So, I got asked for another HP interview…
…by a high school student in Houston today.
One of the questions was this: Do you think Rowling made the “dark magic” so easily distinguishable from the rest of the magic to emphasize the theme of good versus evil? And if so, was she successful in conveying this theme?
I feel very much compelled to answer this question (she asked me more questions than time allows to answer), but I suggested this one would be the best one for me to answer. While I’m thinking about it, I’m just going to answer it here.
In HP and the SS, Voldemort says “There is no good and evil; there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.” I think this statement is a good place to start when thinking about this “theme of good vs. evil.” Let’s disregard the speaker for a moment. Who in HP is good? Who is evil? The answer might seem obvious, but let’s back up for a minute.
There are three “sides,” or groups of people, fighting for power in HP. There’s Voldy and the Death Eaters, there’s the Ministry of Magic, and there’s the Order of the Phoenix. We might be tempted to say that the entire thing is Death Eaters vs. Order of the Phoenix, but what about the MoM? What about those witches and wizards who don’t act? What about Cornelius Fudge? Is he evil? Or does he just not want to worry about all the terrible things happening in the world?
We could take Dolores Umbridge as a good example, too, of someone who’s not quite good and not quite evil. She gives me shivers just to think about her, but she’s just following the orders of the Minister of Magic, who is misguided, but not evil. She’s trying to prevent rebellion in her school. She’s trying to prevent kids from making out in school. That doesn’t sound evil. That sounds like what happens in any public school. And yet she’s still super super creepy. Just something to think on. Are your school administrators evil because they refuse to allow you to openly rebel against administration? That’s not what evil means, and yet many people think she IS evil because of this strange notion that there are only two ways to be in this world—“good” or “evil.” And, secondarily, people have that “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” attitude, which causes them to have a simplified view of not just good and evil in HP, but good and evil in the world. Not agreeing with the O of the P does not make people “evil,” just as not agreeing with American foreign policy doesn’t make a person or foreign government “evil.” [Oh, I’ll come back to the much more evil things that Umbridge does in a little bit.]
Think of all the people who just want Harry to turn himself over to Voldemort so that there will be “peace.” Think of the people who neither join the Order or the Death Eaters. I think that’s another rhetorical purpose of HP—to highlight what happens when “good” people do nothing, when they don’t think critically about what their superiors want and what is happening in the world, so long as they go through their lives without harm. This last refers to what Voldemort says about “those too weak to seek” power. Now, I don’t think Harry seeks power, and I think a lot of Dumbledore’s history suggests that seeking power can lead people who are predisposed to evil farther along that evil path, BUT there are also those people in the world who are too “weak” to do anything at all. They’re too weak to stand up against evil.
But, to finally get to the real question: the difference between “dark” and “good” magic? I don’t think there really is a difference between good and evil in terms of magic in HP. So, Avada Kedavra is pretty much the evilest magic that can be done. Aurors, however, are permitted to use AK against Death Eaters. And, though the text doesn’t specifically say so, I’m pretty sure Molly Weasley uses AK to kill Bellatrix Lestrange in HP and the DH. Avada Kedavra is ok if it’s used for “good,” but not for “evil.” Basically, there’s no clear delineation between good and bad magic here.
Let’s talk a bit about dementors and the Patronus charm for a bit.
First: dementors. They’re good when they’re at Azkaban (except that whole Sirius-Black-false-imprisonment thing…yeah…like Guantanamo Bay), but bad when they’re out in the world. No clear delineation between good and bad.
Secondly: Patronus. Good when HP uses it against dementors, but evil when Umbridge uses it to keep herself happy when questioning suspected Muggle-borns. Right? While it’s a good charm in some cases, it is used for evil in another. No clear delineation.
Do you get the picture? Nothing in this world can be good or evil in and of itself. Only in context can we even have an idea of good and evil, but usually it’s oversimplified as I talk about at the very beginning of this piece of writing.
So, again back to the original question: Do I think Rowling was successful in conveying the good-v.-evil thing? No, because I don’t think that theme exists. I thnk Rowling intentionally complicated the idea of good vs. evil because good and evil aren’t a binary. But there is power. There’s power that is used to stand up for human rights, and there’s power that destroys human rights, but oftentimes we get confused about who is good and who is evil. Usually we think that our side is good and the other side is evil. I’m pretty sure the other side thinks the same way. Which is why both opposing football teams pray to the same God on Sunday.