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Harry Potter (Series) | Themes



As is often the case, exploring the uses and abuses of magical power in a fantasy story is a way of looking at the uses and abuses of other types of power in the real world. In the Harry Potter books, magical power serves this function well. Voldemort's quest for power over others and over death is tied up with his quest for ever-more-powerful Dark Magic. As Professor Quirrell says in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, "There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it." This desire for power is not limited to Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Cornelius Fudge becomes reprehensible because of his fear of losing his powerful position as Minister of Magic to Dumbledore. One of Dumbledore's great regrets is his desire to exert his magical power is the driving ambition that led to his sister's death. Magical races such as house-elves are in subjugation to witches and wizards because they are not allowed wands, which enhance and focus magical power.

However, magical power is not the only power people wield in the Potterverse. The power of fear is leveraged by Voldemort and his Death Eaters to keep the wizarding world from resisting his dominion. They kill as much to terrorize the populace as for revenge or other motives, and even warn people against saying Voldemort's name aloud. As Dumbledore says in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, "Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself." Those in the Ministry of Magic also use fear—fear of punishment—to exert their power and control people. Dolores Umbridge asserts her power as High Inquisitor of Hogwarts to control the minds and actions of students there.

In opposition to all these abuses and pitfalls of power, the book presents the power of love: parent to child, child to parental figure, friend to friend. Love isn't simply a warm fuzzy feeling. It is a powerful force, an unbreakable eternal bond that makes life worth living. Love is what compels Lily Potter to give her own life to save her son's; it is the power of this mother's love that protects Harry from Voldemort when the two meet in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Harry's love for his godfather Sirius Black is the power that forces Voldemort to give up possessing Harry's body in the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The power of love is the "power the Dark Lord knows not" (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). Voldemort cannot possibly understand Harry and the protective charm his mother set in place by her act of self-sacrifice. This is an important vulnerability in Voldemort.

Love transcends the boundary of death. Albus Dumbledore asks Harry, "You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us?" Indeed, all those Harry loved, and who loved him, come back to help him perform his final task. Those who share in the bond of love find it stretches from the concrete world into the eternal. It connects the seen and unseen parts of reality. In some ways love's power builds a bridge into immortality that is far more resilient than Voldemort's attempts at defying death.

Love is not the kind of power one seeks to exalt oneself. As Dumbledore tells Harry in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, "Perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it." In relying on love as the foundation of his power—walking into his death with his loved ones at his side—Harry ultimately prevails.

Death, Resurrection, and Immortality

Death and the desire for immortality are introduced in the first book of the series: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Harry Potter is, famously, an orphan, so death and loss are already part of the narrative even before the first sentence of the series. Voldemort is seeking the Sorcerer's Stone, which will allow him to make the Elixir of Life and achieve not just a return to life but immortality. However, his plans are foiled when he fails to obtain the stone, and it is subsequently destroyed. Dumbledore has this to say about death in his conversation with Harry at the end of the book: "It really is like going to bed after a very, very long day. After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure." In the Potterverse death is one of life's mysteries to be studied but not feared. In the Department of Mysteries, a simple archway covered in a thin veil is all that separates the world of the living from what is beyond. Death is as simple as passing through this veil as Sirius Black does at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

As the series continues, Voldemort's pursuit of immortality further unfolds. He has gone to extreme lengths to make certain he can avoid death. The Horcruxes he creates house fragments of his soul to ensure he survives even if his body fails. As Dumbledore regularly points out, Voldemort's avoidance of death is a fatal flaw, blinding him to what is truly important in life.

Another facet of the death versus immortality theme is the idea of resurrection. An important difference between immortality and resurrection is resurrection can only happen after death while the immortality Voldemort seeks avoids death altogether. The phoenix, a symbol of resurrection because of its ability to be reborn from its own ashes, is a symbol used throughout the series: Dumbledore's pet phoenix named Fawkes, Dumbledore's Patronus (ghostlike positive energy force) is a phoenix, and the "Order of the Phoenix." The Resurrection Stone, one of the three Deathly Hallows (trio of magical objects), allows Harry's loved ones to reappear. Dumbledore himself reappears in the final novel of the series after being killed in the previous book. Although none of these are bodily resurrections, they are meant to be "real." (As Dumbledore notes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?")

Self-Sacrifice versus Self-Preservation

Rather than having a simple good-versus-evil narrative, the Harry Potter series explores certain qualities associated with good and the lack of those virtues. Chief among the virtues exhibited by those who are good is self-sacrifice. Lily Potter sacrifices her life for her son Harry. Both Dumbledore and Snape put Harry (and the fight against Voldemort) before their own happiness and safety, and both pay the ultimate price so Harry might live and defeat the Dark Lord. Snape makes the Unbreakable Vow (vow between two wizards or witches that results in death if broken) to help Draco and, as a result, performs an act of violence so Draco does not have to. Many members of the Order of the Phoenix give their lives in the fight against Voldemort. Harry chooses to walk willingly toward his death when he realizes his death is necessary for Voldemort to be defeated.

