Warning: major Fantastic Beasts spoilers
Is he dead? Is he alive?
A question asked aloud, another whispered
A truthful answer and a lie
A curse that can’t quite take hold of its victim
Then they celebrate what they believe to be
The boy who lived, the boy who died
No one knows the truth of his sacrifice
But his heart beats on as he lies
In the arms of the man who brought him home as a child
What will you do now that all hope is gone?
Will you give up the fight you’ve fought for so long?
Or will you stand where Harry stood
And fight for what is right and good
Will you stand strong?
He was the chosen one, but we all have a choice
Do we choose what is easy and give up the fight
Or stand up and do what is right?
A hero never truly dies
Even if his heartbeat fades
Death cannot erase
The things he fought for in his time
So stand and fight, defend the school
Defend all that it stands for
The boy who lived is by our side
And what he died for cannot die
He throws off his cloak and shows himself
And his heart beats on and on
He shouts his spell and waves his wand
And so the war is won
He is the chosen one
But it was those who stood strong
And chose right over easy or wrong
And lent their skills, their hearts, their voice
Who set the stage and paved the way
For the boy who lived to save the day
He is the chosen one
But we all have a choice
“Dark and difficult times lie ahead of us. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” – Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
It’s easy to do what’s right when what’s right is also easy, but doing the right thing isn’t always easy, and it’s worth doing anyway. That’s a valuable lesson to learn, and one that certainly applies to real life just as much as it does to the world of Harry Potter. But it’s more than just a quote with a good message. It’s a theme that’s woven throughout the series in the journey of every single character. (At least, every character with enough of a conscience not to do the wrong thing just for its own sake. Voldemort, Bellatrix, and Umbridge are their own special category.)
Harry has to choose between what’s right and what’s easy in every single book, and he always chooses the former. When he goes after the troll to save Hermione, when he fights a basilisk to save Ginny, and when he travels back in time to save Sirius, he is choosing the right thing over the much easier alternative of simply doing as he’s told and letting events unfold without him. Likewise, Ron and Hermione often make those choices alongside him. As the series goes on, he seems to have less of a choice – Voldemort wants him dead – but even then, he chooses to fight him. Near the end of Deathly Hallows, when Aberforth encourages him, Ron, and Hermione to flee the country rather than face Voldemort, they refuse to even consider it. And, of course, running away might become even more tempting once he realizes he has to die in order for Voldemort to become mortal, but Harry is willing to lay down his life to protect his friends, just as his mother sacrificed herself to save him. That’s not an easy choice to make.
Order of the Phoenix is all about the choice between what’s right and what’s easy. It’s what separates the Order from the Ministry of Magic and Dumbledore’s Army from the Inquisitorial Squad. It’s easy for Fudge to deny that Voldemort is back; it would be much harder to admit the truth. It’s easy for the Daily Prophet to publish whatever “news” will sell and scandalize, but harder for Harry and those who support him to speak the truth when the Ministry is actively trying to silence them. It’s much harder for the Order to fight against Voldemort when they find themselves at odds with the magical government as well, and Dumbledore’s Army likewise refuses to let themselves be unprepared for the coming war. The DA’s insistence on doing the right thing even when it’s not easy becomes even more obvious in Deathly Hallows, when they spend the year fighting back against the Death Eaters who now run Hogwarts and fight on Harry’s side in the final battle.
Everyone at Hogwarts has to choose between what’s right and what’s easy in the final battle: to evacuate or stay and defend the castle, to hand Harry over to Voldemort or fight on his side, and eventually, to surrender or keep fighting once Harry appears to be dead. Nothing says choosing what’s right over what’s easy like Neville telling Voldemort “I’ll join you when hell freezes over”, pulling the Sword of Gryffindor out of the hat, and chopping off the head of Voldemort’s monstrous snake, Nagini, right there in front of everyone, especially not when – as far as he knows – Harry is already dead.
I think it’s interesting that the movie-makers chose to contrast his actions with those of Draco Malfoy, a character who consistently chooses the easy path, rather than the right one or even the wrong one. He doesn’t kill Dumbledore, but nor does he accept Dumbledore’s offer to protect him. Later, in Deathly Hallows, he pretends not to recognize Harry, but he doesn’t do anything to help him escape. In both cases, he does nothing and simply allows others to act. Draco is not in the book version of the scene where Voldemort announces Harry’s “death”, and I’m not a big fan of the awkward hug, but going back over to join his parents does seem consistent with his character and emphasizes that standing up to a powerful Dark Lord who seems to have already won is not an easy thing to do.
