Tuesday 11 January 2022

Harry Potter illustrates that the sides of Good and evil are primary; and that personality and behaviour are secondary

The original Harry Potter series of seven books, completed by the superb "Deathly Hallows" volume, is probably the major Christian fantasy fiction since the Lord of the Rings; because (as well as its many incidental delights) it has a deep moral structure, and this deep plot concerns depicts matters of primary and transcendental importance for Christians.  

As such, the Harry Potter (HP) books can illustrate and clarify some of the most important questions of value that confront us in the world today. 

One such is that the single most important choice a person makes is which side to take: the side of Good or that of evil - and there are only two sides. 

In the HP books, Voldemort is a picture of Satan, and his side includes both a cadre of Death Eaters (analogous to demons), and a great mass of people who just go-along-with the agenda of evil for various motives - serving its overall goals, and passively absorbing and adopting its core beliefs and motivations. 

In life, as in Harry Potter, there is no value-neutral position, and sooner-or-later it seems that everybody (even the non-human magical 'creatures such as House Elves, Centaurs, Goblins and Giants) is compelled to pick his side, and choose one way or the other.

And also as in life; in the fictional world of HP - some nice people chose the side of evil; while (more or less) many of those on the side of Good are (more or less) nasty people   

This aspect of Harry Potter has particular value in these times, since our situation seems to be that most of the nice (decent, sensible, hard-working, intelligent, kind..) people are on the side of evil; while many of those on the side of Good are more-or-less nasty.

Perhaps the major nasty person on the side of Good is Severus Snape; who is represented throughout as a thoroughly nasty man - yet one who by his great courage and genuine love (for Lily Potter, Harry's mother) has heroically chosen the side of Good. 

Another less obvious example is Dumbledore; who emerges as a greatly flawed character, with a strong tendency towards deception and manipulation and who struggles with a temptation for power and an almost paralyzing sense of guilt for his past affiliation to evil and its consequences; yet who is more solidly on the side of Good, and working-for Good, than almost anyone. 

An even less obvious example are the Weasley Twins - Fred and George. These share a tendency to callous cruelty, indeed sadism, which is a serious character flaw. In general they are hedonistic and manipulative without regard for the consequences for others, although because they are charming and 'cool' they are generally well-liked. But Fred and George are always staunchly and courageously on the side of Good - because they are sustained by an indomitable fraternal and familial love, which is their bottom line. 

And while the Death Eaters are almost always very nasty people, there are several on the side of evil who would be regarded as 'good guys' in terms of everyday social behaviour. 

For instance, Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic (in the earlier books) is a kindly and avuncular character, and his faults would seem to be mostly minor: cowardice and untruthfulness, unacknowledged incompetence, and wilful blindness to the reality of evil emergent. Yet these faults are unrepented such that that he ends-up working for the triumph of Voldemort and against those who oppose him; this despite believing himself to be motivated towards Good. Fudge is a type seen frequently these days - heading-up major social institutions of all kinds (including leaders of the self-described Christian churches).

The later Minister of Magic - Rufus Scrimgeour - also ends-up on the wrong side despite his admirable courage and staunch opposition to the Death Eaters; because he subscribes to various Big Lies, and becomes corrupted by the doctrine that the end justifies the means.  He wants Harry to participate in various official lies, tries to blackmail and bribe him; and attempts to make Harry subordinate his 'chosen one' mission to the current 'needs' of propaganda and the magical bureaucracy. He also dishonestly imprisons (with torment) the na├»ve and innocent Stan Shunpike, on the pretense that SS is a Death Eater, because Scrimgeour believes this will help the cause.  

Ludo Bagman - the Head of the Department of Magical Games and Sports - is another 'type' seen among the nominal leaders used by the Global Establishment nowadays (e.g. Boris Johnson). A charming, popular man - for whose incompetence and stupidity people are usually prepared to make excuses because they find him likeable. "Ludo" emerges as a self-interested gambling addict and defrauder; one who bought his position by providing secret insider information about the Ministry to a Death Eater; and who abuses his position for his own pleasure and profit. Bagman (the name implies a criminal go-between) overall, in many ways, aids the ascent of Voldemort.  

