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Research Question: Using Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore as symbols, what does J.K. Rowling suggest about attitudes towards power in her novels Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows?
Our modern world may be abundant in technology and natural resources but it sorely lacks good leadership which, I believe, is an impending crisis that could plunge us into anarchy and chaos. Therefore, I chose to investigate the qualities of good leaders and their attitudes towards power as portrayed in J.K. Rowling's works. I settled on the research question: Using Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore as symbols, what does J.K. Rowling suggest about attitudes towards power in her novels Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows?
As it would be difficult to investigate all seven novels in the series, I limited my investigation to the final two publications. My research involved re-reading both works and making notes and page references. I then grouped my points thematically and filtered out the useful ones. I chose not to consult many secondary resources because I wanted to limit my essay purely to Rowling's take on attitudes towards power in these two novels.
I found that Rowling, through careful use of symbolism and characterisation, is highly suggestive about the attitude one should have towards power. She claims one should not greedily chase power but allow it to arrive naturally to the worthy. She also maintains that not only should power be used unselfishly for the benefit others but that those in power should also treat others with dignity and compassion. Finally, she asserts that power should not rest with an individual but shared equitably amongst a select few. Just as 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder', power, too, is in the hands of the beholder to determine how best to utilize it. Should we follow Rowling's message, the void of good leadership would be quickly filled.
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One of the greatest causes of a rift in opinion in our world today is the differing attitudes towards power. From the power-hungry dictator to the charismatic, naturally powerful civil rights leader, the pages of history are filled with individuals with widely differing positions on power, how to obtain it and what do to with it. In her novels, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling uses three primary characters; Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore to illustrate differing attitudes towards power.
His Highness, the Aga Khan, founder of the school I attend, often speaks of a 'crisis of leadership' in our modern society. His goal in establishing Academies all over the world is to instil us, the pupils, with the qualities of good leaders so that, when placed in a position of power, we are able to act responsibly and in society's best interest. He asserts that "leadership-political and civil-can help sustain the moral and dynamic coherence in public life" (AKDN.org). As an avid 'Harry Potter' fan, I noticed the qualities of good and bad leadership in the primary characters of the series. Rowling clearly sends a message about the differing attitudes towards power through her characterisation and, to me, it seemed fitting that I focus my essay on this, in light of His Highness' goal. Therefore, I decided to investigate how Rowling, using Voldemort, Harry and Dumbledore as symbols, conveys messages about her views regarding attitudes towards power in her final two works of the 'Harry Potter' series.
Set in a fictional world of fascinating wizards, enthralling creatures and (for lack of a better word) spellbinding magic, these final two novels in the seven part series tell the story of a young, orphaned wizard, Harry Potter, and his quest to destroy the evil, power hungry Lord Voldemort who not only murdered Harry's parents, but attempted to murder Harry himself when he was but a year old. The novels focus primarily on how Harry, aided by Dumbledore and his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, discovers and destroys Lord Voldemort's 'Horcruxes' (objects in which a wizard places a part of his soul so that when his body is attacked or destroyed, he cannot die, for part of the soul remains earthbound and undamaged) (464-465, Half Blood Prince) and ultimately, duels and defeats Voldemort. This causes great celebration in the wizarding world as Voldemort and his followers, the 'Death Eaters', had taken power by sheer force and led a brutal and totalitarian regime. Whereas on the surface the novels seem to be children's literature, a closer inspection reveals underlying themes of grief, power and love, a classic telling of a hero's struggle to achieve his means, and the age old battle of 'good verses evil'.
Over the course of the two novels, it is clearly established that Rowling has chosen Harry, Voldemort and Dumbledore as the holders of power. Other characters tend to rally around them easily and they seem to be natural leaders, each in their own respect. In Voldemort's case, it seems that this has always been the case. Upon viewing a scene from Voldemort's past, "Harry noticed that [Voldemort] was by no means the eldest of the group of boys, but that they all seemed to look to him as their leader." (463, Half-Blood Prince) Similarly, Voldemort's followers clearly rally around him. Bellatrix Lestrange, one of Voldemort's followers, sees him has her 'Lord' and "eyed him in worshipful fascination." (563, Deathly Hallows) Clearly then, Voldemort holds a degree of power and is a leader figure.
