Sneaking Around, Looking for Answers


Another set of complaints about Harry Potter focus on the times that Harry and his friends sneak out of their rooms in violation of the regulations of Hogwarts. This, they claim, shows a disdain and disregard for rules and authority. As before, we need to look at all aspects of these scenes, including the literary purpose involved and the moral theme that emerges as the story develops.

All of this sneaking around serves an important plot purpose. Because Harry is the detective who must solve the riddle, he is the one who needs to discover the important clues. By hiding under his invisibility cloak, Harry can listen in on conversations and observe actions that help to fill in details of the story. Sometimes the information obtained this way turns out to be incorrect and helps setup plot twists, but for the most part these scenes provide important clues to Harry and the reader. By comparison, this is much like a stakeout by a detective in a traditional mystery novel. It says nothing about whether or not you should spy on someone to get information; it is simply used as an effective way to get the information in front of the reader. In short, Harry and friends have to sneak around in order for the story to be told. Although there are other literary devices that could have been used, all that sneaking around is much more exciting to read. The threat of getting caught adds suspense to the story.

When Harry and his friends sneak around and violate the rules of Hogwarts, they are almost always doing so with the intent of gaining knowledge needed to defeat evil. The rules that disallow the students from leaving their rooms, or going into restricted sections of the library and the Forbidden Forest, are all intended to protect the students from harm. However, Harry’s situation is unique. He is the focus of Voldemort’s attack and his life is at risk. Simply staying in his room will not prevent harm to himself or the other students. In order to combat the evil that he faces, Harry must obtain information about the danger that he faces. Because that information is not available to him by other means, he ignores the rules to get the needed information. Furthermore, because Harry is at Hogwarts, the danger to Harry puts the other students at risk as well. His violations of the rules are motivated by, and ultimately lead to, protection of himself and the other students, not to their harm.

All this sneaking around, as with many of Harry’s activities, is necessitated by a lack of knowledge. In some cases the information he needs is known by the adults, but is held back from Harry in some manner. Because of his need to obtain that knowledge, Harry is acting in a way that is dangerous to himself. This is a true moral dilemma where either course of action creates risk. In the end, the greater risk of ignorance outweighs the risk of wandering around out in the open.

This is another interesting, and important aspect of moral choice. We often act on the basis of limited knowledge and because of our ignorance may make the wrong choice. To avoid making the wrong choice based on ignorance, we may have to bend the rules to obtain the knowledge we need. That doesn’t always excuse our actions, but it is precisely the type of moral issue that we face in life. Young people need to be prepared for this situation as well and the Harry Potter story contains many good examples of what can go wrong when we don’t have all the information we need and also what can go wrong if we are not careful in how we obtain that knowledge.

Along the same lines, Harry’s lack of knowledge is due to the intentional withholding of that knowledge by Dumbledore and other adults. Dumbledore is motivated by a desire to protect Harry from things that Harry is not mature enough to face. Yet, as Dumbledore eventually admits, that decision on his part created a problem. As Dumbledore explains at the end of The Order of the Phoenix:

“I cared about you too much,” said Dumbledore simply. “I cared more for your happiness that your knowing the truth, more for your peace of mind than my plan, more for your life than the lives that might be lost if the plan failed. In other words, I acted exactly as Voledmort expects we fools who love to act.

“Is there a defense? I defy anyone who has watched you as I have – and I have watched you more closely than you can have imagined – not to want to save you more pain that you had already suffered…”

“…And now, tonight, I know you have long been ready for the knowledge I have kept from you for so long, because you have proved that I should have placed the burden upon you before this. My only defense is this: I have watched you struggling under more burdens than any student who has ever passed through this school, and I could not bring myself to add another – the greatest one of all.”

Had Dumbledore given Harry all of the information that was available, Harry might have avoided some of the bad choices he made. In addition, Harry might have been more likely to follow Dumbledore’s advice. The Occulmancy lessons from Snape that Harry is given are a prime example. Harry’s misplaced disdain for Snape and his lack of understanding of the connection with Voldemort, prevent Harry from taking the lessons to completion. Had Dumbledore explained the reasons, Harry would have been more likely to gain the experience that he needed. Likewise, had Harry been told what was going on, he could possibly have avoided the trap set by Voldemort that led to the death of Sirius Black.

