cannot die." 26

2. Dumbledore lets Snape think that Harry must die, "and Voldemort himself must do it." 27

3. Harry must go willingly to his death, accepting death to spare the others at Hogwarts,28 and let Voldemort attack him with the Killing Curse. Dumbledore has set things up so that Harry doesn't defend himself and lets Voldemort kill him. "And that will, I think, have made all the difference." 29

4. Voldemort's attack does not succeed in killing Harry because Voldemort used Harry's blood to regenerate ’ this kept Harry's mother's enchantment alive and "tethered you to life while he lives." 30 However, Voldemort's Killing Curse does kill the Horcrux in Harry.31 Harry and Voldemort are both knocked out, possibly because they still share the connection when Voldemort attacks Harry.

5. After Harry's self-sacrifice, Voldemort's spells against the Hogwarts defenders are no longer binding, because Harry has done "what [his] mother did." 32 Just as his mother's sacrifice protected Harry, now Harry's sacrifice provides protection for all the defenders of Hogwarts. Voldemort "won't be able to kill any of them ever again [¦] none of the spells [he] put on them are binding" 33 and Harry's Shield Charms are completely effective.

6. Voldemort's Cruciatus curse worked on Harry at the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, even though Voldemort had already used Harry's blood to regenerate.34 But after Harry's self-sacrifice, the Cruciatus curse no longer has any effect.35

This sequence points to a very different resolution, in which the fate of the wizarding world is determined by choice rather than chance.

Because Voldemort used Harry's blood to regenerate, Harry remains "tethered to life" while Voldemort remains alive. Therefore, Harry cannot be killed ’ not by Voldemort and not by anyone else! It does not matter who has the Elder Wand, or whether Voldemort has claimed true ownership (which could have happened very easily, had Voldemort killed Draco or taken Draco's wand instead of Lucius' in the opening chapter of Deathly Hallows36). Unless the Elder Wand ’ in the hands of its rightful owner ’ is powerful enough to overcome the protection provided by the charm on Harry's blood, Harry cannot be killed.

Similarly, if Harry's choice to sacrifice himself has truly broken Voldemort's power so that Voldemort's spells are no longer binding, then Voldemort would also be unable to defeat Harry even if he had gained ownership of the Elder Wand. (Unless the Elder Wand was powerful enough to overcome the charm on Harry's blood.) Again, it is choice rather than chance that decides the issue.

This concludes what we know directly from the text. How does the final resolution play out?

As I see it, the ending of Deathly Hallows contains three possible resolutions: an ending driven by choice alone; an ending driven by chance; and an ending driven by both choice and chance. All three are consistent with the text. Rowling left it unresolved at the end of Deathly Hallows, and her own words suggest that the final outcome is due to chance (the ownership of the Elder Wand) rather than choice (Harry's self-sacrifice and its results). Perhaps she wants the question of choice versus chance to remain open at the end. In my view the ending is more likely to involve both choice and chance, but with choice as the dominant factor.

First, the ending driven purely by choice: Here, the combined effect of Harry's self-sacrifice and the presence of Harry's blood in Voldemort's body is powerful enough to overcome anything, even the Elder Wand. As described just above, Voldemort's power to torture and kill are destroyed after his attack on Harry in the Forest.

The exact mechanism is unclear: for example, how did Voldemort's Killing Curse cause the death of the Horcrux even though Harry was not killed? Regardless, Harry's sacrifice has re-activated the charm from his mother's sacrifice and extended it to protect all Voldemort's victims. Harry himself is doubly protected from Voldemort: Voldemort's use of Harry's blood to regenerate means that Harry is "tethered to life" so long as Voldemort lives, and Harry's self-sacrifice has broken Voldemort's power. Voldemort is killed by his own rebounding Killing Curse, and we have seen this type of rebound once before ’ when Voldemort attempted to kill Harry as a baby, and Harry was saved by his mother's sacrifice.

In this ending, the Elder Wand is almost irrelevant. Even if Voldemort had gained true ownership of the Wand (by disarming or killing Draco early), he would not have been able to defeat Harry. The Killing Curse would have rebounded anyway, defeated by Harry's self-sacrifice rather than by the details of wand ownership. Choice, not chance.

Evidence in favor of this ending includes the rebounding Killing Curse that put a final end to Voldemort. The first rebound of the Killing Curse was the result of Lily Potter's self-sacrifice to save Harry, so it seems likely that the final rebound that killed Voldemort was due to the same type of self-sacrifice. This suggests that Voldemort was killed in the end due to Harry's self-sacrifice and not the Elder Wand. (However, Voldemort's other curses do not rebound after Harry's self-sacrifice ’ they merely become ineffective.) Too, we know that the Elder Wand was not enough to vanquish Voldemort. Otherwise Dumbledore would have been able to eliminate the Horcruxes and defeat Voldemort himself, without help from Harry.

