The Soul in Popular Fiction: Harry Potter Part 1

Here is the second chunk of my senior thesis. If you have yet to read my introduction you can find it under “Thesis” on the side bar Window Pane (—–>). Each section of my thesis focuses on a different story and has essentially two parts: an examination of how the soul is portrayed, and an examination of the implications of that portrayal. The following is the first half of my discussion on Harry Potter, and because of that it ends somewhat abruptly. Never fear, part 2 is on its way. Let me know what you think.

The Conceptualization and Ethical Implications of the Soul in Popular Fiction: Harry Potter Part 1

In the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, the conceptualization of the soul is crucial both to the plot and to the reader’s understanding of the characters. Rowling’s depiction is perhaps closest to that of Thomas Aquinas, although she differs with him in some crucial respects in which her ideas are more comparable to those of Socrates.

The first similarity that Rowling’s soul has to Aquinas’ is in its unique and crucial connection to the physical body. Aquinas maintained that, although the soul is immortal and does not require a body to exist, it uses the body as a tool, and in fact “the soul is what makes the body a human body and that the soul and body are together one substance.”[1] The soul and the body are distinct in that it is possible for the soul to exist without a body, but this is not the natural or the ideal state of things.[2] This idea is echoed in Harry Potter primarily through the concept of Horcrux creation. Horcruxes are objects which house a fragment of a person’s soul, allowing that person’s spirit to remain earthbound even if their body is destroyed.[3] Voldemort is the only character in the series revealed to have made a Horcrux– seven Horcruxes, actually– and this gradual fragmentation of the soul is physically reflected in Voldemort’s body. With each new Horcrux creation, new physical anomalies appear: his eyes grow red and catlike, his fingers become unnaturally long, he loses his hair, and his nose morphs into snakelike slits.[4] This is not to say that Voldemort’s body depends upon his soul: even though his soul is damaged he is physically as strong and able as ever. However, the connection between the body and soul is so close and so crucial that his damaged soul is revealed in a deformed body, which is very much in line with Aquinas’ previously stated belief that “the soul is what makes the body a human body.”[5] It would seem that Rowling has taken Aquinas’ statement that the soul is the “form” of the body quite literally.[6]

This principle can also be seen via Tom Riddle’s “memory.” Tom Riddle, a.k.a. young Voldemort, creates a Horcrux out of a diary, and the piece of soul within that diary begins wreaking havoc years later, and the ways in which it does so are interesting.[7] Although only a soul fragment, Tom is in full control of his mind, his powers of persuasion, his memories, and all of his magical abilities, and yet he only uses these abilities to manipulate an eleven-year-old girl into carrying out his more physical dirty work, the ultimate goal being the acquisition of a body. However capable the soul may be, it still requires a body to fulfill its full function.[8] This portrayal of the soul is an echo of Aquinas’ statement that “some operations of the soul are performed without a corporeal organ, as understanding and will. … But some operations of the soul are performed by means of corporeal organs; as sight by the eye, and hearing by the ear.”[9] In fact, much of the plot of the first half of the series is about pieces of Voldemort’s soul seeking a body. The overall message seems to be that the natural place for the soul is with a body, which brings us to our next point.

The chapter “King’s Cross” in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows takes place after Harry has been hit by the killing curse and he has gone to an other-worldly waiting room in the form of King’s Cross train station. There he has a conversation with Dumbledore, who died almost a year previously, and observes an ugly scabbed baby writhing on the floor. There is some debate as to whether this scene actually occurred or whether Harry simply imagined it, and the answer to this question will have a bearing on our discussion of the soul, but unfortunately, that debate is a topic for another paper. Here I will merely say that I believe that the text points most strongly to the scene having actually happened, and if I am wrong then I apologize and ask the reader to please proceed to the next paragraph. The most important things about this scene as regards our current discussion are that Harry and Dumbledore (and presumably the thrashing baby) are not in their physical bodies (Dumbledore’s is in a tomb and Harry’s is lying in the Forbidden Forest), and yet Rowling makes a point to show that these two characters are still in some sense corporeal: “it came to him that he must exist, must be more than disembodied thought because he was lying, definitely lying, on some surface….In opening them, he discovered that he had eyes,” and “Harry reached out and was glad to find that he could touch [Dumbledore].”[10] If this scene did indeed occur, then it would seem that Harry and Dumbledore’s essential selves- their souls- have bodies of their own.

