Harry Potter and moral consequences (Warning: lots of spoilers)

I’ve finally had the chance to finish reading the Harry Potter series (or rather, I’ve shamelessly neglected my research in order to do so), so I wanted to blog a bit about a subject that interests me: J. K. Rowling’s linking of morality and outcomes. Every creator of narrative fiction (whether a novelist or a screenwriter/director) is faced with deciding such questions: do characters get what they ‘deserve’? In the most blatant form (such as many stories for small children and rather too many for adults), the nasty suffer and the good are triumphant. Those who are basically good but with some moral flaw are redeemed, though whether this means surviving or not varies. (One of the main moral differences between Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins is whether or not fallen women have to be killed off). There are normally also some innocent victims, although how central they are and how much they suffer is also a variable.

A writer who wants to express a strong moral point of view in their story (like Rowling) has to decide how much to adhere to this morally determined set of outcomes and how much to admit the reality of chance: that the good, too, die, sometimes in ways that don’t make sense. To ignore random, meaningless suffering is not to be true to the realities of life that growing children have to realise. To make too much of randomness encourages the idea that it doesn’t matter what moral choices you make. I think Rowling in fact makes some quite clever choices in this, within a basic scheme of good conquering evil.

Rowling’s strength, it seems to me, is in deciding how the many characters with some good in them are treated and this is particularly reflected in whether or not they survive and the manner of their deaths. There are a number of innocent victims of evil and she is sufficiently clear-eyed to show that the deaths of some of them have no redeeming or heroic quality. (It’s noticeable that it is only Lily Potter’s sacrifice of herself for Harry that creates magical protection, not his father’s). There has been criticism by some adults that she didn’t kill off enough central characters in the last book (an unusual criticism of a children’s novel), but in fact I think the death of Fred Weasley (after the earlier maiming of George) is quite a blow. The twins represent much of what a certain kind of teenage hero is normally like; what Harry himself could have been if it hadn’t been for the burden he carries. And she does prove herself tougher than Tolkien in one respect: Dumbledore, unlike Gandalf, is truly dead.

The most interesting bit of Rowling’s attitude is what happens to those who (whether or not basically good) make a really serious moral mistake, choose at a key moment to do the wrong thing. Here there seems to be an age divide: teenagers who make such mistakes are normally allowed to survive; adults are likely to die. For example, Sirius Black’s lack of concern for house-elves kills him, while Ron is able finally to overcome such feelings. Of the two characters ‘redeemed’ by Dumbledore, Draco survives, but Snape doesn’t. It also seems somehow appropriate for Snape that he doesn’t get a big heroic death (e.g. saving Harry); it’s only a while after his death that his courage is realised. One of the most morally-charged revelations of the book is that Dumbledore didn’t actually die because of an impossibly noble sacrifice. He was going to die anyway, before he brought about his own death slightly prematurely. And that was because he’d make the fatal mistake of putting on a cursed ring: he got distracted from what was truly important, combating Voldemort. Harry makes a similar mistake and gets captured; but it is because of this that he is able to take Draco’s wand and so defeat Voldemort at the end. In other words, at times Harry has sheer dumb luck. This may be unrealistic (a lot of teenagers in real life do reckless things that kill them), but it does provide hope for teenager readers who know the limits of their own good moral judgement.


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