Essay: A Unified Theory of the Potterverse
The Harry Potter series can be summed up in three words. These particular words are the name of an ancient story, thousands of years old, and it’s also a way to refer to a type of story that we keep retelling, over and over.
An example of another three-word title that is both the name of a particular story and also the name of a type of story is Romeo and Juliet.
Whether or not you’ve read or seen a version of Romeo and Juliet, if someone says something is a Romeo and Juliet story, you probably know what they mean: star-crossed lovers, two people from families or groups who have never gotten along, etc. It’s not just a singular story anymore—it’s an established trope that many writers have fleshed out in their own way.
The three-word phrase that can describe the Harry Potter series has also become so enmeshed in our culture that even people who have no familiarity with the original story use this phrase every day to describe something like a lawsuit between a multinational corporation and community organizers, or a military dictatorship and the rebels hoping to bring it down, or even just a bully on a playground and the poor kid he picks on. The moment someone says these three words, you know that on one side there’s a massively powerful and experienced entity bent on destroying the other side—and that other side is an underdog, a person who’s not well-connected, someone who’s a virtual, if not an actual, child.
Okay, take a little time to think about it.
Here’s the answer: the three words are DAVID AND GOLIATH.
It’s easy to see that in the Harry Potter books, Harry is David. But there’s isn’t just one Goliath. Voldemort is definitely a Goliath. Some others are the Dursleys, Dolores Umbridge, The Ministry of Magic, Lucius Malfoy. The list goes on. But what links the Goliaths?
The original Goliath in the Biblical story probably wasn’t a terrible person. He was just really good at his job. He was a soldier, and he was fighting a war. What we see in the David and Goliath story is something that’s also in great classical epics like Homer’s Iliad, when the leaders of two armies each decide to have their best warrior fight it out, the way Hector and Achilles did. In theory, this was to save lives, to avoid a big battle between two armies that was bound to result in a lot of bloodshed. But it didn’t always work out in practice. After Achilles defeated Hector, he desecrated his corpse while his family watched from the Trojan city walls, and the Trojans weren’t exactly racing to open the gates and surrender to the Greeks just because their Champion didn’t win.
Goliath was one of these types of warriors, a Champion of his people, someone considered completely unlikely to lose a fight. Each army’s leader had to choose carefully, because whichever Champion won, that meant his side won the battle—and possibly the war, again, assuming that the losing side honored the concept of their Champion standing in for their entire army and agreeing to surrender if he lost.
So, knowing what was riding on this, imagine Goliath’s surprise when he saw David, this kid. However, in his book on Davids and Goliaths, Malcolm Gladwell points out that David actually had a lot going for him.
David was a seasoned shepherd. Sheep are unbelievably stupid. Depending on the part of the world, shepherds need to defend their flocks against wolves, lions, bears—and other people.
David’s weapon of choice is a slingshot. He’s a kid, so he can’t fight a wild animal—or a seasoned soldier—hand to hand in close quarters, using brute strength. But with a slingshot he doesn’t even have to get close to his target. He has to aim well; a first shot that’s less than lethal means that he’s probably dead.
Goliath didn’t know that David was exceptionally well-prepared for exactly this kind of fight. And the major reason that he looked down on David and was confident he could defeat him was that David was a kid.
Goliath wasn’t the first or last person to dismiss a kid for being a kid. Lots of people routinely dismiss children and childhood. Kids and the things connected to kids are considered unimportant. Games, toys, candy, fairy tales and children are not taken seriously. Voldemort, Umbridge, the Ministry of Magic—these entities, like Goliath, automatically dismiss children and childhood on principle. Is life complete without childhood? Of course not—we all have to start at the bottom, don’t we? Is life complete if it never ends, if you never die? Omitting either of these gives you an incomplete life-cycle.
In JK Rowling’s choice of Harry as her hero and Voldemort as her villain, we can see one of the overarching themes of her seven-book series: wholeness. Harry is the picture of a complete, integrated person, while Voldemort is not only incomplete, he actively pursues incompletion.
