The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters: Choices and Abilities

I don’t know about you, but I just love quotes. One of the joys I get from reading is finding the line in the entire book that sums up the theme, plot, character development, or moral tone.

The best wisdom in the world comes from good teachers.

The best wisdom in the world comes from good teachers.

In the second book of the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore tells Harry, “It is our choices, . . . that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” I really enjoy this line, and I think this probably one of the most important quotes in the series. Although I believe our desires and our intentions probably best show us for who we are, the ultimate measure of our hearts is our choices and actions. And Harry illustrates this maxim in the series. 

However, Harry does not always make the best choices. He breaks rules and lies to his teachers, many of whom wink at Harry’s flagrant defiance of school order. Indeed, Dumbledore utters the above quote after reminding the young wizard of the latter’s deliberate, though noble, disregard for school rules, an offense deserving expulsion. Instead, the headmaster rewards the boy rather than punish him. This seeming blind-eye toward law and order is one of the two reasons why some conservative critics seem to hate the series. To them, it is as if the presence of magic is bad enough, but Harry totally ignores the legal structure of his institution and society without proper punishment, even if he has to break rules to rescue the school or his friends. Such a philosophy is dangerous for child readers, and therefore the books should be banned.

Yes, I admit that Harry breaks rules without any regard for authority; his penchant for disobedience and lying bothers me. But he does eventually get into trouble and is subsequently punished, sometimes with repentance and remorse on Harry’s part. More importantly, the books address a hard question that even many conservatives find difficult to answer: should we obey authority when it violates our conscience and values?

Throughout the series, Harry many times breaks rules because because the school or his friends are in danger. Essentially, he cares more for the lives of his classmates and friends to risk expulsion and death to save them. In the first book, he tells his friends that he would rather be expelled than allow Voldemort retrieve the Philosopher’s Stone. In the second book, he rescues Ginny from the Heir of Slytherin under the same premonitions. And he almost dies in both attempts. This trend continues throughout the series, and Harry finally as to make his most difficult decision at the end of book seven.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. tells his audience of clergymen that he is in prison because he conducted an illegal demonstration against laws he believed to be unjust. Yet, King never admits that he does not deserve his incarceration. In fact, he welcomes it, stating he felt compelled to break unjust laws even if doing so would lead to his imprisonment. Now, Hogwart’s school rules are not unjust, but Harry clearly understands the consequences of his actions if he violates them. He, like King, feels compelled to break rules because a higher value at risk—the integrity of his school and the lives of his friends. However, his acknowledgment of the consequences themselves reveal his moral compass and his consideration of the importance of rules.

It’s amazing how a simple hat led to such an identity crisis.

So, the books actually accomplish a difficult balancing act: they illustrate the importance of upholding and obeying law and order and show us that we might one day have to, in the words of Dumbledore again, “make a choice between what is right and what is easy.” Harry knows the difference, and he asks the Sorting Hat not to place him in Slytherin House. Salazar Slytherin and Tom Riddle would have broken rules for their own gain, and many students in Slytherin, including Draco Malfoy, would walk over anyone to achieve their ends. But Harry embraces “bravery and friendship” (Another quote! This time from Hermione!) and acknowledges the consequences of his choices. His decision to refuse the Hat’s recommendation shows us more about his character than his ability in magic could ever tell us. 

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Posted on June 13, 2013, in Children's Literature, Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling, Stephen Parish, The Harry Potter Series and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Remember, also, that Harry’s best friend is Ginny’s brother Ron.

    The Bible does have an account of someone who chose the difficult over the easy: Rahab, in Joshua. She could have told the soldiers that Joshua’s spies were on her roof. She instead hid them and sent them off in a different direction. Rahab knew what was coming and chose to shelter the spies. She is recorded in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1).

    • You’re quite right on both comments. It’s a testament to Harry’s friendship to Ron that he saves the latter’s sister.

      I perfectly agree with the Rahab situation. It’s like the story of Corrie Ten Boom who was asked by a Nazi if she owned a wireless radio (which was illegal and which she did own). She looked straight in his face and said, “No.” She later remarked that lying was really easy. But in the circles I grew up in, my religious leaders would have said that Rahab and Ten Boom should have told the truth–or at least they had no absolute answer as to what to do in a given situation. The point comes down to acknowledging consequences. I’m sure Rahab and Ten Boom knew the repercussions of their actions, and Ten Boom had to face hers. My comments about Harry’s tough choices reflect the difficulty even peoples of faith, like Rahab and Ten Boom, have to face, and I believe that some Christians fail to acknowledge situations in which even they must choose between their religious standards and personal convictions.

      • Some Christians are new believers, who have not grown enough in the faith to make that kind of distinction yet. But your point is accurate: there are standards of faith, and there are personal convictions.

  2. Harry’s distrust of adults (leading to him constantly lying and disobeying them) probably has to do with his childhood at Privet Drive. When he’s had to take care of everything himself and telling the Dursleys the truth led to being deprived food and possible beatings, it can be understood why he distrusted authority figures; they’ve never been “good” to him.

