J.K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ series hinges around the final chapters of the seventh book, ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’- ‘The Forest Again’ and ‘King’s Cross’. At the end of his conversation with Dumbledore in King’s Cross, Harry says to him, “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”, to which Dumbledore replies, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” (‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’, p.579). This exchange seems to epitomize the series as a whole and bring up one of the main questions- that of what is ‘real’ and what is illusory or imagined. In this essay, I am going to look at ideas around what ‘reality’ means in the world of J.K. Rowling’s novels, how that affects the identity of the characters and the series as a whole, and focus finally on the ‘King’s Cross’ chapter of the final book. I have included a brief synopsis of the series and characters as an endnote.
The most obvious aspect of the Harry Potter series relating to the concept of reality is the presentation of different ‘worlds’ throughout the series, which should be clarified before analyzing the series itself. This has been interpreted in various ways by different critics, and I am going to examine the different viewpoints and attempt to find examples to support the view that J.K. Rowling has created a ‘fantasy’ world which contains various sub-worlds representing different key themes and ideas in the novels.
The first, most obvious distinction is the difference between the world of the reader and the world of the novels. The world of the reader is experienced by the reader outside of the books and which shapes the concepts of reality and identity. For the purposes of the essay, I am going to assume an objective, external world, the experiences of which create a person’s unique perception and identity, and imagination which allows a person to ‘transcend’ the world they live in. The world of the novel is a creation in itself, and functions through the writing to form a world separate from the experiences of the external world.
The Harry Potter series is different to many other ‘fantasy’ (the word ‘fantasy’ is used loosely as J.K. Rowling does not consider her books to be ‘fantasy literature’ and they do not adhere to traditional fantasy guidelines) series as it portrays two worlds, magical and non-magical within the same global space. In the ‘Lord of the Rings’ series, Middle Earth is a new world in its own right, and in the Narnia series, Narnia is a separate world accessible only through ‘gateways’ from our world, whereas in the Harry Potter books, both worlds exist side by side. This leads to different problems relating to the ‘reality’ of the novels than other series as it requires a total suspension of disbelief. Because of this, I think it is important to distinguish between the world of the reader and world of the novels before looking at the novels themselves and their own concepts of reality.
In an essay called ‘Three Worlds’, Suman Gupta examines the idea of different worlds with the Harry Potter series. In a similar way to that which I have described, he writes that “The Harry Potter books play deliberately and self-consciously with three worlds: the Magic World, the Muggle world, and…our world”. His interpretation is slightly different, as he says in the next paragraph that “our world in implied through both these worlds”. I would argue that ‘our world’ is not “implied”- the fact that J.K. Rowling was a British novelist writing on Earth influenced her choice to set her ‘fantasy’ world in the U.K. rather than a conscious choice to imply aspects of ‘our world’, and the world of the novels he creates is separate from any implications. Rather than three ‘equal’ worlds, I think “our world” is equal to the world of the novels, and within that are the two sub-divisions of the “Magic world” and the “Muggle world” as it would be difficult to make a parallel from an external world to a fictional world without qualifying how it was created.
Gupta then discusses the “Muggle world” represented in the novels, and compares the Dursley household to “microcosm” of the Muggle world as a whole, saying that they are “bound to represent something general”. This is not necessarily true, as we see other Muggles in the novels such as Hermione’s parents who do not “shun” magic, even though they, like the Dursleys and most other Muggles, “desire to live in a causally explicable world” (Gupta, ‘Three Worlds’). Gupta describes the magic and Muggle worlds as “mutually definitive” as he writes that “The Muggle world that is presented exists as complementing the Magic world”. This is again not necessarily true- the reason we do not see as much of the Muggle world as the wizarding world is that we see events through Harry’s eyes, who is a wizard, which supports the view that J.K. Rowling is advocating the idea of reality existing from a ‘personal’ perspective, and that a person’s perceptions create their own identity and reality, which is linked to the idea of free will which I will explore in another section. The Muggle world is not “presented as though to draw the reader awayfrom it and into the Magic world”; they are two separate but co-existing worlds within the world of the novel which necessarily interact as people inhabit both but have separate laws and customs, in a similar way to the way in which countries exist in the same ‘global space’ but are separate entities in themselves. Gupta’s point that the Muggle world acts as a “focalizing device” could be true in terms of the literary writing, but in terms of the worlds within the novel, they are not interdependent. Because they inhabit the same global space, they two worlds necessarily interact. An example of this is the chapter ‘The Other Minister’ in ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’ where the Minster for Magic, Cornelius Fudge, has a meeting with the Muggle Prime Minister because events happening in the wizarding world are affecting Muggles such as Dementors causing fog and mist in July and murders. This scene also shows the reaction of Muggles towards wizards- the Prime Minister says that “For a time he had tried to convince himself that Fudge had indeed been a hallucination”.