One may be tempted to say instead that Harry’s soul has been installed in a resurrected body (even if it is not the same body lying in the Forbidden Forest), but the flailing baby stops that interpretation short. Although the identification of the baby is never explicitly given, there are numerous hints in the books implying that it represents Voldemort in some way. Interestingly, one of those hints is given three years prior to the events at King’s Cross when Voldemort actually was resurrected (or, more accurately, restored to a body since he never technically died). The potion that restored one of Voldemort’s soul fragments to his body involved placing flesh, blood, bone, and Voldemort in the form of a scabbed, stunted baby into a cauldron.[11] We are never told how Voldemort’s soul managed to acquire this form, but it is made clear that, however corporeal the baby may or may not be, it does not constitute a body in the way that the form that rises from the cauldron does, as evidenced by the need for flesh, blood, and bone in addition to the scabbed baby to create Voldemort’s new form. The baby in this earlier scene appears to be a piece of Voldemort’s soul that has materialized, which suggests that the baby at King’s Cross is not Voldemort resurrected, but is Voldemort’s mutilated and stunted soul taking a physical form. If true for the baby, it makes sense that it would also be true for Harry and Dumbledore. This is not strictly in keeping with Aquinas’ teachings on what happens to the soul after death, for he maintains that, in Copleston’s interpretation, “[t]he immortality of souls seems then to demand the future resurrection of bodies.’”[12] It does, however, respect Aquinas’ general principle that the soul only fulfills its full potential in conjunction with a body.

One might object to Rowling’s depiction of souls as having a form without a body because it nullifies the need or benefit of that physical body, especially since much of the first half of the series is concerned with just such a need. However, it is made consistently clear that, although the soul may have some form, that form is not sufficient for full functionality. Throughout the series the natural place for the soul is in the body, and there are certain functions that the soul can perform best while within a body, but this does not necessarily make the soul entirely lacking in physical structure. Indeed, souls are rarely mentioned in the books without some implication of them having, perhaps not mass, but form: Voldemort’s possession of Quirrell physically deforms the host; dementors are able to “suck” souls out of the body; the fidelius charm hides a secret “inside a soul”; Voldemort’s soul fragment takes the form of a scabbed baby; Voldemort’s possession of Harry causes him physical pain.[13] Thus, after his “death” Harry is not resurrected, but experiences a new body (this one does not need glasses[14]), but it is only new insofar as he has never experienced it as a body before; he has had it with him all along as his soul. In the previously mentioned case of Tom Riddle using Ginny Weasley to carry out his physical tasks, he only does so because he is too weak to do it himself. By feeding off of Ginny’s own soul, Tom is not only able to have more control over her body, but is also eventually able to create one of his own which can touch and hold physical objects.[15] Tom’s soul does need a body, but it would seem that the physicality inherent in his soul can, with a little help, create such a body. In this sense, the form of the soul can potentially replace the need for a body as distinct from the soul, but only by creating one from the soul itself, and this is not the normal way of things. Thus, in Harry Potter’s world, the ideal functioning of the soul is always in conjunction with a body, but that body may or may not be a distinct entity.

