Harry’s Extra Weapon
by Anna Lowenstein
WARNING: This article is packed with spoilers. If you haven’t already finished the entire Harry Potter series, DON’T READ IT!!!
How did Harry defeat Voldemort? We know all about his parents’ love, but that only protects him; it doesn’t allow him actually to defeat Voldemort, who after all is one of the most skillful wizards of all time. Harry, by contrast, is good at school rather than outstanding. So how did he do it?
Harry may not be as accomplished as Voldemort, but he has three things going for him. He gets a lot of help, he’s courageous, and he has more than his fair share of good luck. And apart from these, there’s one extra ingredient… but we’ll come to that at the end.
First of all, he gets a lot of help. Or, at least, that’s what he modestly tells his friends at the meeting in the Hog’s Head in Order of the Phoenix when they’re planning to start their own Defence Association (Chapter 16).* What he doesn’t mention is that if he’s received a lot of help, it’s because he’s earned it.
The house-elves are eager to help Harry because he treats them with respect. Dobby plays an essential role in helping Harry and his friends escape from Malfoy Manor in Deathly Hallows (23), and he’s prepared to take that risk because of the considerate treatment he has received from Harry in the past. Conversely the Malfoys have treated Dobby badly enough to break through the magic which should bind him to them forever. Before inadvertently freeing Dobby in the final chapter of Chamber of Secrets, Lucius Malfoy kicks him down the corridor for no reason except that he himself has been worsted by Dumbledore (18).
It’s because he has seen the respect with which Harry treats non-human creatures that the goblin Griphook is prepared to help him in Deathly Hallows (24) – and of course, Harry did rescue him from the Malfoys. It’s true he cheats Harry in the end, but that may well be because he suspects Harry is planning to cheat him first (26).
Harry even receives reluctant help from one of Voldemort’s supporters. It was Harry’s merciful impulse towards Wormtail, when he stops Sirius and Lupin from killing him in Prisoner of Azkaban (19), that puts Wormtail in his debt. As Dumbledore puts it: “Pettigrew owes his life to you. You have sent Voldemort a deputy who is in your debt. When one wizard saves another wizard’s life, it creates a certain bond between them…” (22). And Dumbledore is right; the consequence is that Wormtail does hesitate for an instant when about to strangle Harry in Deathly Hallows (23), and that slight hesitation costs him his life at the hand of Voldemort in every sense of the word.
In contrast to Harry, who receives help even from his enemy, Voldemort’s cruelty is such that it engenders hostility and resentment even among his own followers. By the end, the Malfoys are all eager to get rid of him, and Narcissa has no compunctions about lying to him at the end of Deathly Hallows and telling him that Harry is dead (36). His greatest mistake is to make an enemy of Snape, although Snape is such an outstanding Occlumens that Voldemort does not discover the truth until he finds out from Harry himself just before the final showdown (Deathly Hallows 36).
Not all Harry’s successes depend on luck. He and his friends are courageous – they are always rushing valiantly into situations where wiser souls might hang back. At the end of Chamber of Secrets, he and Ron (forcing the terrified Lockhart to come with them) slide down the pipes directly into the Chamber, where they know the Basilisk is waiting (16). When Ron gets blocked on the wrong side of a rockfall, Harry, shaking from head to foot, walks on alone. Once he realizes that Tom Riddle is Voldemort, he doesn’t lose his head. He thinks fast, weighing his chances (17). When he notices that Riddle’s outline is becoming clearer and more solid, he realizes that if there has to be a fight, it had better be sooner rather than later. It seems his courage will not save him when Riddle calls up the Basilisk, but as we know, Harry always receives help when help is needed. In the nick of time, the phoenix Fawkes appears and punctures the Basilisk’s eyes to prevent it from turning Harry to stone. The phoenix also brings with it the Sorting Hat, which delivers up the sword of Gryffindor. Fawkes’s timely arrival can’t be ascribed entirely to chance, however. As usual, it is Harry’s own qualities that summon the bird when it is needed. As Dumbledore explains in the following chapter: “You must have shown me real loyalty down the Chamber. Nothing but that could have called Fawkes to you.” (18) And of course it is Harry’s courage that wins him Gryffindor’s sword.
