Harry Potter: The Importance of Antagonists
Without conflict, story doesn’t exist. The tougher the conflict and higher the stakes, the better a story will be. As readers, we hate to see the protagonists we love in trouble. We want them to get their happy endings, and we sympathize when our fictional friends get knocked down. Yet we keep reading because we want our protagonists to get up again. We want and need to know these people can solve problems and overcome obstacles because if they can, so can we.
This need for strong conflict in story begins when we are children. Many of us remember favorite books or series from our childhood and adolescent years. These books centered on memorable, sympathetic protagonists facing myriad conflicts that sometimes seemed impossible. For the current and coming generations, there is perhaps no better example than Harry Potter. At the tender age of one, Harry is nicknamed The Boy Who Lived, because he has already escaped Voldemort’s deadly murder plot.
In the course of seven books and sixteen more years, Harry faces several other antagonists and harrowing situations. Most are tied to Lord Voldemort, directly or indirectly. However, each antagonist Harry faces, and the trials they put him through, are meant to grow his abilities and confidence in unique ways. Readers face versions of Harry’s antagonists in their own lives, and seeing these people on the page helps enhance their self-confidence as well. Whether you’re a child reading Harry Potter for the first time or an adult returning to it for the tenth or twentieth time, you can find something and someone to relate to among Harry’s nemeses. When you find the nemesis you relate to most, you might find yourself taking a cue from Harry, as well as his compatriots, on how to defeat it.
Dudley Dursley – The First Bully, Innocence
The first antagonist Harry remembers and interacts with regularly is his cousin Dudley Dursley. Dudley is the spoiled and cossetted only child of Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia, who have raised Harry reluctantly from babyhood. Vernon and Petunia favor Dudley to nearly comic extremes, treating Harry as a piece of furniture at best and a physical and verbal punching bag at worst. Yet it’s arguably Dudley who gives Harry the most trouble out of his so-called “family.” Dudley is Harry’s age; he doesn’t have the intellectual capacity or physical freedom of adults, which puts him on somewhat equal footing with his cousin. What makes Dudley an antagonist though, is his failure to recognize he has anything in common with Harry, whether that be age, family ties, or something else.
Dudley is a bully, physically and mentally. Though obese, he regularly asserts physical power over Harry. In Sorcerer’s Stone, it’s noted Dudley’s favorite game is “Harry Hunting.” He uses Harry as a punching bag, doing things like breaking Harry’s glasses and taking advantage of the other boy’s small, undernourished stature. Worse, Dudley uses his privileged position in the Dursley household to torment Harry as much as possible. Dudley knows his parents would never side with Harry over him, so he feels comfortable teasing his cousin and rubbing Harry’s disadvantages in his face. Every day, Harry must live with the fact that Dudley is given every opportunity and advantage the world has to offer, while Harry himself gets next to nothing.
Of course, compared to the other antagonists Harry will face, Dudley is pretty tame. However, J.K. Rowling included Dudley in Harry’s life for an important reason. Dudley is the first and easiest opposing force Harry copes with. He’s intimidating, but only to the youngest version of Harry. Dudley prepares Harry for obstacles he’ll face later. Over time, Harry loses any fear of Dudley and stands up to him often, even daring to taunt and challenge him. The more confident Harry grows, the more able he feels to take down tougher opponents.
Harry’s first enemy is important for readers, too. Dudley reminds readers of the bullies we faced in our childhoods – the big boy on the playground who knocked people down and stole their lunch money, or the loud-mouthed girl who demeaned and insulted everyone who didn’t meet her standards. These bullies’ wounds hurt at the time, and some of them left lasting outer and inner scars. The Dudley Dursleys in our lives had power, but their power was limited because of their scope of control. Harry finds this out fairly quickly when he goes to Hogwarts. There, he meets Ron and Hermione, who become his best friends and always have his back. Just as importantly if not more so, at Hogwarts, Harry encounters adults he can trust for the first time. Dumbledore, McGonagall, Sirius, and others are firmly on his side; they can and do step in to put Vernon, Petunia, and Dudley in check when needed, and the effects of their “punishments” last. Like Harry, readers can defeat their Dudleys when they find support systems that work for them. Through Dudley, Sorcerer’s Stone and to a lesser degree, the other novels, encourage finding and maintaining that support.
Young Tom Riddle – Self-Doubt, Identity Formation
In Chamber of Secrets, Harry “levels up” to his next year at Hogwarts and his next antagonist. As the novel opens, Harry has a good grasp on magic expected for his age. He’s learned to navigate and accept the Wizarding World, even if some things in it remain mysterious. After a year of physical, mental, and emotional nourishment, he is ready to face and cope with the Dursleys’ abuse using new tools. Indeed, he must be especially creative with the Dursleys this year since it’s possible he won’t go back to Hogwarts at all. But Harry’s true test of mettle doesn’t begin until he does return to school, despite vehement objections from house elf Dobby and his own suppressed misgivings. Once Harry returns, he learns a few key things about this new threat. The new antagonist is unknown. He or she is after Harry in particular and thus, may be connected to Voldemort. Most importantly though, this antagonist is not content with simply eliminating Harry. He or she will use other students and teachers to get to Harry, effectively terrorizing the only true home he possesses.
