The Moral System of Harry Potter

By Noel Weichbrodt


The movies Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets have grossed well over one billion dollars worldwide.1 The fifth book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is the number one seller2 on Amazon.com—and it doesn’t come out until June 21, 2003. The Harry Potter series, written by a single English mom, G.K. Rowlings, has become an undebateably huge cultural phenomena.

Like all cultural phenomena, Harry Potter has critics and boosters. A particularly tricky question, especially in Christian circles, is where the morals and ethics of Harry Potter lie. Grimacing at the prominence of “magic” in Harry Potter, many adult Christians have condemned the books and movies, either publicly or to their kids and peers, as “witchcraft” and advocating disagreeable morals. One reviewer says “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets goes beyond the visual dimension of the imagination [sic] once again glorifies the occult in a glamorous way…I find all of the content as a Christian Parent very offensive.”3 A comment by “Grace” on the same site reads in part, “BUT…one thing I’ve got to mention, that fantasy isn’t exactly fantasy as it seems. This movie is based on real witchcraft and its rituals. This movie features Harry talking to the snake in snake language (which represents Satan)…it’s Satanic!”

The boosters of Harry Potter do not exhibit much better argumentation—in fact, Harry Potter goes by uncriticized by many public groups. Most parents are simply relieved to have their kids reading something, and fail to properly scrutinize Harry Potter for objectionable content. And parents ignore prime opportunities to turn their kid’s Harry Potter media intake into cause for meditation and reflection about life.

I think it important, in light of the current public debate, to take time to explore and clarify the ethical system shown in Harry Potter. I enjoy movies, and have seen and thought much about both Harry Potter films, so I will concentrate on those, but the recommendations of my analysis should carry over to the books as well. I contend that Harry’s moral world simply exaggerates our own, bringing forth the choices, virtues, and ethics that we already deal with (and for the most part affirm) as Christians.

To give some context, here are brief summaries of The Sorcerer’s Stone (abbreviated hereafter as TSS) and The Chamber of Secrets (CoS).

As TSS begins, we find our hero-to-be living a miserable life as the unwelcome adopted nephew in a bedroom closet under the stairs in a suburban England house. Harry Potter, raised since a small child by his overweight, overly-hateful Aunt and Uncle Dursleys, is a quiet, bespectacled ten year old with the ability to talk to snakes. Suddenly, Harry starts receiving letters from a “Hogwart’s School of Magic”. His uncle takes no appreciation from the letters being delivered by owls rather than normal mailmen, and attempts to burn every single one. But the letters keep increasing until they come in a literal storm of paper, in the midst of which a giant shows up and whisks young Harry away to his new school and life. At Hogwart’s, Harry begins classes wizardy as Charms, but hears repeated whisperings about a “Sorcerer’s Stone” that has been found and is being searched for by the unspeakably-named Voldermort, the evil-to-the-core wizard who killed Harry’s parents. Harry must find the Sorcerer’s Stone before Voldermort does to keep him from unleashing evil on the world.

What’s going on now at Hogwart’s School of Magic? CoS finds Harry, rescued again from the oppression of normal, everyday life with his delightfully self-damning Aunt, Uncle, and Cousin, flying with the viewer away from the “Muggle” world and to his true home, Hogwart’s School of Magic, for another semester of education with his chums Rum and Hermione in the fine arts of Potions, Defense Against the Dark Arts, and Charms. Hogwart’s, though, is no longer safe—the Chamber of Secrets inside the school has been opened by someone, and an evil beast unleashed on the school that kills on sight and paralyzes those unfortunates like Hermione that see it indirectly. Harry is impelled to find the Chamber of Secrets and confront the evil that lies in its bowels.4

In exploring the ethical system of the Harry Potter world, I will consider what I feel the movies emphasize and repeat. I have surveyed the emphases and grouped them into three catergories—“courage and cowardice”, “responsibility and destiny”, and “authority, consequences, and the higher moral system”—which I will explore and analyze in order. For purposes of conciseness, I will only delve into one or perhaps two specific instances of each emphasis that I think illustrate the category that I am talking about.

