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Essays

Harry Potter and the Good Life

by WEB LINKSteven S. Tigner[1]

A pile of critical rubbish has been composting around WEB LINKJ. K. Rowling and her Harry Potter books ever since they were discovered by young (and not-so-young) readers and became phenomenal best sellers. The charges, briefly, as these. (1) The books celebrate witchcraft, paganism and the occult. (2) They harbor an anti-family bias. (3) They have unwholesomely violent content. (4) They are sexist. (5) They contribute to the cultural homogenization of children. And finally, (6) they are literary light-weights of pop culture, seducing readers away from much better classics.

Against the charge that they celebrate witchcraft, paganism and the occult, the most telling point is that the forms that these institutions take in the Harry Potter books are clearly and humorously pretend — blatantly unlike what are, or even could be, the practices of any actual human cult, or of the Wiccan Church, for example. Broomsticks don’t fly; wands and nonsense spells have no real effect; potions made of funny, nonexistent ingredients can’t be brewed; magical herbs and creatures won’t be found in any botanical garden or zoo, Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters is nowhere, and so on. The phantasy world that J. K. Rowling has spun from her fertile imagination is obviously a pretend world, a fact that any child who tries mounting a broom or waving a wand can easily verify. In the one aspect of Rowling’s world that does overlap with the real world, fortune telling, Rowling is humorously and pointedly skeptical, WEB LINKlending no credence at all to the purported powers of fortune tellers.

The anti-family bias charge stems from Rowling’s depiction of Harry’s miserable home life with the Dursleys. Now it is fortunate for us that human beings learn from bad examples as well as good ones. Part of Rowling’s morally educative power — like the morally educative power of Homer and the Bible, for example — lies in her facility for portraying the many ways in which things can go wrong, and then what it takes to set them right. Life with the Dursleys is as different as it can be to life with the Weasleys, and we are intended to learn from the contrast.

As for the charge that the Harry Potter books include an unwholesome level or model of violence, the most telling response is that the violence in Harry Potter, which is in fact quite modest, cannot lead to imitation, for it occurs in phantastic forms that simply aren’t available in the real world. The danger in so much of the violence in popular culture, on the other hand, is that it is imitable, it can and does lead to imitation. That is simply not possible with Harry Potter.

The charge of sexism rests essentially on the shrewd observation that Harry Potter is a boy and not a girl. If Harry were Harrietta surely no such charge would have been leveled. That this boy is the chief protagonist through the first four volumes cannot be denied. But the range of female characters with whom he interacts is very wide indeed. And while he may be said to have no equal as a seeker in Quidditch — “an entirely fictional sport and nobody really plays it” (QA, Foreward) — in virtually every other venue he is outshown by Hermione Granger, modelled on Joanne Rowling herself. Hermione is academically more gifted and informed than Harry, intellectually more curious and hard working, morally more mature, tactically more incisive and bold, and actually more effective as an emulable model than any other character in the series, including Harry himself. I personally know of several students who have appropriated Hermione as an inspirational model, but I have yet to meet a student who has adopted Harry in such a way. Young readers easily identify with Harry, but not because they aspire to be like him. Rather, it is that they find themselves already like him psychologically. This breeds sympathy, but not aspiration. Indeed, it is not at all clear what one could do to emulate Harry. With Hermione it is quite different. It is perfectly clear what one must do to become seriously studious and incisive.

That the Harry Potter series contributes to the cultural homogenization of children is argued at length by Jack Zipes in his recent book, Sticks and Stones. Zipes is dismayed by what he considers the homogenizing influence of market forces on literature. He concludes in the end, “Making children all alike is, sadly, a phenomenon of our times.”[2] Anyone who is the parent of more than one child will probably not feel quite so threatened.

The final charge is that the Harry Potter books are literary light-weights of popular culture, seducing readers away from much better classics. Part of the light-weight charge is that the novels are formulaic and predictable. Like Genesis and the Iliad, for example? Well, Yes, when considered at the same level of abstraction. And also with about the same amount of room for inventive turns and elements of surprise. Not really a problem. As for its seducing readers away from the classics of children’s literature, the effect appears to be quite the reverse. It even has a name, “the Harry Potter effect,” coined by librarians who are happily responding to the requests of new readers turned on by these books.

