September 29, 2004
Harry Potter and the warrior code

Not long ago Marvin did a post explaining how Harry Potter is an allegory for Christian nonviolence. This is not exactly the deepest theological question out there, but it actually seems to me like a good demonstration of the confusion of common grace with special grace that I mentioned here. And it also reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend a few weeks ago about why we like Harry Potter books but we can't love them. So here's my rebuttal.

First of all, I don't buy Lilly Potter as a Christ figure. She's a mother, and the phenomenon of mothers laying down their lives for their children is found even in the animal kingdom. It is not, by itself, an inherently Christlike love. For that matter the Malfoys seem pretty tight -- who's to say they wouldn't sacrifice for each other also? Jesus spoke to a society in which such family loyalties were common, indeed assumed; his call was to act that way toward people who aren't family.

Such clannishness is, in fact, the feature of the novels that my friend and I were talking about. The Potter novels have been criticized for their endorsement of disobedience and rule-breaking, usually from the point of view of parents and teachers who don't want this to give their kids ideas. Since I'm not a parent I don't object to it on those grounds, but it bothers me for another reason. It reminds me of when I was a kid going to school and trying to figure out the "schoolyard code." The adults made rules, which were at least explicit and comprehensible; but there was this other set of rules, the rules of your peers, that you had to divine through social contact. The second set of rules often conflicted with the first, because peer groups are jealous gods. Loyalty to them was supposed to come before loyalty to anything else.

Since Harry Potter is an abused orphan, his peer group is all he has. So I don't particularly blame him that his life at school revolves around his homies and their relations with other groups, notably their conflict with the Malfoy clique. What bothers me more is how the school structure, the "good" authority figures, and apparently Rowling herself seem to basically endorse this. The school is divided into four houses which are set in permanent competition with each other; each house racks up "points" that determine a victor at the end of each year. My mother, who has read a great many British novels in her life, says that this is pretty much the way British boarding schools operate. She quoted somebody, I forget whom, to the effect that their business since the nineteenth century was to create a ruling class -- which meant training not only in the ways of civilization but, less explicitly, in the ways of warriors.

You can see this in other features of the books. Students are selected to the four houses based on their virtues: Gryffindors have courage, Ravenclaws intelligence, Hufflepuffs dependability and Slytherins cunning. All the heroes are in Gryffindor, so courage is presented as the chief virtue above others, whether it takes the form of bravely confronting evil or of stupid risk-taking. Hence the constant breaking of rules. It's also, I think, why sport (in the form of Quidditch) is so exalted in the books; Rowling completely supports the culture of jock worship.

To a great extent I think the conflict between brave Gryffindors and cunning Slytherins represents the distinction between honorable and dishonorable warriors. Being an honorable warrior means exercising restraint, and sometimes having mercy on your enemy when he's in a weakened position (a la Pettigrew, though I'm not sure I wouldn't rather be dead than under the dementors the rest of my life). But I don't think we should confuse this with actual nonviolence and Christian compassion. Despite the distate for capital punishment there's a definite glee at giving the bad guys their comeuppance in less drastic ways that runs throughout the book. (I would also note that the reluctance to kill an enemy because you don't want to become like him is actually a fairly common theme in children's entertainment; it even appeared in the generally dreadful Batman Forever.)

The idea of honorable combat is nothing to sneeze at, and indeed it could use a revival on today's fields of battle. Some Christians, notably the Salvation Army, employ military language and ethics in the service of nonviolent Christian action. But they use it in order to advance a definite agenda of helping others, preaching Christ, etc. In the Potter novels, it's not at all clear what the good guys stand for. It's clear what they stand against, but being against genocide is not exactly a major moral position. In general, what they seem to stand for most if loyalty to your homies, and this is where it gets most morally troubling. In the first book we learn that Harry Potter's father saved Snape's life, and Snape resents this debt. In Prisoner of Azkaban (spoiler alert, for those who care) we learn that it was the dad's buddy Sirius who actually attempted the murder, by sending him into the lair of a werewolf. The way the good guys in the book treat this is weird. They acknowledge that this was wrong, but treat it as a kind of schoolyard prank, and act like Snape really ought to get over his resentment of Sirius for it. Sirius seems to feel no remorse, and as an adult tells Snape that he ought to have done it because Snape was such a meddling creep.

If Sirius had been a villain one could imagine how this would be treated. But Sirius is a good guy, because he loves Harry and Harry's father, and how people feel about Harry is always the first indicator of whether they're good or evil. I should say that I might feel differently about this at the series' end, because Rowling does seem to be going somewhere with the character of Snape and the fact that the senior Potter and Sirius bullied him when they were teenagers. Still, so far I don't see any reason to give this series the exalted title of "Christian allegory."

Posted by Camassia at September 29, 2004 10:39 AM | TrackBack

I generally enjoy the Potter books, though less so as it goes on. (I don't know if this reflects a change in my tastes or a change in the books' quality.) That said, I think there's many things that are morally problematic about the Potterverse. Recently I've been struck by how Rowling seems to smile upon the pranks of the Weasley twins, which, as the series progresses, increasingly cross the line from good clean fun to malicious. They're pretty much smiling bullies by the end of book 5.