Some similar ideas are discussed in ‘Harry Potter and Imagination’, by Travis Prinzi. In Chapter Two, he quotes J.K. Rowling as saying that the wizarding world is “a world within a world that you can see if you happen to belong”, which shows the idea that the wizarding world is a part of the world created within the novel, and is separate from the Muggle world (which is another aspect of that world) as you can only be a part of the wizarding world if you belong to it by having magical powers. Prinzi describes this as an “ontological break between the Wizarding and Muggle words” (Ch.2 ), which is true as “witches and wizards will never be Muggles, and Muggles will never be witches and wizards”. This view seems to fit the series better than Gupta’s argument, as the two worlds are portrayed as separate but parallel in the novels as opposed to interdependent. The concept of reality is complex because within the fictional world of the novel, it is important to distinguish between the Muggle and wizarding worlds which are equally ‘real’ and then it is possible to explore the issues of reality, illusion, imagination and identity within that world. Platform Nine and Three Quarters at King’s Cross station in London acts as a ‘way into’ the magical world, as only wizarding people know how to access the train that takes them from Muggle London to Hogwarts. Rubeus Hagrid’s answer to Harry’s question about finding wizarding place is London of “If yeh know where to go” (‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, p.53) illustrates the parallel worlds of Muggle and magical.
Another important theme to consider when looking at problems of reality and consciousness in the Harry Potter series is the link between consciousness and reality. For John Locke, the ‘self’ comes directly from consciousness and this forms the basis of his concept of personal identity, which is that a person’s thoughts and actions constitute the identity of that person. He distinguishes personal identity as different from identity in general as he sees ’humans’ (or physical bodies) as separate to ‘people’ as he thinks that the term ‘human’ refers to another biological animal whereas a ‘person’ has an identity of their own different to the identity of animals and plants, which is defined in physical terms. He does not, as Aristotle and Descartes state, think that personal identity is the same as the soul because for him, a soul is another substance. Instead, he concentrates on the question of how the idea of personal identity can relate to being a human. He defines person as distinct to simply human as it encompasses the idea of reason and the power to be conscious of itself through time, which is different to simply being able to think. He also seems to link this idea with memory as he says “memory or consciousness of past actions”, and equates this with the idea of the ‘self’ as that of which a person is conscious which persists through time.
As a contrast, David Hume thought that there could be no innate personal identity. Being an empiricist, he agreed with Locke that a person sees themselves as the same person they experienced at a time in their memory, but instead of drawing the conclusion that there is an intrinsic personal identity, he says that the sense of personal identity is caused by the memory rather than depending on it. He argued in a similar way to Heraclitus that everything changes, and so do people. For him, the idea that a person is the same as they were in a time that they remember is caused by the fact that they remember, not an identity proved by memory. His argument has been called the “bundle theory”, because he sees people as ‘bundles’ of properties. Unlike Locke’s concept of ‘properties’, for Hume this encompasses everything about a human, including their thoughts, feelings and experiences, which are not necessarily linked, and therefore cannot constitute a personal identity. What we perceive to be a ‘self’ is really just a collection of experiences and ideas which make up a human being; there is no intrinsic ‘I’.
This is interesting to explore in the context of the Harry Potter novels because of the relation between Harry and Voldemort’s identities. In ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’, Harry has a series of dreams and visions in which he ‘sees’ places he has never been to and feels emotions unrelated to how he is feeling at the time which he realizes are linked to Voldemort. From Locke’s view, the fact that he is having the same consciousness as Voldemort would mean that he has Voldemort’s identity at those times since his feelings, experiences and consciousnesses are those of Voldemort. This view does not fit the novels, since J.K. Rowling writes explicitly about souls and their importance to personal identity, which I will examine in another section. Locke’s view is interesting in looking at the way in which Voldemort uses the connection between his and Harry’s minds to control and influence his thoughts. Near the end of the book, he plants a vision in Harry’s mind that his godfather, Sirius, is being tortured in the Department of Mysteries. Harry takes this to be true and according to Locke’s view this would be true for him at the time because he is conscious of ‘seeing’ and experiencing that at the time even though it is not happening in the reality of the novel.
