The Battle for the Soul
by Lady Alchymia
Good and evil are very well-traveled subjects in art and literature, and there are many different literary models Jo Rowling might have chosen for her heroes and villains, but most Western allegories can be traced back directly or indirectly to the early Christian poet Prudentius (c. 400 AD).
Prudentius was enormously influential for one very simple reason — he gave the people exactly what they wanted. Before Prudentius came along, Christian dogma was a tad fuzzy when trying to explain what people should and shouldnt do in order to keep their soul free from evil. This would never do!
Prudentius rearranged and relabeled a few existing ideas and created a very popular set of seven virtues that could be used to cure seven corresponding vices. The idea was elegantly simple – and even better, everyone could understand it!
- Liberality (largesse) cures Greed
- Chastity (chivalry) cures Lust
- Kindness (mercy) cures Envy
- Abstinence cures Gluttony
- Humility cures Pride
- Diligence cures Sloth
- Patience cures Wrath
If only he’d stopped there…
Unfortunately for us, Prudentius was a truly woeful poet. His tediously long epic poem is right up there with Vogon poetry in my humble opinion. But Prudentius’s ideas were so popular that his poem, “The Psychomachia” (“The Battle for the Soul”), would go on to influence western art and literature throughout the dark and middle ages!
In Prudentius’s epic allegory, each vice and virtue is represented by a different person in the story. The poem depicts an epic battle, where the seven virtues (led by Faith) are pitted against the seven vices (led by Discord) in an all-out blood and guts brawl to demonstrate how good will vanquish evil. “The Psychomachia” was not terribly well written and has lots of gratuitous sex and violence, but oddly enough it was exceedingly popular (fancy that!).
Countless modern art and literature students have had “The Psychomachia” inflicted upon them – perhaps even Jo Rowling herself. You can see Prudentius’s legacy in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” in the “Song of Roland,” in the allegorical masterpieces of Titian, Botticelli, Caravaggio. Anytime you spot a painting of Patience standing calmly with her shield whilst Wrath pokes her with a stick, or perhaps Chastity holding firm against Lust’s leering gaze, then you are seeing an echo of Prudentius.
The Psychomachia – The Battle for the Soul
So what’s this poem about? “The Psychomachia” uses a bulldozer to ram home the message that for every sin (e.g., pride, envy, gluttony), there is a Christian cure (e.g., humility, kindness, abstinence). The seven vices and seven virtues are neatly paired off, but they also tend to gang up on each other as well. The battle is a metaphor for the turmoil within a person when they are sorely tempted to do the wrong thing – so in a sense, the poem is all about making the right choices in life in order to preserve the purity of your soul.
For Prudentius, victory occurs when, the battling spirit has overcome with great slaughter the monsters in the enslaved heart, which is a little melodramatic but you get the idea. The battle is won when you have conquered the darkness within yourself – when you have embraced virtue and goodness over vices and evil.
So what has all this got to do with Harry Potter?
Ah, well, if Jo was looking for a few ideas in orchestrating a seven-year plan for defeating evil then she might have drawn on a few ideas that originated with good old Prudentius.
But it’s not just the vice/virtue model that she might have used, she may have also drawn upon “The Psychomachia”‘s battle scenes representing warfare of the soul. In a broad sens, Harry is actually fighting two “battles for the soul.” One is the battle for his own soul, this is the personal battle that every person faces in trying to grow up to be a good person. The second is more unusual, in that in HP it is a literal battle between souls that have managed to get linked up together courtesy of Harrys scar connection.
But it goes even further than that, with “soul battles” scattered all over the place. Each of the five HP books to date has had important battle scenes involving the “souls-on-the-rampage.”
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Firstly, baby Harry and Lord Voldemort have a battle in Godric’s Hollow resulting in Voldemort’s soul being ripped from his body (and traces deposited in Harry’s scar). The Killing Curse is deflected by Lily’s love and self-sacrifice. Then in the climax of Book 1, there is a second battle, where Voldemort’s soul possesses Quirrell and tries to tempt Harry to save his own life and join him. Voldemort is defeated by the power of love in Harry’s blood and Harry’s selflessness in standing firm against him and wanting to do the right thing with the Stone.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Again, Riddle’s soul/spirit (this time in a diary) wages battle with the chivalrous Harry. There is also a secondary battle between Ginny Weasley’s soul and Tom Riddle that occurs at intervals during the school year (when Riddle forces Ginny to do things for him).
