The fourth book in the Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality brings Hermione more onto center stage than in previous books. After all, the title takes her name rather than Harry’s: Hermione Jean Granger and the Phoenix’s Call. I will again have to make a SPOILER WARNING right up front, as I am going to speak about key details of the plot that some readers may not appreciate.
I would say that the two central developments in this section of the book (the series doesn’t have nearly as clean-cut endings and beginnings as the original Harry Potter books; it just keeps going. But there is a climax usually near the end) are (1) Hermione Granger determines that she wants to be a hero and not just somebody’s sidekick and (2) Hermione is framed by an unknown enemy for the attempted murder of Draco Malfoy resulting in her trial before the Wizengamot. This covers one of the main themes of the book: what is a hero? Dumbledore claims it involves some twist of fate that no single person can choose, but Hermione claims being a hero is just choosing right even when it is difficult. But regardless of what a hero is, everyone seems to agree that they need a wizened old wizard to be there guide! The second theme I found to be central to the book was the idea of a greater good, whether it is OK to commit evil acts for a greater purpose– the whole do the ends justify the means argument. Dumbledore in this book solidly answers that yes, the ends do justify the means. Dumbledore is apparently willing to sacrifice some people, and kill some bad people in order to preserve peace in the long run. Harry is never willing to make such sacrifices, and cannot be convinced otherwise. Harry guilts Dumbledore really badly for it too. Here is one example exchange:
“No,” the boy said. The boy looked up, and his eyes were blazing like green fire. “I do not accept your answer, Headmaster. Fawkes gave me a mission, and I know now why Fawkes gave that mission to me, and not to you. You are willing to accept balances of power where the bad guys end up winning. I am not.”
“That too is not an answer,” the old wizard said; his face showed nothing of his hurt, he had long practice in concealing pain. “Refusing to accept something does not change it. I wonder now if you are simply too young to understand this matter, Harry, despite your outward airs; only in children’s fantasies can all battles be won, and not a single evil tolerated.”
“And that’s why I can destroy Dementors and you can’t,” said the boy. “Because I believe that the darkness can be broken.”
The old wizard’s breath stopped in his throat.
“The phoenix’s price isn’t inevitable,” the boy said. “It’s not part of some deep balance built into the universe. It’s just the parts of the problem where you haven’t figured out yet how to cheat.”
The old wizard’s lips parted, and no words came forth.
Silver light falling on shattered wands.
“Fawkes gave me a mission,” the boy repeated, “and I will carry out that mission if I must break the entire Ministry to do it. That’s the part of the answer that you’re missing. You don’t stop and say, oh well, guess I can’t possibly figure out any way to stop bullying in Hogwarts, and leave it at that. You just keep looking until you figure out how to do it. If that requires breaking Lucius Malfoy’s entire conspiracy, fine.”
The old wizard stood there silent, silent amid the ruins of the lives which his own life had left behind. His wrinkled hand rose, shaking, to touch at his half-moon glasses –
Dumbledore actually comes to ask at one point whether he is the Dark Lord that Harry is supposed to defeat, not Voldemort. The debates are very interesting to read. However, I again believe that Harry’s self-righteous behavior in which he views others as lesser beings (he truly does say in several instances that he views others as NPCs in a video game) ruins any credibility in my eyes. I don’t view him as a moral hero, and certainly not an example to emulate. Not that the version of Dumbledore in this book is any better. Again, it is a fan who is clearly mocking certain aspects of the original series, so perhaps not exactly the true feelings of the author. But still. I believe that yes, the ends do not and cannot justify the means. Those kind of moral compromises can end up twisting what you think is right and wrong. However, I do have to accept that there is some evil in the world that I have no control over. Harry, for instance, thinks that the very existence of Azkaban is reason enough for him to overthrow the British government. Evil exists and should be fought at every corner, but we have to accept that it does exist, even within ourselves. We do what we can in our circle of influence, and we encourage others to do the same. But over-throwing the existing world order? Sounds like we’d be having another French Revolution every time someone was offended enough.
I did appreciate the author’s magnification of Hermione’s role, and his intent on making her another protagonist with her own “quest” rather than just a Harry-sidekick. I liked observing her self-doubt, her fight against “the system” which has its pre-selected heroes and villains (and Quirrell’s suggestion that we need more Dark Lady’s too, not just heriones). Really well done.
I think Harry has a severe hero complex. Viewing others as NPCs is not acceptable. And just this quote from Godric Gryffindor:
No rescuer hath the rescuer, Godric Gryffindor had written. No Lord hath the champion, no mother and no father, only nothingness above.
I think it is actually Dumbledore who quotes it, but I don’t think it is the best way to live. As a Christian, the only one who this could possibly apply to is Christ, and claiming you don’t need your own savior or can’t rely on one feels like utter hubris.
The developments on magic in the original series does keep occurring. Some interesting additions to the lore of the Sorceror’s Stone, the history of the Wizengamot, the discovery of the essential rules of Potions, and some alternate background of Professor Quirrell. Another excellent read!
Image credit: Shipping wiki