July 24, 2007


Missing from 'Harry Potter" – a real moral struggle: Without inner conflict, the hero's tale was hollow. (Jenny Sawyer, 7/25/07, CS Monitor)

Successful storytelling rests on a few basic principles. One of them is this: A story is about someone who changes, who grows through a moral struggle. What is Harry's struggle? Exactly. [...]

The truth of the matter is that Harry the character had nowhere to go. And thus, the overarching moral dilemma of the series, the compelling inner crisis that begged resolution, had nothing to do with our beloved hero.

As awful as the Star Wars series ended up being, there is at least something compelling about acquiring the power to thwart the death of your loved ones.

Rowling Pulls It Off: The Harry Potter finale is magical, even for Muggles (MEGHAN COX GURDON, July 24, 2007, Opinion Journal)

Every reader, and Harry too, knows that events must end with the death of either the boy-wizard or his snaky, red-eyed nemesis. There can be no survival for the both of them. This ominous understanding has been building in faithful readers for a decade, and makes the final quarter of the book a heart-stopper.

It has been widely observed that J.K. Rowling owes a creative debt to Christian fantasists J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (apart from their fondness for initials). It's odd now to remember that, at the same time, some parents have objected to the magic depicted in the Harry Potter books as a glorification of satanic practices. For "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" confirms something else apart from the well-thought-out-ness of Ms. Rowling's moral universe: It is subtly but unmistakably Christian.

The principal Hogwarts holidays have always been Christmas and Easter, but it took five books before Ms. Rowling really began tipping her hand. In Book Six, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," she addressed concepts of free will, the power of love, and the sanctity of the soul. But in the final volume she gently lays it all out. The preciousness of each human life; bodily resurrection after death; mercy, forgiveness and redemption; sacrificial love overcoming the powers of evil--strip away the elves, goblins, broomsticks and magic wands and these are the concepts that underpin the marvelously intricate world of Harry Potter.

There are clues throughout. At one point, Harry is led to a weapon that will enable him to destroy the Horcruxes when he finds them: "The ice reflected his distorted shadow and the beam of wandlight, but deep below the thick, misty gray carapace, something else glinted. A great silver cross . . ."

Two unattributed New Testament quotations recur in the story after Harry sees each on a tombstone in the village where he was born and his mother and father died. He discovers on the Dumbledore family tomb "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also," from Matthew. And on the grave of his own parents, he finds this, from I Corinthians: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." On seeing it, Harry feels momentary horror: Does it imply a link between his parents and Voldemort's followers? Hermione gently sets him straight: "It doesn't mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry. It means . . . you know . . . living beyond death. Living after death."

And it goes on.

Even Christ was at least tempted.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 24, 2007 7:46 PM

Indeed, what wouldn't a Sawx fan do to halt the coming August swoon? Turn to the dark side? Well, some would argue they're already there.

On a more serious note, though I've avoided Potter-mania -- looked and yawned at book #1 and movie #1 -- I've changed my mind on the Star Wars series.

Recently, ny 5 year-oild daughter got into the movies, and so I watched them all, repeatedly, with her, starting with the original 3 and then the new ones, and then starting over again.

People had all sorts of high expectations for the new series, but really, the first 3 weren't exactly great. The first was compeling, in a way, but RotJ in particularly left me wincing. Not only did it have some of the same plot shortcomings of the later films, but Carrie Fisher and Mark Hammel couldn't act their way out of the proverbial paper bag.

The later series actually came off not half bad upon reviewing the original 3, at least the acting was better, though as in the originals much of the dialogue was wooden.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at July 24, 2007 8:28 PM

I don't get it. What would Harry be tempted to do?

Posted by: Matt Murphy at July 24, 2007 9:46 PM

Mr. Murphy: Die.

Jim: ESB was probably the best movie. RotJ killed the franchise. Any evil empire that can't defeat an army of teddy bears isn't worth worrying about.

Posted by: Ibid at July 24, 2007 9:59 PM


Read the last book. He was willing to.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at July 24, 2007 10:58 PM

Wield power over others--it is the temptation.

Posted by: oj at July 24, 2007 11:14 PM

Harry would be tempted to be like Voldemort.

Dumbledore was, for a moment. And his destiny was shaped by that dalliance. But Harry never 'hated' the Muggles, even though he personally was abused by some of them.

I notice that the Biblical quotations are correct in the web version of Gurdon's WSJ review - they were backwards in the hard copy today. Quite a miscue by somebody.

It was an excellent book, and a fine finish. I didn't really like the first book when I read it (probably 2 or 3 years after it came out), but the series grew stronger with each chapter. Book 6 was too long, and the whole cave scene was way over the top, but "Hallows" seemed just right.

Teddy bears! That's a good one. I always thought the emperor pretty lame if a beaten android could pick him up and toss him down like a sack of flour.

Posted by: jim hamlen at July 24, 2007 11:28 PM

Mr. Murphy: That's the point. He was willing to die, in part, because he had always been tempted by death. The benevolence of a good death has always been one of the themes of the books, right back to the first book in which Dumbledore tells Harry that Nicholas Flemel and his wife have decided to destroy the Philosopher's Stone. His parents are dead, Dumbledore is dead, Sirius is dead, Lupin and Tonks are dead; if he dies he will join them, which is what he had always wanted. Harry has long suspected that his final showdown with Voldemort has to end in Harry's death. Harry is, one is tempted to say, the anti-Christ, in that he his tempted by death when his duty is to live.

