Missing from ‘Harry Potter’ – a real moral struggle

By Jenny SawyerWed Jul 25, 4:00 AM ET

If literature truly reflects society, then the end of the Harry Potter series spells trouble for us all.

Because, after 10 years, 4,195 pages, and over 325 million copies, J.K. Rowling’s towering achievement lacks the cornerstone of almost all great children’s literature: the hero’s moral journey. Without that foundation, her story – for all its epic trappings of good versus evil – is stuck in a moral no man’s land.

To be clear: This isn’t a critique of Ms. Rowling’s values. It’s a recognition of a disturbing trend in commercial storytelling and Western society.

For those who’ve yet to finish “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” stop reading now: There are spoilers ahead. If you did, however, embark on a Deathly Hallows marathon, you know that the shady Severus Snape died, not in the name of evil, but in the name of good.

Oh, yeah. And Harry defeated Voldemort. Good prevailed. The problem is, that’s not the moral of the story. Good always prevails. It’s the hero’s struggle – and costly redemption – that matters.

Classic tales such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” set the standard for children’s fiction. With their unrelenting drive toward “the moral of the story,” they form a golden thread in the West’s cultural fabric. And yet, like the society in which we live, storytelling itself has, in recent decades, undergone a radical transformation – sliding toward moral ambivalence with alarming speed.

I’m not advocating for the kind of didacticism that dominated Puritan and Victorian children’s fiction. Times change. Arguably, postwar, post-Depression America needed the escape value of Disney’s adaptations of “Snow White” and “Cinderella.” It was a marriage of storytelling and meaning-making quite apart from what the Brothers Grimm envisaged a century before. But while Disney’s focus was entertainment, the moral still mattered. And that moral center has all but vanished from much of today’s pop culture.

Successful storytelling rests on a few basic principles. One of them is this: A story is about someone who changes, who grows through a moral struggle. What is Harry’s struggle? Exactly.

Throughout the series, but especially in book seven, even Harry’s darkest moments – of self-doubt, of disillusionment, of skepticism about his greatest mentor, Dumbledore – never ring true. Was there any doubt that Harry would fulfill the task set out for him?

The truth of the matter is that Harry the character had nowhere to go. And thus, the overarching moral dilemma of the series, the compelling inner crisis that begged resolution, had nothing to do with our beloved hero.

First principle of storytellingBack to that first principle of storytelling: A story is about someone who changes. And, puberty aside, Harry doesn’t change much. As envisioned by Rowling, he walks the path of good so unwaveringly that his final victory over Voldemort feels, not just inevitable, but hollow.

But there is one character who does face a compelling inner crisis: Snape. With all the debate – and with all of Rowling’s clues – about whether he was good or bad, it’s fair to say that the sallow-faced potions professor has entranced many readers. His character ached for resolution.

And it is precisely this need for resolution – our desire to know the real Snape and to understand his choices – that makes him the most compelling character in the Potter epic. His decisions, not Harry’s, were the linchpin. And his moment with Dumbledore after the death of Harry’s parents, not Harry’s last duel with Voldemort, is the authentic climax of the series.

For Harry, there was no choice. The way forward was clear, the conflict – and journey – external. We cared about Snape because this was not the nature of his story. Every action was weighted with the pain and subtext of his choices, or lack thereof. For Snape, there weren’t – there couldn’t be – any easy answers. And yet, in the end, his moral journey was overshadowed by this fact: It was merely one more plot device to propel Harry toward his pre-destined victory.

Snape: the authentic protagonistRowling has publicly expressed mystification over her readers’ fascination with Snape, even suggesting that his appeal is simply “the bad boy syndrome.” Instead, her readers, whether consciously or not, have tapped into something that Rowling herself may have failed to recognize.

That something was a need for a protagonist who genuinely struggled to define – and do – the right thing. A passive main character with no authentic moral dilemma is not only hard to relate to, he or she is also no guide in circumstances in which right and wrong are anything less than black and white.

In a society increasingly steeped in moral relativism, it’s not the Harrys of the world who will make a difference. It’s the Snapes. It’s those who need redemption, then choose it. It’s those willing to press on and fail and then to press on again – especially when there are no clear answers.

There is much to love about the Harry Potter series, from its brilliantly realized magical world to its multilayered narrative. Unfortunately, Rowling did her readers a great disservice by making the story about Harry when it really should have been about Snape.

And yet, it’s hard to imagine Snape’s story emerging from a society where entertainment is king – and where the moral of the story is that there’s seldom a moral at all.

• Jenny Sawyer is a freelance writer and children’s literature critic.