Understanding Literary Concepts Through Harry Potter: Flat and Round, Static and Dynamic

A flat character is like a pencil sketch of a person. You have some idea of what they look like, what their goals are, even their basic personality, but none of the detail that would make them feel real. A round character is the opposite. They do have those details, and they come across as real people even though the audience knows they are fictional.

There are a lot of round characters in Harry Potter, but there are also many who have only a small part to play and therefore minimal characterization. Pansy Parkinson is Draco Malfoy’s mean-spirited and frivolous girlfriend. Hepzibah Smith was a wealthy and easily-manipulated woman from whom Voldemort stole Slytherin’s locket and Hufflepuff’s cup. Sturgis Podmore is a member of the Order of the Phoenix who Voldemort tries to use to get the prophecy. That’s … pretty much all there is to those characters.

On the other hand, if I said, “Harry Potter is an orphan raised by his aunt and uncle who discovers he has magical powers and is the chosen one of a prophecy”, I have only scratched the surface of who Harry is. I’ve said nothing about his personality, his morals, his friendships, his goals, his hopes, his fears, his doubts, his strengths and weaknesses, or any of the myriad of other things that define who Harry is. And, unlike the characters I mentioned in the previous paragraph, Harry has all those things and more. Flat characters can be summed up in a few words or a sentence, while round characters would require an essay to do them justice.

Another way to classify characters is by their character development. A dynamic character changes over the course of the story, while a static character remains the same. These two concepts are often lumped together, with the assumption that round characters are dynamic and flat characters are static. Most examples fit this pattern. For example, I named Pansy Parkinson as a flat character. Aside from aging seven years over the course of the series, she does not change very much. She does not reconsider her actions, but nor does she go any further down the path that she’s on, (for instance by fighting for Voldemort in the Battle of Hogwarts). In Deathly Hallows, she’s still the same shallow, unpleasant schoolgirl she’s always been. On the flip side, Draco Malfoy looks very much like a flat/static character early in the series. Around the time of Half-Blood Prince, it becomes evident that he is neither. His development in the final two books both deepens his characterization beyond the one-dimensional playground bully and forces him into a situation where he can’t continue to be just the playground bully.

However, a static character (who does not change) can also be a round character whose personality is well developed but remains constant. For example, Hagrid is a major character with a fully-developed and lifelike personality, but he does not change over the course of the story. The Hagrid who delivers Harry to his aunt and uncle’s house in Sorcerer’s Stone is essentially the same Hagrid who carries him back to Hogwarts castle in Deathly Hallows. If he changes, it’s in very small ways. The same is true of many of the other adults in the series as well.

It’s harder to imagine a dynamic character (who changes) somehow not being a round character. In order to understand why someone would undergo a major change, their character would have to be complex. It’s not impossible, though: one example from Harry Potter that comes to mind is Regulus Black. We know he started out as a loyal Death Eater and later chose to betray Voldemort. We know what he discovered that made him reconsider. But his actual personality is extremely vague and is revealed entirely through other characters’ descriptions. Ariana Dumbledore is another such character, one who goes through a dramatic change but is never fully fleshed out as anything more than a plot device. Both are purely backstory characters and are dead before the main narrative begins, and both are defined almost entirely by the change they went through, with very little personality beyond that change.

However, it is true that the vast majority of round characters are also dynamic, and the vast majority of flat characters are also static. Complex characterization usually leads to character development and change over time, while shallower characters who exist only as a pencil sketch idea typically stay the same.

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Understanding Literary Concepts Through Harry Potter: The Hero’s Journey

For the next post in my literary concepts series, I’m going to be discussing the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey is the basic storyline that many protagonists follow, beginning with a “Call to Adventure” and ending with great personal growth and triumph. It can be seen in everything from classical mythology to modern stories like Star Wars and Harry Potter. The stages of the hero’s journey have been defined in various ways, but I’ll be using Joseph Campbell’s seventeen stages as described in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I was going to use Sorcerer’s Stone for this, but when I got to thinking about it, Fantastic Beasts is an even better example.

Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts does not follow a classical hero’s journey. There is no call to adventure or refusal thereof – he’s already been called and is in the middle of an adventure – and there’s no transition for Newt from the ordinary world into a special world, since he is already a wizard and very much a part of the magical world. However, there is a very clear, almost exactly step-by-step hero’s journey story in Fantastic Beasts, and it is Jacob Kowalski who finds himself following it.

Some of the names for the stages of the hero’s journey are overly-specific and don’t give a clear indication of their purpose, so I have paraphrased them. I have also moved “The Meeting with the Goddess” and “Crossing the Return Threshold” out of their typical order to reflect the order in which Jacob’s story unfolds.

The Call to Adventure: Jacob begins in the ordinary world, unhappy working in a canning factory and longing to open a bakery. He meets Newt at the bank and is accidentally exposed to magic.

Refusal of the Call: He is understandably confused by what he has seen and makes a run for it, accidentally taking Newt’s suitcase with him. Ironically, it is by doing so that he avoids having his memories wiped and ends up being part of the adventure.

Supernatural Aid: When Jacob is attacked by Newt’s murtlap, Newt, Tina, and Queenie help him.

Crossing of the First Threshold: Newt invites Jacob into his magical suitcase and shows him his creatures. Jacob realizes he is not dreaming and does not want to forget.

Meeting a powerful and helpful woman (“The Meeting with the Goddess”): Obviously, this would be Queenie.

Entering into danger (“Entering into the Belly of the Whale”): In this stage, Jacob, along with Newt and Tina, is arrested by MACUSA. The others are sentenced to death, and Jacob to having his memories wiped.

The Road of Trials: Jacob, Queenie, Tina, and Newt travel all around New York City trying to recapture Newt’s escaped magical creatures.

Temptation (“Woman as Temptress”): This really doesn’t apply. The main force of temptation in the movie is Grindelwald, but he never tries to influence Jacob.

Atonement with the Father: I’m not sure this applies to Jacob, but if it does, it might actually be his grandmother, rather than a literal father figure. He wants to become a baker partially because of her and apologizes to his picture of her when he believes he won’t be able to. By the end of the movie he has achieved his dream.

Apotheosis: Jacob finally comes to terms with the fact that he won’t be allowed to remember his time in the magical world and accepts it.

The Ultimate Boon: Realizing that Queenie is in love with him and that Newt considers him a friend. Later, Newt will make sure he does not have to return to the canning factory.

Refusal of Return: He spends most of the movie refusing to return to the muggle world but does so willingly when the moment is right.

Magic Flight: Not applicable. He does not have to escape with a treasure. His “Ultimate Boon” is simply realizing his new friends care deeply for him, which will lead to their helping him achieve his original dream.

Crossing the Return Threshold: When he steps out into the memory potion rain and lets himself forget.

Rescue from a final danger (“Rescue from Without”): When it seems that Jacob will be forced to return to the canning factory, Newt anonymously gives him a suitcase full of silver occamy eggshells to fund his bakery.

Master of the Two Worlds/Freedom to Live: Jacob is happier and better off for his experiences in the magical world even though he no longer remembers. He now has his bakery, and he bakes breads in the shape of magical creatures, indicating that he still has some memory of his encounter with magic. At the end of the movie, he meets Queenie again.

Understanding Literary Concepts Through Harry Potter: Foil Characters

Theme. Symbolism. Conflict. Plot structure. Mood and style. These terms are worth knowing, but they’re not always easy to understand – and I say that as someone who absolutely lived for English class from about eighth grade onwards. When you’re already struggling to understand the antiquated language of your very first Shakespeare play, the last thing you want to do is decide which characters are flat characters or round characters, because what does that even mean and how do I apply it? But when it comes down to it, these concepts don’t have to be difficult or confusing. They’re a natural and universal part of storytelling.

