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At the end of the fifth book of Harry Potter, "The Order of Phoenix", there is a prophecy concerning Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort:

The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord ( Lord Voldemort) approaches ... born to those who have thrice defied him ( that's Harry Potter), 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 ...

I am confused over the phrase

neither can live while the other survives

What does it mean? Does it mean anything? On the surface it seems it does. But upon further thinking this phrase is self-contradictory. If neither Potter nor Voldemort lives, then by logical deduction, the second phrase "while the other survives" is certainly false. Similarly, if either Harry Potter or Lord Voldemort survives, than it follows that the first phrase "neither can live" is logically false.

Juxtaposing two contradictory statements together in a single phrase makes the phrase completely meaningless. It's like saying "I am A, but I am not A"-- is this phrase true or false, or neither true nor false? Similarly, "neither can live while the other survives" can this phrase be true, or false, or can neither be true nor false?

Do I miss anything? Harry Potter's author JK Rowling's English is subtle indeed!

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The sentence is grammatical and makes perfect sense. What exactly was at issue for you? What was your interpretation of the sentence so it seemed illogical to you? –  Kris Feb 16 '13 at 13:12
    
'Neither can live while the other survives.': It is such that 1. one of them cannot live while the other survives; 2. this applies to both. –  Kris Feb 16 '13 at 13:14

5 Answers 5

up vote 14 down vote accepted

You're correct, it is indeed contradictory. Taken purely logically, then if neither can live while the other survives, then if Harry is alive Voldemort must be dead and if Voldemort is alive Harry must be dead. Since we know both Harry and Voldemort are alive, the statement is clearly false. Since the statement is part of a piece that refers to them as alive, and one killing the other, then the passage as a whole is clearly illogical.

However, there are a few sensible ways to read it.

One is to suggest that their life under this doom (in both the common sense, and the original sense of being fated to something) is incomplete. Neither truly live until after it comes to pass.

The other, is that as a prophesy it is speaking about the future, so even though the present tense is used, it should be thought about in terms of the future. This is an unusual use of tenses for most cases, but reasonable if we consider that we're talking about a magical trance that leads people to speak dialogue in a completely different register and rhythm than that the author normally uses! And this also makes it make perfect sense; some point in the future will come, in which one of them must be dead in order for the other one to survive.

Spoiler: Hover over the text to read it if you have read the end of the last book, or don't care about the plot being given away:

It also has a different interpretation, that becomes clear later. Voldemort is in a state that is neither life nor death, and for that reason cannot be killed. This state can only be ended when certain objects are destroyed, and Harry is one of those objects. This means that while Harry survives, Voldemort cannot truly live, and cannot truly die. Harry dies, and comes back to life. Harry's death is the destruction of the last object that keeps Voldemort in his non-life/non-death state, so Voldemort truly lives when Harry stops surviving. Then they can kill him.

The strangeness is justified as fitting with the general strangeness and cryptic opacity of the prophesy as a whole (again, especially in taking how it doesn't fit with the normal style of the books). It's justified further in light of the plot twist above.

It's also deliberately strange in its phrasing, because you're meant to be wondering about it until you've read on through the series.

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+1 for the spoiler mechanism (good answer too) :-) –  Kristina Lopez Feb 16 '13 at 13:47
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Ditto @Kristina –  JAM Feb 16 '13 at 18:08
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@KristinaLopez I assume it's in the available formatting more for the sci-fi/fantasy, manga and movies sites. I didn't expect to ever have to use it here. –  Jon Hanna Feb 17 '13 at 0:42

The sentence is not two statements: "neither can live; while the other survives," ("neither can live" means they both die, and "while the other survives" means that one lives), but rather the second half of the sentence is a condition for the first half: "while one survives, the other can't live."

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Dumbledore says in the Half Blood Prince that the only reason the prophecy mattered was because Voldemort believed it. This implies that prophesies only have the power to motivate people's actions because people believe in prophesies. Dumbledore says that Harry is free to disregard the prophesy if he wishes.

This seems consistent with the contradiction in the prophesy. As we know from logic, anything follows from a contradiction. Therefore, anything can follow from the prophesy, so it is intrinsically meaningless. Only Voldemort's imperfect understanding of the prophesy gives it "meaning."

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That’s not referring to this part of the prophecy, though. Voldemort’s imperfect understanding led him to fulfil the part of the prophecy that required his active judgment, choice, and action; but the part quoted here is separate from that. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 16 at 19:18

It is NOT incorrect or un-logical.Both Harry and Voldemort die. When Harry dies, although he did not conjure the horcrux himself, it was connected as a part of him and he was able to return. However, when Voldemort dies the horcrux is no longer existent and he therefore cannot return.. but they do both die. That is why we see in snapes memory the recall of Dumbledore telling Snape that Harry must die in order for Voldemort to be defeatable and Harry does die he just merely returns. 'neither can live whilst the other survives' only means that one of them has to die, in able for the other to live. it may be incorrect in terms of literature, but it certainly is not logically incorrect it merely just takes logic to understand.

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It's not contradictory, just false. The statement is really broken up into two logical statements. One, that Harry cannot live while Voldemort survives. The other, that Voldemort cannot live while Harry survives. This (if we knew nothing about the truth of falsity of the world) would make sense, and could very well be true. The logical conclusion to this statement would be that 'either Harry or Voldemort is dead'. This is a valid conclusion, so that were the premises true, the conclusions would be as well. However, the premises are not true. So while the statement was false, it is not contradictory in any way. And if they are both dead, then this statement says nothing of that case, so again is not contradictory.

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You're setting up a false dichotomy here. Live has more than one meaning; the intended meaning here is the same as in the title of the very first chapter in the first book in the series, The boy who lived: it means ‘to continue living, remain alive, survive’, rather than just ‘be alive’. As long as one lives, the other cannot continue to survive (for long). –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 17 at 21:33

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