Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Harry Potter Question

There were quite a lot of things that I liked about this final book of the HP series, but one thing bothered me (there were some other little things too, but one significant one). So as not to accidentally spoil anyone's reading pleasure, I'll ask the question/mention the issue only in the comments. For those who have finished reading the series, please join me - I'd be really interested in others' thoughts.

32 comments:

Love2Learn Mom said...

SPOILER ALERT (just in case you checked the comments without reading the book first).

Love2Learn Mom said...

Okay, here's the thing that bugged me. It's how Dumbledore died. Does it seem to anyone else a little problematic that he asked Snape to kill him because he was dying anyway? Even with the Elder Wand as an issue and the possibility of Snape ingratiating himself with V, it seems that this presents a significant moral problem. Am I missing something?

Matilda said...

I had the same problem. A friend asked if I thought that the pro-life movement would have a problem with the way Voldemort's soul is depicted in the King's Cross chapter. I told her that I thought they would have a bigger issue with the implied euthanasia message regarding Dumbledore's death.

Here are some of my thoughts. Back in the very first book Snape mentions all of the things you can do with potions.

"I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death---"

Lots of people picked up on the Stoppered Death theory. Maybe she got spooked by that and dropped it.
We were told so many times that in order to perform an unforgivable curse, you have to mean it.So, if Snape didn't really mean it, did he really use the Kiling Curse or did he utter a silent spell and "unstopper" Dumbledore's death?

I don't think she thought about the difficulties in this act, or maybe she did and doesn't care. Her mother died from MS and she might be enough of a moral relativist to say "Had she asked me to put an end to her suffering, I would have."

This is why my kids won't be reading the stories until they are older and I will consider this scene as a great teaching moment. She could have made the scene happen in several ways without getting into this problematic area.

The Bookworm said...

Hmm ... I hadn't picked up on that. I don't see that it can be compared to euthanasia as there was no suggestion that it was intended to put an end to Dumbledore's suffering, and it would have been out of character for Dumbledore to desire his own death for that reason. I saw it as Dumbledore sacrificing his last few months in order to deal with the Elder Wand and to prevent his death being on another's conscience. Snape was being used as Dumbledore's tool. Should he have refused to allow Dumbledore to make this sacrifice and to allow himself to be used in this way? Would it have changed anything if Dumbledore had not already been terminally wounded?

I think the bottom line is to ask when, if ever, is it morally justifiable to kill a friendly non-combatant, or knowingly to cause their death, in a war situation? This is a difficult question. What about French partisans who attacked Nazi infrastructure knowing it would lead to fatal reprisals on their own people? Or who knew that their actions would kill innocent bystanders as well as German soldiers? The situations are not directly comparable, but I think you could argue that some of the same issues come into play.

I'm no moral theologian, and the best answer I can come up with is euthanasia - no, morally justifiable - possibly. I'd be interested to hear other takes on this.

Anonymous said...

Two topics:

(1) Voldemort as baby - this was very artistic in many ways, far too long for me to elaborate on here, but to start, just think how God see ALL of us as His dear children (as babies???) But V. had damaged himself... (torn his soul by his mortal sins...)

(2) Dumbledore's death - it may be argued that he willed his death through Snape NOT to avoid his suffering, but to protect Draco. Moreover, as was pointed out, this is within a war condition, and only incidentally an "incurable disease" issue... AND ALSO we don't really know how imminent D's death was due to that potion he drunk! (Re-read in HP7 what happened to Regulus after HE drunk the potion.)

Here one might also ponder those "alpine" words of Christ as GKC puts it:

Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. "He that will lose his life, the same shall save it," [Mt 16:25; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24 & 17:33] is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice. He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:297]

Finally let us remember this is a story, not a moral/dogmatic treatise... one can find such complexities in many other stories... e.g.: was Frodo guilty of Gollum's death? Nor are all crimes "resolved" even in the parables of our Lord - we do not hear how the highway robbers of the Samaritan were punished, nor even what the older brother (of the Prodigal) decided.

--Dr. Thursday

Love2Learn Mom said...

