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

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2

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 understood from Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall and Hagrid’s collective sadness that her death was a terrible thing. But who was she?

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

As a young, Muggle-born witch, Lily’s story was much like Harry’s in the beginning. They both faced judgement, 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 came 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 was kind, selfless and loyal. Petunia’s most redeemable quality was perhaps her loyalty to her husband and son: however, it often came at the cost of her other family’s feelings.

A fractured friendship

From the age of no more than nine or ten 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.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2

For so long we believed 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 was James Potter who was revealed to us as ‘an arrogant, bullying toerag’ – by his future wife, no less. And we saw Lily Potter as Severus’s friend, for the first time.

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

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

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

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 was 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, was devastating.

We had to piece together her life through memories and photographs, but when Harry saw her for the first time in the Mirror of Erised, we sensed how strong that love was 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 was, throughout the stories, so easy to empathise with Harry’s loss. We understood he felt it acutely: every birthday, every Christmas, every achievement, every moment of danger, every time he was told he had his mother’s eyes. Lily was so much more than a ghost of the past.

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

And then of course, there was the letter.

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

But there was nothing normal about their situation and what became of them, which was 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 returned to him through the Resurrection Stone, Lily guided him to his presumed death – and brought their not-quite relationship full circle.

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

So brave in the face of unspeakable terror, Harry Potter was truly his mother’s son, and both were 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