While some people may get offended if I called the Harry Potter series “fine literature,” I do find a lot of merit in its complexity. There are motifs carried out in the series, one of which is choice. We see similar characters, who had the opportunity to follow similar paths, but through their choices they proved themselves to be greater than the sum of their parts.
"It is our choices Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities," -Albus Dumbledore
Harry and Neville
Lets start at the basics with one easily found foil of characters. Rowling herself makes this connection apparent in the later books. Both Harry and Neville were orphaned early in life. Both were born around the same time, and the prophecy could have applied to them. But look at how differently their paths began during their first couple of years at Hogwarts: Harry makes friends easily, has headstrong opinions and is devoted to doing what’s right. Neville on the other hand, is almost a comic relief with his bumbling behavior and forgetfulness.
But what happens next? We watch each character grow and develop. They make choices and become better people, and grow closer together by the end of the series. During the battle of Hogwarts I would argue is Neville’s turning point, when we as readers see the final product and realize how far Neville has come. Did Neville bemoan his horrible luck and accept his fate as the butt of every joke? Of course not.
"And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them," (Ether 12:27)
Harry and Voldemort
Here is another blatant foil that Rowling herself addresses for our benefit. Harry grapples with the idea that he and Voldemort have a lot in common. The fifth book explores this connection with startling insights. But what drives Harry to become the hero of the series instead of an antihero? The answer is simply love.
Dumbledore is quick to point out that Harry know love, which makes him infinitely more powerful than Voldemort. Why do you think that is? What about love can grant the hero power beyond the villain?
"There are many attributes which are manifestations of love, such as kindness, patience, selflessness, understanding, and forgiveness. In all our associations, these and other such attributes will help make evident the love in our hearts,” (President Monson, Love—the Essence of the Gospel)
Love is the motivating power in priesthood service. Without love for others, there would be no priesthood blessings. Without love for God there would be no faith to sponsor these acts.
And on a more superficial level, love changes people. Your relationships that you form with others have the ability to transcend time. Look at the influence that Christ’s love has had on man kind. Or the love of Martin Luther King. Or Ghandi. Infamy may live on in textbooks, but love lives in the human heart and extends beyond your lifetime.
Voldemort and Snape
This foil jumped out at me while reading The Half-Blood Prince. Both characters come from mixed parentage, with a witch and Muggle for parents. Both struggle make friends at Hogwarts (Tom Riddle acquires followers, there’s a difference). Both are fascinated with the Dark Arts. And yet they end up as entirely different people, Snape is even willing to lay down his life for those he loves, an act abhorred by Voldemort.
Once again the answer seems to be love. Severus loved Lily, so much that it drove him to become a double agent and fool such a blood thirsty individual like Voldemort. But digging deeper, what truly motivated Snape to become who he was? I personally have trouble accepting Snape’s redemption story; it feels too forced for Rowling to take a character so disgusting (reread the first few books to understand my distaste for Severus) and make his acts justifiable. Rather I propose that the real variable that changed Snape was Godly sorrow.
"And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.
Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.
And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.
And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!” (Alma 36:17-20)
Godly sorrow is more than just feeling guilt. It is an exquisite remorse, “the pains of a damned soul,” as Alma the younger describes it. This power changed the vilest of sinners into one of the greatest prophets in The Book of Mormon. And I think it was the same influence that changed Snape into the man he became.
Agency, humility, love, and repentance are lessons we can learn from the characters in the Potter Universe. Lessons that can and will change our lives for the better.