I was wondering what other HP fans on my flist think of this article:
“J.K. Rowling’s towering achievement lacks the cornerstone of almost all great children’s literature: the hero’s moral journey. Without that foundation, her story – for all its epic trappings of good versus evil – is stuck in a moral no man’s land.”
Personally, I feel it’s dead wrong, but I can’t quite put my finger on why.
Published by Nancy E. Shaffer
NANCY E. SHAFFER has been an experimental psychologist (M.A., Cognitive Psychology, Rice University), a philosopher (Ph.D., History and Philosophy of Science, University of California, Davis), and software developer. She taught history and philosophy of science at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec and the University of Nebraska Omaha.
Her philosophical work has appeared in the journal Philosophy of Science and her pop-culture philosophy website, All Things Philosophical on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: the Series.
Dis/inhbition is her first novel.
She currently resides in Tempe, Arizona.
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19 thoughts on “No hero’s journey for Harry?”
I think it (the article) is bad boy redemption syndrome all over – being good isn’t good enough unless you’ve been evil first. Harry isn’t redeemed he grows up, which to me is the more interesting, if less melodramatic, process.
I think what bugs is that Harry learns and grows emotionally, and in terms of personal strength, so much as the years progress. He finds his inner strength and learns finally to take the lead himself in the final book without his mentor’s help. That is less melodramatic than if he’d started out more morally ambiguous than he did, but does it make him less a hero? I don’t think so.
I agree with you; it’s wrong. There’s certainly a moral journey: Harry realizes that being good, being bad, and being evil are personal choices. As he grows older, he struggles with the fear that little separates him from Voldemort, but by the end of the 5th book he’s finally learned that people are what they choose to be. It’s in OotP that he physically struggles with Voldemort’s evil (via his connection with V, and in the climactic possession), and ultimately decides that he’s in charge of his own morality and destiny.
As Harry ages, his connection with V deepens – I would argue that’s because understanding evil as such is a function of maturity; as Harry matures, he begins to not just recognize but understand evil, and react to it – and a great deal of the later books deal as much with Harry’s inner battle with the choice between good and evil as it does with his external battles with Voldemort. I think the real climaxes come at the end of OotP, when he expells V from his mind and body, and at the end of DH (which I won’t go into here for the sake of the unspoiled).
Erm – make that “as they do” rather than “as it does.” Sigh.
Well, I do agree to some extent that Snape’s story was more interesting than Harry’s. Honestly, I was only reading the books after a certain point to find out whether Snape was good or evil. I didn’t care about Harry vs. Voldemort because I figured that was a foregone conclusion.
I don’t agree that the lack of a moral in a story spells the doom of western civilization. I also don’t think that HP lacks a moral generally. It has a very strong social justice/anti-bigotry theme running throughout it. And even though I don’t personally find him as compelling a character, I do think that Harry matured as the books went on.
I think my disappointment with the book is that Harry didn’t really struggle with the deathly hallows issue. It’s there for about two pages, but he never really is drawn into it. And the issue of lying with the goblin is not very deep. His choices were too easy.
I think that’s right on. I believe at the end of the second book there is a conversation between Harry and Dumbledore along those lines. Harry has noticed how much he has in common with Tom Riddle (Voldemort), and this worries him. Dumbledore points out its not Harry’s skills that matter in the end, it’s his choices.
Harry doesn’t always make the best choices, but in the final analysis, he makes the right ones, and that’s the moral of the books, IMO.
I think Rowling had two different agendas with Harry and Snape, both equally valid, both important ways of expressing different kinds of hero’s journeys. To call one more valid than the other is to buy into certain mythological models (Joseph Campbell, anyone?) as being *the* way we should set our moral compass. And that’s just too simplistic.
Why is it wrong?
Well, let’s start with her statement that Lord of the Rings is a children’s classic. Has that ninny ever read Lord of the Rings? I would advise anyone under the age of 15 or 16 to put off reading it, cause it ain’t for children at all! If this woman wants to talk about fantasy needing a moral, then she better get her terms straight. What is the moral of Treasure Island? Let the murderous pirate go? What is the moral of Tom Sawyer? Never trust an Injin?
