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What really happened on the night James and Lily were killed? A Timeline and Commentary


"I'm gonna have to really go back through notes, and either admit I've lost 24 hours, or, I don't know, hurriedly come up with some back story to fill it. Either way, you either get to be right, or you get more story. So you can't complain."
-- J.K. Rowling (PC/JKR1)

What really happened on the night James and Lily were killed? A Timeline and Commentary

This analysis was originally written in 2001, after the publication of Goblet of Fire. It’s still around in its original form (and in the original format of Lexicon pages!). What you will read here has been revised and updated over the years to incorporate much of what we now know about the pivotal events of October 31, 1981. The most recent comprehensive update to the page was on January 24, 2008. I have added a few more notes to the page as I prepared it for publication. It’s very interesting that, while some of the mystery of what happened has been cleared up, we are still in the dark about a few key facts. Rowling herself has admitted that she might have simply lost 24 hours in her telling of the tale. Will we ever know for sure?

A timeline of the events

The Lead-up to the Attack


Lily Evans and James Potter finish Hogwarts and immediately go to work for The Order of the Phoenix (OBT/CH). Voldemort tried to recruit them to be Death Eaters (PC/JKR1), but both were defiant. Lily and James probably got married in the Summer or Fall of 1978, though it could have been as late as the summer of 1979.

Fall 1979

Sybill Trelawney makes a prophecy to Albus Dumbledore about a child to be born in July of that year. Partially overheard by a Death Eater, Severus Snape, who reports what he heard to Voldemort.

circa October 1979

Lily becomes pregnant with Harry, and both she and James go into hiding because of the prophecy (OBT/CH).

July 1980

Two children are born who fit the prophecy’s criteria: Harry Potter and Neville Longbottom. Dumbledore knows that they are in danger, but hesitates to act until he knows more about what Voldemort might do.

between July 31 and September 1, 1980

Severus Snape discovers that Lily and her infant son have been targeted by Voldemort, has a crisis of conscience, and tells Albus Dumbledore. Snape offers his allegiance to Dumbledore in exchange for protection for Lily and is given the position of Hogwarts Potions Master.

before October 24, 1981

Approximately a week before the attack, Dumbledore suggests that the Potters use the Fidelius Charm to protect their hiding place. The Charm’s Secret Keeper was initially supposed to be James’ best friend Sirius Black. However, Sirius persuaded the Potters to bluff and use Peter Pettigrew instead (PA19). Unfortunately, Pettigrew had become a servant of Voldemort and he betrayed their hiding place to him. A week after the Charm was first performed, Lily and James are attacked by Lord Voldemort.

The Attack in Godric’s Hollow

Monday, October 31, 1981, nighttime at Godric’s Hollow
(October, 31, 1981 was in reality a Saturday, not a Monday)

Man’s voice: “Lily, take Harry and go! It’s him! Go! Run! I’ll hold him off ——”
Lily goes to Harry’s room where he is in his cot [crib].
According to Voldemort, James died “straight-backed and proud.” (GF34)
The sounds of someone stumbling from a room — a door bursting open — a cackle of high-pitched laughter — (PA12)
Lily’s voice: “Not Harry, not Harry, please not Harry!”
Voldemort: “Stand aside you silly girl … stand aside now.”
Lily: “Not Harry, please no, take me, kill me instead —– ”
Lily: “Not Harry! Please … have mercy … have mercy… ”
Harry hears a shrill voice laughing and the woman screaming (PA9, PA12).
Then Harry remembers a blinding green flash and a burning pain in his forehead, then a high, cold cruel laugh. Voldemort had used the Killing Curse on Lily and Harry.

Dumbledore knows
Dumbledore had placed a charm on the house and knew immediately what had occurred (PC/JKR1). He dispatches Hagrid to rescue the infant Harry.

What happened to Harry
Lily was killed, but 1-year-old Harry survived, marked with a large jagged wound by the curse meant to take his life. Voldemort lost almost all of his powers as well as his body, and fled “horribly weakened.” Dumbledore believes that Lily’s love and sacrifice (“ancient magic”) created invincible protection for Harry, and that the curse then rebounded on Voldemort.

Later, Dumbledore comes to believe that in cursing Harry, a piece of Voldemort’s unstable soul fractured and attached itself to Harry through the lightning-shaped wound. This had the effect of giving Harry some of Voldemort’s own powers, including making Harry a Parselmouth, and created a psychic link between Voldemort and Harry. This link strengthened as Harry got older and as Voldemort grew stronger — at least until Voldemort began to block the connection after the Battle of the Department of Mysteries.