I didn't have an issue with the way Voldemort was portrayed in King's Cross.

Regarding Dumbledore, I must admit that my memory of the details of book 6 is somewhat sketchy. I may just have to go back and re-read book 6 to understand what was going on here.

I also acknowledge that the details given in the book were from Snape's memory and thus represent what Dumbledore said to convince him, not necessarily what was truly in Dumbledore's heart.

Yes, Dr. Thursday, I appreciate the courage theme very much! I was just afraid that this aspect had turned into a suicide.

Matilda said...

I agree with what was written above, but I think the original question deals with the fact that Snape killed Dumbledore through action, not through inaction.

JKR tells us that Dumdbledore chose death to save Draco, but also to avoid suffering.

From book 7:
"If you don't mind dying," said Snape roughly, "why not let Draco do it?"

"That boy's soul is not yet so damaged," said Dumbledore. "I would not have it ripped apart on my account."

"And my soul Dumbledore? Mine?"

"You alone know whether it will harm your soul to help an old man avoid pain and humiliation," said Dumbledore.

He then goes on to talk about how he would prefer a quick, painless exit as opposed to being torn apart by Greyback or being tortured by Bellatrix "who likes to play with her food before she eats it".

Again, the problem that Studeo mentions has to do with the fact that Snape had to act to bring about Dumbledore's death even though it might have been imminent. As opposed to creating the illusion that he killed Dumbledore while letting nature take its course.

Even though St. Maximilian Kolbe died to save the life of another, it doesn't erase the fact that the Nazi's murdered him.

Please understand, I like these stories and will let my children read them when they are a little older, but I know JKR isn't Catholic and while I don't believe her to be poisoning the books with satanic material, I do believe some of the moral relativism so dominant in our society has snuck in.

Melissa Wiley said...

Alicia, that bothered me too, quite a lot, actually. I was disappointed in Dumbledore--at the end of book 6, I was convinced that he had arranged with Snape to kill him in order to spare Draco from having to do it. (I see another commenter read this motivation as well.)

In this book, Dumbledore did give a nod to that motivation, but he spoke much more directly about the "avoiding pain and humiliation" and the "quick, painless exit" as opposed to the above. Like you, I saw it as a desire for euthanasia, and it bothers me a great deal that Rowling went that route. A small tweak would have been all that was necessary to make it a purely noble gesture on the part of both men rather than a weak request on the part of Dumbledore.

But that is the problem I've had with these books all along (much as I find them entertaining yarns)--over and over, I see Rowling making sloppy plot choices that result in morally questionable actions by her characters.

If the moral dilemmas were *acknowledged* by the characters and explored in the text, the characters would be so much more interesting and so much less frustrating! (Rowling did put that technique to good effect with Harry's pangs of conscience over the way he was planning to double-cross Griphook over the sword, the moral loophole he was going to use to keep hold of the sword until after he was done using it to destroy Horcruxes. And yet, even there, Griphook's escape with the sword spares Harry from having to MAKE the choice in end, and the whole matter is dropped.)

Love2Learn Mom said...

Thanks for the quotes Matilda. My copy is already out on loan. That is definitely the part I was thinking about.

Lissa - I think you get to the overall point that left me a little disappointed. Even if Dumbledore's dealings with Snape killing him could be morally justified by pieces from book 6 that I can't remember, I'm a little disappointed by Rowling's quite distinct intention to bump Dumbledore down a few notches in this book. I think it also messes with some of the good points from earlier in the book - like Harry's loyalty to Dumbledore being an essential part in his battles with Voldemort. What does that really mean if Dumbledore tells Harry he's really the better man?

At the end of book 6 we were left with this wonderful theme of self-sacrifice with Dumbledore that falls flat in this book. True, this concept is picked up rather nicely by Harry and by all those who come to his aid. But...

diana said...

I believe the Stoppered death theory is sufficient. DD was technically dead--not dying-- with a spell keeping him "alive".
Even Dumbledore feared death a little, don't we all? I would rather not have my dead body played with my a few evil people. He already is technically dead, already has suffered tremendously.
My thoughts are that Dumbledore got knocked down a bit because people were behaving as though he was a Jesus character, to the point of asking JKR if he was a Jesus figure.Personally, I am happier with faulted characters trying to do better and at times failing and then getting up again, that perfect saints.

diana said...

