by Joshua Bradshaw
Editor’s Note: This is an older editorial, but it deserves to be featured anyway.
The recent activities of one Percy Weasley have been the source of a great deal of debate and guesswork among the Harry Potter fan-base. Early theories involved him being victim of the Imperius curse. This theory was later debunked by J.K. Rowling in an interview when she said that he was acting of his own free will. More tellingly, she used the word “unfortunately.” This, of course, spawned a great deal more debate. Personally, I believe that this means she did not approve of his motivations.
So now we have the task of trying to resolve the observable history of his actions into a theory that fits both what we can see and what is likely to be true. It isn’t enough to just find theories that can explain what he’s been doing; we must also seek to determine which of these theories is most likely. As any actor can tell you, the best way of figuring out why a character behaves a certain way is to try to put yourself in that character’s place. Therefore, our goal here is to try to see things from Percy’s perspective.
Percy is the third of six boys. So far, all attempts to determine the exact ages of his older two brothers have failed, but we know that their ages are further apart than the younger half of the family. So Percy was the youngest of three boys for only two years before the arrival of the twins and, during this time, was probably a bit too young for the typical “big brother hazing.” Quite suddenly, Percy found himself the middle son and, as any mother of twins can tell you, a significant portion of his mother’s attention was by necessity focused on the pair of infants. Percy was no longer “special” by virtue of being the youngest, and competition for parental attention had become fierce.
By the time he was five, Ron and Ginny had arrived on the scene. The fact that Ginny is the seventh of seven children is significant – it is particularly likely that Molly had been wanting a little girl through five pregnancies, and once she’d finally gotten her wish she probably paid Ginny far more attention than she did Ron when he was born. After all, she finally had the little girl she could dress up in pretty clothes.
Like any child in a big family, Percy strived to stand out. Bill was very much like his father: tall, thin, and academically-inclined. Charlie was shorter and stockier (probably taking after his mother’s side of the family) and was good at sports. Both father and mother could take pride in the oldest boys for different reasons. Percy is often described as looking like Bill (or rather vice-versa). In fact, of the six Weasley boys there seems to be “three of each.” The twins are built like Charlie, and Percy and Ron are built like Bill. My guess is the stockier ones take after Molly and the tall ones take after Arthur. So how does a young child stand out early on in a huge family when academics and sports are already taken by older brothers?
Well, one obvious way is to rebel. The only problem Percy has there is that Bill is undeniably “cool.” Most likely he’s always been “cool.” Quite simply, you can’t be a “momma’s boy” and be cool at the same time, so Bill is almost certainly a bit of a rebel. We can observe a current level of rebellion in his hairstyle and earring, but exactly how far back this goes we can’t be certain. Likewise, Charlie is likely to have been something of a rebel himself, particularly if the similarities between the twins and Charlie run deeper than Quidditch skills and physical build.
If we take a slice of Percy’s life when he’s around seven or eight years old, he has two older brothers that are not perfect angels but who have carved solid niches for themselves to garner parental approval. Then there are the twins who, by all accounts, would be on their way to becoming proper hellions, and Ron and Ginny. To be honest, Molly Weasley deserves a medal for raising this herd of red-heads, but it seems clear she wasn’t alone. With the oldest pair probably already in school by this time, Percy was undoubtedly recruited into supervising his rambunctious siblings. Lo and behold, Percy has found his niche – he is the “good son.”
Thus Percy has learned from an early age that strict adherence to the rules and enforcing them in the absence of his elders will result in parental approval. Just look at all the examples where Percy bristles with pride when his mother publicly scolds one of the younger Weasleys and asks why they can’t be more like Percy. This is what Percylives for: public approval. This is also what many people theorize is one of the defining principles of Gryffindor house.
Now let’s skip ahead a few years. Percy is in his fifth year at Hogwarts and is a newly appointed Prefect. Now he has a shiny little badge that puts him in exactly the same role he exercises at home: following and enforcing the rules. For this his elders–both parents and teachers–give him respect and approval.
