Harry Potter and the Chamber of Hope
by Donald Ray Burger
Attorney at Law

I recently finished watching the DVD version of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. It was a repeat viewing of the classic. And it put me in a great mood.

In this country the police state seems to be ever-increasing in power. And those standing in opposition to the trend seem few. Sometimes I become disenheartened over this trend which seems to indicate that individual liberty is embraced by fewer and fewer people.

War times are always hard on liberty. There is something about uniting against a perceived enemy that is anathema to individual thought. Anyone who questions the march of war is shouted down as an enemy of the country. Dissent is widely viewed as traitorous. When war fever hits, most appreciation for debate and the questioning of the authorities vanishes in the tide of "patriotism" that washes over the country. Minds close to arguments and tempers are on short fuses. Pessimism for the future of individual liberty can seize anyone.

For those in a sour mood, I recommend a viewing of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. And, before hitting the "play" button, remind yourself that the book and movie have both sold millions and millions of copies. To adults and kids. Yes, kids. The repositories of the future of freedom. To me, the fact that children love this story is reason for optimism.

The movie, and book, deal with the adventures of Harry Potter as he comes of age as a wizard extraordinare. As a wizard, Harry has powers not present in regular people. But the movie is not about his wizardry. The movie is about the trial and tribulations of growing up. The vehicle used to explore this theme is Harry as wizard.

That Harry is a wizard allows the viewer to think about certain issues from a different perspective. It allows children, and especially adults, to take a fresh look at monumental problems without the feeling that they are being preached at. Of course, it is up to the viewer to apply the lessons Harry learns to the world of non wizards. Yet it is the fact that the problems occur in the land of wizards that allows one to consider the issues without being threatened. That is the genius of the Harry Potter series, both the books and the movies.

So what is there in Chamber of Secrets that makes an individualist happy? Let's consider some of the themes of the movie, major and minor.

In Chamber of Secrets Harry, Ron and Hermione all stand up to adults. The adults represent authority. And power. Yet a major theme of the movie is that one does not blindly do what the authorities say. Harry, Ron and Hermione are constantly disobeying instructions from the adults. But when they do so it is because they decide the adults are wrong. They think for themselves. They don't rebel simply to rebel. In contrast, Draco Malfoy, a classmate of Harry, is portrayed as someone who disobeys for the wrong reasons. The viewer is shown that disobedience, as such, is not wrong. One must examine the act in light of the facts before passing judgment.

A related theme, even more explicit, is that strict obedience to the "rules" is not always wise. Even in an institution of higher learning for wizards, there are lots of "rules" that don't make sense. Watch the movie with this theme in mind and notice how often Harry and his friends are forced to bend the rules to accomplish their goals. Of course, breaking rules is not without consequences. Harry and Ron are almost expelled for using a flying car when Muggles (non wizards) could see them. It is an interesting scene when the "authorities" confront Harry and Ron about the car. Certain school officials are of the "zero tolerance" type, and want to expel Harry and Ron. It is made clear that this position is taken not just because the rule broken was a serious one. No, they want to expel the boys out of an improper motive. They don't like Harry and Ron. They don't want them around. And enforcement of the rule is the excuse used to achieve improper motives, unrelated to the reason for the rule. Fortunately, other teachers are not of the zero tolerance type, and the punishment is allowed to fit the crime. Harry and Ron learn both that actions have consequences and that some in authority are eager to abuse power for personal reasons. Valuable lessons both. And subtlely delivered.

Another lesson of the film is that "might" is not enough. Wizards have extraordinary powers. They are able to change certain laws of nature that are present in the ordinary world of Muggles. But those changes follow their own set of rules. Harry's world is not one where, when a wizard gets in a jam, a snap of the wand will rescue its wielder. The rules of the wizard world are not the rules of the Muggle world, but laws of nature still exist. They are just more complicated than the natural laws of the Muggle world. Harry, and Hermione, have to use their heads more than their wands. It is "thinking," not wands, that gets Harry through his adventures. Hermione is the symbol of the power of thought in the movie. She likes books and learning. She realizes that hard work is required to utilize even the skills of wizardry. She is a force for reason. Ron, in contrast, is lazier, and more apt to use a wand instead of his head. But Ron's wand breaks early in the film, and the broken wand serves as an illustration of how the use of force can backfire, and be undependable. One example is when Ron tries throw a curse on Draco Malfoy, another student at Hogwarts. The curse involves a mouth full of slugs, and it backfires on Ron. Draco had called Hermione a name. Ron was quick to react. Quick to use force. Whether a mouthful of slugs is an appropriate curse for name-calling I will leave for another day. But clearly Ron learned that force is not always effective, nor are its results always predictable.

