Thursday, August 25, 2011

Harry Potter: Bullies, Bureaucrats, and Lesser Evils

Between Death-Eaters and Dumbledore’s Army, Harry Potter can seem something of a melodrama—the good guys are very good, the bad guys are very evil. The good wizard looks like an idealized combination of our favorite grandfather and Gandalf and SANTA; the evil wizard is an archlich with a noseless face and a sibilant hiss. In this respect, HP runs afoul of a constant temptation of the fantasy genre: in a world where the rules of physics can be bent, and in a world where even reality seems difficult to parse, the lines drawn between good and evil are as obvious as the Berlin Wall. And there’s never a doubt about which side you are on, either.

So it’s important to recognize when Rowling muddies these lines by creating characters who are somewhere in between: neither black nor white but a shade of gray. I’m talking mostly about the Bureaucrats: Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge, Dolores Umbridge, and Percy Weasley. In a world of stark morality, these characters tend to insist on stark legality—or stark prudence—or stark status quo.

Other almost-bad guys include Professor Lockhart, whose morality splits the world not into good guys and bad guys, but con artists and chumps—himself and everyone else. Professor Slughorn has traces of this in him, as does (actually) Lucius Malfoy and his wife Narcissa, who both have second thoughts as the final battle nears when it becomes clear that they might not stand to benefit from it as much as they once thought.

The hero of gray morality par excellence is of course Severus Snape, not simply that he himself has tricky motives—for the first six books, it’s unclear as to where his sympathies truly lie—but because even if he is in fact a good guy, he’s not particularly nice.

What’s especially fascinating about him is the way that his character almost warps the other characters around him, bending them and muddying their morality. His actions in book six cause Harry to attempt some unforgivable curses. His thoughts stored in the pensieve reveal James Potter to be something of a gray figure himself, a bully at Hogwarts. He questions Dumbledore’s decisions in flashback in book seven, suggesting that Dumbledore himself made decisions that placed unnecessary risks on the young heroes.

Severus Snape is possibly the most beautifully crafted character in the entire canon—dare I say he outranks even Dumbledore and Harry himself? yes, I suppose I do. His very presence keeps the novels from veering irreparably into melodrama—and in some ways, his popularity as a character in the first six books is almost definitely why Rowling chose to give us a similar insight into Dumbledore in book seven.

(If you want a fantasy series full of gray-versus-gray morality, read A Song of Fire and Ice. It’s like a world full of Snapes, Percys, Lockharts, and Malfoys. Also check out my three reviews of the series: 1, 2, and 3)

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