(Repost from 10/26/07)
On the day that a French philosopher made the “startling” conclusion that the Harry Potter books have a political element (well, duh!), I figured it’s time I typed up some of my other thoughts about the books. These actually come, in part, from teaching Prisoner of Azkaban again. In preparing for the class and finishing up the second or third complete draft of my dissertation, I’ve been thinking about the nature of evil in Rowling’s work. That thinking has led me to the conclusion that she (unsurprisingly) looks at good and evil as a continuum rather than a binary. More importantly, she presents at least four major examples of different types of evil in the books (in order of threat):
1) The Malfoys, a.k.a. Safe Evil
— The Malfoys, I think, represent safe evil. That is, they are very vociferous in their racism, classism, and arrogant manner. However, they are all talk and no action whatsoever. They’re the sort of “evil” that readers can safely find “cool” because it’s “bad” but never crosses the line into total and utter social reprehensibility. For all that Lucius, Narcissa, and Draco posture and protest, the reader knows they’ll never really do anything truly evil. In fact, the worst thing they ever do (directly) in the books is kick Dobby around. The rest is just empty threats and mummery.
2) Voldemort, a.k.a. Overt (but ultimately powerless) Evil
— Probably the most obviously evil character is Voldemort. However, Rowling paints him—whether inadvertantly or not—as being ultimately powerless. Sure, he kills people and tortures others. He’s certainly racist, unless it suits him not to be (he does seek out Giant, Werewolf, and Dementor allies after all). But, he is ultimately powerless. Nothing he creates or builds ever lasts. More importantly, Rowling leaves clues about his lack of power. In Half-Blood Prince, she makes a point of Dumbledore referring to Voldemort’s protections around the locket horcrux as being crude (the blood price protection). Does such a protection require power? Certainly. But, does it require understanding of what one does or how magic works? In Dumbledore’s opinion, the answer appears to be no on both counts. Lots of raw power, but no understanding. Harry also refers, obliquely, to Voldemort’s powerlessness when he recalls (in book six or seven) that the only times he’s seen flashy magic—lights and bangs, the impressive stuff—is when someone really doesn’t know what (s)he is doing and screws up. When we look at Voldemort, we see that he favors the flash-bang magic . . . his most often used spells being Cruciatus and Avada, both designed for flash and to be seen, and both likely crude by Dumbledore’s measure. Even his ability to fly is part of this flash-bang style of magic. And then there’s the fact that a single boy (sure, Harry’s “of age” in wizard society at 17, but in the reader’s, he’s still a kid) defeats him utterly with a simple spell that nearly anyone at the school can perform. Admittedly, there are some extenuating circumstances surrounding Harry, but the point remains.
3) Dolores Umbridge, a.k.a. Insidious Evil
— Umbridge, I think, Rowling would bring up as the most dangerous sort of evil. She represents the sort of evil that creeps in under the guise of protecting the best interests of society and the weak. The Trojan Horse or wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing of evil. Of course, this is also the most difficult type of evil to defend against (because it cloaks itself in a veneer of nationalism, patriotism, and righteousness) and the one that typically has the greatest effect. This is, in many ways, Hitler’s evil. And it is likely no mistake that many of Umbridge’s actions can be seen as representations of Hitlerian programs.
4) Fenrir Greyback, a.k.a. Unrestrained Evil
— Less concerning, to some extent, than Umbridge’s form of evil, Greyback certainly sets his own standard. He has no limits, social mores and whatnot don’t affect him. Of all the types mentioned above, his is the most unrestrained. No matter what they do, there are certain social morals that restrain the Malfoys. No matter how many people he tortures or kills, even Voldemort has his limits. Case in point, he never actually kills a child “on screen”, as it were, even Cedric Diggory was of age. Moreover, he’ll use Fenrir and the Giants, but neither the werewolves nor the giants will ever have a place in Voldemort’s new society because they are far to violent and lacking in restraints to function in any even moderately reasonable society. Umbridge too has her limits as well, usually involving remaining within the laws of society—even if she has to make new laws to legalize whatever she’s doing. Greyback, on the other hand, obeys none of this. The only limit on what he’ll do is the serious threat of personal pain or death, which he apparently feels can only be meted out by Voldemort and his highest lieutenants of the week. This is certainly the gravest threat for society. Umbridge’s evil only threatens a single society, and even then it only changes the society. Greyback’s attacks the very root of civilization, the foundation upon which all societies are built, that is law and some sort of moral guide (whether religious or secular).