Happy Birthday Lily Potter!

One of the most interesting parts of the Harry Potter series is the great complexity present in all of the characters. What makes this complexity so rewarding, however, is the way that it is revealed to us slowly throughout the series. In the first few books we are presented with Voldemort, Snape, and the Dursleys as the ultimate bad characters, and Dumbledore and Harry’s parents as the ultimate good characters. This simplistic outlook reflects Harry’s age; he’s eleven years old, and as such he views adults as two dimensional people, quite separate from himself. It is too complicated for him to believe that people might have more than one characteristic, that they are capable of both good and bad. This tendency for adult characters to be oversimplified in children’s books is very common, and is explored by Bruno Bettelheim in his book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Bettelheim specifically focuses on how children perceive their parents. In many fairy tales there are evil parents, generally step-parents, and good parents, who are often dead. Children find it easier to think of each parent made up of two separate people, one good and one evil, than to admit that they could each be both at once. Therefore, when they are angry at their parents they can believe that these are not actually their real parents, but imposters or step-parents. JK Rowling uses this same strategy by setting up Lily and James as heroic protectors, and the Dursley’s as their abusive substitutes. This status changes throughout the series, however, as Harry ages. Harry learns about his father being a bully, and about Aunt Petunia being bullied. By the seventh book the other adults in his life, such as Snape and Dumbledore, also reveal more complex sides to themselves.

Lily Potter, Harry’s mother, is one of the only people of whom our perception does not change throughout the series. We are given more information about her and learn about her childhood, but our essential belief in her kindness never wavers from the first book to the last. This is because Lily Potter, although a three dimensional character, is still primarily a symbol, a symbolic representation of love. There is one other character who is similarly symbolic: Voldemort. We learn about Voldemort’s childhood, what experiences formed and shaped him, yet ultimately he is a symbolic representation of hatred and fear.

Throughout the series it always appears that the two people representing the fight between the camps of good and evil are Harry and Voldemort. This, however, is fundamentally incorrect. The fight is between Lily and Voldemort, which is evidenced from the very first by Lily’s sacrifice which causes Voldemort’s defeat. Harry does not represent the camp of good, but rather the merging between the two camps. In symbolic terms, Harry is the child of Voldemort and Lily. He has a piece of Voldemort’s soul, and even Tom Riddle’s looks, yet he also has his mother’s eyes, and the protection present in her blood. A whole other post could, and probably will, be made about the significance of Lily’s blood, but suffice it to say that even from the grave Lily is able to thwart Voldemort with her love and sacrifice. It is Harry’s struggle, however, that we focus on, because Harry is not a symbol. He is, as he himself realizes throughout the series, flawed and human, like everyone around him. Harry’s fight is, ultimately, an internal one, a battle to choose between the two parts of himself represented by Lily and Voldemort.
This post was in part informed by a section of Alice Mill’s essay Archetypes and the Unconscious in Harry Potter and Diana Wynne Jone’s Fire and Hemlock and Dogsbody, which I found in the book Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays. I did not agree with many of her ideas enough to include them in my post, but if you are interested in the potential Oedipal significance of the father-son dynamic between Harry and Voldemort, this would be some good follow-up reading. Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales is another interesting book that illuminates more about the way children’s books represent different stages in childhood psychology.


Happy Birthday Severus Snape!

Severus Snape is a fascinating character, who can be analyzed in many different ways. Today I am going to be looking, not at the much discussed relationship between Snape and Lily, but at the connection between Snape and James, particularly in regards to life debts.

From the very first book, Severus Snape is set up as a villain, someone who Harry, Ron, and Hermione immediately suspect in anything that goes wrong in the castle. In this book, however, we also see the first sign that he is not who we expect him to be: he saves Harry’s life. Dumbledore tells Harry that the reason Snape does this is to repay a life debt that was created when James saved Snape during their school years.

Not until the third book, however, do we learn more about this act, and even then our accounts are muddled. According to Snape’s point of view, James was not saving Snape’s life, but merely his own neck, since James would have been expelled if Snape had been killed. If Snape is telling the truth, then he most likely saved Harry not to repay a debt to James, but because he had promised to protect Lily’s son. Dumbledore may have lied to Harry in order to protect Snape and not reveal his secret. Or, however, Dumbledore might have understood this type of life debt more than Snape himself, and wanted Harry to recognize the special type of magic that comes from saving someone’s life.