Harry shows his courage most clearly when Voldemort traps him in a graveyard at the end of Goblet of Fire (34). He’s frightened, but on the whole he doesn’t lose his head at crucial moments (except when he’s surrounded by a lake-full of Inferi – and then, luckily, Dumbledore revives sufficiently to help him: Half-Blood Prince 26). When he thinks that everything’s up, he comes out from behind the gravestone to face Voldemort. If death seems inevitable, he prefers to face it with dignity – this is one of his strongest moments. “…as he heard Voldemort draw nearer still, he knew one thing only, and it was beyond fear or reason – he was not going to die crouching here like a child playing hide-and-seek; he was not going to die kneeling at Voldemort’s feet… he was going to die upright like his father, and he was going to die trying to defend himself, even if no defense was possible…” Harry’s courage in an extreme situation shows he is a true Gryffindor.
Apart from help and courage, Harry has more than his fair share of good luck. He and his friends have a miraculous knack of being in the right place at the right time. Like Hercule Poirot, who always seems to be on the spot when a crime is committed, somehow Harry and his friends are always around just in time to overhear some choice piece of information. If he overshoots his stop on the Floo Network, he finds himself in Borgin and Burkes just as the Malfoys come in (Chamber of Secrets 4). When he sneaks into Hogsmeade with the aid of the Marauder’s Map in Prisoner of Azkaban (10), and joins his friends in The Three Broomsticks, he has to hide under the table when a group of teachers comes in. And guess which table they choose to sit at – the one right next to where he’s hiding, so that he and his pals can listen to them discussing the story of Sirius Black, and discover, incidentally, that Sirius was his father’s best friend. Similarly in Deathly Hallows, Ted Tonks and Dean Thomas have a lengthy discussion with a couple of goblins about the sword of Gryffindor right outside the tent where Harry and his friends are hiding out in the forest (15).
Then there’s the time Harry and his friends just happen to be walking behind Katie Bell in Half-Blood Prince when she is almost killed by the cursed necklace intended for Dumbledore (12). As Professor McGonagall says to them in the film (although not in the book): “Why is it, when something happens, it is always you three?” “Believe me, Professor,” Ron says, “I’ve been asking myself the same question for six years.”
How fortuitous, in Prisoner of Azkaban, that Harry happens to be the one doing his Divination exam at exactly the moment when Professor Trelawney goes into a trance and delivers the second genuine prophecy of her career: “The Dark Lord lies alone and friendless…Tonight, before midnight, the servant will break free and set out to rejoin his master…” (16). Half an hour earlier it would have been Neville or Parvati who overheard the prophecy instead of Harry.
How convenient in Deathly Hallows that Voldemort decides to punish Neville by putting the Sorting Hat over his head and setting it on fire – which happens to be exactly the way to hand Neville Gryffindor’s sword just when he needs it (36). And then there’s the Fiendfyre conjured up by the ignorant Crabbe, which destroys the Horcrux hidden in Ravenclaw’s diadem (31). It’s very fortunate, too, that by an elaborate series of events Harry ends up with Draco Malfoy’s wand (23).
Harry also has a tendency to have hunches which turn out to be right. What was it that inspired him “without thinking, without considering, as though he had meant to do it all along,” to stab Riddle’s diary with the basilisk fang in Chamber of Secrets (17)? Only much later does he discover that this is one of the few ways to destroy a Horcrux. Even more significant is the scene in Deathly Hallows when Voldemort kills Snape inside the Shrieking Shack (32). This time it is not luck that brings Harry and his friends to the right spot at the right time; Harry has deliberately looked into Voldemort’s mind to find out where he is. Harry is watching, hidden beneath the Invisibility Cloak, when Voldemort sets Nagini on Snape so that he can gain control of the Elder Wand. Once Voldemort and the snake have left, it is essential for Harry to approach the dying Snape and retrieve the memories which will give him the final clues he needs to make sense of the situation. How does he know that? Quite simply, he doesn’t. “He did not know why he was doing it, why he was approaching the dying man: he did not know what he felt as he saw Snape’s white face, and the fingers trying to staunch the bloody wound at his neck.” (32). Even so, as Snape’s memories leak out in a silvery gush from his mouth, eyes, and ears, the opportunity would have been lost if Hermione had not been present to conjure a flask from thin air to contain the precious substance.
