I don’t know about you, but I just love quotes. One of the joys I get from reading is finding the line in the entire book that sums up the theme, plot, character development, or moral tone.
In the second book of the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore tells Harry, “It is our choices, . . . that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” I really enjoy this line, and I think this probably one of the most important quotes in the series. Although I believe our desires and our intentions probably best show us for who we are, the ultimate measure of our hearts is our choices and actions. And Harry illustrates this maxim in the series.
However, Harry does not always make the best choices. He breaks rules and lies to his teachers, many of whom wink at Harry’s flagrant defiance of school order. Indeed, Dumbledore utters the above quote after reminding the young wizard of the latter’s deliberate, though noble, disregard for school rules, an offense deserving expulsion. Instead, the headmaster rewards the boy rather than punish him. This seeming blind-eye toward law and order is one of the two reasons why some conservative critics seem to hate the series. To them, it is as if the presence of magic is bad enough, but Harry totally ignores the legal structure of his institution and society without proper punishment, even if he has to break rules to rescue the school or his friends. Such a philosophy is dangerous for child readers, and therefore the books should be banned.
Yes, I admit that Harry breaks rules without any regard for authority; his penchant for disobedience and lying bothers me. But he does eventually get into trouble and is subsequently punished, sometimes with repentance and remorse on Harry’s part. More importantly, the books address a hard question that even many conservatives find difficult to answer: should we obey authority when it violates our conscience and values?
Throughout the series, Harry many times breaks rules because because the school or his friends are in danger. Essentially, he cares more for the lives of his classmates and friends to risk expulsion and death to save them. In the first book, he tells his friends that he would rather be expelled than allow Voldemort retrieve the Philosopher’s Stone. In the second book, he rescues Ginny from the Heir of Slytherin under the same premonitions. And he almost dies in both attempts. This trend continues throughout the series, and Harry finally as to make his most difficult decision at the end of book seven.
In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. tells his audience of clergymen that he is in prison because he conducted an illegal demonstration against laws he believed to be unjust. Yet, King never admits that he does not deserve his incarceration. In fact, he welcomes it, stating he felt compelled to break unjust laws even if doing so would lead to his imprisonment. Now, Hogwart’s school rules are not unjust, but Harry clearly understands the consequences of his actions if he violates them. He, like King, feels compelled to break rules because a higher value at risk—the integrity of his school and the lives of his friends. However, his acknowledgment of the consequences themselves reveal his moral compass and his consideration of the importance of rules.
So, the books actually accomplish a difficult balancing act: they illustrate the importance of upholding and obeying law and order and show us that we might one day have to, in the words of Dumbledore again, “make a choice between what is right and what is easy.” Harry knows the difference, and he asks the Sorting Hat not to place him in Slytherin House. Salazar Slytherin and Tom Riddle would have broken rules for their own gain, and many students in Slytherin, including Draco Malfoy, would walk over anyone to achieve their ends. But Harry embraces “bravery and friendship” (Another quote! This time from Hermione!) and acknowledges the consequences of his choices. His decision to refuse the Hat’s recommendation shows us more about his character than his ability in magic could ever tell us.