In an essay called ‘Why Won’t Voldemort Just Die Already: What Wizards can teach us About Personal Identity’, Jason T. Eberl writes about the concept of Harry and Voldemort sharing consciousnesses. He observes that “At the time of each experience, they share the same consciousness and will have the same memory of the event…Thus, since for Locke and Hume consciousness and memory are the foundation of personal identity, the conclusion apparently follows that Harry and Voldemort are one and the same person when they share these experiences” (‘Harry Potter and Philosophy’, Ch.15). This raises several problems, both in the context of the novels and in the context of personal identity. Eberl goes on to argue that since they only share their consciousnesses at certain moments in time, they are not truly identical because, according to Leibniz, “for any two things to be identical, they must share all and only the same properties”, whereas Harry and Voldemort have different memories and experiences of other events.
J.K. Rowling uses the idea of illusion in her writing. Since the novels are (mainly) written from Harry’s perspective, the reader sees events from Harry’s point of view which can be flawed and since we do not see all the events in the novel, we are often given a false impression. The main example of this is the portrayal of Severus Snape. In the first book, Harry (and the reader) believes that Snape is trying to kill him whereas in reality it was another wizard. This is a microcosm of the series as a whole, where the reader is presented scenes in which Snape would appear to be working for Lord Voldemort. In the fourth and fifth books, we see Snape working for Dumbledore in the Order of the Phoenix, but Harry (and the readers through Harry’s eyes) does not trust him. At the beginning of the sixth book, we see what appears to be Snape showing his “true allegiance” when he makes an Unbreakable Vow to help fulfil Lord Voldemort’s orders. Bellatrix voices the reader’s doubts when she says “Oh, he’ll try, I’m sure…the usual empty words, the usual slithering out of action” (‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, Chapter Two) but the final paragraph of the chapter seems to convince both her and the reader: “Bellatrix’s astounded face glowed red in the blaze of a third tongue of flame, which shot out of the wand, twisted with the other, and bound itself thickly around their clasped hands, like a rope, like a fiery snake.” Through the novel, we see Snape working both for Dumbledore and for Voldemort which increases the ambiguity of where his allegiance is but the scene near the end of the novel seems to confirm the suspicions from the beginning where Snape kills Dumbledore. The ambiguity is extended through Rowling’s writing as Snape and other Death Eaters face Dumbledore, and then the line “Snape gazed for a moment at Dumbledore, and there was revulsion and hatred etched in the harsh lines of his face” (HBP, Ch.27) sets up the killing of Dumbledore. In the end, the reader discovers that Dumbledore had planned his death at the hands of Snape to fulfil part of a ‘greater plan’, which introduces one of the main (but unknown until the final chapters) themes of the series- that nothing happens independently and everything is part of a larger plan. This implies that there is a greater ‘reality’ than the external world Harry lives in, which will be explored in the King’s Cross chapter.
A subject closely related to ideas about consciousness and identity is that of dreams linked to desires. After Harry has discovered the Mirror of Erised, which shows “what is the deepest, most desperate desires of our hearts” (‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, Ch.12), Dumbledore reminds him that “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live”, which is another common theme in the books. The symbolism of mirrors in significant in the series because they represent more than just reflecting appearances and reflect aspects of characters.
