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This may well be because Lily and James were some of Dumbledore's most powerful and avid supporters as well as integral members of the Order of the Phoenix. So the biggest threat to V-Voldemort [get a grip guys, it's just a name!] and his Order.

But why go through all the motions of murdering an entire family, even though they are cooped up in a hidden house and posing no immediate danger?

References preferred. But justified conjecture is also welcome.

Edit: I wrote this just after reading that Neville broke the prophecy. So I thought it might never be answered, which is why I asked the question. I now know the full reason.

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What research did you do before asking this question? –  Pureferret Feb 20 at 20:19
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Tom Riddle had too many wedgies from James and heart-breaks from Lily? –  David Starkey Feb 21 at 3:54
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I just wanted to point out the irony: the parents of Neville were Aurors and had defied Voldemort thrice as well. Now guess at the end of which month Neville was born: July. By going after Harry, Voldemort fulfilled the Prophecy with Harry as adversary, but Neville would have been in Harry's place had Voldemort tried (and failed) to kill Neville. –  11684 Feb 21 at 12:27
    
bcuz, if it hadn't been in that way, the story wouldn't have progressed :) –  Amit Joki Feb 22 at 6:34
    
@11684 AND Neville was the one who broke the Prophecy. –  Mooz Feb 23 at 21:22

4 Answers 4

up vote 28 down vote accepted

There was this prophecy:

Sybill Trelawney's first prophecy, sometimes simply known as The Prophecy, refers to the prophecy made by Sybill Trelawney to Albus Dumbledore at the Hog's Head Pub in 1980. It referred to a boy born at the end of July, who has the power to defeat Lord Voldemort (which Voldemort took to mean Harry Potter) and Lord Voldemort himself.

So

In what proved to be a vain attempt to circumvent a prophecy that a boy born at the end of July of 1980 could be able to defeat him, Voldemort attempted to murder him when he was a year and three months old, shortly after murdering Harry's parents as they tried to protect him.

Voldemort feared that Harry was the one the prophecy was talking about, since he was born at the end of July. That's why he wanted to kill him. Harry's parents were 'just in the way'. Voldemort killed them because they were trying to protect Harry

Here is the exact prophecy:

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 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 ...

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Sources on these quotes would be great. –  phantom42 Feb 20 at 20:15
    
Sorry, forgot to add them –  Shevliaskovic Feb 20 at 20:17
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Therefore: The prophecy, which appears only in the later books (which contain many similarly striking examples of character and story errors), cannot be seen as canonical. It was said in the first book that Voldemort was after the Potters (parents). From this, we have to assume the boy was just attacked by "chance", because he was there. And, of course, because that starts the story. –  Damon Feb 21 at 13:46
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@Damon, if it's released by JKR or stated by JKR, it's canon. It may not be your personal head-canon, but that doesn't change its official status. Even if your theory of a ghostwriter is correct, JKR would have likely provided the outline of all plot points and major details to the writer. Alan Rickman has said in interviews that he was given small bits of information about Snape long before they were revealed in books. –  phantom42 Feb 21 at 17:31
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Don't forget that the Prophecy could have also pointed to Neville Longbottom (Don't remember the exact quote), it could be speculated that because of the Potter's standing in the Order of the Phoenix, Voldemort would naturally assume that their child would be as detrimental to him if not more so than his parents. –  JustinM Feb 21 at 19:04

Because of Sybill Trelawney's prophecy that the one who would vanquish Voldemort. Voldemort believed it was Harry Potter, so he went to kill him. James and Lily were killed because they were standing in the way of the real goal, Harry's death.

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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 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 ...

-Sybill Trelawney, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Snape had been listening at the door while Trelawney made the prophecy, but did not hear it completely. He repeated what he remembered, and so Voldemort sought to kill Harry as an infant in hopes to avoid being vanquished. However, Voldemort did not realise that by attempting to kill Harry, he was marking him as his equal.

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He killed Lily and James because they were in the way of him killing Harry, which was his aim. He wanted to kill Harry because of the prophecy that Sybill Trelawney (divination professor at Hogwarts) made saying that Voldemort would be defeated by a boy born at the end of July, which Voldemort took to mean Harry (the other option was Neville Longbottom). When Dumbledore talks to Harry about the quality he has which Voldemort lacks (Philosopher's Stone film, Half-Blood Prince throughout), he's talking about the fact that Harry's capable of love. Obviously, most people are capable of love but Harry especially is because his parents died while protecting him because they loved him so much- this is mentioned in the book somewhere but I can't remember specifically what was said. :)

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