I spent a nice chunk of my life reading Soviet hacks complain because this or that work was stuck in social no-man’s land. People trying to define art by how it fulfills there personal whims are losers, pure and simple. The more they affect how others look at whatever kind of art the more we all lose.
I think Rowling had two different agendas with Harry and Snape, both equally valid, both important ways of expressing different kinds of hero’s journeys.
Totally agree. Heck, I haven’t read all the books but even I can see that Snape’s journey is different, not more important, than Harry’s. They’re both fascinating, and while I’m more interested in reading up on Snape’s, this is only because I’ve already seen most of Harry’s via the movies. JKR’s books don’t lack a moral story just because Harry’s journey isn’t about redemption — that’s putting unnecessary limits on what a “moral” story can be.
Eh, too many double negatives.
You know what I mean.
I read that and I agree that it’s dead wrong.
She uses Tolkien’s LotR as an example of ‘Great Children’s Literature’ for one. It is not children’s literature. The Hobbit is, and if one examines the hero’s moral journey in it one finds Bilbo who began as a thief and ends as a thief. No moral journey happened there — his biggest dilemma is trying to figure out how to get out of his obligation, realizing he can’t and grudgingly staying.
She asserts that the moral journey is a requisite for the hero as if struggling against great odds has no weight at all. To stay with LotR, Frodo never had a moral journey as such — not once he determined to carry the ring to its destruction. His struggle was against the weight of the task he’d taken on and the strength of the opposition. In fact, as far as the moral journey is concerned, at the end he failed, choosing to keep the ring. It was Gollum’s intervention that completed the task.
In OotP, Harry learns that his confrontation with Voldemort is inevitable, and that he may very well die as a result. No, he doesn’t falter in his determination. He believes that he may be the one hope of defeating Voldemort. He doesn’t waiver even against some fairly formidable odds, and in the end has the courage to do what Frodo did not: see it through. His struggle was not internal, but the hero’s struggle really doesn’t have to be in my opinion.
As far as Snape being the one to have the great hero’s moral journey? No. Just no — imo, of course. Yes, he had a difficult path to follow, one he chose for selfish reasons — originally to save Lily’s life which he couldn’t. (Had Snape been their Secret-Keeper would he have given them away if Voldemort had promised him Lily in exchange? I’m not certain he wouldn’t). Lily died and the only thing left of her was her son, so he agreed to work to keep Harry alive. But as far as moral journeys go? He was a right nasty git and he remained a one. Even if it was necessary for him to show favoritism towards the Slytherins and to show dislike of the Gryffindors, it was not necessary for him to be utterly cruel, to come close to demolishing what little self-esteem Neville had (there’s a journey), and in being utterly unable to recognize that Harry was not James — again imo — responsible for Harry’s failure at occlumens. This is not moral growth, this is moral stagnation. Do I like Snape as a character? Absolutely. Would I want to know him? Not at all. Snape’s redeeming quality as a person is that he was capable of love, and that he allowed his love for Lily to drive him to doing a good thing, sticking to it even when it becomes most difficult. I’m afraid that I see his protection of Harry as a selfish move — one that lets him believe that if Lily knew she’d approve. As compelling a character as he may be, and redeemed villains often are or there’s no point in bothering to redeem them, he doesn’t have a ‘great moral journey’.
The main thing about the essay is that there are things being presented as ‘givens’ that aren’t. E.g., the assertion that the first principle of storytelling is that is must be about someone who changes, That someone on the right path, no matter how difficult that path is cannot be a true hero because they weren’t a reluctant hero. While is an assertion that certainly supports her conclusion, it’s not necessarily a valid one. Snape may indeed be the most reluctant of reluctant heroes, but to say at the end “he loved Lily and that makes him a great man who was only cruel by necessity”? I don’t buy it. I did believe at the end of HBP that he was on the side of good but I never once thought it made him a nice person. I rather thought that it meant that, being deep undercover, he’d have to do reprehensible things in order to maintain his position close to Voldemort, but that he wouldn’t have that much difficulty doing some of them. And that is not my definition of ‘hero’.