I have a vivid memory of one of my old English teachers doing a lesson on foil characters. At first, I remember being confused, but then he gave an example that I knew so well, the pieces suddenly fell into place. I felt as if I’d always known what foil characters were; I just didn’t know what they were called. The example he gave was Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy.

Just before winter break last year, it all came full circle. I taught a lesson on foil characters. I used an example from a book that the sixth graders were reading, but after I’d explained the concept, I asked them if they could think of any other characters they thought might be foils. For a moment, there was silence, but then a boy raised his hand and hesitantly offered that very same example. It was as if, just like for my younger self, they suddenly saw the pieces fall into place. All of a sudden, all the hands in the room were up. They had examples to give, questions to ask, aha! moments to share – and just like that, a new, intimidating concept didn’t seem quite so scary.

That gave me the idea for a blog series, and it seems only fitting that I should start with foil characters.


Foil characters draw the reader’s attention to each other’s traits by being the opposite. They are often similar at first glance, but their differences are more important than their similarities. Harry and Malfoy are pretty much a textbook example of foil characters. On the surface, they have a lot in common. They are both Hogwarts students, the same age and gender, and play the same position on their House Quidditch teams. However, beyond these surface-level similarities, they are polar opposites.

They both play Seeker, which means they are often opponents on the Quidditch pitch. They are in rival houses, with Harry having consciously chosen Gryffindor over Slytherin. Harry has two close friends, while Malfoy has two lackeys to do his bidding. He seems to have no true affection for Crabbe and Goyle and certainly doesn’t see them as his equals. Even in their appearance they are opposites, Harry with his messy hair and hand-me-down clothes, Malfoy with his slick, polished look and traditional wizard’s robes (or, in the movies, fancy suits).

Both were born into the roles that they play in the war. Harry is the Chosen One of the prophecy, the only one who can defeat Voldemort. He is targeted from a young age, his parents are killed, and he’s fighting Voldemort from the moment the dark wizard re-enters his life. Draco, on the other hand, is a Malfoy. He grows up idolizing Voldemort and wishing he would return, and he’s eager at first to join the Death Eaters, although he becomes disillusioned as the war goes on. Neither of them has much choice in the side that they choose, but it would be a mistake to say they don’t make choices. Harry chooses to fight on many occasions when it would be easier to run or hide, while Draco often chooses not to make a choice at all.

At the beginning of the series, Harry is an outsider to the magical world and spends much of his time as a passive observer, figuring things out as we do. He reacts to whatever the conflict of the book is, but he doesn’t see himself as a hero and tries to live a normal life. Voldemort’s return in Goblet of Fire is the turning point, when Harry realizes that a war is coming and he will have to be ready for it. He spends Order of the Phoenix training Dumbledore’s Army and attempting to convince the world that Voldemort is back, while he spends Half-Blood Prince learning Voldemort’s secret weaknesses and investigating Malfoy, who he’s convinced has joined the Death Eaters. By Deathly Hallows, he is no longer an observer or a reactive character. He is a hero on a quest and a soldier in a war.

Malfoy, on the other hand, starts off the series as an active antagonist. While Voldemort has always been the ultimate evil, it was Malfoy’s schemes, taunts, and bullying that Harry had to deal with on a daily basis. Yet as the series goes on, Malfoy becomes more of a nuisance than a real threat. His role in Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix is greatly diminished, he’s not all that successful as a Death Eater, and he’s totally unaware that he’s the master of the Elder Wand until after the fact. Just as Harry starts to become an active hero with a clearly-defined goal, Malfoy goes from being an enemy to an annoyance to little more than a pawn in other people’s schemes.

In Half-Blood Prince in particular, they are on parallel and yet opposite journeys. Both are taking a more direct role in the war, and both have been chosen to do what others on their side consider impossible: killing the leader of the opposing side. They both spend the year working to accomplish this, keeping it secret from all but a select few trusted people. However, while Dumbledore really does want to help Harry succeed and spends the year teaching him about Voldemort’s greatest weakness, it’s strongly implied that Voldemort chose Draco to punish his family for his father’s failure to retrieve the prophecy. He doesn’t care whether he succeeds and doesn’t expect him to.

