Harry’s Temptation

by Christina Ford

JK Rowling is on record as saying that her religious faith is the key to understanding what will happen in the Harry Potter series (Max Wyman in The Vancouver Sun, 26/10/2000). In another interview, when asked about Snape’s “redemptive pattern,” she replies, “He, um, there’s so much I wish I could say to you, and I can’t because it would ruin…I’m slightly stunned that you’ve said that, and you’ll find out why I’m so stunned if you read Book 7” (WBUR Radio interview, 12/10/1999).

Enigmatic as ever in her hints, JK Rowling knows just how to keep her readers guessing. Nevertheless, we can deduce from these clues that (a) something central to the Christian faith will help shape the plot of Book 7, and (b) that the relationship between Harry and Snape will be one of the central strands of the book. Snape did not disappear for good when Buckbeak chased him out of Hogwarts.

Exactly what Christian belief will be important to the plot of Book 7? There are several important Christian ideas that have already cropped up, some of them linked with one other. The sacrificial love of Harry’s mother is one of these, and has led readers to speculate that Harry may do something similar to save the wizarding world, recalling the Crucifixion. The notion of moral choice is yet another: the distinctively Protestant concept of free will, as expressed by Dumbledore’s famous statement, “It is our choices, Harry, that determine who we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Linked to this is the damage to one’s soul that making one particular wrong choice will result in: “…the supreme act of evil…Killing rips the soul apart.”

Rowling’s second comment above leads me to believe that it is redemption through love that will be the moral core of Book 7. Redemption implies a prior temptation and wrongdoing, followed by repentance. Snape is the first character to come to mind in this context, and there is a long and complex debate about how genuine his repentance was. There is even some speculation that Voldemort himself is redeemable, although I think he has put himself well beyond it. There is, however, another possibility. What will become of Harry? Could he be due for a major temptation, and make a spectacularly wrong and damaging choice? It is this last idea I will explore here.

Harry, despite his apparent status as savior-to-be of the wizarding world, is no Jesus. We well know him by now as a very human, very flawed and decidedly damaged individual. His heroism is beyond doubt, as is his miraculous ability to love, but we have seen his recklessness, his stubbornness and his infamous temper get him into trouble more than once. Most memorably, we have seen his quixotic streak used against him to bring about the death of Sirius, one of the most tragic losses of his life so far. He has made plenty of mistakes, but none of them can really be counted as a serious moral temptation. (Yelling at his friends in Order of the Phoenix may have made for uncomfortable reading, but it was hardly a crime- and he has almost always had his heart in the right place.)

Nevertheless, Harry does have a dark side to his character, which I believe will be fully realized in the last book of the series. This darkness has been gradually developed, from hints in the first two books to a complex characterization of struggle and torment in the last two. The Sorting Hat very nearly placed Harry in Slytherin (I don’t really buy the idea that the Hat got confused by the Harry/Voldemort connection) and Chamber of Secrets teases us with the idea of a dark side to Harry (“Make way, make way, seriously evil wizard coming through”), allowing us the first glimpses of his temper before wrapping up the story and letting Harry have his moment of triumph. From these hints in the first two books, we progress to Prisoner of Azkaban, where Harry suffers distressing flashbacks and begins to struggle with his anger. Following the trauma at the end of Goblet of Fire, Harry has to deal with his tantrums, emotional turmoil and physical pain in Order of the Phoenix. By Half-Blood Prince Harry has regained a measure of self-control, but we can still catch moments of repressed grief and rage surfacing, as witnessed by his attempt to strangle Mundungus outside the Hog’s Head. While he may not have managed to bring off an Unforgivable Curse yet (the effectiveness of his Cruciatus on Bellatrix is still a matter of debate), he is still, when provoked, far more willing to try them out than someone on the ‘good’ side should theoretically be. And who can forget the shock of his Sectumsempra on Draco Malfoy? Through all this, like a fault line along the center of his psyche, runs a “furious desire for revenge” for the murder of his parents.