Second, the ending driven by chance: as owner of the Elder Wand, Voldemort would have been able to overcome all obstacles, including the effects of Harry's self-sacrifice and the protection of Harry's blood. If chance had favored Voldemort he could have easily gained ownership of the Elder Wand ’ for example, if he had killed or disarmed Draco at the start of Deathly Hallows. The Elder Wand would have enabled Voldemort to maintain his powers, despite the charm of Harry's sacrifice, or it might have granted him new ones. The Elder Wand might have even been able to break the protection of Harry's blood and kill Harry, but even if Harry remained "tethered to life" he would have been left powerless against the Dark Lord. In either of these cases, Harry's actual triumph would be due more to the accident of grabbing Draco's wand out of his hands, rather than the magic of his self-sacrifice. All Dumbledore's planning and Harry's efforts might have been in vain. Chance, not choice.

Evidence for this ending (and against the ending driven by choice alone) comes from Dumbledore's words to Harry at King's Cross: "if you choose to return, there is a chance that [Voldemort] may be finished for good. I cannot promise it." 37 Dumbledore knows about Harry's sacrifice, but he also knows that Voldemort has the Elder Wand, which might still grant Voldemort mastery.

Lastly, the ending involving both choice and chance: Voldemort's power to hurt others has been permanently broken by Harry's self-sacrifice, but the question of which one will die and which one will survive ’ Harry or Voldemort ’ depends on the Elder Wand.

Based on Harry's words at the end of Deathly Hallows, this is the most likely possibility. The prophecy (which Harry invokes at the end) says that Harry has the power to vanquish the Dark Lord and that either must die by the hand of the other, but it does not say which one will survive.38 In the final confrontation Harry first tells Voldemort that his power is broken: "I was ready to die to stop you from hurting those people [¦] and that's what did it. [¦] They're protected from you. [¦] You can't torture them. You can't touch them." 39 Harry may be referring only to the Hogwarts defenders, but most likely the protection extends to all Voldemort's victims.

Harry then tells Voldemort that he has both "magic [Voldemort does] not have" and "a weapon more powerful than [Voldemort's]." 40 The magic is the truth about Dumbledore's death and Snape's allegiance: "Severus Snape wasn't yours. Snape was Dumbledore's, Dumbledore's from the moment you started hunting down my mother [¦] because he loved her for nearly all of his life, from the time when they were children." 41 Here, the "power the Dark Lord knows not" from the prophecy comes into full play at last. Snape's love (!) and Dumbledore's (as Hermione tells Harry, "He [Dumbledore] loved you" 42) in effect reach out to give Harry victory. The result is to grant Harry the weapon, the Elder Wand, which enables him to kill Voldemort and survive.

Thus, from Harry's own words: Harry's chosen self-sacrifice broke Voldemort's power, but his personal triumph and survival resulted from his chance ownership of the Elder Wand. Choice and chance, both.

This choice-and-chance ending is advantageous because it provides a role for all three factors that contribute to Voldemort's fall: Harry's blood (which brings Harry back to life after the encounter in the Forest; Harry's self-sacrifice (which breaks Voldemort's power); and the Elder Wand (which enables Harry to triumph in the final duel and brings about the death of Voldemort). Each contributes in a way that is consistent with Harry's words and with Dumbledore's words at King's Cross. In the final duel the Elder Wand "[flies] high [¦] spinning through the air towards the master it would not kill, who had come to take full possession of it at last." 43 This implies that Voldemort's death was due to Harry's ownership of the Elder Wand rather than Harry's or his mother's sacrifice.

However, this ending still has puzzles and inconsistencies: If the Elder Wand could have defeated Harry in the end, would Harry not still be "tethered to life" while Voldemort lives? Alternatively, if the Elder Wand were strong enough to break the charm that tethered Harry to life, would it not also be strong enough to overcome the charm that protected the defenders of Hogwarts? Let's just say that ownership of the Elder Wand would have only allowed Voldemort to survive the final duel with Harry. The Killing Curse would not have rebounded on him (and Harry might have been led to "board a train" on his second visit to King's Cross), but Voldemort would still be left without power to do harm (and possibly dead at the hands of the Hogwarts defenders, who had already triumphed over the remaining Death Eaters).

There is a final reason why I believe that Voldemort could not have triumphed even if chance had favored him and granted him ownership of the Elder Wand. In the final confrontation Voldemort already seems like a broken man. The Tom Riddle who confronted Harry at the end of Chamber of Secrets, the reborn Voldemort in Goblet of Fire, and the boy introduced to Dumbledore in Half Blood Prince was a being who did not know self-doubt, and who looked down with scorn on Harry and all others. But the Voldemort in the final confrontation of Deathly Hallows is tentative and almost fearful. Whereas once he scorned Harry, now he worries that Harry may know a "final secret" and is shaken by Harry's advice that he "try for some remorse, Riddle." 44 Towards the end of Deathly Hallows Voldemort is losing control, and unable to prevent Harry seeing into his mind. When Voldemort hears of Harry's break-in at Gringotts and theft of the cup-Horcrux he lashes out and kills his own supporters, and his rage enables Harry to read his mind and discover the location of the final Horcrux.45

It is hard to imagine this reduced and weakened Voldemort triumphing in the end. If chance had favored him, all he could hope for was a meager and weakened survival. The main issue was decided by choice.