It is in Chamber of Secrets that we see Harry’s true potential as a hero, and his ability to fight against a high-stakes enemy. He starts out with support from his best friends and other students, but loses most of it well before the final battle. The students and teachers of Hogwarts don’t know who opened the Chamber of Secrets or what monster lurks there, but they do know what it wants. The monster seeks to restore the Heir of Slytherin, a pure-blood fanatic who despises Muggles and has a strong connection to Voldemort. When the school discovers Harry, like the Heir, can speak Parseltongue, rumors fly. Harry is suddenly looked on with suspicion and fear. At one point, he’s accused of trying to harm fellow student Justin Finch-Fletchley. When the caretaker’s pet cat Mrs. Norris and a few Hogwarts students are petrified, Harry has no alibi. Ron and Hermione stick by him, but Ron is uncertain of his friend’s motives and true history. Even cool-headed and logical Hermione can’t deny her fears, since as a Muggle-born, she’s an Heir of Slytherin target. Whatever this monster is, whatever battle he must fight, Harry soon realizes he’ll largely face them alone.
Throughout Chamber of Secrets, Harry prepares to defeat a physical, tangible monster – a creature who can be studied, researched, and defeated through traditional means like magic or a sword. His final battle has elements of this; Hermione’s tireless research helps him uncover the identity and weaknesses of the basilisk, and Harry does use Dumbledore’s phoenix and the Sword of Gryffindor against it. Once in the basilisk’s lair though, Harry discovers this battle is far more mental than physical. The mysterious diary he’s been using to study his adversary belongs to Tom Riddle, a young man who attended Hogwarts fifty years prior. When the two face off, Tom explains he used magic to preserve his sixteen-year-old self inside the diary and return to Hogwarts later to finish his evil work. As an anagram of his name reveals, Tom Marvolo Riddle is an incarnation of Voldemort.
If Riddle’s identity stopped here, he’d remain a formidable opponent for our hero, but he has one more weapon at his disposal. That weapon is a gambit TV Tropes calls Not So Different. It’s what happens when a villain tries to convince a hero they have something in common and thus, the villain deserves sympathy or allegiance. Riddle takes full advantage of this, pointing out every similarity he and Harry share. Though Riddle is older and stronger, both boys are attractive. Both are reasonably good students, “street smart” if not “book smart,” and unusually courageous for their youth. Both are orphans who grew up in difficult Muggle circumstances – Harry with abusive relatives and Tom in an orphanage where, while not abused, he was denied individual attention and nurturing. Yet, Harry doesn’t falter until Riddle explores their deeper similarities.
As one might expect, Tom Riddle is the Heir of Slytherin. In trying to convince Harry the two share similar goals, Riddle points out Harry’s own Slytherin tendencies, such as “potential for greatness” and “a thirst to prove [himself],” as the Sorting Hat once said. This, coupled with the painful isolation Harry has endured, causes him great emotional pain, which increases as he remembers he was nearly sorted into Slytherin. Throughout Chamber, Harry has wondered if the Sorting Hat made a mistake, and whether he could be as evil as Voldemort, deep down. These doubts take Harry’s focus from the ultimate goal and almost secure Riddle’s victory. Had Riddle succeeded, Harry would have lost his first true home and everything that made it such.
Riddle’s forte is upping Harry’s mental stakes. In Riddle, Harry faces the first person who makes him seriously doubt himself and question his motives. Riddle’s similarities to Harry make him what psychology calls a “shadow,” or a version of who Harry could be unless he chose to take a different path. Dumbledore points this out when he reassures Harry the Sorting Hat didn’t make a mistake. It placed Harry in Gryffindor because he pleaded not to be placed in Slytherin. “It is our choices that determine who we are more than our abilities,” Dumbledore says. Dumbledore acknowledges Harry’s abilities and perhaps his “potential for greatness,” but subtly points out that relying only on abilities is to give in to one’s “shadow.”
The struggle for identity is a common one among kids Harry’s age – it is perhaps the biggest one they’ll face as they head into their teens. Modern readers don’t have Hogwarts magic, but they do fight to separate themselves from what others think of them or have told them they are. They seek the independence required to make and live with their own choices, and wonder whether to define themselves by choices, abilities, or some combination. As Harry Potter readers undertake this quest, they will encounter self-doubt and frightening possibilities for their future. Older readers looking back on the series may recognize their younger selves in Harry, and Tom Riddle in their own inner critics or the people who doubted them. Chamber of Secrets indicates the struggle for self is one we must win if we are to continue growing, learning, and succeeding.
Sirius Black and the Dementors – Reconciling Past with Present
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban takes us to Harry’s third year at Hogwarts. His confrontation with Tom Riddle and the basilisk has shown Harry he is a survivor. He’ll need that knowledge in his third year, when he finds out an escapee from the wizard prison of Azkaban is after him. Caring adults like Mr. and Mrs. Weasley try to shelter Harry, but he will have none of it. He eventually learns the prisoner of Azkaban is Sirius Black, and that most people find even his name intimidating. But with the audacity of a typical thirteen-year-old, Harry assumes he’s fairly safe. As long as he’s at Hogwarts and under Dumbledore’s protection, nothing can hurt him, at least not the way the Dursleys or Tom Riddle have tried to do.
