BY: LEWIS MEDEIROS
SPOILER WARNING: IF YOU HAVE NOT EITHER READ THE HARRY POTTER NOVELS OR WATCHED THE FILMS, AND HAVE SOMEHOW MANAGED TO STAY SPOILER-FREE FOR THE PAST NINE-PLUS YEARS, THIS ARTICLE WILL SPOIL THE SERIES ROTTEN FOR YOU. IF YOU DON’T CARE, THEN READ ON. IF YOU DO, THEN DON’T. AT LEAST NOT UNTIL YOU’VE EXPERIENCED THE STORY FOR YOURSELF.
(THE MOVIES ARE OKAY, BUT THE BOOKS ARE MORE CONSISTENT AND COHERENT IN THE LONG HAUL, SO I RECOMMEND READING THEM BEFORE WATCHING THE FILMS. TAKE THAT ADVICE FOR WHATEVER IT’S WORTH TO YOU.)
This article is the second in a series. The first can be found here.
“The moral of the story is…” what, exactly?
At some point, one has to ask that question of many books, quite a few movies and television shows, and nowadays even the occasional video game. This is especially true of children’s stories, which until a certain point — if my memory serves me right, it was around about the time Lewis Carroll shocked the world with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, a children’s book that was made to just be fun, gosh dangit! — were more or less exclusively written to impart some basic moral message on young, impressionable minds in much the same way the Santa Claus myth does: be good, and be rewarded. That’s an admirable enough goal for a writer, but there’s a reason that stories which have obvious in-your-face moral messages have a way of not being taken as seriously by older readers. Conversely, there’s a reason (the same reason) that stories like Alice and Harry Potter are enjoyed by readers young and old, even though one is concerned with good and evil while the other artfully ignores both of them in favor of just reading like a child-friendly acid trip: by vastly different methods, they avoid hindering audience enjoyment by making them feel like they’re being told to believe something. What makes this worth mentioning with Potter in particular is that the series manages to avoid intrusive preachiness in spite of verily bursting at the seams with dilemma and complexity… it’s all in how it’s put forward.
There is a definite feeling of condescension in being told what is and isn’t right or what does and doesn’t lead to happiness according to the author’s view of the world. One doesn’t even need to reach for an actually bad story to find examples of that. Harry Potter itself falls into the trap in the slightest, most benign of ways when it seems to imply that happiness is inherently tied to marriage and raising a family — an understandable enough outcome of the Nineteen Years Later epilogue considering Rowling’s own life story and Harry’s status as an orphan, but still the one instance where the story loses almost all sense of multi-dimensional thought process. Other stories, while also good, may make the same mistake in more straightforward and facepalm-inducing fashion. In the final book of the Narnia series by C. S. Lewis, for example, Susan cynically stops believing that Narnia exists as she grows up and starts getting all interested in make-up and other womanly things, despite having personally taken part in previous adventures. Taking into account the allegorical Christianity focus of those books, it’s not hard to feel like the author is smacking you in the face with about three different moral opinions at the same time within the space of a few sentences, at the expense of a character: people shouldn’t put so much stock in their own “maturity” over “truth,” and girls who embrace their sexuality fall away from God, and atheists are willfully ignorant self-deceivers… Susan is the only main character from past books who isn’t allowed a return during the reunion finale because Susan is doing all of these things that distance her from Aslan…
…But the specifics of the message aren’t as important as the bald-faced sense that a story is preaching at the reader: “preaching” in the moral sense, not the religious one. That’s why a case like the family-obsessed epilogue to Deathly Hallows doesn’t really ring too discordant (people are usually more likely to point out that the characters are embarrassingly bad at naming their babies) since it’s easy enough to tell that the writer wasn’t trying deliberately to condescend or instruct on How To Live a Happy, Fulfilling Life. The Chronicles of Narnia for all of its charm was a series built from the ground up with the intention of being a symbolic Christian story. Past a certain point it may become difficult for readers who do not already wholeheartedly agree with the author’s views to enjoy the ride. The same problem, except far worse, permeates G. P. Taylor’s Shadowmancer novel (which I do not recommend, it’s quite amateurish); one example will stand for all, I think, in that the tomboy Kate is only shown as putting up a tough front but is really flimsy, helpless, and stereotypically a girl underneath, because the author believes her tomboy tendencies to be a character defect, a denial of who she really is, just as the entire cast’s lack of belief in God is a character defect and a denial of truth. A discordant and obvious moral of the story element reminds the reader that the author exists and that he is trying to tell something other than a story, and that inspires a number of feelings, all the more strongly if the reader is either a skeptic or in point-blank disagreement with the moral to begin with.
