How to Kill a Character: The Death of Sirius Black in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”

My disappointment in Rowling’s utter and complete kowtowing to liberalism is because her books meant so much to my life and writing. The Harry Potter series had flaws, but Rowling was in no way, shape, or form a hack. She knew how to make sympathetic characters, how to plot so that even when there are holes you don’t notice them, and how to skillfully establish theme in her writing.

And, while book five is arguably the weakest book overall in the series, it contains one of her strongest pieces of writing: Her handling of the death of Sirius Black. Get ready, because this is going to be long. It is adapted from a comment down on Tom Simon’s wonderful blog, which you should all read all the time.

Rowling is sometimes criticized (see the comment I responded to for one example, but it’s not the first time I’ve heard it) for not killing Sirius off with immediate finality. Sirius is not avada’d, but stunned, and his body is not destroyed, but is intact when it falls through the portal. In the fantasy genre, this screams “NOT DEAD!!!”. But, contrary to what critics are saying, this is not a flaw. It is quite the opposite: It is a brilliant subversion of a common fantasy trope and a masterful exercise in thematic development, as well as an excellent example of how to use the death of a major character for full emotional effect.

Book five is rightly maligned for its poor editing, but the ending is actually masterfully executed. Rowling is being the perfect amount of cruel in her dealings with Sirius’s death. She leaves us two clear outs, set up by a lack of the true killing curse: The two-way mirror and the “ghost out”.

For the sake of time both “outs” are absent in the movies (which neatly avoided the problem by having Sirius Avada’d, which we’ve emphasized throughout as being infallible to the point that its failure is so significant an event it is the literal catalyst of the plot of the entire series). The first time we realize that there might be a way for us to see Sirius again is when Harry, finally, remembers his two-way mirror. The emotional “oomph” of the scene comes when Harry realizes that Sirius did not bring his mirror with him: He had forgotten it as well.

The failure of the first out is incredibly cruel because it feels like the sort of trick Rowling would pull. The fact that the mirrors existed at all should theoretically be all but forgotten by the readers, and in typical Rowling fashion their sudden re-reveal is totally unexpected yet perfectly natural (a trick used to best effect in her best book, “Prisoners of Azkaban”, when the secret of Hermione’s time-turner is revealed. “Goblet of Fire”‘s twist ending was clever, but its effect was dulled a bit by the long infodump necessary to make sense of it).

So when we suddenly learn that Sirius doesn’t have the mirror, it’s not just Harry who has been tricked: So have we. Harry’s frustration is ours.

But Rowling then gets even MORE cruel afterward, when she brings up the possibility of Sirius being a ghost. This one is less exciting, because most readers probably wouldn’t expect Rowling to use such a cheap trick, but Harry is so excited, so sure of himself, that we simultaneously pity him because of the immense disappointment he is about to feel and, perhaps a little but still, feel that just maybe

So when Nick shoots down the idea, it’s less cruel, but it still stings, and more importantly our pity for Harry becomes even more acute. It also allows Rowling to get in a nifty bit of exposition about ghosts that becomes relevant later in the series.

So, Rowling has taken advantage of the lack of closure surrounding Sirius’s depth to deepen her theme of the inevitability of death and to increase our empathy for Harry. It also gets us even more firmly immersed in the novel as we find that our hope for an “out” for Sirius is just as high as Harry’s.

In fact, Rowling is masterful in her handling of the dead throughout the series, continually striking the perfect balance: The (confirmed) dead always stay dead, and any glimpses we get of them in the afterlife are always used extremely sparingly in carefully selected environments.

Continually she uses the conventions of the genre to tease the idea that she might have a trick up her sleeve (most obviously with Harry seeing his father in “Prisoner of Azkaban” and Harry seeing Dumbledore’s eye in “Deathly Hallows”), but inevitably the trick is that there IS no trick. Her playing with this common fantasy trope was one of the most brilliant things about the Harry Potter series.

The series had flaws, but Rowling was no hack, and this was not one of those flaws. In fact, it was one of the series’ greatest strengths.

The death of Sirius Black, and the aftermath of his death, was one of the most moving sequences for me in the entire series. It was masterfully executed and incredibly powerful, and far from being maligned for it Rowling should be praised for the precision and care that she shows to her craft in her handling of Sirius’s death.

Rowling’s popularity sometimes leads to her series getting disparaged perhaps more than it deserves. This is unfair. It is flawed, yes, but what series isn’t? The Harry Potter series is despite it all very well written, and if all fantasy series were executed as well as Rowling’s the genre would be stronger for it.

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8 Responses to How to Kill a Character: The Death of Sirius Black in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”

  1. Agreed overall as well. (and certainly the aftermath confirmed my belief that Harry should have ended up with Luna)

    her best book, “Prisoners of Azkaban”

    Ok, you’re not ALWAYS wrong. 😉

    • Harry certainly never should have ended up with Ginny, who was a dull and poorly written character (made even worse in the movie because of a terrible performance by the actress portraying her).

      Book 3 was the peak of Rowling’s powers. She had matured as a writer and overcome any “beginner” issues she may have had and nailed the balance she tried, later unsuccessfully, to tiptoe in between “children’s series” and “adult series”.

      And this occurred when editors still had the balls to edit the books of J.K. Rowling. As a result the pacing of the book is probably at its best in the entire series, and the mystery is not only intelligent but carries real emotional resonance. The ending is dark but not without hope.

      Book 3 also opened reader eyes to the level of planning Rowling put into the series. Famously, there is a throwaway line mentioning Sirius Black as early as the first chapter of book one.

      The problem Rowling had was not that she tried to mature the series. That, in itself, is perfectly fine. The problem is that when she got very serious in her later books it didn’t sync up well at all with her earlier books. Looked at from the eyes of a child Dumbledore’s actions in book 1 make perfect sense. Looked at from the eyes of a grown reader trying to look at the motives and actions of the character’s through a larger lens to see how they affect the future, the entire plot of book one is unbelievably stupid.

      The problem is not the maturation. It’s the disconnect.

  2. Ilion says:

    I tried to read me some Harry. I was all, “meh”

    • Book 1 is very much a children’s book. It reads much more “Roald Dahl” then the later stuff, which turns into more modern style young adult fare.

      • Ilion says:

        As I recall (it has been some years), I was pleasantly surprised by the first book or two — “children’s books” don’t necessarily offend my adult dignity (*). My great-niece and great-nephew (and their mother, my niece) were raving about the series and wanted me to read them.

        (*) I’d never even heard of the Narnia series, much less read them, until I was an adult.

      • When it turns into a more typical young adult book (as opposed to children’s book) it improves in overall quality but suffers from some defects that wouldn’t be present in a simpler children’s book.

        It also makes the series as a whole very tonally inconsistent. Things in book one that would make sense from the perspective of a child are now expected to be taken seriously, and that just doesn’t fit at all.

  3. And the reason I came on here tonight is to say that I really enjoy some of your literary criticism. I’ve not read all of it, and I’ve not read a ton of LC to begin with. But that (the latter) is because it’s usually boring.

    You have a great way of teaching without patronizing, and bringing truly interesting insights to the reader’s attention. Thanks for sharing.

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