Young adult literature often finds itself in a bit of a bind. There is a tendency for authors to want to have bad guys that are actually bad and good guys that are actually good. This normally is fine for about 95% of the story, until the point the main character realizes that they have to kill the villain, as killing is generally bad and few novels want to stop for a discourse on justified and unjustified slayings. It also creates an issue when the author wants the Battle of Epicness to happen, which will almost certainly involve a lot of carnage on both sides. The Harry Potter series presents an interesting example of this, as not only do the characters occupy a world in which killing is bad, but one in which it is the Worst Crime Ever.
To create a horcrux, which might actually be slightly more evil than murder, one must split their own soul by doing something awful. Something against nature itself. Murder. This is explicit. When Tom Riddle asks Slughorn what do to to split his soul, the answer is not “at least an 8.9 on the Richter Scale of Evil.” The answer is “by an act of evil–the supreme act of evil. By committing murder. Killing rips the soul apart” (Half-Blood Prince, 498). There is only one way to make a horcrux, and it’s through murder. Moreover, there’s only one way to split your soul. It’s fairly obvious that there isn’t anything special about taking life the makes the horcrux spell work, save for the fact that it makes the needed tear. Raping someone doesn’t tear your soul. Abandoning your family doesn’t. Torture doesn’t. Exploitation doesn’t. You could sell your own brother into slavery and it wouldn’t tear your soul. Now, there is a degree to which Harry Potter is a book for kids and wasn’t really about these things. But it is. Tom Riddle, Sr. abandons his family. Granted, considering the circumstances of his “marriage,” there’s only so much you can blame him. There’s an entire race that is enslaved. These things are bad, but not murder-bad.
The torture point especially bears some fleshing-out. In Order of the Phoenix it’s pretty clear that Dumbledore would like nothing more than the utter destruction of Voldemort. To take everything away from his former student before ending his life. He says to Voldemort, “We both know that there are other ways of destroying a man, Tom, [outside of actually killing him]…Merely taking your life would not satisfy me, I admit…” (Order of the Phoenix, 814). It’s important that Dumbledore does not do these things. To a degree. I’m never sure if I’m supposed to think that he could kill Voldemort and chooses not to because prophesy or if he just can’t. Because if he wants to but can’t, I think it’s really telling that it’s the act of killing and not the desire to kill that is evil. The actual malice, the part of you that wants to end a life, is not the problem and you don’t have to overcome that part of you. This, I think, is why killing is the ultimate evil and not torture or anything else. Death is bad. Making people dead is bad.
Which brings me to the point where I tell you I’ve lied to you. Two paragraphs ago. Murder doesn’t rip the soul; killing does. According to Merriam-Webster, to murder means to “kill (someone) unlawfully and with premeditation.” This is distinct from killing, as killing covers self-defense, execution, and military actions, to name a few. As stated above, “killing rips the soul apart.” Dumbledore can want to make Voldemort regret ever being born and still be good, because he seeks that over seeking to kill Riddle. This is why Harry cannot kill Voldemort. If the text wanted to make a distinction between justified killing and murder, it could have. Harry killing Voldemort is different in kind to Voldemort’s killing of almost anyone else. But there’s a general feeling in the text that Harry would be just like Voldemort if he killed the mass-murderer. This doesn’t have to be so. I feel there’s a perfectly legitimate argument to be made for Harry saying “hey, look, we have no way of keeping the Dark Lord contained in order to save the populace, I have to kill him” and that being acceptable. But he doesn’t. He refuses to kill Voldemort to the point of Rowling killing her villain off through wand-treachery.
This puts the final battle in a really awkward place. Do we assume that all of the good guys are ripping their souls are they fight? Could Molly Weasley have made a horcrux after killing Bellatrix Lestrange? There a general feeling, and perhaps this is more in fandom than in the book itself, that Harry killing Voldemort would make him become Voldemort. There doesn’t seem to be a corresponding feeling the McGonagall will become Voldemort is she manages to kill him in their fight a few pages earlier.
This seems once again to be due to a morality centered around the main character. The book is only concerned with how Voldemort and Harry stack up against each other in terms of morals, so, to a degree, it doesn’t matter what the other characters do. This becomes awkward in a world where a lot of fans, possibly most fans, are more interested in the secondary characters than the protagonist.
I feel like I’m returning to this theme of protagonist-centered morality a lot. And by “a lot,” I mean “in the last two articles, spaced really far apart, but something I generally think about.” Maybe I should actually organize my thoughts on this and produce an actual article on it. Hmm…maybe. You can expect that eventually. I’m probably going to talk about vampire fiction next. Or Batman. He might be Catholic now, so that’s exciting. We’ll see how it goes.