I remember reading a post on the redemption of Snape on someone else's blog - I'll have to hunt that down for you.

Posted by: Rilina on September 29, 2004 01:23 PM

Whoa, deep.

Likewise I'm beginning to enjoy the HP books less; the first books are unambitious enough that I can genuinely enjoy them whatever their flaws, but as the series goes on you feel like Rowling's trying to force something deep and moral on them... and it sometimes works very, very badly just for those reasons.

I love the books when I'm in the middle of them probably because in my own life I have a very hard time resisting the impulse to think that the "good guys" are the people who like me and the "bad guys" are the people who don't--but when I come out of them and the character identification wears off, those things start to make me very nervous.

But OTOH I still believe in the possibility that Rowling will turn this all on its head and show us she knows what she's doing. Two books left to go, after all.

Posted by: Emily on September 29, 2004 05:35 PM

I think that Rowling is underestimated by putting her characters in boxes that say "good characters act this way" and "bad characters act that way" and failing to see that what Rowling is doing is displaying the shades of grey. Yes, we like Harry but the boy sure does bend the rules. No, we hate Snape because he's nasty and cruel to our hero. Yes, we like Remus Lupin and Sirius Black but they are by no means ideal mentor/godfather types. They are human with some pretty serious failings in their pasts. We see that they all have to deal with the consequences of their actions. Sirius does so by denial and avoidance, Lupin by forgiveness, and Snape with hatred and bitterness.

I would question that Rowling completely supports the culture of jock worship. Indeed, she uses sport/competition as metaphor throughout The Goblet of Fire. In the end, we see the "jocks" (Krum and Bagman) are no more and no less human. In The Order of the Phoenix she removes Harry from the sport aspect altogether and even makes Quidditch another thing he has to bear the loss of.

Despite the distate for capital punishment there's a definite glee at giving the bad guys their comeuppance in less drastic ways that runs throughout the book. You mean, like justice is served? Draco got what he deserved? Sirius didn't get what he should have (a fair trial and his freedom?)

but being against genocide is not exactly a major moral position.

Excuse me? It isn't? Perhaps you meant moral dilemma, not position.

Rowling does seem to be going somewhere with the character of Snape

Snape is by far the most fascinating, convoluted, cryptic character in the books. He's always thought of by Harry as anything other than evil but Snape has never failed to protect Harry, even if Snape can be surly as he does it.

As for calling the HP series a Christian allegory, I would hope not. I've successfully read only one "Christian allegory" in my entire life - "Pilgrim's Progress" - and frankly, giving such a "title" to a book or series practically makes me run the other direction. But then, The Lord of the Rings books have the record for the number of times I thrown them against the wall and I've endured the Narnia series and the Planet series only when they've been inflicted upon me in book groups. Thank God that Madeleine L'Engle's books have so far been successful at avoiding the pronouncement of "allegory."


Posted by: Kizmet on September 29, 2004 08:52 PM

Admittedly the word "allegory" was mine, not Marvin's, but he did seem to be allegorizing by comparing Voldemort to the Beast of Revelation and all that. But the larger question is whether the underlying ethics of the book are really congruent "Christian nonviolence," and I don't think they are.

I know the heroes are not supposed to be perfect, and Rowling does try to make her characters complex. But the moral attitudes of the books are still peculiar. If I met somebody that I knew tried to commit a murder at age 16 it would at least give me a lot more pause than it gives Harry, or anybody else in that storyline for that matter. Harry seems more upset by Snape's memory of James and Sirius dangling him upside down than by the werewolf incident.

Likewise, probably jock worship was the wrong term to use, but sport worship seems to go along with the general encouragement of aggression and competitiveness between the houses that the school practices, and that Rowling seems to also support. I don't know, maybe I just don't get team sports, but it seems like stylized warfare to me.

You mean, like justice is served? Draco got what he deserved? Sirius didn't get what he should have (a fair trial and his freedom?)
No, of course not. But they do torment the villains in various ways, especially lesser villains like that female administrator in the last book, and the readers are clearly meant to laugh along with it. Therefore, I don't agree with Marvin's claim that Harry always resists the urge to get revenge. He resists killing people but he's not exactly into loving his enemies.

Excuse me? It isn't? Perhaps you meant moral dilemma, not position.
What I meant was, being non-genocidal isn't a great definition of yourself as a moral person. It doesn't really help explain what "good" is in the story's moral scheme.

As Emily said, since there are a couple more books to go this might well get better developed. Maybe Rowling is encouraging her young readers to look at things one way so that their moral view can gradually widen along with Harry's. I'm just saying that in the story so far, we seem to be more or less going along with the ethics of pubescent schoolchildren, so I don't swallow the exalted moral claims Marvin is making for the story.

Posted by: Camassia on September 29, 2004 10:02 PM

First of all, my name is Jonathan, not Marvin. That's just one of the many things you misread in my post.

Check the Ivy Bush later for my response.

Posted by: Jonathan Marlowe on October 1, 2004 01:45 PM

My own objection to values of the Potterverse -- and praise of my all-time fantasy favorite, TH White's THE SWORD IN THE STONE -- is at

Posted by: amba on October 4, 2004 08:01 PM
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