Harry’s parents, James and Lily Potter, died in a violent magical attack at the hands of Lord Voldemort (or Tom Riddle, as he was known before he led an underground revolution — resonating with Satan’s career moves in Paradise Lost — seducing his followers over to the Dark Side). The dying mother’s love displayed by Lily Potter for her infant Harry worked its own magic in the attack, however, not only shielding the infant from that deadly magical force, but also sapping Voldemort of his power. The infant Harry remained unscathed, save for a small lightning-bolt scar on his forehead. The event very soon made this infant famous throughout the wizarding world, but it also left him an orphan.

Albus Dumbledore, wise and powerful wizard and Headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, chose to place the orphaned infant in an environment that would shield him from the deleterious effects of unwitting celebrity. “Can’t you see how much better off he’ll be, growing up away from all that until he’s ready to take it?” he asks Professor McGonagall (PS1/13),[3] in sage confirmation of Frank McCourt’s remark at the beginning of Angela’s Ashes, that “the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.”[4]

Thus Harry was left on the doorstep of his only living relatives, the Dursleys, a caricature of all that is wrong with middle class families in the Muggle world, that is , the non-magical world in which we all live. Harry’s upbringing in the Dursley household was frugal. His food, shelter, and clothing were all severely limited. When the Dursleys were preparing a sumptuous dinner of roast pork, Harry was given “two slices of bread and a lump of cheese” (CS1/10). While Dudley had two rooms in the Dursley house, “one where Dudley slept, and one where Dudley kept all the toys and things that wouldn’t fit into his first bedroom” (PS3/37), Harry slept in a spider-infested “cupboard under the stairs” (PS2/19). When Dudley received a “brand-new uniform” for school, Harry got “some of Dudley’s old things,” dyed gray, so that he imagined they would make him look “like he was wearing bits of old elephant skin” (PS3/32-33).

Harry’s childhood was emotionally spare as well. The Dursley house was filled with celebrations of Dudley’s presence, but no recognitions of Harry at all (PS2/18). “The Dursleys often spoke about Harry like this, as though he wasn’t there — or rather, as though he was something very nasty that couldn’t understand them, like a slug” (PS2/22). When company came for dinner, Harry was to be in his room, “making no noise and pretending I’m not there” (CS1/6). His birthdays and holidays passed by uncelebrated. On his 12th birthday, “No cards, no presents, and he would be spending the evening pretending not to exist” (CS1/7). “At school, Harry had no one. Everybody knew that Dudley’s gang hated that odd Harry Potter in his baggy clothes and broken glasses, and nobody liked to disagree with Dudley’s gang” (PS2/30). He was not allowed to speak to the neighbors (PA1/3).

On the intellectual front, throughout his pre-Hogwarts childhood, Harry was forbidden to ask questions and he was shielded from learning anything about his actual history and gifts (PS2/30). He was told the ignoble lie that his parents had died in a car crash (PS2/29). Even after he learned the truth about both his history and his gifts, while living with the Dursleys he was placed under severe strictures against acknowledging or cultivating either (PA1/2-3).

Now wizards are born, not made, in J. K. Rowling’s phantastical world. Being a wizard is not a matter of choice but a fact of birth. There is a fundamental difference between magical and non-magical people, between wizards and Muggles. Either one has magical powers or one doesn’t. These powers may be strong or weak and quick or slow to manifest themselves, but in the end they need schooling as much as any natural talent or ability does. Hence the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Harry’s life in the Muggle world of the Dursleys was a grossly exaggerated caricature of the real and imagined tribulations of ordinary childhood. Harry is a sympathic character for us because we recognize in him the hauntings of our own childhood, the sense that we are underappreciated, misunderstood, oppressed by rules and arbitrary authority, victims of bullying. All that Harry faces helps highlight for readers certain contrasts between the good life and the bad as Harry experiences them in the Muggle world of the Dursleys and the wizarding world of Hogwarts and beyond. Good and evil are afoot in both worlds, but while living as a Muggle in the Muggle world, the evils he encounters are largely beyond his control, while in the wizarding world at Hogwarts, he has a measure of control over what he is to become. J. K. Rowling provides Harry with an imaginary world in which he can live out the hopes of every child.

