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.