Harry is proven wrong when a completely new and different antagonist arrives. On the journey to Hogwarts, a dementor, one of the Azkaban guards, enters the train. Its presence causes the air to chill and all hope and happiness to be sucked out of Harry and friends’ compartment. Ron and Hermione feel these effects, but Harry is the only one who faints from the encounter – right after hearing a woman screaming in his mind. Professor Remus Lupin, who was sleeping on the other side of the compartment, helps Harry come to and revives him with chocolate. Harry is left fearful and rattled. Whatever a dementor is or does, he never wants to encounter one again. If dementors have anything to do with Sirius Black, they must be doubly dangerous. It will take much more than chocolate for him to conquer this adversary and the terror it inspires.
Harry spends much of Prisoner of Azkaban’s first half trying to work through that first dementor confrontation and figure out why the creature went after him in particular. Professor Lupin, who becomes his Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, serves as Harry’s mentor in this area. Lupin explains dementors are so feared because they feed on hope. Their victims, such as Azkaban’s prisoners, are deprived of positive emotions and left to relive their worst memories, without a shred of hope that things will ever improve. It’s why so many of those prisoners die without any interference from the environment or Wizarding authorities. During Lupin’s first class, when everyone is asked to face and defeat their personal boggarts, Harry discovers his is a dementor. Lupin steps in to perform the ridikkulus charm and banish the boggart himself, but agrees to teach Harry how to defeat “fear of fear itself.” In acknowledging this fear, Harry moves one step closer to triumphing over what he fears Sirius Black may do to him.
Harry is not necessarily afraid of Sirius Black as a person, but what Black’s presence might bring up from Harry’s mind. As he works to master the patronus charm, Harry learns the screams he heard in his encounter with the dementor were his dead mother Lily’s. They were the screams of a terrified and dying mother sacrificing herself for her child. On a trip to Hogsmeade, Harry eavesdrops on McGonagall and some other professors. He discovers Black allegedly betrayed his parents to Voldemort during the first Wizarding War. Harry is infuriated, especially after learning Black is his godfather. How could such a trusted person betray his parents, he demands of his friends. Harry swears to kill Black himself and declares Black “better be ready” for him. He’s sincere, but discerning readers see terror and trepidation under his fury and bravado. Deep down, Harry fears if he does confront Black, he’ll be too overcome with memories and emotion to fight, much less win. Thus, Black will gain victory again and Harry will let his parents down.
More than any other Harry Potter novel, Prisoner of Azkaban deals with the antagonism of the mind. Tom Riddle embodied some of that, but here, much of the major conflict takes place in Harry’s own head. This begins with the dementor. Later, Sirius Black embodies hopelessness, as he threatens to bring Harry’s traumatic past to the forefront of his life. A traumatized person cannot protect themselves or others. He or she is emotionally vulnerable, oftentimes physically weak, and often overcome with a sense of being “stuck” in the trauma. Therefore, Sirius Black and all associated with him, including the dementors, have the potential to render Harry ineffective. Sirius doesn’t need to kill Harry; readers eventually learn that was never his objective in the first place. But if he can decimate his godson emotionally, Harry won’t be able to fulfill his destiny. He won’t be able to accept who he is because he’ll remain stuck in who he was – the helpless, vulnerable, and traumatized child of the parents who gave up everything for him and whose legacy he can’t carry on.
Harry eventually defeats Sirius – or what he represents – in an epic battle with Ron, Hermione, Lupin, and even despised professor Severus Snape at his side. The scene carries plenty of action, engaging young and adult readers alike. But the triumph doesn’t lie in Harry and friends’ escape from a werewolf, their use of time travel to save an innocent magical animal, or even their daring rescue of Sirius. The triumph occurs when Harry confronts Sirius with what he thinks he knows, demands the truth of what happened to his parents and why, and stands strong in the face of difficult truths. Harry’s real victory lies in the choice to believe in Sirius’ innocence, but moreover the choice to rise above trauma. As Harry’s mind and spirit grow stronger, he begins to reconcile his legacy, accept that others can have good intentions toward him, and deal more effectively with those whose intentions are malevolent.
It’s a rare reader who can say he or she has never felt depressed or hopeless, or as if all the memories they had were their worst ones. J.K. Rowling herself was suicidal shortly before beginning Harry’s series. Many readers have gone through one trauma or another, struggled with who to trust, or tried to reconcile who they were in the past with who they are and who they will be. Whether functional or dysfunctional, every reader has a family and has lived through family conflict, misunderstandings, and rifts that sometimes rip the fabric of family and friendships apart. Thus, every reader can identify with Harry Potter on some level as he confronts the truth of Sirius Black and his history. Prisoner of Azkaban encourages us not only to identify, but to take what we learn and become stronger, better people for it.
Triwizard Tournament – Ego and Mortality
Harry Potter begins his fourth year at Hogwarts with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend the Quidditch World Cup with the Weasleys. The breath-stealing match between Ireland and Bulgaria foreshadows the challenges and unique antagonists Harry will face when he returns to school. After the match, someone appropriates a house elf’s wand to cast Voldemort’s Dark Mark over the Quidditch pitch. Harry and his compatriots don’t know for sure what this means, but Harry is too eager to get his fourth year started to give it much thought. Indeed, this will be an exciting year for the fourteen-year-old wizard, as Hogwarts is hosting two other wizarding schools in the Triwizard Tournament. Harry is too young to participate, but his name somehow ends up in the Goblet of Fire and is drawn in the selection. After much controversy, Dumbledore agrees to let Harry represent Hogwarts. However, the stakes are raised when Harry learns that once again, his life might be in jeopardy.
