Exploring Good and Evil Within Harry Potter and Quentin of The Magicians

September 15th, 2009

Several reviews have focused on Harry Potter and his friends Ron and Hermione’s “coming of age,” in the recently released film “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”  This film, which reveals some of the risks that young teens take on as they mature, has raised questions and some condemnation about the inclusion of certain risk-taking behaviors in a film so popular with children.  For example, is the butter beer that Ron, Hermione and Harry drink alcoholic?  Is drinking this unknown concoction what causes Hermione to act differently and spontaneously put her arms around Harry and Ron?  Is this too much to show on screen in a “children’s” movie?  And what about the budding romantic and sexual relationships of the threesome?  Again, are their stories too dangerous for children to view?

Heroes defiled, role models lost, as Harry and his friends take on challenges and make mistakes.  Most of the recent articles which have brought up this subject focus on challenges that Potter and his friends are facing – hanging out with friends, experimenting with substances and engaging in romantic liaisons.  These risks as well as others are revealed in the film, but in addition to them, the hero Harry faces another type of risk-taking, which often begins in adolescence, but is rarely discussed.  In the film, Harry grapples with his own capacity to be and experience the effects of evil.  Well known to Harry Potter fans, Harry’s parents die when he is a baby, killed by the evil wizard and primary villain, Voldemort.  At the same time that his parents are killed, Harry is scarred by Voldemort and, magically, Harry’s injury contains a little part of the evil wizard.  This wound gives Harry special powers including an ability to sense Voldemort’s presence and some of his intentions.  In addition, the fact that the villain’s presence is embedded in Harry, and is now an actual part of him, compels Harry to learn to struggle with the forces of good and evil in the world, gradually understanding that those forces are inside of him.  Harry’s struggles to face, understand and fight the evil wizard and the evil inside himself constitute one of the key risks in this amazing series of books which includes lessons for children, adolescents and adults alike.  This is adolescent risk-taking at its most challenging.  This is a book that helps young people to recognize that there are not good people and evil people but good and evil in all of us.

Several months ago, a new book, The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, introduced another adolescent hero, this time named Quentin, who attends a hidden magic school, this time Brakebills, and takes on challenges similar to Harry’s.  Contrasting with Harry, Quentin is from Brooklyn, not London, and there is more grit than fairy to this fantasy tale.  The hero, Quentin, unlike Harry, is literate in the sci-fi genre, sardonic and edgy, but his struggles with risk-taking resemble Harry’s.  Attending classes at Brakebills and taking risks with his developing magic skills, he too discovers that many of the biggest challenges lie within ourselves.  In his third year of magic school, while a groaning Professor March is giving a lecture on weather magic, a bored and somewhat resentful Quentin who has just been disciplined by this professor, decides that it might be nice if his teacher screws up the spell he is teaching.  Using his amateur magic skills, Quentin pulls a prank with magic, he wiggles his professor’s podium and dire consequences follow, the professor’s spell misfires, reality shifts and a beast enters the classroom, quickly eating one of Quentin’s classmates.  What a surprise, Quentin’s attempt to get back at his professor, and one of his first experiments with magic, unleashes a monster in his world.  After this, Quentin struggles with the beast, an evil that he has contributed to.  This book, like the Harry Potter series, focuses on the risks and challenges that adolescents take on as they grow up.  Both Harry and Quentin gradually face the unhappy truth that some of life’s hardest struggles are with ourselves and involve discovering who we are and what we are capable of doing.  A key part of thir struggle is that evil is not only outside but within, and it is often impossible to tell where it begins and ends.  Taking on this challenge of discovery is embracing one of life’s greatest risks and both these young heroes struggle through in somewhat different ways to confront and understand this.  It is a different struggle from those adolescent risks which are so prominent in the media (Should I break curfew?  Should I drink alcohol?  Should I have sex?), but it is equally if not more defining and almost completely unspoken of.  It is easier to talk about protecting adolescents from the risks and evil that are outside of themselves and, far more difficult to acknowledge, the struggles that we all have with darker forces within.

Taking risks in adolescence allows young people to define their identity as they shape and choose who they will become in their struggles with the world but equally if not more important, young peoples’ identity is shaped by confronting and understanding the risks within themselves.  It is time that we follow the lead of these two young heroes and start this discussion.

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