Part of Harry’s joy in learning that he is a wizard is simply the joy of discovering an intriguing fact about his heritage, something over which he had no control, but which is of keen interest and great consequence nonetheless. There is another part of Harry, however, over which he does have control: not the “given” of his first nature, but the person into which he makes himself through the choices embodied in his own acts that go toward forming his second nature, his character.

Character excellence “is a state of character concerned with choice,” as observed. In one of those key moments of illumination that Harry experiences in the counsel of Dumbledore, the wise old Headmaster explains, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities” (CS18/333).

Both Harry Potter’s character and his intellect perceptibly mature in the course of his Hogwarts years. The series is pointedly a tale of growing up, of which J. K. Rowling has led us through four years to date.

Harry Potter is resolved to be a good person, to acquire rectitude. In the climactic episode of his first adventurous year, Harry declares, “I’m never going over to the Dark Side!” (PS16/270). Although Harry’s biological parents were reputedly very fine folks, we don’t know else what accounts for Harry’s tendency toward goodness, except that it is not owing to imitating any models that he might have observed in the Dursley household.

Human beings learn from bad examples as well as good ones. And children naturally harbor at least the seeds of rebellion that facilitate that development. Choosing to be as un-Dursley-ish as possible would certainly move Harry in the right direction. And we are given a hint that that is the case when, on Harry’s first train ride to Hogwarts, Draco Malfoy approaches him saying, “You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort,” and Harry responds, “I think I can tell who the wrong sort are for myself, thanks” (PS6/108-109). He could tell who the wrong sort are because he had been living with them — the wrong sort of a Muggle variety, at least — for ten years. The incident was important enough to have been recalled four years later. “You’ve picked the losing side, Potter! I warned you! I told you you ought to choose your company more carefully, remember?” (GF37/729).

J. K. Rowling well illuminates for her readers the role of choice in determining character. Speaking to Peter Pettigrew (“Wormtail”) Sirius Black observes that “You always liked big friends who’d look after you, didn’t you? It used to be us . . . me and Remus . . . and James” (PA19/369). But when Voldemort appeared to be “taking over everywhere,” (PA19/374) Wormtail became Voldemort’s spy. He tried to excuse his choice of betraying James and Lily Potter by saying

“I was scared, Sirius, I was never brave like you and Remus and James. I never meant it to happen. . . . He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named forced me — ... what was there to be gained by refusing him?

“. . .  He would have killed me, Sirius!”

“THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED!” roared Black. “DIED RATHER THAN BETRAY YOUR FRIENDS, AS WE WOULD HAVE DONE FOR YOU!”

(PA19/374-75).

Aristotle had made a similar declaration more than two millennia earlier.

Both the elder and the younger “Barty” (Bartemius) Crouch had serious character defects, though only the younger was wilfully evil. The elder Crouch was “a great wizard . . .  powerfully magical — and power-hungry” (GF27/526). In his zealous pursuit of violators of magical law, however, Sirius Black explains, he chose to fight “violence with violence, and authorized the use of the Unforgivable Curses against suspects. I would say he became as ruthless and cruel as many on the Dark Side” (GF27/527). It was he who precipitously sent the innocent Sirius Black to prison without a trial (GF27/526). And here we see again how artfully Rowling passes cautionary wisdom on to her young readers. Don’t be like elder Barty Crouch, so zealous in fighting bad guys that you turn into a bad guy yourself!

The younger Barty Crouch, whose father was too busy with his career ever to get to know his son well, chose to go over to the Dark Side, eventually becoming Voldemort’s “one faithful Death Eater, stationed at Hogwarts” (GF33/657). And why? “It was my dream,” he explains, “my greatest ambition, to serve him, to prove myself to him” (GF35/688). In the end, the younger Barty Crouch calculatedly murdered his father (GF35/690), and Cornelius Fudge authorized a Dementor to suck out his soul. Dumbledore remonstrates Fudge, saying “Your dementor has just destroyed the last remaining member of a pure-blood family as old as any — and see what that man chose to make of his life!” (GF36/708, emphasis added).