It prompts adults who are sure of their own life experiences and established worldviews to regard the story itself as something he or she is too grown-up to require in their lives. It takes the reader, once they’ve noticed it, out of the illusion that they are experiencing a world akin to the real one, where things just happen and people are themselves rather than sounding-boards for an external entity’s ideas about this and that. In the worst cases, whether the reader disagrees or not, if the moral is included in an intrusive enough way it can clash with the story. A prime example of this, rather than being from a book, comes from a video game, possibly the most troublesome medium when it comes to implementing moral complexity into a story. Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear, a recently-made expansion “midquel” campaign for a classic 1998 computer role-playing game, introduced us to the character of Mizhena, sparking a frankly ridiculous amount of rather loud bitching and moaning on the Internet for a while after the expansion’s release. Amidst all of the bigotted I-swear-we-aren’t-transphobes-even-though-we-totally-sound-like-it posts and the generalized, poorly-expressed cries of “Stop crowbarring SJW shite into our video games!” there was another problem, an actual problem worth actually criticizing, that got a little lost in all of the kerfluffle and moral-political dick-measuring, even to me at first as I got caught up in the heat of the emotional fireballs being thrown ’round.
It just wasn’t done well. At all, even a little bit. The developers sort-of acknowledged that eventually, even announced or implied (forget which) that a future game update would improve the character’s portrayal, which isn’t a whole lot to ask considering how brain-dead simple Baldur’s Gate dialogue is to modify: someone else would’ve done it as an unofficial patch at some point, anyway. It was perhaps more jarring to be guilty of this specific sort of writing-quality flatulence in a role-playing game. A western one, at that, with all of its emphasis on freedom of moral choice and player-driven dialogue exchanges; someone on the writing team was so intent on conveying a message and standing by the rightness of it that it was spelled out in a single conversation, and the player — who may well have been roleplaying a murderous, drunken lunatic with a dozen randomly-generated bounty hunters pelting them with arrows every few minutes, for all the writers know — was not permitted even express a view contrary to the message said writer wanted to convey: you can play a murdering jackass, but in this instance, for some unassailable reason, not an incorrigible bigot. “I am saying this; and you will like it.” That is the sense it gives off. Add to this the blunt, forced nature of it being an NPC shopkeeper who just kind of spontaneously launches the dialogue about her gender identity with about as much grace and subtlety as Gladiolus ranting about his love for Cup Noodles and you have a fantastic recipe for behemoth-flavored who on earth thought this was actually good writing, I mean, seriously?! And while I would never presume to speak for the transsexual community, I strongly doubt that what they desire out of pop culture representation is to be treated with the same approximate level of respect as instant ramen product placement.
That last paragraph was a whole gallumphing lot of words for “it’s basically tokenism,” but there it is.
Another modern game in the same genre, BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition, includes a transsexual side character as an ally without calling undue attention to it or any pretense of telling the player what to think about them, making sure it was an NPC that the player had legitimate cause to get to know; the inclusion itself and sufficient opportunity to learn such a personal thing about a character were enough to pass muster. Likewise, one of the party member the player’s Inquisitor can recruit, Dorian, is gay. His struggle with the prejudices of a historically vile foreign country (Tevinter, who also thrive on the sale of slaves and are ruled by power-hungry upper-class mages) are a cornerstone of his personal in-game arc, but this also means you don’t actually learn about it unless you follow that storyline through to where it’s revealed. In a way it defines his place in the game world, but it also doesn’t “define” him wholesale; he’s not in the story to be gay, he’s just in the game, happens to be gay, and happens to have some stuff that happens to him relating to it.
These are stories that can be told without hammering a moral into the story with a sledgehammer and a railroad spike. It takes finesse, and to some extent, a little bit of willful mental distance on the part of the writer so that they don’t get too caught up in what they’re selling to do it naturally. This is where the complaints of people who bring this sort of thing up (and aren’t just using it as a piggyback expression for their an all-encompassing distaste for stories with messages they disagree with) are asking for. And the thing is, if a writer knows what they are doing, it can be done with a hell of a lot more grace than BioWare did it. They are by no means graceful when it comes to this stuff, even if they get the basic principles of how not to suck at it. It can be done a hell of a lot better, and with a variety of moral dilemmas and messages other than just the modern social justice football duo of sexual orientation and gender identity that no one in the pop culture business seems to know how to write about yet without being at least semi-tryhard about it.
And this is where I segue out of this titanic tangent and back into our regularly scheduled blog article about Harry Potter.
