Free Will: Harry the Horcrux and the Power of Choice
A major theme throughout the Harry Potter series is choice and the power of free will. Harry, as we learn, is the host of one of Voldemort’s Horcruxes, giving him a connection to the Dark Lord unrivaled by any. Laid out by Sybill Trelawney’s prophecy and cemented by Voldemort’s choice to go after Harry as a baby, Harry is also the Chosen One – destined to bring an end to Voldemort’s reign. But if Harry was fated to defeat Voldemort and he ultimately ended up fulfilling that destiny, how does free will and his choices factor into that?
All of our choices are informed by our past and the experiences that have led us to where we are today. Dumbledore puts his finger on this when he tells Harry that his greatest strength is love, that his capacity to love is what sets him apart from Voldemort despite their many similarities. By killing Lily and James when Harry was a baby, Voldemort ensured that Harry would never choose to support him regardless of the person Harry would turn out to be. We are free to be who we are, but some choices are just so far from our character that they seem almost impossible. Some of the decisions Harry is faced with throughout the series – to give Voldemort the sorcerer’s stone, to hand over the prophecy, to seek out the Horcruxes – are difficult because of the consequences Voldemort enacted for hiding the stone, holding onto the prophecy, and finding the Horcruxes. But the choices themselves aren’t difficult, not for Harry. Regardless of what Voldemort could offer him – or threaten to do – Harry was never going to help or join him, not when Voldemort had already taken what mattered most from him – his parents. So to some extent, Harry never could have chosen differently than he did or else he would not be Harry.
Something else that factors into Harry’s choices – and all choices – is the possibility of failure. But could Harry have really failed? Sometimes, it seems that the most important thing Harry did throughout the series was stay alive. He has a great deal of courage, but despite his penchant for saving others, Harry’s biggest task is often to save himself. In the Chamber of Secrets, the graveyard, and the Department of Mysteries, Harry’s survival was ultimately the most important element because his death would mean Voldemort’s triumph. But is the choice to fight for your life really a choice? As Harry liked to say, there were a lot of factors besides his own skill and bravery that made it possible for him to survive facing Voldemort all those times. One of those was Voldemort himself; if he hadn’t been determined to be the one to kill Harry, Harry probably never would have survived the graveyard, the Department of Mysteries, or the Battle of Hogwarts.
If many of Harry’s choices were not choices at all, what decisions did he make that changed the course of the wizarding world? I would argue that the first one was saving Peter Pettigrew’s life in the Shrieking Shack way back in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. If love frequently keeps Harry from choosing Voldemort’s side, pity is perhaps what made him save Wormtail’s life. I think it can be argued that it would not have been going against Harry’s character – at least not his character at 13 – to allow Sirius and Lupin to kill Pettigrew. The great loss of Harry’s life is the death of his parents, and Wormtail was responsible for that. Harry has a lot of great qualities, but control over his anger is often not one of them. So it feels like a genuine choice, one in which we could see him going either way when he saves Pettigrew, and the effects of that decision follow him for many years to come.
Another major decision that Harry makes is in the “Forest Again” chapter of Deathly Hallows. If it’s no real choice to fight for your life, it is absolutely a choice to let yourself die and to do so without any intention to defend yourself. Seeking out Voldemort in the Forest with the full knowledge of what would happen, with the full intention of it being a permanent decision, is probably the greatest decision of Harry’s life. He could have destroyed all the other Horcruxes, kept the sorcerer’s stone from Voldemort, and thwarted all of his attempts to regain power but still have elected to live. Choosing death, I think, is the ultimate demonstration of Harry’s free will.
So though Harry’s upbringing, character, and propensity to love shaped much of the course of his life – and the decisions along the way – the fact that he is a Horcrux, that it was prophesied he would bring an end to Voldemort, was ultimately not what brought about Harry’s success. Without free will, Harry never would have died. Without free will, Harry never would have come back, and Voldemort may never have been defeated.