It is a running theme through the series that choices rather than blood-lines determine merit. The hauteur of pure-bloods — wizard families with no taint of Muggle in them — is repeatedly shown to be wrong-headed and even silly.

What we make of our selves, what we make of our lives, is a matter of choice — our choice, and our responsibility. The younger Barty Crouch foolishly joined the Death Eaters cult, essentially turning his soul over to Lord Voldemort, an exceedingly bad choice ending in unspeakable disaster. Thus does Rowling add to her unspoken cautions to readers this further warning. Don’t be like the younger Barty Crouch either, so foolish as to join a cult. In the end it will suck out your soul.

Harry has chosen a life of rectitude, but he is still in the process of cultivating both the dispositions of acting and feeling that comprise a life of rectitude, and the requisite practical wisdom.

Courage is one of the four cardinal virtues, so called because on them the other virtues “hinge” (Latin cardo, hinge). Harry is a member of Gryffindor house, whose members were formally identified by the Sorting Hat as “the brave at heart” (PS7/118), indeed, “the bravest” students at Hogwarts (GF12/177). While he certainly proved himself worthy of that description, his assignment to Gryffindor was also significantly in part a matter of choice, as Dumbledore explained to Harry (PS7/121; cf. CS17/333).

Harry certainly does display genuine courage in several notable episodes in each of his years at Hogwarts. As Dumbledore observes following Harry’s climactic encounter with Voldemort in his fourth year,

You have shown bravery equal to those who died fighting Voldemort at the height of his powers. You have shouldered a grown wizard’s burden and found yourself equal to it.

(GF36/699)

Like most other youths his age, however, Harry had not yet become fully competent at handling fear and confidence, and of advancing, standing or yielding in the face of external challenges, even though he was inclined to do so. Genuine courage lies on a mean between cowardice and recklessness. Excellences of character generally follow the same pattern, each lying between extremes of excess and deficiency, as Aristotle observes.

Sometimes Harry errs in the direction of deficiency in confidence or excess of fear. Thus even in his fourth year he cannot screw up enough courage to ask Cho Chang to the Yule Ball.

A week ago, Harry would have said finding a partner for a dance would be a cinch compared to taking on a Hungarian Horntail [dragon]. But now that he had done the latter, and was facing the prospect of asking a girl to the ball, he thought he’d rather have another round with the dragon. . . . He knew perfectly well whom he’d like to ask, but working up the nerve was something else.

(GF22/388)

Toward the opposite extreme, Harry continued to show occasional signs of recklessness — excessive confidence or deficient fear, resulting in precipitous action — as when subject to the provocations that went with living with the Dursleys. After unwittingly causing his abusive Aunt Marge to inflate like a balloon, for example, “a reckless rage had come over Harry. He kicked his trunk open, pulled out his wand, and pointed it at Uncle Vernon” (PA2/30) — reckless behavior, not courageous or brave.

The cardinal virtue traditionally Englished as “temperance” is a state of character in which desires are followers rather than leaders of reason. Temperance faces internal challenges in the way that courage faces external ones. In Aristotle’s analysis, it is a virtue lying between the excesses of self-indulgence on the one hand and the deficiencies of desire that we would call depression, on the other.

J. K. Rowling fastened on a masterful device for depicting the depravity of self-indulgence in her exquisite caricature of Harry’s pampered cousin, Dudley. One can hardly imagine intemperate living putting on a more repulsive face. No reader of Harry Potter could possibly want to be anything like Dudley — a splendid lesson for good living.

Dudley was given every opportunity and aid to indulge himself, did so, and became perfectly horrible. Harry, on the other hand, never given any more than the bare essentials, grew temperate and won our sympathy. And the contrast lets salutary repelling and attractive forces loose on Rowling’s readers, fostering morality without moralizing.

Consider the three states as J. K. Rowling sets them out for her readers’ contemplation.

First, self indulgence — appetite in full control of reason:

Harry went down to breakfast the next morning to find the three Dursleys already sitting around the kitchen table. They were watching a brand-new television, a welcome-home-for-the-summer present for Dudley, who had been complaining loudly about the long walk between the fridge and the television in the living room. Dudley had spent most of the summer in the kitchen, his piggy little eyes fixed on the screen and his five chins wobbling as he ate continually.