In a way, you could say they were both chosen by Voldemort. The prophecy could have referred to either Harry or Neville, but Voldemort chose to attack the infant Harry and therefore handpicked the boy who would grow up to defeat him. Voldemort’s choices make a physical mark on both boys: while Draco is given the Dark Mark, branding him as Voldemort’s servant, Harry’s lightning scar is the fulfilment of the line in the prophecy that claims “The Dark Lord shall mark him as his equal”.

It comes down to a lot more than their positions on the Quidditch team or the fact that they are members of rival Houses. In fact, you could say that Harry represents Dumbledore and the Order among his peers, while Malfoy represents Voldemort and the Death Eaters. This larger-scale conflict at first plays out via Quidditch games and school rivalry, and as the kids get older, they themselves become part of the war they’ve already chosen sides in. Although by the end of the series, the rivalry between Harry and Draco is far from the most important battle being fought, it still symbolically represents the war in microcosm. It’s not a coincidence that Harry, having fought with Draco and taken his wand during the battle at Malfoy Manor, is then easily able to win his duel against Voldemort and therefore the war as a whole. Yes, there’s the Elder Wand explanation, but what it comes down to is that, symbolically, he’s already won.

Are there other examples of foil characters in Harry Potter? Certainly. Dudley is another foil to Harry, spoiled where Harry is neglected, greedy and selfish where Harry is generous and selfless, and – to an even greater extent than Malfoy – irrelevant and no longer threatening by the final books in the series. Hermione and Luna are foils to each other: one is the “brightest witch of her age”, but a Gryffindor who ultimately values courage and friendship more than knowledge, while the other is a Ravenclaw who is more perceptive, open-minded, and individualistic than book smart. The two often clash and disagree as if they were designed to be opposites, which they probably were. And then, of course, there’s the contrast between the two werewolves: the kindly, civilized Professor Lupin, who sees his condition as a curse, and the brutal Fenrir Greyback, who fully embraces it. However, Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy are probably the most intricate example of foil characters, with not just a few surface-level similarities to highlight opposite personalities, but contrasting plotlines and character journeys centering around a personal feud in which they are not just school rivals but symbols of opposite sides in the story’s main conflict.

What Makes Half-Blood Prince So Important?

Between the darker tone and heavier themes of Order of the Phoenix and the all-out epic conclusion to the series in Deathly Hallows, it’s easy to overlook Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It seems lighter, softer, tamer, and far less significant. The movie was rated PG, while all the others from Goblet of Fire onward were PG-13. Its plot spends a great deal of time focusing on teenage romantic drama and day-to-day life at Hogwarts, while Voldemort himself never appears except in flashbacks and in the looming threat of danger that remains in the background until the end. It’s certainly not the most exciting Harry Potter book, and I’ll admit it’s not my personal favorite. But it does have a significant role to play.

Order of the Phoenix is about loss of innocence. Not that Harry has ever been totally innocent, at least not in the “sheltered and naïve” sense of the word. But in Order of the Phoenix, he has seen his parents’ killer return from the dead and murder one of his classmates, barely escaped with his own life, and attempted to warn his fellow wizards, only to be mocked, ridiculed, and viewed as either delusional or a liar by almost everyone. He sees the most trusted adults in his life fighting in secret to protect the wizarding world from a threat it won’t acknowledge exists, and at school, he does the same with his friends, forming a Defense Against the Dark Arts study group that grows into a full-blown resistance movement. Meanwhile, his dreams are haunted by that night in the graveyard and by visions of what Voldemort is doing, leading him and his friends into a battle against the Death Eaters where Harry loses one of his father figures and has to withstand being possessed by Voldemort. Harry has certainly endued hardships before, but this is different.