Sorry for the many typos. I am having conversations with my children while writing.

It seems when people don't remember the many different clues, because there are so many huge books...they start seeing moral problems...

Love2Learn Mom said...

Stoppered death theory - I hadn't thought of that before. Interesting.

Christina said...

Very interesting discussion, but to avoid suffering is not our choice. Of course, we all have a certain fear of death (and the kind of death we might be faced with), but the discussion between Dumbledore and Snape is pretty clear. You can read all kinds of things into it, but just taking what is said, it seems that Dumbledore was concerned about his own suffering and Draco's soul and not about Snape's soul. Forcing someone to make this kind of choice is very wrong. I feel terrible for the choices Snape had to make. Sure he is a flawed individual, but he tried to redeem himself. It seemed cruel of Dumbledore to ask such a thing of him. Of course, Dumbledore became much more human and flawed to us all in this book as well. I was touched that Harry named one of his children Albus Severus. At least Harry forgave Snape.

Matilda said...

I too don't have a problem with seeing Dumbledore as a flawed person who knew his weaknesses and tried to overcome them.

I agree with Melissa that the way JKR handled it was sloppy and unnecessary.

The Stoppered Death theory was that if Death is like water draining from a sink, you could make a potion that would be like a stopper in the drain. It would buy you some time but eventually, the water would run out. Unfortunately, if she intended to do this, she didn't make that very clear. Plus, one would assume that to "pull the plug" on a Stoppered Death potion (since it was in potions class that it was mentioned) would require the use of another potion which Snape obviously didn't give Dumbledore since he used the Killing Curse.

Robert said...

Bookworm writes: "I think the bottom line is to ask when, if ever, is it morally justifiable to kill a friendly non-combatant, or knowingly to cause their death, in a war situation? This is a difficult question."

This is actually two questions; the answer to the first is not difficult--never. The answer to the second is only difficult if you don't distinguish between "intend to kill" and "kill incidently." In the former case, the answer is "never." In the latter, the answer depends on the proportionate good to be achieved.

If Diana is right and D. is already dead, then there is no moral issue. Compare this to Ransom's killing of the Unman in Perelandra. I know, it is different because the Unman was possessed, but I think there is still a parallel.

If D. is not dead, then Snape's act is objectively evil and ought to have been condemned by Rowling, esp. in a book that is going to be read by kids.

If she leaves it ambiguous, that is problematic for literiature that will be widely read by children.

Matilda said...

Diana,
I don't think Dumbledore was already dead and creating the illusion of life with a spell.

Ch. 33:
"That ring carried a curse of extraordinary power, to contain it is all we can hope for; I have trapped the curse in one hand for the time being---"...

..."You have done very well, Severus. How long do you think I have?"...

..."I cannot tell. Maybe a year. There is no halting such a spell forever. It will spread eventually, it is the sort of curse that strengthens over time."


If she intended the Stoppered Death theory, you would have to assume from the text that her idea of "Stoppered Death" means containing a deathly "illness" to one part of the body and slowing down it's effect on the whole body. That would mean that Dumbledore wasn't dead, just terminally ill.

Love2Learn Mom said...

By the way, there is some related discussion going on over at Nancy Brown's blog here.

I'm pleased we can have such a discussion here on a topic that is often emotional and divisive. I think part of the value of such books as this is to read and discuss them with our children (at an appropriate age) and use the opportunity to consider and discuss issues like death, suffering, sacrifice, courage and, yes, the value of literature. :)

Thanks for keeping things so civil here - I appreciate it!!!

diana said...

I think Snape reluctantly agreed to save the life and soul of Draco. It wasn't made out to be an easy decision. I think that Dumbledore was on death's door and Snape got to him just in time and stoppered death. It just earns a reprieve.

diana said...