(PA2/16)

Thus does Rowling set self-indulgence in delightfully repugnant form before her readers.

Now temperance, that character excellence in which appetite follows reason rather than leading it.

The Firebolt [racing broom] has an acceleration of 150 miles an hour in ten seconds and incorporates and unbreakable Braking Charm. Price on request.

Price on request . . . Harry didn’t like to think how much gold the Firebolt would cost. He had never wanted anything as much in his whole life — but he had never lost a Quidditch match on his Nimbus Two Thousand, and what was the point in emptying his Gringotts vault for the Firebolt, when he had a very good broom already?

(PA4/52)

Harry’s desires, even his very strong desires, heed the voice of reason. Harry is in this respect paradigmatically temperate — not that he doesn’t still lose control on a few other occasions.

And finally, depression.

“What’s that for?” said Harry, pointing at the crossbow as they stepped inside.

“Nothin’ — nothin’ — ” Hagrid muttered. “I’ve been expectin’ — doesn’ matter — Sit down — I’ll make tea — ”

He hardly seemed to know what he was doing. He nearly extinguished the fire, spilling water from the kettle on it, and then smashed the teapot with a nervous jerk of his massive hand.

(CS14/260)

[Although he is entirely innocent, Hagrid is about to be sent to the dread wizard prison, Azkaban, and not even Dumbledore can stop the pusillanimous Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, from doing it.]

Now Aristotle makes an important distinction between temperance and what is traditionally translated “continence.” Temperance is a virtue, a state in which our actions flow naturally from our established dispositions. But sometimes we experience an inner struggle in trying to bring our emotions or desires into line with reason; sometimes we have to fight to take control of our anger or cravings. We act like a temperate person, but only because we are forcing ourselves. When we succeed, we are continent or, as some translators put it, strong-willed, or self-controlled.

Now Harry’s bouts with continence or self-control occur mainly in the Muggle world, where he is a displaced person. We see him win the fight on some days and lose it on others. When Aunt Marge visited, “throwing out dark hints about what made Harry such an unsatisfactory person,” Harry struggles with his emotions.

Harry tried to concentrate on his food, but his hands shook and his face was starting to burn with anger. Remember the form, he told himself. Think about Hogsmeade. Don’t say anything. Don’t rise.

(PA2/25)

We recognize the ploy — a good one to display for young readers — the attention-diverting grasp for rational control when we are in danger being overcome by emotion. But in the end, Harry loses it. As he later simply admits to Hermione and Ron, “I just — lost control” (PA4/56).

Justice or rectitude as a cardinal virtue is the admirable inner condition of a person with emotional health and intelligence. We have no finer image of rectitude in this sense than in the person of Cedric Diggory.

Cedric Diggory is a Hufflepuff at Hogwarts. That is, he belongs to the house

Where they are just and loyal,
Those patient Hufflepuffs are true
And unafraid of toil

(PS7/118)

as the Sorting Hat sings in her descriptive prelude to sorting the incoming first-years into their Houses at Hogwarts. Hufflepuffs are “hard workers” (GF12/177), as the Sorting Hat puts it in her prelude in Harry’s fourth year. And J. K. Rowling is at pains to present Cedric in venues where his character is put on trial before us, her readers, and where, against our natural prejudice, he eventually wins us over.

Cedric was Hufflepuff’s tall and good-looking Quidditch Captain and an excellent Seeker (PA9/169); hence a direct rival to our hero, the relatively plain and diminutive Harry Potter — “Cedric looked the part of a champion so much more than he did” (GF17/296). Not only that, but Cedric actually defeated the hitherto unbeaten Harry in his third year. “They had lost . . . for the first time ever, he had lost a Quidditch match” (PA9/181). Furthermore, in the following year, Cedric rather than Harry appears to most students to be the legitimate choice of the Goblet of Fire to represent Hogwarts in the Triwizard Tournament (GF17/297). And when Harry’s name is also put forth, readers have every reason not to wish Cedric well. To top it all off, the exceptionally handsome Cedric beat out the timid Harry in asking beautiful Cho Chang to the Yule Ball (GF22/397). So it is against every predisposition that readers come to admire Cedric Diggory. J. K. Rowling is extremely adept at this subtle kind of character education.

