Ending Dualism at Hogwarts


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15 minute presentation given at the 2011 National Conference for Undergraduate Research in Ithaca

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  • Thank visiting my website. I hope you enjoy this presentation As most people know, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter has become a household name for millions of children and adults around the world. Prior to the release of the last book in 2007 , the series had sold one hundred and twenty one point five million copies in the United States, and three hundred and twenty five million copies worldwide (Rich). The last book sold eight point three million copies on its first day in print (Rich). The overwhelming popularity of the series resulted in a debate within the American Christian community about whether or not the books were appropriate for their children to read.
  • On the one hand, moderate Christians point out biblical symbolism in the story and the triumph of Christian values like faith, love, loyalty, redemption, and the victory of good over evil, with Harry representing Christ and the evil wizard Voldemort representing Satan (Killinger 38).
  • On the other hand, fundamentalists like Richard Abanes, author of Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick, argue that the Harry Potter series contains spiritually dangerous material that could ultimately lead children to black magic , paganism and promotes QUOTE “unbiblical values and unethical behavior” END QUOTE (6).
  • Neither view really appreciates the series’ message. Christian supporters of the series deserve some credit for drawing attention to the importance of good and evil in the series , but to say that good triumphs over evil is a misleading oversimplification. I argue that Harry Potter does not simply present the unequivocal triumph of good over evil; it features the struggle to transcend the apocalyptic binary system of morality that promotes conflict between good and evil. Rowling has a tendency to introduce characters as either good or evil , then gradually reveal, over the course of the series, how they actually embody some combination, or middle ground, between the two.
  • Some fundamentalist opponents of Harry Potter recognize how this functions as a challenge to Christian apocalyptic morality. Abanes criticizes Rowling's work because QUOTE “moral ambiguity and relativism abound, while at the same time no one really seems to know who is and who is not evil...one's best friend might turn out to be an enemy, while an enemy might actually be one's closest ally” END QUOTE (234). For fundamentalists, the triumph of morally ambiguous characters in Harry Potter is a serious threat to their understanding of Christian morality, which depends on rigid definitions of good and evil.
  • This understanding of Christian morality is based on the apocalyptic story of the Book of Revelation, which is the final book of the New Testament , and was written around the end of the 1st century. It is a prophecy that predicts the intersection of heaven, earth, and hell in a final confrontation between the forces of good and evil. The book is one of the most controversial Biblical texts, and different scholars have very different interpretations of its meaning. The basic prophesy comes from God via angelic messenger to John of Patmos, who writes down predictions about a period of chaos on Earth, Christ’s second coming and thousand-year reign of peace, Satan’s imprisonment and destruction and the Last Judgment. According to John, a new heaven and a new earth will replace the old, and the faithful will live with God and Christ for eternity in a heavenly city called "New Jerusalem ." The versio n of morality o ffered by the Book of Revelation assures the faithful they will be rewarded, but it also condemns sinners , “the other,” to eternal damnation and rejects any notion of a middle ground between these two extremes.
  • The binary nature of the Book of Revelation pits good against evil, the saved against the damned, whores against virgins, rich against poor, etc., and mandates the superiority of some people over others. This rigid, dualistic morality creates a hierarchical value system that limits identities to a binary classification, and establishes one as the ideal and the other as inferior . The apocalyptic narrative, however, merely refers to the use of five essential plot elements that define the traditional apocalypse of the Book of Revelation. These are: divine authority, receiver of a prophesy, the end of the world, judgment day, and transcendence (Rosen xxi-xxii). J.K. Rowling recognized that using the apocalyptic narrative to teach binary morality has been highly effective . I will explain how the Harry Potter series uses the apocalyptic narrative to tell almost the exact same story but offers an alternative, non-dualistic moral paradigm. This is the defining characteristic of a genre of apocalyptic literature called postmodern apocalyptic fiction. According to Elizabeth Rosen, author of Apocalyptic Transformation: Apocalypse and the Postmodern Imagination, postmodern apocalyptic fiction is a sub-genre of apocalyptic literature in which authors adopt the five basic narrative elements of the Book of Revelation, but challenge traditional apocalyptic dualism. These stories undertake a subversive moral critique of the traditional myth from within the structure of the apocalyptic narrative itself.
