Harry Potter and the Moral Imagination

J.K. Rowling’s  great Harry Potter opus begins with a boy to whom the most wonderful thing happens. From living in a closet under the stairs, an orphan with a miserable life, Harry Potter goes on to be not only a wizard introduced to a magical world of wonders, but a famous wizard and the only one who can save the world. As Rowling opens up the world of wonders to Harry Potter, the corresponding dangers are proportional, and so the coherence of her creation is maintained through proportional dimensions. 

It would have been gratuitous—and boring—for Rowling to give him wonders without perils as well. I don’t know exactly what wisdom and insight this woman has, but I do know she knows how to tell a story, and a good one of wisdom and insight. She knows how to do the beginning, sustain the middle, and give it a satisfying end. And whatever Rowling is doing in this sprawling and baroque thing she makes, she is not doing things gratuitously. There is a logic that governs what unfolds that has its seed in the very first book.

There is a reason for the sprawling diversity Rowling sometimes struggles to bring all together in this book. The series sags a bit in book four and then in book five before she masters the complexities of everything she’s trying to accomplish. Her first three tomes grew at a modest pace, and then all of a sudden the fourth could almost swallow all those before, and the rest follow longer. And there are times when you wonder if all the anger in book five, all the snogging in book six, all the clueless wandering in book seven serve a purpose. The answer is that they do, and that by that time Rowling knows most readers will stick with her. And that is the key—if you stick with it long enough, it pays off. It is one work, in seven volumes—and it must be that way.

The ending does not disappoint. It is a big, elaborate quest to understand exactly what magical connections have been made and consequences are being reaped, but it hangs together and points to the theme unambiguously. The theme is that the good holds within itself an unending world of marvel spanning distances from lemon drops to the beauty of undying loyalty to friends and that highest and most powerful magic: love expressed through sacrifice. Which is why I say there is a logic to the whole thing. She is introducing wonder: the books can only increase in wonder. She is not introducing one wonder, but a whole world of wonder, and so the books have to enclose more and end climatically  It is no wonder Rowling struggled with keeping things coherent in the middle of the series, but the wonder is that she was able to pull it off and make a triumph of the whole. And she has to show, which she does, that evil is flat, mean, confused, ignorant and the death of all that is interesting. She does, she does, she does. The story ends with Harry Potter saving the world and is no letdown. 

That is the great appeal, it seems to me, of Harry Potter. There are wonders and depths of wonder, the world is not simply a place of clashing envy, hatred and will to power. Those things belong to the side of evil, destruction and death—the line of which runs through every human heart. The world is more, and the interesting story is the one in which real knowledge is used to resist darkness, ignorance, hatred and in short, evil of every kind. It is not accidental that the story takes place in a school: one of the great points she makes is that evil is inferior to good in what it knows because it does not love. There is this sense all throughout that maybe the dark side knows things, secrets, mysteries that the weak and the good are too cowardly to acquire. But that is set on its head in the end. And that is true to life. Are we not seduced? Is there not a glamour to debauchery, a mystery of iniquity that mocks prudence and proper caution as cowardice? But it is a false boasting, only an illusion, a magic of deception that beckons us not to life, but to death and the fear of death. Evil is for coward, traitors, liars and thieves. True courage is on the side of what is right and honor is amirable. And when Rowling makes this point it resonates in the deep heart’s core. The deepest magic is still the magic of love. That last spell Harry casts is a symbol of all he stands for, and why we admire him, and there is a tremendous symbolic resonance in the last duel and its just outcome. 

A great work like this has a lot of themes one could speak of. The flaws in people, the imperfection in us that might prevent but does not have to prevent admirable behavior seems to me a powerful one. When Dumbledore met Harry at King’s Cross and confessed his faults, it brought before me the truth that we each of us tend to perceive morality to favor our own weaknesses in a way I had never before seen it. She is dealing with heroes and has to deal with how we ought to deal with heroes. She does it well. There is a generous ambiguity about what makes one hero better than the rest around him. There is a humility about self and an admiration and regard that shows a very deep wisdom. The way she handles from start to finish the character of Severus Snape—not completed until that crucial epilogue in book seven—is an example of this and rich food for thought. 

A lot of kids have grown up with Harry Potter. It is for better or worse a part of the world of many people and I think it is if nothing else as an act of cultural literacy that we should be familiar with it. The good news is that it is a good addition to our cultural literature. In this sprawling work there is God’s plenty, and certainly enough for people to find that to which they may take exception. But it is in its broad themes and its architectural execution a triumph of the moral imagination.


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