If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.1
“So, when the prophecy says that I'll have ‘power the Dark Lord knows not’, it just means—love?” asked Harry, feeling a little let down.2
The dramatic events in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince left fans with many tantalizing mysteries to ponder while we wait impatiently for the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Yet there is no question as vexing as the one Harry himself is struggling to answer: how can a mere schoolboy vanquish the most feared Dark wizard in history with a “power” as innocent and non-threatening as love?
For adult readers, it can sometimes be difficult to keep cynicism from creeping into our hearts as we contemplate heroic tales in which “love conquers all.” There is a time-honored place in children’s literature for fairy tales, in which the princess is awakened with a kiss and true love saves the day, but after reading over 3,000 pages of an increasingly sophisticated and mature saga that deals frankly with matters of war, torture, and death, a fairy tale ending would feel like an insult to our intelligence. Fortunately, there is every indication that J.K. Rowling herself shares this view. The way she has handled the subject thus far suggests that she intends for the Harry Potter books to reflect an intellectually and morally complex understanding of love.
Some fans have argued that Harry will discover a powerful love spell, or devise some scheme to trap Voldemort in the locked room at the Department of Mysteries where love is studied. But these types of endings would not be true to the message of love in the Harry Potter series. As the prophecy tells us, the power to vanquish the Dark Lord is already inside Harry. He does not need any new weapons or powers to vanquish the Dark Lord, or need to be resurrected with amazing superpowers after a kiss from Ginny. I believe that his victory will be the culmination of a series of choices that he has made throughout the series and will continue to make in the seventh book. As Dumbledore taught Harry, “it is our choices […] that show what we truly are.” 3 Harry’s difficult choices to do what is morally right – to commit acts of love – will lead to Voldemort’s downfall.
In Issue 12 of Scribbulus, Scrivenshafts wrote an excellent review of the ways love can influence magic in the Potterverse,4 and I agree that the effects of emotion on spells such as the Patronus Charm may play an important role in Deathly Hallows. However, it’s important to note that the word love does not necessarily refer to the emotions we feel toward our friends and family. Love can also be acts of kindness toward strangers. It can refer to acts of self-sacrifice motivated by a desire to make the world a better place. When Dumbledore speaks to Harry of the importance of his ability to love, it is never entirely clear to the reader, nor to Harry himself, how to interpret this advice. But a closer examination of what love means and how it is represented in canon gives us some hints about how Harry might defeat Voldemort with the power of love.
Words of Love
It is often noted that the ancient Greeks had three distinct words for love, and each of these words correspond to a different set of emotions that Dumbledore might be talking about when he discusses Harry’s ability to love. What many readers may not know is that each of these words also represents a set of virtuous character traits that the Greeks expected their heroes to possess. During the course of his first six adventures Harry has proven that he exhibits all of these virtues, but he still has room for improvement in at least one area.
Philia was the Greek word that described brotherly love or friendship.5, 6 Aristotle defined philia as “doing kindnesses; doing them unasked; and not proclaiming the fact when they are done.” 7 This type of love is the easiest to identify in the character of Harry Potter, in his close friendship with Ron and Hermione, and in the growing assortment of adults and classmates who are loyal to Harry because of his kindness and willingness to accept them for who they are. Harry befriends an oafish half-giant, a werewolf, an escaped convict, a flaky outcast, and a clumsy near-squib, and he treats them all with kindness. His willingness to befriend this motley assortment of outsiders has proven time and again to be a tremendous advantage. Harry is a dedicated supporter of the Order, a teacher and role model to Dumbledore's Army, and a loyal friend to unpopular classmates such as Luna and Neville. In return, these characters not only repay his loyalty but also often turn out to be surprisingly valuable allies. This capacity for philia is perhaps Harry's greatest strength as a character.