Voldemort splits his soul; he’s determined to forever elude death (which is why he splits his soul). In addition to disregarding the end of life, which is a natural cycle, he disregards its beginnings, anything connected to childhood or children. This includes toys, games, fairy tales and sweets. But even though these are “for children,” Albus Dumbledore values these things, as if seeing them as the mark of a well-rounded person who doesn’t disregard life’s beginnings simply because of chronological age and who isn’t afraid of its end. Voldemort doesn’t value one and deeply fears the other.
Just as JK Rowling is concerned with wholeness, physics is likewise concerned, on many levels and in many subdisciplines, with the reconciliation and attraction of opposites that create a whole. Only magnets of opposite polarities are attracted to each other. In Black Bodies and Quantum Cats, Jennifer Ouellette writes:
At the atomic level, at least, opposites really do attract: positively charged atoms are always on the prowl for negatively charged free electrons to balance themselves out. It’s yin and yang, a perpetual atomic singles bar. [Jennifer Ouellette, Black Bodies and Quantum Cats (NY: Penguin, 2005) p. 44.]
If you’ve seen a yin-yang, you know that it’s made of two paisley-like pieces, one dark and one light, that make a whole, that make a circle. Each part also has a small spot of the opposite color. In Zen Buddhism this symbolizes a complete, enlightened person who has achieved a balance between the various components that make up each of us, and this wholeness is considered incredibly powerful.
Power is also important in physics; one of the greatest ethical debates of the last century involves whether to use the power resulting from splitting the atom. JK Rowling writes about something else being split that should, arguably, remain intact: the soul. She also writes about entanglement, but she never calls it this in the books.
Quantum physicists are fascinated by entangled particles, some of which are entangled because they’ve collided and some because they were part of the same entity. Whether they’re in the same room or separated by distance, they behave identically. Einstein called this “spooky action at a distance.” There’s no time for them to “communicate” across space; changes are simultaneous. This seems to contradict light being the fastest thing in the universe. Instantaneous changes are undeniably faster than light; it’s as if their being separate is an illusion. Entangled particles behave as if they are one.
Throughout the books, Harry is bound to Voldemort, entangled with him. We discover why near the end of the seventh book, when Harry learns that he carries part of Voldemort’s soul; he is the seventh Horcrux. The night that Harry became The Boy Who Lived, he and Voldemort “collided,” and Voldemort’s soul-bit inside Harry enables Harry and Voldemort to communicate, in a way, over long distances, simultaneously, like entangled particles. Harry integrates this ability into his skill-set, while Voldemort flees from it. This is another way in which Harry is whole and Voldemort is not.
Voldemort’s disregard for anything childlike or connected to childhood—and other characters who do the same thing—colors JK Rowling’s entire seven-book series. This unifying thread links everything that happens in the books: games, toys, sweets, and fairy tales. Childhood. To defeat Voldemort, Harry has to play one mock Quidditch match after another, the game JK Rowling created, except that once he knows how to defeat Voldemort, Harry is chasing Horcruxes instead of Snitches.
Harry himself is actually a game piece: he is a symbolic Snitch, and he’s a Horcrux. In the seventh book Snitches and Horcruxes are interchangeable. Rowling sets this up in the first book by having Harry catch a Snitch in his mouth and spit it out. When he does this, he symbolically gives birth to it.
The entanglement between Harry and this particular Snitch is confirmed in the seventh book when Dumbledore leaves it to Harry in his will and it turns out that only Harry can open it because he’s the one who first collided with that Snitch and it “remembers” him. Then this game piece that is symbolically Harry brings him the Resurrection Stone when he finally opens it.
Since the Snitch is symbolically Harry, we can say that the people he loves were always with him. This could be why he gives up the Resurrection Stone; he knows that he doesn’t need magic to be with the people he loved and lost.
Adapted from the script for Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 1: The Kids’ Table. Copyright 2017-2018 by Quantum Harry Productions and B.L. Purdom. See other posts on this blog for direct links to all episodes of Quantum Harry.