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We know that Harry survived Voldemort's killing curse because Lily loved him so much that she sacrificed herself in an attempt to protect him. This resulted in a very powerful charm that pretty much rendered Harry immune to Voldemort (until Voldemort figured out the work-around).

Then there's this passage describing that night:

[Voldemort] was over the threshold as James came sprinting down the hall. It was easy, too easy, he had not even picked up his wand ...

"Lily, take Harry and go! It's him! Go! Run! I'll hold him off -"

Hold him off, without a wand in his hand! ... He laughed before casting the curse ...

"Avada Kedavra!"

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Chapter 17: Bathilda's Secret

So James Potter, fully aware that he was sacrificing himself (he said "I'll hold him off," not "I'll get rid of him") ran to face Voldemort because of his love for Lily and Harry. This seems to be very similar to how Lily tried to protect Harry from Voldemort even though she knew she would die. It seems to me that the same charm should have been cast upon Lily when James died, but just moments later Voldemort killed her too. Apparently James' sacrifice did not result in a charm that protected Lily, even though he did it from love for her and Harry.

Why is this? Was something different in the circumstances?

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    @Slytherincess That's fairly reasonable, but it doesn't quite make sense to me. James could have chosen to run away instead of running to the door; I'd say he chose to try and hold Voldemort off. Also (my own opinion here) I don't think the murderer's intentions should determine the validity of the victim's sacrifice. Even if Voldemort had resolved to kill Lily anyway, the fact that she would choose to stand in front of Harry instead of running away and getting killed anyway is what makes all the difference (to me). Of course, JKR is the boss here but it just doesn't seem right to me.
    – commando
    Dec 13, 2012 at 3:28
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    See my answer. Yeah, that's her explanation. :) Dec 13, 2012 at 3:32
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    Could it be because James primarily wanted to protect his son, and Lily was only a secondary concern of his? So both parents' sacrifice together protected Harry.
    – b_jonas
    Dec 13, 2012 at 9:06

8 Answers 8

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Actually, I'll make my comment an answer.

According to J.K. Rowling, the difference between James' death and Lily's is that Voldemort always intended to kill James; he gave Lily multiple chances to step aside and let Voldemort kill Harry, and she refused and died protecting Harry. That is what created the protective enchantment between Lily and Harry. Lily chose to die for Harry; James wasn't given a choice.

ES: This is one of my burning questions since the third book - why did Voldemort offer Lily so many chances to live? Would he actually have let her live?

JKR: Mhm.

ES: Why?

JKR: [silence] Can't tell you. But he did offer; you're absolutely right. Don't you want to ask me why James's death didn't protect Lily and Harry? There's your answer - you've just answered your own question - because she could have lived - and chose to die. James was going to be killed anyway. Do you see what I mean? I'm not saying James wasn't ready to; he died trying to protect his family, but he was going to be murdered anyway. He had no - he wasn't given a choice, so he rushed into it in a kind of animal way. I think there are distinctions in courage. James was immensely brave. But the caliber of Lily's bravery was, I think in this instance, higher because she could have saved herself. Now any mother, any normal mother would have done what Lily did. So in that sense, her courage too was of an animal quality but she was given time to choose. James wasn't. It's like an intruder entering your house, isn't it? You would instinctively rush them. But if in cold blood you were told, "Get out of the way," you know, what would you do? I mean, I don't think any mother would stand aside from their child. But does that answer it? She did very consciously lay down her life. She had a clear choice.

ES: And James didn't.

JKR: Did he clearly die to try and protect Harry specifically given a clear choice? No. It's a subtle distinction and there's slightly more to it than that but that's most of the answer.