We’re all familiar with the story over the next couple years. Percy continues as Prefect and becomes Head Boy. He is getting constant and unmistakable reinforcement that strict, unyielding support of the rules and the establishment is the most effective way to rise to the top. It’s safe, it’s predictable, and everyone who’s anyone recognizes the achievement. So what does this teach him about the future? As long as he can find the vehicle of rules and laws and apply himself untiringly to upholding them, he will be duly rewarded.
Obviously this leaves him but a single option: the Ministry of Magic.
Unfortunately for Percy, he’s now running into another little snag–he’s growing up. Parental approval is still important, but he got a taste of praise from people that his parents look up to. Now Percy has to not only make his parents proud, but he fervently needs the approval of a higher authority. To make matters worse, his father is a department head at the Ministry. Percy’s ideal career path has already been trodden by Arthur. Percy will have difficulty gaining approval in what appears to be “following in his father’s footsteps.” Again, he needs a niche, he needs to distinguish himself.
The method he chooses is obvious. The most obvious quality lacking in his father’s Ministry career is ambition. Arthur loves his job and feels no drive to rise in the ranks because it would take him away from the very thing that makes his career enjoyable to him. If you flip that to the glaringly opposite end of the spectrum you’d have exactly what Percy became. You’d have someone consumed with ambition, someone who attacks every task set before them fervently and someone who seeks every opportunity to impress.
Personally, I don’t think Percy found a report on cauldron bottoms fascinating. He found what it represented fascinating. It was an opportunity to impress his boss, a token of trust–in short, everything Percy wants. Mr. Crouch becomes his surrogate father whom he follows around like a devoted and loyal puppy, soaking up all the attention and praise he can possibly get. As a bonus effect, his father is undoubtedly very proud of Percy. Not only is Percy doing his job well (if a bit obsessively), he’s following Arthur’s footsteps. Arthur couldn’t help but feel good to have his son do this, it’s a sort of self-affirmation. “Arthur must be good because his son chose to emulate him.”
Now we get to where things start to really go wrong. Mr. Crouch stops coming to work and Percy is picked to execute his directives to the Ministry. The reason Percy was picked is obvious: he never does anything but follow the rules and will grasp desperately for any feeling of importance or approval left lying around. This is also the reason Percy never questions the assignment. To call it into question would be the same as questioning his worthiness, and Percy’s self-image is completely centered around him being “worthy.” Worthy of praise, worthy of responsibility, worthy of adoration. No, Percy literally could not allow himself to think for a moment that there might be something else going on.
Let’s take a quick look at Percy’s idol, Mr. Crouch. He follows the same philosophy that Percy does – that following the rules, doing what’s proper and being an upstanding pillar of the community will invariably lead to approval, respect and the rewards they crave. Mr. Crouch followed the rules so vehemently that he put his son in Azkaban. The error Mr. Crouch made was the result of conflicting “rules”: the letter of the law versus the law of family. Faced with the prospect of losing his son in prison and his wife to illness he chose to save what he could. In so doing, he released an extremely dangerous criminal. That’s the problem with defining “right” as “rules.”
Back to Percy. At the end of events in Goblet of Fire, Percy is facing the very uncomfortable prospect of being judged to determine to what extent his actions make him responsible for what’s happened. For a moment there, his world is falling down around him. He followed all the rules he could see, he lived his philosophy to the letter, and now it seems that it wasn’t good enough.
Yet somehow he emerges unscathed and even promoted. Vindication! What could Percy see except that he’s been right all along and that he’ll be duly rewarded for strict observance of the rules? Percy remains Perfect.
Until his father calls the promotion into question. Of course we all look at it and think, “there must be some underlying motivation.” Arthur was no different and he suggests that Fudge promoted Percy in order to keep him close at hand and thereby gain some insight into the goings-on at the Burrow. It’s not as though Fudge had anything to lose – Percy was little more than a glorified secretary, a gopher. He could be fired at any time if things didn’t work out, but of course Percy is the consummate work-a-holic and rapidly made himself indispensable to his superior.
Questioning the motive behind Percy’s promotion was not simply questioning Fudge’s motivation, at least not to Percy. Looking at it from his point of view, it’s easy to see that if you say Fudge promoted Percy in order to spy on Arthur, you’re also saying that Percy didn’t deserve the raise. You’re saying he isn’t good enough, that he isn’t “worthy.” And that’s something Percy can’t let himself think. He must be worthy because he always follows the rules.