  • As you can see, apocalyptic narrative elements in the Harry Potter series correspond with the Book of Revelation. Rowling’s myth , however, adapts each of these elements with a postmodern twist , and so creates an alternative to the Book of Revelation’s binary morality. I will go through each of the narrative elements to explain how Harry Potter mirrors the Book of Revelation
  • In the Book of Revelation, the divine authority is an all-knowing, all powerful God . Postmodern apocalyptic fiction rejects the ideas of absolute power or knowledge by translating the traditional deity into secular terms and humanizing the deity (Rosen xxiii). Rowling uses a human deity to combine elements of the God/Devil binary structure into one character (Rosen 8). In the first four books of the series, Dumbledore is portrayed as powerful, infallible, and all-knowing , but in the sixth book, Harry watches Dumbledore die ( Half-Blood Prince 595-596). This provides irrefutable proof of his mentor's mortality , and the illusion of Dumbledore's god-like invincibility is shattered. In the seventh book, Harry’s understanding of Dumbledore takes on the qualities of a Devil or Antichrist figure. Harry learns that in his youth, Dumbledore was ambitious, power hungry, single-minded, and above all, committed to “cleansing” the world of Muggles and Muggle-borns – the very traits Voldemort is famous for ( DH ch. 18). Dumbledore's fall from grace, his transformation from God to Devil , is complete; Harry's feelings about him could not be more different than the worshiping respect and adoration he felt in the first four books.
  • Rowling's use of third-person limited point of view to restrict the audience’s knowledge to Harry ’s experiences evokes the same feeling of tunnel vision conveyed by John of Patmos's first-person account in the Book of Revelation. In the traditional story, the prophet never questions the authenticity of his vision, because he received it from God. Since the story is told in first person, readers don’t have any reason to doubt John of Patmos when he insists he received the Truth-with-a-capital-T and passed it on as complete and unchangeable (Quinby 28). Harry, on the other hand, is an often-clueless teenage boy. Rowling limits her narration to Harry's point of view, but also repeatedly proves to the reader that Harry is an unreliable narrator. By preventing the audience from trusting Harry as the narrator and prophet , Rowling challenges two elements of the traditional apocalyptic narrative: divine authority and receiver of the revelation . If the audience has reason to mistrust the prophet's reliability or knowledge, is the prophet himself is defective? Or is the divine figure issuing the revelation not really omnipotent after all? In Harry Potter , the answer is a little bit of both. This kind of skepticism from the reader , encouraged by Rowling, denies the apocalyptic idea of a single Truth like the one supposedly revealed by God to John and set down in the Book of Revelation.
  • In the Book of Revelation, there’s nothing ambiguous about the end of the world, the third narrative element of apocalypse . The water turns to blood, most of humanity perishes, and there’s an epic battle at Armageddon. In postmodern apocalyptic fiction , however, the apocalyptic 'world' which is destroyed can be more flexibly interpreted (Rosen xxii). Figurative worlds include specific communities, individuals, or even an individual mind (Rosen xxii). In Rowling's apocalypse, there are elements of both individual and communal destruction . Harry realizes he must sacrifice himself in the middle of the final battle of the war against Voldemort. Just as the attacking army breaches the walls of the castle, Harry walks forward to his death.