This is where we come to what I believe will be the core of Book 7: Harry’s relationship with Severus Snape. Snape is the one character who can tap into Harry’s dark side more effectively than any other; he is complex, enigmatic and difficult, the anti-hero to Harry’s hero. As a character he is skillfully written to be far more than he seems. At this point, debate is still raging over whose side he is really on (he is not a nice person, and I do think that there is a danger of over-romanticizing him, but I am fully aware that he may still turn out to be on the “good” side), and rather than getting bogged down in the complexities of this debate, I shall concentrate on how Harry sees him.

Their mutual animosity begins in Sorcerer’s (Philosopher’s) Stone with suspicion on Harry’s part and jealous prejudice (we are led to believe) on Snape’s. Their exchanges are marked at first by petty sniping and minor but persistent acts of verbal bullying by Snape. These offend Harry’s sense of fair play, but more importantly he is deeply hurt by Snape’s insults about Harry’s father James, his insinuations about “the famous Harry Potter” and his assumption that Harry is the “pampered little prince” that Dumbledore thinks he might have become in a kinder environment. It is in Prisoner of Azkaban that we begin to find out the history behind Snape’s antipathy, and witness their first real confrontation. By the middle of Goblet of Fire, after the trio has a run-in with Malfoy and his cronies, we are treated to an unnerving, if brief and fleeting, fantasy of Harry’s about trying the Cruciatus Curse on Snape. Re-reading this I was struck by what comes shortly afterwards: the beginning of a lesson on antidotes, where Harry thinks Snape is going to poison him. Could these be clues? As if to justify Harry’s suspicion, Snape is later shown to have a shady past (and maybe present) as one of Voldemort’s Death Eaters.

In Order of the Phoenix, we begin to see, through the filter of Occlumency lessons, the similarities between Snape and Harry. They are similar in ways neither wish to acknowledge, having lived through childhoods marked by abuse, bullying, isolation and a fair degree of material deprivation, and underlying their constantly clashing strong wills is a great deal of anger, bitterness and suffering. Their differences – Harry’s ability to make and keep good friends despite his background, Snape’s secretiveness – are guaranteed to fuel the envy of one and the distrust of the other. In truth, although he is often unfairly vindictive, Snape has an exceptionally accurate sense of Harry’s faults: he mentions his stubborn pride, a tendency to overlook important details and to allow feelings to overcome rational assessment. There are moments of insight and possible understanding – Snape’s question about Aunt Marge’s dog may be innocent curiosity, though Harry, reeling from the violence of Snape’s intrusion into his most private, painful memories, doesn’t see it that way, and Harry’s foray into the Pensieve shortly afterwards does give him (amongst other mixed, intense emotions) some compassion for Snape for a while. But by the end of Order of the Phoenix, thanks largely to the trauma of Sirius’ death and Snape’s refusal (or inability, depending on how you see him) to acknowledge his own role in it, Harry’s attitude towards Snape has (unjustifiably) begun to harden: “He would never forgive Snape – never.” When I first read this, I was convinced that Harry would Crucio Snape at some point.

By the end of Half-Blood Prince the dramatic climax has served to justify Harry’s feelings. He suspects Snape of being in on the plan to open Hogwarts to the Death Eaters. On a more personal level, he has heard evidence from Trelawney that suggests Snape was the one who overheard the prophecy and sent Voldemort to murder his parents. He has witnessed Snape murder Dumbledore, the wisest and best wizard Harry has ever known. To Harry, this proves that Snape is evil, though Hermione, as ever, sounds a note of caution: ‘Evil is a strong word.’ Doesn’t this remind you of the scene before the rescue mission in Order of the Phoenix? He is being led astray by his feelings even here, becoming angry every time Snape is mentioned. And yet there is a masterful irony in the fact that the Half-Blood Prince, the mystery helper in Harry’s Potions lessons, is revealed to be none other than Severus Snape. Finally, Harry remarks to Ron and Hermione, “If I should happen to meet Severus Snape along the way, so much the better for me, so much the worse for him.” It is the chillingly casual, almost throwaway, tone of this comment, as much as its barely veiled threat, that is ominous. This does not sound like the “righteous anger” derided by Bellatrix, but the kind of poisonous hatred that powers the Avada Kedavra curse. Harry has gone beyond schoolboy fantasies now; he wants Snape dead.