Courage and cowardice

Often we are fearful, cowardly people, much like the hammy Gilderoy Lockhart (played with hairy verve by Kenneth Branagh) in CoS. Gilderoy, an wizard with transparent self-promotion (my favorite visual here: Gilderoy preening in front of a self-portrait of him preening while painting his self-portrait), claims to be the greatest defender against the Dark Arts among all wizards. He is the teacher in the “Defense Against Dark Arts” class at Hogwart’s. But Lockhart is all thunder and no lightening—every spell he casts and defense he tries fails, as does his courage when he confronts evil with Harry in the film’s climax.

Gilderoy Lockhart plays the fool in three scenes of CoS. First, playing Quiddich, Harry’s arm breaks during a rough-and-tumble contest with Drago Malfoy. Gilderoy rushes to assist Harry, but his healing spell removes Harry’s arm bone—the poor boy’s arm flops around like Jell-O while he is taken to the infirmary for a long, painful recover from Gilderoy’s spell. Second, a demonstration of blocking spells is set up for the “Defense Against Dark Arts” class, pitting the respected (and in the two films, minor and ineffective) professor Snape against Lockhart. Snape’s first spell flies Lockhart back flat on his back, completely defenseless. The final demonstration of Lockhart’s cowardice and impotence is in the the final act of CoS. Gilderoy, sent by the other teachers to find and seal up the Chamber of Secrets, runs instead to his office. Harry and friends find him hurriedly packing his suitcases for an ignominious exit from the school. Harry forces (note the power of the child against the impotent adult) Gilderoy to accompany him to the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets (whose entrance is in the girl’s rest room!). When they enter the Chamber, Lockhart tries to escape from confronting the evil by casting a spell of forgetfulness on Harry and Ron. Harry’s innate defenses blocks the spell, and in a bit of contrapasso Lockhart wipes his own memory instead. Guilderoy the celebrity is forced to ask Harry who he is.

Gilderoy’s claims in his best-selling autobiography The Magical Me aside, Harry continually finds that Lockhart’s bellows are bigger than his spells, and the movie relentlessly ridicules Lockhart’s inflated ego. Gilderoy’s adult impotence is juxtaposed against Harry’s courage and destiny in the third act of the film. Harry clearly is the true hero, faithfully shouldering the burden of defeating evils that are much bigger and more powerful than he, the eleven year old kid with the cracking voice, is. The sight of Harry standing alone, facing evil and humbly defeating it, is hard to convey with words. But any viewer of the movies comes away with the sure knowledge of what courage looks like because they have seen how Harry faces evil.

A final note: in the film, the authorities are never able to prevent anything bad from happening, nor are they even the first to respond to cries for help. It is always Harry who is there first, and it is Harry who shows the heart to shoulder the responsibility of trying to save lives and bring justice.

Responsibility and Destiny

The climax of TSS puts Harry, Rom, and Heromione as pieces in a giant game of Wizard’s Chess. Rom, the chess expert, must get on the Knight’s horse and direct his pawns to protect his King and Queen (Harry and Hermione). However, the deus ex machina black plays well, and forces Rom into a dilemma: if he sacrifices himself, the knight, then Hermione can checkmate black’s queen. This is Wizard’s Chess, though—a taken piece isn’t removed from the board, but pounded, pummeled, stabbed, and otherwise destroyed by the opposing piece. Ron gulps, and moves his knight into the sacrifice position. Destiny, it seems, requires him to sacrifice himself so that Harry can continue the quest to find the sorcerer's stone hidden inside Hogwart's.

In a certain way, Harry Potter does not have choices to make. The films make it clear that Harry must confront evil, even if he confronts alone, or else he will have failed to be the wizard he is supposed to be. This deeply felt weight of responsibility and the fate of Destiny in putting Harry in these sort of situations is seen when Harry confronts the big villain in CoS.