The Mirror of Erised is a good example of this. Dumbledore tells Harry that the Mirror reflects “neither knowledge nor truth” and that “men have wasted away before it…not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible”(‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, p.157). The mirror represents an illusion which confuses the perception of reality and allows human greed and ambition to overtake reason. An essay called ‘”Interpret Your Findings Correctly” Harry’s Magical Self-Discovery’ by David Jones from the book ‘Hog’s Head Conversations’ edited by Travis Prinzi examines this idea further. He describes the mirror as a “means for manipulating the senses” (‘Hog’s Head Conversations’, p.193) which is interesting because it brings up both the idea that mirrors do not represent truth and the idea that the senses are not totally reliable, which is relevant in the context of this essay because questioning the validity of the senses is linked to how we perceive the external world. Although Harry knows that what he sees in the mirror cannot be ‘real’, it becomes an obsession for him and he returns several times before he is stopped by Dumbledore. The idea of desire overtaking reason or possibility can also be seen in his (and others’) obsessive thoughts about the pursuit of the Deathly Hallows in Book 7, where the search for the three objects that ‘conquer death’ consumes all his thoughts and has consumed the thoughts of Dumbledore, Voldemort and others before them. It again brings up the question of whether ‘death’ is an inevitable part of human life which is questioned throughout the series or whether, as Dumbledore says in King’s Cross, “Of course this is happening inside your head” (‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’, p.579) and all that exists is illusory. Jones writes that “The mirror distorts reality by reflecting fantasy back to its subject” (p.194) and the mirror can be seen as a symbol that hints towards the idea that reality is not necessarily ‘real’ and what is seen through the senses can be ‘distorted’.
The concept of imagination is very important when thinking about reality and illusion. In an article called ‘Kant and Coleridge on Imagination’, Robert D. Hume outlines Kant’s concepts of reality and the cognitive process. He writes that “’Reality’ Kant defines as a category of the Understanding” which implies that ‘reality’ for an individual is related to the way in which the external world is perceived or interpreted subjectively. This would seem to fit with Dumbledore’s reply in King’s Cross that “Of course it is happening inside your head” if everything we experience is interpreted subjectively, and “why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” reflects the idea that reality comes from our ‘Understanding’.
Later on in the article, Robert D. Hume says that “Imagination…is then the very ground of our having a world of experience at all, for without its mediation between Sensibility and Intellect there could be no applications of categories to possible objects of experience”, which shows how important the imagination is in the formation of our experience of the external world. J.K. Rowling creates a fantasy world which engages the imagination in a way similar to that of Kant’s “free-play” of the imagination (‘Critique of Judgement’), which in turn allows a reader to reflect on the events within a created world objectively.
An essay called ‘The Well-Ordered Mind: How Imagination Can Make Us More Human’ by Travis Prinzi from ‘Hog’s Head Conversations’ examines different ideas about imagination in relation to the Harry Potter novels. He begins the essay by describing the moral imagination of Russell Kirk, which he explains as the idea that “the imagination has the power to change ourselves and the world around us for the better” (‘Hog’s Head Conversations’, p.103) which again brings up the idea that imagination of different for each person and, in this context, can influence people’s individual worlds. He quotes J.K. Rowling’s usage of a Plutarch quotation in a speech: “What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality” and this seems to be another motivation for the events of the Harry Potter novels- Harry’s choice to sacrifice himself and, as Prinzi points out, purify his soul leads to his ‘reincarnation’ and Voldemort’s downfall. Morality is an important part of the Harry Potter series and can be epitomized in Minerva McGonagall’s reply to a Death Eater that her priority is “the difference between truth and lie, courage and cowardice” (‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’, p.477). The emphasis on morality again seems to point to a ‘greater reality’, which is implied throughout the novels.
In ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, Dumbledore refers to “the murky marshes of memory into thickets of wild guesswork” (p.187) which seems to illustrate the way in which memory is depicted in the novels. Memory is an important idea in all seven books, and we are first introduced to it in ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ where we are told that Harry’s first memory is a flash of green light which we later discover was the curse the Lord Voldemort used on him as a baby. The idea of memory becomes more significant in ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’. The diary of Tom Riddle contains memories “recorded…in a more lasting way than ink” (‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’, p.179). When Riddle comes out of the diary, he describes himself as “A memory…Preserved in a diary for fifty years.” (p.227). Unlike a ghost, he is a “tall, black-haired boy…strangely blurred around the edges…not a day older than sixteen”(p.227) whose existence depends on the diary; when Harry destroys it, Riddle’s ‘memory’ is also destroyed. Later in the series, we discover that the diary was a Horcrux where Lord Voldemort (Tom Riddle) had hidden a part of his soul which took the form of memory when it came out of the diary’s pages. By linking the ideas of soul and memory, Rowling is implying that a person’s soul or identity depends at least partly on their memories which is consistent with John Locke’s view of personal identity.
