Family Matters in the Harry Potter Novels

by James L. Hedges, Ph.D.

Despite criticism by well-meaning adults that the Harry Potter novels might lure child readers to fascination with the occult, the overriding truth remains that the novels consistently warn against the practice of magic by non-magic people, including all readers of the novels.

Early in the first book, Hagrid, the gatekeeper to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizadry, where all wizards and witches must take the core requirement, Defense Against the Dark Arts, explains to Harry why magic must be kept from non-magic people: “Everyone’d be wantin’ magic solutions to their problems.” Hagrid’s explanation reveals a basic appeal of such fantasy fiction: escape from the persistent problems of our mundane world into a world of marvels, beginning with special means of travel, from broomsticks to floo powder to apparating, instant movement from one location to another. Harry’s invisibility cloak lends further appeal to this fantasy world. Most appealing is the wizard wand, useful for everything from starting fires to making others obey command. Such elements of personal “power” not surprisingly appeal to adult as well as child readers, offering entertainment as well as escapism. And fantasy offers a third benefit to readers: moral insights into the world by witnessing behavior in the fantasy world. The Potter novels are true fantasy, clearly illuminating “lessons” for readers, old and young alike. For example, consider the importance of family and love. In the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 11-year-old orphan Harry learns that he is a wizard requiring proper training at Hogwarts. He also learns that only powerful parental love protected him from the death curse of Lord Voldemort (literally “death wish”). His lightning-bolt scar bears witness to that protection. Fleeting images of his family in the magic mirror of Erised (which reflects the desires of the onlooker’s heart) and a family photo album from Hagrid reinforce Harry’s need to learn of his parents’ love. At the climax of the novel, Harry has determined “not to go over to the Dark Side,” instead resisting the evil Voldemort and his personal Professor Quirrell, in part because, as explained to Harry by Headmaster Dumbledore:

Your mother died to save you . . . to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed, and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch a person marked by something so good.

This foundation of sacrificial love enabled Harry to survive 10 years of neglect and abuse from his Dursley relatives after his parents were killed. Such love may have contributed to his rejecting the Sorting Hat offer to place him in Slytherin House in order to seek greatness, preferring instead Gryffindor House, noted for the courage and bravery Harry must show in crisis after crisis throughout the novels. Nor is it only his parents’ love that offers Harry a basic immunity to evil’s power. Mrs. Weasley, caring mother of six children, also provides nurturing love and affection to Harry. In the second novel, Harry stays with the Weasleys after being rescued from the oppressive Dursleys by the Weasley twins and their brother, Harry’s best friend, Ron. Mrs. Weasley greets him warmly, “I’m very pleased to see you, Harry dear . . . Come in and have some breakfast.” No wonder Harry exclaims to Ron, “This is the best house I’ve ever been in,” because “everybody there seemed to like him.” At novel’s end, after rescuing the Weasley daughter, Ginny, from Voldemort, Harry is “swept into Mrs. Weasley’s tight embrace.” Late in book four, Mrs.Weasley bends down and puts her arms around Harry as he lies in bed, unable to sleep because he had not been able to save a fellow student from Voldemort’s power. At 14, Harry “had no memory of ever being hugged like this, as though by a mother.” The Weasleys, poor as wizard families go, are rich in love and caring, in contrast to the status-conscious Dursleys who are ashamed of Harry and his magical birthright. The Weasley parents’ love and nurture of their own children also contrasts with the proud Malfoys, who jeer at them and seek to protect their superior pure-blood lineage at all costs, even if that means serving Voldemort. The snobbery in the Malfoy family passes down to their son, Draco, the same “bad faith” their name means. They abuse servants, seek to remove Dumbledore as headmaster because he believes in second chances and allows mixed-blood students, and spoil their son as much as the Dursleys spoil Harry’s cousin Dudley – by overindulgence and ignoring his bullying tactics. No wonder Draco Malfoy uses bully friends Crabbe and Goyle to intimidate other students at Hogwarts, and becomes Harry’s enemy out of jealousy and family pride. The negative consequence of failed family values is conspicuous in Barty Crouch, who turned to Voldemort after his father’s ambition to advance in the Ministry of Magic caused him to neglect his son. When Barty is on trial for serving Voldemort, his father shows no mercy on him, responding to his pleas with the politically motivated phrase: “You are no son of mine! I have no son.” No wonder young Crouch wants to kill Harry so Voldemort, with whom he now presumes to be “closer than a son,” will reward and praise him. His loyalty to the evil father-substitute came about because they both had “very disappointing fathers,” suffered “the indignity of being named after those fathers,” then had “the very great pleasure . . . of killing [those] fathers to ensure the continued rise of the Dark Order!” These terrible words of revenge against fathers are confirmed when Voldemort counsels Harry to also join him. His justification for patricide offers clear evidence that Rowling’s novels actually affirm family values. Voldemort, like Crouch, was rejected by his father. He changed his name from Tom Riddle to Lord Voldemort in order to get rid of his “filthy Muggle [non-magic] father’s name,” “who abandoned me even before I was born, just because he found out his wife was a witch.” Raised in a Muggle orphanage after his mother died in childbirth, Tom Riddle vowed to take revenge on the father who went back to live with his parents because “he didn’t like magic, my father.” At Hogwarts, he dedicated himself to becoming “the greatest wizard in the world,” in part so he could go back and kill his father and grandparents, who had been “rich, snobbish, and rude,” Tom’s father even worse than his grandparents. Thus the fourth book of the seven-book series, at the heart of the story, discloses that all the cruelty of Voldemort, all the desire for power and the merciless demand for loyalty from his followers, can be traced back to a sense of rejection by the father he never knew. Instead of love, compassion, and a sense of right and wrong, Voldemort chose power. “There is only power,” he tells Harry in their first encounter. Yet his very quest for power is motivated by a need to requite his sense of having been wronged! No matter how much Voldemort denies it, there is right and wrong. And of course there is love, which he chooses to deny, given the great void in his life of either a mother’s or a father’s love. Both Crouch and Riddle/Voldemort reject family values in order to justify their lust for power, evidence of what is wrong at the center of evil, as Dumbledore explained to Harry: “If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love.” Just such lessons demonstrated in the story line of the Harry Potter novels justify their being read and discussed. One more instance: the Weasley’s only daughter, Ginny, becomes Voldemort’s victim in the Chamber of Secrets because, out of loneliness during her first year at Hogwarts, she writes in a diary magically controlled by Voldemort to gain her trust. This offers a chilling parallel to the Internet connections young girls are making in our own world, to their equally great peril. And that this girl could experience such a sense of loneliness in a family as affirming as the Weasleys reminds us that parents are not perfect either. But their very family ties are one reason Ginny is rescued from Voldemort’s control, her recovery also strongly aided by family support rather than judgment. So throughout the novels, these truths prevail: those characters who experience love, who believe in a second chance, who practice forgiveness and mercy rather than vindictiveness and cruelty, are offered to readers as models to emulate. Those who seek power at all costs, who substitute power for love, who are indulged rather than disciplined, represent false values, object lessons demonstrating why wrong is not right, no matter the appearance. Christians need not fear Rowling’s fantasies. In harmony with the central beliefs of our faith, they teach that love is critical to healthy personality, that actions have consequences, and that, as Dumbledore reminds Harry when he feels “fated” by inheritance or circumstances: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Such wisdom, demonstrated in the action of the novels, can hardly lead readers astray.

James L. Hedges, Ph.D., is chair of the Department of English and a children’s literature expert. [email protected]

For additional perspectives on this topic, consult the following links:

  • Parents Push for Wizard-free Reading
  • The Perils of Harry Potter