Rowling makes this explicit in the King's Cross scene:

The realization of what would happen next settled gradually over Harry in the long minutes, like softly falling snow.

"I've got to go back, haven't I?"

"That is up to you."

"I've got a choice?"

"Oh hes." Dumbledore smiled at him. "We are in King's Cross, you say? I think that if you decided not to go back, you would be able to ... let's say ... board a train."

"And where would it take me?"

"On," said Dumbledore simply.

Silence again.


"Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love. By returning, you may ensure that fewer souls are maimed, fewer families are torn apart. If that seems to you a worthy goal, then we say good-bye for the present."

Harry nodded and sighed. Leaving this place would not be nearly as hard as walking into the forest had been, but it was warm and light and peaceful here, and he knew that he was heading back to pain and fear of more loss.


If anyone feels that it's just obvious that life is always preferable to death; well, that's Voldemart's position, too.

Posted by: Ibid at July 25, 2007 7:48 AM

Mr. Hamlen:

Harry is never tempted to be like Voldemort. That's Dumbledore's point. Harry is tempted to give up the fight, particularly, as I say above, when he's in King's Cross and is already past the hard work of dying. Harry is the Master of Death* (which I take it is why he gets to choose at King's Cross), but only barely realizes it and gives it up easily.


* Is Harry the Master of Death? He never has possession of all three of the Hallows at once. On the other hand, he legitimately owns the Invisibility Cloak as the rightful heir and possessor, he is master of the Elder Wand and he is the last user of the stone. I think he is the Master of Death and one of the really nice things about the book is that, while Voldemort and Dumbledore are done in by their fascination with death, the whole thing only barely registers with Harry.

Posted by: Ibid at July 25, 2007 8:00 AM

I understand the point, but Harry has troubles with his anger, doesn't he? Although he is usually angry with Dumbledore.....

And while he doesn't possess all the Hallows simultaneously, when he walks into the Forest, (as you note) he is the master of all three.

OJ is right - she should recast some of the Greek myth. But with a good classical editor.

Posted by: jim hamlen at July 25, 2007 8:44 AM

Rowling is a genius at being able to leave important points hanging out there without feeling the modern need to hammer everything home and make it explicit. A really nice example is that she never mentions in King's Cross the effect upon Harry of knowing that Lupin and Tonks are dead and Harry is Teddy's godfather. Harry is particularly unlikely to abandon his godson.

Posted by: Ibid at July 25, 2007 9:32 AM

Except that Rowling herself understood that the temptation is to be like Voldemort in Book One. Recall that the Sorting Cap nearly puts him in Slytherin because that's where he could become "great." That she either fumbled this as she went along or was just unable to plum that drama is a function of her weaknesses as a novelist. Luckily, she has strengths that make up for them.

Posted by: oj at July 25, 2007 1:40 PM

At least twice in the series, Rowling has Dumbledore comment that Harry has never been in the least tempted to be like Voldemort, nor has any thought from Harry's POV betrayed any such temptation. The whole point of the sorting hat episode is that Harry unhesitatingly chose Gryffindor when offered Slytherin. Harry's weakness is affection, not power.

Posted by: Ibid at July 25, 2007 4:35 PM

I wouldn't say his weakness is affection - that seems more to be a strength.

Harry 'chose' Gryffnidor, but remember that only a true Gryffindor could have pulled out the sword in Book 2. The question is, why was the Hat initially going to put him in Slytherin? Did it sense the connection with Voldemort?

After all, Harry was not a 'great' wizard in the same sense as Dumbledore, Voldemort, or even Hermione. He was just an average student, but he was extremely 'affectionate' towards his House (witness his enthusiasm for Quidditch).

But Harry (like Frodo) showed what he was made of, and only he was able to lead and inspire. The other male characters (Ron, Neville, Moody, Lupin) pale in comparison to Harry's doggedness and faithfulness. Sirius Black was more like Harry than any of the others, even Dumbledore. And Severus Snape is a special case, isn't he?

Posted by: jim hamlen at July 25, 2007 4:45 PM


No, the Hat's consideration of Slytherin is a reflection of Harry's abilities, not his inclinations or temptations. He definitely didn't want to go there.

He can't be tempted to get on a power trip and join Voldemort. Under what circumstances would any normal person be inclined to join up with the folks who killed their parents?

Posted by: Matt Murphy at July 25, 2007 6:38 PM

That's precisely why the power is so attractive. The question--which she fails to ever consider seriously--is why anyone would forsake the sort of power that can kill even our parents.

Posted by: oj at July 25, 2007 6:57 PM

Affection is the classic snare that power sets. Harry's friends die because he doesn't seek Voldemort's power. That's morally proper, just not affectionate.

Posted by: oj at July 25, 2007 6:59 PM


It's because Harry possesses love, for both his parents and friends. Ms. Rowling emphasizes this repeatedly. The idea that she doesn't explore the issue is absurd.

The Muggle-borns like Hermione are obviously threatened by Voldemort -- Harry's protecting them.

Harry's friends go along with him because they are brave kids who, like him, know right from wrong. Some of them die because they choose to join him. The theme is moral choice as opposed to merely possessing power, otherwise there's no way Harry could win.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at July 26, 2007 12:41 AM


Interesting interpretation. Remember that he agonized over the position he was in, however, being not quite ready to die yet. Once he's seen it's not so bad, however, he's naturally tempted to move on. Returning to fight again is difficult.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at July 26, 2007 12:48 AM

But since he's never tempted to take the power, which would allow him to win easily, there is no moral drama.

Posted by: oj at July 26, 2007 6:53 AM