"The point is, we're at war, Prime Minister, and steps must be taken." (1.69)
Cornelius Fudge doesn't sugarcoat anything when discussing the state of affairs with the Prime Minister. In the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, we learn that war will be the backdrop of the story that follows. What war is being fought? Who is on what side? What are the sides fighting for?
"Now, as you already know, the wizard called Lord Voldemort has returned to this country. The Wizarding community is currently in a state of open warfare. Harry, whom Lord Voldemort has already attempted to kill on a number of occasions, is in even greater danger now than the day when I left him upon your doorstep fifteen years ago, with a letter explaining about his parents' murder and expressing the hope that you would care for him as though he were your own." (3.99)
Listen to the words Dumbledore uses in this moment: open warfare, kill, danger, murder, doorstep, parents, hope, care. Dumbledore's words are filled with both vivid violence and with messages of peace, a fact that says much about the great wizard. He is both realistic and hopeful. He does not delude himself that times aren't troubling, but he also believes the good of people will prevail. It is this constant struggle of violence and peace, despair and hope, chaos and order that colors Harry's life.
"In Madam Malkin's. She didn't touch him, but he yelled and jerked his arm away from her when she went to roll up his sleeve. It was his left arm. He's been branded with the Dark Mark." (7.16)
If evil presents itself tangibly in the form of a mark on the arm or a mark over the castle tower, how does love present itself tangibly? Does love ever present itself in physical form? Is love at war with evil in this story, or is it way more complicated than that?
"Your defenses," said Snape, a little louder, "must therefore be as flexible and inventive as the arts you seek to undo. These pictures" – he indicated a few of them as he swept past – "give a fair representation of what happens to those who suffer, for instance, the Cruciatus Curse" -- he waved a hand toward a witch who was clearly shrieking in agony – "feel the Dementor's Kiss" – a wizard lying huddled and blank-eyed, slumped against a wall – "or provoke the aggression of the Inferius" – a bloody mass upon the ground. (9.57)
What can we learn about Snape from the way in which he describes these portraits? What does he teach his students this year? Why does he have these portraits of suffering on the wall? It would seem we know more about Voldemort than we do about Snape. Why is that?
"But she could do magic!" said Harry impatiently. "She could have got food and everything for herself by magic, couldn't she?"
"Ah," said Dumbledore, "perhaps she could. But it is my belief – I am guessing again, but I am sure I am right – that when her husband abandoned her, Merope stopped using magic. I do not think that she wanted to be a witch any longer. Of course, it is also possible that her unrequited love and the attending despair sapped her of her powers; that can happen. In any case, as you are about to see, Merope refused to raise her wand even to save her own life." (13.31)
Does Merope's refusal to save her own life, and, therefore, to love her son (Voldemort) indicate that she is evil? Do you feel pity or anger or ambivalence toward her in this moment? Here again we see how magic can be no match for the power of love (and the lack of it). Can a loveless life inspire evil? Can love be connected to evil in this story?
"'You can't kid me! The asylum, that's where you're from, isn't it? "Professor," yes, of course – well, I'm not going, see? That old cat's the one who should be in the asylum. I never did anything to little Amy Beson or Dennis Bishop, and you can ask them, they'll tell you!'" (13.114)
Little Tom Riddle is terrified of being considered crazy, of being put in a place for people who are rejected by society. This indicates to us the people in the orphanage have treated him as an outsider and have made him feel "different." Can we blame his distrustful defensiveness in this moment? Little Tom is a loner, he has no friends, and we can't help but feel a little happy for him when Dumbledore reveals to him that he has magical powers that make him quite "special." Even though these powers eventually lead him to do terrible acts of violence and cruelty, they begin as a source of pride and hope for Tom.
"But you should know that Hogwarts can expel students, and the Ministry of Magic – yes, there is a Ministry – will punish lawbreakers still more severely. All new wizards must accept that, in entering our world, they abide by our laws." (13.153)
What can law do when evil is at work? What examples of the law do we see in this story, and what is the purpose of laws? Dumbledore is able to be a great wizard while working within the rules and regulations of the society in which he lives. Why is Voldemort unable to do this?
"I know Dumbledore's tried appealing directly to Scrimgeour about Stan…I mean, anybody who has actually interviewed him agrees that he's about as much a Death Eater as this Satsuma…but top levels want to look as though they're making some progress, and 'three arrests' sounds better than 'three mistaken arrests and releases'…but again, this is all top secret…." (16.61)
What exactly is the Ministry of Magic doing to combat Voldemort? Why do they want to "appear" to have everything under control? Why can't they identify the right people to arrest? It would seem that they don't have a clue about what this war is about, which is strange and unsettling, considering it is the most powerful place of leadership in the Wizarding community. If Scrimgeour doesn't know what's going on, then who does? And, when Dumbledore dies at the end of the story, is there anyone left, besides Harry, who understands Voldemort?
"He is not very happy with me either. We must try not to sink beneath our anguish, Harry, but battle on." (17.74)
Dumbledore comments on Scrimgeour. You know things aren't good when the Minister of Magic doesn't know how to talk or listen to the two greatest wizards in the world. What do we learn about Scrimgeour in this moment? What kind of leader is he? How is he helping to win or lose this war?
"Certainly," said Voldemort, and his eyes seemed to burn red. "I have experimented; I have pushed the boundaries of magic further, perhaps, than they have ever been pushed – " (20.169)
"Boundaries of magic" – now there's a phrase we could sit up all night discussing. Magic, to us, involves making anything happen or not happen. But, clearly, that is not the case. There are limits to what magic can do – it cannot, for example, bring Dumbledore back to life. This simple fact alone helps us to understand magic as not a tool wizards and witches use to become omnipotent, but rather as a tool to live and survive, just as Muggles do without it. In the world of Harry Potter, magic is defined in part by what it cannot do. So, what do we call Voldemort's work to push the boundaries of magic? Can we still call his powers magic, or are they something else entirely?