Note: This post has no spoilers concerning Book 7, though it does refer to crucial events in Books 5 and 6.
Last week, when I posted my review of the movie version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Dormouse asked a very good and very important question in the “Comments” section. I’ll repeat it here for those of you who may not have seen it:
Given that she [Rowling] has shown us over and over again that even her most “good” characters can have fatal and dangerous flaws and her most unpleasant characters can be truly heroic, how might she demonstrate “good” to your satisfaction? Aslan isn’t a real possibility in this universe. Indeed, I would argue that a Christ figure isn’t really an acceptable way to show human good in any non-allegorical story, as Christ is both human and more-than-human, and in a story about surviving in the modern world–magical or not–we only have Christ as an idea and a presence in our hearts and minds, and not sitting at our kitchen table, telling us how to be good. How do you demonstrate goodness if you are determined to keep your characters deeply human?
I replied that I’d have to think more about it, but that I could answer off the top of my head that what I was looking for wasn’t flawless characters, or even abstractly expressed principles of good and evil.
I’ve been thinking about it . . . and thinking about it . . . and talking about it. Then I came to a semi-conclusion last week, after listening to the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on audiotape. I think my biggest problem with the morality of Rowling’s world is not that the greatest virtue is “love,” but that, in Rowling’s world, “love” is almost completely emotion-driven.
Yes, love in the Harry Potter books can inspire acts of self-sacrifice, but, as Pop Otter reminded me, even immature adolescents dream of martyrdom. Again, it’s an emotion-driven phenomenon. There are exceptions, certainly, most notably when Dumbledore seems at times to respond with mercy to students like Malfoy and former students like Snape and Voldemort, in spite of his personal feelings towards them. But then Dumbledore also shows favoritism towards Harry and does lots of other things that make me not only dislike but also distrust him.
Perhaps the single most irritating thing Dumbledore does is to exposit about good and evil, which is not his fault but Rowling’s. And here’s where I have to admit that part of my judgment on the moral universe of Harry Potter may be aesthetic. “Show, don’t tell!” chants the chorus of creative writing teachers in my head. Yet, volume after volume, Dumbledore tells us, with increasing long-windedness, why Harry has been able to withstand Voldemort’s attacks. And, can you guess? The answer is “love”! (At this point, the chorus of English teachers begins singing cynically, “All You Need Is Love.”)
For example, let’s take the passage from Order of the Phoenix that inspired this whole post (and also inspired me to wholeheartedly agree with Alan Rickman (Snape) when, in the movie, he sneers, “I think I may vomit”). Sirius has been killed, Voldemort has tried to possess Harry, and it’s time for Dumbledore to explain everything (after Harry stops shouting):
“Voldemort never knew that there might be danger in attacking you. . . . He did not know that you would have ‘power the Dark Lord knows not.’”
[That’s from the prophecy, don’t you know, because prophecies always sound grander with inverted word order.]
“But I don’t” said Harry in a strangled voice. “I haven’t any powers he hasn’t got, I couldn’t fight the way he did tonight, I can’t possess people or—or kill them—”
“There is a room in the Department of Mysteries,” interrupted Dumbledore, “that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there. It is the power held within that room that you possess in such quantities and which Voldemort has not at all. That power took you to save Sirius tonight. That power also saved you from possession by Voldemort, because he could not bear to reside in a body so full of the force he detests. In the end, it mattered not that you could not close your mind. It was your heart that saved you.”
And, “blech,” say I. Again, I admit that part of this reaction is aesthetic, and some of it is based on my personality preferences: to me, all sap is Stinksap. I do have a preference for the “hard” virtues involving self-control. I would prefer it if Harry could successfully close his mind, or actually use love/mercy to drive Voldemort off (which he seems to do in the movie). But I might at least be satisfied if we had some proof of Harry’s ability to love, proof other than “he likes his friends a lot” and “his mother died to save him,” which seem to be the only support Dumbledore mentions.
It’s not that I inherently mind Harry’s failure to exercise virtue—and here I must, as you all knew I would at some point, resort to an example from The Lord of the Rings. It’ll be short, I promise. For me, one of the most theologically significant things about The Lord of the Rings is that Frodo fails. He fails. Of his own willpower, he cannot make himself destroy the Ring. Enter Gollum, who nicely takes care of it for him. But Gollum is only there to bite with his nasty little toothses because, years ago, “pity stayed Bilbo’s hand” and because Frodo has continued to exercise that pity towards the creature that wishes him evil. In other words, yes, there is undeserved grace (brought about through unsuspected means), but it’s impossible to separate that grace out from the specific acts of mercy performed in the past by Bilbo and Frodo.
It makes my little theological heart go pitty-pat. It’s just so . . . right. Though pity and mercy can be initiated by emotion, acting on them requires one to go beyond emotion.
Once again, I’ve done a better job of complaining about what isn’t in Rowling than explaining how convincing good could be portrayed in her universe. But I’ve got to say that where I think she’s most convincingly portrayed the kind of good I’m talking about is in the character of Snape. I’m not saying Snape equals good, but he more frequently acts on good (acting on behalf of others in spite of his own personal preferences) than most characters in the series.It’s kind of like what Sirius says in the movie, that good and evil both exist inside everyone, but that what matters is which you choose to act on. Now, I haven’t seen that idea borne out much in the books, not even in Dumbledore’s exposition. More often, he mouths things about Harry’s inherent innocence and such improbabilities.
I’ve said before that in some ways I’m dreading Book 7, because I don’t trust Rowling to produce a satisfying conclusion. I do, however, expect Snape to die saving Harry, even though he profoundly dislikes him. I’m looking forward to that. And maybe, with Dumbledore and his exposition out of the way, Snape’s act of love—yes, I will say it—may be allowed to stand on its own merit.
2 comments July 19th, 2007