Revenge Part III: Harry’s Mercy
Perhaps the most significant quest for vengeance going on in the series occurs quite early: that of Sirius against Peter Pettigrew in Prisoner of Azkaban. This is the precursor to the Lupin/Pettigrew showdown we all hoped to see in Hallows, and perhaps if we’d paid attention here, we wouldn’t have gotten our hopes up (the Lupin/Pettigrew conflict is addressed in Part I).
The reason that Sirius/Lupin/Harry vs. Pettigrew is significant enough to get its own essay, is that it’s unique in the scope of the series. As I talked about in Part I, Jo denies just about all her characters the opportunity to get revenge. In Part II, I discussed how Hermione is twice granted the rare opportunity to get revenge – and does she ever take it! But this is unique because Sirius, Lupin, and Harry are given the opportunity to take revenge – yet they don’t.
If anyone is justified in seeking revenge in the Potter series, it’s Sirius seeking to make Peter pay for what he did. Peter cost him everything: the life of his best friend, and a twelve-year stint in Azkaban. Therefore, Sirius wants revenge very badly. Before he even explains himself to Harry, he goes after Wormtail, saying, “I want to commit the murder I was imprisoned for.” (PA350)
There are three main people in the Shrieking Shack scene that Peter has wronged (well, four, if you count how affronted Ron was at sharing a bed with him). As mentioned, Sirius was wronged with the death of his best friend and his incarceration in Azkaban. Lupin also lost a dear friend to death and another to Azkaban, leaving him very sad and lonely throughout his adult life. And then there’s Harry, who lost his parents because of Peter Pettigrew. All of them have a righteous claim on Peter’s life – and were this any other story, Peter would be killed (and perhaps someone would feel slightly bad about it afterwards). Instead, we get the following (absolutely shocking) passage.
“THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED!” roared Black. “DIED RATHER THAN BETRAY YOUR FRIENDS, AS WE WOULD HAVE DONE FOR YOU!”
Black and Lupin stood shoulder to shoulder, wands raised.
“You should have realized,” said Lupin quietly, “if Voldemort didn’t kill you, we would. Good-bye, Peter.”
[…] “NO!” Harry yelled. He ran forward, placing himself in front Pettigrew, facing the wands. “You can’t kill him,” he said breathlessly. “You can’t.” Black and Lupin both looked staggered. (PA375)
Honestly, this is one of those passages that I could spend essays analyzing just by itself. But we’re talking about revenge here. Black and Lupin are ready to take revenge on Peter at long last. But Harry stops them. Harry shows mercy.
Harry’s solution is that Pettigrew “can go to Azkaban” because “[i]f anyone deserves that place, [Wormtail] does….” (PA376) And THIS is how things work in Rowling’s world, both in Book 3 and all the way through Book 7. Bad guys get their comeuppance (none except the Malfoys really get a happy ending), but never through a personal act of revenge.
And this is why Harry is our protagonist: because he never seeks revenge. Aside from chasing Bellatrix and Snape after they killed his father figures, never does Harry seek revenge on someone. He can’t even bring himself to use the Killing Curse against Voldemort (though the theme of murder is a whole other can of worms). But I think the act of clemency that I always find most shocking, and in some ways most admirable, is the one in Prisoner. Harry has every right to want Pettigrew dead. He’s a brash thirteen-year-old boy. And he doesn’t even have to do the dirty work, the adults – who in theory know better – will do it for him. Yet Harry cares more about morality than personal vindication, more for preserving the ethics of those he loves than punishing those he hates.
Then, seemingly undermining Harry’s act of mercy, it doesn’t all work out. Pettigrew escapes and is not brought to justice. The good guys have to suffer because Harry did the right thing. So was it the right thing to do? Fortunately, Dumbledore, and Jo speaking through him, sheds some light on the subject.
“You did a very noble thing, in saving Pettigrew’s life.” “But if he helps Voldemort back to power —!”
“Pettigrew owes his life to you. You have sent Voldemort a deputy who is in your debt…. When one wizard saves another wizard’s life, it creates a certain bond between them … and I’m much mistaken if Voldemort wants his servant in the debt of Harry Potter.”
“I don’t want a connection with Pettigrew!” said Harry. “He betrayed my parents!”
“This is magic at its deepest, its most impenetrable, Harry. But trust me … the time may come when you will be very glad you saved Pettigrew’s life.” (PA426-427)
Oh, this passage… my fellow old-timers surely know it almost by heart. This was one of those lines – like Dumbledore’s “gleam of triumph” and “in essence divided” – that was picked completely apart in the expectation that it would mean great things come Deathly Hallows (or Books 5 or 6 before those came out). Especially after Pettigrew behaved in a decidedly non-indebted way toward Harry a year later, tying him up and taking his blood and all that.
If you read the fanfiction from that era that presented a version of the Final Battle or the latter books in general, there is always inevitably a scene addressing this (yes, even in my fanfic version of Book 7, which I sincerely hope not many people are reading because it’s terribly written by the thirteen-year-old me). This usually went down in one of two ways: (1) Pettigrew is trying to harm Harry (or an ally), and Harry calls in the debt, magically rendering Pettigrew innocuous; (2) Pettigrew has an epiphany that he owes his life to Harry and changes sides, usually long enough to heroically die in Harry’s service.
