The Burrow: Morality for the Millenium

by Nancy Paulette

From the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets DVD:

Interviewer Lizo Mzimba: How do you see Dumbledore, Steve?
Steve Kloves: … he’s a character of so many layers. And I think when he does say something like it is our choices and not our abilities… I just think that coming from him, somehow it doesn’t feel like a sermon, it doesn’t feel like a message, it just feels like, you know, an absolute truth, and it goes down easy, and I like that about him. That’s what I like about the books. I’ve always thought that Jo’s writing is deceptively, you know, profound, which is you never feel that there are messages in there, and, uh, but there’s a lot of things being dealt with in a very sort of clever way, and they’re never pretentious, the books, and I think that’s why kids love reading them.
Lizo Mzimba: I mean, you say that you don’t set out to put particular messages in each book; they grow organically. But do you think it’s important to have the right messages there when they do emerge?
J.K. Rowling: Well, I, obviously, in the wizard world passes for racism… that was, that’s deeply entrenched in the whole plot, you know… there’s this issue going on about the bad side really advocating a kind of genocide to exterminate what they see as these half-blood people, so that was obviously very conscious, but the other messages do grow organically. But I’ve never set out to teach anyone anything. It’s been more of an expression of my views and feelings than sitting down and deciding what is today’s message. And I do think that, although I never again sat down and consciously thought about this, I do think judging, even from my own daughter, that children respond much better to that than to ‘thought of the day.’

So, like it or not, the Harry Potter books teach. Not generally overtly (although, the stated theme of “It is our choices… that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” is the most obvious and recognizable), but there are messages given, ideas shared, and lessons to be learned. Sometimes these morals (for lack of a better word) are so minute that it takes several readings to pick up on the nuances; other times, they stare you down and force you to examine them.

Of the “blink and you miss it” variety, the most intriguing lesson (which is by no means fully developed) came in OotP: “Dementors caused a person to relive the worst moments of their life…. What would spoiled, pampered, bullying Dudley have been forced to hear?” In fact, Harry did blink, missing this golden opportunity to better understand his cousin. He did nothing (that the readers are aware of) to ponder this perplexing thought. However, if he (or we) follow the thought through to its conclusion, it would lead him to the fact that appearances can deceive. Pampered and petted since birth, Dudley Dursley was so affected by the Dementors that he vomitted and could barely speak. By emphasizing that no one has a perfectly happy past, J.K. Rowling helps us, even for a moment, see beyond appearances.

In fact, the difference between perception and reality is a common theme throughout the series. In PS/SS, Prof. Quirrell masquerades as a rather hapless character, all the time plotting with Voldemort. We find out in PoA that Peter Pettigrew’s death at the hand of Sirius Black was not as it seemed. And, of course, the greatest deceptive appearance of the series comes in the form of Barty “Mad Eye Moody” Crouch, Jr.

Grudges, too, stem from misperceptions. Harry and Ron perceive Snape as being really evil, so they think of him as the first contender for the “bad guy;” or, in exposed Prof. Quirrell’s words, “Yes, Severus does seem the type. So useful to have him swooping around like an overgrown bat.” In fact, by OotP this misperception, reinforced by problems in class and private lessons, pushes Snape so far from their minds as an ally that they forget to go to him for help. They (or at least Harry) don’t remember until face to face with Snape himself. And, by that point, it is too late.

But not all lessons found within Harry Potter are serious. There is one, embodied by two people, that helps brighten any day and lifts our spirits. I’m talking, of course, about the power of humor, embodied so well by George and Fred Weasley (although other characters add to the hilarity in turn). In the midst of the unknown threat in CoS, when practically the whole school feared Harry, the twins make it a big joke. In fact, “it made [Harry] feel better that Fred and George, at least, thought the idea of his being Slytherin’s heir was quite ludicrous.” And, of course, throughout OotP especially, the twins revel in mischief-making. And, their exit from school is “the stuff of Hogwarts legend.” Their joie de vivre loosens tense moments (remember the opening speech in GoF?) and gives people reasons to smile.

There are so many more lessons and uplifting ideas that can be gleaned from the Harry Potter series. Throughout the month, we’ll focus on different aspects of J.K. Rowling’s “organic morals.” But, don’t stop there. Each time you read the books, there’s something more to be learned.