This quality in Harry Potter of souls being ‘masslessly corporeal’ is related to one other, more serious difference between Rowling’s and Aquinas’ visions of the soul, and it is one that we have already touched on: her souls can be damaged, whereas Aquinas insists that because the soul is incorporeal it must also be incorruptible.[16] Rowling’s portrayal is, in this respect, closer to Socrates’ conception of the soul because he argued that committing injustice is damaging to a person’s soul.[17] Exactly how Socrates thinks this happens has been debated, but whether injustice causes people to believe the wrong things or causes bad habits, in Socrates’ view, injustice plays a direct role in obstructing the soul’s deliberative purpose, thus leading to even more injustice.[18] Rowling’s fictional souls have a different function than Socrates had in mind (they never guide or direct human action), but both authors maintain that the soul is essentially a good thing, and that any action against the soul’s true, good nature hurts it. In fact the phrase “against nature” is precisely the way Slughorn describes why murder is a necessary prerequisite for Horcrux creation: murder is a violation against the soul’s nature which causes the soul to rip, making it possible for the ripped soul portion to be installed in a foreign object.[19]

Although murder is the only crime specifically stated to have the ability to hurt the soul, the nature of the Unforgivable Curses suggests that many, if not all, acts of evil damage the soul in some way. The Unforgivable Curses are only functional if the spell caster has real malicious intent.[20] Even more tellingly, the successful casting of one Unforgivable Curse makes the casting of a second one much easier. Observe Harry’s inability to cast the Cruciatus curse on Bellatrix, followed by a reluctant but successful Imperious curse on Travers and a goblin, and finally a fully (and somewhat alarmingly) successful Cruciatus curse on Amycus Carrow with hardly any effort.[21] Because Harry has enough malice within him as a result of his difficult circumstances to even try to cast one Unforgivable Curse, however well intentioned, that “unforgivable” act damages his soul enough to provide the necessary momentum for the next “unforgivable” spell. In Harry Potter’s world, acts of evil both require and create damaged souls, which is conceptually similar to Socrates’ view. Luckily, both Rowling and Socrates provide a way out of this downward cycle of soul-destruction: for Socrates it is justice, and for Rowling it is remorse (again, remorse is only specifically mentioned in the case of murder, but by the same reasoning used above we may assume it applies to all wrongdoing).[22] Although Socrates’ solution is primarily social and Rowling’s is primarily personal, they both imply an active decision to turn away from the current course, which, while restorative, does not necessarily mean a return to innocence: the pieces have been pasted back together, but they will never be whole.


[1] F.C. Copleston, Aquinas (Harmondsworth; New York: Penguin, 1977, c1955), 160.

[2] Copleston, Aquinas, 166

[3] J.K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (New York: Scholastic Inc., 2007), 497.

[4] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (New York: Scholastic Inc., 2000), 643-644; Rowling,

Half-Blood Prince, 441.

[5] J.K. Rowling interviewed by Stephen Fry. “Living with Harry Potter,” BBC Radio4, December 10, 2005.

Available from http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2005/1205-bbc-fry.html.; Copleston, Aquinas, 160.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas (Translated by Fathers of the English

Dominican Province, Second and Revised Edition, 1920, Online Edition Copyright 2008 by Kevin

Knight), [www page] New Advent, Available from http://www.newadvent.org/summa/index.html, I.75:5.

[7] Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 500.

[8] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (New York: Scholastic Inc., 1999), 309-313.

[9] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.77:5.

[10] J.K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (New York: Scholastic Inc., 2007), 705, 717.

[11] Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 641-642.

[12] Copleston, Aquinas, 168.

[13] Rowling, Sorcerer’s Stone, 293; Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 247, 205; Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 640-641; J.K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (New York: Scholastic Inc., 2003), 815-816.

[14] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 706.

[15] Rowling, Chamber of Secrets, 308; 310.

[16] Copleston, Aquinas, 174.

[17] Thomas C Brickhouse and Nicholas D Smith, “Socrates on How Wrongdoing Damages the Soul,

Journal of Ethics: An International Philosophical Review, vol. 11, no. 4, (2007): 338.

[18] Brickhouse and Smith, “Socrates on How Wrongdoing Damages the Soul,” 352.

[19]Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 498.

[20] Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 810.

[21] Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 810; Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 531, 593.

[22]Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 103; Brickhouse and Smith, “Socrates on How Wrongdoing Damages the

Soul,” 346-347.

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~ by ntertanedangel on August 12, 2010.

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