Note: Read my most recent thoughts about Harry Potter and J K Rowling
This paper focuses on the representations of fate and free will in the Harry Potter series and how they reflect the arguments of Luther and Erasmus at the dawn of modernity. The argument of this paper is that while on the surface the Harry Potter series argues for free choice and individualism, in reality the deep structure of the series reveals a deterministic universe.
When considering the different occasions where fate and free will come in to play within the Harry Potter universe, the first and most obvious example is the Hogwarts Sorting Hat. On their first night at the castle, first years are required to place the Hat on their heads, at which point the Hat will evaluate them and decide which of the four Hogwarts Houses to place them in. Each house is defined by a particular set of character traits. Ravenclaw values knowledge, Slytherin values ambition, Gryffindor values bravery, and Hufflepuff values loyalty. The negative stereotypes associated with each house are that Ravenclaws are know-it-alls, Slytherins are evil, Gryffindors are foolish, and Hufflepuff are leftovers who couldn’t get into any other house. Once the Sorting Hat has sorted a student, that student will stay in their house for the next seven years at Hogwarts. Before they are sorted, Professor McGonagall tells Harry and all of his year mates that their houses will be like their families (Rowling, Stone 114).
At first glance, the Hogwarts Sorting Hat appears to be a completely deterministic device. Each house, with its particular focus, shapes how the students will be treated and treat one another for the rest of their lives. Many students have little say in what house they are in, since each sorting is relatively fast, yet for some students it takes much longer. In Harry’s case, the hat takes its time discussing with Harry which house he will be in, and expresses a desire to put Harry in Slytherin. Harry vehemently refuses and is put into Gryffindor.
Fouque notes this moment in her essay as “the first instance of Harry asserting his will and making a choice on his own,” (Fouque 76) marking it as an example of free will against the arguments of Luther, and with Erasmus at the dawn of modernity, and the deterministic view of the Hat. Nevertheless, this argument is flawed for a number of reasons. Fouque herself cites from early on in the text where Hagrid tells Harry that “[t]here’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin,” (Rowling, Stone 80) which is blatantly false. Peter Pettigrew was a Gryffindor and Death Eater who betrayed Harry’s parents to Voldemort. Although Hagrid does not know this about Peter, to his knowledge the perpetrator of those crimes was Sirius Black, who was also a Gryffindor. Whether he meant to or not, Hagrid has influenced Harry, who previously had no preconceptions about any of the Hogwarts houses, to be reluctant about being put in Slytherin on false pretenses. Furthermore, Harry has already met and disliked Draco Malfoy, who has at this point already been put into Slytherin. Thus, Harry’s environment has predetermined his decision in regard to his house.
Donaher and Okapal further argue against the deterministic view, noting that a causal chain is occurring in regard to the sorting process, and reference Harry pulling Gryffindor’s sword out of the Sorting Hat, which Dumbledore tells him only a true Gryffindor could have done (Rowling, Chamber 334). Donaher and Okapal cite the fact that both Harry and Neville were able to pull the sword out as evidence that “Harry’s wish to be in Gryffindor is only a mirror of his true, predetermined Gryffindor nature” (Donaher and Okapal 50).
At the end of Chamber, when Harry is doubting said Gryffindor nature, Dumbledore tells him the oft-quoted line “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities” (Rowling, Chamber 333). This quote indicates that the book’s argument is that choices matter more than one’s innate, predetermined traits. It seems like a straightforward argument for free will, yet it appears in the same conversation as how Harry was destined to pull out the sword of Gryffindor, and so the message is undercut by determinism.
For scholarly readers of Harry Potter, the question of Harry’s agency constantly lurks in the back of the mind. To take things a step further, one might question the agency of all inhabitants of the Harry Potter universe, magic users and those without magic alike. In a world where magic exists, necessarily there are those capable of using magic and those who are not. In the case of Harry Potter there are five sub-distinctions between those who can do magic and those who cannot. Individuals who can use magic are split into three categories: purebloods (magical people with only magical ancestors), half-bloods (magical people with mixed ancestry), and muggleborns (magical people with non-magical ancestors). There are two types of non-magical people: muggles (non-magical people with non-magical ancestry) and squibs (non-magical people with at least one magical parent).
Based on these distinctions, one can assume that while magical power or lack thereof can be genetic (as in the case of purebloods, half-bloods and muggles), magic is also something bestowed semi-arbitrarily (as in muggleborns and squibs). In this way, the attribution of magic to any one individual can be seen as analogous to the distribution of God’s grace to select members of humankind. This idea of whether or not wizardry is genetic is something touched upon by Pond, citing a fan-written editorial regarding free will and determinism in Harry Potter (Pond 185).
Voldemort pushes the agenda that those with purer blood have more of a right to magic due to their genetics producing magical people with more power. Hermione Granger and Lily Evans Potter are prime examples of in-universe contradictions to this position as extremely powerful muggleborns. Victor Crabbe and Gregory Goyle are contradictions in the reverse sense as purebloods who have much less power. In showing the falsity of equating genetics with magical power, Rowling is showcasing a strong preference for theological determinism in the Harry Potter universe. This becomes even more apparent in the case of Filch, who tries to learn magic via Kwikspell, but despite his active choice he is unable to perform any magic due to his being a squib, or, to take this as a religious analogy, his lack of God’s grace.