INTERVIEW WITH J.K. ROWLING - 07.16.08 - MUGGLENET

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    Yeah, this is definitely the "correct" answer, but as I said in my comment above I don't think it's the right answer. I can't do much about that, though. I wonder why she's holding back on why Voldemort would have let Lily live; it's not like she'll be revealing that in some later book... is it?
    – commando
    Dec 13, 2012 at 3:46
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    Well, the interview was given before Deathly Hallows was released, so she hedged a bit on the final details, I think. Dec 13, 2012 at 4:10
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    @commando If I recall correctly, we do actually get the reason why Voldemort offered to let Lily live right near the end of Deathly Hallows...
    – Izkata
    Dec 13, 2012 at 4:58
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    @AnthonyGrist I think what he meant is that does not feel right, surely because imho J.K.R did not really think of that before questions arose, so she's retconning herself.
    – Eregrith
    Dec 13, 2012 at 9:25
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    @Eregrith -- Whoa, slow the boat down! :) J.K. Rowling has said she spent five years just outlining the HP series before she even began writing. It's unfair to throw the "reconning" label at an author just because the central theme of the book (love, Lily's love, how love is powerful) isn't written as tightly as it could have been. Frankly, I'm more puzzled and concerned about how Harry managed to defeat Voldemort with Expelliarmus. :) Dec 13, 2012 at 13:20
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I think there are some differences in James' choice to die defending his family, and Lily's choice to die protecting her son.

One is Voldemort's intent. Voldemort planned to kill James and to allow Lily to live. So while James did choose to stay and fight, he was already in the line of fire. On the other hand, Lily threw herself into the line of fire hoping to trade her life for her son's.

Another difference is James' and Lily's intents. The success of powerful bits of magic often depends on intent, as seen with the Cruciatus Curse (You have to mean it or it won't work). James was trying to buy as much time for Lily and Harry to escape and (this is conjecture) his mind was likely occupied with what he could do to gain that extra second for his family. So his thoughts were not specifically focused on saving either Lily or Harry, but on what actions he could take towards saving his family. On the other hand, Lily likely knew James was dead and that she was wandless and defenseless, so (again, it is conjecture) her thoughts were not on not on James or fighting, but only on Harry and how much she wished he could live. At that moment she says:

Lily: "Not Harry, not Harry, please not Harry!" V: "Stand aside you silly girl … stand aside now."L: "Not Harry, please no, take me, kill me instead--"

There must also be a difference between Lily's sacrifice and other sacrifices. I dont think it's just throwing yourself in front of a Killing Curse intended for someone else, with the intent to save that person. So there must be something more. Perhaps it was that Voldemort, in a way, complied with Lily's request "please no, take me, kill me instead" by choosing to kill her when he originally intended to let her live. Or maybe it was the strength of Lily's intent to save Harry made possible by the amount of time given to decide, or as suggested by another post a mother-child bond, or blood, or love, or something.

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I think that perhaps the key to this could be that it was the mother-child bond - said to be the strongest bond in life. Lily also consciously chose to sacrifice herself for Harry. James did sacrifice himself but he ran out to meet Voldemort thinking he had a chance at defending them, at surviving to fight another day. Lily did not fight, she protected her child, she shielded him and eventually sacrificed herself. Also Lily was excellent at Charms and the spell that saved Harry was a charm based on ancient magic.

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Honestly, I think that James running out to buy time was kind of a sacrifice- but Tom (I refuse to call him Voldemort) had already challenged him to a duel. Tom was heading for James to fight when he ran out and Tom instantly Avada Kedavra'd him. Lily on the other hand had the option to let Tom kill Harry or kill her. James was already going to be killed. However I think there may be more to the deaths than what we are shown. Many people online are saying that Lily and James died after Harry rebounded. In the Priori Incatatem in Goblet Of Fire it shows the last 9 spells, however the Avada Kedavra that rebounded was not on there. Is it not on there because Harry didn't die or could there actually be more?

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Because in these circumstance James was doomed to die. Voldemort arrives with little time to runaway and he has the intent to kill James, so unless another person saves James he was going to die anyway. Harry on the other hand has a lot of time to run away to escape Voldemort, Lily has the choice to step aside and she did not move.

So the difference is choice, to activate the protection you need to have the option to live and you have to take the other option.

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James hoped to save Lily and Harry through his efforts. His plan (such as it was) did not depend on his death. In fact, it was the opposite: the longer he stayed alive, the longer he could continue to "hold [Voldemort] off". He was, in a certain sense, concerned with his own survival and self-preservation, even if that was in service of a higher goal. Therefore his death was a defeat.