The main way in which memories occur in the novels is through the use of the Pensieve. Dumbledore explains to Harry that “One simply siphons off the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links”. Harry is able to experience these memories firsthand by going into the Pensieve, which makes Locke’s view problematic because he is experiencing and having consciousness of something from Dumbledore’s mind and following Locke’s argument, this would mean that he has taken on Dumbledore’s identity. This seems to contradict the link between memory and soul made in the second book, unless memories do not necessarily entail the idea of souls. Voldemort’s Horcruxes are unusual (Dumbledore describes them as ‘beyond the usual evil’ in ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), and most memories might not be linked directly to the soul of the person they belong to, which could account for examples such as memory loss or unreliable memories.
An example of unreliable memory comes from ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’. Harry witnesses a memory from Horace Slughorn in which Tom Riddle asked about Horcruxes and Slughorn refused to answer. Dumbledore tells Harry that is has been edited, because “He has tried to rework the memory to show himself in a better light” (p.348) and when Harry manages to get the true memory out of Slughorn, he realizes that the actual conversation was much longer and more complex than the first memory had shown. This example illustrates how memories do not necessarily reflect reality, and the consequences of their subjectivity.
In his essay, Jason Eberl discusses Hume’s concept of memory forming the basis of personal identity. He writes that “Hume would caution Harry to remain skeptical of the story that others had relayed to him since he has no perception of it that he can link by memory to his present perceptions” (‘Harry Potter and Philosophy’, p.204) since Hume, unlike Locke, relies on memory rather than present consciousness to form the concept of ‘self’.
One of the fundamental ideas of the Harry Potter series is the idea of souls and the relation between souls and identity. The first book to explore this idea in detail is the sixth book in the series, ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, although there are allusions to the concept throughout the novels. The first detailed reference is when Harry witnesses Slughorn’s memory of Riddle asking about Horcruxes and the concept of splitting the soul is introduced. Slughorn describes Horcruxes as “the word used for an object in which a person has concealed part of their soul” (p.464) which would prevent a person from dying because “even if one’s body is attacked or destroyed, one cannot die, for the part of the soul remains earthbound and undamaged”. This raises interesting questions about identity and whether is it linked to the soul or to consciousness. In ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Remus Lupin explains to Harry that “You can exist without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working. But you’ll have no sense of self anymore, no memory, no….anything. There’s no chance at all of recovery. You’ll just exist. As an empty shell” which illustrates the importance of the soul in the context of the Harry Potter novels.
When Dumbledore explains his theory about Voldemort’s Horcruxes to Harry, he says that “Lord Voldemort had seemed to grow less human with the passing years, and the transformation he had undergone seemed to me to be only explicable if his soul was mutilated beyond the realms of what we might call usual evil…” (p.475), and this seems to suggest that Voldemort’s identity as a human being had been damaged with each Horcrux, which implies that personal identity is linked to the soul. Another example of this idea in shown in ‘The Tale of Three Brothers’ from ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’, the use of the Resurrection Stone caused the person to return “separated…as by a veil” (p.332). The idea of a veil separating life and death is illustrated in the chapter ‘Beyond the Veil’ in ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” where Harry can hear voices coming from behind a veil in an archway in the Department of Mysteries but cannot reach them, and when Sirius is killed, his body falls through the veil. In the Harry Potter series, life and death are separate worlds and once the soul passes “through the veil”, it cannot return. This again supports the idea that personal identity come from the soul, although this idea is flawed in that it relies on the existence of the soul. This is partly because the Harry Potter series, like the Narnia series, uses Christian allegories and ideas which is seen particularly in the end of the seventh book in the ‘King’s Cross’ chapter, and suggests the idea of a greater ‘reality’ past the external world.