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
This time Harry is having a battle for his soul with the soul-eating Dementors, with the climactic final scene of Harry saving the souls of Sirius, Hermione, and himself by the power of really positive thinking.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
In this book, we see Harry’s soul take flight for the first time when he falls asleep during Divination:
He was riding on the back of an eagle owl, soaring through the clear blue sky toward an old, ivy-covered house set high on a hillside. Lower and lower they flew, the wind blowing pleasantly in Harry’s face, until they reached a dark and broken window in the upper story of the house and entered. Now they were flying along a gloomy passageway, to a room at the very end…through the door they went, into a dark room whose windows were boarded up…
Harry had left the owl’s back…he was watching, now, as it fluttered across the room, into a chair with its back to him…There were two dark shapes on the floor beside the chair …both of them were stirring…” (GoF 29)
We also see the Dementors back and sucking out Crouch, Jr.’s soul. Then, in the climax in the graveyard scene, Voldemort’s soul is finally resurrected into his new body.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
We start with Dementors attacking Harry and Dudley of course, and things pretty much go downhill from there. There are various visions etc., but it’s the climactic possession scene in the Ministry where we literally have two souls fighting it out – soul on soul.
Prudentius’s epic poem uses a physical blood-and-guts battle as a metaphor for the internal struggle that individuals face in overcoming temptation – and this is something that Rowling does too, but she takes it a step further by staging a literal soul-to-soul showdown in the Ministry possession scene. We get a “real-life” battle between two souls when Harry is able to repulse Voldemort from possessing him by brandishing his virtues of faith and hope and love for Sirius.
I daresay Prudentius would be quite chuffed!
It would seem likely that we will see more of this kind of Battle for the Soul during Book 7, when Harry is able to demonstrate all virtues in defiance of Voldemort’s vices, with virtue triumphing (naturally).
Virtues and Vices Depicted in Harry Potter
The seven virtues are just common sense, really (kindness, humility, patience, etc.) – and represent the normal lessons learned as people grow up and find themselves tempted by various vices (greed, envy, lust, etc.). But it does represent the kinds of challenges facing both Harry Potter and Tom Riddle – with very different choices made by each person!
Each of the five books to date has one or two dominant themes, but all seven virtues and vices are normal human strengths and weaknesses and can be seen at play in all of the books (and across lots of different characters).
Listed below are a few examples from the climactic battles in the books:
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, greed is defeated by liberality (largesse). Harry saves the day by not wanting Flamel’s Stone for himself (even though he and Ron daydream about what they could do with it).
In Chamber of Secrets, Voldemort’s lust for Ginny’s soul is defeated by Harry’s chastity (chivalry). Voldemort is defeated by Harry’s fidelity to Ginny by the mechanism of his loyalty to Dumbledore (via Fawkes and Gryffindor’s sword).
In Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry elects to show mercy to Pettigrew.
In Goblet of Fire, Harry demonstrates the virtue of abstinence in declining Cedric’s offer for him to take the Triwizard Cup alone. Harry thinks about it, he pictures himself striding out of the maze victorious and impressing Cho, but he ends up saying no and suggests instead that he and Cedric share the prize (come to think of it, that didn’t turn out very well, actually!).
In Order of the Phoenix, we see Harry’s pride defeated by humility when he realizes he led everyone into a trap at the Ministry. He learns that Hermione was right (if tactless) and that he had fallen into the vice of false pride when he couldn’t credit the idea that he could be wrong. The vice of pride is also well situated in Goblet, with Harry being all huffy and not coping at all well with Ron’s jealousy over him being selected as one of the Triwizard Champions.
So What’s Coming Up for Books 6 and 7?
There are a couple of vice/virtue combinations that havent really been seen too often yet: Diligence curing Sloth and Patience curing Wrath.
In Half-Blood Prince, I can imagine the virtue of Diligence becoming important. I think Harry will not let himself wallow in misery; rather, he will study very diligently this coming year. Voldemort, on the other hand, might let his underlings have too free a hand, and by the end of the book, their rabid excesses may cause Voldemort’s silent supporters to declare themselves for the light side.
In Book 7, I could see Patience being the big virtue that Harry needs to develop. Pure, malevolent wrath will be undercutting the patience of our young hero. When Harry comes of age, he will yearn to go after the Dark Lord himself and get it over with, but he’ll manage to submerge his wrath in favor of patience in allowing all the necessary pieces to fall into place.
An important aspect of Book 7 will be that Harry can legally do what he wants, but that he will choose to listen to people and be brutally honest with himself about the choices he is making, and he will choose to exercise patience (and of course be rewarded with victory).
Time to look at how a skinny little kid with a good heart actually gets to vanquish a big bad Dark Lord. Time to consider the overarching septology plot.
The Chosen One vs. the Dark Lord
In creating a structure for her story, Jo once said that the character of Harry Potter came first. A skinny, bespectacled little boy on his way to Magic School just popped into her head; and everything else molded itself around his journey.
Jo wanted to create a hero and villain who would be equal and opposite by the climax of the series – equal in power but opposite in heart. Harry Potter and Tom Riddle start life with roughly the same trials and tribulations, then they start making choices that send them down different paths, one to the light, one to the dark.
At the end of Order, Dumbledore tells Harry that it was his heart that saved him from being possessed by Voldemort. He then goes on to state that it is the power held within his heart that “Voldemort has not at all” and further declares that this is the specific power mentioned in the prophecy that Harry has that Voldemort does not.
Okay, that’s all well and good, but how does Harry convert that power into a weapon for defeating Voldemort? And why couldn’t Dumbledore use that power too? Surely he has a good enough heart?
