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.

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The Unlikely Heroes of Harry Potter

One thing that I love about the Harry Potter series is how easy it is to identify with the characters. They jump off the page as if they were real people, with real personalities, problems, and quirks. I’m sure I’m not the only one who sometimes thinks of Hermione, Ron, Neville, and the rest of them as if they were old friends instead of fictional characters. And one thing that makes them seem so lifelike is that they aren’t superheroes. They live in a magical world, perform larger-than-life heroic actions, and that’s part of the escapism of Harry Potter, but the best part is that they’re flawed humans like the rest of us. It’s easy to imagine being in their world, at Hogwarts because it’s easy to put ourselves in the shoes of the characters, or imagine standing among them.

Neville starts out as a clumsy, forgetful boy who keeps losing his pet toad and can barely keep from tripping over his own feet, let alone fly on a broom or cast complicated spells. Luna is a weird outcast with no friends, frequently bullied by her classmates. Ron and Ginny are the youngest in a big family, with hand-me-down clothes and five older brothers’ achievements to live up to. Hermione is a nerdy, bossy girl whose parents are both muggles. And Harry himself had nothing before he came to Hogwarts. He was literally sleeping in the cupboard under the stairs and barely tolerated by his family. All of them grow up to be so much more than that. All of them grow up to be heroes.

It means a lot more to me to see where they begin, see them struggle, and see them grow into the heroes they become, than it would to simply have them be amazing from the start. Part of the magic of the Harry Potter series is that it takes awkward, misfit kids who anyone can relate to and slowly transforms them into the best versions of themselves.