Harry Potter himself is also a prominent figure in the novels. Having survived Voldemort's attempt on his life at the age of one, Harry is known in the wizarding world as the "Boy Who Lived" (172, Deathly Hallows) and becomes "the symbol and rallying point for any resistance to Voldemort" (172, Deathly Hallows). When Harry defeats Voldemort, the observing crowd surrounds him in jubilation. Rowling says "They wanted him there with them, their leader and symbol, their saviour and their guide." (596, Deathly Hallows). Both quotes show that Harry is also a powerful, revered character and clearly commands respect and possesses power.
Finally, Albus Dumbledore is also presented as a figure of authority. Before his death at the end of sixth novel, he was the headmaster of Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry and chief judge in the 'Wizengamot', (wizarding court of law) clearly powerful positions to hold. All through the series, Dumbledore guides Harry along the path to defeating Voldemort, acting as a mentor and guardian. He is described as "the greatest wizard Harry had ever, or would ever, meet" (568, Half-Blood Prince). Undoubtedly, then, Dumbledore holds great power in the novels and Voldemort, Harry and he are the central, most powerful characters around which the others revolve.
Each of the three figures has his own particular style of leadership and attitude toward power. Voldemort obtains power over others through fear and intimidation. This seems to be an inborn trait. When revisiting a scene from his childhood, the reader discovers that "'He scares the other children'" (250, Half-Blood Prince) and is described as "a bully" (250, Half-Blood Prince). Indeed, the child Voldemort himself reveals "I can make bad things happen to people who annoy me. I can make them hurt if I want to" (254, Half-Blood Prince). Thus, even from an early age, Voldemort demonstrated that he gains power by terrorizing others. He demonstrates "obvious instincts for cruelty, secrecy and domination" (259, Half-Blood Prince). This did not change as he aged. The adult Voldemort seized power by force and fear, annihilating all opposition, and eventually took control of the 'Ministry of Magic' (governing body of the wizarding world). He commits countless murders and tears apart several families in his determined quest for power. This totalitarian regime revolves around him alone and his followers observe that "If he has forbidden it, you ought not to speak â€¦ [Voldemort's] word is law" (37, Half-Blood Prince). A dictator is defined as "a ruler who assumes sole and absolute power" (Wikipedia.org). Thus, Voldemort is clearly a dictator in the sense that he, alone, holds power and decides the rules. This gives the reader an insight into Voldemort's attitude toward power. He believes power is to be taken by brute force and maintained by the imposition of fear.
Rowling characterises Voldemort's antithesis in the form of Harry Potter who seems to have no desire to possess power selfishly. Indeed, the never seeks out power the way Voldemort does. At the end of the series, Harry finds himself in possession of the 'Elder Wand', an ancient, powerful wand which renders the holder unbeatable in a wizarding duel. This wand was the object of Voldemort's obsession throughout the final novel and he sought it to murder Harry and enhance his own power. In stark contrast, when Harry possesses it, he uses it for the sole purpose of repairing his own wand and then discards it. "'I know it's powerful,' said Harry wearily. 'But I was happier with mine.'" (599, Deathly Hallows). This clearly illustrates Harry's lack of a selfish desire for power.
This is not to suggest, however, that Harry lacks ambition. On the contrary, his mission to destroy Voldemort is his driving force throughout the novels. Harry's parents, his godfather, Sirius Black, his friends, Cedric Diggory and Fred Weasley and his former teacher 'Mad-Eye' Moody were amongst those who were murdered by Voldemort and his followers. When asked how he feels about Voldemort, the drive is evident:
He thought of his mother, his father and Sirius. He thought of Cedric Diggory. He thought of all the terrible deeds he knew Lord Voldemort had done. A flame seemed to leap inside his chest, searing his throat.