We are also presented with the issue of slavery. Dobby is a house elf. House elves are slaves. They "belong" to their families. We learn that some wizard families keep the elves as slaves. And although the practice is tolerated, it is made clear that it is the bad wizards that keep slaves. The whole issue of Dobby's slavery bothers Harry throughout the film. And in the end Harry figures out a way to free Dobby. Not by force of arms. By using his brains. Harry learns of the "rules" governing slavery of elves and figures out a way to end Dobby's slavery within those rules. There is lots to think about on this theme alone.

In a related theme, we learn that prejudice is wrong. Among wizards there are pure bloods (wizards born of parents who were wizards) and Mudbloods (those with the powers of wizards yet born of Muggle parents). Hermione, one of the most likeable characters in the film, is such a person. The viewer is given a subtle lesson that prejudice is wrong and that individuals should be judged on their merits, not on an accident of birth. Draco Malfoy and his dad are the major haters of Hermione and "her kind." The viewer is shown both that prejudice is not a belief shared by the good guys and that prejudice against someone because of their "blood" is short sighted and wrong headed.

Through various characters we learn that adults lie. For example, Gilderoy Lockhart is a handsome wizard, and a favorite of the ladies. He is also a conceited fake, who makes up his stories of greatness. Lockhart is very much stuck on himself. Even Hermione is taken with his good looks. Lockhart is very much the politician, who lives on the adoration of others, and knows how to lie to get that adoration. The adult wizards barely tolerate Lockhart, and maneuver him into a situation where he will have to put up or shut up by fighting a mighty serpent. Lockhart tries to sneak off into the night, and Harry and Ron learn that actions speak louder than words, and that individuals are to be judged on their acts, not on their press releases. Valuable lessons.

Adult lies also play a part in a lesson on the preemptive use of force. It is clear to the viewer that Lucius Malfoy, Draco's father, is an evil wizard, and that he lies as a matter of course. Toward the end of the film Dumbledore confronts Lucius over a number of issues that have caused much mischief at Hogwarts. Clearly Dumbledore believes Lucius is behind the opening of the Chamber of Secrets. But proof is lacking. Belief, even strong belief, is not evidence. The viewer knows that Malfoy lies when he is confronted. Dumbledore also "knows" it. But rules of proof prevail. Dumbledore does not strike Malfoy dead, even though he believes Malfoy is up to no good. Even though he believes Malfoy will continue to be up to no good. The initiation of the use of force against Lucius is not appropriate. Perhaps more proof will be forthcoming. But until then, Malfoy is allowed to slink away. Note the twin lessons. Malfoy is not physically punished in the absence of proof, but he does pay a price. He has to stomp away because everyone knows he is scum. And, for now, that is punishment enough.

There is a lot said about justice in the film. In a moving scene Hagrid is sent off to prison on the suspicion of the authorities that he must be behind the misdeeds at Hogwarts. There is no proof, and the viewers know Hagrid is innocent. We see how fear and clouded reasoning can imprison an innocent man. We also learn that Dumbledore is fired by the governors. By unanimous vote. The stupidity of the firing is not lost on the audience. And we later learn that the vote to fire him went as it did because Malfoy intimidated the governors into doing his wishes. As Dumbledore notes in a later confrontation with Malfoy, apparently several of the governors voted as they did because they feared for the safety of their families. This is a powerful lesson that "voting" has its flaws, and that the innocent may suffer as a result. It is also a lesson that the "authorities" can be corrupted, and intimidated. The individual must make up his own mind, and cannot afford the lazy luxury of assuming that those in power know better.

In the end, good triumphs, as it should. Hagrid is let out of prison; Dumbledore resumes his duties as head of Hogwarts, Dobby is set free and the various wizards, cats and ghosts who were cursed by the serpent of the Chamber of Secrets are restored to good working order. The audience goes away knowing that justice has been restored at Hogwarts. And restored for the right reasons and by the right actions. That a film popular with children and adults relies on so many good themes is remarkable. And a cause for optimism in troubled times.

May 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Donald Ray Burger. All Rights Reserved.

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