Atonement in Harry Potter

by B. Parker (Calaban)

In the closing pages of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, we are offered two pieces of information that beg examination as we anxiously await the next installment. The first is contained in Harry’s conversation with Nearly Headless Nick, when we find out that wizards actually choose whether they will come back or not. The second is in the hospital wing when we learn that, according to Madam Pomfrey, thoughts leave deeper scarring than anything else. We already know that choice is a huge theme in the series, but there is a relationship developing between what characters think, what they choose to do in relation to those thoughts, and the aftermath of those actions.

Consider the Sorting Hat’s song in The Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone: “There’s nothing hidden in your head/The Sorting Hat can’t see.” This shows us early on the importance of one’s thoughts. The Hat finishes its song by singing, “For I’m a Thinking Cap!” It separates the students not based on their actions but upon the thoughts they harbor in their heads. Later, we see those thoughts manifest themselves as actions, and because the Hat, according to itself, is never wrong, we can assume these will be actions that show students to be in the proper houses. Yet in Order of the Phoenix, the Hat wonders “whether sorting/may not bring the end [it] fear[s].” The Hat understands that the constant division of people, whether into school houses or into a class system, causes people to have negative thoughts and, many times, act upon them. In the aftermath of these actions, people end up hurt, offended, or even dead. The guilty, therefore, must make amends for their actions — they must make atonement.

Liken atonement to the completion of penance to earn forgiveness. Merely asking forgiveness is not always enough; sometimes, those who would forgive us need their catharsis first, and we must do penance. Consider the relationship between Snape, James, Sirius, and Lupin. Snape harbors hatred for all three because of their various indiscretions against him in the past. We know about the Whomping Willow incident and the day Harry witnessed in the Pensieve. There is probably more we have yet to discover, but we know enough to understand why Snape hates them. Never have we seen any of the Marauders ask forgiveness of Snape. James died without begging this forgiveness, and Snape’s ire, therefore, fell on Harry. Sirius, too, was killed before making amends. This, too, will likely fall to Harry to repair. Also, keep in mind that after stealing Snape’s thoughts from the Pensieve, Harry now has his own sins to atone for with the potions master. Dumbledore reckons this relationship cannot be repaired, but it must be. Harry must beg Snape’s forgiveness and perform whatever penance is set for him so he can go on to atone for James’ and Sirius’ wrongs as well. Lupin, who is already feeling guilt for not stopping their bullying, may also help in this mission in order to find his own atonement. This process must take place, not so much for the sake of Harry and the Marauders, but for Snape himself.

We have been told countless times that Snape is desirous of the DADA position, yet Dumbledore (who professes complete trust in him) denies him every year. The Headmaster’s explanation is that he believes the job would be too tempting to Snape. We have been led to agree, citing Severus’ previous status as a Death Eater. However, if we look at the situation from the perspective of sin and atonement, this theory does not fit. Snape came to Hogwarts already well versed in the Dark Arts. It is likely the abuse from his father that triggered his interest and thus began young Severus’ journey down the dark path. The Marauders’ bullying did nothing for his outlook on life and people, causing him to lash out at those, like Lily, who only seemed to be offering help. To put Snape in the DADA job would be to put him in daily contact with his defense mechanism, his crutch, his addiction (if you will), which he is trying to get past. One wouldn’t take a recovering alcoholic to a pub; likewise Dumbledore does not want to tempt Snape with his weakness. Severus Snape is on the path to redemption, and his goal (the destination) is atonement for his wrongs. Serving the Order and adeptly filling the potions job are part of his penance, as is dealing closely with Harry, Sirius, and Lupin. He is trying to master his anger, which we find in the Occlumency lessons (and in Dumbledore’s confession speech) he has not done yet. So, don’t count on seeing Snape in the DADA post next year. If it happens, and I think it will, it will be at the end of Book 7. For then, Snape will have settled his differences with his debtors and completed his journey to redemption. The DADA job will be his reward for mastering himself — he will have paid for his actions, stopped acting on negative thoughts, and even changed those thoughts completely. Such is complete atonement — the re-making of oneself so as not to repeat one’s wrongs.

Harry is on a different journey. His is a journey of discovery, the journey of a young man. And what he is discovering is that thoughts and actions have caused great pain to those around him (and to himself). At the end of Order of the Phoenix, he also learns that he is to be the vehicle to end much of that pain, at least that caused by Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters. In effect, Harry is to be the savior of wizard-kind. He already has to deal with other people’s sins because of what the Marauders did to Snape, and we can see that he is always trying to keep the peace between Ron and Hermione. But, this is a much bigger responsibility. He now knows that he is the only one who can do the job, and while he may have friends to help him get there, he must undertake the final act alone. He will, in some way, sacrifice himself to atone for the sins of wizard-kind. Now, this goes beyond Lord Voldemort to the racism that is rampant in the wizarding world. However, it is related directly to the man who once was Tom Marvolo Riddle.