We are encouraged toward unprejudiced judgment of Cedric by following the lead of Harry himself. Cedric’s sense of fairness proves equal to Harry’s own. In the first of the three tasks of the Triwizard Tournament, Harry, who had unwittingly been exposed to the nature of the first task, tipped off Cedric.

“Cedric,” said Harry, “the first task is dragons” . . .

“Why are you telling me?” ...

“It’s just . . . fair, isn’t it? he said to Cedric. “We all know now . . . we’re on an even footing, aren’t we?” . . .

“That was a very decent thing you just did, Potter,” Moody said quietly.

(GF20/340-342)

Cedric reciprocates when it comes to the second task, giving Harry the hint he needs to work out his preparation. “I owe you one for telling me about the dragons” (GF24/431). Harry’s pride keeps him from following up on Cedric’s hint until he had exhausted his own resources, however.

The incomprehensible egg weighed more heavily than ever on Harry’s conscience that evening, and by the time he had got into bed, he had made up his mind — it was time to shelve his pride and see if Cedric’s hint was worth anything.

(GF25/457)

The champions’ families are invited to witness the third task of the tournament. When Amos Diggory, Cedric’s father, meets Harry,

“There you are, are you?” he said, looking Harry up and down. “Bet you’re not feeling quite as full of yourself now Cedric’s caught you up on points, are you?”

“Ignore him,” said Cedric in a low voice to Harry, frowning after his father.

(GF31/616-617)

Once into the task itself, Cedric warns Harry about one hazard and Harry saves Cedric from another.

Harry and Cedric stood there in the darkness for a moment, looking around them. Then Cedric said, “Well . . . I s’pose we’d better go on. . . .”

“What?” said Harry. “Oh . . . yeah . . . right . . .”

It was an odd moment. He and Cedric had been briefly united against Krum — now the fact that they were opponents came back to Harry. The two of them proceeded up the dark path without speaking, then Harry turned left, and Cedric right.

(GF31/628)

At the end it is only by their combined efforts that both are saved from the final hazard. Each urges the other to take the cup that will signal victory and the end of the tournament. Then,

“Both of us,” Harry said.

“What?”

“We’ll take it at the same time. It’s still a Hogwarts victory. We’ll tie for it.”

Cedric stared at Harry. He unfolded his arms.

“You — you sure?”

“Yeah,” said Harry. “Yeah . . . we’ve helped each other out, haven’t we? We both got here. Let’s just take it together.”

For a moment, Cedric looked as though he couldn’t believe his ears; then his face split in a grin.

“You’re on,” he said. “Come here.”

He grabbed Harry’s arm below the shoulder and helped Harry limp toward the plinth where the cup stood. When they had reached it, they both held a hand out over one of the cup’s gleaming handles.

“On three, right?” said Harry. “One — two — three — ”

He and Cedric both grasped a handle.

(GF31/634-635)

What follows should not be spoiled for those who have not read it, and for those who have, no recounting should be necessary. But in the end, Albus Dumbledore eulogizes Cedric with these words:

“Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy [a phrase coincidentally resonating with the Cadet’s Prayer at West Point], remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.”

(GF37/724)

The final cardinal virtue of the four, practical wisdom or prudence is that variety of intelligence which requires teaching, experience and time to develop. It is what we most eagerly look for in Harry, the kind of savvy that will give his good intentions more effective expression in action (Aristotle, WEB LINKNicomachean Ethics VI.12). For Harry is very often in trouble. Hermione Granger at one point admonishes Harry,

“Don’t go looking for trouble, Harry — ”

“I don’t go looking for trouble,” said Harry, nettled. “Trouble usually finds me.”

(PA5/75)

Harry was in some respects like his father before him. As James Potter’s Hogwarts companion Remus Lupin (“Moony”) later admitted with haunting regret, “We were young, thoughtless — carried away with our own cleverness” (PA18/355). When Harry and Ron missed the train to Hogwarts at the beginning of their second year, they cleverly but imprudently chose to fly Arthur Weasley’s bewitched car to school (CS5/69), with disastrous results.