  • The fourth narrative element of the apocalypse is judgment , which is a particularly difficult element for postmodern writers to adapt, due to what Elizabeth Rosen calls QUOTE “postmodernism's refusal to privilege one culture or point of view over another” ENDQUOTE (Rosen xxiv). This raises the question of whether it’s even possible to use the traditional apocalyptic narrative to critique the traditional apocalyptic binary , since authors like Rowling must include some kind of judgement scene to stay within the narrative. Postmodern authors do make judgements, but they do not claim to offer any kind of absolute truth. Their judgements are not cross-cultural or universal, unlike in the Book of Revelation, where an all-knowing God judges everyone. Still, in Harry Potter , like in the Book of Revelation, the “good” side wins and “bad” side loses. Is Rowling merely perpetuating traditional apocalypticism by celebrating the superiority of good, tolerant people, and condemning bad, prejudiced people ? To answer this question, let’s take a closer look at two examples from the text.
  • This exchange is arguably the most important conversation in all forty-one thousand pages of the Harry Potter books. It takes place at the end of the final book, when Harry meets Dumbledore in a dream-like state, following Voldemort's second-to-last attempt to kill him. Harry presents Dumbledore with a binary choice, as if “real” and “happening inside my head” are mutually exclusive . Dumbledore's response reveals that he thinks Harry has created a false dichotomy . There is another option to account for his experience: it is not just either/or ...there can be experiences that happen inside our heads but are very much also real (Granger, Lectures 178, 179). When Dumbledore casts aside Harry's dichotomy and replaces it with an option that blurs the distinction between the two extremes, Rowling is presenting an alternative to the dualistic apocalyptic myth. Rowling avoids succumbing to the traditional binary morality by affirming the validity of multiple truths . Yes, the “good guys” win, but in reality, Rowling's characters are carefully crafted so very few can be easily classified using a binary paradigm . Harry's allies include Muggleborns, half-bloods, a half-giant, a werewolf, someone from a magical family born without magic, and others who blur the lines between the magical and non-magical binary or the human and magical creature binary ( Order of the Phoenix 173-174).
  • More significant than this superficial, visible diversity, is Rowling's use of morally ambiguous characters to personify a postmodern alternative to the apocalyptic binary of good and evil . Severus Snape is a perfect example of a blend of good and evil in one person . Throughout the series, Snape plays a double agent - Dumbledore trusts him, but he belongs to Voldemort’s inner circle. At the end of the sixth book, (SPOILER ALERT!) Harry sees Snape murder Dumbledore. Had Snape really been working for Voldemort all along? Or had Dumbledore arranged his own murder in advance, and asked Snape to kill him? At the end of the seventh book, it’s revealed that Snape been loyal to Dumbledore until the end. Nonetheless, he’s still a murderer, and cannot easily be classified as simply good or evil. As a postmodern author, Rowling avoids privileging one group over another by breaking down the boundaries between the groups, so there are no longer two distinct and finite groups of good and evil people.
  • The fifth and final narrative element is transcendence. New Jerusalem, as canonically described in the Book of Revelation, is literally a QUOTE “great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God” ENDQUOTE (Revelation 21:10). It is a gift from God to the faithful followers that finalizes the division between the saved and the damned. In contrast, in postmodern apocalyptic narratives, as Elizabeth Rosen says, QUOTE “New Jerusalem is less a place than a new way of seeing : a new vision. Characters do not inherit a new world. Often, they inherit a new way of understanding the old word .” ENDQUOTE (Rosen xxiii). In the epilogue, nineteen years after the events in the last chapter, Rowling reveals Harry named his middle child Albus Severus, giving him both Dumbledore's and Snape's first names. More than signaling Harry's acceptance of each of their ambiguous moral qualities , Albus Severus symbolizes challenges the wizarding world's grand narrative of prejudice. At Hogwarts, students are sorted into four “houses,” or dormitories. Each is named for one of the founders of Hogwarts, and is known for different personality traits – Hufflepuffs are loyal, Ravenclaws are smart, Slytherins are self-serving and ambitious, and Gryffindors are altruistic and brave. Under these simple adjectives, however, lies the dualistic grand narrative of inter-house conflict, which survives past graduation and affects relationships in the wizarding world at large. Harry names his son after two headmasters who defied their house stereotypes and were not wholly good or evil. This shows that Harry recognizes the need to bridge the rift between the two houses and the binary extremes of good and evil. The Gryffindor-Slytherin combination is a blending of opposites, and represents a way to end apocalyptic morality in the wizarding world at large.