On the flip side is self-preservation. Voldemort displays an extreme form of self-preservation, as he must commit murder each time he creates a Horcrux, trading someone else's life for a greater chance of extending his own. This extreme self-preservation shows itself as a great evil.

In between Lily Potter and Voldemort are other characters who fall somewhere on this spectrum from self-giving to self-preserving. Some characters move along the spectrum. Dumbledore and Snape are, in fact, great examples of the redemption that occurs when one moves from self-preservation to self-sacrifice. Dumbledore pursued his own glory in his youth and saw the error of his ways when he helped to cause his sister's death. Snape was a Death Eater until his own actions caused the death of Lily Potter, whom he secretly loved. For both, their way of making amends and achieving redemption is to give of themselves and ultimately give their own lives.

Fate and Free Will

The theme of fate and free will develops primarily through the prophecy, which comes into full understanding in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Some of the identifying traits of the one with the power to "vanquish the Dark Lord" apply to both Harry Potter and Neville Longbottom: they were both born at the end of July (July 31 and 30, respectively), and both had parents who thrice defied Voldemort. However, some apply to only Harry: "The Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not." Voldemort "marks" Harry when the curse gives him his famous scar. The power Harry has is love, which Voldemort does not know or understand. The prophecy continues: "Either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives." Dumbledore confirms Harry is the one the prophecy talks about, and either Harry or Voldemort is destined to kill the other. There are some actions that, once set in motion, become destiny.

However, despite the workings of fate, the series is careful to demonstrate that free will also exists. A person's choices matter. Even the prophecy is not, originally, unavoidable. As Dumbledore explains to Harry in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: "You see, the prophecy does not mean you have to do anything ... you are free to choose your way, quite free to turn your back on the prophecy! But Voldemort continues to set store by the prophecy. He will continue to hunt you." Thus Voldemort essentially chose Harry Potter as his adversary when he tried to kill him, and in trying to curse him gave him the means to "vanquish the Dark Lord." Specifically, he caused the self-sacrificial death of Lily Potter, granting Harry the protective charm of her self-giving love. He unintentionally places a piece of his own soul in Harry, which ties the two together to create the unique circumstance that gives Harry a second chance against Voldemort.

Furthermore, the importance of making choices comes up repeatedly on a smaller scale. Harry's plea to the Sorting Hat (the hat that determines which of four houses students new to Hogwarts belong)—his choice to be something other than a Slytherin—is granted. Snape's choice to help Harry despite his dislike of James Potter's son is a key component of Voldemort's downfall. Hermione and Ron choose to accompany Harry as he tracks down the Horcruxes, and their loyalty is crucial to his success. Ron's choice to come back to Harry and Hermione in the final book allows him to destroy the locket Horcrux. In each of these crucial decisions, the character who makes the choice is as important as the choice itself. While Harry's fate is to face Voldemort, Harry's development as a person along the way is his true journey. Ultimately, his success or failure rests on innumerable individual choices people make to either pursue power and self-preservation or to heroically give of themselves.

Discrimination and Oppression

The theme of discrimination and oppression emerges in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In this book a discriminatory class system in the wizarding world comes into play when those who are from Muggle families become targets of the basilisk kept in the hidden Chamber of Secrets.

This class system is based on ties to the wizarding world versus the nonmagical, or Muggle, world. Those who are "pure-bloods" are of longtime magical families with no Muggle members. At worst, a pure-blood person might be a Squib, someone born into a wizarding family but without magical powers. Squibs are generally outcasts. Some wizards and witches, notably Voldemort, Salazar Slytherin, and Dolores Umbridge, believe people who have only one magical parent (a half-blood) or two Muggle parents (a "Muggle-born" person, disdainfully referred to as a "Mudblood") are less worthy. As Voldemort's power grows, those with Muggle ties (half-bloods and Muggle-borns) are denied wands and forbidden to use magic.

The oppression of other magical races, such as house-elves, is another way this theme develops. House-elves are enslaved creatures who are not only denied freedom but are not allowed to use wands. Hermione Granger, a Muggle, takes on the cause of house-elf liberation in the books, forming S.P.E.W. (Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) and knitting clothing to set more house-elves free. House-elves play a key role in the final Battle of Hogwarts, fighting against Voldemort.

Perhaps one of the most important events in developing this theme is the destruction of the Fountain of Magical Brethren in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This fountain features a wizard, a witch, a centaur, a goblin, and a house-elf existing peacefully together. It is destroyed in the battle between Voldemort and Dumbledore. Later, Dumbledore notes, "The fountain we destroyed tonight told a lie. We wizards have mistreated and abused our fellows for too long, and we are now reaping our reward." In a telling move, the Ministry of Magic replaces the fountain with one titled "Magic is Might." It is a "vast sculpture of a witch and a wizard sitting on ornately carved thrones" made of "mounds of carved humans [Muggles] ... twisted and pressed together to support the weight of the handsomely robed wizards" (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).

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