Eros, the root for the English word “erotic,” was often used in ancient Greece to describe a passionate, romantic desire for another person.8 On the surface, this type of love does not play a central role in Harry's quest to vanquish the Dark Lord (although the experience of falling in love with Ginny plays an important role in his development as a character). However, it's important to note that in Plato's writings, the word eros also described an intense love for the ideals and values embodied in a cherished individual.9 This platonic sense of eros can be seen to represent Harry's yearning for the love of a family, which is illustrated by his heart's true desire revealed by the Mirror of Erised.10 It may also be seen in his growing admiration for the wisdom and values of his mentor, which gives him the strength to stand up to the Ministry and define himself as “Dumbledore's man through and through.” 11 In both senses of the word, eros plays a crucial role in Harry's personal growth during Half-Blood Prince, as he grapples with the “newborn monster inside him” 12 and grows into a confident young man who is deeply committed both to the people he loves and to a cause that is greater than himself.
The third, and most challenging type of love to understand is agape, which was used by the ancient Greeks to describe a love or concern for one's fellow human beings.13 In the Christian Bible, the word agape describes the love of God toward mankind and also describes acts of selfless or self-sacrificing love for others.14 Christians are instructed to love their neighbors as themselves15 and are even admonished to love their enemies,16 and in both cases the word used for love is agape.17 This type of love encompasses acts of heroism and compassion, as exemplified by the life of Christ. It represents what Dumbledore described as the “choice between what is right and what is easy.” 18 These are challenging instructions for most Muggles to follow, but from the very beginning of the series, Harry has exhibited the will (and at times an almost reckless and self-destructive urge) to risk his life on behalf of others. This agape has driven Harry to his greatest acts of courageous love, as in the Chamber of Secrets, but it has also crossed the line into a dangerous overconfidence in his ability to rescue others, which led him into Voldemort’s trap at the Department of Mysteries.
Love Thy Neighbors
From these various concepts of love, we can identify several different ways that Harry could use love as a weapon. For one thing, it is clear that Harry’s capacity for brotherly love has created a fellowship that will provide him with vital assistance as he seeks to locate and destroy the Horcruxes. Hermione and Ron will support him through thick and thin, and he can count on numerous friends and allies to defend him in difficult situations. Harry’s romantic relationship with Ginny remains unresolved, and I suspect his love for her will continue to grow in importance to the plot and to his journey into adulthood. Additionally, Harry’s love for his parents and his devotion to Dumbledore will surely guide him as he makes difficult choices along the way. Based on previous comments by Jo Rowling in interviews, it seems probable that Harry will learn new information about his mother and Dumbledore19 (and possibly also about Sirius20) during the course of Deathly Hallows, and his emotional connection with each of these characters will guide him on his quest.
All of these character traits are well established, though, and as the hero of a literary saga Harry will almost certainly need to confront his own weaknesses before all is said and done. I believe the climax of the Harry Potter series will hinge upon a choice made by Harry that demonstrates his ability to express agape – which might be described as love “at its deepest, its most impenetrable.” 21 The most obvious point to consider is that Voldemort has already been defeated once by love. Specifically, he was defeated by Lily Potter’s act of love, when she lay down her own life to save her infant son. As Dumbledore explained to Harry, this act of love created a magical protection so powerful and mysterious that it destroyed Voldemort’s powers and continued to protect Harry throughout his entire childhood.22 While I don’t expect the conclusion of Deathly Hallows will simply replicate the fateful events at Godric’s Hollow, it is certainly quite possible that Harry Potter will vanquish Voldemort with an act of courageous self-sacrifice. Yet there is another type of love that may play an even more important role in the climactic scenes – forgiveness.
