Potter can beat Aslan every time

02 November 2006


I've overdosed on children's cinema over the past few weeks: The Corpse Bride, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. For entertainment value, it's got to be The Corpse Bride. But for moral education, there is nothing to beat Harry Potter.

"Dark times lie ahead," says Professor Dumbledore to Harry. "Soon we are going to have to choose between what is good and what is easy." He didn't say we would have to choose between good and evil, which one might have expected. No, the choice is between the good and the easy: brilliant.

There were many things I disliked about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. First, there is its manipulative use of sentimentality. Then there's its offensively right-wing politics and warmongering - all sugar-coated for camouflage. But, above all, I hated its unremitting Manichaeism - that dualistic philosophy that proposes the eternal battle between good and evil. Like the cosmology of the heretical Manichees, the world of Narnia is divided into the nice and the nasty, the warm and the frozen, the light and the dark. The goodies are recognisably good, and the baddies bad.

Harry Potter doesn't patronise my children with such simplistic moral fantasies. The question of good and evil is not as might be expected. As new characters are introduced, the audience is left asking itself whether they are goodies or baddies. And, not as in Narnia, at Hogwarts appearances can be deceptive. Sirius Black looks and sounds like a baddie, but he isn't. Tom Riddle looks and sounds like a goodie, but he isn't. After a while, the kids get it: you can be a good person even if you look weird, scary, or just plain ugly. Likewise, sometimes the nice-looking ones are the real bastards. You've got to work it out yourselves.

Mr Olivander the wand-maker is puzzled that the wand that is right for Harry is the same wand that is used by Lord Voldemort. Good and evil have some strange and uncomfortable connection. Most of the people in the story don't see it yet. Only Harry and Dumbledore are ever able to name evil honestly. Everybody else is too scared to use Lord Voldemort's name.

I'll wager that it'll turn out that what makes the very ordinary Harry so special and courageous has nothing to do with his having super magical powers, and everything to do with his being deeply loved by parents who sacrificed their lives for their beloved son. Love defeated Voldemort the first time, and that's what'll get him again. Forget Aslan. This is the better lesson for Sunday school.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford.

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