Whatever value one places on different questions of right and wrong, or whatever answers one has decided are more definitive and sensible than the rest, the real world is a murky, complicated place that is always changing and always presenting new circumstances that shine a different light on questions and answers that many people have made themselves very secure in their understanding of, regardless of the completeness of their knowledge of experience with associated people or situations. Moral messages in stories are at their best and least intrusive when they are shown to reflect and share the complexity, the murkiness, and the changing nature of the world. One of the most poignant lines of dialogue spoken in the entire Harry Potter series is an offhand but direct statement about people in general, told to Harry by Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when discussing the unpleasant nature of one Dolores Umbridge: “Yes, but the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters.” One of the things that makes this line so interesting is that it’s directly followed by Sirius making a verbal jab about Kreacher, an inherited house-elf with a nasty disposition whom he hates for personal reasons… when in the previous book, Sirius made another noteworthy general statement about people while he and the trio were discussing Barty Crouch and other possible angles to the mystery of who’d put Harry’s name in the Goblet of Fire:
“If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”
This was in direct reference to Hermione’s continuing complaints that Crouch had been horrible to Winky, his own house-elf. And at the end of the book, after Sirius had been killed — with a spot of help from Kreacher, in fact — Dumbledore rightly points out that Sirius’s treatment of Kreacher had contributed to the sad turn of events. As I may have mentioned when considering the echo-like nature of the Faculty Cycle, this occurs in the same step along the three-book track where, previously, the badly mistreated Dobby had betrayed his owners by attempting to warn Harry about the plot to open the Chamber of Secrets. Interestingly, and in an understated way, Sirius Black is characterized as a generally good person with a heart somewhere in the geographical neighborhood of “the right place” on most days, but who lacks the self-awareness to consistently follow his own advice, which is first underlined by Harry’s annoyance at Sirius telling him not to be rash in the first chapter of the same book: a character weakness portrayed exclusively through either consequences or Harry’s discontent at the time, but a weakness that is pivotal to his the plot and to Sirius Black’s demise. With this, without being straight-up told about the full scope and only told in part after his death, readers are given a very basic aspect of personal integrity to consider, all the more gut-wrenching because thinking critically about a beloved character who has just been killed off is emotionally taxing for many readers.
The way in which the Potter series handles its morals through deliberately distancing them from real-world problems (making things just similar enough and yet just alien enough that they can only apply to the real world in the most basic, broad-stroke ways) is also a strong component to what makes this series stand up as a powerful good-versus-evil story without crossing directly into Social Commentary Lane. The house-elves do not perfectly align with real-world slavery past or present; anti-Muggle-born prejudice and pureblood supremacy come from a more complicated background than white supremacy, one mixes elements of purely ego-driven racism with those of counter-prejudice against persecution at the hands of Muggles (a background that is touched upon in Potter but brought to the forefront in the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), yet even the aspect of counter-prejudice is made alien by the fact that wizard persecution of Muggles would be a far different social dynamic than black kids bullying white kids in the school yard and people venomously reminding whites of their privilege when they run out of constructive arguments. The further one gets into the series, the more layers are placed on top of individual issues and the more there is to think about, both in the sense of how things relate to reality and in terms of the Potterverse’s own self-contained morals, and while a number of them can operate as direct one-to-one comparisons to relatable things, the biggest ones — the ones that could relate to major present day social issues — are for the most part rendered functionally timeless through mental divorce, a separation of reality from fiction that allows the reader to consider ideas apart from the time-period-specific questions and conflicts of the now. One may argue this is a cowardly avoidance of directly confronting a problem, or a deception of the reader, but in truth it’s more flexible: many of this story’s elements will have valid applications and parallels to other, completely different social issues and conflicts, at much later points in time.
This is all a very complicated process. It spans the series from Book One to Book Seven and works in tandem with other elements to weave itself into the coming-of-age thread of Harry’s journey, with its backbone being the process of self-questioning and second-guessing that should naturally occur as one grows up. Earlier in the series we are shown a relatively naive but well-intentioned worldview favoring good over evil, suited to a story about an eleven-year-old having adventures at school: there are a lot of physically unsightly people with unpleasant personalities, such as the Dursleys and Professor Snape, bravery is lionized while sneakiness is demonized through Houses (although Harry employs both qualities in almost equal measure anyway), and it seems a normal course of events that bad things will happen to bad people while good people are rewarded even in recklessness. But at the end of the story, the unsightly person whom Harry had assumed to be Voldemort’s servant turned out to be protecting him all along (even if he was a hugely unfair Quidditch referee undermining Harry’s team along the way) and the stuttering, harmless-looking Professor that Harry had barely paid any mind throughout the year (Quirrell receiving so little “screen time” and direct interaction with Harry compared to the other books’ antagonists feels intentional when I think about it) was the true betrayer, a two-faced man who presents Harry with the self-centered worldview that “there is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.” Harry asks Dumbledore his first big “why” question and only receives a well-meaning “perhaps when you are older” reply, within a minute of telling him how close to death he’d come being a big goddamn hero (paraphrasing a bit there). The story of a child’s successful adventure is book-ended by an old man’s concern that celebrity might damage infant Harry with an overblown ego, and the clear statement that Neville Longbottom, in trying to prevent Harry and his friends from leaving the dormitory the night they went to protect the Stone, was actually doing the right thing. Elements of a refined moral idealism and a more balanced view on what heroics actually are peek around the edges of a child’s all-too-limited horizons. Dumbledore expresses the view that while evil may never be destroyed, constantly fighting back against it just may prevent it from ever gaining power, or regaining it once it’s lost it, expresses the thought that “to the well-balanced mind, death is the next great adventure,” and explains just one minor aspect of Snape’s convoluted and bitter thought process… which flies over youngster Harry’s head so hard and fast that it gives him a literal headache when he thinks about it.
