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Harry Potter
and the Nature of Evil

September 1, 2011

by Ari Armstrong

What is the nature of evil as presented in the Harry Potter novels? Author J. K. Rowling presents two essential aspects of evil: its parasitic dependence on the good, and its tendency to self-destruct when opposed by value-seeking individuals.

See also my related video:

Some see Christian theology at play in the presentation of evil in the Harry Potter novels, a viewpoint I downplay in my essay, "Religion In Harry Potter Revisited." I begin to develop an alternative interpretation of the nature of evil in my essay, "The Psychology of Harry Potter," published in the revised edition of my book, Values of Harry Potter. There I write (page 113):

[A]s a psychological symbol, the scar Voldemort gives to Harry represents a person's desire to do evil. This desire is not inborn; it can arise from a deep-seated anger about some injustice or horrible event, an anger that can grow into a generalized malevolence toward the world.

Harry takes on the perspective of Voldemort in his dreams and visions; this is much like someone imagining possible evil acts. What saves a person from enacting such evil is love—love for one's life and values, notably other people.

Here I offer a more generalized account of evil as presented in the novels, one that subsumes the psychological aspects of it. Evil's parasitic dependence on the good, and its tendency to self-destruct in the light of values, applies to external evil as well as the individual's own possible evil.

Consider first how evil fundamentally feeds off the good for its survival in the novels. In Sorcerer's Stone, Voldemort lives off the body of Quirrell, who gives over his body and soul (both inherently or initially good things) to Voldemort's evil purposes. Voldemort also feeds off pure unicorn blood to sustain himself. In Chamber of Secrets, Voldemort takes over the virtuous girl Ginny in his quest to regain his power. In Goblet of Fire, Voldemort reconstitutes himself using dark magic calling for "bone of the father, unknowingly given," "flesh of the servant, willingly given," and "blood of the enemy [Harry Potter], forcibly taken" (pages 641 and 642, altered slightly for readability). In Deathly Hallows, Voldemort's snake possesses the body of Bathilda Bagshot.

Voldemort's Horcruxes too show evil's parasitic dependence on the good. To create the Horcruxes, Voldemort must murder innocent people. A piece of Voldemort's soul lives in Harry Potter, meaning that Voldemort remains alive in part because Harry protects a piece of him.

In addition to feeding off the good for its existence, evil also tends to self-desctruct in the presence of value-seeking individuals. I begin to explore this topic in my book's chapter, "The Heroic Fight for Values." I note, "While Harry and his allies heroically defend the values dear to them, all the villains achieve is misery and self-destruction" (page 21). I examine the cases of Quirrell, Peter Pettigrew and the other Death Eaters, and Voldemort himself.

Consider a slew of other more-symbolic examples. Voldemort first loses his power because his curse rebounds on himself in the presence of Lily's love for her son. Near the end of Sorcerer's Stone, we find that "Quirrell... sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch" Harry because of the lasting power of Lily's love; instead Quirrell burns his hands in the attempt (pages 295 and 299).

All of the Horcruxes meet their destruction when evil rebounds upon itself. In Chamber of Secrets, Harry destroys Voldemort's diary with a basilisk fang from Voldemort's pet monster. The Sword of Gryffindor indirectly uses basilisk venom to destroy Horcruxes, because "that sword's impregnated with basilisk venom" from the time when Harry used it to kill the basilisk (see Deathly Hallows page 304). Crabbe unintentionally destroys a Horcrux (and himself) with Fiendfyre.

Voldemort by his own curse even destroys the piece of his own soul carried by Harry (Deathly Hallows page 708). Finally, with all of his Horcruxes destroyed, Voldemort tries one last time to kill Harry. The result? "Voldemort was dead, killed by his own rebounding curse..." (page 744).

Rowling's presentation of evil finds parallels in other traditions, of course. Within Christianity, evil can be said to be parasitic on the good in the sense that God created the fallen angels and human freedom of will, and evil in some way rebels against God. And evil is self-defeating in the story of Satan facilitating the crucifixion of Jesus, which largely destroys Satan's power. But it would be a mistake to think that evil as presented in the Potter novels merely tracks and represents evil as treated in Christian theology. Evil truly is parasitic and self-destructive, so it comes as no surprise that various traditions pick up those themes in different ways.

Ayn Rand presents the nature of evil in a way that closely resembles its treatment by Rowling:

Evil, not value, is an absence and a negation, evil is impotent and has no power but that which we let it extort from us. ... I saw that evil was impotent—that evil was the irrational, the blind, the anti-real—and that the only weapon of its triumph was the willingness of the good to serve it. ... [I]t was the good, the able, the men of reason, who act as their own destroyers, who transfuse to evil the blood of their virtue and let evil transmit to them the poison of destruction, thus gaining for evil the power of survival... I saw that there comes a point, in the defeat of any man of virtue, when his own consent is needed for evil to win... (Atlas Shrugged, Dutton 1992, pages 1024 and 1048)

Just as Voldemort ultimately destroys himself in the Harry Potter novels, so the villains destroy themselves in Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

Because so much of the evil in the Potter novels ties into the fantasy backdrop, such as the rebounding curses and the Horcruxes, aspects of those novels must be interpreted more symbolically. In the real world, an evil person cannot literally live inside somebody else, as Voldemort in some sense lives within Quirrell and Harry. Obviously evil people do not actually destroy themselves by casting curses that rebound in the presence of love. In these cases Rowling's presentation of the nature of evil illuminates human psychology. We have the ability to keep within us evil dispositions, then to subdue those dispositions by leading a value-filled life encompassing loving relationships with others.

Whether we look at evil as others' hateful destruction of values or as an internal potentiality, Rowling's novels offer rich insights into how evil survives and how we can defeat it.

Want more in-depth analysis of Harry Potter? Order
Ari Armstrong's Values of Harry Potter: Lessons for Muggles.

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This book is a work of literary criticism. It has not been prepared, authorized, or endorsed
by J. K Rowling or anyone else associated with the Harry Potter books or movies.