“Why didn’t you send us a letter by owl? I believe you have an owl?” Professor McGonagall said coldly to Harry.

Harry gaped at her. Now she said it, that seemd the obvious thing to have done.

“I — I didn’t think — ”

(CS5/80)

J. K. Rowling’s fanciful life of Harry Potter, his friends and foes, puts both good and evil, virtue and vice, on lively display before her readers. The attractions of virtue and foulness of vice rise from her pages like mists from a loch. Wisdom and foolishness are similarly displayed in educatively salutary ways. Rowling’s readers learn with Harry from experience over time.

We learn in repeated examples how mistaken we can be in our initial judgments of others. Harry’s first impressions of Hermione Granger, Professors Snape, Quirrell, Lupin and Moody, Tom Riddle, Sirius Black, Scabbers, Viktor Krum and so on all turn out to be seriously misleading. On the other hand, his first intuitions about Hagrid, Professors Lockhart and Trelawney, Headmaster Dumbledore, Ron Weasley, the whole Weasley family, Draco Malfoy, Crabbe, Goyle and, of course, Voldemort, remain true — at least through his fourth year. We are left with the uncomfortable joint truths both that appearances can be seriously misleading and that first impressions can prove to be reliable. The world of J. K. Rowling is more like our own than its phantastical guise might suggest — like the world of Aesop without the moralizing.

We learn by example how character affects perception. This important insight is at least as old as Aristotle. Harry first met Gilderoy Lockhart at the bookstore where he was signing copies of the latest of his self-promoting books, Magical Me. Like most of Rowling’s characters, Lockhart is a humorously developed caricature — in this case of a real person — an exaggeratedly handsome, vain, publicity-seeking celebrity, who also turns out to be a fraud (CS16/297). He is a perfect fit for Aristotle’s description.

Vain people...are fools and ignorant of themselves....they attempt honourable undertakings, and then are found out; and they adorn themselves with clothing and outward show.

(Aristotle, WEB LINKNicomachean Ethics IV.3)

Harry sees through Lockhart almost from the beginning, but Hermione Granger — the star-struck, respectful, well-intentioned, book-loving twelve-year-old — is reluctant to attribute anything to him but the best intentions. Even after Lockhart blunders by removing rather than mending Harry’s broken bones, she says, “Anyone can make a mistake” (CS10/174).

Harry learns in his encounters with Lockhart that people are most likely to ascribe to others the motives with which they are most familiar in themselves. Generous people, like Hermione, readily assume generosity in others. Vain or manipulative people, like Lockhart, assume that others are also prompted by vanity or control.

“Harry,” said Lockhart, his large white teeth gleaming in the sunlight as he shook his head. “Harry, Harry, Harry.”

Completely nonplussed, Harry said nothing.

“When I heard — well, of course, it was all my fault. Could have kicked myself.”

Harry had no idea what he was talking about. He was about to say so when Lockhart went on, “Don’t know when I’ve been more shocked. Flying a car to Hogwarts! Well, of course I knew at once why you’d done it. Stood out a mile. Harry, Harry, Harry.”

It was remarkable how he could show every one of those brilliant teeth even when he wasn’t talking.

“Gave you a taste for publicity, didn’t I?” said Lockhart. “Gave you the bug. You got onto the front page of the paper with me and you couldn’t wait to do it again.”

“Oh, no, Professor, see — ”

“Harry, Harry, Harry,” said Lockhart, reaching out and grasping his shoulder. “I understand. Natural to want a bit more once you’ve had that first taste — and I blame myself for giving you that, because it was bound to go to your head — but see here, young man, you can’t start flying cars to try and get yourself noticed. Just calm down, all right? Plenty of time for all that when you’re older. Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking! ‘It’s all right for him, he’s an internationally famous wizard already!’ But when I was twelve, I was just as much a nobody are you are now. In fact, I’d say I was even more of a nobody! I mean, a few people have heard of you, haven’t they? All that business with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named!” He glanced at the lightning scar on Harry’s forehead. “I know, I know — it’s not quite as good as winning Witch Weekly’s Most-Charming-Smile Award five times in a row, as I have — but it’s a start, Harry, it’s a start.”