Now we come to the second book, which people consider totally in-line with the tone of Philosopher’s Stone for some reason, a baffling analysis considering how it starts and where it goes with those things. The first new concept presented to us in the opening chapters is Dobby, a house-elf magically compelled to obey its owner’s orders and to self-punish when he attempts disobedience. Harry is falsely accused of a crime due to this sympathetic figure’s inept meddling and subjected to the first display of really terrible where-we-can-see-it abuse by his relatives (it was really just “go to your cupboard” in the first book, and Harry wasn’t actually locked in, since sneaking out for food was a thing). He is aided in an escape through blatantly illegal means and the Weasley boys are scolded outright for this being a damned stupid thing to do (the Weasley parents were planning to check that Harry was safe soon enough as it was), and it turns out their father, introduced here as quirky and highly-likeable, may well have left himself a very convenient legal loophole while writing a law for the Ministry of Magic, wanting to have his cake and eat it too when it came to tinkering with Muggle technology but preventing said tinkering from endangering the discretion of the wizarding world.
The adventure that ensues when Harry and Ron are prevented from passing through the barrier to Platform Nine and Three-quarters may well be the stupidest thing that they ever did in their lives, presenting Snape with perhaps the one instance in the series other than Sectumsempra where he was totally justified in laying into Harry (the film version of this scene actually makes Snape seem more sympathetic and right about this than his book version’s borderline-gleeful bullying dialogue). The fact that all of this was dumb and wrong is grimly accepted over the following chapters rather than glossed over, with Ron’s broken wand and Hagrid’s casual mention that “maybe it was a good thing yer wand backfired” when Ron attempts to curse Malfoy acting as reminders that reckless action can be pretty rough in the consequences department, but some consequences will be worse than others — try not to be stupid and look on the bright side when things go a little less crap than they could have, eh? At about the same time, the general douchey attitude Malfoy displayed in the previous book is revealed to be rooted in a deep-seated fictional racism, complete with its own slur (“mudblood,” which seems to be regarded by the wizarding world as a similar case to “nigger”). However, by the end of the book, much of what goes around comes around in a positive way: the enchanted Ford Anglia saves Harry and Ron from certain death, and Ron’s backfiring wand proves to be Gilderoy Lockhart’s undoing when he attempts to wipe their memories.
A potentially naive thought surfaces: Sometimes it just all works out in the end. And yet, with the cautioning against recklessness becoming a running theme, one can’t help but reflect on how dangerous following the spiders into the Forbidden Forest actually was, and how helpless Harry would have been in the Chamber of Secrets without the timely aid of Fawkes the phoenix. Harry opens the next book with another episode of bad things happen to bad people, the inflation of his horrible Aunt Marge, who manages to come off as more repulsive than Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia. Yet whatever amusement might be found from this turn of events (which is far less comedic in the book than in the film) is immediately swept away by Harry’s fear of being arrested or expelled, and his panicked lack of direction upon running away from Privet Drive, with the cap on the can being the moment he was nearly run over by the Knight Bus, a form of magical transportation he didn’t know about and managed to call to him by complete accident. The relief upon reaching the Leaky Cauldron that Harry is getting off without so much as a slap on the wrist is undermined by Harry not being a dim bulb and noticing that Cornelius Fudge seems to have some other reason for reacting the way he had. When Harry overhears a conversation about Sirius Black apparently being out to murder him, it comes packaged with an understated but very clear implication that the adults in Harry’s life worry about the recklessness he’s displayed in past books, despite the fact that these adults in particular have a very personal reason to be grateful to Harry for it.
The tone of the series is shifting more and more toward questioning its own naive beginnings. It ends on Hermione revealing she’s been trusted with a highly delicate type of magic — the gift of time travel — on the oath that she’ll use it for nothing more than basic time-management aid to attend more classes than would fit in a standard schedule. On the advice of Dumbledore, whose tendency to distantly aid Harry’s adventures is bypassing eccentric mentor status and becoming downright unsettling now, she breaks this trust to enable the climax of the book and Sirius Black’s escape, but she also returns the Time-Turner almost immediately afterward, perhaps partly out of guilt or a self-awareness that she’d be tempted to make illicit use of it for good in the future; that she does not trust herself with something so potentially devastating when mishandled now that she’s tasted its potential to do good with. In the subtlest way (Hermione’s only stated reason for returning the Time-Turner is that her class schedule was exhausting), the story acknowledges that perhaps one should exercise restraint upon themselves even with tools that might enable them to do positive things, if there is a danger that they could cause damage in trying to use them. Time travel, after all, is a gun that one could shoot themselves in the foot with quite easily, and that things worked out smoothly this time around does not guarantee they will continue to do so consistently if she decides to push her luck with it.
