The prophecy Harry hears in Dumbledore's office suggests to me that both he and Voldemort will have to die, is that true?
Both Madam Trelawney and I worded the prophecy extremely carefully and that is all I have to say on the subject!
~ From the FAQ section of JK Rowling’s website
My best friend wasn’t sure she wanted to read the rest of OotP last summer. Her mother had finished it first and had been crying inconsolably. When Tanya finally did get the courage to finish the book (and really, who could resist?), she was able to discuss with her mother what had upset her so much. After reading the chapter where Dumbledore reveals the content of Trelawney’s first prophecy, Tanya’s mother was sure the prophecy meant that Harry had to die. Naturally, she was somewhat relieved when Tanya looked back over the prophecy with her, and assured her that it does not, in fact, guarantee Harry’s death.
When she told me this story, Tanya seemed pretty amused by her mother’s misreading of the prophecy, but I think it is quite an understandable mistake. Shortly after reading OotP for the first time, I made a post at the Sugarquill discussing how there is more than one way to interpret the prophecy. (This is the same post that I linked to in my recent entry about “Fandom anniversaries.”) At the time, I left it at that, but some of the recent discussion about the upcoming book, and especially JKR’s answer to the FAQ about the prophecy, has brought the issue to my mind again. In particular, JKR’s insistence that the prophecy was worded “extremely carefully” suggests to me that she did not employ some rather unusual diction in the prophecy merely to make it sound a bit more mystical. I have come to believe that the wording of the prophecy is, in fact, intentionally confusing—and that it is not only readers who are supposed to be confused.
“THE ONE WITH THE POWER TO VANQUISH THE DARK LORD APPROACHES…BORN TO THOSE WHO HAVE THRICE DEFIED HIM, BORN AS THE SEVENTH MONTH DIES…AND THE DARK LORD WILL MARK HIM AS HIS EQUAL, BUT HE WILL HAVE POWER THAT THE DARK LORD KNOWS NOT…AND EITHER MUST DIE AT THE HAND OF THE OTHER FOR NEITHER CAN LIVE WHILE THE OTHER SURVIVES…THE ONE WITH THE POWER TO VANQUISH THE DARK LORD WILL BE BORN AS THE SEVENTH MONTH DIES…”
[snip description of Trelawney sinking back into the Pensieve, and the silence in Dumbledore’s office]
“Professor Dumbledore?” Harry said very quietly, for Dumbledore, still staring at the Pensieve, seemed completely lost in thought. “It…did that mean…What did that mean?”
[snip lots of discussion about the first part of the prophecy]
…Harry asked, without really caring much about the answer, “The end of the prophecy…it was something about…‘neither can live…’”
“‘…while the other survives,’” said Dumbledore.
“So,” said Harry, dredging up the words from what felt like a deep well of despair inside him, “so does that mean that…that one of us has got to kill the other one…in the end?”
“Yes,” said Dumbledore.
~ OotP Ch. 37, p. 841 and 844, US Ed. (bold mine)
It’s clear enough to readers what a bombshell this revelation should be to Harry, but Harry, distracted by his grief over Sirius’s death, doesn’t really process the information he has learned about his destiny. He doesn’t seem to think about it at all in Dumbledore’s office, and in the last chapter of the book, he thinks about it only in passing:
It was sunny and the grounds around him were full of laughing people, and even though he felt as distant from them as though he belonged to a different race, it was still very hard to believe as he sat here that his life must include, or end in, murder…
~ OotP Ch. 38, p. 856 US Ed.
As of the end of OotP, Harry has not thought very deeply about what this part of the Prophecy—the most crucial part, since it is the part that has yet to be fulfilled—really means.
But…what does it mean?
Here is what I said in my original post on the meaning of the phrase “Either must die at the hand of the other”:
There are two possible definitions of the word “either” that might apply here. One is “one or the other” as in “Wear either coat.” Read: One (Harry) or the other (LV) must die at the hand of the other (Harry or LV). The other possible definition is “one and the other; each” as in “He had rings on either hand.” Read: Each (both Harry and LV) must die at the hand of the other (both Harry and LV).
So the obvious interpretation of the prophecy, and the one that Dumbledore is proposing, is that Harry will either kill LV or be killed by him. But another possible interpretation is that both Harry and LV will kill each other.
What about the second part, “For neither can live while the other survives”? The interesting thing about this phrase is that it makes no sense if you take it literally. As long as Voldemort is alive, Harry isn’t. As long as Harry is alive, Voldemort isn’t. Yet right now, both of them are alive. Perhaps all it means is that, when it comes to the final showdown between Harry and LV, if one of them survives, the other cannot live. One problem with that, however, is the question of what constitutes the final showdown. How do we know at which point one of them has to not survive in order for the other to be able to live? They have already faced each other three times in which both of them have survived. If all this phrase is telling us is that, eventually, there will be a battle between them in which at least one of them must die, then it’s not telling us anything different from the first part of the prophecy. It is redundant.
