Sunday, August 8, 2010

Loyalty, Love and Darth Vader

A constant theme of the Harry Potter series is the importance of loyalty and friendship. While there are some rules about behaviour towards enemies, prohibitions on Unforgiveable Curses in battle for example, the positive effects of loyalty to friends and allies are emphasised. Albus Dumbledore states in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets that:
"I will only truly have left this school when none here are loyal to me."
Voldemort and Vader and Sauron, oh my

When the Harry Potter series speaks of "love" it tends to be the natural love of friends and family for one another rather than a more abstract compassionate love for all. McGonagall remarks in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, on the marriage of their friends Tonks and Lupin, that:

"Dumbledore would have been happier than anybody to think that there was a little more love in this world."
Love, here, was romantic love exclusive to that relationship. Later books in the Potter series deal with greater ambiguity in these relations, but friendship and family remain prominent. Other fantasy series deal with similar moral questions, but from rather different perspectives. The Lord of the Rings features this discussion between Frodo Baggins and the wizard Gandalf, the former disturbed by the news that the evil Sauron's agents were coming thanks to information from Gollum. Frodo's uncle Bilbo had once had the opportunity to kill Gollum, but had let him go.

[Frodo]: "What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that foul creature, when he had a chance!"
[Gandalf]: "Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need."

This is a slightly different take on morality, shifting notions of right and wrong away from loyalty to people one already loves towards respecting those one despises.

Both The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter obsess about the dangers of power. Harry Potter describes Tom Riddle's corruption based on a friendless lust for power; The Lord of the Rings focuses on the non-use of the One Ring for fear that it would corrupt the user. In the introduction to the second edition of the book Tolkien denied that The Lord of the Rings had been influenced by World War II:

If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Rule of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.

So Tolkien emphasises the non-use of power, and the ambiguity of war. Fighting for the "good" side is no indication of morally good behaviour. Loyalty to allies is a lesser good than adherence to objective moral standards, and allies may become corrupted and lost to darkness.

The Star Wars series takes this one step further, showing that love and loyalty can inspire evil behaviour. In The Return of the Jedi, the wicked Emperor uses Luke Skywalker's loyalty and love towards his endangered friends to fill him with vengeful rage, all the better to inspire his shift to the Dark Side. The prequels build on this, showing how Anakin Skywalker's love for Padme lead to his corruption.

Padmé: "Are you allowed to love? I thought that was forbidden for a Jedi."
Anakin: "Attachment is... forbidden. Possession is forbidden. Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is central to a Jedi's life... so, you might say, we are encouraged to love."

Here Anakin confuses love with compassion. Loving friends and family is easy, but the Jedi is expected to be compassionate even towards his enemies. This is an ancient theme:

"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?"
- Matthew 5:43-46

So this well worn message is that there is an objective moral order that extends beyond loyalty to one's allies. A well-meaning individual, moved by loyalty or love, may murder, rob or defraud innocent outsiders in defence of their friends; behaviour to one's enemies may be a better indication of character.

Sixty-five years ago tomorrow an American bomber, as part of the worthy cause to halt Japanese imperialism, killed tens of thousands of civilians with the atom bomb on Nagasaki City. Perhaps this is a real-world example of the immoral behaviour on behalf of a just cause warned about in The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Either way it indicates the relevance of great children's fantasy to serious world issues. What is right, it tells us, is not just what is right for us.


  1. "Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it (life) to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends." - Gandalf


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