As a human being who on occasion departs from his cosy hovel and notices the weather, and more especially, as an educator at a boy's school who must notice the world outside the classroom now and then, years ago I could not help but notice the buzz, the winds, the maelstrom whipping up in response to the strange, controversial new fiction simply referred to as Harry Potter. The school librarian was swamped with requests, parents were happy that their children were reading books — books with few pictures even — but most were a little uneasy.
Was this new fiction good? Was it just more Goosebumps, mediocre fiction interesting to children because of vulgar ingredients mixed with a spoonful of fear and splashes of gruesome horror? Or worse, was it a clandestine sales job for the growing New Age movement replete with witches and crystals and perhaps even subliminal references to and messages from the occult? Well, I was going to find out for myself. I returned to my hovel, closed the door, and with suspicious eyes entered the wildly imaginative world of Mr. Harry Potter.
Harry indirectly affirms and points to ultimate laws upon which lesser
laws must rest and to which they must elastically connect if they are
to truly function to protect the good.
I soon found myself discussing the book with students, referencing it in literature class, and responding to the murmurings of young readers of Potter with "yes, I definitely liked the books". There are numerous reasons why I found the books good, very good — a good entertaining read, a good ignition and engine to exercise and develop the power of the imagination, and good in that the books defend and further an essentially good view of creation and reality — a reality visible, invisible, ultimately ordered, and replete with mystery.
A critique of materialism
One overarching theme to be commended in the books is Rowling's critique of rationalistic materialism and its essential banality. An elephantine image of materialism and its banality is the Dursley family (though Rowling more often uses the metaphor of a swine). Sketched in Dickensian fashion, using strong lines and colourful images, the Dursley's are consumers, anxious controllers, and rational-they are "enlightened" in knowing material comfort is the highest good and are sharp at attaining and securing it. They have a limited family in one carefully indulged son, and they have friendships only of use. Friends are used to further position and salary at work.
The Dursleys have little adventure as they have little risk, and they are extremely anxious to preserve their material wellbeing and worldview. Also, they are an image of covetousness-born from an excessive need for security-similar to the "covetous old sinner", Scrooge. Of course, the great enemy to their "enlightened" world-view, driven by excessive concern for material (and psychological) comfort, is the embarrassing relative, Harry Potter, whose existence points to a realm of reality the Dursley's would like to forget and repress-a more spiritual, magical realm with higher, supernatural powers battling for good and evil, including wizards, witches, and creatures that suck the life out of you by means of despair and doubt. Such a realm may be more mysterious and beautiful, full of higher joys, pleasures, and adventures, but it is also perilous, uncontrollable, often uncomfortable, partly unfathomable, not to be judged by appearances and, all in all, not for the Dursleys.
A foil for the unimaginative and banal Dursley life and family is the Weasley family. They live in the more dangerous magical realm — though they do not judge the muggle world, but rather risk their wellbeing to protect it. They are generous, have numerous and authentic friendships, often are in material need, are imaginative, passionate, and live a risk-filled life. By no means rash thrill seekers nor opposed to material comfort, their life is risky as they have many children, not enough money to be without financial concern, see the battles for good and evil at play, and take stands to defend life and the good — risking personal and (at least for Mr. Weasley) professional well-being as a result.
Though at times heavy with serious concerns, the Weasley family life is mostly playful, affectionate, sometimes chaotic, and always alive. The Weasley children are educated by the parents, indirectly via example and directly though corrections and advice, to look to serve the world and defend what is good, rather than prudently calculate their path to personal security. Of course, the results may vary with different choices by their children. It is within such a realm and family life that Harry is affirmed, where his desires and perceptions of reality can expand. It is where, released from his oppressive materialistic world of the Dursleys, he can get his wings — or broomstick.
The Potter universe
And what of that world? How can witches be good, literally, or even symbolically, as traditionally they are metaphors for evil? Isn't the use of magic to manipulate reality and gain power over others wrong and immoral? Isn't the world of Harry Potter essentially gnostic — simply a duelling world of equal powers of good and evil — and morally confused? Harry and his friends disobey, break rules, have little respect for authority, to name a few flaws.
My simple response is that J.K. Rowling works within the parameters and rules of story, and more particularly within the general genre of fairy/folk tales, legends, and myths. She uses the tools of a writer, especially metaphor and analogy, and paradox. It is not appropriate to analyse or judge stories solely on the literal level, even when asking moral questions. Good stories aim at tuning perception — as artists like Joseph Conrad and Flannery O'Connor assert — to help tune the interior eyes to see Reality, especially the interior workings of reality such as the mysterious workings of the human heart, light and dark, and the unseen workings of evil, love, and grace.