Love Thy Enemies
Jo Rowling has clearly stated that she believes in God. Although the Harry Potter books are not Christian allegories, the moral values at the heart of the series are undoubtedly influenced by the Christian tradition. In one interview, when pressed on the subject of her religious beliefs, Rowling said the following:
There is so much I would like to say, and come back when I've written book seven. But then maybe you won't need to even say it 'cause you'll have found it out anyway. You'll have read it. 23
What type of ending might demonstrate her religious beliefs? The most obvious answer would be the possibility that Harry would become a Christ-figure, who sacrifices his life to save the world. But this type of plot device is something of a cheap cliché, and while it works well in overtly religious works such as The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, it would feel out of place in the Harry Potter series. Furthermore, Harry has already spent much of the first six books risking his life for the good of the wizarding world, and an act of self-sacrifice, while admirable and heroic, would be almost anticlimactic. A much more interesting turn of events, yet just as uniquely Christian, would be for the climax to hinge on the redemption of a villainous character and an act of mercy by our hero.
This is the most challenging type of love for those who seek to live a morally virtuous life – loving our enemies. It is, almost by definition, impossible to feel romantic love or genuine friendship for those who try to do us harm or harm those we care about. At best, we may be able to treat our enemies with compassion and offer them forgiveness for their crimes against us. This is the type of love that Harry Potter has struggled with the most. He has had a great deal of difficulty setting aside his personal animosity toward Snape and the Malfoy family, and this has caused him grief on more than one occasion. For example, Draco has repeatedly goaded Harry into making costly errors of judgment, and mutual ill will poisoned his Occlumency lessons with Snape. When Harry has been able to set aside his anger and exhibit compassion toward his enemies, however, he has been rewarded. By giving Sirius Black the opportunity to tell his story in the Shrieking Shack, Harry was able to learn the truth about his parents’ betrayal and gain the love of a godfather. And as Dumbledore explained to Harry at the end of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by showing mercy to Peter Pettigrew and sparing his life, Harry placed one of Voldemort’s servants in his debt.24 This act of mercy may yet have major repercussions for Harry. If Harry can display a similar compassion toward his detested rival Draco Malfoy, or perhaps even toward a man he seems extremely disinclined to forgive – Severus Snape – such an act may well be pivotal in bringing about the Dark Lord’s downfall.
Loving a Man to Death
There is a room in the Department of Mysteries that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and terrible than death, than human intelligence, than forces of nature.25
There are many different ways that love can help Harry vanquish the Dark Lord, but it's also important to note what love cannot be. Love is a purely defensive weapon. It can never be used to attack and hurt someone directly. Love teaches us to forgive our enemies when possible, and it creates bonds of friendship that protect us from enemies who refuse our forgiveness. Love can cause pain to Voldemort when he attempts to possess Harry,26 and it can cause pain to anyone who loses a loved one, as Harry experiences after the death of Sirius.27 Love can even destroy the greatest Dark wizard of the age by shielding a child with a great act of self-sacrifice. But an act of love can never be intended to cause pain or death. The magic spells that deliberately seek to cause pain and death are Unforgivable Curses,28 and this is a distinction that Rowling has crafted very carefully throughout the Harry Potter series. She has constructed a powerful symbolic narrative for the triumph of love over hatred, fear, and anger, and this means that Harry cannot defeat Voldemort by attacking him directly with malice in his heart. He must take the more difficult path, set aside his anger, and rely upon love as his weapon.
