The Undying Power of Love
Set against the self-serving cruelty of Voldemort is the self-denying love of those that oppose him, acts that from the beginning of the story to the end will thwart Voldemort's attempts at complete mastery of his destiny. In the first episode, Voldemort's attempt to kill Harry as a boy was blocked by Lily Potter's intervention. Voldemort had sought to get Lily to step aside, a very out-of-character act that is only explained near the end of the saga, but Lily voluntarily stood in front of Harry while Voldemort killed her. There is no indication that she even tried to fight back. That act of self-sacrifice born out of love gave Harry protection against Voldemort's death curse and it was Voldemort, not Harry, who was harmed by the curse. As Dumbledore explained:
"Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn't realize that love as powerful as your mother's for you leaves its mark. Not a scar, no visible sign ... to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give some protection forever."
Lily's act of love gives Harry immediate protection from Voldemort, but as Dumbledore explains later in the story, the sacrifice of Lily and her blood relation to Petunia Dursley seals the protection that Dumbledore places on the Dursley's residence and gives Harry an on-going protection. No spell that Voldemort can throw is powerfully enough to overcome the love that protects Harry, and this fact becomes important to the story's development.
Dobby the house-elf is another character that benefits Harry by his love. Dobby's attempts at protecting Harry in The Chamber of Secrets are a little misguided and create more problems than they solve. Yet, since he must punish himself every time he acts for Harry's benefit, Dobby's love is in the same category as Lily's. His actions for Harry's benefit cost him, yet he does not hold back. Harry grows fond of Dobby by the end of the episode, but realizing Dobby doesn't always do the wise thing, asks him to "Just promise never to try and save my life again." Dobby, however, ignores Harry's request. Dobby's love for Harry is too strong, and when Harry is imprisoned in the cellar of the Malfoy house, it is Dobby who comes to Harry's rescue. That act of love costs Dobby his life. Yet, in that tragic loss, Harry learns something very important:
He had learned control at last, learned to shut his mind to Voldemort, the very thing Dumbledore had wanted him to learn from Snape. Just as Voldemort had not been able to posses Harry while Harry was consumed with grief for Sirius, so his thoughts could not penetrate Harry now, while he mourned Dobby. Grief, it seemed, drove Voldemort out...though Dumbledore, of course, would have said that it was love....
Digging Dobby's grave, with Dobby's blood still on his hands, Harry finally reaches a turning point in his quest. He has discovered that love will break the connection with Voldemort and prevent Harry from being distracted by Voldemort's schemes. Once again, it is love that triumphs over Voldemort's magical abilities.
The idea that love is more powerful than any other magic is another important theme in the story and ultimately is key to the resolution of the plot. To understand the magic of Harry Potter and how Harry has a "power the Dark Lord knows not" requires understanding the nature of self-sacrifice done out of love.
We can start by looking at Lily's action in purely human terms as it is a good analogy to the actions of parents towards their children. A parent must sacrifice for the children in many ways, giving of their time, money, and guidance so that the child will be prepared for life. That preparation for life can remain with us even when our parents are gone. Self-sacrificing love as a theme in Harry Potter is not limited to just parents and their children, however. There are many other characters in Harry Potter who express the same attitude without any blood relation at all. Thus, the love that is key to the plot is not simply love for close relations, but a more general and widely applicable kind of love.
When we talk about how we love something we often mean it in a self-centered way. We often love someone because we admire who they are or what they do, or because they do something that gives us joy, physical comfort, or satisfies out desires. So often, when people say, "I love you" the emphasis seems to be on the "I" part - I love you because of what you do for me. However, a love that is based on what the other person is or does is prone to failure. After all, eventually we will discover that the other person is not perfect, maybe does some things or believes some things that we cannot accept. Do you stop loving the person at that point? If the love we have for another is based on admirable traits in that person, that love can fail the moment we discover the other person also has some not-so-admirable traits. We can say that it is a conditional love.
Conditional love is explored in Harry Potter as well. It shows up in the relationships between Harry, Ron and Hermione. At times they come to sharp disagreements over how they should respond to the problems they face. At other times there is a spark of jealousy that flares up into bitterness. These lead to on-again-off-again places in their friendship, but at each stage they reconcile, learning that loving someone goes beyond just finding that person agreeable. It is part of their process of maturing throughout the story and disagreements are handled better each time.
This conditional love, a love that exists in response to something that is worth loving, is typically what people mean by love. When we find something beautiful, admirable, compatible with us, that gives us joy, it is natural and expected to love that thing. So, it's not all bad to love that way, and it's a good place to start. The problem is that it is a love that can fail, leaving us with a sense of unrequited love, emotional pain, disappointment and even despair.