I guess we could debate whether of not stoppered death should be used at all...maybe it was better to allow Dumbledore to die right then???Snape saved his life momentarily but maybe Dumbledore was ready to give it up then?
Either way, it's a non-issue to me, now that I have reread the offending passage.

diana said...

Hey, Matilda, what book did you find this in because I never read that:

The Stoppered Death theory was that if Death is like water draining from a sink, you could make a potion that would be like a stopper in the drain. It would buy you some time but eventually, the water would run out. Unfortunately, if she intended to do this, she didn't make that very clear. Plus, one would assume that to "pull the plug" on a Stoppered Death potion (since it was in potions class that it was mentioned) would require the use of another potion which Snape obviously didn't give Dumbledore since he used the Killing Curse.

Matilda said...

It is a theory that occurred to me and also many other people on the net. It was discussed in other forums and the term was debated. Some thought it was that Dumbledore wasn't actually dead, that they stoppered his death after Snape's curse on the tower. There again, if she intended to "absolve Snape" from the act of killing Dumbledore, we would have to know that it was just an illusion and she never gives us that information. The fact that she does reveal the memory of Snape stoppering D's death after putting on the cursed ring seems to prove the theory of Stoppered Death as I and others imagined it.

Now, there might be a loophole in the way she describes Dumbledore's death. He is blasted into the air and held there until he fell over the wall. I can't find any other reference to the Killing Curse lifting someone in the air and holding them there. It seems to only collapse the victim.

Since we know, from the text, that Snape was skilled in wandless or silent spells (see the chapter immediately following D's death) it is possible that he created the illusion of the Killing Curse, but actually unstoppered the Stoppered Death potion. At that point, the morality of it becomes less problematic.

I still stand by my statement about implied euthanasia simply because you cannot deny that D uses that argument to convince Snape. Nowhere does she tell us that Snape had made the Unbreakable Vow prior to giving D. his promise.

I would like to believe that Snape didn't actively kill D. because had he, even for a good reason, it still would brand him a murderer and D's death would be an assisted suicide.

chris said...

So my husband finally (!) finished tonight, and we've been discussing the Dumbledore death problem. I'm wary of finding an explanation that makes me feel better, because I would really like one. But he described it this way:

From The Prince's Tale chapter we know that Dumbledore and Snape had agreed that Snape would try to save Draco's life- it's quite clear at the beginning of the conversation that Dumbledore wishes to die in order to save Draco from certain death- "In short, the boy has had a death sentence pronounced upon him as surely as I have." This discussion comes up after Dumbledore knows he's going to die, but it's not unreasonable to think that he would be willing to sacrifice himself to save Draco even if he weren't.

Dumbledore then proceeds to explain to Snape that he needs to save Draco's life and prevent further mutilation of Draco's soul by performing the act himself. Snape points out that if it would damage Draco's soul, what about his own. This is when Dumbledore says, "You alone know whether it will harm your soul to help an old man avoid pain and humiliation...I ask this one great favor of you, Severus, because death is coming for me as surely as the Chudley Cannons will finish bottom of this year's league. I confess I should prefer a quick painless exit to the protracted and messy affair it will be if, for instance, Greyback is involved- I hear Voldemort has recruited him? Or dear Bellatrix, who likes to play with her food before she eats it." And Snape agrees.

So we see here that the pain and humiliation Dumbledore is referring to is not the curse eventually overcoming him, but the fact that he is going to be killed by Voldemort's followers. He knows Draco won't do it, so Draco will be killed. If Draco were to do it, his soul would be harmed. But assuming Draco couldn't do it, another follower would, and the death would be *painful* and *humiliating*!

And it turns out he's right- up on that tower, Draco can't do it, and Snape steps in between Greyback and the others and Dumbledore. Dumbledore was going to die, and he would rather have it be at Snape's hand in a quick manner than savaged by a werewolf.

Matilda said...

I see your husband's point as a valid possibility but, not being a moral theologian, I don't know whether or not it is morally acceptable in a war time situation to ask a fellow soldier to kill you in order to avoid torture and death at the hands of your enemies.