Near the end of the seventh book, we discover that Harry himself is a Horcrux and that part of Voldemort’s soul “lodged itself” in his body when Voldemort tried to kill him as a baby. This again raises questions about Harry’s identity and whether the traits he shares with Voldemort by virtue of having part of his soul (such as speaking Parseltongue and being able to see events literally from Voldemort’s perspective) would mean that he really does share a part of Voldemort’s identity. I think that main aspect to look at with this question is not whether Harry has taken on Voldemort’s identity, but where Voldemort’s true identity is. If, as Dumbledore says, Voldemort has become so far from human that he cannot be called a human any longer (in first chapter of ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’, he says “I am much, much more than a man”) then the concept of personal identity might not apply to him in the same way. If he has ‘damaged his soul’ so much that it is so ‘unstable’ that it no longer has a true identity, then his ‘identity’ would be with his consciousness but it would not be the same as true personal identity.
In his chapter ‘Dehumanization: Defining Evil in Harry Potter’ from ‘Harry Potter and Imagination’, Travis Prinzi writes that “The “soul” points to an origin and identity beyond ourselves, beyond this present life” whereas Voldemort “believes precisely the opposite: that his goal in life is to remain alive eternally and never to face death”(p.75). This again alludes to the Christian elements in the Harry Potter series and implies that there is another world after this one- as Dumbledore says “To the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure (‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, p.215). Prinzi uses some interesting quotations from ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ to illustrate his argument. “A Horcrux is the complete opposite of a human being” again shows the idea that Voldemort has become so far from human that he no longer exists as a man and “If I picked up a sword right now…I wouldn’t damage your soul at all…whatever happens to your body, your soul will survive, untouched” which shows the metaphysical nature of the soul and how it can survive beyond the external world. Ironically, in trying to create an eternal identity for himself, Voldemort has destroyed his ‘self’, both literally and metaphorically. When Dumbledore first met him as Tom Riddle at ten years old, he did not like the name ‘Tom’ because “There are a lot of Toms” (‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, p.257) and he later re-creates himself as Lord Voldemort, showing how he wants to be unique and ‘extraordinary’, but in the Harry Potter universe, there appears to be a ‘greater reality’ hinted at which makes this impossible. In ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’, Dumbledore explains to Harry that “Of house elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing…That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped” (p.568) which shows partly the true nature of the ‘greater reality’, although not its whole nature.
The concept of time in the Harry Potter series is different to that of the Narnia chronicles because of the fact that the wizarding world occupies the same global space as the Muggle world. Narnian time is totally different to the human world, whereas the wizarding and Muggle worlds interact and function in the same space and time, although there are parts of the wizarding world that Muggles cannot access. This shows that the ‘reality’ of the world within the novels encompasses both the magical and Muggle worlds. Dumbledore’s remark “Time is making fools of us again” from ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’ unconsciously points to a theory of time separate from the external world. The use of the time-turner in ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ introduces the concept of time-travel. In an essay called ‘Space, Time, and Magic’, Michael Silberstein uses scientific explanations of time and the possibility of time travel to show how it can be possible, and how it works in the context of the Harry Potter novels. He explains the difference between a ‘tensed’ and ‘tenseless’ view of time, and demonstrates that only a tenseless view of time, where “past, present and future are all equally real” in a four-dimensional universe allows the possibility of time travel, and this is the current scientific view of the universe. Time is relative, just as ‘place’ is relative. He uses the idea of a ‘block’ to describe this concept, and writes that “The events of your birth and death, just like Paris and Hong Kong, are equally real, the just exist at different space-time points”. In this way, use of the time turner in ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ is scientifically ‘valid’, although Rowling creates a ‘causal loop’ because, although Harry and Hermione do not change events that have already happened, the outcome depends on the start and vice versa- explained by Silberstein as “(A) Harry was saved from the Dementors because he travelled back in time and saved himself and (B) Harry was able to travel back in time because he saved himself”.
Silberstein’s essay was written before the sixth and seventh books were published, and it is interesting to look at the events in ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ alongside this view of time to try to determine the nature of the Harry Potter universe. When Harry enters the forest to be killed by Voldemort, he knows that “Of course there had been a bigger plan” (p.555) and the Dumbledore had ‘planned’ his life to defeat Voldemort. The question of prophecy and determinism has already been shown in the series by the prophecy made seventeen years ago that a baby born that summer would be the person to defeat Voldemort, and Voldemort “marked” Harry as a baby which fulfilled part of the prophecy and in that way affected Harry’s fate. Because Voldemort chose to believe the prophecy, he created his own fate while believing that it was determined, in a similar way to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This is illustrated when Dumbledore explains to Harry that “Voldemort singled you out as the person who would be most dangerous to him- and in doing so, he made you the person most dangerous to him!” (‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, p.476). As a contrast, Harry chooses to sacrifice himself whereas he could have chosen to abandon Dumbledore’s plan. In ‘The Deathly Hallows Lectures’, John Granger writes that “He embraces the necessary conformity to the Divine Will” (p.113), which implies that Harry has no choice over what Dumbledore has planned, but this is not necessarily true although the reader cannot know whether Harry could choose not to sacrifice himself even though he seems to choose to.