By now, Harry is used to others seeking his blood, but this time, his unseen enemy has an entire tournament on their side. The Triwizard Tournament is fraught with life-threatening obstacles, so if Harry’s enemy chose, he or she could use one of those and claim Harry’s death was accidental. Harry is prepared for this, doing his best to research his tests, find opponents’ weaknesses, and stay alive long enough to win the tournament. As with Sorcerer’s Stone, he falls back on the strengths of his support system, like Hagrid’s gift with magical creatures and Hermione’s dedication to research and knowledge. Using these, he studies how to best the Hungarian Horntail. He finds the secret to calming malevolent mermaids. Though Harry’s third test, a maze, is a surprise, he’s able to use the brainpower and savvy he’s built up to navigate it with reasonable confidence. Yet along with Harry, readers soon learn the physicality of the tournament isn’t Harry’s biggest obstacle.
As Goblet of Fire progresses, readers see Harry struggles with his ego. Some of this comes from victimization – not everyone is thrilled he’s been chosen as champion, and are vocal about that. Yet Harry is unwilling to remain a victim this time. He becomes angry and determined to “show them,” so to speak. At times, this leads to pride and the tendency to show off, not listen to wiser people, or neglect his friends. Facing his weaknesses forces Harry to admit that he may be the Boy Who Lived, but he’s not the center of the universe. There is nothing wrong with his desire to win the tournament, become physically powerful, or become champion for his entire school. If anything, that last desire is a bit selfless since everything and everyone in Hogwarts is so dear to Harry. Still, Harry’s ego, teenage angst, and natural adolescent self-absorption trip him up at times.
If ego and physical challenges were Harry’s only problems in Goblet of Fire, we could probably skip it and move straight to the intensity of Order of the Phoenix. However, the Triwizard Tournament lends a unique element to Harry’s struggles and the adversaries he faces in Rowling’s fourth installment. Along with ego, Harry faces his own mortality, sooner than most teenagers will and arguably too soon. Again, the intense nature of the tournament’s competitions are partially responsible for this. Every witch or wizard entering the tournament knows while every safety measure will be taken, death is a possibility. To a courageous boy like Harry though, the challenges he faces are thrilling as well as scary. He gets the same adrenaline rush from them a Muggle kid might get from bungee jumping, skydiving, or performing a stunt for YouTube audiences. Mortality only becomes Harry’s enemy when it strikes at his heart rather than his ego, boldness, or body.
Harry knows mortality is a major issue in the Triwizard Tournament, but doesn’t face it until the third obstacle, the maze. During this contest, all four champions go in together. Their goal is to safely navigate the maze while defeating the frightening obstacles within. To be counted the winner, the aspiring champion must come out of the maze holding the Triwizard Cup, found at its center. If an obstacle proves too much for a champion, he or she loses automatically. The rules of the maze also state champions may not help each other, but Harry, fond of bending rules anyway, breaks this one when he realizes Cedric is in danger. Harry soundly thrashes his ego and defeats an inner antagonist when he helps Cedric escape Viiktor’s attempt at the unforgivable Cruciatus Curse. Mere moments later, he teams up with Cedric to best the maze’s giant spider. Yet it is not until both boys realize their trophy is a Portkey that Harry’s face-off against mortality begins. He and Cedric are thrown into the clutches of Death Eaters, as well as Voldemort, who has returned despite all reports that he was dead for good.
Voldemort and the Death Eaters dispatch Cedric in short order, shocking Harry and readers with the series’ first death of a major character. Cedric’s death is painful and traumatic, and partly because of its effect on him, Harry is almost killed as well. He ultimately wins against Voldemort, but must carry the memory of Cedric’s death the rest of his life. Harry doesn’t feel directly responsible for Cedric’s death, though he does speculate on his part in it and how he is going to cope with its implications. He spends most of the book’s end absorbing the fact that Voldemort has returned, will be stronger this time, and will defeat the good witches and wizards of the Wizarding World unless everyone sticks together. Harry soon realizes the Triwizard Tournament, which focuses on promoting unity and understanding, brought him to this point in his physical and mental journeys.
Whether they have seen someone die as Harry did, or faced death’s reality through secondhand experience, target audience readers are old enough to know death exists, is permanent, and has severe, lasting effects on those it touches. They, like Harry, have reached a point in their lives where sheltering has given way to being trusted with unpleasant realities. Among these are not only the reality of mortality, but the reality that our inner selves have deep flaws. Even those we love and trust, such as parents and teachers, can make huge mistakes. Book four marks a turning point for Harry and his young friends. After the death of Cedric and return of Voldemort, innocence can no longer shelter them. They may also make new peace with their own mortality through Harry and Cedric’s last adventure, which may enable them to prepare new generation for the realities it will face.
Umbridge – Cynicism and Disintegration of Trust
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix finds Harry beginning his fifth year at Hogwarts. Harry faces intense pressure this year, as he will take his Ordinary Wizarding Level (OWL) exams, and try to answer the question of what comes after Hogwarts. That would be enough conflict for any ordinary teenager, but Harry has other obstacles to contend with. Except Dumbledore, no one believes him when he claims Voldemort is back, because no one else took the Portkey and ended up in the Death Eaters’ lair. The only one who did, Cedric Diggory, is deceased. As for Dumbledore, he seems too interested in protecting Harry from reality to actually help him process what has happened. Harry’s frustration boils over when he tries to save his cousin Dudley from a rogue dementor and faces expulsion for his efforts.
