I’m know I’m not the first person to notice this, or write about it. However, as we get ready for the final installment of the Harry Potter movies this weekend, I wanted to look at what the two movies have to say about evil in the world.
Let’s start by looking at The Lord of the Rings. I’m mainly going to focus on the movies because a) I think more people are familiar with them and b) people have dedicated their whole lives to studying Tolkien and I’m not ready to dive in that deep.
In the movie’s portrayal of evil, you may recall the character Sauron, the primary antagonist. Basically he is a big, fiery eyeball in the sky (well, at least that’s how he’s mostly portrayed). When all of the rings of power were created, as the backstory goes, Sauron created one more secret ring which could control all the others. This ring has some connection to him and even as Frodo (our favorite Hobbit, the one charged with destroying the ring) crosses strange lands, Sauron is aware of the ring’s presence and can see the ring whenever someone uses its power.
In one of Tolkien’s many new languages written just for this series, Sauron began as one of the Ainur, or angelic beings. In a trope that should sound familiar, Sauron was a once good and angelic figure who has fallen turned evil. [It’s much too long and difficult to go into, but it should be noted that Sauron has masters in this mythology, he himself is not the totality of evil, just a manifestation.]
Sauron, then, using his influence and power, builds up an army and wages war on an epic scale against the different kingdoms trying to gain control of the Earth and his ring.
The Lord of the Rings stories were written in the same time period as the great World Wars. The author, J.R.R. Tolkien, had firsthand experience of the horror brought by armies squaring off against each other. This experience in the first World War is a major contributor to his worldview and thoughts on evil. Literary scholar Tom Shippey points this out saying, “Tolkien went through it himself (as an infantryman) in World War I. But it just got worse in his lifetime, … I think he was very preoccupied with the nature of evil, the nature of technology, the way in which things could be abused, the way good intentions are subverted. That’s what it’s all about.”
Tolkien was also raised Catholic, and much of his faith can be seen in the epic nature of his stories. For example, the fall of Sauron echos the storied fall of Satan from being once an angel of God to the embodiment of evil. In many ways, Tolkien is taking a fresh approach at age-old motifs and notions surrounding evil.
So what about Harry Potter?
In Harry Potter, the evil character is Voldemort – a former student at the school Harry Potter attends who was named Tom. This is the first glaring difference between the two stories. While there is a somewhat mythical back story to Voldemort, we are told he began as a regular boy, much like Harry Potter.
This similarity between the protagonist and antagonist is a constant worry to Harry Potter, who is told by his mentor Dumbeldorf at one point that it’s not their similarities that are important, but rather their differences.
This is a drastically different understanding of evil from Tolkien. For J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, evil is not some unknowable “other,” but rather begins the same as everything else. The evil, then, is born out of experiences and choices made.
The thing that stands out to me immediately in looking at the differences is that J.K. Rowling’s understanding of evil seems as much influenced by a world filled with terrorism and economic inequality (or maybe, rather, a growing understanding of economic inequality) just as Tolkien’s understanding of evil is shaped by the global far with fascism.
What do I mean by this? Well, aren’t we constantly being shown that those driven to acts of violence have been driven to do so based on their experiences and decisions made because of them? We may not (and hopefully do not) agree with their actions, and can agree that taking another’s life is an evil thing to do, but does anyone believe that terrorists were born as an embodiment of evil? No, instead, we are constantly talking about how their perverted understanding of religion led them to commit these horrible actions.
Looking back at the evil character in Harry Potter again, Voldemort, we are told at one point that he was conceived from a love spell being cast, not out of true love. Rowling points out that this is “a symbolic way of showing that he came from a loveless union – but of course, everything would have changed if (Voldemort’s mother) had survived and raised him herself and loved him. The enchantment under which Tom Riddle (Sr.) fathered Voldemort is important because it shows coercion, and there can’t be many more prejudicial ways to enter the world than as the result of such a union.”
Rowling comes out and directly says that if Tom Jr. had grown up in different circumstances, with love around, he would not have turned into the evil being that he was. Nowhere in Tolkien’s stories are we told that under different circumstances Sauron may have turned out differently.
Another difference between the two depictions of evil is what the goal of evil is. Voldemort’s main concern is not power over the world, but rather power over death. Author J.K. Rowling said, “My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry’s parents. There is Voldemort’s obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price, the goal of anyone with magic. I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We’re all frightened of it.” Again, doesn’t this seem to make sense in a post 9/11 world where terrorists aren’t trying to take over the governance of a foreign land, but rather install fear of death?
All of this isn’t to say that J.K. Rowling’s representation of evil doesn’t have Christian or religious bases. For instance, we are told that Voldemort has splintered his soul into several pieces in order to protect himself. Voldemort had a soul, but it was broken. He is broken. And he can’t or won’t let go of that brokenness (even when Harry Potter gives him a final chance) and it is that decision that is ultimately his undoing.
The thing I like about Rowling’s stories is that, ultimately, she has given children (and adults) a more complete and complex way to think about evil in our world. She seems to be telling us that people don’t come programmed for good or evil, but rather people make a set of decisions based on their circumstances.
It gives me hope that if we can change some of these circumstances - economic inequality, intolerance, etc – we can not entirely rid the world of evil, but drastically decrease the presence of it.
Shippey, the literary scholar, said of The Lord of the Rings, “If we’re looking back in 1,000 years time, his work will be instantly recognizable as 20th century, … entirely characteristic of that period, and articulating the concerns of the century.” Maybe Harry Potter, then, will be seen instantly recognizable as 21st century. Maybe it will be seen as a turning point to understanding evil in a different light – still real, but less inevitable.
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