Some have proposed that it should be taken to mean that, although Harry is alive, he can’t truly live until Voldemort is vanquished, because of all the darkness and trials in his life caused by Voldemort’s presence. Some inverse of this could also be applied to Voldemort. I think this part of the prophecy fits in very well with The Changeling Hypothesis (hereafter called the CH), which you should all read, if you haven’t already. It is this interpretation that I am more inclined to accept, because if that is what this part of the prophecy means, it is not redundant. It is telling us something about the connection between LV and Harry; whether because Tom Riddle’s soul is split between the two of them, as in the CH, or for some other reason, neither of them can live while the other survives.
Whichever meaning is behind this phrase, the important thing about it for the purpose of this discussion is that it does not guarantee that one of the two parties will survive. It does not say, “One will live if the other doesn’t survive,” or “If one dies, the other will survive.” It says “Neither can live while the other survives.” If I said about two of my students, “Neither can use the computer while the other does,” have I promised that one of them can use it? No. All I have said is that they can’t both use it. I might decide that I don’t want either of them to use it, and I would not have broken my word.
What I am trying to establish here is that, according to this portion of the prophecy, the portion that concerns events still to come, there are three possible outcomes:
1) Harry will kill Voldemort and live.
2) Voldemort will kill Harry and live.
3) Harry and Voldemort will kill each other.
I hope we can all agree that, considering the style and genre of the books, and the themes that have been established so far, that #2 is not a possible outcome. I also think that there is strong thematic evidence that #3 will not be the final outcome, which I will address in a moment. Hence, I do firmly believe that the books will end with #1. Why then, would I go to such lengths to show that the prophecy could mean that #3 is a possibility as well?
I believe JKR has deliberately allowed #3 to be a possible interpretation of the prophecy for a reason. We know that she likes to mess with readers about the possibility that Harry (and, at times, Ron or Hermione) will die. Certainly, keeping the suspense intact for the readers is important. But I think there is more to it than that.
I think that she has “carefully” worded the prophecy in a way that is deliberately ambiguous because she means for Harry himself to misinterpret it. As I said earlier, as of the end of OotP, Harry has not yet really thought about what the prophecy has to say about his future. But I think we can be sure that he will start to think about it, and eventually, talk about it:
Potter47: Will Harry tell Neville about the Prophecy?
JK Rowling: Harry will tell his nearest and dearest about the prophecy when he's ready. He needs time to digest the news himself first.</i>
~ World Book Day chat
So we will see Harry considering the meaning of the prophecy in upcoming books. Because of Harry’s sense of isolation at the end of OotP, his long-standing tendency to resist confiding his deepest thoughts and feelings even to his dearest friends, and the very serious nature of this particular secret, I suspect that it will be a long time before he talks to his friends about the prophecy. And though I think he has now become close enough to several people who might be considered his “nearest and dearest”, including Neville, Luna, Ginny, Hagrid, Lupin, and, of course, Ron and Hermione, I doubt he will tell them all at once.
I’m pondering a situation in which he may talk to one or two of these people, but resist telling others for a very long time. He may go along assuming the interpretation Dumbledore offered him is all there is to it—until he finally tells a certain friend who has 1) enough understanding of language to recognize the ambiguity in the wording of the prophecy, 2) enough of a pessimistic outlook to assume the worst is possible, and 3) enough candor to tell Harry. That would be Hermione, of course, and it's interesting that she is also a friend whom Harry has been especially resistant to confiding in; he might conceivably put off telling her until as late as the second half of Book Seven.
Harry realizing that he has “misinterpreted” the prophecy might then be compounded by other discoveries—such as, perhaps, that he is carrying Tom Riddle’s soul inside himself, as per the CH. It seems possible that the incident at the end of OotP, in which Voldemort possesses Harry’s body and dares Dumbledore to kill them both, may well foreshadow a situation in which Harry decides to give up his life so as to destroy the part of Voldemort that is inside him.
But whether or not the CH is what is behind Harry’s connection to LV, I am proposing a situation in which we have Harry entering the climax of the final book, believing that he must die in order to rid the world of the greatest dark wizard of the age. I think it should be clear by now why the ambiguous wording of the prophecy is to JKR’s advantage. Not only does it maintain the suspense for the readers, but it also adds to the possibility of a poignant finale, in which the hero faces a more certain death than ever before.
*whew* Don’t worry, I’m not going to leave it here at “Harry must face certain death so that we can have an exciting ending.” But I’m tired and I need a dinner break. So, I’m going to go ahead and post Part I, and either later this evening or some time tomorrow, I will try to get Part II up, which will be a brief (I hope) discussion of death in the HP books. There’s a lot of material on this, of course, since death is clearly one of the major themes, but I’m going to stick mostly to death as it relates specifically to Harry’s journey into adulthood. Oh yeah, I’ll also talk about why I don’t really think Harry’s going to die at the end. Ha ha! You have to wait for that part. :P *is evil*
Edit: Part II is here.