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the moral universe of Harry Potter — spoiler alert

Posted on: July 26, 2007

After I read a post by Orson Scott Card called The Moral Universe of Harry Potter (on a Beliefnet blog) I started writing a response, which grew to ridiculous lengths, and which I am therefore posting here instead of there.

What makes good good and evil evil in the Harry Potter books?

Good seems to be based primarily on love and respect for other creatures. Loyalty and mercy and forgiveness are a part of this definition of love. We are constantly told that Voldemort, being the ultimate evil of the book of course, has never loved (and never been loved? according to JKR in some of her interviews). One might argue that he doesn’t even have love or respect for his own soul, willing as he was to rip it apart not one but multiple times to try to ensure his own immortality. Bellatrix and Umbridge, along with Fenrir Greyback and most of the Death Eaters, barely the next step up from Voldemort, similarly show no love or regard for any other creature; on the contrary they take most of their pleasure in hurting and dominating others. Wormtail is really only slightly redeemed in our eyes because he had enough humanity to pause, to be affected by Harry’s past mercy towards him – Voldemort who had given him the silver hand, apparently could not brook even such a small sign of disloyalty towards him and evidently had enchanted the hand to immediately retaliate against such an impulse in Wormtail. (No forgiveness from Voldemort, at least not in the case of such a useless tool.)

Voldemort says (but does not feel, as Harry knows at the time) that he regrets killing Snape, but it is the regret of losing a useful tool, nothing to do with humanity, affection, love, or even loyalty. Nothing like, we must assume, the regret Snape felt upon killing Dumbledore (“as much pain as the dog in the burning building behind him.” Sorry, I don’t have the page number from the end of Half Blood Prince for this).

Snape’s is a horrible death, with a sense of waste, similar to the sense I had on reading the 6th book for the first time: that Dumbledore had died for nothing, for a fake Horcrux. (Though as it turns out, also in a sense to save Draco Malfoy.) Similarly, Snape died because Voldemort thought that his death would make the Elder Wand officially Voldemort’s, though this proved to be wrong. (It is heart-wrenching to imagine what must have been Snape’s despair as he was dying without having fulfilled his mission for Dumbledore, and then the relief when Harry appeared.) I haven’t yet decided the rest of what I think about Snape’s death – only maybe that it enabled the message to be passed to Harry, where Harry would probably not have been able to accept it from Snape under any other circumstances. Like everything Harry learns from Snape, it is indirect, at one remove.

Snape obviously turns out good because of his love for Lily and his loyalty to her and to Dumbledore, perhaps the more meaningful because of his choosing to remain loyal in the face of his overwhelming dislike for Harry (which in turn is because of his hatred of James). If he had reacted the way Harry did after Sirius died, it would have been easy perhaps to justify blaming Harry for Lily’s death. (Personally, I must reread the books now in “Snape is good” light, particularly the last few, and see about other instances of Snape’s behavior toward others.)

The Malfoys are allowed to be a part of the final rejoicing at Voldemort’s downfall because of the love and devotion they show toward each other, though it does not readily extend to anyone outside their own family (though Draco does show signs of wanting to spare Harry et al pain, or at least not participate himself, while in the Malfoy mansion – this redeems him perhaps a little more than his parents; and Narcissa of course plays her pivotal role for a moment in the forest, though that seems to be in order to further her own goal of rescuing her son). (The “hierarchy” of goodness in that family is certainly Draco, Narcissa, with Lucius a trailing last.)

Hermione, Ron and the Weasleys, Fleur, and Lily are all clearly good, they show love and compassion for one another and for others who are not direct family, Muggles, wizards generally; in the case of Lily, the unpleasant Snape.