Voldemort’s account of what happened to him
“Pain beyond pain, my friends; nothing could have prepared me for it. I was ripped from my body, I was less than spirit, less than the meanest ghost … but still, I was alive. What I was, even I do not know … I, who have gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality. You know my goal – to conquer death. And now, I was tested, and it appeared that one or more of my experiments worked … for I had not been killed, though the curse should have done it. Nevertheless, I was as powerless as the weakest creature alive…” (GF33) Voldemort’s one remaining power is that he can possess the bodies of others.

What happened to the house?
There is some mystery about what happened to the house. We know that other Killing Curses did not damage the structure or the bodies (Riddle House murders, for example); normally it kills but does not leave visible trauma. And yet, Hagrid reports to Dumbledore that the house was “almost” destroyed (PS1); he also tells Harry that an “evil curse” destroyed the house (PS4).

Commentary: On the other hand, we have seen numerous instances where rebounding, ricocheting, or misaimed curses cause considerable damage: Lockhart’s rebounding Memory Charm in the Chamber of Secrets which caved the roof in so badly it blocked the tunnel (CS16), ricocheting Stunning Spells break marble statues when the Death Eaters attempt to catch Harry (GF34), ricocheting curses break the Gryffindor hourglass and crack stone when the Death Eaters broke into Hogwarts (HBP); misaimed curses set a desk afire and shatter statues in the Department of Mysteries (OP36).

Where is Dumbledore?
Jo has never told us where Dumbledore was or what he was doing between the news of the deaths of the Potters and his arrival at Privet Drive at midnight on November 1st.

Tuesday, November 1, 1981

Very early morning: Minerva McGonagall encounters Hagrid. Hagrid tells her very little of what’s happened; all he tells her is that Dumbledore will be going to number four Privet Drive later that day. She is not even informed at this point what the significance of that address is, since she is shocked later to discover that Dumbledore intends to leave Harry there and is not aware that those horrible Muggles are Harry’s relatives. Hagrid also does not tell her that James and Lily were killed (or else she refused to believe it until she heard Dumbledore confirm it personally).

Hagrid arrives at the Hollow. Sometime in the very early morning hours, Dumbledore sends Rubeus Hagrid to Godric’s Hollow. As best we know, Hagrid is first on the scene. We do not know how he travels there, but he gets there so quickly that he is able to rescue Harry from the ruins of the house just before Muggles start “swarming around.”

Commentary: We can guess from Dumbledore’s instructions to Hagrid that Dumbledore already knew (from his charm on the house) that Harry was orphaned, and that “ancient magic” had been performed to protect Harry. Dumbledore had already decided that the best place for Harry was with his remaining blood relatives, the Dursleys.

The bodies?
JKR has not explained this yet. When Hagrid tells us about that morning, no mention is ever made of what remained of the Potter’s bodies, or even what remained of Voldemort.

Commentary: Since Muggles were swarming all over (according to Hagrid), and since we know that the Potters were buried in visible graves in the churchyard, Muggle authorities may have been involved in removing the bodies.

The wands?
James’s and Lily’s wands are unaccounted for. Peter Pettigrew went to the house and retrieved Voldemort’s wand.

According to an unsubstantiated report from the 2004 Edinburgh Book Festival, JKR told fans that Pettigrew hid the wand while he pretended to be the Weasley’s rat (TLC).

Sirius arrives. Sirius says he had previously arranged with James and Lily to “check on Peter” that Wednesday. When he discovered Pettigrew was missing from his hiding place, Sirius got worried and took his flying motorcycle to the house in Godric’s Hollow, where he was horrified by the destruction and death (PA19). Hagrid is still there and comforts him, and Sirius, as Harry’s godfather, asks to take the child. However, Hagrid is on strict orders from Dumbledore to bring Harry to his Aunt and Uncle’s house on Privet Drive. Sirius gives his motorcycle to Hagrid for the trip, saying “I won’t need it anymore.” (PA10)

The news spreads. And the word is quickly spreading through the wizarding world: sometime before 8:30 that morning, Minerva McGonagall (as a rather uptight cat) is already waiting and watching at Privet Drive, and others are beginning to celebrate. Vernon Dursley heads off to work.

A whole day passes.

