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The Demands of Love in Harry Potter

January 23rd, 2015 | 5 min read

By Jake Meador

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (#6)

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In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Fleur Delacouer, a student from a French school of magic visiting Hogwarts, says that her school would never tolerate the silliness that is commonplace at Hogwarts: “eef a poltergeist ever entaired into Beauxbatons, ‘e would be expelled like that!”

JK Rowling’s series is filled with characters unusual not only for their characteristics, but for the way they are welcomed at Hogwarts.

Some of these are marginal characters–the schools many ghosts come quickly to mind. Others are much more important to the story. One teacher is a former Death Eater–a supporter of Voldermort, the main villain of the series. And yet he is welcomed at Dumbledore’s Hogwarts. Another teacher was expelled from the school when he was a student but allowed to stay  at Hogwarts and work as their gamekeeper. Still another is a werewolf, something of an untouchable in wizarding society yet he too is warmly received at Hogwarts.

Similarly, a certain amount of unusual behavior is also tolerated. Fred and George Weasley, the older brothers of one of the series’ protagonists, are the frequent culprits here as they are consummate jokers. Over the course of the series they play a variety of pranks on students and teachers, ranging from giving their friends candies that temporarily turn them into canaries to more serious “violations” like turning a section of the school into a swamp.

Yet for all the imprecision, chaos, and oddity that marks Hogwarts, there is an order to it, else the school wouldn’t function. But it’s the nature of that order that merits close attention. It’s not loose per se. Minerva McGonnagall, one of Rowling’s most enjoyable characters who is played by the delightful Maggie Smith in the movies, is a strict disciplinarian. And when students are given detention or some other form of punishment, it is enforced. But standing behind this order at Hogwarts is the thing Dumbledore speaks of in nearly every extended monologue Rowling gives him: love. And this love causes the school to adopt a radically different order than that of the world outside Hogwarts where the technocratic, bureaucratic Ministry of Magic rules. (Spoilers below the jump)

The 10 Commandments and the Ten Thousand

GK Chesterton once said that if men will not be governed by the ten commandments, they will be governed by the 10,000. In other words, there are two ways for a society to structure itself: The method more common to we moderns uses laws, rules, codes, and procedures to protect against every possible eventuality. Everything must be counted, measured, controlled, and regulated. Only then can order be made or sustained.

The latter approach, one virtually unknown to most westerners though it still lives on in some small towns, relies on shared knowledge, affections, history, and relationships to maintain order in a fairly informal, organic model that isn’t easy to codify or regulate.

The first approach is the way of control grounded in the belief that no society can practice or even understand virtue en masse and they need a small group of elites to control them. The latter approach is the way of love. It’s what Wendell Berry has written about in his Port William novels, where relationships are maintained through informal bonds rather than signed contracts. It’s also what governs the community at St Anne’s set against the technocrats of Belbury in CS Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. And you see the beauty of this approach quite clearly throughout the Harry Potter books.

Umbridge as N.I.C.E. Apparatchik

The clearest contrast between the way of love and the way of coercion is seen in Dumbledore and book five villain Dolores Umbridge. Yet Rowling had played with the contrast between the two ways earlier in the series. Indeed, when she first introduces Umbridge she goes out of her way to emphasize her likeness to Uncle Vernon–neither of them have a neck. (Uncle Vernon himself wants to be protected by the Ministry rather than the Order of the Phoenix when we meet him for the final time in Deathly Hallows.)

So here we see another manifestation of the blindness that we discussed previously with the Dursleys. Umbridge is unable to see anything save what is in front of her. And so she is unable to imagine a world governed by anything other than fiat handed down by a powerful body equipped with the weapon of coercion. It’s telling that Umbridge is the only professor at Hogwarts who is ever described as talking down to the students. For Umbridge, she and the Ministry are the authorities trusted with making sure the plebeian masses at Hogwarts don’t do anything the Ministry thinks thy shouldn’t.

Consequently, it’s no surprise that Albus Dumbledore remains incomprehensible to her. She doesn’t understand that Dumbledore is opposed to the entire orientation of the Ministry–she can’t imagine any other way of living. She can’t even hold in her mind the possibility that someone capable of ruling would voluntarily choose not to. Rather, she thinks Dumbledore is simply bitter that it is Fudge and not himself in the minister’s office. In this respect, she is like Tolkien’s Sauron, who only imagines that his rivals would attempt to possess and control the One Ring for their own devices. It never even occurs to him that they might desire to destroy it; that they might reject the way of life implied by the Ring.

Dumbledore’s Patient Hope

It’s this same small-mindedness that explains why Umbridge is so merciless and Dumbledore so merciful. The reason Dumbledore gives his students freedom and doesn’t rule over Hogwarts with an iron fist is that he knows what they can become. Dumbledore understands what Lewis said in The Weight of Glory, that every single student at Hogwarts might grow into something splendid or horrifying.*

So Dumbledore waits patiently in hope that his students will mature into witches and wizards marked by love and compassion rather than a lust for power and control. And he hopes that those who possess power by virtue of their considerable talents–Riddle comes to mind, though so does Hermione Granger–will recognize that power is only wielded justly when it is shaped and guided by love. And even with those students who do turn bad, Dumbledore holds out hope that they might yet be redeemed. He recognizes in Severus Snape what few others did, that for all his flaws, Severus was able to love Lilly Evans. And so he held out hope that Snape’s love for her might be the means of his renewal–which is precisely what happens. To live by the 10 commandments is to live by the law of love, which is to live with patience and hope for our neighbor.

* Dumbledore knows from experience that the students with the greatest talent are, contra the ministry, often the most dangerous of all. For Dumbledore the ability to see one’s strength and judge it sufficient to rule others is the greatest disqualification from any position of power or influence. He saw it in himself as he looked back on his youthful friendship with Voldemort’s predecessor, Grindelwald, and he saw it again in the remarkably gifted wizard Tom Riddle. As he says to Harry in one book, echoing the wisdom of Chesterton, it is only the person who knows they cannot lead that is qualified to do so.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).