Book Four opens with the backstory of Frank Bryce, the old Muggle gardener of the Riddle House, which sets the tone rather starkly for the both this book and the novels to come. Frank Bryce is a war veteran with a bad leg and a bad reputation, entirely undeserved, and “War turned him funny, if you ask me” is one of the things the villagers of Little Hangleton are shown to have said about him while gossiping at the pub about a murder Frank has been arrested for (actually committed by Tom Riddle, Moldy Voldy himself). Right off the bat, this is a very adult concept, portraying a troubled adult suffering the mistaken suspicion, conclusion-jumping, and social prejudices of fellow adults which children rarely consider (have you ever heard of a young child talking seriously about war veterans being a social danger?) and which are most relatable, as it happens, to only a small number of potential adult readers. The entire chapter is dedicated to telling the story of this man who, having lived a hard and complicated but profoundly mundane life of his own, is more or less ruined and later ended by his coincidental proximity to Lord Voldemort’s evildoing. When we are then introduced to yet another Muggle at the start of the Quidditch World Cup only to later see them being terrorized by the Death Eaters, we already have intimately experienced the life and death of a Muggle who happened to run afoul of Dark wizards and it is next to impossible to see the misfortune of these minor characters as a cheap heart-tug attempt. Even the Dursleys are treated with more depth here, having to deal firsthand with the consequences of bad parenting when Dudley’s morbid obesity finally exceeds the limit of what can be allowed to go on without professional intervention. The “bad things happen to bad people” episode (Fred and George’s prank on Dudley with the Ton-Tongue Toffee) comes off as extra mean-spirited here through grotesque imagery in spite of the reader’s knowledge that from Harry, Fred, and George’s perspective, the fat git totally deserved it and it was a true laff-riot of ton-tongued proportions.
Two new side-plots come into play as the book moves forward, both to continue running on through the following books: Hermione’s awkward social justice crusade to aid house-elves, her attempt to spearhead the S.P.E.W. movement; and Mrs. Weasley’s overbearing but not unjustified interference in the twins’ ambition to open a joke shop, which bleeds into her overbearing but not unjustified interference with Harry later on. Over the course of this book and the following, we’re shown in drips and drops the conviction of both characters, their well-meaning intentions, and also where their overcompensation leads to grudges forming and other forms of discomfort for the involved parties. Harry displays reckless heroism again during the Second Task and is “rewarded” by the acknowledgment that his heart was in the right place and he deserves credit for that, but he was still being a bit of a dipstick at the time. His bottled-up jealousy over Cedric Diggory dating his crush is unknowly answered by Diggory continuing to be an all-around upstanding and fair guy, just as he’d been when introduced during Book Three’s Quidditch subplot; Harry and Ron’s jealous moping at the Yule Ball only results in them making the night uncomfortable for a grand total of three girls, their dates and Hermione. By this point the series has discarded naivety and replaced it wholesale with nothing but those episodes of awkward stupidity experienced by children too old to be naive but too young to be playing with a full deck of Cards Against Humanity upstairs. Harry doesn’t even excel in the Triwizard Tournament on his own merit or heroism, only making it as far as he did and doing as well because Barty, Jr. had been covertly helping him win, and the definitive return of Voldemort for the climax seems to point-blank refute Dumbledore’s hope that it would never happen in the first book, until one considers that Dumbledore never gave a guarantee: he merely presented it as a hope, and a valid one. And what seemed a fair way to share a victory resulted in Cedric Diggory’s unforeseeable and unfair death; but all three of the random bystanders murdered by Voldemort over the course of the book (Frank, Cedric, and the hitherto-offscreen Bertha Jorkins) join Harry’s parents in distracting Voldemort long enough for his target to escape with Cedric’s body, perhaps turning what could have been an impossible task for two apparitions into an easy one for five, what were inconsequential deaths in Voldemort’s eyes doubling the effectiveness of Harry’s salvation.
A thought resurfaces between the lines of the narrative, skeptical and yet more confident this time in its newfound element of cynical realism: Sometimes it all just works out in the end.
From here the moral tone and complexity of the series hits a level, if occasionally bumpy, trend which it sticks to consistently even though the story itself continues to grow darker. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the point at which Potter definitively ceases to be a book series for children, so now the complexity of the characters’ tanglings and wrestlings with good, evil, bravery, and society is at a level where most adults still remember enough about being teenagers to relate to it and take something from it.
