Unsung heroes: Lily Potter

Lily Potter died long before we started our adventures with Harry, and yet could not have felt more alive.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2

Warning: spoilers ahead…

Let’s explore Lily’s role as a sister, friend and mother: who was Lily Potter, and why does she deserve more credit as a hero?

A tale of two sisters

From the very first mention of Lily’s name in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, we understand from Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall and Hagrid’s collective sadness that her death was a terrible thing. But who was she?

Clearly a great tragedy befallen Lily and James Potter, leaving their son orphaned – and his survival is ‘just astounding.’ How can he have lived? Dumbledore says: ‘We may never know,’ but of course we will know, and it is the simplest, yet the most profound reason imaginable. Lily Potter died to save her baby son and her sacrifice speaks volumes.

As a young, Muggle-born witch, Lily’s story was much like Harry’s in the beginning. They both faced judgment, and almost certainly jealousy, from the same person in their early years: Petunia.

Aunt Petunia looking shocked from the Prisoner of Azkaban
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we come to understand that Lily’s sister’s cruelty seemed to stem from her envy of Lily’s otherworldly powers. Lily tried her best to save their relationship, but it could not be fixed.

‘– you think I want to be a – a freak?’
Lily’s eyes filled with tears as Petunia succeeded in tugging her hand away.
‘I’m not a freak,’ said Lily. ‘That’s a horrible thing to say.’
‘That’s where you’re going,’ said Petunia with relish. ‘A special school for freaks. You and that Snape boy … weirdos, that’s what you two are.’
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Lily is kind, selfless and loyal. Petunia’s most redeemable quality is perhaps her loyalty to her husband and son, however it often comes at the cost of her other family’s feelings.

A fractured friendship

From the age of no more than nine or 10 years old, there was no greater influence on Severus Snape than Lily Potter, née Evans. His unrequited love for Lily, and the effect of her friendship, subsequent marriage and death on Snape is one of the biggest shocks (and tear-jerkers) in the series.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2

For so long we believe him to be the enemy, a professor to be feared and resented. But in the chapter ‘Snape’s Worst Memory’ in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, it’s James Potter who is revealed to us as ‘an arrogant, bullying toerag’ – by his future wife, no less. And we see Lily Potter as Severus’s friend, for the first time.

In his humiliation though, Severus isn’t grateful for his friend’s help. Instead of thanking Lily, he calls her a ‘filthy little Mudblood’, all but severing their friendship forever, as we later learn. This is in fact Snape’s worst memory: Lily is everything to him.

But evidently, while Lily is someone who will stand up for her friends and fight for what she believes in – Harry sees from this exchange just how decent she is – she will not be treated badly herself. In the chapter ‘The Prince’s Tale’ in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we get to see the real Snape, and more of Lily.

Not afraid to stand up to Severus regarding his ‘creepy’ friends, Lily derides Dark Magic and makes it clear she wants nothing to do with it. And then of course, the Mudblood insult was a step too far, for now she wants nothing to do with him.

‘It’s too late. I’ve made excuses for you for years. None of my friends can understand why I even talk to you. You and your precious little Death Eater friends – you see, you don’t even deny it! You don’t even deny that’s what you’re all aiming to be! You can’t wait to join You-Know-Who, can you?’
He opened his mouth, but closed it without speaking.
‘I can’t pretend any more. You’ve chosen your way, I’ve chosen mine.’
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Lily would never know the true impact she had upon her former best friend’s life. How moving and heartbreaking it was that he gave his life protecting her son, as Lily sacrificed hers too.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2

A mother’s love

‘Not Harry, please no, take me, kill me instead –’
‘This is my last warning –’
'Not Harry! Please … have mercy … have mercy … Not Harry! Not Harry! Please – I’ll do anything –’
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

There is no greater indicator of the kind of person Lily Potter was than the sacrifice she made for her child. Such an act of bravery, selflessness and love, when barely into adulthood herself, is devastating.

We have to piece together her life through memories and photographs, but when Harry sees her for the first time in the Mirror of Erised, we sense how strongly that love is even after her death.

‘She had dark red hair and her eyes – her eyes are just like mine, Harry thought, edging a little closer to the glass. Bright green – exactly the same shape, but then he noticed that she was crying; smiling, but crying at the same time.’
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Harry in front of the Mirror of erised
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

It is, throughout the stories, so easy to empathise with Harry’s loss. We understand he feels it acutely: every birthday, every Christmas, every achievement, every moment of danger, every time he’s told he has his mother’s eyes. Lily is so much more than a ghost of the past.

As Dumbledore notes in Deathly Hallows, Harry resembles his father. ‘In looks, perhaps, but his deepest nature is much more like his mother’s.’

And then of course, there is the letter.

Lily’s letter to Sirius in Deathly Hallows is such a gift. It is the first time we hear directly from her, and her excitement and joy as she talks about Harry ‘already zooming along on a toy broomstick’ is palpable. And so refreshingly normal is her talk of her child’s birthday and his future as a great Quidditch player and their quiet birthday tea. It just seems so… normal.

But there is nothing normal about their situation and what becomes of them, which is hinted at in the line: ‘Wormy was here last weekend, I thought he seemed down’, which makes it at once fascinating yet hard to read.

Later on in Deathly Hallows, when Harry’s loved ones return to him through the Resurrection Stone, Lily guides him to his presumed death – and bring their not-quite relationship full circle.

The Potter Memorial
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

So brave in the face of unspeakable terror, Harry Potter is truly his mother’s son, and both are true heroes.

Each month Pottermore will shine a spotlight on a character from the Harry Potter stories who we feel deserves more credit. Come back next time when we celebrate Pomona Sprout