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The Ethics of Rowling


Well, after reading book 5 of Harry Potter (The Order of the Phoenix), all of my literature interpretation instincts just kicked in automatically. Never mind the predictions of what will happen, who will end up with whom, etc… I was instantly drawn by the notion of psychomachia (I’ve mentioned it before, it is the battle between good and evil) and the nature of right and wrong, choice and free will and the ‘good’ according to J. K. Rowling.

Rowling’s approach to the battle between good and evil is highly interesting because it is deceptive. Far from being conventional, it is actually quite different from the norm and (as I know she was greatly influenced by him) follows C.S. Lewis’ approach to it. The term psychomachia is here eminently suitable as, to define it more properly, it is “the fight for a person’s soul” or “the fight in a person’s soul” (

Quite simply, the idea that Voldemort is “the great evil” that Harry has to battle is wrong. Quite unlike, say, J.R.R. Tolkien with his Sauron or other equivalent stories, evil is not a distinct entity to defeat and after which everything will be back to normal. Evil here is something that is fought strictly by each person. Voldemort has to deal with psychomachia just as much as Harry does. Evil, then, according to Rowling, is not so much an act or an entity as much is it is a choice. Harry and Tom Riddle have been deliberately contrasted because they are basically the same characters at heart. This is obvious and well-known. The difference lies in what they chose.

But what does that mean, exactly? How does one ‘choose’ evil? For the moment, I see it as basically being selfishness and self-centeredness. Evil is when you say “My will be done”. The great I, or ego and it is obviously no coincidence that Voldemort survived for the longest time as pure ego. Both Harry and Tom Riddle were handed pain early in life and this pain was obviously inflicted on them repeatedly. But whereas Tom Riddle buckled under the pain and decided to take vengeance.

And the ultimate in self-centeredness is of course the quest for unbridled and total power, specifically, power for its own sake. Tom Riddle as Voldemort wants it because he wants the world, which so cruelly handled him, to finally bend to his will. Something it refused to do for so long. You could even say that he had no faith in cosmic justice or even just cosmic balance.

It also explains why he is so afraid of death. For the selfish, self-centered person, death is the ultimate end. You are not particularly concerned, for instance, about ‘leaving something lasting’ since you won’t get to enjoy it. What does it matter to you that ‘you live on in people’s hearts’?

Tom Riddle, thus, lost faith in the universe. He gave up on being human because it so ill-abused him and he gave up on just having faith that things would either work out or were as they supposed to be. He decided, instead, to make the world work for him.

This is also explains why Dumbledore is so unafraid of him. It isn’t because of Dumbledore’s power, something that the wizarding community, HP fans and Voldemort all obsess over. Certainly, Dumbledore is ‘powerful’ objectively. But his true strength is that Dumbledore cares. Dumbledore doesn’t care much for power for its own sake and always does his best to empower others. Hence, he knows his death is not the end of it. Death will not destroy Dumbledore, as envisaged by two key lines from the five books.

  • In Book 2, when Lucius produces an order of suspension with the signatures of all twelve school governors on it, Dumbledore says that he shall of course step aside if they wish it…

    “However,” said Dumbledore, speaking very slowly and clearly so that none of them could miss a word, “you will find that I will only truly have left this school when none here are loyal to me. You will also find that help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it (CS14).”

  • And in book 5, that death is not the only way to destroy a man:

    “You do not seek to kill me, Dumbledore?” called Voldemort, his scarlet eyes narrowed over the top of the shield. “Above such brutality, are you?”

    “We both know that there are other ways of destroying a man, Tom” Dumbledore said calmly, continuing to walk toward Voldemort as though he had not a fear in the world, as though nothing had happened to interrupt his stroll up the hall (OP36).

That last is crucial, since that is the only way that Voldemort can think. It was this that lead to Voldemort’s ironic creation of his own nemesis: he thought that the death of the Potters would end his troubles and never counted on love.

But what about Harry? Where does he stand? The end of Book 5 clearly stated it. Harry is now old enough so he has been given a moral crossroads. While Dumbledore says he made a mistake in telling Harry only now what everybody intuitively knew, literary-wise, it makes sense why Rowling would only say that now that it is just Harry who can kill Voldemort. And Harry finds out that he has a terrible responsibility that is totally self-less oriented at the moment when he wishes the most to dwell on his own pain. He can either give up, as he wanted, or he can go on, realizing now what price he has to pay.

Book 5 is then very crucial in that sense. Quite obviously, Harry will most probably choose to go on, face his destiny and destroy Voldemort. There are then three important questions for the next two books. How will he make this decision? Why will he make this decision? And, of course, what will make him decide to go on?



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Tags: C.S. Lewis ethics morality prophecy