Fate and Free Will in Harry Potter
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One of the most pondered questions in human existence is whether our lives are determined by forces which are beyond our control or by our own free will. It is widely believed that one’s own destiny is created by fate. However, some also consider the possibility that one’s own choices can determine the reality of one’s existence. In Harry Potter, JK Rowling uses fate and choice as forces which shape the events revolving around her protagonist, Harry Potter, as well as the other characters in the story. Rowling does not side with one idea over the other, but instead, argues that both fate and choice are significant factors that determine the events which happen during the course of an individual’s development. Although Rowling lays out Harry’s destiny from the moment he was born, she allows him to utilize his ambitions and individualism to influence his fate to a certain extent.
Fate is the dominant determinant of Harry’s life. For example, whether he was to become a muggle or a wizard was determined when he was born. Harry did not have a choice of whether to accept his position as a wizard because his birthright as a wizard was determined by his parents. Furthermore, through Harry does not realize it, his ability to survive Voldemort’s killing curse and at the same time, causing the downfall of Voldemort, had allowed him to leave a legacy in the magical world as Professor McGonagall had foreseen: “He’ll be famous – a legend – I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter day in future – there will be books written about Harry – every child in our world will know his name” (15)! Harry’s fame and his celebrity status in the wizarding world had come to him effortlessly and unknowningly as predetermined events.
His reputation as “the boy who lived” sets up the backbone for the rest of the series, which deals with the overcoming of Voldemort’s wickedness. By placing Harry in opposition with Voldemort, Rowling foreshadows the inevitable confrontation between the two characters. As the sole survivor of Voldemort’s attacks, Harry is unquestionably destined to defeat Voldemort and save the world. Harry’s destiny to defeat Voldemort is further reinforced by his establishment as the ultimate good. The death of Lily Potter had given Harry an eternal protective barrier stemmed from her loving sacrifice for her son as Dumbledore had described: “Your mother died to save you…to have been loved so deeply will give us some protection forever…it was agony to touch a person marked by something so good” (216). This protective barrier of love establishes Harry is the supreme good which Voldemort is unable to touch due to his evil nature. Harry is therefore placed in a position as a fighter of evil and ultimately triumphs over the evil Voldemort. In addition, Harry’s emergence into the wizarding world is not a coincidence but is a result of fate.
This chain of events is so unlikely that even Harry himself had initially refused to believe his destiny: “Harry, instead of feeling pleased and proud, felt quite sure there had been a horrible mistake” (47). His crossing of Platform Nine and Three-Quarters symbolizes his realization of his true self and the initiation of his destiny. Even though he lived a childhood sheltered from the truth of his parents and kept unaware of his magical origins, he was eventually able to leave behind his muggle relatives, return to his world and attend wizarding school. His destiny had helped him overcome what had seemed to be an impossibility.
The Sorting Hat plays a crucial role as the administer of fate and predeterminism. Before starting their education at Hogwarts, every aspect of the student’s future at the school, including the friends they make and the traits they possess, is seemingly decided for them. The Sorting Hat is placed onto each of the students’ head where it decides which house they belong to based on their innermost desires and characteristics: “The Sorting Hat can’t see, so try me on and I will tell you where you ought to be” (88). Each student, therefore, is restricted in the ways in which they can act and behave. They develop friendships with members of their own house and rivalries with members of opposing houses. Upon being assigned to a house, each student strives to follow the standard and expectations of their particular group, whether it is the “brave” Gryffindors, the “loyal” Hufflepuffs, the “wise” Ravenclaws, or the “cunning” Slytherines. Their house becomes almost like a cult in which they live by: “Your house will be something like your family within Hogwarts. You will have classes with the rest of your house, sleep in your house dormitory and spend free time in your house common-room” (85).
Each of the students share the common goal of winning the House Cup for their house. Individualism, therefore, is constrained and each student is forced to act in a particular way in which they are expected to. Aside from the Sorting Hat, other forces of fate also take part in determining the students’ house associations. For example, Harry is sorted into Gryffindor, the same house his parents belonged to. Similarly every member in the Weasley family had been a Gryffindor, while every member in the Malfoy family had been a Slytherine. This reinforces the idea that the events in each character’s life are predestined. They did not have a choice over their placement in the houses, but rather, they are assigned to a particular house based on forces beyond their control.
Harry’s obtainment of his wand is another instance where fate intervenes and predetermines the course of events in his life. As Mr. Ollivander had claimed, “The wand chooses the wizard” (65). Harry does not choose his wand, but instead, he is destined to have it, just as he is destined to be a Gryffindor and destined to be a wizard and survive Voldemort’s curse. It is no coincidence that Harry’s wand is a companion to Voldemort’s wand, the same wand that scarred him. By creating this link, Rowling is once again foreshadowing the inevitable, fateful confrontation between the two characters.
Both characters are foils of each other, with Harry representing the innocence and good who is engaged in a struggle against Voldemort, the embodiment of evil. The similarity in their wands symbolizes their equal footing in terms of power, as Mr. Olivander had told Harry: “I think we must expect great things from you, Mr Potter…After all, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things – terrible, yes, but great” (65). Harry, however, uses his power to fight against the forces of evil and immorality, while Voldemort uses his for greed and supremacy.
Despite all these instances of fate, Harry and the other characters are, to a certain extent, able to utilize free will and gain control over certain aspects of their lives. As Dumbledore had said, “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities” (245). Although determinism plays a dominant role in their lives, the characters can make certain choices to influence their own lives. Harry, for example, was originally destined to be in the house of Slytherine. The Sorting Hat had debated placing him in Slytherine, but through Harry`s resistance, he was placed into Gryffindor. This instance illustrates the importance of choice and how the choices an individual makes can sometimes override the forces of fate. Harry was not born a Gryffindor, but his choices allow him to become one. By allowing Harry to choose between Gryffindor and Slytherine, the Sorting Hat is also presenting Harry with the choice of using his potential for good or evil.
Consequently, Harry chooses to side with good, refusing to associate himself with Voldemort and other “bad wizards”. Similarly Hermione chooses to become a Gryffindor: “I hope I`m in Gryffindor, it sounds by far the best” (79). Even though Hermione`s high level of intelligence makes her a perfect candidate for Ravenclaw, the choice she makes is enough to influence the Sorting Hat`s decision. Other instances of free will are also apparent. Doby, for example, is a house elf who is destined to devote his entire life to serve and obey his master: “A house-elf must be set free, sir…Dobby will serve the family until he dies, sir… (16).
However, he goes against his rule by accepting the sock from his master and setting himself free. Doby, unlike a typical house elf, sways away from his call of duty of serving and staying devoted to his master. By making a choice to disobey his master, he is able to avoid his fate and grant himself freedom. Furthermore, free will is also represented through the use of time travel in The Prisoner of Azkaban. By traveling back in time to save the lives Sirius Black and Buckbeak, Harry and Hermione are changing the course of events which are predetermined. They are given the ability to alter past events, and thus, they are able to control their own lives rather than allowing fate to take its course.
Fate and free will are factors which are intertwined in determining the outcome of one’s life. Even though the lives of the characters, such as Harry, are laid out for them before they were born, the choices they make can make an impact on how their lives will ultimately turn out. Such choices are not influenced by external, controllable forces, but by the intentions and ambitions of the individual. Harry, for example, has the potential to use his powers for selfish ends, but chooses instead to utilize his abilities, courage and strengths to fight against evil. He takes advantage of free will to shape his own character, not allowing fate to completely take control.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.