Harry seems, if this system is accurate, to be the ultimate (though not perfect) good. He shows love and loyalty to his friends and family, to the undeserving Dursleys, to Muggle-borns he barely knows at the Ministry, to house elves, to wizards and Muggles at large (all those who will suffer under Voldemort), ultimately forgiving and honoring Snape (in the epilogue) and even a modicum of mercy toward Voldemort himself when he asks him to try for some remorse. (It must be noted that even if Voldemort had been able to feel remorse, he would probably have been destroyed… but perhaps his soul would have been redeemed to some extent. I don’t believe Harry was merely trying to trick him.) I think it is telling that he was able to find enough compassion for Voldemort and (very immediately after learning the truth) for Snape to classify them with himself, on page 697: “Hogwarts was the first and best home he had known. He and Voldemort and Snape, the abandoned boys, had all found home here….”

I would like to think about this some more. However I also wanted to make just a couple of brief comments on your Who Is Snape essay (which I have very much enjoyed reading, even if after the fact; with no comments available next to it on Hatrack.com I hope here might be an appropriate place to leave them).
Under the heading, The Author and the Character: “More to the point, on many of the occasions where Snape accuses Harry of having done something dire, Harry is in fact guilty of rule-breaking or worse. Harry cooperates in crimes, like hiding and helping smuggle Hagrid’s illegal dragon, and he almost never calls on even the most trusted authorities to help him. We see his deeds, correctly, as heroic — but they could also, without much twisting, be made to prove that, as Snape accuses, Harry Potter believes that he is above the law — that he is free to pick and choose which rules to obey, depending on what seems good to him at the moment, based only on the information he has.”

This is certainly true. One comment on the sentence: “[Harry] almost never calls on even the most trusted authorities to help him.” In reality, I think this is more from the demands of the genre than anything else (the story wouldn’t be much of a children’s story if the kids were running to the adults all the time, would it?) but it also makes sense in the context of Harry’s past. Because of the light and humorous tone of the first two books, and because of Harry’s strong personality, it took me, for one, a while to internalize what a really emotionally horrible home life Harry had with the Dursleys. In later books this is referred to more realistically, but particularly in the first few books it didn’t really occur to me at first. Just after the flying car incident in Chamber for example, McGonagall asks why Harry and Ron didn’t use an owl to call for help when they missed the train. Of course the real reason is to have an adventure (and introduce the Whomping Willow, and break Ron’s wand, and any number of other plot devices), but underlying this is another reason: Harry would NEVER think first to ask for help from an adult. Who in all his life previous to Hogwarts would he have turned to? The Dursleys? It is to laugh. Understandably it takes several books before he learns to think of Dumbledore or anyone else as potentially available to help or rescue him.

I remember a heated exchange on a message board before the fifth book came out, I believe on Slate.com, wherein a user, being semi-facetious and attempting to cause a ruckus, accused Harry of being a spoiled jock. You could just as easily, however, define him as an abused child.

Of course, as you said in this post, neither of those stereotypes would really be accurate (nor various others, including Christ-analogy), since Harry is not a type of any kind, he is simply Harry.

And one note on Harry as Christ-figure: Harry’s sacrifice does seem to result in a kind of temporary redemption, not in the spiritual sense, but in the physical: “I’ve done what my mother did. They’re protected from you. Haven’t you noticed how none of the spells you put on them are binding? You can’t torture them. You can’t touch them.” (DH 738) Or was that because the wand wasn’t working properly for Voldemort? Or perhaps a combination. But I would agree that he is not meant to stand as that type either, certainly far, far less than say, Aslan. [ETA: see the beginning of this article. Thank you sir!]

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2 Responses to "the moral universe of Harry Potter — spoiler alert"

I’m not really sure what to say to this, it’s very very good and I agree with it all. Especially your definition of why Snape is a good guy. I think the “message” of the books seems to be that love is the strongest and most powerful thing around, whether that be to help someone be brave or help them turn away from evil.

I liked that she didn’t turn Snape into someone who ended up loving Harry. He didn’t love Harry, he loved Lily and protected a “Brat” because of it. Somehow I liked him better because of it (If that makes any sense).

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