‘There is no good and evil; there is only power and those too weak to seek it.’
The average philosophy student could be forgiven for attributing these words to the incendiary philosopher and author of Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. They may not guess the quotation’s true orator: a hammed up CGI sorcerer from a children’s fantasy series.
‘God is dead’ is Nietzsche’s most famous assertion, yet his work makes greater claims than announcing the death of a specifically modern God; Nietzsche claims there are no universal moral facts, only interpretations. Armed with, yet burdened by this new understanding, humanity must fight the absurdity and nihilism that results from loss of moral and religious “truths”. Instead, we must strive towards a new life of courage, free thought and power. Needless to say, the firebrand who heralded the end of morality and described the Church as a filthy, parasitic institution was not welcomed by the Christian majority of his day. Nietzsche’s madman is laughed out of the marketplace and the philosopher resigned himself to the notion that ‘some are born posthumously.’
Contemporary Christian reactions to the Harry Potter series have been varied, but while many find strong examples of compassion, pity and self-sacrifice, it is clear that others feel threatened by the very notion of witchcraft and wizardry for children. This anxiety was caricatured through The Simpsons’ Ned Flanders, who reads to his son that, ‘Harry Potter and all his wizard friends went straight to hell for practicing witchcraft!’ before tossing the book into the fireplace. In addition to very real fears about the corrupting influence of supernatural powers (or rather non-Christian supernatural powers) many simply ask where is God (generally the Christian God) in these stories? Applying this kind of literalist question to a series of fantasy novels is similar to asking whether it’s really possible to reanimate a corpse or if pigs could really manage a successful agricultural enterprise. Behind this simplistic questioning of God’s “absence” in the Harry Potter series, there is a more fundamental, less widely discussed issue. It relates to the sickly wanderer burdened by terrifying moral freedom quoted above; that is, Lord Voldemort.
In the final confrontation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Voldemort offers to take Harry beyond good and evil. What makes his suggestion terrifying is not that it is spoken by a contorting face on the back of another’s head, but that it suggests both to Harry and audiences, that our morality is not universally true, but contingent and constructed. Interestingly, Harry does not interrupt Voldemort during his monologue on morality or attempt to escape with the stone. Instead, he removes the object so keenly sought by the Dark Lord, and brings it into full view. Harry’s consideration of Voldemort’s thrilling notion wavers however. He retreats to the traditional codes of right and wrong, and, somewhat petulantly, tells Voldemort he is ‘a liar’ – although interestingly not that he is wrong.
When Nietzsche announced that God was dead he didn’t mean that the old man upstairs had shuffled off and could be simply replaced with another set of transcendent values. Instead humanity must face a new ethical existence without foundational concepts like good and evil. In this sense, it is clear that “God” is alive and well in Harry Potter. Like Nietzsche’s madman, Voldemort has come ‘too early’.
When the dark wizard tries to take the stone by force, the mere touch of Harry’s fingers causes him to disintegrate. In this way, the film condones Harry’s return to the fold; the existence and essential opposition of good and evil is proven with potent physicality. Harry’s powerful touch can be read, not only as a convenient narrative device, but as projection. The need to so explicitly demonstrate the reality of evil and good, betrays a fear that the process of contamination might actually work the opposite way. Perhaps the foundations of conventional morality also make it brittle and if exposed to such dis-locating, de-ranging notions, such a morality might crumble away like so many flakes of wizard.