That is the situation we see in Snape's love for Lily. He admires her both for her talent and for her companionship, for her respect for him, and perhaps because she shows him a love in return that Snape does not get otherwise. Snape's love, however, turns against him when Lily marries James Potter. Snape's disdain for James and his desire for Lily causes him to commit an act of betrayal. He reveals the prophecy spoken about Voldemort in return for Voldemort's promise to let Lily live. This is the source of Voldemort's out-of-character action when he tells Lily to step aside. It is not compassion on Voldemort's part, but just part of an agreement, and one that is easily abandoned. Snape's self-serving love for Lily backfires and leaves Snape forever without the one he loves. Yet, Snape comes to understand something from this. His remorse gives him the understanding he needs that will lead him to work for Harry's protection and Dumbledore's plan, even though doing so puts Snape in danger and eventually costs him his life also.
In maturing from adolescence to manhood, this is the lesson that Harry must learn. It is in Harry's nature to be the hero for those suffering injustice, but there is another aspect of his nature that must be developed. He must learn to have compassion and concern, even for those who would be his enemy. We see this in Harry's relationship to Kreacher, the house-elf. Kreacher is the one who was instrumental in the events that led up to Sirius Black's death and Harry's near fatal encounter with Voldemort at the Ministry of Magic. Sirius was Harry's godfather, a link to his father and mother, and had become Harry's friend and protector. Sirius's death is nearly the moment of failure for Harry. He feels responsible and is ready to give it all up. Dumbledore explains that, although Harry's actions played a part, it was Voldemort's manipulation and Kreacher's betrayal that resulted in Sirius's death, not Harry. With Sirius's death Harry becomes the owner of the Black estate, including control over the house-elf Kreacher. It is within Harry's power to treat Kreacher cruelly, but with the warning of Dumbledore and the encouragement of Hermione, Harry does the opposite. Through acts of compassion and kindness Harry wins Kreacher's support. It is Kreacher who locates the missing locket containing one of the Horcruxes, an important step leading to the defeat of Voldemort.
Harry also learns that it isn't just his friends and those that can serve him that deserve compassion. During the battle for Hogwarts, there is a moment where Draco is trapped by an unquenchable fire. Harry has already acquired his own means of escape, yet he turns around and rescues Draco. Draco has never shown any love towards Harry and in fact has just been trying to capture Harry to gain Voldemort's approval. Harry's act, putting him in danger, is an act of compassion for an enemy. That act of compassion is rewarded later in the Forbidden Forest when it is Draco's mother that lies to protect Harry. He is the one who has given her hope of seeing her son again, and even for one of Voldemort's Death Eaters, her love for her son is stronger that Voldemort can imagine.
Many have died to protect Harry, and in the end that knowledge forces him to make a choice. He can continue the battle while others die, or he can act in self-sacrificing love to stop the killing. Having known love, Harry responds with love and goes to face Voldemort alone and undefended. In so doing, he will ultimately defeat Voldemort. In their final confrontation, Harry shows the greatest act of compassion of all. He tries to warn Voldemort, to stop him from a final act of evil and destruction, and urges Voldemort to find remorse. When Voldemort's shouts his Avada Kerdavra curse Harry responds only with Expelliarmus, a disarming spell. Harry has reached the point where he no longer seeks vengeance, but mercy, and desires to disarm Voldemort rather than destroy him. Of course, it is too late for Voldemort despite Harry's compassion.
In contrast, Voldemort does not, in fact cannot understand the nature of love although he is aware of what he is up against. As he explained to his Death Eaters, "This is old magic, I should have remembered it, I was foolish to overlook it." Yet, despite admitting the power in that act of love, Voldemort cannot truly comprehend it and his lack of understanding will be his downfall. Never having known love, he cannot understand its power. Dumbledore explains this to Harry:
"But I knew too where Voldemort was weak. And so I made my decision. You would be protected by an ancient magic of which he knows, which he despises, and which he has always, therefore, underestimated - to his cost. I am speaking, of course, of the fact that your mother died to save you. She gave you a lingering protection he never expected, a protection that flows in your veins to this day. I put my trust, therefore, in your mother's blood."
Notice also how Dumbledore links love to blood. Blood is the symbol of life, and to kill is to shed blood. Because Harry has the blood of the one that loved him enough to die for him he is protected. In The Sorcerer's Stone, Voldemort cannot even touch Harry. Later, after his revival in The Goblet of Fire by taking some of Harry's blood, Voldemort can touch Harry. The "magic" of sacrificial love is linked to taking the blood of the one who dies.
This power in love was foretold in the prophecy about Harry where it states, "He will have power the Dark Lord knows not." That power is what protected Harry from beginning to end. Yet, even after Voldemort has failed to kill Harry in numerous attempts because of the power of that love, Voldemort still cannot understand. His pride combines with his ignorance such that he treats the self-sacrificing love of Harry, Lily, Dobby, Dumbledore and Snape, with disdain.
"Is it love again?" said Voldemort, his snake's face jeering. "Dumbledore's favorite solution, love, which he claimed conquered death, though love did not stop him falling from the tower and breaking like and old waxwork? Love, which did not prevent me stamping out your Mudblood mother like a cockroach, Potter - and nobody seems to love you enough to run forward this time and take my curse. So what will stop you dying now when I strike?"