The line you quoted, "Death is coming for me as surely as..." happens right after the curse has been contained and about 11 months before D's demise on the tower. He might have been referring to a time in which he knew he would fall into the hands of his enemies, but he doesn't appear to know about the Vanishing Cabinet at the end of book 6, in fact, he seems clueless about the plan to get Death Eaters into Hogwarts at all. He might have been referring to a time in which he would offer himself up as a sacrifice to his enemies, but he would have to be certain Snape would be there.

I tend to agree with what Melissa said about JKR's propensity to make sloppy plot choices. I don't believe JKR to be a writer of great literature. I believe her stories are interesting and spellbinding (forgive the pun). She certainly knows how to tell a good tale, create some fascinating characters and embellish her stories with wit and cleverness, but I think her fans think more about the plot than she does at times.

Karen E. said...

I have only a few minutes and then we're leaving town, so I won't be able to stay up on the discussion (and I'm late for it anyway!) but here are my initial thoughts:

Lissa wrote:
"at the end of book 6, I was convinced that he had arranged with Snape to kill him in order to spare Draco from having to do it"

Me, too.

Lissa also wrote:
"In this book, Dumbledore did give a nod to that motivation, but he spoke much more directly about the "avoiding pain and humiliation" and the 'quick, painless exit' as opposed to the above. Like you, I saw it as a desire for euthanasia"

I didn't. He spoke about it more directly here, but the plan had already been thought out, discussed, etc. This seemed like more of a "bonus point" to Dumbledore, to me. I really thought he wanted to save Draco's soul.

It is morally relativistic to say to Snape, "You alone know whether it will harm your soul" etc. -- but, even though he referred to avoiding "pain and humiliation" here, I still didn't take it as his primary motivation. And, Catholic moral theology would state that while killing *is* always wrong, there can exist a difference in motivations between a mercy killing and a cold-blooded murder.

It was also mentioned that Rowling isn't Catholic ... and so I wouldn't expect her to explore the fullness of nuance in this issue.

I also think that Dumbledore had in mind that the killing (again, it's moral relativity, but I think this was behind it) added to Snape's self-sacrifice, because he could have died with the whole world thinking he was a murderous Death-eater, yet he did what he had to do.

Also, I tend to think that Dumbledore saw the arrangement as an acceptable and compensating act "for the greater good" -- one that would make up for his earlier "greater good" errors.

Oooh, wish I had more time! I'm sure I'll be back, in case anyone else continues discussing!

Robert said...

Karen says,

"And, Catholic moral theology would state that while killing *is* always wrong, there can exist a difference in motivations between a mercy killing and a cold-blooded murder." I've never seen anything in Catholic moral theology that indicates that mercy killing under the usual conditions isn't just as much a mortal sin as "cold-blooded murder."

"It was also mentioned that Rowling isn't Catholic ... and so I wouldn't expect her to explore the fullness of nuance in this issue." Except that the teaching is based on natural law, not Catholic doctrine.

Melissa Wiley said...

Karen, what bothers me is that JKR could so easily have brought the saving-Draco agreement to the forefront, leaving no doubt or ambiguity about why Dumbledore made Snape promise to kill him.

The dialogue itself--and it's only a snippet, just a sentence or two--brings mercy killing into the picture. It was an authorial choice (though it strikes me as a sort of non-choice, not fully thought through). She chose to put those words in Dumbledore's mouth ("You alone know whether it will harm your soul to help an old man avoid pain and humiliation").

It's a careless line of dialogue, and it weakens Dumbledore's character drastically. I wish her editor had asked her to re-examine that scene. Or perhaps I'm wrong; it's not "careless," it's a considered position--but if that's the case, it truly is an endorsement of euthanasia. I give her the benefit of the doubt in assuming she just didn't think through the full implications of that dialogue. It's difficult, sometimes, when you're inside a scene, to distinguish between the nuances you understand in your head and the ones you are conveying to your reader. That's where a good editor is worth his or her weight in gold.

Melissa Wiley said...

Editing my own self--I said above, "If that's the case, it truly is an endorsement of euthanasia"--but endorsement is the wrong word. A character can express a viewpoint the author doesn't hold. But it is still disappointing (to me) to see Dumbledore's character moved in that direction.