He gave Harry a hearty wink and strode off. Harry stood stunned for a few seconds, then, remembering he was supposed to be in the greenhouse, he opened the door and slid inside.

(CS6/90-91)

You learn a lot about a person by listening to how they talk about other people.

Character is revealed not only in what one says about others but also, of course, in how one treats them. “If you want to know what a man’s like,” observed Sirius Black — speaking of the elder Bartemius Crouch, “take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals” (GF27/525). A little later he elaborates.

Anything that threatened to tarnish his reputation had to go; he had dedicated his whole life to becoming Minister of Magic. You saw him dismiss a devoted house-elf because she associated him with the Dark Mark again — Doesn’t that tell you what he’s like?

(GF27/528)

Barty Crouch was more concerned with the quality of his résumé than with the quality of his life — a big mistake. Reputation mattered too much to him, as it too often does to adolescents . . . but not just adolescents, of course. Cicero attributes to Socrates the admirable dictum that one should just “be the sort of person you want others to think you are,” and let your reputation take care of itself.

The good life is not to be confused with enjoying material success. The Weasleys, who provided Harry with what was in effect a foster home in the wizarding world, “were very nice and extremely poor” (PA1/9). The Malfoys and their Muggle counterparts, the Dursleys, on the other hand, were very well off, but moral paupers. Dumbledore, with characteristic wisdom, observes to Harry at the end of his first year,

As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all — the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.”

(PS17/297)

Reputation and honors are contingent upon too many factors independent of actual worth. Harry’s own reputation moves in radical ups and downs among his fellow students. In their fourth year at Hogwarts, Hermione, too, has her bubble reputation pricked, in this instance by the scurrilous reporter, Rita Skeeter. Hermione deals with the situation quite sensibly, however, teaching Harry — and not incidentally, that cloud of witnesses, Rowling’s readers — how to deal with it.

“Ignore it,” Hermione said in a dignified voice, holding her head in the air and stalking past the sniggering Slytherin girls as though she couldn’t hear them, “Just ignore it, Harry.”

(GF19/316)

Hagrid falls victim to Rita Skeeter’s quill as well, which eventually prompted him to recall his father’s advice.

“I am what I am, an’ I’m not ashamed. ‘Never be ashamed,’ my ol’ dad used ter say, ‘ther’s some who’ll hold it against you, but they’re not worth botherin’ with.’ An’ he was right.”

(GF24/456)

When Rita Skeeter strikes again, Hermione is even better prepared.

“If that’s the best Rita can do, she’s losing her touch,” said Hermione, still giggling, as she threw Witch Weekly onto the empty chair beside her. “What a pile of old rubbish.”

(GF27/513)

Harry learns well from Hermione’s example. On the next occasion his response is admirably mature.

“Gone off me a bit, hasn’t she?” said Harry lightly, folding up the paper.

(GF31/613)

Rowling’s clever device, the Mirror of Erised “shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.” Thus “[t]he happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is” (PS12/213). Aristotle argues that people are pretty much in agreement on the general description of their deepest desire,namely , “to live well and fare well,” but that they disagree on what living well and faring well amounts to. Some identify it with wealth, reputation and honors. But they are mistaken. The good life, the flourishing life, the thriving or happy life, is a life of activity conducted excellently, that is, with virtue guided by intelligence.

In the end, we hope that Harry and his friends will find themselves able to look into the Mirror of Erised and see themselves as they are. But for now, they and Rowling’s readers are still learning about how to conduct themselves in leading a good life.




[1] Manuscript of a speech delivered at the Boston Unviersity Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character on or about November 15, 2002. The speech pre-dates both Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
[2] Zipes, Jack. Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children's Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. New York: Routledge, 2001, p. 188.
[3] Citation in this essay is the following format: book abbreviation[chapter number]/page number.
[4] McCourt, Frank. Anglela's Ashes. New York: Scribner, 1996, p. 11.

Copyright © 2002, 2006 by Steven S. Tigner
Edited by Paula Hall
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