Besides having sudden hunches at the right moment, Harry is also good at recalling useful pieces of information just when he needs them. How on earth did he remember that when he saw Marvolo in the Pensieve, Marvolo claimed to be descended from the Peverells? (Deathly Hallows 22.) And then, with the whole of Hogwarts to search for Ravenclaw’s diadem, he suddenly remembers having seen it in the Room of Requirement (31).
On the other hand, if Harry and his friends often turn out to be in the right spot at the right time, this cannot always be put down entirely to chance. The three of them, or sometimes Harry on his own, spend a good deal of time trailing people under the Invisibility Cloak, listening in on conversations, and generally snooping. Harry spends most of Half-Blood Prince trying to work out what Draco Malfoy is up to and even sends Dobby and Kreacher to find out for him (19).
In Deathly Hallows, although he and his two friends lay careful plans before their forays into the Ministry of Magic and Gringotts, they can’t foresee everything that might go wrong, and ultimately their escapes are due as much to luck as to judgement. And when they land in Hogsmeade and set off the Caterwauling Charm, it’s only luck that sends them down the little alleyway where the Hog’s Head is – where, as it turns out, there’s a secret passageway into Hogwarts (28). And that’s not the only time in the seven books when they’re saved by sheer luck – think of the car in Chamber of Secrets that turns up just in time to rescue Harry and Ron from the spiders (15).
Having said this, there are times when Harry’s luck deserts him – that’s what makes Order of the Phoenix such a depressing read. The grim atmosphere only lightens once Hermione persuades him to start coaching his friends in Defence Against the Dark Arts (15). But the book ends with the most spectacular failure of all, when he is tricked by Voldemort into luring Sirius to the Department of Mysteries (37).
As I said above, Harry is a good wizard rather than outstanding like Dumbledore and Voldemort – and yet on the occasions when he meets Voldemort face to face, he comes off best. But he has one quality Voldemort doesn’t have – and I’m not talking about his mother’s love. Rowling makes clear right from the start that he is very good at one thing: he has extremely quick reactions. In fact it’s the very first thing she tells us about him: “Dudley’s favourite punch-bag was Harry, but he couldn’t often catch him. Harry didn’t look it, but he was very fast.” (Philosopher’s Stone 2.)
It’s Harry’s quick reactions that enable him to catch Neville’s Remembrall in his first flying lesson, thus earning himself a place on the Quidditch team (9). It also allows him to outfly the dragon in the first test in Goblet of Fire (20); while in Half-blood Prince when Snape wants to demonstrate a non-verbal spell on him, Harry instantly responds with a Shield Charm so powerful that it throws Snape off his feet (9).
Harry moves fastest when he doesn’t stop to think about it, for instance in Goblet of Fire (9). The Dark Mark has appeared above the wood where the Quidditch World Cup was held, and Harry and his two friends find themselves on the scene of the crime (as usual, when something significant happens, they’re in exactly the right spot). Before they know what’s happening they’re surrounded by wizards, all with their wands pointed menacingly. “Without pausing to think,” Rowling tells us, Harry yells “Duck!” and pulls his friends down to the ground just in time to save them from being Stupefied.
Throughout the series there are numerous instances of Harry’s quick reactions – in Chamber of Secrets, for instance, he bellows “Expelliarmus!” just in time to stop Professor Lockhart from wiping his and Ron’s memories (16), while in Order of the Phoenix when he is cornered in the Ministry of Magic with the prophecy in his hand, he shouts “Protego!” before one of the Death Eaters has finished saying “Accio Proph−” (35). Of course he and his friends have been making a conscious effort to increase their speed during the secret meetings of the DA in the Room of Requirement (18), and no doubt Harry’s regular practice for the Quidditch team has sharpened his reflexes still further.