But, out of love and concern for Harry, Dumbledore had decided to try and spare Harry the unpleasantness and burden of the truths that must at some time be known by him. This is always a difficult decision to make. When and how do we reveal truths to someone that they need to know but may not yet be prepared to accept? This is a good point that both children and adults need to understand. Children will need to trust the knowledge of adults even if they do not fully understand it. Likewise, adults need to be wary of being so overprotective of children that they do not prepare the children with the knowledge they need to accurately choose the proper action when faced with a moral choice. This difficult decision applies to all personal relationships as well, not just those between parents and children.

There is another subtle, but vitally important aspect of the search for knowledge that we must come to understand. As Dumbledore knows and explains to Harry, before we can reveal truths to people that are difficult to bear, that person must reach a point of maturity capable of accepting that truth. This is not simply because the person may not be able to emotionally bear up. Some information, if not wisely used, can be dangerous to the person who knows it. In other cases, the information may be something of value that we cannot risk revealing except to those we trust. Until a person has shown maturity, wisdom, and fidelity to the truth, we are not doing that person or ourselves any favor by revealing the truth to them. That is the type of conflict that Dumbledore has to deal with in regard to Harry. It is also the conflict that Harry and his companions face. They often do not reveal the truth of their actions when to do so would be misunderstood or misused by the recipient. It would be preferable, of course, if we could always speak the unvarnished truth, but the limits of human nature often prevent us from doing so.

The only way we can be sure the person can receive the knowledge we want to give them is to first allow them to act on their own, preferably in a limited and controlled situation. That way, we can see if they will develop the mature moral character worthy of our trust. As Dumbledore explains to Snape, “We have protected him because it has been essential to teach him, to raise him, to let him try his strength.” Although Dumbledore has explained this to Harry in a round-about-way, it is only near the end of Deathly Hallows that Harry finally comes to understand. Harry had to go through a trial first to see if he was one worthy to bear the burden. Dumbledore may have been manipulating Harry, but it had to be done the way it was done. As Harry realizes, “Dumbledore had known that Harry would not duck out...because he had taken trouble to get to know him.”

It is necessary to seek the truth in order to receive it. If we are not seeking the truth, anyone trying to give it to us will be ignored anyway. A thirst for knowledge and a love of the truth must come first before we can receive the truth. Furthermore, it is in seeking the truth out of a love of the truth that we develop the moral character necessary for those who hold great truths. Harry is an archetypical seeker of the truth. His position on the Quidditch team portrays this symbolically, and we see it in his actions from the beginning to the end of the story.

This, ultimately, is Voldemort’s great failing and leads to his downfall. He seeks knowledge only for the purpose of power over others and to avoid death for himself. He will not investigate or attempt to understand things that do not give him power over others and in so doing he regularly discounts or ignores significant facts. In other words, unlike Harry, Voldemort does not seek truth for its own sake or for the sake of others. As Dumbledore explained to Harry, “That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend.”

Voldemort’s attack on Harry as a baby is but one example. Voldemort could have waited to see how the boy would develop and then plan accordingly. He also could have waited to try and verify the prophecy, in which case he might have understood that only the boy that Voldemort marks is the one that will be a danger to him. But, in his arrogance he decides to act immediately. Ironically, it was Voldemort’s own choice, and his own arrogant and impatient action, that created the means of his downfall.

Even at the very end, when Harry tries to warn Voldemort and give him the knowledge he needs, Voldemort will not hear it: “I know things you don’t know, Tom Riddle. I know lots of important things that you don’t. Want to hear some, before you make another big mistake?” But, Voldemort has traveled too far and too long down a path of self-deception to hear the truth from anyone. He disdainfully assumes that the actions of others, like his own, could have had no other purpose than power and self aggrandizement. He has never sought the truth and cannot comprehend that others have. In so doing, he rejects the truth that Harry has learned. As Harry tells him, “You still don’t get it, Riddle, do you? Possessing the wand isn’t enough.”

No, as Harry has come to learn, just as Dumbledore had to learn, possessing a thing, or knowing a thing, is not enough. Voldemort’s power as a Wizard may far exceed that of Harry, but Voldemort has never sought knowledge for the right reason and is left vulnerable because of that. He does not truly understand the nature of either the power he holds or the power used against him. He cannot understand how there could be a power greater than magic, and that those he despises have that power when he does not.

How and why we go about gaining knowledge is part of the quest for knowledge. First we must reach the point of maturity where we can accept difficult truths, and we must be tested to see if we are worthy. Furthermore, our intent in gaining knowledge and the purpose we seek to fulfill ultimately determines what truths we will discover. Those who seek knowledge for the proper purpose may have to be a little sneaky in getting it, but will ultimately gain what they desire and will have developed the moral character to know what to do with it as well.


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