JK Rowling is clear that the determinant of a person's status of Good or evil is which side they take; and also that the two main virtues that most matter in this choice are love and courage. 

Love is, of course, the core Christian virtue which 'drives' all that is Good - while courage is necessary for that virtue to remain dominant, and to resist the insidious, pervasive and powerful forces of corruption when evil becomes dominant - when "The Ministry has fallen".   

Lack of courage - cowardice, represents a lack of faith in the cause of Good, and concern with the expediencies of this world rather than fundamental values; so that fear unrepented and unopposed is the root cause of a great deal of corruption. 

Self-sacrifice is required of all the Good characters at some point in the series; and this is not possible without the right motivation of love, and the key virtue of courage in that cause. 

Harry himself is naturally the greatest moral exemplar. A very flawed hero; throughout the books he comes to a clarity and conviction of what matters most - what must not be given-up; and eventually he makes the ultimate sacrifice by which the world is saved from evil. 


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I read the first six HP books back when that was all that had been published an then later moved on to other things and never got around to The Deathly Hallows.

I think the point you make here is extremely important and cuts to the heart of what really matters. The distinction between doing lots of bad things and being on the side of evil is interesting because it implies a specific goal for Satan, over and above "get people to do as many bad things as possible." Otherwise, there would be no "sides" but only a continuum: to the extent that you did a lot of bad things, to that extent you would be qualitatively more on Satan's side. I think a lot of people naturally think this way, which is what makes the traditional Christian afterlife seem unfair -- how can there be only two destinations, Heaven and hell, when the overwhelming majority of people are of middling morality? In fact, though, there's nothing qualitative about it. Virtues and vices certainly exist on continua, but that's a separate issue from what side you're on.

It would be interesting to try to make the difference explicit. When does a particular wrong action constitute "switching sides," and when is it just a character flaw of someone who is still fundamentally on the right side? I guess this is roughly analogous to the Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - The deathly Hallows is by-far the best Harry Potter book, by my judgment. A real classic.

"When does a particular wrong action constitute "switching sides," and when is it just a character flaw of someone who is still fundamentally on the right side? I guess this is roughly analogous to the Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins."

I would regard that as a wrong way of framing this issue. Ultimately it is not the severity of a sin that constitutes switching sides, but not repenting that sin. Some sins may well be less likely to be repented, but that would depend on the person and the society - so my impression is that some sexual sins are less likely to be repented because they nowadays attract so much social approval and reward.

In other words, I think that dividing sins into mortal and venial is a rather dangerous error is not linked to a particular severity. The milder kind of sins - like some sexual sins - may well be more likely to lead to damnation (by Not being regarded as sins) than something like murder - which is perhaps more likely to be repented.

But all these are probabilities, rather than a clear cut division.

On the other hand, we each need to make judgments of other people, and of institutions; and these will inevitably be done mostly on the basis of their actions and the context - plus our intuited inference as to motivation.

Our judgment may therefore be mistaken, of course; and we need to be prepared to change our mind on the basis of further and better knowledge.

But judgment on the side of persons and institutions must be made and acted upon nonetheless; or else we would surely be sucked-into the prevalent evil (which is what happens to all those regard 'judging' as a sin - a refusal to judge is a sin with built-in refusal to repent, because it is a value inversion).

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

When I said "roughly analogous to the Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins," I did mean only roughly analogous. Obviously, "severity" is not the key factor.

I'm not sure repentance is, either, though. Repentance is certainly of fundamental importance, but does it relaly define "sides"? Would you say of someone like Severus Snape that he was a very nasty person but he always repented?

Jack said...

I'm re-reading the books now. I've just started the 5th, The Order of the Phoenix. Apparently this is Rowling's least favourite because she believes it's too long; but really, she should see that in taking on such an epic and sweeping story with so many characters and subplots, at some point there would have to be a larger book to give us the full scope of the action, and naturally that's the 5th book which marks the start of the Second Wizarding War and Harry's transition to manhood and full-on hero. We really see how layered and complex the story is here, and how grand and true her original inspiration was. I have a soft spot for the first three books because Harry's more innocent and childlike in them, and I love the fairy tale atmosphere of these books because I find them so cosy and heartwarming; but Rowling had to take on the darker and more mature elements of the story in the later books, which I think she succeeds admirably it. It must have been difficult to write such a transition.