Though perhaps overbearing in its execution (there’s a lot of YELLING IN CAPSLOCK during certain chapters of this book), Harry’s moody thought processes and his volatile temper in Order of the Phoenix serve a purpose beyond simply being an attempt at portraying teenage angst because oh my god we’re growing up now guys, so realism, much relatable, wow. This is Harry at his most hot-headed, and at his least self-aware. This is a Harry who, given the correct circumstances, would have likely flown a Ford Anglia to school again, and damn the consequences, because of his knowledge that it all worked out in the end — notice his references to all the things I’ve done, sans acknowledgement of how badly they almost went wrong and all the times the adults pulled my fat out of the fire. But it is also a Harry who is being forced to learn that his hot head might not be the best quality he possesses. That development thread is set up through Harry’s short-lived and quickly resolved angst over Ron getting the prefect badge instead of him, and the entire thread wraps up in Book Six when Harry acknowledges that he should not allow the grief he feels at the loss of Sirius (over which he flew into a destructive rage in Dumbledore’s office at the end of the previous book) shouldn’t be something he allows to dominate his thoughts or actions.
Yet this is also the book in which the adults that Harry has come to trust and look up to the most, Albus Dumbledore and Sirius Black, show themselves to be fatally fallible. And it is also the book where Harry himself makes an emotion-driven judgment call with the best of intentions that contributes to the same horrible turn of events: putting away Sirius’s present and never checking to see what it was. He hides and forgets about the mirror because he mistrusts Sirius’s recklessness; he forgets Snape is an option to go to for help, and subsequently jumps to the conclusion that Snape won’t help and runs off to deal with things himself because he has every reason to mistrust Snape based on his past behavior. Yet again, sometimes it all just works out in the end, and the broken mirror that represents Harry’s unfortunate and catastrophically-incorrect mistrust of adults serves the same purpose as the Ford Anglia and Ron’s broken wand by saving Harry from an impossible situation in a later book, ironically connecting him to a person who calls into question his trust in Dumbledore.
The results of stupidity or bad decisions swing both ways, and often the admirable traits can swing wild as well when they aren’t thought out well enough. And the result of self-serving, unrelated evil of Dolores Umbridge presents the far greater evil, Lord Voldemort, a fortuitous opening to bring the book’s climax about by driving all of the Order of the Phoenix members whom Harry would think of in a pinch out of the school by the end of the year, leaving Harry as open and susceptible to manipulation as he could ever have been, ripe to exploit his tendency toward bad decisions, jumping to conclusions, and rushing into danger. The vast majority of this book is dedicated to Umbridge and her totalitarian regime at Hogwarts with a side order of mistakes made by the good guys. But ultimately, it is all setup for the purely coincidental, circumstantial advantage which Voldemort swiftly exploits in one swoop at the prophecy locked away in the Department of Mysteries at the end of the book. And it is Harry’s reckless courage, previously that which led him through victorious and heroic adventures, which is exploited as a weakness to lure Harry into a trap…
…and now we come to the title of this blog post: The Art of Proving Itself Wrong (Some of the Time). Damn near nothing in this series ever goes without some seemingly-contradictory event occurring later on to counterbalance it and throw existing assumption on its head. This is not bad writing; it is in fact very good writing. Admirable qualities which serve one well in certain circumstances can backfire or be exploited in others or when not checked by self-awareness and restraint. Unquestionably stupid things can have unexpected positive results down the line even after they’ve already done tangible and even irreversible damage (the Ford Anglia misadventure may have eventually saved Harry and Ron from certain death, but it also did substantial damage to Arthur Weasley’s reputation, remember). Sometimes idealism and bravery are rewarded and at other times disappointed or outright punished, and sometimes they’re just uncomfortable and leave one feeling a bit silly. Even the well-intentioned outsider trying to help an oppressed, marginalized group does more to make them feel uncomfortable than to actually help them… but this same person might still have some of the right ideas about how to treat that group when she isn’t being overly zealous about it. No one is ever “completely right,” “completely mature,” or “completely doing the right thing” in the broadest sense, and even the casual acceptance that bad things happen to bad people (especially to bad children) that has been with us since the first book is questioned, undermined, and eroded by the time we reach Book Six, where Dudley, Malfoy, and Snape begin their uncomfortable, weirdly sympathetic journeys to very quiet and subdued resolutions.
These are, remember, the three most long-standing cases of intense social enmity that have followed Harry since Book One, and yet, rather than keeping with the theme of bad people getting glorious comeuppance and the good guys enjoying it, Book Seven sees Harry and Dudley parting on uncomfortable yet good terms and Harry bidding the Dursleys farewell with a depressing kind of calm acceptance of the past. Malfoy’s reluctance to serve Voldemort is answered by a rescue from fiery death and his ultimate role in events serves as the final “broken wand” circumstance in the sometimes it all just works out in the end theme. And Snape, as in Book One, is revealed to be protecting Harry even though his personality and background remain as unpleasant and complicated as ever: the difficulty in understanding this man, Harry resolves for himself between climax and Epilogue by acknowledging and remembering the good he did, and quietly forgiving (if not necessarily forgetting) the bulk of the bad as the passing of years takes the edge off the sting of it.