Order of the Phoenix is about loss of innocence, and Deathly Hallows is a high-stakes war story. In contrast, Half-Blood Prince is a last chance for Harry and his friends to just be teenagers. The world believes them now; the adults in power are doing their best to defeat Voldemort; Harry has heard the prophecy and knows he will have to face him someday, but that might be years in the future; and in the meantime, he has tests to pass, Quidditch games to win, and a growing crush on Ginny to deal with.

That doesn’t mean it’s filler, though. I would argue that Harry needs the chance to be a teenager before he sets off on his quest to defeat Voldemort. He needs to understand and experience the normal life he’s giving up in order to be the Chosen One. More importantly, he’s fighting to allow others – perhaps not his classmates, who mostly get drawn into the war along with him, but the younger students and the next generation – to live in a safer world where they will be able to live normal lives, and where teenagers will not have to fight in wars against Dark Wizards. Those moments “out of someone else’s life” that he spends with Ginny matter more than they seem to at first. Ron, Hermione, and to an extent all the children of Hogwarts are also given one last peaceful year before the full-fledged war portrayed in Deathly Hallows.

I said that Order of the Phoenix is a loss-of-innocence story, but so is Half-Blood Prince – not for Harry himself, but for Draco Malfoy. Like Harry, Malfoy has never been entirely innocent – he’s a vicious, mean-spirited bully – but in his own way, he’s incredibly sheltered and naïve. He doesn’t seem to have had an independent thought in his life and has never been through any real hardship. In Half-Blood Prince, he’s recruited to work for Voldemort and given a special mission to kill Dumbledore, which does not go according to plan. He becomes increasingly sullen and withdrawn as the year goes on, before finding himself unable to commit murder when the opportunity finally arises. In the same way that Harry transformed from child hero to pariah to resistance leader, Draco goes from playground bully to Death Eater to a conflicted young man incapable of either true good or true evil. Their stories are parallels that come to opposite conclusions, which makes sense since they are foil characters.

Finally, Half-Blood Prince sets the stage for Deathly Hallows. In Harry’s private lessons with Dumbledore, they explore flashback memories of Voldemort’s past, which allow them to figure out what kind of Dark Magic he used to make himself immortal and how to reverse it. His journey in Deathly Hallows revolves mostly around this, ending with the revelation that Harry himself must die in order for Voldemort to die – and, of course, the further twist that he doesn’t die at all. Dumbledore’s death at the end puts Harry in a position of having to face Voldemort alone, without his most powerful protector, while Snape’s actions seem to establish his role as a villain rather than an ambiguous character in Deathly Hallows, thus subtly setting the stage for the revelation of his true loyalty.

While the threat of Voldemort is present only in the background, it’s still there, and it casts its shadow over the whole story. Students are pulled out of school by parents who are afraid the school is not safe. Shops in Diagon Alley close down when the shop owners go missing. Bridges mysteriously collapse, morally-lacking opportunists sell bogus protective charms, and thanks to Polyjuice Potion and the Imperius Curse, you can never be quite sure who might not be who they seem. The war against Voldemort is raging in the background, a student is plotting to kill the Headmaster, Harry is learning and preparing to eventually fulfill the prophecy, and by the end it’s clear that he will have to do so sooner rather than later. All of this leads directly into Deathly Hallows, which in turn builds up to the Battle of Hogwarts and the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort.

 

The Virtues of Harry Potter: Equality

How could I possibly write this series of posts without talking about equality? One of the biggest common threads running through all seven Harry Potter books is the idea that everyone should be treated equally and given the same opportunities.

It’s there in the story of Hogwarts’ founding, when Helga Hufflepuff insists on accepting all magical children and personally takes it upon herself to teach those rejected by her co-founders. Her vision of Hogwarts as a welcoming and inclusive school persists to the present day, and Dumbledore is known for turning no child away from Hogwarts. He accepts not just those from Muggle families, but even those who are not fully human, such as werewolves and half-giants. This stands in stark contrast to the more selective Durmstrang, which is run by a former Death Eater and accepts only children from old magical families.