Harry’s expulsion hearing introduces readers to perhaps the most hated villain of the series, Ms. Delores Umbridge. This witch’s name inspires disdain – “Delores” is Spanish for “pain” or “sorrows,” and “Umbridge” is a riff on “umbrage,” a word meaning “to take offense,” or “to be annoyed or piqued.” Fittingly, Umbridge is the biggest advocate for Harry’s expulsion, despite the mitigating circumstances in his favor. Harry is only cleared of charges when Dumbledore defends him, but Dumbledore disappears after the hearing. Meanwhile, Hogwarts’ Defense Against the Dark Arts teaching position is vacant for the fifth time, and Delores Umbridge steps up to fill it. Harry and readers hope that with Dumbledore still at the helm, this annoying and suspicious woman will be kept in check, but those hopes are dashed within a few chapters.
At first, Umbridge looks as innocent and sweet as her signature color, bubblegum pink. She often behaves like a kindergarten teacher, speaking to her students as if they were five or six and reprimanding them for imagined disruptions and infractions. Additionally, Umbridge expects Harry and friends to pass Defense Against the Dark Arts without any practical experience. Her classes consist of students silently reading chapters from a dry textbook, and giving no input other than what she expects them to regurgitate. If anyone breaks this routine, he or she pays for it. For instance, when Hermione asks an appropriate and practical question, Umbridge shuts her down. Later, Harry challenges Umbridge’s teaching methods in light of Voldemort’s return. Umbridge calls him a liar in front of the class, castigates him, and warns him never to bring up Voldemort again.
If Delores Umbridge’s antagonistic behavior stopped here, she would be bad enough. Like Severus Snape, she would be seen as an overly stern and self-important teacher, the kind who bullies students out of insecurity and a desire for control. Umbridge possesses these traits, but she doesn’t stop at verbal bullying. Her lust for power extends beyond the need to control the classroom. Delores Umbridge works for the Ministry of Magic, and thus has direct connections to one of the most powerful agencies in the Wizarding World. She wants to expand those connections to become head of Hogwarts. She figures – and rightly so – that if she can control the Wizarding World’s students, she can gain a major foothold with adults. To that end, Umbridge quickly progresses from classroom bullying to psychological warfare.
During his first detention with Umbridge, Harry is forced to write “I must not tell lies” over and over again – with an enchanted quill that carves the words into his skin with his own blood. Harry tries to stay stoic, but J.K. Rowling indicates he’s in great pain during the ordeal. It is implied Umbridge uses other grueling physical and psychological punishments on students who won’t comply with the way she operates. She regularly tries to convince students they “deserve to be punished” for questioning the system. She’s also said to use Veritaserum, a potion that forces the consumer to tell the whole truth, no matter how incriminating it might be, on at least one student. Slowly but methodically, Umbridge emotionally cripples some Hogwarts students. Others become determined to shut up, keep their heads down, and ignore what they know is right. Umbridge also recruits several students, mostly from Slytherin House, to serve as her Inquisitor Squad. The Squad is rewarded for informing on any student or teacher who doesn’t conform to Umbridge’s agenda.
With the Inquisitor Squad and the promise of draconian detentions terrorizing students, Umbridge turns her attention to Hogwarts’ other teachers – again, setting the groundwork for defeating adult targets. She has a few favorite targets. Hagrid is nearly fired after one of her surprise “class inspections,” and she actually fires Trelawney in front of an entire group of students and professors. However, it’s soon clear no one is safe from this woman. Some of the professors try to fight back. For instance, McGonagall stands up for Trelawney and lets Umbridge know exactly what she thinks of the new regime. Yet even the formidable Minerva McGonagall can’t stop what Umbridge does with Ministry approval. Dumbledore must eventually leave Hogwarts under accusations of mental instability, and Umbridge installs herself as Headmistress. Once in that position, she increases the power she already held as Hogwarts’ “Grand High Inquisitor.” This increase includes making reams of unjust “proclamations” banning everything from Quidditch to club meetings, and enforcing stringent, age-inappropriate behavior codes.
When Umbridge becomes Headmistress, her weaknesses are exposed. Delores Umbridge is a chronically cynical, fearful woman. She doesn’t trust the students and teachers of Hogwarts, with whom she is supposed to work as a team member. She also refuses to let others think for themselves, out of fear their ideas will upset her mental picture of what is good, right, and orderly. She doesn’t work for Voldemort, but is arguably a more dangerous villain, because she takes people and institutions down from the inside out.
Umbridge turns students against each other. She strips authority from anyone who intimidates her and completely rejects any idea that would leave her vulnerable, such as the idea Voldemort has returned. Every move she makes, from the smallest insinuation to the most sweeping proclamation, spreads cynicism’s poison through Hogwarts. Worse, her actions cause disintegration of trust. Under her, Harry learns he can no longer trust everyone in his beloved school environment as he used to. Furthermore, his fellow students no longer trust each other or themselves. Some of them, including Harry himself, undergo gaslighting when Umbridge tells them they deserve punishment. Umbridge employs extremely adult, complex, and underhanded tactics, and Harry soon realizes he must fight on her turf to defeat her.