Looking through Percy’s eyes at the opposition we see a certain pattern emerge. His father does not follow Percy’s philosophy – he is not ambitious and does not seek to climb the ladder. Closely affiliated with his father and directly opposed to Fudge is Dumbledore, who is at the very least highly eccentric. He is anything but the embodiment of following rules. Right below that you have Harry Potter, a young boy who is constantly getting more attention than Percy and who seems to go out of his way to find rules to break. These people are doing things the “wrong way” according to Percy’s philosophy.
Remember, the promotion was not given to Percy in the presence of his father. He undoubtedly had time to celebrate inside his own head and probably even send off Hermes with a letter to Penelope subtly bragging about his new position. He had ample time to puff himself up but his father deflated his ego. It’s no wonder he threw a tantrum. While it might have been more mature for Percy to give honest consideration to his father’s side, doing so would have been emotionally painful and like most people, Percy would rather avoid that.
Instead, he leaves the house and throws in his lot completely with the Ministry of Magic. There he receives the recognition and honor he was expecting, but didn’t get, from his parents. Even better, the falling out with his family further establishes him as his own man – no longer is he laboring in his father’s shadow. He could not have told the wizarding community more clearly, “I am Percy Weasley and not a younger version of my dad!”
If this is really what’s going through Percy’s head, we can easily understand the actions he takes in OotP. Some questions have been raised about his motive in sending the letter to Ron (in which he hints of changes to come and advises Ron to distance himself from Harry) at night rather than during the day. Remember that Percy’s self-image requires that he be worthy of confidence. Not only that, but he craves recognition of this worthiness. Furthermore, we have no evidence proving that Percy is a liar or even that he might hide ulterior motives. We’ve seen him scrabbling for attention by hinting that he has inside information (hinting about the Triwizard Tournament in GoF). This seems to be just another case of that. By sending the owl at night it makes the letter seem very important. “Hopefully you will be able to read this away from prying eyes.” It’s a secret, it’s important, and Percy must be very important indeed to knowing these things.
Every fiber of the letter supports this:
I have only just heard (from no less a person than the Minister of Magic himself…)” – my isn’t Percy important because he hears from important people? “I must admit that I have always been afraid that you would take what we might call the “Fred and George” route, rather than following in my footsteps…
If Ron is following Percy’s example, then Percy’s example must be good, right? He goes on to drop several hints of things to come and otherwise inflate the appearance of his importance. This letter is simply nothing more than a transparent attempt to win Ron over to his way of thinking, reinforcing Percy’s sense of self-importance and self-righteousness. Furthermore, if he can win Ron over it will help prove himself to his parents. One son might be wrong, but two might change their minds. Or at least that’s what he hoped. Even if that didn’t work, Percy (I believe) fervently hoped that Ron would see things his way if only because Percy never for a moment doubted that he was in the right. If Percy was in the right, he had a responsibility to help those he perceived as being “wrong.”
Ultimately, Percy is not a bad guy. He’s actually a “good” guy, he just has some failings that can show up in a particularly bad light, especially in these situations. Following the rules is not “bad” any more than wanting to succeed or be recognized for one’s achievements is. The problem occurs when one focuses too intently on a goal. Percy has been wearing blinders to everything that does not exist within his little concept of “how the world works.” With the drastic reversal of Fudge’s stance on whether Lord Voldemort is alive at the end of OotP, and the resultant proof that his parents had been right about many things all along, Percy has been given a very rude wake-up call.
Now the question is “just how mature is Percy?” Is he grown-up enough to swallow a little pride, show a little humility, and admit that he was wrong? Will he be able to patch things up with his parents and will they tread lightly on his ego when the time comes, permitting him to reconcile their differences without crushing his self-esteem?
Or will Percy desperately cling to his own self-image of righteousness, insisting that he acted completely appropriately with the information he had been given? Will he force himself to believe that his parents, while right about some things, were completely in the wrong about the way they treated him? Does he believe himself justified in screaming at his parents and storming out of the house even now?
We’ll have to wait (im)patiently for the answers to these questions (and more) until the release of the next book.