There are many characters who make the easy choice, some more sympathetic than others. Of course, that’s largely a matter of personal opinion, but I think few people would argue that Peter Pettigrew’s betrayal of Lily and James Potter was anything other than vile and cowardly, while on the other hand, Xenophilius Lovegood’s decision to turn Harry in was very complicated due to the fact that Voldemort was holding his daughter hostage. Many more characters struggle with making the harder, better choice, like Professor Slughorn, who initially gives Dumbledore a false memory, not because he wants to protect Voldemort, but because he is ashamed of having unknowingly helped young Tom Riddle become Voldemort. The amount of nuance is surprisingly deep for a children’s series, but I love it. I think it’s important to understand that not everything is black and white, without downplaying the importance of trying to do the right thing.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that it seems harder to make the right choice after having already made the wrong one; the consequences and risks become much greater. Take Regulus Black, for instance. He joined the Death Eaters as a teenager and quickly realized it wasn’t what he had expected it to be. When he found out just how far Voldemort had gone, he did the right thing, but it cost him his life. Likewise, Snape made many wrong choices as a young man, and it wasn’t until he found out he had inadvertently put Lily’s life in danger that he began trying to do the right thing. The Harry Potter books certainly don’t send a message that morality is black and white or that you can never come back from your mistakes, even very serious ones. On the contrary, many characters do, including Dumbledore himself, who made mistakes of his own in his youth. However, they do seem to say that it takes great courage to do so, and that it’s never easy.
Most people are not Voldemort. There may be some, both in fiction and reality, who care so little about right and wrong that they would hurt other people for no reason at all, but I think that most people would rather do the right thing when we can, and yet sometimes struggle with it. It’s easy to tell the truth if you have nothing to hide. It’s easy to be brave if you’re not afraid. It’s easy to stand up for what you believe in if everyone around you agrees. It’s when doing the right thing is the hardest choice to make that things get difficult, and it’s in those moments that our character is truly tested.
I’m re-reading Goblet of Fire right now, and a thought occurred to me earlier today: what if the Triwizard Tournament was actually foreshadowing the events of Deathly Hallows? That might sound far-fetched, but consider this: the three horcruxes that Harry and his friends spend most of Deathly Hallows searching for – Slytherin’s locket, Hufflepuff’s cup, and Ravenclaw’s diadem – are all found and destroyed in ways that mirror the three tasks of the Triwizard Tournament, although not in order, and the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort bears striking similarities to the one in Goblet of Fire.
The Second Task: Slytherin’s Locket
The second task sends Harry to the bottom of the Black Lake, and likewise, the first place Harry and Dumbledore look for the locket is in a dark, eerie lake inside a cave. The creatures of the deep there are inferi, not merpeople, and try to kill Harry and Dumbledore rather than simply looking frightening. When Harry, Ron, and Hermione eventually find the real locket, they must descend into the shadowy world of the Ministry of Magic’s underground courtrooms, where they not only retrieve the locket but rescue the Catermole family as well, mirroring Harry’s determination to save the others as well as Ron. And when they finally succeed in destroying the locket, it’s only after Ron has saved Harry from drowning in a frozen pond, an inversion of their roles during the second task.
The Third Task: Hufflepuff’s Cup
Gringotts is maze-like even at the best of times, and no one in their right mind would try to rob it. In order to steal the cup from Bellatrix Lestrange’s vault, Harry and his friends must get past suspicious goblins, Death Eaters, deadly security measures, and even a dragon. Like in the third task, Harry has help from an unreliable source, the fake Mad-Eye Moody in the case of the third task and Griphook the Goblin when he’s attempting to rob Gringotts. And like in the third task, someone at the bank is under the imperius curse, although in this case it’s Harry himself who casts the curse. Besides, do I need to mention that the maze is a race to find the Triwizard Cup, while Harry and his friends are looking for another very important cup at Gringotts?
The First Task: Ravenclaw’s Diadem
The only actual dragon in Deathly Hallows is at Gringotts, but when he goes looking for the diadem, Harry first has to get past Draco Malfoy, whose name literally means “dragon”, and a room full of cursed fire, an element often associated with dragons. Like in the first task, Harry uses his quidditch skills to survive, escaping from the flames on a broomstick and catching the diadem with the skill of a Seeker as it falls through the air. In much the same way, the goal of the first task is to retrieve a golden egg, a job comparable to catching the snitch once Harry summons his Firebolt.
The Graveyard: The Battle of Hogwarts
Harry faces a fully alive, powerful Voldemort for the first time at the end of Goblet of Fire, and for the last time at the end of Deathly Hallows. Once Nagini is dead and the bit of Voldemort’s soul inside Harry has been destroyed, Voldemort is mortal again and can be killed. Like in the final chapters of Goblet of Fire, they each use their signature spell, avada kedavra for Voldemort and expelliarmus for Harry. And like that night in the graveyard, Voldemort’s wand refuses to kill Harry, this time because Harry is the true master of the Elder Wand rather than because of the twin cores of their old wands. Only this time, instead of simply escaping with his life, Harry defeats Voldemort and ends the war.