In Order of the Phoenix, Harry gives two mature responses to Umbridge. First, he expands his circle of allies to include anyone who will stand with him, no matter how close they are, how well they can stand up to Umbridge on their own, or how different they are from him. For example, Harry finds an “odd” Ravenclaw student named Luna Lovegood is one of his strongest supporters. Secondly, Harry eventually turns to the older and more experienced adults in the Order of the Phoenix for guidance and assistance. Though anger and confusion made Harry rebel against these people at first, he soon understands Umbridge, and by extension Voldemort, will not fall unless everyone pushes together. Harry must sometimes force the Order to accept him and the other Dumbledore’s Army students as equal fighters, and sometimes, his plans backfire or end in disaster. But when Harry decides to rebuild trust for himself by trusting others, Voldemort is defeated, if only for the time being. More importantly, Umbridge is defeated. In that, Harry and his allies take down a version of Voldemort. They dismantle the way he works, and learn how difficult it may be to face him again, physically and mentally, one on one. This doesn’t solve everything. It doesn’t bring back Sirius, who dies protecting Harry, or restore the happiness our protagonists knew before. But this latest battle and antagonist gird Harry’s heart with renewed faith in himself and the people who love him.
Snape and Death Eaters – Hidden Agendas and Allies
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince chronicles Harry Potter’s sixth and penultimate year at Hogwarts. He has passed his OWLs, set a course to become an Auror (Dark wizard catcher), and is almost ready to enjoy the full rights and privileges of magic. More importantly, he has faced and won against five increasingly difficult and frightening antagonists. Yet a couple pieces of Harry’s puzzle remain, as Voldemort edges ever closer to making a final appearance in his world. These last pieces are not readily seen, nor are the antagonists behind them as obvious as before. They will push Harry to his limits, taking readers’ limits with them.
Now that the Wizarding World has accepted Voldemort is back, they must contend with his army of supporters, the Death Eaters. Throughout Half-Blood Prince, this army makes advances toward Hogwarts and the central showdown, by wreaking havoc in the Wizarding World. Many of Harry’s classmates lose loved ones; Hufflepuff Hannah Abbott is pulled out of Herbology on a perfectly normal morning and told her mother is dead. Susan Bones loses her Aunt Amelia. Meanwhile, the students whose families are left intact struggle with what the Death Eaters are doing now and the trauma they’ve caused in the past. For instance, Harry will never get over the death of Cedric Diggory, and the death of Sirius Black stripped him of his only loving family member. However, under the obvious external conflict, a high-stakes internal one throbs. The central question is, who is a Death Eater and hiding it? Who has hidden agendas? In this time when so much trust has been broken, who should Harry and friends trust?
Instead of bringing forth a new enemy, Rowling takes us back to one Harry has had since day one at Hogwarts. In Half-Blood Prince, Draco Malfoy finally gets his chance to shine as an antagonist. Thus far, he’s mostly been a childhood bully – a magical version of Dudley Dursley, if you will. His taste for the Dark Arts and zeal for blood purity have made him an adversary readers love to hate, but he’s older now. Like Harry, Draco has more magic and better connections at his disposal. Thus, the thought that he’s an undercover Death Eater raises the stakes for Harry and everyone at Hogwarts. A seventeen-year-old racist Slytherin, and one of the most wealthy and well-connected ones, could conceivably recruit as many fellow Death Eaters as he wanted. Harry and his friends know an entire house could turn against their school. Failing that, the adults on Voldemort’s side could make Hogwarts a living hell. What scares Harry most though, is one of those adults is right under Hogwarts’ roof.
Like Draco Malfoy, Severus Snape returns to the forefront in Half-Blood Prince. And like Draco, he’s waited until book six to show his true cards, at least some of them. Alan Rickman explains this in an interview on the set of Half-Blood Prince. “There’s always been an agenda,” he said. “You just never knew what that agenda was going to turn out to be.” Indeed, Snape’s agenda has always been one of the only things readers knew about him. “He lives in very tight confines,” Alan Rickman said. “He’s intensely focused.” Now, in Half-Blood Prince, it’s up to Harry to find out what the epicenter of that focus is. Snape looks, speaks, and acts like an undercover Death Eater, but is he? Is Dumbledore right to keep insisting Harry trust Snape, who thus far hasn’t given Harry any reason to do so? Harry must be careful in his conclusions, because the fate of Hogwarts could rest with them. If Snape is a Death Eater, Harry could play a part in bringing him down and saving the school he loves. But if he’s wrong and Snape is one of the “good guys,” misjudging this teacher could put Harry and Hogwarts in greater danger.
Searching for answers, Harry turns to the one adult he’s always felt was trustworthy – Dumbledore. Indeed, Dumbledore remains Harry’s mentor, but in this installment, he takes his protege’s journey to the next level. Harry soon learns he must find and destroy Voldemort’s remaining Horcruxes, or objects into which he placed pieces of his soul so he could remain immortal. J.K. Rowling brilliantly marries the quest for the external and internal, because it’s hinted that once Harry finds and destroys all the Horcruxes, he’ll have a better understanding of who is on his side and what they need from him. Dealing with Horcruxes will give Harry the final strength he needs to battle one more time as the Boy Who Lived.
