Harry Potter and the tragedy of human nature

Could Harry Potter, after defeating Voldemort for one and for all, become the all-conquering master and hegemon of the wizarding world? (and perhaps the non-wizarding, muggle world too?) What would happen if he did?

Near the very end of Harry Potter 7: Part 2, there is a great what-if moment after Voldemort is destroyed and Harry is standing on the ruined bridge holding the mega-powerful Elder Wand, one of the Deathly Hallows. Ron and Hermione are there with him, and Ron suggests that they (‘we’, he says, rather than just ‘Harry’) should keep the Wand. Instead, Harry snaps it in two, and then chucks it into the gorge below.

Why does he do so? Against the larger theme of Harry being willing to sacrifice himself in order that Voldemort be destroyed, voluntarily relinquishing the power of the Elder Wand is entirely unsurprising. Giving it up seems largely consistent with the courage/bravery/choosing the greater good character traits that he exhibits up until that point; keeping hold of the Wand would be more of a break with past patterns. In this regard, perhaps it is largely inconcievable that it could have happened any other way – i.e. that Harry could have rationalized holding onto the Wand.

But Ron’s suggestion – why not keep the Wand? – remains hugely tempting. And perhaps it remains the more human reaction. Perhaps we should keep it, just in case. You never know what’s coming. We’d need it to make sure the world is kept safe. Even if we could recognize the larger possibilities of great power corrupting greatly or future hubris, at that very moment, Ron’s suggestion seems an entirely natural one to make.

What if he does act on it, and keep the wand? Perhaps he becomes that force that ensures order and peace in the magical universe, a Dumbledore-esque figure, and everyone lives happily ever after. But perhaps the Elder Wand in his possession – the mere capability of tremendous power – is sufficient to trigger attempts at balancing behaviour by others, uncertain about his future intentions and actions.

What may be more interesting, however, is not the counterfactual possibility itself – that Harry keeps the Wand – but how this instead highlights the dramatic, exceptional nature of the actual outcome in the Potter universe – where Harry destroys the Wand. That Harry’s closest friend, accompanying him on so many of his travails, is as susceptible to the temptations of power that the rest of us are, is perhaps reassuring in some way. Ron’s frailties – contemplating keeping this all-powerful Wand – are perhaps not unlike our own frailties too.

Does that, however, leave the possibility of the triumph of good over evil utterly dependent on exceptional, unique deus ex machina figures like Harry Potter? If even someone like Ron expresses this sort of latent desire for power – does this leave the rest of the world in a largely realist universe, where man is unable to overcome his flawed human nature, saved occasionally (and only occasionally) by heroic figures? Pessimism about the human condition rules the day, despite the best intentions – and as the classical realist IR writers like Reinhold Niebuhr or George Kennan would put it, dooms international life to a state of conflictual relationships. In J.K. Rowling’s Potter universe, this is averted by Harry himself – but heroes are highly irregular, exceptional insertions into everyday life, and the long stretches of time in which they are absent are also ones that may also be rather nasty and brutish.

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