The Basilisk (an ancient dragon/snake) slides out of a giant stone mouth for Harry’s big villain battle in CoS. The contrast between the two creations is explicit and stunning—Harry, a mere boy of eleven who hasn’t even completed his first year of magic school, has no spells to cast or weapons to fight with, against an old, evil, huge dragon that slays by the mere look into it’s eyes. But Harry must defeat the Basilisk to rescue his friends, and Harry is the only wizard who is there to do it. Harry stands his ground as the giant snake slides around him, seemingly rooted in place, until the Basilisk tries to strike. He steps back as a seeming afterthought, narrowly escaping death, and our hopes for our hero dim. Then, with a cry, Dumbledore’s Phoenix flies into the Chamber, drops a hat with a sword inside, and blinds the Basilisk with its claws. The Basilisk, blinded, follows Harry’s sounds as he tries to escape. Finally, Harry makes a stand, and plunges the sword through the dragon’s head.

Courage is clearly shown in this scene, but the ideas of Responsibility and Destiny are at work too. Harry feels an imperative—save his friends and his school—that everyone senses and understands, and even expects of him. Destiny seems to have placed Harry in this spot, and given him the courage and help to make his stand and defeat the dragon.

Authority, Consequences, and the Higher Moral System

So far, I’ve talked about features of Harry Potter’s world that correspond closely with the Christian ethical system. But now we come to a tricker feature of Harry. Specifically, his relationship with authority and the consequences for his actions seem to be, respectively, bad and none.

After defeating the Basilisk and vanquishing Voldermort in CoS, Harry is called to Headmaster Dumbledore’s office. Sheepishly, Harry stands before the old, wise master and we realize that even though Harry is a powerful, courageous wizard, he is still a kid and has broken the rules of the school. Dumbledore says this for us, “You, Harry, have broken at least a dozen rules. And you so deserve…” Dumbledore trails off, Harry stiffens his lip and tightens his eyes, ready to hear the punishment that awaits. “…special awards for services rendered to Hogwart’s!” Dumbledore finishes.

Critic Jeffery Overstreet does not like this:

But I am still troubled by some of the storytelling in these Potter stories. Rowling is so hooked on having Harry break the rules that kids are going to get the wrong message. Rules at Hogwart's seem made to be broken. The heroes rarely act responsibly. They just assume they know best, and they charge right on past the best counsel. The teachers, upon catching them, smile and congratulate them. Parents, I  encourage you to see this film with your kids and discuss with them the fact that most rules you have set down for them are not made in ignorance.5

As I see it, there are three interpretations of why Rowlings permits Harry and company to “get away” with breaking the rules at Hogwart’s.

First, she is simply being irresponsible as a moral teacher (as Overstreet accuses), and reflecting the way the world actually works. In the real world, punishment is often inconsistent, if ever meted out. Oftentimes, we don’t pay for our crimes. Rowlings simply reflects that truth, and in the process fails to realize that her texts are prescriptively telling kids that it is okay to break the rules, because punishment never happens and most rules are made in ignorance.

Second, Rowlings is setting Harry up as a Christ-figure. The old laws are completed in him; his actions are the laws. The actions of Harry deeply reflect how the world is, and so he never as a course of fact breaks the rules, because the rules are in Harry. That Harry does is enough to morally justify what Harry does. This interpretation is in keeping with what some see as the Christ-making of Harry that occurs through the two movies.6 Harry, they say, is becoming the perfect man who will lay down his life for the world.

Third, Rowlings is pointing to a real-world dichotomy between the laws of the land and divine law. Christians are aware of this tension—we are to obey the rulers as long as what the rulers command does not go against what the Word commands. Jesus, for example, was morally justified in breaking the Pharisaical Sabbath laws because he was following not those laws of man, but following the Divine law to heal those who needed healing.7 So to Harry and friends are justified in breaking the rules of Hogwart’s because they are following deeper laws that supersede those rules made by man.8 Note how this interpretation corresponds closely with the ideas of “Responsibility and Destiny” discussed above.

Finally, let me say a word of defense for magic that is along the same lines as the third interpretation. Magic in Harry Potter is not some occult power, or Satanic inspiration at work. Rather, magic is simply an additional feature of created reality. Magic is in the world of Harry Potter just as rocks and trees and lakes are in the world. Some people are gifted to use the magic, just like some of us are gifted to use the raw materials of nature, and depending on their hearts they can use it for good or evil. When magic is used rightly in Harry Potter, it satisfies a deep connection in nature between morality and magic, just like the ethical system of Harry Potter bears a similarity to the Christian understanding of ethics, and for the same reason: that is how the world is in some deep way.