So, in conclusion after all that tl:dr, the essay feels wrong to me because it’s based on assertions that are being made solely because they support the conclusion the author wants to make.
The author asks “What Was Harry’s struggle? Exactly.”
Wow, how short-sighted. How about the struggle to see people as people rather than idealized heroes or villains? How about his struggle to be a good person despite all the bad things that happen to him (in fact, as a “moral” this message about how children should react to, essentially, abuse, molestation and mistreatment is somewhat disturbing)?
Also, the author seems to evaluate Harry’s “moral” journey purely from the narrative of book 7. Where was she during the PoA, when Harry had to chose between revenge or kindness? Where was she during GoF when he wrestled with concept of cheating? Where was she in OofP, when he allowed his anger and grief to drive a wedge between himself and his best friends? Certainly, these issues are not less significant or meaningful than the stupid “Turkish Delight” conflict of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
This author writes, “It’s the hero’s struggle – and costly redemption – that matters.” Well, I’m not sure I agree. I think the author has gotten confused about the difference between having “a moral” and having “the moral I agree with.” From Harry Potter, I see a child growing up and recognizing that the world is neither as simple as good verus evil, nor is entirely relativistic. Yes, there are evil people (such as Voldemort and Bellatrix) who must be stopped, but even they have elements of humanity within them. Even the seemingly best and most good of people (Dumbledore, his father) make mistakes that might seem evil to others. I don’t see where having Harry turn evil before finding redemption would have mattered in the framework of this moral. It is enough that Harry learns to empathize with Draco Malfoy and finds mercy for Wormtail and finally understands Snape.
Exactly. I think if disclude Harry’s as genuine hero’s journey, you’d have to disclude someone like Luke Skywalker as well, and he was one of Campbell’s poster boys.
Right off the bat I distrust any review that talks about modern society’s “moral decline” without any kind of clarification – would that be the modern moral decline as evidenced by religious fundamentalism, consumerism and anti-intellectualism? Or is she talking about some sort of good old days where everyone knew their place, which was below the people in power?
Also I think the reviewer’s mistaking the medium for the message with the series. Good vs. evil is the framework but the real story is about growing up and changing. Can people grow and change? Can the past be overcome? Harry learning compassion isn’t as dramatic as redemption perhaps but it’s a valid storyline. And one that’s a pretty good moral lesson too.
People find the bad-boy redemption stories more flashy and sexy, but I’ve always been drawn to the stories of the characters who are quite ordinary people and find their inner hero. That’s why I like Harry best.
Re: Oh, Lord!
We are all going to be a little biased in our personal enjoyment of works of literature by which way their moral compass points. Some of my favorite books as a kid, read again as an adult, are bleeding red with their socialist pov, I now realize.
But it’s another thing entirely to use one’s personal yardstick as the measure by which you’ll recommend literature to someone else.
Snape was cruel because he wanted to be. I agree. That’s part of what made him interesting and three dimensional–that he had this huge, and I think, heroic burden that he managed for years without Rowling giving him sufficient credit in the text, *and* Snape was a nasty, unforgiving cur who couldn’t get past the superficial James in Harry on top of it.
I haz Harry Potter clock!!
I agree. Harry’s story isn’t *about* redemption, and to judge it as unworthy because it’s not about *that theme* is just…on some kind of bad crack. Growing up and seeing the world for its complicated self, and finding one’s inner strength, those are the themes Rowling is exploring in the character of Harry himself.
Good vs. evil is the framework but the real story is about growing up and changing. Can people grow and change? Can the past be overcome? Harry learning compassion isn’t as dramatic as redemption perhaps but it’s a valid storyline. And one that’s a pretty good moral lesson too.
Absolutely. It makes me wonder if the author’s hopelessly stuck in some academic framework, or maybe she just didn’t read the books.