There are two scenes in the Harry Potter series when Harry is able to successfully block the mental connection he shares with Lord Voldemort. The first is at the end of The Order of the Phoenix when Voldemort tries to possess him in the Ministry of Magic:
The second is halfway through Deathly Hallows after their escape from Malfoy Manor where Bellatrix Lestrange killed Harry’s friend, the house-elf Dobby. What drives Voldemort out? Initially Harry thinks that it is intense experiences of grief. But then he remembers Dumbledore and thinks that his former headmaster would that it is love.
In the Christian tradition, pride has often been described as the great sin–the sin that comes before all the others. Pride shifts the way we see everything so that it becomes impossible to appreciate anything or enjoy anything for its own sake. We can only see something as it relates to us. As Lewis rightly said, pride’s opposite virtue of humility is not thinking less of one’s self; it’s thinking of one’s self less.
This dynamic of pride and humility can be seen everywhere in the Harry Potter books. Consider the ways Rowling introduces us to two of the series’ most important characters, Draco Malfoy and Neville Longbottom. Draco’s first conversation with Harry concerns status in the wizarding world. “You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort,” Malfoy cautions. “I can help you there.” Even at 11, Draco is concerned only with status, prestige, and power–he’s thinking the way you would expect a future Death Eater to think, in other words.
Neville Longbottom in contrast doesn’t know a thing about status. Like Malfoy, Neville is a pureblood wizard with parents of impressive magical ability. But when we first meet him, Neville doesn’t have time to be worrying about status and prestige: He’s simply trying to find his lost toad, Trevor. Rowling doubles down on the theme of Neville’s forgetfulness in the first book when he receives a Remembrall from his grandmother–a special magical object that glows red when you’ve forgotten something. (It’s worth noting that Harry’s first major fight with Malfoy begins when Draco mocks Neville.)
Yet as he grows we see that this forgetfulness, easily laughed at and forgotten in the first book, is actually the soil out of which Neville’s virtue can grow. When friendship with Harry becomes dangerous, it never occurs to Neville to stop being Harry’s friend. Rather, he becomes the most committed member of the underground student group Dumbeldore’s Army and, when Harry, Hermione, and Ron are absent in the seventh book, he becomes the leader of the movement at Hogwarts.
Neville’s friend–and romantic interest in the movies–Luna Lovegood is similar. In the entire series there are only two examples of a wizard decorating their bedroom with pictures of other wizards and witches. In the Black house in Order of the Phoenix, these pictures show the members of the Black family, one of the last great pureblood families. And when a person goes against the family, as Harry’s godfather Sirius did, they are blasted off the wall. The record of the wall is inward-facing–the people remembered on it are those who uphold the honorable name of the ancient family Black. Luna’s room is the second place we find such a scene, but in her case the purpose and design couldn’t be more different. Luna’s room features the pictures of five other wizards or witches–none of whom come from her family or even her Hogwarts house. Rather, they are simply the five people Luna loves. In the Black images, there is nothing but a concern for the Black family. In Luna’s images, in contrast, there’s nothing of herself at all. The images that Luna sees are those separate from her that she has given herself to in love. And so they are honored on her wall as friends.
Like the other great heroes of the story, Luna has a certain disregard for the opinion of others. But in Luna’s case “disregard” may not even be the right word. “Ignorance of” may be better. It’s not so much that Luna doesn’t care about the beliefs and norms of polite wizarding society; it’s that she isn’t even aware of them. This imperviousness to the outside world makes her socially awkward and gives rise to her nickname “Loony,” but it’s also what allows her to give herself so completely to Dumbledore’s Army and to survive Malfoy Manor in Deathly Hallows.
In still another example of the forgetfulness of love we should consider Hermione Granger’s willingness to share her homework with Ron and Harry. A more superficial reading of the situation would condemn all three members of the trio and, to be sure, that reading isn’t entirely wrong. That said, the contrast between Hermione and the other precocious, brilliant wizard to take Hogwarts by storm, Tom Riddle himself, is stark. Riddle wraps himself in secrets and lies. He attracts a following, but never any friends. And he trusts no one with his deepest secrets. “Only I can live forever,” Voldemort says to Snape.
But that’s not the only thing that Voldemort thinks only he can do. For Voldemort magical power is used to rule and advance oneself; it is never used to serve others. Hermione, in contrast, thinks so little of her cleverness that she doesn’t hesitate to let Ron and Harry benefit from it as well. Here again Rowling tells us a great deal about her character in the first book. When they are going through the various traps to get to the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry begins to praise Hermione, but before he can finish Hermione shrugs it off as little more than “books and cleverness.” The hallmark of humility is that you are more easily impressed by the skills of others than you are by your own–even when your own might be greater. We see that humility in Hermione, a character not generally thought of as being humble, from the very start.
And that, perhaps, should bring us back to Harry. When we are proud, we are sloppy and careless. We think that we know all that is needed and so we make mistakes. The Proverbs liken the man who lacks self control to a city without walls; he is defenseless. But that description is true of more than just the man who lacks self control. It is true of all vice; it renders us defenseless. So it is with Voldemort. His ignorance of magic, his belief that power can only be won or lost through killing, causes him to miss the more subtle magic that causes the Elder Wand to give its loyalty to Harry rather than himself. Harry sees this because Harry is humble enough–forgetful enough, we might say–to pick up the subtleties and magical intricacies that Voldemort misses.
Here, again, the similarity between Voldermort and Tolkien’s great villain Sauron is telling. Both Voldemort and Sauron are undone not by being directly beaten in the field of battle, but by falling victim to their own inability to see. And so we arrive at something like Christ’s beatitudes: The proud man is blind–and so he falls. But the one so forgetful that he doesn’t even remember to think of himself is not only honored; he is also happy.
My wife and I have been listening through the Harry Potter audiobooks over the past few months. I didn’t read them as a child and I’m greatly enjoying them now. Great writing and the type of deep human insights you only find in great stories. Your essays have been illuminating as well.
[…] The Forgetfulness of Love in Harry Potter by Jake Meador at Mere Orthodoxy […]