And Umbridge, who was dragged off by centaurs in a big event leading into a climax of Book Five? Casually laid out with a single Stunner and then forgotten about for the rest of the final book, and she deserves no more than that, as even in Deathly Hallows she continues her role of being an awful human being fit for little more than being the true villain’s cheerful and convenient stooge. Kreacher, whom Harry has good reason to hate for his role in Sirius’s death, also receives no comeuppance; he is instead revealed to have taken part in a sad and disturbing turn of events that ended in Regulus Black’s death and the theft of one of Voldemort’s Horcruxes. This is the point at which Hermione, whose views on half-elf treatment have been a near-constant source of amusement and exasperation for three and a half books, is able to show the correctness buried under the overcompensation, and encourage Harry to treat Kreacher right. The last line of the book’s last chapter is Harry considering asking this elf he previously loathed to get him a sandwich after the exhausting ordeal of his final battle — which Kreacher himself led the other elves to take part in, cheering them on to fight for Harry. The tables turn, abruptly, permanently, and at the time, uncomfortably, and yet it just feels fitting and right.
Even the instances where it would be easy to assume Harry is doing wrong can never be taken for granted. Harry dogging Malfoy all year during Book Six turned out to be something he was quite right about, despite everyone from the adults to his friends calling him out for being stubborn at one time or another. His over-reliance on the margin-scribblings of the Half-Blood Prince’s old copy of Advanced Potion-Making results in two wins and a single strike in the short term (saving Ron and winning the Felix Felicis he used to coax the unaltered memory from Slughorn being the wins; thoughtlessly using Sectumsempra on Malfoy and leaving him in a pool of blood in the bathroom being the strike). Even after Snape “murdered” Dumbledore and is revealed to have written those notes, the Muffliato spell learned from the Prince’s book becomes part of the complement of protective enchantments used by Hermione while the trio is roughing it during the Horcrux hunt.
The morality of the Potter books becomes messier and messier the further it goes on, until the endgame acknowledgment of the majority of individual events and their individual problems evens out to nothing more and nothing less than that recurring thought, now with thoughtful preamble: People, places, and things are chaotic, convoluted, and complicated… but you know, sometimes it all just works out in the end anyway. Even “fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself,” a creed by which we had learned to admire Harry and Dumbledore for over without variance for six consecutive books, is turned into an exploitable advantage when Voldemort has the brilliant idea to make his own name a magical Taboo at the Ministry, instantly allowing his minions to home in on whoever says it. Even the simplest and most straightforward of principles is susceptible to being twisted or exploited. But sometimes it just works out in the end, and Ron being a bit of a whiner while they were carrying Voldemort’s mood-bending locket Horcrux around was all it took to undermine that trap before Harry and the others even knew what it was: a combination of a character defect and the unknowable interference of Voldemort’s own magic. This led to a horrible split in the group, but even that split became a boon, as Ron’s return brought with it the information on the Taboo itself.
“Sometimes” is a hugely important word. The story of Harry Potter is big on themes of ego and obsession leading to self-destruction, which are laser-focused into Voldemort’s character but also occasionally surface in others, including Harry himself at times, since it’s really just a basic element of growing into a mature adult. There a number of circumstantial boons granted to the villains as well as the good guys that prevent it from ever truly feeling like fate favors the characters who agree with the author — Lupin forgetting his potion and allowing Wormtail to escape arrest; Bertha Jorkins just happening to run into Wormtail, just happening to know about Barty, Jr., just happening to also know about the Triwizard Tournament; Umbridge luckily setting things up for a cleanly laid trap to lure Harry away; Harry being too cynical about the Ministry because of Umbridge to give Rufus Scrimgeour the time of day, which possibly fed into the Ministry’s susceptibility to infiltration over the following year; Harry unwittingly leading Voldemort to the final clue to the Elder Wand’s location when he falls into the trap at Bathilda Bagshot’s house in Godric’s Hollow. Sometimes it just works out in the end for the other side, too. Fortune does not necessarily favor the righteous, but Harry had enough of a level head by the end to start willingly snatching victory from the jaws of defeat when one of those sometimes cases fell in his favor, and more importantly, he could (eventually) figure out when he was getting in the way of his own success. Voldemort was killed by his unwillingness to accept that things would not go his way; the final conversation between Harry and Voldemort was one between a confident man telling a petulant egotist what was what, while the egotist fired back a variety of denials. This is really how it is, I know it is, and ain’t no silly kid’s gonna tell me different! insists all-powerful and invincible Tom Riddle, and then his dead body flops to the floor like a bloody fish. He died as he lived, trying to reassure himself that he was invincible and that nothing could ever bring him down, the world’s oldest goddamn raging tweenager who ever did wipe out gloriously in the midst of a crowded school cafeteria.
