Harry Potter's Magic

The Potter controversy shows that the struggle between science and magic isn't entirely settled.

Continued from page 2

Hogwarts was founded by four wizards, one of whom, Salazar Slytherin, at least dabbled and perhaps reveled in the Dark Arts, that is, in the use of his powers for questionable if not downright evil purposes, and for centuries many of the young wizards who have resided in Slytherin House have exhibited the same tendency. The educational quandary for Albus Dumbledore, then--though it is never described so overtly--is how to train students not just in the "technology" of magic but also in the moral discernment necessary to avoid the continual reproduction of the few great dark lords like Voldemort and their multitudinous followers. The problem is exacerbated by the presence of faculty members who are not wholly unsympathetic with Voldemort's aims.

The clarity with which Rowling sees the need to choose between good and evil is admirable, but still more admirable, to my mind, is her refusal to allow a simple division of parties into the good and the evil. Harry Potter is unquestionably a good (though by no means perfect) boy, but as I have suggested, much of his virtue arises from his recognition that he is not inevitably good. When first-year students arrive at Hogwarts, they come to an assembly of the entire school, both students and faculty. Each first-year student sits on a stool in the midst of the assembly and puts on a large, battered old hat--the Sorting Hat--which decides which of the four houses the student will enter.

After unusually long reflection, the Sorting Hat, to Harry's great relief, puts him in Gryffindor, but not before telling him that he could achieve real greatness in Slytherin. This comment haunts Harry; he often wonders whether Slytherin is where he truly belongs, among the pragmatists, the careerists, the manipulators and deceivers, the power-hungry, and the just plain nasty.


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