Dumbledore arrives at Privet Drive just before midnight and tells Minerva McGonagall that Hagrid is late, so another mystery is the time lapse between the time Hagrid and Sirius parted and the time Hagrid arrived at Privet Drive. Once Hagrid gets there (on Sirius’ motorbike), it is clear from his report that he has not seen Dumbledore since he left to go to Godric’s Hollow. There are at least 12 hours that are unaccounted for. Hagrid reluctantly hands Harry over to Dumbledore to put on the Dursleys’ front step.

About Hagrid and Sirius’s motorbike
In early versions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, before Hagrid leaves Privet Drive, he tells Dumbledore that he is going to take Sirius’s bike back to him. The official edits and updates to the text in 2004 change Hagrid’s dialog from “I’ll be takin’ Sirius his bike back” to “I’d best get this bike away.” This is apparently for continuity because in book 3 (PA10) Sirius tells Hagrid that he can keep the bike because he “won’t need it anymore.”

So far, the motorbike has not reappeared in the books, although in the WBD, JKR told us that we’ll find out what happened to it, but “the real sleuths among you might be able to guess.”

Commentary: We now know that Arthur Weasley kept it in his shed (DH4)

The Aftermath

Wednesday, November 2, 1981

Petunia Dursley finds Harry in a bundle of blankets on her doorstep, along with a letter from Albus Dumbledore tucked inside. She agrees to provide Harry with a home and in so doing, knowingly seals a protective charm on Harry while he lives in her house. (OP37)

This letter is very interesting. In the movie, the letter is addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley.” JKR has told us that this was Dumbledore’s last letter to Petunia, but not his first (JKR).

Sirius confronts Pettigrew. That same day, Sirius finds and corners Peter Pettigrew in some metropolitan area [where?], but according to Sirius, Pettigrew yelled “for the whole street to hear that I’d betrayed Lily and James. Then before I could curse him, he blew apart the street with the wand behind his back, killed everyone within twenty feet of himself — and sped down into the sewer with the other rats …” (PA19) The blast killed 12 Muggles.

A Junior Minister in the Department of Magical Catastrophes is first on the scene. His name is Cornelius Fudge. He recounts: “A crater in the middle of the street, so deep it had cracked the sewer below. Bodies everywhere. Muggles screaming. And Black standing there laughing, with what was left of Pettigrew in front of him … a heap of bloodstained robes and a few — a few fragments —–” The biggest part of Pettigrew they found was his finger (PA10). Twenty members of the Magical Enforcement Squad take Sirius Black into custody while Fudge sets about modifying memories of the witnesses.

Is anyone else as curious as I am that Fudge would have been the first on the scene? Interesting. It means that what everyone knew of that event came mostly from Fudge, which might explain why everyone assumed Sirius was guilty, and why there wasn’t even a trial.

Sirius arrested. The Muggle witnesses claim that Pettigrew cornered Black and attacked Sirius saying “Lily and James, Sirius, How could you?” Then they said that Sirius raised his wand and blasted Pettigrew “to smithereens.” Black is taken away by twenty members of the Magical Law Enforcement Squad and is imprisoned in Azkaban without a trial; Pettigrew posthumously receives the Order of Merlin, First Class (PA10).

Although Harry, Ron, Hermione and members of the Order of the Phoenix eventually realize that Sirius Black was innocent, Black was never officially cleared of the crime.

Key Quotes

Sybill Trelawney’s prophecy, spoken to Dumbledore early summer 1980 at the Hog’s Head in Hogsmeade:

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 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. (Voldemort knows only the first two parts of the prophecy.)


Hagrid: “Never wondered how you got that mark on yer forehead? That was no ordinary cut. That’s what yeh get when a powerful, evil curse touches yeh — took care of yer mum an’ dad an’ yer house, even — but it didn’t work on you, an’ that’s why yer famous, Harry.”


Harry had been a year old the night that Voldemort — the most powerful dark wizard for a century, a wizard who had been gaining power steadily for eleven years — arrived at his house and killed his father and mother. Voldemort had then turned his wand on Harry; he had performed the curse that had disposed of many full-grown witches and wizards in his steady rise to power — and, incredibly, it had not worked. Instead of killing the small boy, the curse had rebounded upon Voldemort. Harry had survived with nothing but a lightning-shaped cut on his forehead, and Voldemort had been reduced to something barely alive. His powers gone, his life almost extinguished, Voldemort had fled; the terror in which the secret community of witches and wizards had lived for so long had lifted. Voldemort’s followers had disbanded, and Harry Potter had become famous.