It is here that I venture into more speculative territory. Would Harry be capable of committing such a horrific act? What are the implications, practical, moral and spiritual, of killing Snape? How will the theme of repentance and redemption play out after this?

There are many readers who argue, not without reason, that Harry could not go through with killing Snape. His lack of success so far with Unforgivable Curses is cited as evidence that he is quite simply incapable of mustering the necessary violent (yet calculating) hatred, that he is too full of love to wish to destroy another human being. And there remain some questions about Harry’s level of magical proficiency generally; after all, Snape practically ate Harry for breakfast in their last confrontation. However, although the “Harry is too good-hearted” argument has some important points (I do not think that Voldemort will be finished off by an Avada Kedavra, for several reasons – more of this later) I find a major problem with it.

If Harry cannot perform an Unforgivable Curse because he is too good-hearted, is he then making a moral choice? Remember: “It is our choices that show us who we truly are, far more than our abilities.” If Harry turned out to be too good to be capable of an Unforgivable Curse, the dramatic truth of this statement, a key theme of the series, would be undermined, and I for one would be very disappointed. To make him incapable of evil would be to sentimentalize him. It is of course possible to kill without using the Avada Kedavra (Draco would have died without Snape’s intervention); it is possible, too, that Harry could turn back from this temptation at the last moment, but these would make for far less powerful (and convincing) dramatic possibilities, as well as leaving the question of Harry’s capacity in the Unforgivables, so deliberately emphasized by the author, frustratingly open.

No, I think that, by continually setting Dumbledore’s pronouncement on moral choice against the question of Harry’s capability with the Unforgivable Curses, the author has argued herself into a corner. Perhaps the Unforgivable Curse issue is an Aunt Sally set up to keep us wondering if Harry is going to pull it off at some point? It would be very like JK Rowling to shock us with it, after stringing us along for a couple of books; it would also be a suitably ironic twist to point out that Harry (the good guy hero) is capable of killing, while Draco Malfoy (the school bully) is not (and there is not much moral merit in Draco, is there, despite the fact that he is “not a killer”?). Harry has the motivation to kill Snape; JK Rowling has carefully laid the emotional groundwork for that. Resolving the question of his capability, generally and specifically, is another matter, but it would be perfectly credible if Harry’s powers were to develop further, while Snape’s powers weaken, or are interfered with by an outside agency or Snape’s own hidden agenda.

Why would Snape, in effect, allow himself to be killed? Self-sacrifice is not in a Slytherin’s nature and Snape, as we can see from the end of Half-Blood Prince, is more than capable of defending himself. Nevertheless, there is another factor at work here: “magic at its most impenetrable.” We know that Snape had his life saved by Harry’s father, James, and that therefore a life debt existed between Snape and James. Given the possibility (I don’t think Trelawney is an entirely reliable witness) that Snape may have been the eavesdropper at the Hog’s Head, does this mean that Snape, having failed to discharge the debt to James, and even brought about his death, has to repay it now with his own life? This would be justice of a sort, but very dark indeed if it leads to the tearing apart of Harry’s soul. Or is Snape now evens on this score, given that he may well have saved Harry’s life on a number of occasions? We know that the fates of Pettigrew and Harry are bound together in this way, but not what the bond may mean. This is, it seems, a branch of the same “ancient magic” that saved Harry from Voldemort, and I think we are going to learn a great deal more about it in Book 7.