"I'd want him finished," said Harry quietly. "And I'd want to do it." (478, Half-Blood Prince)
Harry demonstrates his desire to defeat Voldemort and the 'flame' mentioned pushes him forward. However, unlike Voldemort, who seeks to murder Harry merely to further enhance his own power, Harry wants to rid the world of Voldemort for the good of society as a whole. Voldemort's reign of terror negatively affected many of Harry's closest friends and family and he was determined to put an end to by any means necessary At the end of the final novel, he sacrifices his own life for their safety. Due to the unselfish nature of this act, he is able to return to earth, undamaged. However, his intentions reveal that he works to defeat Voldemort for others' benefit and not his own. Therefore, it is clear that Harry, unlike Voldemort, uses power unselfishly.
Dumbledore shares aspects with both Harry and Voldemort when it comes to his attitude toward power. In his youth, Dumbledore, like Voldemort, plotted to attain power by force. He later admits "I wanted to shine, I wanted glory" (573, Deathly Hallows). He, along with his friend Gellert Grindelwald, planned to become "glorious young leaders of the revolution [to take power by force from the non-magical community]" (573, Deathly Hallows). Indeed, in a letter to Grindelwald, Dumbledore writes that "power gives us the right to rule," (291, Deathly Hallows) and wants to "seize control" (291, Deathly Hallows). Also in common between him and Voldemort was their obsession for the Elder Wand and the immense power that came with it. Clearly then, Dumbledore shared a desire for power with Voldemort and believed that it was to be obtained by force.
However, his quest for power leads him to neglect his duties to his frail sister, Ariana and she suffers as a result. When his brother Aberforth brings this to Albus's knowledge, a duel breaks out between Aberforth, Albus and Grindelwald and Ariana is killed in the struggle. Grindelwald fled the scene and went on to become one of the most notorious and evil wizards in history. This is an epiphany for Albus and he seems to change his power-hungry ways: "I had learnt that I was not to be trusted with power" (575, Deathly Hallows). After this, he works towards achieving justice, equality and liberty for all. His obituary informs the reader that he displayed wisdom and nobility "in the many judgements he made while Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot" (24, Deathly Hallows). Dumbledore even puts an end to Grindelwald's reign of terror because, as he puts it, "People were dying and he seemed unstoppable, and I had to do what I could." (575, Deathly Hallows). Dumbledore won the subsequent duel and ended society's suffering. Like Harry, Dumbledore dedicates himself to fighting Voldemort because of the harm he causes others. He is held in high regard by a vast majority of the novels' characters and this is evident in the sheer volume of people and magical creatures that paid their respects at his funeral. Therefore, despite being greedy for power in his youth, his sister's death was a turning point and after it, Dumbledore became a noble, selfless leader. Through Dumbledore's character, Rowling suggests that it is possible, at any time, to drastically alter one's attitude toward power for the better.
The fact that Harry is the sole survivor of the three at the end of the novels is a clear message from Rowling, suggesting that those in power should work unselfishly and for the good of others rather than use the power in a quest for personal gain. Harry's triumph is also highly suggestive about the quest for power. Using Dumbledore as the voice, Rowling expresses that "those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, [Harry], have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well" (575, Deathly Hallows). Rowling, therefore, proposes that one ought not to seek power greedily but let it come naturally.