The role of choice and chance also echoes the evolving view of Albus Dumbledore, the champion of choice over chance. Initially Harry thinks that Dumbledore knows "more or less everything that goes on here" 46 and "had grown used to the idea that Dumbledore could solve everything." 47 In Prisoner of Azkaban Harry first learns that even Dumbledore has limitations: Dumbledore has "no power to make other men see the truth [about Sirius Black], or to overrule the Minister for Magic." 48 In Deathly Hallows Harry increasingly has doubts about Dumbledore,49 even while remaining "Dumbledore's man through and through." 50 At the end Harry sees Dumbledore for what he is: a very wise wizard but still a fallible human being,51 whose plans provide a chance that Voldemort may be defeated for good but cannot guarantee it. Just as Dumbledore's guesses are usually right but not always, so it ends up in Harry's world that choices usually win out over chance, but not always.

What of Rowling's words that the history of the wizarding world hinged on a physical fight?

There were many moments in the Harry Potter series when the fate of the wizarding world (and the fate of many individuals) seemed to hinge on chance: Peter Pettigrew's escape in Prisoner of Azkaban, Voldemort's improbable success in capturing Harry in Goblet of Fire, and Snape's near-failure to get the critical information to Harry in Deathly Hallows. If Snape had died just ten minutes earlier, then he would have not known what he had to do in the end (although he might have chosen to do it on his own). In Rowling's world, as in the real world, choice and chance both can affect the final outcome and results do not come in a neat pre-determined package.

However, my reading of the final resolution is that Voldemort's power was destroyed by Harry's conscious self-sacrifice, and that, as Harry tells Voldemort in the end, was no "accident." 52 Based on the words of Dumbledore and Voldemort, I think that Rowling would also come down on the side of choice, not chance.

Choice, not chance. That is my view. Now, let's hope Rowling will have her say.

Postscript: A comment from J. K. Rowling relevant to this essay topic appears here on her site.


Notes

1. Rowling, "Live Chat."

2.Rowling, Chamber of Secrets, 233.

3. Ibid., 245.

4. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 571; Deathly Hallows, 13, 591. Note: Voldemort only attributes his failures with Harry to chance. He attributes his successes to his own skill.

5. Mzimba, "Interview with Kloves and Rowling."

6. Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 476’79: "The prophecy does not mean you have to do anything [¦] you are free to choose your way, quite free to turn your back on the prophecy!"

7. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 607.

8. Rowling Official Site, "FAQ: Do you believe in fate?"

9. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 525. Voldemort states that "I have performed my usual magic. I am extraordinary, but this wand ... no. [¦] I feel no difference between this wand and the one I procured from Ollivander all these years ago."

10. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 334’35, 399’400; Brown, "Confused by Potter?"

11. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 401’2, 527. Voldemort states that "The Elder Wand belongs to the wizard who killed its last owner."

12. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 230.

13. Ibid, 404, 575.

14. Ibid., 594’95.

15. Ibid., 595.

16. Ibid., 331.

17. Ibid., 402’4.

18. Ibid., 404, 575.

19. Ibid., 578, 594.

20. Ibid., 578.

21. Ibid., 527.

22. Ibid., 592’94.

23. Ibid., 595.

24. Ibid.

25. Brown, "Confused by Potter?"

26. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 551, 568.

27. Ibid, 551.

28. Ibid., 555.

29. Ibid., 567.

30. Ibid., 568.

31. Ibid., 567.

32. Ibid., 591.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 570.

35. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 582.

36. Ibid., 14.

37. Ibid., 578.

38. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 741.

39. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 591.

40. Ibid., 592’94.

41. Ibid., 593.

42. Ibid., 295, 458.

43. Ibid., 595’96.

44. Ibid., 592’94.

45. Ibid., 443’45.

46. Ibid., Philosopher's Stone, 219.

47. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 288.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 146’47, 153, 387.

50. Ibid., Half Blood Prince, 334.

51. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 571 and after.

52. Ibid., 591.

Bibliography

Brown, Jen. "Confused by Potter? Author sets record straight." TodayShow.com, MSNBC (online), 30 July 2007. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20035573.

J.K. Rowling Official Site. "FAQ: do you believe in fate?" http://www.jkrowling.com/textonly/en/faq_view.cfm?id=71

Mzimba, Lizo, moderator. "Interview with Steve Kloves and J.K. Rowling." Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets DVD, February 2003. Transcript by AccioQuote! http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2003/0302-newsround-mzimba.htm.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.

”””. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. London: Bloomsbury, 2007.

”””. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.

”””. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury, 2005.

”””. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.

”””. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.

”””. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.

”””. "J.K. Rowling and the Live Chat." Bloomsbury.com, July 30, 2007. Transcript by AccioQuote! http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2007/0730-bloomsbury-chat.html.

Viera, Meredith. "Harry Potter: The final chapter." Dateline (NBC), 29 July, 2007. Transcript by AccioQuote! http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2007/0729-dateline-vieira.html.

Comments? Discuss this essay here on the Scribbulus forum.





Finding Hogwarts

The Leaky Cauldron is not associated with J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., or any of the individuals or companies associated with producing and publishing Harry Potter books and films.