I wasn’t kidding or exaggerating in the last Clever Niggles posts when I said this was a death worthy of Gilderoy Lockhart.
But there’s where the contrast between Harry and Voldemort comes in: Harry, for all of his flaws, was able to learn when his obsessions were getting the better of him, was able to let go of his fear of death and defeat, and was able to adjust himself accordingly. It wasn’t that he never did stupid things or never made mistakes, it was that he knew what it took to recognize it and grow. This aspect of his character development is brought to a head in his short-lived obsession with and eventual decision to turn away from uniting the Deathly Hallows in a bid to assure his victory, a seemingly tangential bit of magical superstition but one which provided the last crucial burst of character growth Harry would benefit from before the last book’s long and chaotic climax. It is fitting, I think, that this obsession also prompted the second-stupidest thing Harry ever did in his life: saying Voldemort’s name aloud out of habit when he knew full damn well it was tied to a magical Taboo and would land him and his friends in a steaming cauldron pot of hot piss if it ever left his mouth.
The messy nature of the series, its events, and the morals displayed through them is what makes it go, and also what makes it so thought-provoking. It is almost irresistible to the human brain to obsessive over that which is unresolved or inconclusive. To shy away from the stress of that compulsion, there is an ever-present temptation to define the fluidity of the world with a bullet-point list of absolute blacks and pristine whites. It is a temptation that leads to both naivety and bigotry, two defects of extreme thinking which play recurring roles in Harry Potter. But the world is messy, unpredictable. Sometimes, everything just works out in the end. Sometimes it all works out for someone you’d rather it didn’t. Sometimes, the very person you lecture for being naive (as Lupin once did to Harry when using his signature Expelliarmus spell in a life-threatening situation gave his disguise away) will stand his ground on what he did and then give you a solid talking-to later on and be right about it! And sometimes the same person who’s capable of reckless stupidity in the heat of the moment will placebo-dupe you into believing he’s spiked your pumpkin juice with luck potion so you’ll get the hell over your confidence problems already, freckleface. For that matter, sometimes a moving portrait’s silly notion that freckles are a symptom of spattergroit will stick in someone’s memory long enough for them to scheme up a deception involving a ghoul in pajamas, two years later. Messy. Unpredictable. Confusing. Amazing.
But most importantly for the main thrust of this article: lack of certainty means lack of preaching. The difference between a sermon and an exploration of ideas is that one begins from the position of already believing itself to know the correct answer, and conveys that spirit to the audience. This can show itself in everything from a children’s story with an obvious moral to an adult dystopian novel about whatever the author thinks the worst-case result of social or political problems would be… or a utopian story about the opposite. And there is not, perhaps, anything inherently wrong with a sermon, provided it is executed with enough humility and enough respect for the audience, and at least a minimum of technical skill. But an exploration of ideas, while it may have a generalized bias in the angles it views something from, will question itself, correct itself, consider itself. Between a sermon and an exploration, one has a clear advantage over the other in storytelling: exploration taps into the potential interactivity of the reading experience, helping a book come alive for the reader.
And a good exploration of ideas will keep the audience thinking far longer than any this is this, that is that, and here is what you should think about it that an author might dream up. Some parents complained that Rowling’s stories were a bad influence on children, and some people answered by unhelpfully snarking that no one would read a story about perfect little angels anyway, it’d be boring! But the truth is that Harry Potter exceeded the mandate of conveying a moral by establishing itself as an aid for developing morals on one’s own. It may not be perfect at it all of the time… but by gum, it works, and that sure is something worth spending a few hours writing an exhaustingly long wall of text about.
All illustrations shown in this post are publicly displayed on Pottermore, J. K. Rowling’s official web-place for all things Potter and Scamander. There you can purchase the series in EPUB format (the main novel series, movie/play scripts, and Hogwarts Library eBooks can also be connected to your Amazon account to unlock a Kindle version free of any additional charge), the audiobooks (though I personally favor Audible as far as those go), and the iBooks-exclusive Enhanced Edition eBooks, which have animated illustrations and such that really make me wish I had an iThing so that I could get them.
Pottermore also hosts a sizable set of supplementary writings by Rowling herself that relate peripheral information about the people, places, and things in the Potterverse beyond what is explained in the novels, and is also a news site where you can keep up-to-date on what’s going on with the franchise. I highly recommend checking it out if you haven’t already. Alas, the days of it being an interactive flash-game Hogwarts doo-hickey to fool about with are long gone, but you can still take Sorting quizzes for Hogwarts and Ilvermorny houses and find out what animal form your Patronus would take, if that “sort” of thing tickles your fancy, as well as being fitted for a wand.
Mine are Hufflepuff, Thunderbird, a hyena, and a twelve-and-a-half-inch holly wand with dragon heartstring core, slightly springy. I like to believe, due to the combination of Houses involved, that Newt Scamander may be my spirit animal.