The overall structure of the books is marvellous. The universities should take their literary merits much more seriously, but sadly the literature departments fetishise the wrong things (moral subversiveness, formal stunts, stylistic tricks, Marxist concepts, Freudian aesthetics... ) to appreciate a more classical work. I do think there will be a time when Tolkien and Rowling will be officially recognised for the full extent of their genius, as they already have been popularly, and writers the academy has idolised for a century, like Joyce and Nabokov and (my least favourite, maybe the only writer I truly hate) T. S. Eliot*, will be recognised as being relatively mediocre writers who made their fame on mere style and literary fashion.

* I instinctively see Eliot as a kind of artistic fraud, a hack. I can't see why he's so highly regarded except people mistaking his purposively obscure style as evidence of being profound, when he's obviously pseudo-profound. He's had such an awful influence on poetry too, being more responsible than anyone for making pretentious, pseudo-metaphysical twaddle the sign of poetic genius. Fernando Pessoa wipes the floor with Eliot but sadly he wrote in Portuguese and not this politically dominant language of English.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - "Repentance is certainly of fundamental importance, but does it really define "sides"?"

No, it does not *define* sides: sides are chosen. But (given that we are all 'sinners', i.e. imperfectly aligned with God, some more than others) it is what makes the difference in terms of choosing. Not to repent (at the end, which is presumably after biological death) means not to acknowledge sin as sin, or to choose to regard some sin as essential - to refuse to give it up and be remade without it (which is necessary for resurrection to Heaven).

To repent means recognizing a sin, acknowledging it as a sin, and then making the choice that it would be better not to sin.

I would say that probably Snape did not make his full repentance, his decisive affiliation to Good, until he was actually dying (in the presence of Harry) and just before he died.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jack - I would regard Joyce as a supreme prose writer (sometimes!) - but he was shallow, and probably evil. Nabokov seems certainly evil, and I find his prose pretentious and constipated.

Eliot I am ambivalent about - I do not regard him as a real (ie lyrical) poet. But I think he probably was a good man, after his conversion. I appreciate the memorable phrase-making of Prufrock, although it is horrible. But my favourite of his works is the comic verse about cats, which is not exactly a strong endorsement!

I would always place Lord of the Rings as qualitatively the supreme 'fiction' of the twentieth century - but after that would come some works including Harry Potter, and also Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I idolized Nabokov when I was an atheist but now find him literally unreadable. Ditto for Iris Murdoch. Joyce and Byron, though, for all their many and obvious flaws, remain sources of delight and objects of awe. Yes, they were evil, but I just can’t find it in myself to hold that against them.

Jack said...

Byron wrote some very good lyrics. Joyce's Ulysses is technically very impressive but overall it's just a mass of literary contrivances. I think the true measure of Joyce is his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which is his most honest work, and I think is quite good. Nabokov to me seems like a pure aesthete. Oscar Wilde liked to pose as an aesthete but I think he was haunted by a moral imagination which eventually culminated in his late conversion. Nabokov though I think genuinely sought beauty for its own sake. His Lolita is, I think, a kind of diabolic justification for doing whatever you like as long as it's artistic or beautiful. There's a tacked on moral message in the end, in that Humbert is supposed to feel some remorse. But that's very hollow when you realise he spent his prison stay writing these self-indulgent memoirs in which he lavishly relives his crimes. Not exactly St Augustine's Confessions, is it? I enjoyed it as an atheist too, but even then I could see through the moral deviousness of it. Not for nothing is the name Lolita now mostly associated with Jeffrey Epstein in popular culture.

Jeffrey Cantrell said...

With respect to the question of virtues, I find that the traditional four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance) and the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) combine to provide the basis for a system of ethics that the Harry Potter books illustrate.

The traditional names for the cardinal virtues are more easily understood in modern usage as: discernment, fairness, courage or strength, and restraint or moderation. Likewise, the theological virtues can be thought of as: the intellect by act of the will assents to the truth of God not through evidence, but through the authority of God revealing truth; where one trusts in God and the promise of everlasting life (the opposite of despair); and to love God and to love man for the sake of God (the lack of which is hatred, wrath, or indifference).

