"Hush! Not so loud," said Edmund; "there's no good frightening the girls. But have you realized what we're doing?"
"What?" said Peter, lowering his voice to a whisper.
"We're following a guide we know nothing about. How do we know which side that bird is on? Why shouldn't it be leading us into a trap?"
"That's a nasty idea. Still - a robin, you know. They're good birds in all the stories I've ever read. I'm sure a robin wouldn't be on the wrong side."
"It if comes to that, which is the right side? How do we know that the Fauns are in the right and the Queen (yes, I know we've been told she's a witch) is in the wrong? We don't really know anything about either."
"The Faun saved Lucy."
"He said he did. But how do we know?"
This is a quotation I always haul out when we study The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in my children's literature classes. Narnia is a world devoid of moral ambiguity. Characters are what they appear; knowledge gleaned from reading fairy tales (and The Secret Garden) is reliable; and those who provide aid usually prove to be on the right side. Edward's moral relativism is a pose, a spurious and hypocritical form of rationalism designed to conceal what deep down he knows to be true: that the White Witch is evil (like the Snow Queen she's based on) and the Turkish Delight she offers is a baited snare.
The converse to C.S. Lewis's novel is R.L. Stevenson's Treasure Island. In that book, the conflict between pirates and gentlemen is drained of moral meaning. Though the so-called gentlemen fly the Union Jack and use terms like "honest" and "faithful" to describe members of their party, they are lawless and greedy, just like the pirates - and in the end they maroon the remaining pirates rather than taking them home to face the King's justice. Characters are never what they appear; knowledge gleaned from reading adventure stories is misleading; and those who provide aid usually prove to be the most duplicitous and dangerous pirates of all. When moral language is used in Treasure Island, it is to veil ulterior motives. There is no choice between good and evil - only between different varieties of corruption.
The Harry Potter series neatly straddles these two approaches to the problem of good and evil. Almost every book in the series has been an object lesson in the principle that good people can come in mean-tempered and greasy-haired packages. Book IV (Goblet of Fire) is tediously plotted and far too long, but it amply demonstrates the reverse principle: in that novel, Mad-Eye Moody not only helps Harry every step of the way, but also demonstrates an appreciation for honour and courage that makes him seem absolutely trustworthy. My first warning of his true nature was his use of the term "the Dark Lord" to describe Voldemort, only moments before his identity was revealed. Edmund Pevensie should have gone to Hogwarts - he would have done better there than the earnest and uncritical Peter.
At heart, the Harry Potter series is about a struggle between good and evil that is as stark, in its way, as the battle between Sauron and the Fellowship of the Ring (from which, of course, Rowling borrows almost as much as she does from Lewis's Narnia books). But somehow that framework allows for James Potter to be a bit of a bully in his Hogwarts days, for Ron to be an ill-tempered brat, for Dumbledore himself to have a Hamartia, a fatal longing for the power of the Deathly Hallows.
Moreover, the series itself is elaborately disguised. Right-wing Christian groups have swallowed the bait hook, line, and sinker, banning the book, warning conscientious parents that it will lead their children to worship Satan, and doing their level best to keep the most powerful Christian allegory since The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe out of the hands of innocent children.
Not that it's an allegory, exactly. Harry is not Jesus, or even Aslan; Dumbledore is not God or even, in the end, godlike (though he is uncannily prescient). But in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling pulls the gloves off. For the first time, the existence of the Christian faith is obliquely acknowledged as Harry and Hermione pay a Christmas Eve visit the graveyard where his parents are buried. While worshippers congregate inside the church, Harry reads his parents' epitaph: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." The words are taken from Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, and Harry is so thoroughly post-Christian that he mistakes it for a species of Dark magic. (Rowling must have giggled as she wrote that, thinking of all the well-meaning pastors holding exorcisms to rid their congregations of her own dark influence.)
The central dilemma Harry faces in this book revolves around his faith in Dumbledore. Unlike Snape or Mad-Eye Moody, Dumbledore is never presented ambiguously: we always know that he is on the side of good, rooted in his opposition to Voldemort. But what Harry doubts is Dumbledore's love, his trustworthiness, his wisdom. Should he continue in the path Dumbledore marked out for him? Did Dumbledore really care about him, or did he merely view him as an instrument, a strategy? Repeatedly, people like Hermione advise Harry to choose to believe the best of Dumbledore, but belief doesn't strike Harry as a choice - he wants the truth, not some kind of pious self-delusion.
Nevertheless, at a key turning point of the novel, Harry makes a decision to trust Dumbledore: to forge ahead, not knowing or understanding why Dumbledore chose to reveal so little of the whole picture:
Harry kept quiet. He did not want to express the doubts and uncertainties about Dumbledore that had riddled him for months now. He had made his choice while he dug Dobby's grave; he had decided to continue along the winding, dangerous path indicated for him by Albus Dumbledore, to accept that he had not been told everything that he wanted to know, but simply to trust. He had no desire to doubt again, he did not want to hear anything that would deflect him from his purpose.
It's not quite a theodicy, but almost. I like the way Rowling foregrounds the issue of Dumbledore's reliability (something that Lois Lowry fails to do in The Giver, another novel in which a trusted mentor leads a boy to sacrifice himself for the greater good). There is ultimately no proof of Dumbledore's love, no evidence that clears him of all Harry's suspicions. Harry's decision to trust him is a calculated gamble, the kind of decision Voldemort is never brave enough to make.
Rowling has made her case for faith well before we get to the death and resurrection of Harry in the final chapters. Yes, she stole that plot device from C.S. Lewis (who stole it from the New Testament), but I think she dramatizes it more successfully. The "Deeper Magic From Before the Dawn of Time" has always seemed like a bit of a cop-out to me when Aslan uses it to weasel out of his deal with the Witch. Here Rowling makes it clear that Voldemort could have known - and should have known - what his murder of Harry would accomplish. He deluded himself, just as, in the end, he killed himself with his own rebounding curse.
Harry's Christian defenders have long pointed out that Lily Potter's sacrificial death, with the protection it provides, lays the groundwork in these novels for a Christian world view. But for a mother to die on behalf of her son is not so extraordinary as the spell Harry casts when he goes willingly to die, not for Ginny, or Ron, or Hermione, but for every person at the castle who is fighting bravely (and sacrificially) against the Death Eaters. Lewis's story focuses on the unworthiness of Edmund: Aslan sacrifices himself for a wretched traitor, someone most readers don't necessarily even like very much. At the end of Harry's story, the focus falls not on the sinfulness of humanity, but rather on the heart-stopping purity required to die a death that embraces and protects everyone.
Like Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island, Harry learns that moral rhetoric can be dangerous. Throughout The Deathly Hallows, Rowling plays with the phrase "For the Greater Good" - a mantra developed by Dumbledore and Grindelwald to justify a wizard uprising against the Muggles. Evil can be made to sound good - but goodness is real and important for all that. All the heavy-handed references to Nazi Germany function as a reminder that sometimes good and evil really do square off, sometimes it really is as simple as that. Sometimes, Harry points out at last, you really do have to do what is necessary for the greater good.
I didn't pay a lot of attention to the sermon this morning in church, my mind still at Hogwarts after a brief few hours of sleep. It made me grin to imagine the shocked expressions on some of my fellow churchgoers' faces if they knew what I was thinking. But the subject-matter was appropriate: it's hard to write about goodness (as Milton discovered) in a way that makes it more attractive than evil, and I've read few stories in which love and faith are represented so compellingly that I would stay up until three o'clock in the morning, cheering for The Boy Who Lived.