A Measure of Humanity

by David Scott

A pervading theme of Frank Herbert’s brilliant sci-fi book, Dune, is the question of what makes one human. The opening chapter of the book pits our hero, Paul Atreides, against the test of the Gom Jabbar, administered by the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam. The test is deceptively simple; Paul must put his hand in a box, and he must not withdraw it despite increasing pain, or the Reverend Mother will kill him with a poisoned needle, the Gom Jabbar or “high-handed enemy” (8). As the pain increases in Paul’s hand, the Reverend Mother reveals to him the difference between an animal and a human: “‘You’ve heard of animals chewing off a leg to escape a trap? There’s an animal kind of trick. A human would remain in the trap, endure the pain, feigning death that he might kill the trapper and remove a threat to his kind'” (9). Needless to say, Paul survives this test by proving to be a human. The book goes on to show us how the other characters, by their actions, reveal their natures, either animal or human, according to this standard.

Because traps are such an important element in the Harry Potter series, I thought that this definition taken from Herbert’s book might be an interesting way of categorizing the characters. Comparisons of this sort are, of course, risky, since the universes of different books are constructed with different rules, different themes, different objects in mind, and characters made for one book would be completely out of place in the other. Nevertheless, there are enough points of similarity in the actions of the characters in both books to prompt an attempt. Specifically, I would like to analyze four events from the Harry Potter series to show how the definition might apply.

The first event is the murder of Harry’s parents. From what we know so far, James and Lily Potter, in an attempt to hide from Voldemort, set up the Fidelius Charm (“feigning death”) with Peter Pettigrew as their Secret-Keeper. Pettigrew instead betrayed the Potters by revealing their location to Voldemort, who set off after them. We can reason that from the moment Voldemort showed up on their doorstep, the Potters were trapped. Their reaction was to try to “kill” their “trapper” and “remove the threat.” Note especially that Lily, when given the chance to stand away from Harry, does not. Her standing aside for Voldemort would have been, symbolically, an act of chewing off her leg to escape the trap, offering Harry to save her own life. By their brave actions, the Potters show themselves to be human.

The second event, in contrast, is the time when Sirius corners Pettigrew in the street after the murder of the Potters. As we learn, Peter cuts off his own finger, blows up the street, “…killing everyone within twenty feet of himself” (PoA 363), and escapes down the sewer as a rat. Pettigrew’s actions are clearly those of an animal chewing off a leg to escape a trap. What’s more, it’s part of a general pattern of behavior with him: he sacrifices the Potters, his finger, the innocent bystanders in the street, his arm, Harry’s blood, and who knows what else for the sake of pulling himself out of the way of Voldemort’s anger. We know, of course, that Voldemort’s anger is a trap that Pettigrew never escapes no matter how hard he tries. Pettigrew’s actions speak of another theme in Herbert’s work: fear. We learn in Herbert’s work the Litany against Fear: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. . . . ” (9). Paul Atreides uses the Litany as a way to help him through the test of the Gom Jabbar. Its words, however, also reveal the motivation behind Pettigrew’s actions, and the effect his fears have on him. His fears have obliterated him, just as he obliterated the street, just as he obliterated his friends, just as he obliterated his own humanity for twelve years by hiding as a rat.

The third event occurs in Book 5 and reveals Voldemort’s own lack of humanity. At the end of his duel with Dumbledore in the atrium of the Ministry, Voldemort takes possession of Harry, daring Dumbledore, as Dumbledore puts it, “to sacrifice [Harry] in the hope of killing him” (OotP 828). We see in this moment Voldemort, caught by Dumbledore, using Harry as a means of escape. Harry becomes a leg he can chew off because, as we find out later, he is protected by his Horcruxes and knows he can be restored, while Harry would be eliminated. As with Pettigrew, Voldemort shows this behavior as a general pattern. In Book 1, he sacrifices Quirrell in his attempt to get the stone. In Book 2, he sacrifices Ginny to get to Harry. In Book 4, he uses a bone from his father, an arm from Pettigrew, and blood from Harry to bring himself back from near-death. And as with Pettigrew, Voldemort’s main motivation is fear, fear of his own death, which, as we have learned, has caused him to attack Harry and his family and to split his own soul into several pieces by means of the Horcruxes. One may even argue that the Horcruxes are symbolic legs that Voldemort has chewed off in order to escape the trap of mortality. But his attempts to escape his fears have obliterated him entirely–his body has become a hideous snakelike thing, his soul is irreparably damaged, and he spent several years as a ghostly vapor when confronted by the strength of Lily Potter’s love for Harry.

This same event, the duel in the atrium, gives us insight into Harry’s humanity. While Voldemort is using Harry to escape Dumbledore, Harry, on the other hand, caught in Voldemort’s possession, and enduring unimaginable pain, seeks to kill his tormentor. In his mind, he pleads with Dumbledore to kill them both to end his suffering. He does not fear death, as Voldemort does, even though he has just watched his godfather die. He does not chew off a leg, as Voldemort does, because he does not have the protection of Horcruxes. If his body dies, he dies completely. Harry is withstanding the pain, and thereby holding on to the trapper, just long enough for someone else–Dumbledore–to give the killing blow. Instead of feigning death, Harry is willing to sacrifice himself in order to rid himself and his friends of the “threat” to their “kind.” It is the same sacrifice that Paul Atreides’s father, Duke Leto, attempts with his poison-filled tooth when Baron Harkonnen, his sworn enemy, traps him in Dune.

Being human is, of course, a strong theme in the Harry Potter series, too. At the end of Book 5, Harry and Dumbledore have a revealing argument themselves on what it is to be human. Harry is clearly suffering because of the death of Sirius, but Dumbledore tells him that it is his ability to feel such pain and suffering that is his “greatest strength” (OotP 823), that “suffering like this proves [he is] still a man! This pain is part of being human… ” (OotP 824). We can therefore read Sirius’s death as a form of Gom Jabbar test for Harry. There are differences between his and Paul’s test. While Paul’s test depends upon physical pain, Harry’s test burns him emotionally. And while Paul must master his pain by keeping his hand in the box, Harry is invited by Dumbledore to rage at him, break the instruments in his office, and attack Dumbledore himself. The main similarity, on the other hand, is too great to ignore. In both books we seem to be told that how one deals with pain–and fear–is a measure of one’s humanity. I would be interested to see how other readers judge this standard and apply it to some of the other characters in the HP series.

Citations from Dune are taken from Herbert, Frank. The Illustrated Dune. New York: Berkley Windhover, 1978. HP citations come from the US hardcover editions.