I see a close correspondence in Harry Potter’s ethical system with that of a natural-law ethical system. In fact, I see what we Christians normatively believe about morality and ethics as embryonic in Rowlings. Delving into Rowling’s world reminds me of what C.S. Lewis wrote, “New moralities can only be contractions or expansions of something already given…You are deceived in thinking that the morality of your father was based on Christianity. On the contrary, Christianity presupposed it. That morality stands exactly where it did; its basis has not been withdrawn for, in a sense, it never had a basis.”9 Rowlings is neither Christian nor pagan when she creates the ethical system of Harry Potter, she is simply reflecting in a deep way how morals are in the world. That there are commonalities between Christian virtues and virtues in Harry Potter should not be surprising; that there are some ways in which Harry Potter fails to prescribe perfect ethical behavior should not be surprising either.

On a final note, lest you think this film is all moralizing and pedantry, let me state that it is not. There is both art, craft, and magic in Harry Potter, and that is best seen by the kids (and the kids in us older people as well). Kids, it seems, hold all the keys and secrets in this movie. One reviewer10 has already pointed out the similarities between Harry Potter and Steven Speilberg’s work: kids taken on magical journeys to fight evil and discover who they really are. But Harry Potter is not just a character drama—Harry’s friends, teachers, and parents form a truly supporting cast around him.11 In Harry Potter we remember a childlike delight in what we see, and we are challenged by a kid with more courage than any adult around. That, in the end, is the overarching moral lesson taken from Harry Potter, and I admire and cherish that.

1 Taken from the Internet Movie Database, at http://us.imdb.com/Business?0295297, visited 200303.05.

2 As of 200303.05, from http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/new-for-you/top-sellers/-/books/all/ref=pd_ts_b_nav/002-1560743-5415222

3 ChristianAnswers.net Christian Spotlight on the Movies, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”, reviewed by Douglas M. Downs, at http://www.christiananswers.net/spotlight/movies/2002/harrypotterchamber.html, visited 200303.05.

4 The Phantom Tollbooth explores an interesting angle along these lines in it’s review at http://www.tollbooth.org/2002/movies/hpotter.html, visited 200303.05.

5 The Phantom Tollbooth, review of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by Jeffery Overstreet, at http://www.tollbooth.org/2002/movies/hpotter.html, visited 200303.06.

6 An interesting exploration of this idea is at BeliefNet.com (http://www.beliefnet.com/sotry/116/story_11681.html), where John Killinger (author), Richard Abanes (author), Patrick Madrid (editor, Envoy), Thomas L. Martin (Florida Atlantic University), and Andrew Blake (King Alfred’s College) discuss their perceived Christ-themes in the Harry Potter series. There is even a nice chart by Killinger detailing the parallels between Jesus and Harry.

7 Mark 3:1-5 “Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, ‘Come here.’ And he said to them, ‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (ESV)

8 Jeffery Overstreet, again from the same review, says “Of course, it is also worthy of note that the grownups in the story have become so focused on enforcing the rules that they seem clueless about how to deal with problems that the rules do not address.”

9 C.S. Lewis, “On Ethics”, in Christian Reflections.

10 The Film Threat “HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS” by Rick Kisonak, at http://www.filmthreat.com/Reviews.asp?Id=3774, visited 200303.02.

11 Roger Ebert notes that “Although the young wizard Harry Potter is nominally the hero, the film remembers the golden age of moviemaking, when vivid supporting characters crowded the canvas. The story is about personalities, personal histories and eccentricity, not about a superstar superman crushing the narrative with his egotistical weight. Although the young wizard Harry Potter is nominally the hero, the film remembers the golden age of moviemaking, when vivid supporting characters crowded the canvas. The story is about personalities, personal histories and eccentricity, not about a superstar superman crushing the narrative with his egotistical weight.” From The Chicago Sun-Times Online at http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/2002/11/111504.html, visited 200303.02.