The quest for the external and internal is present throughout Half-Blood Prince, right up until the climax. There, Harry and Dumbledore end up in a cave near a lake filled with Inferi, or dead bodies Voldemort bewitches to do his bidding. Inferi are a physical enemy Harry must defeat, but they are also the embodiment of his worst fear – emotional death. Emotionally, death means losing connections to home, the people he loves, and what feels familiar. The specter of emotional death has haunted Harry since he was a baby. The battle of the cave therefore tests his ability to stand against his longtime foe, whether in physical or spiritual form.
In Half-Blood Prince, readers see Harry nearly lose this battle. During the Horcrux search and ensuing cave confrontation, Harry must watch Dumbledore drink a potion that causes him horrible pain, almost on a level with the Cruciatus Curse. Later, when the two get back to Hogwarts, Death Eaters break into the school. At first, this vindicates Harry, as he sees Draco Malfoy fighting alongside the Death Eaters and is able to prove his earlier theory. But Harry becomes confused and disillusioned when Draco switches sides and Snape tries to protect him. Why would a teacher who claims not to work for Voldemort, even a bitter and bullying one like Snape, protect a student like Draco just because he claimed to switch sides at the last minute? Worse, Harry experiences another emotional death when Dumbledore is struck down in battle. Snape casts the Killing Curse (Avada Kedavara) on Dumbledore, leaving Harry in a dark place. On the one hand, he takes some security from knowing he was right about Snape, who now embodies the worst kind of evil. On the other hand, he has lost his mentor, the last adult he had a close relationship with. Emotional and spiritual death threaten to cripple him again, especially after Snape defeats him in a vengeful duel.
As children, we fear the physical, including physical obstacles or death, far more than the emotional or spiritual. Our emotions and ability to think abstractly are underdeveloped, and we do not see the nuances in people. People are either completely good or completely bad, and never the two shall meet. Like Harry though, we find and embrace those nuances as we mature. We also learn to recognize and fear emotional death more than physical, because living in dark places is often harder than dying. Sometimes we lose the people and connections we depended on and loved. Sometimes we must duel with the consequences, internally if not externally. Harry’s confrontation with Snape symbolizes all our inner duels, some of which we will lose. In the end though, we must be strong enough to get up and keep fighting, until we can reach a place where the fear of emotional death is defeated in us.
Deathly Hallows – The Last Enemy, Death
J.K. Rowling has one more book and a few more tricks up her sleeve. These come to light in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, where Harry finally faces Voldemort for the last time. He’s seventeen now and should be a “senior” at Hogwarts, but cannot return to school for his last year.Several decoys fail to protect Harry, and he loses Hedwig, the last symbolic vestige of his innocence. Hagrid too, is forced to leave him for his own and Hogwarts’ protection. Harry meets up with Ron and Hermione at Hogwarts, only for the three of them to learn their school is no longer home, or safe. The Death Eaters have taken over everything from Hogwarts itself to the Ministry of Magic. In consequence, Severus Snape is appointed headmaster, and furthers Voldemort’s terrible regime. The Sorting Hat is burned and all students are forced into Slytherin House. After former Muggle Studies professor Charity Burbridge is killed, the class becomes a hub of propaganda where students are taught that Muggles are basically filthy animals to be exterminated. Defense Against the Dark Arts becomes simply Dark Arts, where students are forced to learn to hex and curse each other and use Unforgivable Curses. Apparently on Snape’s orders, Alecto and Amycus Carrow are brought in to teach these new subjects. Unlike Snape, they are zealous Death Eaters who delight in torturing students on a level that makes Umbridge look tame. Harry, Ron and Hermione must flee into the wilderness.
With his final safety net obliterated, Harry must use everything he has learned so far to prepare himself for battle. His friends go through similar journeys. Ron, for instance, finds one Horcrux in Slytherin’s locket, which corrupts his emotions and causes him to disappear for weeks. Meanwhile, Muggle-born Hermione faces the immense pain of wiping her parents’ memories. They no longer know they had a daughter, and she may never see them again. More than ever, the trio must depend solely on each other. Yet their friendship is threatened when misunderstandings nearly pull them apart. For instance, Ron believes Harry has betrayed him by being romantically involved with Hermione. Harry, in turn, is nearly crushed when he believes he has lost his best and first Hogwarts friend. Only when they work through this surface-level drama can our three heroes find empathy for each other and empathy for their world. Only then will they be prepared to save it.
Ron and Hermione return to Hogwarts, but Harry must stay in hiding, as he is a wanted man. Snape decrees any Hogwarts student found to be aiding or abetting Harry will face severe punishment. Ron, Hermione and several other members of Dumbledore’s Army are forced to mount another underground resistance in the Room of Requirement. But because Harry is the one Voldemort really wants, he will not accept defeat at the hands of anyone else. This hearkens toward another adult message. That is, the battle against Voldemort is ultimately Harry’s alone. As adults, our support systems may always be there, but there are some enemies we must face one on one, because their defeat won’t impact anyone else as much.
Harry finally bursts into Hogwarts one night, in the middle of Snape’s speech declaring Harry Potter is dead. He confronts Snape about killing Dumbledore – “How dare you stand where he stood! Tell them where you were that night! Tell them!” This inspires the other students to rally around Harry, and sets off an epic duel between Snape and McGonagall. McGonagall triumphs, sending Snape hurtling through a plate glass window, but the battle has only begun. With Dumbledore’s Army, the Order of the Phoenix, and other pro-Potter characters scattering in different directions, McGonagall casts a number of spells to protect the school. She also gives her students explicit permission to blow it up, because a destroyed Hogwarts is better than one with Voldemort at the helm.