I like to describe these virtues combining to describe a system of ethics. I also distinguish between ethics and morals. Ethics is a sense of integrity or wholeness that is absolutely bombproof, whereas morals are what people without ethics have to make them more socially acceptable. In the context of this discussion, ethics are what a person with discernment has that enables them to see truth and act accordingly whereas morals are what those people who have not yet been able to discern truth and therefore their actions cannot in the end be successful.

So, for Harry Potter, he can discern right from wrong (even early on by rejecting the first approach of Draco Malfoy on his first day), he certainly has courage (a Gryffindor trait), his fortitude is beyond question (as amply related in multiple places, but especially in the Deathly Hallows); and although somewhat impetuous as a youngster, he demonstrates temperance or moderation (but I confess I cannot think of a good example now).

Traditional Christians that reject Harry Potter do so, I believe, because they do not see the story as making room for the theological virtues. I disagree. The stories are filled with these virtues, but they seem a foundation for basic human decency and as Dr. Charleton has pointed out (I hope it was him?), the Harry Potter series clearly demonstrate that there is something more to life than just life. There are consequences and destinations that exist after death. If this doesn’t imply God, resurrection, and life everlasting, I am not sure what does.

I am sure that there is much more to be said about this, but I have run out of time.

John Goes said...

It is suggested that Rufus Scrimgeour did not betray Harry even under torture, which makes me wonder if he ended his life on the right side.

Concerning Snape, the way I understood it, his faithful follow-through on everything he promised - up to the moment of his death - was what put him on the right side. Snape's memories reveal to Harry, all at once, that in some way, Snape was on the right side *all along* after he made his promise to Dumbledore.

In light of Harry's understanding of Snape and his forgiveness of the nastiness, it is implied that Snape's faithfulness to Lily was ultimately salvific - although it is not made clear exactly how. It doesn't ring true for me that he repented his nastiness in his final moments. But it seems reasonable to infer that in some hidden way, after death, his being on the right side in this life led to his choosing the right side (Lily's side) after death.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JG - I agree with your analysis.

I also agree that Snape did not, and need not, have repented his nastiness before death - and indeed that is not necessary for salvation.

The way I think it works is that the repentance needed for salvation is something like "I agree to Whatever It Takes for me to enter Heaven" - i.e. without 'holding back' on some particular sin (or more than one sin) which someone might try to insist on taking-into Heaven, but which is actually non-loving, not harmonious with divine creation.

I got this from The Great Divorce by CS Lewis, where we see some individuals who sort-of want to go to Heaven 'except for one thing'. When it is made clear that this thing is not compatible with Heaven, some individuals choose to return to Hell rather than give it up - while others agree to having this 'purged' from them, and then move on to Heaven.

Note: One difference between my own understanding and Lewis's, is that I believe that resurrection is not possible except into Heaven - i.e. there are no resurrected demons. I think we all become discarnate spirits after death, and those who reject Heaven remain discarnate - while those who choose Heaven become eternal incarnates.

John Goes said...

"The way I think it works is that the repentance needed for salvation is something like "I agree to Whatever It Takes for me to enter Heaven" - i.e. without 'holding back' on some particular sin (or more than one sin) which someone might try to insist on taking-into Heaven, but which is actually non-loving, not harmonious with divine creation."

That is a great, simple way to think about the matter and clarifies how it is that Snape is ultimately on the Right Side. When asked by Dumbledore what he would do to save Lily, he said, "Anything."

I wonder about variations of this theme quite often. If someone is on the wrong side of the Spiritual War, without repentance in this life, can their love of family and friends - who choose Heaven - enable them also to choose Heaven in the end? I think the answer must be that it can - if they hold onto it with all their might. Heaven is easy to get into, in that sense. But we have also seen during the birdemic that many people are not only on the wrong side of the Spiritual War in their affiliation and thinking, but actively shun family and turn on their love, putting them in a very dark place indeed.

Cererean said...


Snape isn't the only defector from the Death Eaters. Sirius's brother Regulus also worked to defeat Voldemort, and died for it. Where do you think the impetus came from for the last scions of the House of Black to reject their families long and disreputable history? Must have been a lot harder for Regulus, without friends around him to help...