If Harry does kill Snape, the consequences and possible implications will be far-reaching. No doubt the circumstances will make it look like some form of self-defense or even (it being wartime) a heroic act, and the author has made such a successful job of dividing opinion on Snape’s loyalties that we can see both why Harry sees Snape as evil and how he could be catastrophically mistaken. Snape has many fans, but they are not the only ones able to think of a thousand and one reasons why killing him will create severe difficulties for Harry, both practical and emotional.

Whether Snape is good or bad, the spiritual consequence of killing him is clear: ‘Killing rips the soul apart’, it is uncompromisingly stated, whether murder, manslaughter or self-defense, and this casts an interesting light on the ethics of the revenge at the heart of this series. If Harry kills Voldemort, will he then damage his own soul despite the fact that this act will save the magical world? It seems likely that the very desire to kill is itself a drive that corrupts the soul. This is why I suspect Harry will come to realize that simply killing Voldemort will not be the answer. It is not a question of whether he will be capable of killing, but of what it will do to him. If Harry kills Snape, he will feel the intense pain of the damage to his soul immediately (think of the agony that Voldemort suffers when he tries to possess Harry and you will get the idea); unlike the Death Eaters, who almost certainly use a form of Occlumency to enable themselves to live with their deeds (hence Snape’s warning about keeping one’s mind closed), he will be unable to shield himself from despair and self-disgust, and his pain will be worse when he thinks of those he loves. He may even be physically ill for a while as the effects of his transgression, combined with the Horcrux, or Horcruxes, he will probably be in possession of (remember Ginny in Chamber of Secrets and the frailty of Dumbledore in Half-Blood Prince) begin to tell on him.

Paradoxically, however, it could be his vulnerability to this pain that leads Harry to the source of his greatest power. He will be forced to face up to himself and his faults in a way he has never done before, realizing in the process just how much of his hatred of Snape stems from deep emotional wounds of his own. Soul damage, I would guess, can be healed, but it takes a great deal of courage and humility to enable that to happen. Harry’s compassion will triumph in the end as, in understanding himself, he begins to understand the dark emotions that drive his enemies. And what is the miraculous power that is able to forgive and redeem? You guessed it. Love, in its all-encompassing form, the power that “the Dark Lord knows not.”

The symbolism of the climax to Chamber of Secrets (cited as a key to understanding how the series will play out) is worth noting, especially now that we know about Horcruxes. When he fought Tom Riddle in the Chamber, Harry received a poisonous bite from the Basilisk, but was healed by Fawkes’ tears, while Riddle himself was destroyed by the Basilisk’s fang. Harry is now being “poisoned” by a vengeful hatred that has its roots in his parents’ murders. This comes from Voldemort and is, crucially, the same hatred that will destroy Voldemort himself – a classic pattern in tragedy. But that is not the end of the story. Fawkes, the phoenix whose tail-feathers power the wands of both Voldemort and Harry, is symbolic of love, immortality and the divine. Perhaps his tears represent the tears of remorse? I do not know whether he will reappear in Book 7, but I would be surprised if he has left for good. He will be instrumental in Voldemort’s destruction, even if only through the wand cores, but he may even play a key role in Harry’s redemption.

There are, of course, many other things that will need to happen in Book 7. The rest of the Horcruxes need to be found and destroyed (it could even be that Harry’s repentance will itself destroy at least one of them. Will Snape be in possession of it?). The identity of RAB will be revealed. There will be lighter moments like Bill and Fleur’s wedding, even in what is likely to be a very dark book. But I shall keep my theorizing to the grand themes and leave the details and plot to JK Rowling herself. I wouldn’t want to spoil my enjoyment of the series by getting too convinced about my own ideas, and besides, I’m no good at writing fan fiction. Roll on the next two years, three or more if Rowling really needs to do justice to her final Harry Potter installment. I shall prepare to be surprised.