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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Without Enough

Jerry L. Wells equates the lessons of morality represented in the Harry Potter novels, written by J. K. Rowling, concisely with real world regulations in morality in the essay “Heaven, Hell, and Harry Potter.” Wells uses a quote from Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and one of Harry Potter’s mentors in the series, to indicate the nontraditional sense of morality in the wizarding world. The approach Wells takes is clearly from a Christian standpoint where the lines of good and evil are (for the most part) clearly defined. Wells also brings up the viewpoint of naturalism, what he claims is the polar opposite of Christianity in the sense of beliefs and thus a different basis for morals in society. Even though Wells brings up this dynamic polarity, he imposes his assumptions that Rowling disregarded other worldviews when creating the characters in the world of Harry Potter. The binary viewpoint Wells uses misses the multifaceted views presented in the Harry Potter series.

Dumbledore is quoted as saying that “humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them” (Rowling, p. 297). This statement brings many thoughts to mind. One of which is why are these desires only “worst” for you instead of saying they’re bad? Worst implies a sense of ambiguity somewhere between good and bad, right and wrong, or virtuous and evil. Wells addresses this in an oblique manner: never directly addressing the nontraditional moral presented in this statement. What Wells addresses is the relation between morals in Christianity (traditional good/bad, virtuous/evil, etc.) to naturalism (harboring a conflict of why morals matter) and to the Wizarding world of Harry Potter (nontraditional). The main points Wells illuminates revolve around wealth and immortality, centered on the image of the Sorcerer’s Stone in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997). The Stone provides the elixir of life which gives the drinker immortality and also turns any metal into gold. Thus the Stone is sought by many: Voldemort, Harry’s ultimate nemesis, in particular. What Wells misses out on is the underlying message of Dumbledore’s statement. The desire for eternal life and endless wealth are indeed natural, but it’s how we manage these desires that determine whether they are good or evil.

This juxtaposed view is present in the obvious characterization of the protagonist and antagonist in the Harry Potter series. Voldemort, the obvious antagonist, allows the desire for immortality to drive his every move. Wells points out that Dumbledore claims the fear of death is one of the “greatest [weaknesses]” (paragraph 5). Meanwhile, Harry Potter, our protagonist, desires many things after having been tortured by his Aunt, Uncle, and Cousin. Wealth and popularity, and possibly even a different life, are things that would better his experiences. However, Harry doesn’t allow his desire to get in the way of what is truly morally sound: friendship, trust, and love. These three aspects are things Voldemort doesn’t comprehend and sees as weaknesses in return. Of these three, love is the aspect Rowling places the most emphasis; and thus Wells focuses his essay on this pivotal notion of love being powerful.

In “Heaven, Hell, and Harry Potter” Wells draws upon Christianity and Naturalism as juxtaposed belief structures with two vastly different moral compasses. Christianity points people towards serving the ideals of a higher authority, namely God. Naturalism, Wells explains, decrees that humans are made of the simple, scientific elements and have no deity to guide the virtues of right and wrong. Regarding the contrasts between Christianity and Naturalism neglects the foundation Rowling certainly had when writing her novels. Wells claims “we do not have the space to even name all the [other religions] that might be mentioned…” (paragraph 16). This is negligent when referring to Dumbledore especially.

Many of Dumbledore’s characteristics are easily described as being Buddhist. His obvious enlightenment mirrors many of the Buddhist beliefs, especially when referring to how people choose “precisely those things that are worst for them” (Rowling, p. 297). This statement refers to the Buddhist idea of materialism which extents beyond objects to life. In a way, Dumbledore is telling people to not allow the desires for what the Stone can provide to overwhelm them, but to detach one’s self from these wants in order to stave off anger, pain, and suffering. This notion is the same as Nirvana, which absolves one from this realm to the next level of spiritual completion by detaching oneself from the things that bring suffering. To Dumbledore, and to those with a “well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure”, which could be described as Nirvana (Rowling, p. 297).

Though Wells misses the dynamics of differing religions, he does hit upon one point that definitely surfaces across the world: love. This love is innate in nature. Humans instinctually love their parents as a biological response for survival. It is also love for humanity and goodness that prevents people from harming each other. Thus, love is seen in many religions: represented in enlightenment and Nirvana, God, and the daily rituals of sacrifice in many other religious facets. Wells writes:

[It] is impossible to advance our ultimate well being by doing evil. While our short-term interests may be promoted by doing what is wrong, we are acting against the ultimate grain of reality and we will eventually have to account for our choices. To act immorally is to act against love and to cut ourselves off from God, whose very nature is love. This is hell. This is the cursed life of one like Voldemort who is willing to embrace evil to promote his own purposes. (Paragraph 47)

I agree with Wells that love is what ultimately defines right from wrong. However, I believe Wells neglected looking beyond his own experiences to see how love is similarly played out in many religions; and how these faiths are represented in Harry Potter. If he had noticed the subtle intricacies that Rowling incorporated, his view of the wizarding world would be much deeper.

Overall, I think Wells did an amazing job working within the parameters of Christianity, Naturalism and Harry Potter to distinguish the foundation of morals in society. However, there is much more Wells neglected that should have been addressed in order to create a more concrete assertion that love truly is the ultimate foundation humanity must strive for in order to reach “heaven.” His heavily Christian influenced view blocked his interpretation into a stereotypical response to Harry Potter when regarding the morals embodied in each character. His final conclusion is “the right metaphysical view of ultimate reality has huge implications for how we ought to live, … [and that] love is the deepest reality and, if we understand that, we can avoid the trap of choosing the very things that are worst for us” (paragraph 48). Perhaps Wells will notice the multifaceted worldview that Rowling noticed when creating such an enlightened character as Dumbledore, and by doing so learn more about the world he lives in through the eyes of an enlightened Buddhist.

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