Lily hoped to save Harry through her death, itself. She did not fight. She did not try to escape or resist death. Rather, she explicitly and deliberately offered to accept death in exchange for another's life ("kill me instead"). This is what gave her death its power. Her death was not a defeat; it was a triumph.

A little later in Deathly Hallows, we find that

Harry's (temporary) death is like his mother's death, rather than his father's:

..."But I should have died — I didn't defend myself! I meant to let him kill me!"

"And that," said Dumbledore, "will, I think, have made all the difference."

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, chapter 35, "King's Cross"

...which gives it a similar protective power:

"You won't be killing anyone else tonight," said Harry as they circled, and stared into each other's eyes, green into red. "You won't be able to kill any of them ever again. Don't you get it? I was ready to die to stop you from hurting these people —"

"But you did not!"

"I meant to, and that's what did it. I've done what my mother did. They're protected from you. Haven't you noticed how none of the spells you put on them are binding? You can't torture them. You can't touch them. You don't learn from your mistakes, Riddle, do you?"

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, chapter 36, "The Flaw in the Plan"

I'd like to note the religious overtones here. The concept of surrendering one's life without resistance, to save others, is a core element of Christianity. Rowling is a professed Christian, and has explicitly described her faith as having influenced the plot of the series:

"...Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what's coming in the books."

— "'You can lead a fool to a book but you can't make them think': Author has frank words for the religious right" by Max Wyman, The Vancouver Sun, October 26, 2000. Archive link

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Love and sacrifice is not sufficient

Avada Kedavra is an old and somewhat popular (even if unforgivable) curse that has been over the ages used on many people who had others willing to die to protect tham. If love and sacrifice was all it took to counter Avada Kedavra, it would have helped many of the people killed over the ages, and would be a well known property of the spell taught to students during the defence against the dark arts.

But, obviously, it is not - quite the opposite, it's described in the books that this charm is a unique occurrence that has never happened before, so it's clear that merely having someone sacrificing themselves due to love is simply not sufficient, it takes something more than that.

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i think it did. Lily Potter was never killed by Voldemort directly. you see, James found out that Voldemort was there to kill harry, and he purposefully went to fight him. . .without a wand. he did this so that he could buy lily time to get away with harry, so he must have known he would die. . . which means he died for lily and harry. this means that when Voldemort tried to kill lily to get to harry, it was her the curse rebounded off of, hitting Voldemort. this exploded the house, which is what really killed lily, something harry would never have seen. and Harry's scar is there from Voldemort soul entering it, since he would have been the only living thing in the room. remember, Dumbledore said that only powerful dark magic could have caused him to get that scar, but he never says that it was definitely avada kedavra that caused it.

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    Except the avada kedavra spell did kill Lily, and it was only when Voldemort then cast the spell at Harry that it rebounded, killing Voldemort and destroying the house. Lily was already dead
    – childcat15
    Jun 28, 2015 at 18:49
  • that was all conjecture. no one was there. how do we know that lily survived, then the curse rebounded on Voldemort, blowing up the house, and the explosion killed her? (just another possible option) Aug 21, 2015 at 15:57
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    Priori Incatatem in Goblet of Fire, Harry sees the ghosts of his parents as the echo of the spells Voldemort cast. Also I'm sure they have wizard investigators who could accurately piece together what happened. Harry didn't remember any of it, he was told Lily was killed protecting him. (Also in the movies we see Voldemort kill Lily and then use another spell to attack Harry)
    – childcat15
    Aug 21, 2015 at 23:10
  • we don't use moves here, unless the question is about the movie. the books were the most detailed, and created first, so don't bring in the movies. also, it would technically have been voldemorts wand that killed lily, if it was the explosion that killed her. Aug 24, 2015 at 15:52
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    @albusseveruspotter In the book Harry sees inside Voldemort's head and sees Voldemort kill Lilly. It specifically says that Lilly falls to the floor and that Harry wrongly expects her to stand back up. This shows Lilly did die from a direct attack. Mar 3, 2016 at 21:12

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