The exact wording of Trelawney's prophecy is very interesting, and it gives us one final hint about the downfall of Voldemort. The prophecy says that Harry “will have power the Dark Lord knows not.” 29 It is therefore of equal importance that the Dark Lord cannot feel love. He is a tyrant who governs by fear, treats his followers as slaves, and refuses to trust anyone. The ancient Greeks had a word for this character trait, too: hubris, sometimes spelled hybris. This word is often used today to describe a sort of excessive pride, but in ancient times it referred more specifically to an aggressive arrogance that leads to acts of violence and oppression. In the Sixth Century B.C., the Athenian statesman Solon wrote that such arrogance leads to what he called ate – a state of delusion that further leads a man to commit foolish errors that bring about his own ruin.30 This fatal flaw is illustrated by Voldemort’s fateful decision to act on the incomplete prophecy and attack Harry. It is likely that Voldemort will once again make a crucial mistake due to his inability to feel love or appreciate its power. Harry’s ability to take advantage of this mistake will depend on this power the Dark Lord knows not. Dumbledore has already shown Harry one way to exploit Voldemort’s weakness – turning his own Death Eaters against him with the power of forgiveness – in his speech to Draco on the lightning-struck tower.31
Harry Potter does not have the magical abilities to defeat Voldemort in direct combat, but he does have a number of weapons that Voldemort lacks: loyal friends, the love of a family, the moral values of Albus Dumbledore, the courage to sacrifice himself for the greater good, and perhaps even enough strength of character to love his enemies. These are not weapons that can be wielded in anger to cause pain, but they are weapons that can break the bonds of fear and hatred that are the source of Voldemort’s power. The power of love enables Harry to exploit Voldemort’s weaknesses, and the inability to love leads Voldemort to make mistakes that contribute to his own defeat. It is the choices Harry has made that define who he is, and I believe it will be his choice to commit the most difficult act of love – forgiveness – that will, directly or indirectly, vanquish the Dark Lord.
1. The Holy Bible (New International Version), Corinthians 13:2.
2. Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 509.
3. Ibid., Chamber of Secrets, 333.
4. Scrivenshafts, “Love Is All You Need.”
5. Lewis, Four Loves.
6. Urban Dictionary, s.v. “Love.”
7. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Philosophy of Love.”
8. Lewis, Four Loves.
9. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Philosophy of Love.”
10. Rowling, Sorcerer’s Stone, 213.
11. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 348.
12. Ibid., 287.
13. Lewis, Four Loves.
14. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Philosophy of Love.”
15. The Holy Bible (New International Version), Mark 12:31.
16. The Holy Bible (New International Version), Matthew 5:44.
17. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Philosophy of Love.”
18. Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 724.
19. Anelli & Spartz. “TLC/MN Interview Part One.”
20. Rowling Official Site, “Section: FAQ.”
21. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 427.
22. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 835–6.
23. Solomon, “J.K. Rowling Interview – Part 4.”
24. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 427.
25. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 843.
26. Ibid., 816.
27. Ibid., 824.
28. Ibid., 810.
29. Ibid., 841.
30. Porter, “Rise of Athens and the Athenian Democracy.
31. Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 591–2.
Anelli, Melissa and Emerson Spartz. “The Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet Interview Joanne Kathleen Rowling: Part One.” The Leaky Cauldron, 16 July 2005. http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2005/0705-tlc_mugglenet-anelli-1.htm (accessed 28 April 2007).
BibleGateway.com. “Getting the word out.” http://www.biblegateway.com/ (accessed 28 April 2007).
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Philosophy of Love.” < ahref="http://www.iep.utm.edu/l/love.htm">http://www.iep.utm.edu/l/love.htm (accessed 28 April 2007).
J.K. Rowling Official Site. “Section FAQ.” http://www.jkrowling.com/textonly/en/faq_view.cfm?id=22 (accessed 28April 2007).
Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves. London: Fount, 2002.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.
———. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2000.
———. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005.
———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.
———. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.
———. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1998.
Porter, John. “The Rise of Athens and the Athenian Democracy: From Solon to Cleisthenes” (with a brief glance at Sparta), University of Saskatchewan. http://homepage.usask.ca/~jrp638/CourseNotes/SolonNotes.html (accessed 28 April 2007).
Scrivenshafts. “Love Is All You Need.” Scribbulus Issue 12, The Leaky Cauldron. /features/essays/issue12/loveisall (accessed 28 April 2007).
Solomon, Evan. “J.K. Rowling Interview – Part 4.” CBCnewsWORLD. http://www.cbc.ca/programs/sites/hottype_rowlingcomplete.html (accessed 28 April 2007).
Urban Dictionary, s.v. “Love.” http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=phileos (accessed 28 April 2007).