    My parents rectified this issue with the Potter books by asking what I thought would have happened if Harry had just told McGonagall or Dumbledore (or other adults) what was wrong. While the first book might have ended badly (McGonagall didn’t have that sort of trust in Harry), by the fifth book it was definitely presented as a character flaw of Harry’s, one that it seems Dumbledore encouraged. However, if Harry in OotP had trusted an adult enough to inquire about Sirius instead of going straight to the fireplace, the story might have ended differently.

    • True about the Dursleys. I guess I tend to shy away from psychoanalytical evaluations of texts that I did not consider the averse effects of abuse on Harry’s trust in adults. Thank you for pointing that out to me.

      I completely agree with your insights between the first and the fifth books. While Harry certainly has his problems with trusting adults, the teachers, especially Dumbledore in the fifth book, do not necessarily endear themselves to their students. This is probably as much a character flaw in Dumbledore as it is Harry, and we see the breakdown of the headmaster’s godlike persona, something we readers need to accept Harry’s moral transformation in the seventh book. I think both Harry and Dumbledore learn from their mistakes in the fifth book as their confidence in each other changes for the sixth book (though Harry seems to regress once he learns of Dumbledore’s complete trust in Snape and the headmaster’s rather shady past in the seventh book).

      • I try not to get too far into psychoanalysis; I don’t think I have nearly enough qualifications to do that justice. But I do try to ask why characters act the way they do. The Dursleys must have affected Harry in some way, and the trust issue makes the most sense.

        I completely agree, Dumbledore, especially, has some serious trust issues. Perhaps it has something to do with Grindelwald betraying him. He’s also extremely intelligent, which can make others’ thought processes look juvenile. He could have made some things much easier if he had just bothered to tell someone, anyone.

        I understand Harry’s loss of trust in Dumbledore in the seventh book. Snape’s hatred of Harry is very visible, and Harry has no idea why (you’d think some — Hermione, maybe — would point out his single-minded hatred of Draco as a comparison) so it doesn’t make sense that he should trust him. Dumbledore could have told Harry that Snape loved his mother and protects Harry in the way that he couldn’t protect her. That makes sense, but I don’t think Dumbledore believes in romantic love quite that much.

        Harry also experiences the same thing with Dumbledore that most of us realize at some point about our parents: they don’t know everything, they make mistakes, and they are not omnipotent. He just happens to have that realization at a very inconvenient time. In Harry’s single-minded way he decides that since he didn’t know these small facts, everything he knows about Dumbledore is wrong.

        • Was Dumbledore the headmaster when Lily, James, and Snape were students? I didn’t quite pick up on the Grindewald reference (but I’m also not very far into book #6).

          • Yes. Remus says that he was able to go to Hogwarts because Dumbledore was Headmaster. McGonagall also gained her position as a Transfiguration teacher when Dumbledore became Headmaster, and we know she taught the Marauders. I believe it was around the 1956-57 school year.

  3. Obviously everyone is forgetting that Voldemort had the ability to collect a person’s thoughts and even change the memory of an event. This was a reference to hypnosis. I am aware of chemical hypnosis which the military and others have used. Come read about the characters on my blog and feel free to leave comments. I worked on ideas for the Harry Potter series before it was turned over to the author who goes by the pen name J.K. Rowling. Malfoy is an anagram for “of Amy L”…that is me.

    • Found out that ‘malfoy’ was French for ‘bad faith’. Some in France got rather upset after figuring that one out.

      • That’s interesting that the French were so upset. Malfoy himself is definitely English and Rowling uses the name to represent the Malfoys’ character, not their heritage. Most of Rowling’s characters’ names, for that matter, have heavy symbolism attached to their names.

        • Flyingbug@yahoo.com

          I remember that the name for Harry’s godfather (Sirus Black) had something to do with astronomy….Black was an animagus (a wizard who could turn himself into an animal); his animagus was a large black dog.

        • Harry’s godfather’s name seems to borrow from astronomy. Sirus Black was also an animagus (a wizard who could change into an animal).

          Other than that and Malfoy, I don’t recall anything particularly symbolic about anyone’s names.

          The incantations, however, seem to borrow heavily from Latin.

          • Many of the names have symbolism. For instance, the meaning of the flower “petunia” is “bitterness.” “Minerva” is the Roman goddess of wisdom. “Albus” means “white.” You can find many of the meanings online through Mugglenet or on the Harry Potter Lexicon. I’d recommend “The Unoffical Guide to Harry Potter” if you prefer a book source; they cover a lot of the hidden meanings.

          • Mugglenet.com is an extremely useful and insightful website about “behind-the-scenes” information about the books and films. Here’s the direct link to the names page:
            http://www.mugglenet.com/books/name_origins.shtml

            Hope this helps!

    • The French protested Malfoy’s name after they translated it: bad faith.

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