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Jewish World Review Dec. 20, 2001 / 5 Teves, 5762

Norman Doidge

Norman Doidge
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Consumer Reports

The dark side of Harry Potter

Adorable, unflappable, hopeful Harry grips us because, underneath all the magic, his story deals with one of childhood's worst fears -- losing one's parents -- IS it true Harry Potter has been a delightful fantasy and diversion from darker matters in trying times? No. Merely delightful fantasies never grip in the way Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone has gripped children and some of us who are no longer children. It is the dark arts that grip us. As Edmund Burke wrote in his work A Philosophic Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, for art to be gripping -- even art for children -- it has to have some dalliance, even if at a distance, with terror. This is because our capacity to feel even the most intense pleasures is far outstripped by our capacity to feel pain. It is the latter that grips us. We become fascinated by and fasten on to images of what we dread.

Adorable, unflappable, hopeful Harry mesmerizes us because, though the surface story is a delight, the engine that drives the plot deals with one of childhood's worst fears -- losing one's parents. The fear is kept at a distance, though, because Harry, far from being a sad-sack orphan, never plays the role of the victim, and goes happily about discovering his magical powers. Thus the childhood fears are obscured. The riddle of Harry Potter's unflappability is solved if one remembers that Harry's magic -- through which the natural laws can be undone -- exists as a response to what is, to a child, the most offensive of nature's immutable laws, death.

That Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is about how children respond to death is clear from chapter one of J.K. Rowling's book. It's titled "The Boy Who Lived," and is about how Harry survived while his parents were killed. Then there's the magic mirror that shows Harry his deepest impossible longing -- to be reunited with his parents, who, when they appear, display the most reassuring glances. Finally, the Philosopher's Stone itself can undo death by offering immortality. These facts are all on the surface. But under the surface lie two recurring fantasies children often have about death, which are more mysterious and interesting.

The first fantasy is that for one person to live, another must die. Thus we learn Harry's mother died so that Harry might live. This law governs not only heroes but villains. The evil Voldemort (who killed Harry's mother) also lives according to this rule. For Voldemort to live, he must kill another creature and drink its blood.

Now, of course, sometimes it happens that parents sacrifice themselves so that their children might live, and, of course, there is no greater demonstration of the selflessness of love than this. But in the common course of events, parents, when they die, do so not that others may live, but simply because they have no say in the matter. The standard explanation for the "she died because of me" fantasy is that the normal child is egocentric, and thus everything that happens in his world must happen in some way for or because of him. Unfortunately, for the child, along with that fantasy often goes a terrible sense of guilt or responsibility. Harry shows no sign of this in the story.

But there is a second mysterious fantasy throughout the work. Voldemort is always trying to get Harry in one way or another. Why? We are told he tried to kill Harry as a baby but couldn't because Harry was loved, and Voldemort, who knows nothing of love, fears Harry for this reason. As well, he's after Harry once he discovers Harry has access to the Philosopher's Stone, which could give Voldemort immortality.

What might Voldemort represent? Here is what we know about him. He is the opposite of Harry. Harry is loyal, and Voldemort is a betrayer. Voldemort is not interested in love, but rather feels threatened by it. He does not believe in good or evil, just power (making him evil). Harry is full of life, Voldemort even has death -- mort -- as part of his name. Indeed, he is a troubled ghost-like creature, neither alive nor dead, who is obsessed with gaining immortality. And, of course, we know he is vampiric, sustaining himself at the expense of others. Finally, he appears at the end of the story, literally, as a two-faced creature. Voldemort dwells in the body of Professor Quirrell, a man in a turban, who looked like a good guy, initially, but, on removing the turban, turns out to have a second, evil face on the back of his head. Quirrell has been possessed by Voldemort, and now has his face.

Here's my theory. The notion of a two-faced man, a good man taken over by a bad man hidden within him, is a symbol for the psychological fact that we can have two sides, and that one side, hidden from view, can, if we don't watch it, take over.

I suggest this includes Harry. What is so striking about Harry is how brave he is, and how unflappably free of childhood fears and anger he is for someone who has lost both parents. In part, we love him because his goodness reassures us, as the image of his parents is always reassuring him. But all this reassurance doesn't deal head-on with the anxieties and concerns children have about parents who die. Nor does it confront the fact that orphans, as understandably egocentric little creatures, feel massively let down and abandoned when a parent dies. Where, in this work of art, is there a place for the abandoned orphan's anger, and where are all the fantasies egocentric children have that perhaps it was their own bad behaviour that caused their parents to die?

All this negativity, I suggest, finds a resting place in the character of Voldemort. Harry and Voldemort are drawn to each other for good reason. When parents die and "go over to the other side," all sorts of fantasies are triggered. One of these is that the parents become part of the kingdom of death and dangerously envious of the living. (This is part of the origin of the vampire fantasy.)

Indeed, a child's very wish to reunite with his lost parent can actually be terrifying to him because he fears he, too, must somehow die in order to actualize the wish. Hence his yearning to be with the lost parent has an uncanny quality, as though he is being drawn to something forbidden, deathly. It is a yearning that creates a lose-lose situation.

For if the child should not give in to this wish to die, he will feel guilty, like a betrayer, and may develop a fantasy of the parent persecuting him for preferring life to the kingdom of death. This, I believe, is another aspect of what Voldemort represents: the parent who wants to punish the orphan for wanting to live. Voldemort is Harry's dark side, everything he must bury within himself to be the pure, good boy he is, and Voldemort's lurking presence is the price Harry pays for living and believing in magic.

JWR contributor Dr. Norman Doidge is a research psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Comment by clicking here.


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©2001, Dr. Norman Doidge