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What's 'Values of Harry Potter' All About?

by Ari Armstrong
April 14, 2011

The release of the Expanded Edition of my book Values of Harry Potter offers a good opportunity for me to walk people through the book.

In the Introduction, I quickly review my own history with the Potter series and introduce the main topics of the original edition. I also summarize my take on the religious themes of J. K. Rowling's novels: "Some people argue that the books should be avoided because they oppose Christianity. Others argue that the books should be read and praised because they promote Christian themes. My claim is that the Christian elements of the Potter books are real but disconnected from the broader moral themes of the books."

Chapter One, "The Heroic Fight for Values," first discusses the major values that Harry Potter and his allies pursue: their lives and the lives of loved ones, their liberty, and their ability to live and work in peace. In contrast, "all the villains achieve is misery and self-destruction;" they destroy the values that make life worth living. The last part of the chapter, "Values in the Face of Death," reviews the stories of Lily protecting Harry with her life, Dumbledore doing the same for Draco, and Harry confronting Voldemort thinking he'll die in the process. I argue that these cases, too, illustrate the heroes acting heroically for their values.

Chapter Two, "Independence: Mark of the Hero," explores the virtue of independence in Rowling's heroes and the vice of dependence (or, to invoke Ayn Rand's term, second-handedness) in the villains. Independence in this context means approaching "all of life…according to one's own considered judgment of the facts," not "ignoring others, disdaining them, avoiding their company, or rejecting their help." Key examples of the second-handed approach are the Dursleys and Gilderoy Lockhart. The section, "Second-Handers and Power," discusses how power-lusters such as Minister Fudge, Dolores Umbridge, and Voldemort himself embody the second-hand mentality. By contrast, the heroes of the novels, particularly Dobby, Hermione, and Harry, maintain a fierce independence.

Chapter Three, "Free Will: 'It Matters Not What Someone Is Born,'" considers the similarities and differences between Harry and Voldemort. "Rowling shows that choice is key" to the very different paths they travel. The chapter also reviews the cases of Sirius Black and Severus Snape as illustrations of the power of free will. However, free will also has its limits, and the chapter explores these as well, as illustrated by the cases of Ariana (Dumbledore's sister), Merope (Voldemort's mother), and the house elf Kreacher.

Chapter Four, "The Clash of Love and Sacrifice," grows more critical. Is Lily's act of protecting Harry an example of sacrificial love in the Christian tradition? Invoking the wisdom of Aristotle, I argue that it is not; instead, Lily acts to protect her most cherished value. Though Rowling herself injects Christian symbolism into her stories, her characters actually show that they act in pursuit of their own values, and calling that "sacrifice" makes little sense. The chapter also considers the cases of Ron "sacrificing" himself on the chess board, Harry rescuing his enemies, and Dumbledore caring for his sister.

Chapter Five, "Materialism and Immortality," examines the significance of the Horcrux, an object of great evil. Central to the plot of the novels is Harry's quest to destroy Voldemort's Horcruxes. I argue that, while Rowling suggests belief in an immortal soul is necessary for virtue, her characters actually demonstrate otherwise.

For the Conclusion to the original edition, "Mischief Managed," I discuss Rowling's work as an example of Romantic literature. I argue, "The deeper magic of Harry Potter flows through our world, too."

Part Three: Additional Essays consists of eight essays new to the Expanded Edition.

The Psychology of Harry Potter reviews Rowling's experience with depression and relates it to the dementors of the novels. The essay goes on to explore the psychological significance of boggarts, the Mirror of Erised, the Resurrection Stone, and the scar that Voldemort gives Harry.

Wizard Law and Segregation reviews the various roles that government plays in the novels. In brief, the government protects wizards from harm, oppresses other races (which the heroes condemn), and regulates various behaviors. Notably, Rowling creates a world in which wizards forcibly segregate themselves from Muggles, something that seems at odds with Rowling's broader themes of political liberty.

News Media in Harry Potter counters criticism of the novels' treatment of journalism. I argue that Rowling actually presents a "constructive view of journalism within the series." I conclude, "The novels encourage readers to critically examine claims, regardless of their source, for internal consistency and adherence to the facts. Most importantly, the series urges readers to fight for the truth."

The final five essays review The Tales of Beedle the Bard, contrast Rowling's use of magic with the magic of fantasy writers J. R. R. Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander, recount "Harry Potter's Lessons for Muggle Politicians," discuss some similarities between Rowling and Ayn Rand, and review the Potter films.

If this seems interesting to you, I invite you to read my entire book!

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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.