Harry isn’t usually able to keep ahead of Snape, who knows what he’s about to do as soon as he thinks of it, but he does manage it in Prisoner of Azkaban, when, we’re told, he “made up his mind in a split second” (19). On this occasion Ron and Hermione are as quick as he is; all three of them yell out “Expelliarmus!” in a desperate attempt to prevent Snape from capturing Sirius. Even Snape can’t take on three against one.
On the other hand, when it comes to quick thinking as opposed to quick reflexes, it’s always Hermione who saves the day. When, early in their magical careers, the three accidentally run into Fluffy, the terrifying three-headed dog, Hermione is the only one who notices that it’s standing on a trapdoor, and surmises, correctly, that it’s guarding something (Philosopher’s Stone 9). And when the ghastly Umbridge catches Harry attempting to communicate with Sirius via the fireplace in her office (Order of the Phoenix 32), it’s Hermione who distracts her by pretending he was trying to talk to Dumbledore, before leading her directly into the path of the centaurs in the Forbidden Forest.
Hermione’s quick thinking is most in evidence in Deathly Hallows, where she and her friends are frequently caught in life-or-death situations. As their cover begins to slip in the Ministry of Magic, she still takes time to duplicate Umbridge’s locket before Apparating with the other two back to number twelve, Grimmauld Place (13). Then, realizing that the Fidelius Charm has been broken, she whisks the three of them off to the forest before Harry and Ron have worked out what is happening (14).
When the three friends are betrayed by Xenophilius Lovegood, Harry is the one who acts fastest in the first instance: “… he launched himself sideways, shoving Ron and Hermione out of harm’s way as Xenophilius’s Stunning Spell soared across the room…” But in the aftermath of the chaos caused by an exploding Erumpent horn, it’s Hermione who gets them out of the situation with a complex series of spells, at the same time taking into account the necessity of protecting Xenophilius and keeping Ron hidden (21). When they are captured by Snatchers shortly afterwards, she has the foresight to aim a spell at Harry’s face, which causes it to swell up so that his identity is not immediately obvious (23). Even when Bellatrix is torturing her with the Cruciatus Curse, she manages to scream out that Gryffindor’s sword is only a copy (23).
The occasions when Harry wins out are the ones when it’s essential to react instantly, almost without thinking. He saves himself and his friends in Deathly Hallows when Death Eaters find them in the middle of London (9). The two men sitting next to them in a Muggle café suddenly pull out wands, but he is even faster than they are and yells “Stupefy!” just in time.
That’s why Voldemort misjudges him. At the end of Goblet of Fire he even gives Harry his wand back, ironically proposing a magic duel (34). Naturally he doesn’t expect this young and not particularly experienced wizard to defeat him – but he’s only thinking in terms of Harry’s limited knowledge of magic. It doesn’t occur to him that Harry might be able to beat him by sheer non-magical speed.
By the end of the last book, when it comes to the final duel, Harry is fully in control of the situation (36). Voldemort has been weakened and demoralized by the loss of his Horcruxes, by his earlier attempt to destroy Harry, by Harry’s inexplicable reappearance from the dead, and although he doesn’t know it, by the fact that he himself has just killed that portion of his own soul that was lodged inside the Boy Who Lived. This, by the way, was the most disappointing moment of the film adaptation, in which the grand showdown with Voldemort was inexplicably reduced to a lonely duel with no onlookers apart from Harry’s closest friends. But in the book…
This is it: the showdown, High Noon with all the townsfolk looking on – and quite simply, it’s Harry who’s quicker on the draw.
*To add footnotes to an article like this would be to treat the topic with an inappropriate degree of formality. I have, however, given chapter numbers for anyone who really does want to check the references – or simply to enjoy rereading the scenes referred to.
Anna Lowenstein is a writer and journalist, writing mainly in the international language Esperanto. She has also written two historical novels in English and Esperanto. Her novel The Stone City is set in Ancient Britain at the time of the Roman invasion.