Some of Rowling’s darkest and most intense battle imagery ensues. Harry and the other characters begin to lose dear friends, and readers lose them with him. Hedwig’s death and Hagrid’s departure were wrenchingly painful, but now it seems beloved characters are dropping like flies. Remus and Nymphadora Tonks Lupin are killed, mere months after their marriage and birth of subsequent baby Teddy, leaving another orphan of war just like Harry was. Readers around the world still mourn the death of Fred Weasley, George’s twin brother and partner in crime. McGonagall is consigned to the hospital wing on the brink of death after taking four stunning spells to the chest. Meanwhile, surviving students are either risking their lives, in hiding, or trying to help the first- and second-years get to safety. Slytherin House in particular faces a grave moral dilemma, as many students find friends and family members are, so to speak, fighting for the other team. Draco in particular finds himself in danger, marked for death after his mother Narcissa lies to Voldemort’s face about her son’s location. Even through all this, the focus remains on Harry and his final confrontations, internal and external.
During the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry must put his prejudices to death. Readers learn that Draco Malfoy, his mother Narcissa and some others have defected from the Death Eaters, but Harry is not yet ready to accept them as repentant. He is certainly not ready to accept this from Snape, who he now considers destroyer of everyone and everything he loved. This interpretation seems to fit Snape’s character; we have seen him malign and abuse Harry for six books. Many times, Snape even seems to aid in Voldemort’s attempts to kill Harry. Yet, Snape allows himself to be expelled from Hogwarts and fatally bitten by Nagini, apparently for the sake of protecting Harry. Harry must face another adult question – what do I do when people aren’t who they say they are? Is there a place of safety for anyone?
Harry gets some final answers when Snape allows Harry to see his memories. In this, presented as The Prince’s Tale, we learn Snape’s tragic history. Notably, we learn that he, like Harry, was an abused and neglected child, a half-blood whose salvation lay in Hogwarts. Lily Evans, who would eventually become Harry’s mother, was Severus Snape’s only true friend, whom he grew to love. Yet Snape lost Lily to James Potter, whose friend Sirius Black actually tried to have Snape murdered when they were all fifteen. In his pain and grief, Snape became a Death Eater, but defected after Voldemort killed Lily in the first Wizarding War. Snape’s only recourse at that point was to become a double agent under deep cover, working for Dumbledore and the Order. He dedicates himself to protecting Harry out of devotion and the desire to prove himself on the right side. Though being warm obvious about it would blow his cover, Snape is tireless in this, mentoring Harry on the sly in his acerbic way.
Harry’s new knowledge gives him empathy for Snape; later, he will name a son after him and call Snape “the bravest man I’ve ever known.” It is not until Harry learns the truth about Dumbledore’s death, however, that he can fully lay down his former thoughts and prepare to face Voldemort. It turns out Snape killed Dumbledore on the latter’s orders, as a ploy to defeat Voldemort. This causes a major rift between Dumbledore and Snape, who rightly accuses the former headmaster of “raising [Harry] like a pig for slaughter.” This knowledge catapults Harry into his final adult realization. That is, the people we love and hate are morally grey; Snape was not inherently evil and Dumbledore was not a saint. As Dumbledore told Harry long ago, “It is our choices who shape who we are.” Seeing the choices his two mentors – one obvious and one highly unlikely – have made, prepares Harry to make his own final choice.
Harry faces Voldemort for the final time when Hogwarts is apparently deserted and nothing more than a shell of its former self. His friends and mentors are gone, and his head is spinning with knowledge regarding the lies he always believed and what was true all along. The best way to put this knowledge to use is to defeat his last enemy, the harbinger of physical and emotional death who has taken so much from him. When Voldemort taunts, “The Boy Who Lived, come to die,” Harry challenges him to finish what he started. Our hero and villain fire mortal spells at each other, wands locked in a deadly stalemate, until Harry finally wrests control of the Elder Wand, the most powerful wand in the world, from Voldemort. Rowling reiterates Harry is able to do this through love – his mother’s sacrificial love yes, but also the love of people like Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore and even Snape in his own way. Ultimately though, it is Harry’s love for Hogwarts, his home, and his friends that defeats his final enemy. It hearkens back to the Biblical themes, “Greater love has no man…than he lay down his life for his friends,” and “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
Children and adults alike may never fully destroy emotional and physical death as Harry did. Death will always be with him, although the epilogue to the series states “All was well” and gives surviving characters happy endings. In writing this last book, however, Rowling does not encourage her readers to defeat death on their own. She instead points to the one thing we all need to defeat any enemy – love. Whether we get that from inside ourselves or from a God like Jesus Christ, using it allows us to stand triumphant.
In Harry Potter, Joanne K. Rowling created one of the most complex storylines and series ever written, and some of the most complex characters. The most intriguing of these were her villains and antagonists. Each person or group of people represents an enemy Harry Potter must face and defeat on his epic journey to take down Voldemort, the harbinger of death who stole everything from him as a baby. As Harry faces increasingly high stakes and complex adversaries, he grows and matures. More importantly, readers have the opportunity to grow, learn and mature with him.
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