The characters' attitudes toward power also manifest themselves in the way they share it with others. Lord Voldemort is a solitary figure and prefers working in solitude. Upon revisiting a scene from Voldemort's childhood, Dumbledore comments that
"[Voldemort] was already highly self-sufficient and, apparently, friendless. He did not want help or companionship on his trip to Diagon Alley. He preferred to operate alone. The adult Voldemort is the same. You will hear many of his Death Eaters [the name for his group of followers] claiming that they are in his confidence, that they alone are closest to him, even understand him. They are deluded. Lord Voldemort has never had a friend, nor do I believe that he has ever wanted one. (259-260, Half-Blood Prince)
Thus, Voldemort uses his supporters as mere tools to carry out his plans of destruction and evil. He never full confides in any of them. He gives them only the information they need to know. This is evident when Narcissa Malfoy, wife of prominent Death Eater, Lucius Malfoy, discusses one of Voldemort's schemes with Severus Snape, another renowned Death Eater: "'The Dark Lord has forbidden me to speak of it,' Narcissa continued, her eyes still closed. 'He wishes none to know of the plan. It is â€¦ very secret." This solitary attitude is further proven by the fact that he does not tell any of his followers about his Horcruxes, his keys to immortality. He made a Horcrux out of a diary and entrusted Lucius Malfoy with its safekeeping. He did not, however, explain to Lucius exactly what the object was, giving only minimum detail. Lucius smuggled the diary into Hogwarts where Harry destroyed it. It is observed, however, that "had Lucius known he held a portion of his master's soul in his hands he would undoubtedly have treated it with more reverence" (475, Half-Blood Prince). Similarly, he places another Horcrux in the bank vault of Bellatrix Lestrange, not confiding in her what exactly he has placed there. Harry later breaks into the vault, steals and destroys the Horcrux. On both occasions, had he trusted his Death Eaters with the truth, perhaps the Horcruxes would lie safe and Voldemort would never been defeated. However, upon discovering that both Horcruxes were gone, Voldemort reflects that "it had been a grave mistake to trust Bellatrix and Malfoy: didn't their stupidity and carelessness prove how unwise it was, ever, to trust?" (444 - 445, Deathly Hallows) Rather than teaching him to trust his followers more, the loss of his Horcruxes pushes Voldemort further into solitude and he continues to operate alone. Voldemort's style, therefore, is to withhold all power and knowledge to himself, disclosing both with great discretion and only when necessary.
Harry, on the other hand, develops close friendships with Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger and not only shares all information and power with them, but takes pleasure in doing so. Upon revealing his mission to destroy Voldemort to them, the relief of disclosure causes him great comfort:
Warmth was spreading through him that had nothing to do with the sunlight; a tight obstruction in his chest seemed to be dissolving. He knew that they were more shocked than they were letting on, but the mere fact that they were still there on either side of him, speaking bracing words of comfort, not shrinking from him as thought he were contaminated or dangerous, was worth more than he could ever tell them. (96, Half-Blood Prince)
Harry, therefore, clearly trusts his friends and values them dearly, stating that "He would not risk his friendship with Ron for anything" (271, Half-Blood Prince). These friendships prove to be extremely beneficial as Ron and Hermione undertake the quest to destroy Voldemort as well and are invaluable to Harry. Not only do both, on separate occasions, save Harry's life when he was in danger, but they both also destroy a Horcrux apiece. Thus, Harry's friends are absolutely crucial and without them, he would have perished long before his final duel with Voldemort. His sharing of power with his friends was a critical component of his triumph.
Dumbledore seems to lie in between the two polar opposites on the issues of power sharing and trust. He states, on several occasions, that he trusts Severus Snape and employed him as a double agent against Voldemort. He entrusts Harry with the mission of destroying Voldemort's Horcruxes and ridding the world of him, once and for all. In both cases, the ones he trusted prevailed in their tasks and so, Dumbledore's sharing of power seems successful. However, he does not fully disclose his plans with anyone, stating "I prefer not to put all my secrets in one basket" (349, Deathly Hallows). Therefore, Dumbledore, like Harry, discloses vital information to those closest to him, sharing the power of his knowledge. However, like Voldemort, he reveals the full details of his schemes to no one which frustrates both Harry and Snape tremendously.
Had Voldemort shared power and trusted his followers, he would have remained undefeated. Had Harry not, he would never have been able to defeat Voldemort. In implying this, Rowling suggests that in order to succeed, power must not lie in a lone pair of hands but distributed amongst a select few. Voldemort's death symbolizes the failure of dictatorship whereas Harry's triumph represents the prevailing of equitable governance.