Yes, Harry tells him, and even more than that. That power, that magic greater than Voldemort can understand, already resides in Harry and it has grown past the point where Voldemort can defeat it. The thing that protects Harry from being overcome and possessed by Voldemort, and the thing that prevents Voldemort from killing Harry, is the thing that Voldemort does not understand. Love. Without the sacrificial love of another, Harry would never have survived the evil that attached itself to him. For Harry to rid himself and others of evil required an act equal to the love that protected him.
There are those who will say that love is a universal virtue in mankind and these images of sacrificial love are likewise universal. While that is true, what often appears as sacrificial love contains a portion of self-serving attitude. There are heroes of history, myth and literature who give up life rather than back down from danger and conflict. They may also sacrifice themselves rather than live without those they love. Usually the dying hero is overcome by greater power or through betrayal but fights until the very end. Thus, we admire the hero because of his courage and tenacity. However, his sacrifice still contains an element that is self-serving. The hero understands that he must die at some point in life but would rather die valiantly, resisting evil, than be thought of as a coward or a weakling. It is sacrificial, but it is also self serving. The hero expects to be remembered as valiant, or perhaps to gain a reward in an afterlife, and that is his motivation for sacrifice. More importantly, the sacrificial act provides a protection for others, but does not extend beyond the death of the hero.
There is something in Harry Potter that goes beyond the world's idea of love and sacrifice. It is not immediately obvious, but what the story describes is the love that is central to Christianity. Jesus said to his disciples, "No one has greater love than this - that one lays down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Like a mythical hero, Jesus was betrayed and taken by a greater power, or so it seemed. What the Gospel states, however, is that Jesus was well aware of the betrayer and allowed him to act (John 13:21-30). When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, he did not resist and prevented his own disciples from acting on his behalf (John 18:10-11). When put on trial, Jesus did not defend himself. As Jesus had previously stated, "No one takes [life] from me, but I lay it down of my own free will" (John 10:18). When questioned by Pilate, Jesus said, "You would have no authority over me at all, unless it was given to you from above" (John 19:11). This is an important difference between Jesus and the typical hero of myth. Jesus expresses a love for others and a willingness to die without defending himself, knowing that his voluntary sacrifice is the only way evil can be defeated.
We see the same act of voluntary sacrifice by the characters in Harry Potter. Lily does not defend herself against Voldemort, has the opportunity to step aside, but refuses to do so. Dobby has every excuse to avoid helping wizards, but sacrifices himself nonetheless. Dumbledore also stands defenseless, voluntarily allowing himself to be killed by Snape. Even Snape shows the same action. He places himself near Voldemort, but never attempts to kill Voldemort and in the end is struck down. Harry likewise stands before Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest and accepts death without resistance in order that evil may be destroyed. As Jesus stood before Pilate, refusing to defend himself, the heroes in Harry Potter do the same. Surprising to Harry, his sacrifice of himself does not result in his death. He comes to understand the true relationship of love and sacrifice. Because Harry did not defend himself, but was willing to die so that others may live, he reawakens with the fragment of Voldemort gone forever. It is in that new state that Harry can now defeat Voldemort.
Many people, even those who are not professing Christians, are familiar with John 3:16: "For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life." What must also be understood is that the sacrifice of Jesus results in more than his dying; it also results in His resurrection. The love of Jesus for mankind did not end with His death, but returned in even greater power at His resurrection. Just as Harry learns that love can drive Voldemort from his mind, the power of the death and resurrection drives sin from man. Remember also that the "magic" in love is linked to having the blood of the one who died. That is also a central symbol of Christianity. Jesus said, "The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood resides in me, and I in him" (John 6:56). That power of the resurrection not only removes sin, but provides for the regeneration of all those who believe, those who take within the body and blood of Christ.
To be clear, the story in Harry Potter is not a direct allegory of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and we should not stretch the meaning beyond what is in the story, as much as some might like to. Harry is not Christ any more than Lily, Dobby, Dumbledore, Dobby or Snape. Harry must be helped by others, and must grow into his understanding of the nature and power of sacrificial love. By the end of the story, Harry has progressed from a hot-tempered, impatient and imprudent youth to an adult with a mature level of understanding that gives him the ability to overcome evil. Harry is better seen as the personification of the life of a Christian. He is a pilgrim on a journey of sanctification, following the same path that Jesus walked. As Jesus said, anyone who would be His disciple must "Deny himself, take up your cross, and follow me" (Matthew 16:24). That is what the disciples of Jesus must do. That is a good analogy of what Harry did.
What is portrayed in Harry Potter is a core doctrine of Christianity. The characters in the story are "Christ-like" but not Christ and sacrificial love is thematic. Summarized, it states that there is a power in love that can transcend any evil, offer protection from evil, and does not disappear with the death of the one who loves. That is the love that God shows to man in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The characters in the story must come to this knowledge, and they do so through experience not just intellectually. So also it is for all of those who follow Jesus as disciples. All who follow Jesus come to understand the "greater magic" that is described in Harry Potter. Sacrificial love releases an on-going protection. It is a power that does not cease with the one who died, but rather it is an undying power of love.