Harry had been picturing his parents’ deaths over and over again for three years now, ever since he’d found out they had been murdered, ever since he’d found out what had happened that night: Wormtail had betrayed his parents’ whereabouts to Voldemort, who had come to find them at their cottage. How Voldemort had killed Harry’s father first. How James Potter had tried to hold him off, while he shouted at his wife to take Harry and run … Voldemort had advanced on Lily Potter, and told her to move aside so that he could kill Harry … how she had begged him to kill her instead, refused to stop shielding her son … and so Voldemort had murdered her too, before turning his wand on Harry …

EBF 2004

“Harry did not see his parents die. He was one year old and in a cot at the time. Although you never see that scene, I wrote it and then cut it. He didn’t see it; he was too young to appreciate it.” (JKR)


[Lily] 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.

MA: Did she know anything about the possible effect of standing in front of Harry?

JKR: No – because as I’ve tried to make clear in the series, it never happened before. No one ever survived before. And no one, therefore, knew that could happen.

MA: So no one – Voldemort or anyone using Avada Kedavra – ever gave someone a choice and then they took that option [to die] –

JKR: They may have been given a choice, but not in that particular way. (TLC)

(sources: US hardcover editions, PS 8-17 & 55-57; CS 332-333; PA 204-207 & 358-375; GF 652-653; OP 835-836 & 841)

PotterCast #130 — referred to here as (PC/JKR1)

JKR: “Obviously Dumbledore could cast a charm on a dwelling that would immediately alert him if something happened to it. So he can know instantaneously. That’s not a problem at all. And then he could dispatch Hagrid, and so on. […] I’m gonna have to really go back through notes, and either admit I’ve lost 24 hours, or, I don’t know, hurriedly come up with some back story to fill it. Either way, you either get to be right, or you get more story. So you can’t complain.”

Remaining Mysteries:

Where were Harry and Hagrid for all that time?

Now it gets really mysterious. When we try to track the whereabouts of Hagrid between the attack in Godric’s Hollow and his arrival on Privet Drive, we find a huge gap of almost 24 hours. Where did Hagrid take Harry?

Logically, it would have been somewhere for safekeeping or even medical care while Dumbledore hurriedly made arrangements. Perhaps this is when Mrs. Figg was moved into her house a few streets away from the Dursleys. Perhaps Dumbledore was casting wards and spells to protect Privet Drive. But where was Hagrid?

Personally, I think the most logical place for Hagrid to go for that day would be the Burrow, which was relatively nearby.

Why didn’t Harry die when the house was destroyed?

After all, he was on the second floor (PS/f, scene written by JKR) and the house was completely wrecked. How did a one-year-old baby escape unharmed?

Perhaps we see a hint of why this would be in Hagrid’s statement that a car crash couldn’t have killed James and Lily Potter. It would seem that Wizarding folk aren’t injured as quickly by things like this. That also ties in with the fact that people in the Wizarding world engage in frightfully dangerous activities all the time and don’t seem to get hurt. Neville fell from a broomstick from way up in the air and only broke his wrist. Apparently, this isn’t as deadly to a wizard. When he was younger, he bounced when he was dropped out of an upstairs window, which indicated to his family that he had magical power.

And what about Quidditch? People fall from great heights, get hit in the head by solid iron balls, and do all sorts of things which should cause serious harm. Yet Wood tells Harry that no one has died playing Quidditch at Hogwarts. It would certainly seem that magical folk are protected to some extent by the very “magic-ness” of their bodies.


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Some notes on this page:
The page that used to be here was written right after GF came out. At that time there was a lot of speculation in the fan community about what JKR was hinting at with the apparent inconsistencies in the text (the "Wand Order Problem"). After she had surprised us with Scabbers' true identity and with so many other things, we were trying to figure out what these latest clues was all about. But then the later versions of the book were corrected and she even e-mailed and told fans that no, Lily came first. This didn't answer all our concerns, but it did bring us back to earth a little. There are actually errors all through GF, and instead of clues, that's what they were: errors.

The original page is still interesting [you can view that page here], I suppose, from the standpoint that it gives you a glimpse of what things were like in July, 2000. It's always been exciting to be a Harry Potter fan, but it was particularly fun then. That was before there were Harry Potter movies or coloring books or action figures or trading card games to confuse things. There were only books, and we were all giddy with the pleasure of discovering the amazing world Jo had created. She was doling details out a little bit at a time in interviews after the release of GF, and we adult fans were have a ball trying to figure it all out.

Okay, so we've all settled down a little since then. But you know what? It's still just as exciting to be a Harry Potter fan. And there are still plenty of mysteries to be solved, plenty of things we haven't figured out yet.

Thanks to all of you who have written and commented.


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