It’s there in the portrayal of non-human characters, too. Much time and care is spent telling Lupin’s story: how his parents were sure he would never even be allowed to attend Hogwarts, how he carefully hid his true nature from even his closest friends, and how he struggled to find work as an adult, all because he was a werewolf. While some werewolves, such as Fenrir Greyback, are in fact monsters, so are some humans, such as Voldemort and Bellatrix. Hermione equates the discrimination against werewolves with the oppression of house-elves, and she’s missing a few fine distinctions, but she’s not far off. Magical society tends to view any not-quite-humans, even those that are clearly intelligent and human-like, as their inferiors – and they are relentlessly condemned for doing so.

The themes of equality and inequality cut right through to the novel’s central conflict. Voldemort, although his own father was a muggle, uses the magical community’s distrust of muggle-born wizards to rally supporters to his side. Meanwhile, Harry himself grew up in the muggle world, one of his two best friends is muggle-born, and he constantly stands up against the Death Eaters’ bigoted views. Even the first time he meets Draco Malfoy, he has no patience for his offhand comments that Hogwarts should be only for the old magic families and shouldn’t let “the other sort” in.

He also has no patience for Malfoy’s scornful attitude toward Ron, who at that point he has just begun to become friends with. He doesn’t care about Ron’s hand-me-down clothes and lack of pocket money; he can already tell that Ron is a true friend, and that’s all that matters. The Weasleys have very little in comparison with the Malfoys, but they are happy to adopt Harry as an honorary family member and share with him everything they have.

Snobby, superior attitudes are not tolerated in the world of Harry Potter. Every character, whether magical or muggle, pure-blood or muggle-born, human or non-human, is treated with the respect they deserve by the series’ heroes. That’s not to say they’re Stepford children who are kind and respectful to everyone, but if they dislike certain professors or classmates, it’s because of who they are, not what. The villains, on the other hand, almost all display ignorance and prejudice, sometimes taken to a murderous extreme. It’s clear that the novels have a message to share here, and one that is perennially relevant.

The Virtues of Harry Potter: Loyalty

There’s more than one way to be a hero, and while the boldness and bravery of Gryffindor has its place, Hufflepuff traits are equally worthwhile. In fact, one of the most important Hufflepuff traits – loyalty – is a recurring theme in the books. Every character, regardless of house, has to figure out who and what they’re loyal to and faces conflicts forcing them to choose whether to be loyal or not.

This is not always an easy decision, and the characters don’t always choose right. For instance, the main trio squabble and fight like any normal teenagers, but they always make up and reunite by the end of the book. Even after Ron abandons Harry and Hermione in Deathly Hallows, he quickly regrets it and returns to them as soon as he is able. Dumbledore’s Army is defined by their loyalty to Harry, and Harry, likewise, is always loyal to Dumbledore, even in moments when it’s far from the easy thing to do.

Disloyalty, on the other hand, is one of the failings most strongly condemned in the series. Characters who reveal themselves to be two-faced or untrustworthy rarely get any sympathy. Peter Pettigrew is best known not as a former friend of Harry’s father, but rather, as the man who betrayed the Potters to Voldemort. Marietta Edgecomb’s betrayal of the DA, Percy Weasley’s decision to turn his back on his family, and Grindelwald’s betrayal of Dumbledore are all taken seriously. Only when characters turn away from the dark side is the decision to turn “traitor” portrayed positively, and only when it is grounded in loyalty to someone or something else. Snape changes sides out of loyalty to Lily, and Sirius “betrayed” his family by choosing Gryffindor and later joining the Order, both of which are portrayed positively. However, Igor Karkaroff was only trying to save his own skin when he betrayed the Death Eaters, and it doesn’t earn him any sympathy.