Ah, well, Jo broadcasts from the very first chapter of her series that Voldemort has powers that Dumbledore does not. As Dumbledore tells Professor McGonagall:
‘You flatter me,’ said Dumbledore calmly. ‘Voldemort had powers I will never have.’
‘Only because you’re too — well — noble to use them.’
‘It’s lucky it’s dark. I haven’t blushed so much since Madam Pomfrey told me she liked my new earmuffs.'” (SS 1)
Note that McGonagall simply assumes that Dumbledore has the same powers but that he is just too noble to use them. This may well be true, but still, Dumbledore avoids the question. He makes a joke and doesn’t confirm or deny McGonagall’s assumption (he would not, of course, lie).
We know that when Voldemort cursed Harry he transferred some of his skills (like being a Parselmouth). What if there are other magical gifts that were transferred? What if the gift is something that Dumbledore literally does not have? Just like some people are natural Animagi, or Metamorphmagi, or Parselmouths. Keep in mind that prophecy says “and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal.”
What if this additional innate skill or gift can be used by Harry against Voldemort and defeats the Dark Lord because it carries the slam-dunk extra punch provided by the goodness of Harry’s heart? We’ve already seen this happen way back in Chamber when the Parselmouth ability was instrumental in Harry saving the day – and that Harry used the evil Basilisk’s tooth to kill Riddle’s memory (thus ironically utilizing a Dark power (the tooth) to kill the evil spirit in the diary).
The irony of a second transferred skill, of course, is that Voldemort would be hoist upon his own petard! It would be a gift they both have (and so they go into battle on an even standing), but Harry would be able to use the gift to deliver the “power” that Voldemort “knows not.” And it also would go some way to explaining why Dumbledore is so resigned to the idea that it is only Harry who can defeat the Dark Lord.
What Extra Gift?
So what extra gift might Harry have picked up in Godric’s Hollow? Ah, surely you can guess by now? Possession! Harry has already exhibited abilities in astral travel, and he was essentially victorious in evicting Voldemort during Voldemort’s possession of him in the Ministry scene in Order by employing the extra power that Voldemort “knows not” – his heart. It’s only a matter of time before Harry develops a way of doing to Voldemort what Voldemort tried to do to him.
But he can’t, you might think. Harry couldn’t stand the pain!
Ah, yes, but that was when Voldemort was possessing Harry’s body. Harry’s body was where the “battle” was fought and the poor child nearly died from the pain of it. Voldemort, however, felt no particular pain – and used Harry’s voice to taunt Dumbledore to kill the boy. It wasn’t until Harry’s heart kicked in that Voldemort felt unexpected and terrible pain and quickly got the heck out of there!
You also should remember that Harry didn’t have any pain during his astral journeys when he co-possessed Nagini in the snake attack on Arthur Weasley or in various other astral incursions into Lord Voldemort’s mind. Of course, Harry had horrible throbbing headaches later when back in his own body – but nothing he couldn’t really handle.
So the time may come (probably in Book 7) when Harry discovers that he, too, can possess people and that when he does, he can use the enormous power of his heart to vanquish the Dark Lord for good.
And that is what Dumbledore cannot presumably do; he doesn’t have the same gift of possession. Think about it, if you were Dumbledore, how would you go about trying to vanquish the whole of Lord Voldemort? Sure, you can kill his body, but the man’s soul can leave his body at will. If you did manage to kill his body, but his soul was in Harry (or somewhere else) at the time, then all you’ve done is go back to square one – Voldemort would just go off and have Wormtail brew him up another freaky baby.
(Also, in Godric’s Hollow, it was something else that happened. Voldemort didn’t have time in the flash of rebounding green light to escape his body and so he was “ripped from his body” instead – and probably for reasons unrelated to this essay – more another day on that).
To actually deliberately try to vanquish Voldemort for good, you need to have someone who can possess and entrap Voldemort’s soul somehow, binding Voldemort’s soul to his body so that he can be finally killed in full. Harry is “the Chosen One,” the one whom Voldemort gave this power to. So my theory is that Harry has also picked up astral abilities from Voldemort via his scar like he did with Parselmouth.
Add to this the fact that Harry’s blood is now in Voldemort’s body, and this might factor in providing an additional magical binding power to let Harry “connect with his blood” in Voldemort and thus somehow bind Voldemort’s soul to his body while Harry possesses him.
Voldemort may then die from the agony of not being able to escape Harry’s good heart, or there may be some “other hand” that plays a part in fulfilling the prophecy by casting a Killing Curse while Voldemort is trapped, bound to his body. It would be nice to think that it could be the silver hand of Wormtail that does the deed, a person who owes Harry a life debt, but then again, who knows how it might pan out. Harry may even just manage to give the Dark Lord so much pain that he just drops dead! Who knows?
Of course, this need not mean that Harry would also die since souls are immortal and Harry’s body will presumably be stored somewhere nice and safe for him to return to.
A battle of the souls, indeed! Can’t wait!