Karen E. said...

Robert said: "I've never seen anything in Catholic moral theology that indicates that mercy killing under the usual conditions isn't just as much a mortal sin as 'cold-blooded murder.'

I said a difference in *motivation* ... the act of killing is objectively the same, yes.

I wrote:
"It was also mentioned that Rowling isn't Catholic ... and so I wouldn't expect her to explore the fullness of nuance in this issue."

and Robert said:
"Except that the teaching is based on natural law, not Catholic doctrine."

Yes, but my point is that she doesn't know that. How often have you debated natural law with someone who can't see what you're saying? Who can see your natural law argument only as "your Catholic point of view"? In my case, I'd have to answer, "Many times."

Lissa said:
"I give her the benefit of the doubt in assuming she just didn't think through the full implications of that dialogue. It's difficult, sometimes, when you're inside a scene, to distinguish between the nuances you understand in your head and the ones you are conveying to your reader."

Yes, I know what you're saying, Lissa, and I guess my first reaction was to give her the benefit of the doubt, too, thinking that I could read Dumbledore's "real" motive through his remarks about what he "incidentally" (?) would avoid. Or, maybe it was wishful thinking.

On the other hand, I thought this was where she was going since I finished Book 6 (the arranged killing) -- and my reaction at the time was that I hated the option of Dumbledore telling Snape to kill him for any reason -- even if he were dying, even if it was the only way to save Draco's soul ... It was clear to me in Book 6, then, that Rowling didn't get natural law, or my Catholic point of view. :-)

Anonymous said...

I think Rowling did mention in an interview that she is Catholic and a devout one at that. But I believe her moral viewpoints are informed by her years of work with Amnesty International, her past public school teaching career and her time on welfare while she was writing HP1. Certain aspects of her story telling are certainly fixated on her issues during those times.

My problem with the book's moral stance was not one of philosophy, but of internal consistency. How can Harry rally against the Ministry over Stan Shunpike, but not even think about attempting to rescue Luna after the meeting with her father or Hagrid during the battle scene? His lack of regard for his friends was almost distracting.

Matilda said...

I think Rowling did mention in an interview that she is Catholic and a devout one at that.

I don't think so. She and husband #2 were married at their home by J.S. Richardson of St. Columbia's Episcopal Church in Edinburgh. I remember an interview that said she was a member of the Church of Scotland (which would be Presbyterian).

Patience said...

Sorry to just jump in here, but I found the link via Melissa's weblog, and am so delighted to find a rational discussion of the book rather than people just saying how much they loved it.

I thought Dumbledore's death and the manner of it was poor plotting. I also felt the same way about Snape's death. That could have been handled so much better, but I got the sense JKR was sick of the story by then. The whole last bit of the book is rushed.

But these two deaths are just two examples of the way JKR uses and exploits her characters to suit her own means.

But what disturbs me more is something mentioned at the beginning of this conversation - Voldemort's soul at King's Cross Station. I've always been disgusted at the way Dumbledore disapproves of Harry's instinctive compassion and pity for Tom Riddle. To me, the way they left that wretched baby soul-fragment to writhe in its agony under a chair was repulsive and not anything I would expect a religious-minded person to write. Why did she even show the soul there if all she was going to have D and Harry to was ignore it? Any possible motivation for that seems horrible to me.

I've always thought the books needed a thoroughly good edit, but that JKR was obviously allowed to get away with a lot due to her fame.

Thanks for hosting this discussion!

Matilda said...

I agree, Patience. That scene felt very disjointed and confusing. In fact, it was almost as if she stuck it in there to say "For those of you who haven't figured things out thus far... here is your chance to catch up as Dumbledore explains all!"

I have heard other people complain that she spent too much time focusing on the "camp-outs" and not enough time on the rest of the world she created.

I think that starting with Book 4 but most evident in Book 5, her editor didn't do his/her job, probably due to the success of the first three books. They seem to have had a "hands off" approach which may not have been good for her growth as a writer.