“Redshirts” in Star Trek were engineer and security staff on the USS Enterprise. They often accompanied Spock and Captain Kirk as part of landing parties, from which they frequently did not return. As TV Tropes suggests, the purpose of the death of the Redshirt is to demonstrate just how rapacious and evil the Big Bad of the story is. Farah Mendlesohn (2002, pg 171) applies the term to Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000). However, with the benefit of writing once the series of novels has ended, I am applying the term to Colin Creevey in the Harry Potter series and Roger Parslow in Northern Lights/The Golden Compass (1995).
Colin is introduced in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998) as a “very small, small, mousey-haired boy” who tries to take Harry’s photo with a Muggle (that is, not magic) camera (p. 75). Harry noticed him being sorted to Gryffindor, and his hero-worship of Harry and his celebrity status in the wizarding world demonstrates Harry’s privileged status and to provoke , but Colin also serves to demonstrate the wonder and excitement of Hogwarts: “… a boy in my dormitory said if I develop the film in the right potion, the pictures’ll move… It’s brilliant here, isn’t it,” (pg. 75). As Harry is in his second year at Hogwarts, he is no longer encountering the wizard world for the first time with the same excitement, so Colin’s entrancement reflects the reader’s.
Colin’s social class is made explicit in this first meeting; he tells Harry, Ron and Hermione that his dad is a milkman and was as surprised as Colin when the letter from Hogwarts came. Earlier in the chapter, Justin Finch-Fletchley is introduced, as a “curly haired Hufflepuff boy Harry knew by sight, but had never spoken to,” (p. 73). In the first conversation Harry, Ron, Hermione and Justin have, Justin’s social class is introduced:
‘My name was down for Eton, you know. I can’t tell you how glad I am I came here instead. Of course, mother was slightly disappointed, but since I made her read Lockhart’s books I think she’s begun to see how useful it’ll be to have a fully trained wizard in the family…’ (p. 73).
Why does Rowling make social class so explicit? There is no subtlety in her introduction of Colin and Justin’s relative social classes here, unlike the more nuanced portrayal of the Ron’s social class- his father is a senior civil servant yet the Weasleys are hard up: Ron’s robes are too short, he doesn’t have any pocket money to buy snacks on the Hogwarts Express and his familiar is the elderly rat Scabbers. The effect is two-fold: it demonstrates that Hogwarts is an inclusive school for all magical children, and Draco’s bullying behaviour towards Colin not only demonstrates his elitist attitudes, but also foreshadows the rise of the Death Eaters later in the series, who are driven to preserve the purity of the wizarding world, driving out Muggle born wizards and “mudbloods”.
In Northern Lights (1995), Lyra is introduced as a “barbarian” (p. 35), and a “coarse and greedy little savage” (pg. 37) reminiscent of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s assertion that Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden is a most “disagreeable looking child” (p. 1). Lyra and Mary are both isolated, neglected children, but while Mary plays with both Dickon and Colin Craven, it is always obvious that Colin is her equal. Lyra plays with the children of servants of both Jordan and other colleges, waging war on the town children, but it is made clear that these children, Roger the kitchen boy particularly, are not appropriate friends for her:
“… children such as yourself. Nobly-born children. Would you like to have some companions of that sort?” (p. 53)
Lyra rejects the offer, and after Roger disappears she joins with the Gyptians to search for missing children, finding him and Gyptian boy Billy Costa. Roger and Billy are motivation for her journey north, to Bolvanger and Svalbad, ultimately to the Northern Lights.
Roger’s death at the hands of Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, is described as a sacrifice rather than a murder; he is lying on the ground underneath the Northern Lights near an upturned sledge covered in scientific equipment, while Asriel’s daemon has Roger’s in its jaws, reminiscent of Abraham building an altar to sacrifice Isaac in the Book of Genesis. Ultimately it is this separation of Roger from his daemon that kills him (pgs 391-393).
Colin’s death in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007) happens off stage. Just before the battle of Hogwarts, Professor McGonagall mentions him particularly as a student who should leave (p. 491). However he is named among the fifty dead after the battle (p. 596). We are not told how he dies, which serves to make his death more poignant and senseless.
Roger’s death shows that the scientific ruthless ambition of Asriel is as dangerous as the religious ambition of Mrs Coulter. We are told at the beginning of the novel that Lyra will betray someone, and that the experience will be terrible (p. 33), and it is Lyra who brings Roger to Asriel, after trying to rescue him from Mrs Coulter, her mother. Both Lyra’s parents are prepared to sacrifice the weak to achieve their ends: Asriel to further his scientific certainties; Mrs Coulter her religious ones. Colin, on the other hand is cannon fodder, an archetypal Redshirt, named as part of the casualties of the battle; we do not know the circumstances that lead to his death. In both novels, the deaths are plot devices; neither boy has an existence in his own right separate from the protagonists’. Their relationships with the protagonists serve to demonstrate a positive facet of the protagonists’ character: Harry’s humility; Lyra’s loyalty. Their deaths serve to demonstrate the ruthlessness of their killers; if Asriel or Voldemort are prepared to kill such powerless boys, they must be truly evil. Working class boys in these novels ultimately lack the agency that they would have in life.
Hodgson Burnett, F (2011) The Secret Garden http://www.gutenberg.org/files/113/113-h/113-h.htm
Mendlesohn, F (2002) ‘Crowning the King: Harry Potter and the Construction of Authority’ The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter Columbia: University of Missouri Press
Pullman, P (1995) Northern Lights London: Scholastic
Rowling, J. K. (1998) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets London: Bloomsbury
Rowling, J. K. (2007) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows London: Bloomsbury