Black and White and Grey: Morality as a Theme

There’s no doubt that a lot of people love the Harry Potter series, but there are also many who discount it for various reasons — that it’s too simplistic, that the writing isn’t great, etc. Even sometimes people who love the books want to admit that they have significant problems.

One of the arguments that I’ve heard against the Potter series — and in fact against many traditionally sword-and-sorcery epic fantasy types — is that they present a theme of straight-up, black-and-white, Good vs. Evil. And that of course the world is much more complex than that, and trying to distill it down to a binary is problematic. That instead of reading something like Harry Potter, kids should be reading something like His Dark Materials (another fantastic series that I love).

Morality in Harry Potter

Harry Potter is Good, Voldemort is Evil. We know this. It’s obvious. Hogwarts is Good, the Death Eaters are Evil. Innocent magical creatures like house elves are good, marauders like giants are evil. Wait — what about centaurs and goblins? Hm.

While the books certainly do present something of a good vs. evil theme in general, they also make sure to address the fact that life isn’t that black and white. Somebody very specifically says to Harry at one point that you can’t divide people into good wizards and Death Eaters.

And that’s not just lip service. I point first to Snape, who even though he’s always technically a good guy during the time Harry knows him, is also an asshole and does a lot of evil things. He was a Death Eater for a long time, and only came back because of the threat to Lily. He didn’t come back because he saw the error of his ways, or suddenly completely disagreed with Voldemort. He came back because Lily was in danger. If Voldemort had gone after the Longbottoms, Snape would never have worked for Dumbledore.

You could try to just place Snape in the “Good” camp because of his ultimate loyalties — always a spy for Dumbledore, even when he killed him — but it’s not that simple. He did evil things, he hated James Potter and usually Harry. Harry hated him right back for usually very good reason. Snape cannot be so easily defined as black or white.

I point also to Umbridge, who is pure evil but not a Death Eater and not evil in the same way as the Death Eaters. Here we see that there are many kinds of evil and moral ambiguity. It’s not so easily defined as a binary. In fact, the whole Ministry represents this grey area of morality (see also: Percy) that I think has a lot to say thematically about politics — so the books aren’t just this good vs. evil narrative, they definitely delve into the grey areas and the complications of life.

Finally, the Malfoys — while the family is certainly on the evil side of things, especially in the early books, Draco is shown to be extremely reluctant to actually be as fully evil as Voldemort wants him. Furthermore, by the end of the series, even the parents just want to keep their son safe and get away from Voldemort. Narcissa even helps Harry in the end just for good news about Draco. When their family is in danger, they waver in their loyalty to “evil” — but you can hardly call them Good.

These ambiguities exist throughout the books. My earlier centaur and goblin example works too — neither is so easily defined as good or evil, but both may do good or evil things, demonstrating an appeal to cultural differences in ethics. Yes, overall, there might be a narrative of good vs. evil, but it’s tempered by a recognition of the grey areas between, which come up again and again.

Is Good vs. Evil such a bad theme?

There’s no doubt that a lot of books, especially books for younger audiences and fantasy novels, seem to want to create a morality of Good vs. Evil, and a lot of people take issue with that. But is it such a bad thing?

There are evils in this world, and so-called evil people. There are people who do very evil things. And there are people who think they’re doing what’s best but really aren’t (back to Harry Potter, see: the Ministry, and also Grindelwald — even Dumbledore is shown to have moral ambiguity when he advances “For the Greater Good” ideas with Grindelwald).

The analogy of the post-Voldemort Ministry to the Nazis is made especially clear in the movies, and I think that comparison validates the somewhat black-and-white approach. There is evil in the world. And there are good people who do good things. It’s not exactly a false dichotomy.

The trick is to demonstrate that it’s not simple. You aren’t evil just because you’re evil. You don’t murder people just because you’re evil. There’s a reason a character is that way, does that thing.

I don’t think having a narrative of good vs. evil is inherently bad, as long as it’s tempered with a demonstration that there are definitely grey areas, and as long as the primary evil is explained. We get to know Voldemort’s character very well in the last few books. We know why he is how he is. Thus his evil is explained — he’s not evil just for the sake of having a villain in the books. He’s evil because of his personality and history, and as a result, becomes a villain.

The themes of Harry Potter aren’t so black and white, and dealing with ideas of good versus evil is a valid goal for a story, as long as it acknowledges and deals with the reasons for good and evil and the ambiguities inherent therein.

Mythology, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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