Finally, the characters' attitude toward power is clearly brought out by the value they place on the human life. Lord Voldemort, it seems, places no value on any human life but his own. He goes through great lengths, undergoing various, and gruesome transformations in order to make himself immortal. In his obsessive quest for power, Voldemort commits countless murders. He begins by killing his father as revenge for having been abandoned as an infant. However, he then moves towards killing for personal gain. Hepzibah Smith, a wealthy elderly witch, becomes a murder victim because she possesses a valuable locket and cup which Voldemort steals. He seems to begin taking pleasure in slaying his victims as he laughs upon killing Harry's father. When Harry's mother placed herself as a shield between Harry and Voldemort, it is revealed that "He could have forced her away from the cot, but it seemed more prudent to finish them all" (281, Deathly Hallows). Therefore, he placed no value on her life and mercilessly killed her for the sake of being thorough. Eventually, murder becomes second nature to Voldemort and it is observed that "slaughter is becoming little more than a recreational sport under the new regime" (356, Deathly Hallows). Upon hearing news that his Horcrux had been stolen from Bellatrix's vault, his fury was expressed through mass murder: "again and again his wand fell, and those who were left were slain, all of them, for bringing him this news" (443, Deathly Hallows). Finally, in an act of supreme greed, he unceremoniously murders his most trusted follower, Severus Snape, believing that it will render him the master of the Elder Wand, making him more powerful. Thus, Voldemort's hunt for power leads him to commit innumerable murders and he seems to place no value on any life but his own.
Voldemort's character is juxtaposed by Harry who values every life and seems to feel personally responsible for saving as many lives as he can. He saves Ron from certain death when he is poisoned. He saves Hermione's life when she is being tortured by Bellatrix. He even saves Gregory Goyle and Draco Malfoy from being burnt to death despite the fact that both had, only moments prior, made attempts on his life. Harry, therefore, places tremendous value on human life and feels powerful waves of remorse at the deaths of Mad-Eye Moody, Fred Weasley and Dumbledore among others. Harry even sacrifices his own life in order to protect those around him. He tells Voldemort "I was ready to die to stop you hurting these people" (591, Deathly Hallows), clearly demonstrating the selflessness that Voldemort himself lacks. It is interesting to note that Harry, in sharp contrast to Voldemort, does not commit a single murder over the course of the novels. Even in his final duel with Voldemort, he aims to disarm him, not to kill. It is Voldemort's own killing curse that backfires on him, leaving him dead. Thus, Harry places great value on the human life and is willing to forego his own life and power to save the lives of others.
In his youth, Dumbledore planned to seize power by force. He was careful to emphasize that he would "use only the force that is necessary and no more." (291, Deathly Hallows), showing that he did place some value on the human life. However, he still seems to be willing to incur casualties "for the greater good" (291, Deathly Hallows). The death of his sister signals an end to this attitude as he personally feels the guilt associated with being responsible for the loss of a human life. From then on, he values life much more and works tirelessly against Voldemort and Grindelwald to prevent further slayings. As a young man, Dumbledore, like Voldemort, sought immortality, to become the "master of death" (571, Deathly Hallows). However, in old age, he doesn't value his life as much, telling Harry "your blood is worth more than mine" (523, Half-Blood Prince). Therefore, Dumbledore develops the selflessness that Harry possesses and works toward saving lives rather than taking them.
These differing attitudes towards the value of life contain a clear message by Rowling about power. Harry's triumph at the end of the novel and the power he holds demonstrates Rowling belief that those who choose to be compassionate and empathetic rather than cruel and callous are the ones who hold power best.
Ultimately, Rowling presents three differing attitudes towards power in her novels Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Voldemort, the cruel, sadistic dictator, Harry, the kind, unselfish leader and Dumbledore, who started off as power hungry but matured into a noble principal. In Harry's survival, Rowling clearly indicates her preference as to what the ideal attitude toward power should be. She maintains that one should not seek power fanatically but that power will naturally come to those who deserve it. She also claims that power should not be used selfishly but to benefit others. Those in power should treat others with respect and kindness and, if need be, choose to be compassionate even if it means forgoing the power one holds. Finally, Rowling believes that power should be shared equitably and not held in the hands of any one individual. In the character of Dumbledore, Rowling also suggests that it is never to late for one to positively alter their attitude towards power
All through the novels, Harry is presented as an ideal leader who demonstrates characteristics that we can aspire to emulate. The oft quoted 'crisis of leadership' that his Highness speaks of can easily be averted if we as a human race followed the ideals presented in this thought provoking series.