But we as a fandom went one step further: we took Dumbledore’s words at face value (we knew no better at the time!), and assumed that there is some very tangible “certain bond” created when a wizard saves his fellow’s life. Oh, the tangled webs that were woven using this concept! Fanfic writers ran amok, always having character A save character B and thus creating another life debt, which usually served as a catalyst for a steamy love affair. Meanwhile, essay writers, if they were feeling particularly brave or masochistic, would attempt the Herculean task of tabulating the myriad life debts present in the series, in the vain hope of having I-told-you-so rights when one of the debts came into play. But the question of what constituted saving a life was surprisingly difficult – nay, impossible! – to answer.
And as usual, we were all completely wrong. I can just imagine Jo seeing all these editorials on Mugglenet, and laughing her maniacal evil laugh at how misguided we were. Because the “certain bond” was not magical in nature, where it could somehow magically force Pettigrew to do something he wouldn’t otherwise.
Rather, that bond is an entirely human one. No magical forces are at work. Rather, owing your life to someone creates no more than a personal feeling of debt. And, as we so elegantly find out in Malfoy Manor, sometimes that’s enough.
“You’re going to kill me?” Harry choked, attempting to prise off the metal fingers. “After I saved your life? You owe me, Wormtail!” The silver fingers slackened. Harry had not expected it: He wrenched himself free, astonished, keeping his hand over Wormtail’s mouth. He saw the ratlike man’s small watery eyes widen with fear and surprise: He seemed just as shocked as Harry at what his hand had done, at the tiny, merciful impulse it had betrayed, and he continued to struggle more powerfully, as though to undo that moment of weakness.
[…] [Pettigrew’s] own silver fingers were moving inexorably toward his own throat. “No —”
Without pausing to think, Harry tried to drag back the hand, but there was no stopping it. The silver tool that Voldemort had given his most cowardly servant had turned upon its disarmed and useless owner; Pettigrew was reaping his reward for his hesitation, his moment of pity; he was being strangled before their eyes. (DH470)
And now, let us take a moment to bow down to the genius that is Jo Rowling. Of all the fantastic death scenes she wrote (and, let’s face it, there is a lot of them!), I think this is perhaps the best one. This one page may be her best argument for mankind’s nature being inherently good.
In the end, Harry did not need any magical protection against Peter (not that it wouldn’t have helped). The debt amounted to no more than Pettigrew having a moment of feeling indebted to Harry… and that sufficed. It was the small shred of humanity left in Peter that saved Harry in the end. This is also the best kind of “redemption” Wormtail could have had. No heroics, because he is and forever will be a villain. But a very tiny part of him felt that he owed Harry his life and could not kill him, proving that he had an itty bitty inkling of good inside him.
So, as we see, Dumbledore was right on all accounts. Voldemort did not want a servant in the debt of Harry Potter, and ensured that Pettigrew would never have a chance to properly repay that debt. This is brilliant for Voldemort, who does not often cover his bases this well (the hand gives him a more powerful servant, and a failsafe against betrayal). It’s also brilliant on Jo’s behalf – one of her best red herrings. Because it was a silver hand, we all thought that it would kill Lupin, thereby proving Harry to have been in the wrong when sparing Peter’s life. Instead it kills Pettigrew, thereby proving Harry to have been right in showing mercy. It also proves Dumbledore correct in saying that Harry would one day be glad he saved Peter – any other Death Eater would have ensured they didn’t escape Malfoy Manor, but because it was the indebted Peter, they got away.
Also, let us just take a minute to marvel at Harry’s character. For, once Peter’s hand starts choking Wormtail himself, Harry actually tries to save him. Let’s just take that in. The last time Harry showed this man any mercy (and it was an outlandish move back then!), Wormtail escaped, then tied Harry up and did other dreadful things to him, and finally brought Voldemort back to life. Not exactly something that’s blaring a message of “mercy makes things good!” Yet Harry, who has been wronged by Wormtail countless times, who is now a battle-hardened fighter and refugee, and who has a best friend being tortured at that very moment, still does all he can to save Pettigrew. My mind is officially boggled. And this, again, is why Harry is our protagonist. Because he is the most unbelievably good person ever.
Revenge vs. Mercy
So let’s put the two together – Harry’s mercy and Hermione’s revenge – and attempt to divine Jo’s true meaning. Jo has been subtly spinning this yarn of revenge versus mercy ever since Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry showed mercy, through Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, when Hermione wreaked vengeance, and brought it all spectacularly to a head in Deathly Hallows.
We’ve already established that Jo does not let most of her characters get revenge in the final book. Her treatment of this theme is nowhere near as heavy-handed as just about every other fictional work – where a character explicitly gets revenge and then is very explicitly told it’s wrong. Jo does not have her characters do that; she gives the readers more credit than that. But she does show us what happens when characters, given the choice, choose revenge or mercy.
Hermione got her revenge on Rita and Umbridge. Yet in Deathly Hallows, they are thriving, and succeed in making life very unpleasant for Hermione and those she cares about. Harry, on the other hand, showed Pettigrew mercy. This caused Pettigrew to momentarily lapse when opposing Harry, and thereby saved Harry’s life. In the end, an act of mercy, not revenge, ended up being a villain’s undoing.
Ladies and gentlemen, I think our author has spoken. Revenge perpetuates a cycle and ends up detrimental in the long run. Mercy, while not immediately satisfying, is beneficial in the end. So, if we are to listen to Jo, we must be like Harry and choose mercy over revenge.