Can loyalty be taken to an unhealthy extreme? Yes, and its name is Bellatrix Lestrange. She is unfailingly – and even selflessly – loyal to Voldemort, but it doesn’t make her a better person. She is simply deranged and bloodthirsty and latching onto someone just as evil as her. In a similar way, Chastity Barebone from Fantastic Beasts is fanatically loyal to her mother, unlike her two siblings, and is by far the least sympathetic of the three. Her inability to question the Second Salemers’ cruelty is not in any way a redeeming trait.

In other words, loyalty should not be blind or unquestioning. We should choose our loyalties carefully and make sure the person or cause is deserving. However, loyalty – once given – is a promise that should not be broken lightly.

The Virtues of Harry Potter: Redemption

Last week, I talked about mercy as one of the virtues that shape Harry and Dumbledore’s choices. This week I’m going to talk about the flip side of all those second chances.

We all make mistakes. It’s only human nature to do so. However, there are different ways we can handle a wrong choice. We can refuse to admit we were wrong. We can decide it’s too late to turn back. Or we can acknowledge our mistakes and try our best to make them right. That’s not an easy decision to make, and it’s often harder to come back from a poor choice than it would have been to make the right choice in the first place. Truly attempting to atone for the wrong one has done is something that requires integrity and honor.

When it comes to this, the most obvious example most people probably think of is Snape. After Voldemort kills Lily Potter, Snape realizes he was wrong to become a Death Eater and changes sides. He can never bring himself to let go of his hatred for James (and by extension, Harry) or his surly, unpleasant attitude, but in spite of this, he agrees to help Dumbledore protect Harry, and, when Voldemort returns, to work as a spy for the Order of the Phoenix. I know that a lot of people have very strong opinions one way or another on Snape. My personal feeling is that he’s a bad person who did a lot of good things, or perhaps a good person who did a lot of bad things, and that the distinction between those is so blurry it’s hard to say which. But choosing to turn away from Voldemort was undoubtedly the right choice to make.

Snape is hardly the only example of such a change. I always find myself moved strongly by the story of Regulus Black. Regulus was raised to believe in the twisted ideals Voldemort stood for and joined the Death Eaters when he was sixteen years old. And yet, when he discovered the depths of evil Voldemort was willing to descend to, he dedicated himself to bringing him down. He even gave his own life to do so. He could easily have run and tried to hide, or attempted to bury his conscience and continued working for Voldemort. There was nothing self-serving or easy about Regulus’ choice, and it didn’t benefit him, but he did it anyway. There’s something very honorable about that, despite the bad choices that got him there in the first place.

Slughorn is a milder example. He’s not a bad person and never intentionally worked for Voldemort, but he was one of Tom Riddle’s teachers at Hogwarts and doesn’t like to admit that Tom was part of the Slug Club, his little group of favorites. He’s even more ashamed of a truth Harry and Dumbledore don’t manage to unearth until well into Half-Blood Prince: that he unknowingly played a part in Tom’s transformation into Voldemort. He attempts to conceal this information out of fear until Harry convinces him that the brave thing to do is to share what he knows with them. By the final book, however, Slughorn is finally willing to stand up to Voldemort and gathers reinforcements to help the “good guys” win the Battle of Hogwarts.

Even our heroes end up with regrets that push them to do better. Ron, for instance, makes a huge mistake when he walks out on Harry and Hermione in Deathly Hallows. As he tells them later, he wanted to return almost as soon as he had left – and although finding a way back isn’t easy, he arrives just in time to save Harry’s life and help him retrieve Gryffindor’s sword. The trio’s friendship returns as strong as ever, and they are united as they face the final battle with Voldemort.

And I mentioned Dumbledore last week, but it bears repeating: the fact that Harry’s own mentor figure made mistakes of his own in his youth is at first a world-shattering revelation for Harry, until he learns to accept Dumbledore’s imperfection. The whole situation not only explains why Dumbledore is so willing to offer second chances, but also gives credibility to the idea that they can be worthwhile. The remorse that Dumbledore felt over Ariana’s death led him to turn his intelligence and power toward good and to play a major part in the defeat both the most dangerous Dark Wizards present in his lifetime.