  • Elizabeth Rosen argues, QUOTE “to claim that postmodernism cannot appropriate the apocalyptic myth is to deny what has already been done. It can and it has” END QUOTE (175). The challenge now, issued in the conclusion of Apocalyptic Transformation, QUOTE “ is to recognize and understand it” END QUOTE (Rosen 175). At the beginning of this presentation I spoke about the hundreds of millions of Harry Potter books sold around the world. With such a large audience, it's not unreasonable to say the Harry Potter series is a major cultural phenomenon. But the series is more than just an exciting adventure story about a boy wizard. The Harry Potter series provides a significant social critique of Anglo-American apocalypticism by providing an alternative, non-binary apocalyptic paradigm. The traditional apocalyptic worldview influences a variety of ostensibly secular matters in the United States, including gender equality, race relations, the entertainment industry, news media, and more (8). Binary classification and accompanying value judgments dominate Western perceptions of race (white vs. minority), gender (male vs. female), sexuality (straight vs. gay), and religion (Christian vs. heretics), to name just a few. J.K. Rowling appropriated the structure of the Book of Revelation to challenge its black-and-white moral reasoning. Using Harry Potter to teach children about morality in a non-dualistic way could have important implications for helping us achieve democratic goals and move forward as a society beyond prejudice and insistence on absolute morality, patriarchy, and pre-ordained history (Quinby, Millennial Seduction 16).
  • Ending Dualism at Hogwarts

    1. 1. Ending Dualism at Advisors Lee Quinby, Macaulay Honors College Nico Israel, CUNY Hunter College Ariana Tobias, Class of 2011 Macaulay Honors College CUNY Hunter College Reading Harry Potter as Postmodern Apocalyptic Fiction
    2. 2. Good
    3. 3. Evil
    4. 4. vs. Good? Harry Potter Evil?
    5. 5. Traditional Apocalyptic Morality
    6. 6. Book of Revelation
    7. 7. Apocalyptic Literature Traditional Apocalyptic Narrative Book of Revelation Postmodern Apocalyptic Fiction <ul><li>Divine authority </li></ul><ul><li>Prophet </li></ul><ul><li>End of the World </li></ul><ul><li>Judgment Day </li></ul><ul><li>Transcendence </li></ul>
    8. 8. Five Narrative Elements Apocalyptic Narrative Book of Revelation Harry Potter <ul><li>Divine Authority </li></ul><ul><li>Prophet </li></ul><ul><li>End of the World </li></ul><ul><li>Judgment Day </li></ul><ul><li>Transcendence </li></ul><ul><li>God </li></ul><ul><li>John of Patmos </li></ul><ul><li>Armageddon </li></ul><ul><li>White Throne </li></ul><ul><li>New Jerusalem </li></ul><ul><li>Dumbledore </li></ul><ul><li>Harry </li></ul><ul><li>Battle of Hogwarts </li></ul><ul><li>King’s Cross </li></ul><ul><li>Epilogue </li></ul>
    9. 9. Divine Authority Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts Headmaster
    10. 10. Prophet
    11. 11. End of the World
    12. 12. Judgment Day
    13. 13. “ Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?” Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry's ears... “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” ( Deathly Hallows 723)
    14. 15. Transcendence
    15. 16. Conclusions <ul><li>The Harry Potter series is postmodern apocalyptic fiction because it retains the traditional apocalyptic narrative structure and subverts the dualistic apocalyptic moral paradigm </li></ul>Going Forward <ul><li>Using Harry Potter to teach children about morality </li></ul>
    16. 17. <ul><li>Special thanks to Professor Nico Israel, Professor Lee Quinby, and the 2010-2011 MHC Thesis Colloquium. </li></ul><ul><li>Thanks to the staff at Hunter and Macaulay Honors College for all of their support over the past four years. </li></ul>Acknowledgments To read more about my research, please visit www.macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/hpapocalypse