When Voldemort kills Harry, he seems to be transported to somewhere outside of time and space. Once he realizes he is there, he describes it as “A long time later, or maybe no time at all” (Dh, p.565) which suggests that he is outside the usual constraints of time. This can be interpreted in several way, but the two main interpretations could be that either, as explained by Silberstein, time is relative and he is in a ‘space’ where he cannot relate the ‘local time’ to time that he understands, or that he is in a timeless place, which would be consistent with a religious reading of the series (which is the ‘usual’ interpretation, although I am going to focus on the ‘time’ and reality aspect) where the space he is in represents purgatory. When “it came to him that he must exist, must be more than disembodied thought” (p.565), he looks around the place, describing it as “unformed nothingness” (p.565) which implies that it is not part of the same ‘universe’ that he had previously been in . This is confirmed by the fact that “His body appeared unscathed…He was not wearing glasses any more” (p.565) and by the appearance of Dumbledore, “whole and white and undamaged” (p.566). During their conversation, Harry begins to realize that he is not dead, although he is not in the ‘real world’, which leads to the question of the prophecy: “I live…while he lives?…I thought it was the other way round…we both had to die? Or is it the same thing?” (p.568) which seems to call into question the nature of reality, life and death in the Harry Potter novels. Dumbledore said in the first book of the series that “No spell can reawaken the dead” and so Harry cannot be ‘dead’, but he is not in the ‘real’ universe. Dumbledore’s final words to Harry, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” (p.579) question this idea even more, but also seem to clarify the chapter a bit more. The concept of reality in the Harry Potter novels seems to relate directly to the concept of ‘self’, since Harry realizes in the King’s Cross chapter that “he must exist” (p.565) and ‘existence’ in that sense is defined as ‘embodiment’, and so Harry identifies ‘himself’ with his body and therefore an external world. There is also the concept of an ‘ultimate reality’ shown in King’s Cross and Dumbledore, if it is not totally ‘inside Harry’s head’.
It is interesting to compare the Harry Potter universe to the ideas of Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza was a determinist who thought that God is an integral part of the universe- God and Nature are in essence the same concept. The external world is a ‘mode’ or part of God, which led him to conclude that thought and extension must also be features of God, and men are not truly ‘free’ as they are modes of God. This could be associated to the Harry Potter series if Dumbledore is seen as God, because ultimately he has ‘preordained’ the events of Harry’s life and Voldemort’s downfall. He also ‘controlled’ his own death, although a curse from the Horcrux was already killing him. This does not totally correlate because Harry does seem to ‘choose’ his own fate which is acknowledged by Dumbledore in King’s Cross, but this view of the world makes the situation of (and in) King’s Cross a bit clearer. The existence of a ‘space’ outside of the Harry Potter universe shows that there is the possibility of something outside of the external reality. There are conflicting views of the King’s Cross chapter, but the main ideas seem to be that either King’s Cross is a religious analogy of purgatory or that King’s Cross exists only in Harry’s head and that he does not really die. Both readings are possible and it would be impossible to rule either out. In the context of the themes of the Harry Potter novels and the symbolism of the final books, the first view seems more likely although Dumbledore’s comment seems to suggest the second. Both views could be correct if ‘purgatory’ takes place inside Harry’s mind, and it would be hard to ‘place’ somewhere outside of the external universe. An argument to support the view that it only happens in Harry’s mind is posited by John Granger in ‘The Deathly Hallows Lectures’, where he writes that Dumbledore does not tell Harry anything that he does not already know, and he comes to the conclusion that the exchange could take place in Harry’s unconscious mind which does seem to be a logical conclusion. For Granger, the key to the series is the difference between relativism and materialism, which is interesting to look at in relation to Kant.