What exactly is this type of magic? How does it work? Dumbledore tells us nothing except that it is “magic at its deepest, its most impenetrable,” which is a fairly vague description (Owl Post Again, POA). If James saved Snape’s life, no matter the motive, is Snape obligated to repay the favor? Is it possible that he saved Harry against his will, without even fully realizing why? Through my own interpretations, and through those of MuggleNet’s book What Will Happen in Harry Potter 7 (WWHIHP7), however, I think not. Throughout the books we are given a few cases where life debt’s are evidenced. We have the life debt between James and Snape, Harry and Wormtail, and, although not mentioned specifically, Barty Crouch Sr and Barty Crouch Jr, since the former rescued the latter from death in Azkaban. In none of these cases are the life debts straightforward one to one transactions. If there was some sort of magic that forced people to save others lives, then Snape would not have waited until James was dead to repay the debt. As soon as he knew that James was in danger from Voldemort (on his information no less), he would have been obligated to do everything in his power to prevent his death. Similarly, Wormtail has every opportunity to protect Harry from Voldemort in the graveyard in Goblet of Fire, but he does nothing. In the connection between Barty Crouch Jr and Barty Crouch Sr, not only does Barty Crouch Jr not save his father’s life, he actually kills him (WWHIHP7). It appears that the life debt, whether a magical force or not, does not command the person to repay it. Repaying the debt involves some type of choice, some type of remorse or mercy, no matter how small. Wormtail chooses not to choke Harry, and as a result is strangled by his own silver hand. There are two possible reasons for this. One is that the magic of the life debt is taking effect, punishing Wormtail for attempting to kill the person who saved him, and allowing Harry to go free. Another interpretation is that Voldemort suspected this mercy in Pettigrew, and in giving him the silver hand created within it a magic that would destroy Pettigrew if he tried to repay this debt. I am more inclined to believe the latter; I see no evidence that the magic of a life debt would kill the person repaying it. Either way, whatever magic happens afterwards, it is clear that Pettigrew himself made the decision to save Harry, and was in no way forced. Pettigrew is described as being punished for his “hesitation, his moment of pity” (Malfoy Manor, DH). It is my belief that Snape also saved Harry because of a small moment of guilt or regret at never attempting to save James. He probably hid this guilt from himself and from Harry, telling himself that he was only saving Harry for Lily’s sake. He was not obliged to save Harry’s life simply because a life debt existed between him and James, but because he felt indebted to James. In short, it was a choice, the type of choice that people like Voldemort or Barty Crouch Jr would never understand.


Happy Birthday Tom Riddle!

In honor of Tom Riddle’s birthday, this post is dedicated to analyzing Tom Riddle and the decisions that led him to become Lord Voldemort.

JK Rowling has said that the reason Voldemort is unable to love is because he was born from a love potion. She also said that he was the only character in the books who represents true evil. Obviously, JK Rowling gets the ultimate decision in these situations, but I take contest with both of these claims. To claim that Voldemort cannot love, and that he is pure “evil,” absolves him of any choices in these matters. And the Harry Potter series is all about choices. In many ways, Harry Potter and Tom Riddle are very similar. They are both orphans who have been raised in situations where they have experienced very little love. At the age of eleven, they both arrive at Hogwarts, yet Harry chooses love and friendship, while Tom chooses power and domination. These choices are very significant; it undermines them to say that Tom Riddle was not capable of choosing Harry’s path. Admittedly, it would have been a lot more difficult for him. By the time Tom Riddle starts at Hogwarts, he has already given up on the idea of friends, mainly because, unlike Harry, Tom Riddle was the bully in his childhood, not the bullied. One reason for this is, quite simply, magic. Tom Riddle developed his magical abilities much more quickly than Harry. Most likely Riddle was born with incredible magical powers, but he was also an experimenter. Harry uses his magic to defend. Tom, however, quickly realizes that his powers can be used in the offensive as well. Imagine if Harry had made that realization. Dudley Dursley is terrified of magic, he would never have bullied Harry again. But would Harry have scared away any potential playmates, just like Tom Riddle? Would he have abused his power? It’s possible. But luckily Harry was saved, as he often is, by his own feelings of mediocrity. Always humble, he develops none of Riddle’s delusions of grandeur, and therefore never abuses his magical abilities. Dumbledore’s decision to send Harry to the Dursley’s saved Harry from the sense of his own importance that would have arisen from living in a family that treated him as the Boy Who Lived.  Riddle believes that he is better than everyone, that he doesn’t need them, and therefore never searches for love. It is his choice, all along.

Some of his insanity, his psychotic nature, may have been born, not made, however. The Gaunt family has been inbreeding for centuries, and the results are clear in Merope, Marvolo, and Morfin, who are cross eyed  and insane.

Please leave any comments or questions you have!