Tom Riddle came to Hogwarts in much the same humor as Severus Snape. He was abandoned by his muggle father because of what he was, and his mother died during his birth, presumably at the hands of muggle doctors. So, even though he is half-muggle, his hatred of mudbloods began before he ever reached Hogwarts. Unlike Snape, however, Tom is an example of what a cunning mind, full of prejudice and hatred, can do. While Snape realized, likely with Dumbledore’s guidance, that he was on the wrong path, Tom was determined to continue the “noble work” of Salazar Slytherin by ridding the world of half bloods. Enter Lord Voldemort, Tom Riddle’s alter ego. Voldemort’s Hitleresque desire to cleanse the world of dirty blood drove him to torture and murder many wizards in his bid for dominance. And, when he thought he was threatened, according to the partially heard prophecy, by a baby boy, he chose Harry James Potter as his equal. He completed his journey into darkness by attempting to kill an innocent. Baby Harry, as we know, was protected by his mother’s love, her CHOICE to die for him. Such is the power of choice in JKR’s world — powerful enough to, at least for a time, vanquish the second most powerful wizard alive. But Voldemort’s evil thoughts sustained him. His desire, the simple THOUGHT that he might be reborn, allowed him to continue on as a shadow of his former self, living in the bodies of animals and people, drinking the blood of unicorns, and finally, returning to life through the body and blood of his servant and his enemy. There is no truer evil than Lord Voldemort. But Lord Voldemort is not Tom Marvolo Riddle, even though the anagram says, “I am Lord Voldemort.” The anagram merely reflects Tom’s choice to become the personification of evil. When Wormtail’s flesh brought Voldemort back, so too did Lily Potter’s blood, through Harry, bring back Tom Riddle. How, then, does Harry get him out?

Choice gave birth to Voldemort, and choice will give new life to Tom Riddle. Harry will have a duel with Voldemort, likely a battle of wits, not wands, in which he will show Voldemort the error of his ways. Now, of course there is nothing to analyze here but supposition, but bear with me. However it happens, whether the Dark Lord is in a weakened state from battle or what, he must CHOOSE to let Voldemort die, leaving only Tom Riddle, who can then atone for his own sin — namely giving birth to Voldemort. How all this will happen is not my theory — it simply must happen. With Voldemort gone, with no powerful person to spread discord, the wizarding world can get away from individual actions and focus on healing its scars.

This must begin with the entity that has, over many years, perpetuated discrimination against non-human magical creatures. I am referring to the Ministry of Magic, the wizard government. It may easily begin atoning for its wrongs by repealing every discriminatory law on the books. Beyond that, it is people’s thoughts that must change. Dumbledore blatantly states at the end of Order of the Phoenix that discrimination has gone on for too long, and the Sorting Hat warns that unity is important. Here is where Hermione has a future, in helping the Ministry and people in general to make peace with those species they have relegated to lower class positions — house elves, giants, centaurs, goblins, and even half-bloods and squibs.

You see, the answer to the problem is in re-living the problem — backwards. Once people atone for their actions, they must seek to stop acting in negative ways. When they are able to do that, they may progress on to change the beliefs that caused the negative thoughts in the first place. It is here where Severus Snape is a better teacher than most of us may have realized. He is a living example of exactly how to go about achieving atonement. Since before the first word of Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone, Snape has been on a journey to redemption. We have witnessed his daily struggle to reach every plateau, and we may only hope we get to see him gain his forgiveness and his reward. For, none of us are to travel Harry’s path; because he is the One, it is for him to journey alone. Ours is Snape’s path and Sirius’ and James’ and Lupin’s and any other character you can think of. We cannot count on the One to do it all for us; every character, every person must do his part. We cannot undo our actions, but we may repent and seek forgiveness. We may choose to make atonement, even if it means performing penance, because we know that it will be the first step in healing the scars we have caused with our deeds and even our thoughts. Dumbledore was the first to offer a complete apology and beg forgiveness, even opening himself up for punishment. Others can, must, and will follow to heal an entire people’s hurts — both visible and invisible. And, as all the characters (and readers, “we fools who love”) end our journeys together, we must not forget to offer thanks to Harry, for though many felt the pains, only he bore the scar.

Those who might like to comment may find me on MNI as Calaban. Feel free to owl me, or look me up in Gryffindor House, Beyond the Veil, or the Philosophy and Politics Corner. Thanks for reading.