Kant’s account of intuition in ‘The Critique of Pure Reason’ is relevant in looking at the nature of ‘King’s Cross’ (it appears to Harry as King’s Cross station, which links back the motif of the station as a link between worlds shown from the first novel with ‘Platform Nine and Three Quarters’ acting as a gateway to the magical world). Kant believed that there are certain a priori intuitions that can provide a structure for our a posteriori knowledge. For him, space can be known as both synthetic and a priori because it cannot be known from outside experience because experiences reflect space rather than direct experience of space itself. He also argues that space cannot be analytic because it is not innately known as it does not solely depend on terms or concepts, and therefore it must be both synthetic and a priori, and so must also be subjective as a condition of intuition. Kant’s version of the Copernican revolution states that the world must fit our perceptions as we cannot know the nature of ‘things in themselves’, and this is interesting in the context of the ‘King’s Cross’ chapter. Since, by Kant’s definitions, space is subjective, Harry could be in a ‘space’ that exists only for him and therefore the encounter with Dumbledore could be classified as ‘real’ even though it takes place only for him. The idea that the world fits our perceptions is useful in examining this idea, because it allows that Harry has synthetic knowledge of Dumbledore and King’s Cross without having to experience it a posteriori. In comparison to Kant’s argument, the exchange between Harry and Dumbledore begins to seem more ‘real’ and it shows how a different interpretation of the chapter can allow it to have a new form of ‘reality’.
These ideas seem to suggest that, although Harry’s sense of reality is mainly subjective, the Harry Potter universe seems to follow Kant’s writings that although we interpret the world subjectively and form our own ‘ideas’, there is an objective reality that is the subject of interpretation, and an objective ‘self’ that constitutes the mind that interprets the perceptions. The ‘King’s Cross’ chapter seems to work well with a Kantian reading, and this helps to understand more clearly the nature of reality in the Harry Potter series.
Synopsis of the Harry Potter series:
In the 1970s, a man formerly known as Tom Riddle renames himself as Lord Voldemort and becomes the most powerful Dark wizard of all time. He gains followers known as Death Eaters and they terrorize and kill many of the wizarding community. In order to protects himself from death, he splits his soul into seven parts and hides each in an inanimate object known as a Horcrux. In 1980, a prophecy is made to Albus Dumbledore, the Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and the only man that Voldemort fears, that a baby born will been born in July who will have powers to rival the Dark Lord. This is overheard by one of Voldemort’s spies, and Voldemort marks Harry Potter, a baby born to wizarding parents who are fighting Voldemort’s forces as his rival. After the Potters are betrayed by one of their friends, he attacks and kills Harry’s parents and tries to kill Harry as well. The curse rebounds on Voldemort, whose body is destroyed but he lives on due to the Dark powers that prevent him from being killed while his Horcruxes are intact. Harry grows up and goes to Hogwarts at 11. In his fourth year, Lord Voldemort rises again and focuses on trying to kill Harry. No-one apart from Dumbledore realizes that a part of Voldemort’s soul is now inside Harry from his attempt to kill him as a baby, and Voldemort uses this connection to control Harry’s thoughts. A former Death Eater but now a member of the Order of the Phoenix (a secret society set up to defeat Voldemort) called Severus Snape protects Harry while still at school, and acts as a double agent after Voldemort’s return to power. Voldemort continues to terrorize the magical and Muggle (non-magical) communities and Dumbledore tries to find and destroy the Horcruxes. He is cursed by one of them, and asks Snape to kill him to protect the soul of a student-turned Death Eater who Voldemort has ordered to kill Dumbledore. Before he dies, Dumbledore leaves instructions with Harry to destroy the Horcruxes and Voldemort. In the final book, Harry finds out through Snape’s memory that since he has part of Voldemort’s soul inside him, in order for Voldemort to die, he must be killed my Voldemort to destroy the Horcrux inside him. He sacrifices himself to Voldemort in a forest, but because of the nature of the sacrifice, does not die and has an encounter with Dumbledore in a timeless ‘place’ that he experiences as King’s Cross. He returns to the Forest and duels Voldemort, eventually killing him. Since all the Horcruxes are now destroyed, Voldemort finally dies and the Death Eaters flee.
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