In so doing art is not restricted to comfortably pleasing its readers nor required to deliver clear examples and arguments for the sake of good behaviour or proper manners. And, more so than plain philosophic or theological principles, metaphors can dance — they are not inextricably tied to the idea or thing they represent. A wolf may metaphorically represent an evil — as found in literature throughout the western tradition — but it would be incorrect to argue that a wolf is essentially evil and must always metaphorically represent evil; he is a creature and essentially good. To argue contrarily is to infer a gnostic, unchristian view of the world. To suggest that all artists must keep within a code of metaphors is simply fearful and unnecessarily rigid. (Kipling in his Mowgli stories pictures wolves differently, for example).
Metaphors are free to dance, to move with the current of time, or the intuitions of an artist who seeks to represent truthful things. A writer can have good witches and bad — as is the case in the Brothers Grimm, the stories of Hans Christian Anderson, the Wizard of Oz, or the stories of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, to name a few. Also, magic is a tool within literature, especially within the folk genre of literature. The ethical questions of good or bad are tied to how the metaphors and literary tools are used — do they aid a more truthful perception, even if the perception is not fully conscious, or do they manipulate and invert a perception?
Changing to a thinner brush, let us look at specific aspects of the conclusion of the first Harry Potter book. As we approach the conclusion of the series, a review of the beginning may help us link the whole narrative and underlying themes woven throughout the stories, not to mention we may discover foreshadowings, which are often found in good literature.
Let's begin with Harry's first direct encounter with Voldemort, occasioned by the entering of the forbidden forest by the students Harry, Hermione, Malfoy, and Neville who are serving detention. Hagrid, the good-hearted, giant gamekeeper is charged with ministering the detention. The punishment to satisfy the detention is to follow the trail of blood left by a wounded unicorn and help solve the mystery of what is harming the white unicorns — a strange and abnormally risky punishment for detention. It is especially egregious since the students' offence was wandering around Hogwarts after hours — something "dangerous" as Professor McGonagall declared.
Here we see a literary device sustained throughout the book: the juxtaposition of the normal and fantastical. The device of holding in close proximity and tension two opposing worlds, the ordinary and fairy, is a device constantly employed by Lewis in the Narnia stories: afternoon tea with a faun, a civilized meal with beavers, etc. It is a necessary device in telling fairy stories. True to the style of the genre, the normal characters simply accept the fantastical qualities without astonishment or wonder — those are saved for the reader.
In the forest they meet two centaurs, Bane and Ronan, who are questioned about the new disturbing events happening in the forest — the perverse murders of white unicorns. The centaurs respond with dreamy looks at the night sky and repeated references to the brightness of Mars (god of war and sign of bloodshed), and with a pagan (or pre-Christian) sense of nobly, but hopelessly, bowing to unavoidable negative fate, the centaurs dispassionately respond to the query about the innocent unicorn with: "Always the innocent are the first victims… So it has been for ages past, so it is now." (p. 253) Resolved not to act, they are shocked and upset when they discover another centaur, Firenze, has precipitously acted to defend the wounded unicorn and Harry, whom the centaurs know has been marked by the scar and marked as the hunted object of Voldemort. Adding to the offence, Firenze humbly allows the boy to ride on his back. These actions meet with strong derision. "Have you no shame? …Have we not read what is to come in the movements of the planets? …[C]entaurs are concerned with what has been foretold! It is not our business to run around like donkeys after stray humans in our forest!" (p. 257) The humble, courageous, and hopeful Firenze is unwilling to accept this cosmological view and attitude of his fellow centaurs.
The rebellious Firenze later discusses the issue of murdering and taking the blood of the innocent, pure, and beautiful unicorn (a rare pairing in any art: "pure and beautiful"). This pure blood will give life, but he who violates the unwritten "law", this tenet of an ultimate order, will be internally marked. Here, aside from referencing a mythical pattern involving the sacrifice of an innocent victim, Rowling gives a sense of something mystically and interiorly pure — shown, not philosophically explained — and a sense of ultimate order and good that pervades the whole magical world of Potter. In breaking these "laws" one has not simply broken a positive law, he has broken something greater and in so doing has harmed his own internal order and relation with the whole.
This sense of ultimate order is, as Chesterton argues, true to fairy tales and runs throughout Harry Potter. In this context we can put Potter's apparent disregard for rules and authority in perspective: he disobeys most often not out of simple curiosity or an inveterate inability to respect rules and authority, but because he is moved to defend the higher good — higher, more ultimate (can we say "eternal"?) laws. He is not a budding Nietzchean hero, a passionate, heroic and intuitive soul who is not to be constrained by "good and evil". Harry disobeys because others do not or cannot see the danger, and he risks his life defending Life against an evil force who is the one who declares there "is no good and evil". (p. 291) Harry indirectly affirms and points to ultimate laws upon which lesser laws must rest and to which they must elastically connect if they are to truly function to protect the good.
The power of love
Potter safely leaves the forest after his first real encounter with Voldemort, but is troubled as his mysterious scar continues to ache and he is gloomy as he wrestles with the foretold and possibly fated notion that he will be killed by Voldemort.
Harry's next meeting with Voldemort is the final confrontation of the first book. Flush with his own courageous drive to defend others against the powerful evil that could ensue if Voldemort were to attain the Sorcerer's Stone, and dismissing the ominous warnings of an evil fate awaiting him, Harry boldly moves to his confrontation. Rushing to the depths of Hogwarts, Harry and his two closest friends get past the guardian of the trapdoor, the three-headed dog, Fluffy — an obvious reference to the mythical three-headed dog, Cerberus, who guards the entrance to Hades.
Harry is accompanied by two true friends and needs their help for success. To move past the game of chess, he needs the skill of Ron, and Ron's willingness to sacrifice himself. (The theme of sacrificial love echoes throughout the book). Moving on, he needs the logical ability of Hermione to solve the riddle of the various glass bottles. (This also shows the balance of Rowling — there is no extreme of a "new age" dismissal of harsh "male" logic opposing mystical intuition. Hermione quips: "A lot of the great wizards haven't got an ounce of logic…") (p. 285) When Harry finally meets his nemesis and sees the failure of his own intuitional judgment of the outwardly "nice" but weak and stuttering Quirrell, Harry knows he is not strong enough to succeed. What will ultimately protect him is not of his own doing or power. With no illusions about his own power, Harry only hopes to delay long enough for Dumbledore to save the day.
Countering this young hero and his own knowledge of his limitations is the greatly feared Voldemort, using the body of Quirrell. As frightening and dangerous as he is, Voldemort is here partly unmasked to show what he truly is. He is not fully real, but "shadow and vapor" in need of another's body. He is as Harry asserts, a "LIAR!" (p. 293). He is a deluded loner who only uses others to achieve his goals, especially his ultimate desire: absolute power. He is not simply another duelling dark force; he is a corrupted and proud creature who seeks to be what he is not: the ultimate power. Feeding the perverse desire, he deludes himself that to destroy and break ultimate laws protecting creation — such as not harming the unicorn, and instead performing certain curses and the like — is power. He cannot see that to make and create is power and that to do so requires love. Fittingly, his symbol is one of death; it is the source of his delusion of power and the means to having others fear him (and, consequently serve him). As Dumbledore later explains, love is something Voldemort cannot understand and what ultimately thwarts him-it almost destroyed him when he killed Harry's parents, and, in this most recent confrontation with Harry Potter, will thwart him again.
Continuing on this theme of love is the obstacle to Voldemort's attainment of his desired sorcerer's stone the Mirror of Erised ("desire" spelled backwards) which shows the desires of one's heart. The rational and interiorly corrupt Quirrell and Voldemort cannot "solve" the mystery of the mirror, and after capturing Harry, Voldemort orders Quirrell to use Harry to get the stone from the mirror. Harry is surprised when he easily attains the stone upon looking into the mirror. Unwittingly, he has passed a test of the heart, of desire. As Dumbledore later explains, only one who had no desire to use the stone could attain it.
This is also why Quirell and Voldemort were continually baffled by the ultimately simple, child-like solution. To this highly rational pair, ordering the desires of the heart in truth is fool's talk; attaining power and whatever goals or desires you have by whatever means necessary is wisdom. Equally foolish, however, is any idea of the power of love, especially sacrificial love; as Quirell's hands burn when he touches Potter, there is empirical evidence of love that cannot be denied. The pulsing power and indelible mark left in Harry as a result of the sacrificial love of his mother, who died to save his life, is the power that protects Harry and repulses the "man with two faces". As Dumbledore explains, it is this power that made his touch a painful, burning encounter with Quirell, allowing Dumbledore to save Harry and keep the stone from Voldemort. (p. 299).
In this last encounter we are shown the mysterious power of love. This portrayal of love is not sentimental, and not a modern irrational worship of eros — a simple following of the whims of any powerfully felt desire as the course to liberation; it is a whole and balanced view of love that is crowned by the ultimate and paradoxical act of affirmation: self-sacrifice. This theme of a paradoxical love — a self-sacrificing love that defeats death through death — is present throughout the Potter stories, especially in the self-sacrifice of Harry's mother and of Ron Weasely, in the symbol phoenix, and in numerous other characters who suffer while defending the good.
We shall see how this paradox carries into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Jeff Presberg is a Muggle. He is also the lower school head of The Heights School in Potomac, Maryland. He has taught Literature for many years.