In the wizarding world, magical people have much more power and agency as compared to those in the muggle world. The Ministry of Magic has the power of the Obliviation Squad, who go in to the muggle world to remove the memories of muggles who witness wizarding events, an egregious violation that no wizard or witch in the Harry Potter series objects to, despite the horror of the act, because muggles do not have the same autonomy that wizards do.
Due to the above-mentioned distinction between types of magical persons, some (the purebloods) are afforded better treatment due to their blood status as well as due to their material wealth. The Weasleys, who are poor purebloods with known affection for muggles, are labeled as blood traitors, while the Malfoys and other purebloods are excused from their deeds as Death Eaters due to their political influence and material wealth. Such practices are condemned by Harry and other protagonists in the series. The way that some of the Death Eaters bribe their way out of Azkaban, literally buying themselves out of hell on earth, is very similar to the indulgences of the Catholic Church which Luther strongly objected to, further aligning the series with early modern Protestant views.
Regarding the fate and free will distinction put forth in the arguments between Luther and Erasmus, the most obvious representation of the distinction within the Harry Potter universe is the prophecy given by Sybil Trelawney that acts as the instigator for the conflict between Harry and Voldemort. Whether one takes the side of fate or that of free will, that the prophecy is a major reason for Harry continually facing Voldemort until their final confrontation in Hallows is indubitable.
When Dumbledore and Harry discuss the prophecy in Prince, Dumbledore essentially calls the prophecy self-fulfilling, (Rowling, Prince 510) but Pierce disagrees, arguing that the prophecy didn’t actually make Voldemort do anything, since it didn’t ensure his actions, citing the fact that Voldemort made the choice to go after Harry instead of Neville and that the prophecy could not control how much of it Snape was able to overhear, since if Voldemort had heard the prophecy in its entirety he might not have gone after either prophecy child (Pierce 42–43).
Whether or not the prophecy is self-fulfilling, the fact that the prophecy itself was a participant in its own execution naturally raises questions about what is predestined and what is not. Harry himself feels obligated to fulfill the prophecy and it weighs down on him. During the events of Prince Harry and Dumbledore have a charged conversation in which Dumbledore convinces Harry that while he will go through with the prophecy, Harry would have done it anyway, and in that way gives Harry a sense that the choice he has is one that he would have made on his own. In doing so Dumbledore is giving Harry a sensation that he is free to make his own decisions even when they are not his own. While Harry acknowledges that the decision is not entirely up to him, he convinces himself to accept this:
It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew – and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents – that there was all the difference in the world.
(Rowling, Prince 512)
By executing the scene in this way, that is to say having Harry embrace his lack of free will, Rowling is playing in to the idea of predestination as Harry knows his path is set and follows it all the same.
Pond cites this in accordance with Nietzsche as a person who is exercising free will within the boundaries of fate, since “Harry fulfills his destiny because he would have done so even without a prophecy in his future” (Pond 182). To respectfully disagree with that statement, although the prophecy wasn’t ultimately the reason that Harry wanted to fight Voldemort, if Voldemort hadn’t known the portion of the prophecy that he did, then he would not have gone after Harry. If Voldemort had not attacked the Potters, then Harry would not have become an orphan and grown to resent Voldemort’s role in the deaths of his family and friends, and thus Voldemort would not have created the means for his own destruction.
The conclusion that the prophecy is a frame for actions based upon free will is agreed upon by Wolosky, and Granger, as well as Donaher & Okapal; however, this paper argues against that conclusion. While Harry makes the choice to follow through and defeat Voldemort, that choice is not a real choice at all, as something that Harry feels obligated to do out of loyalty to his dead family and friends. While Harry claimed to be going in “With his head held high,” either way he would have to defeat Voldemort, and so while Harry is choosing to believe he made the decision, in reality there is no decision at all. Dumbledore himself points out that while Harry is “free to choose [his] own way, quite free to turn [his] back on the prophecy[. Nonetheless] Voldemort continues to set store by the prophecy [and that h]e will continue to hunt [Harry]” (Rowling, Prince 512). Therefore Harry is obligated to be part of the confrontation to either kill or be killed, thus fulfilling the terms of the prophecy: “either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives” (Rowling, Order 841).
Erasmus argues that “The Will is Not Powerless Though It Cannot Attain Its End Without Grace” (Erasmus 79). In the context of Harry Potter, one could think of the obvious example from this paper’s earlier discussion on the granting of magical power that if Harry were not a wizard, he would not have the magical power or agency (read: God’s grace) to defeat Voldemort. Erasmus goes on to explain that while humans can execute great deeds, all that they do is due to the divine beneficence of God, “and yet his skill and labor were not entirely useless” (Erasmus 79). That is to say that while God’s grace is needed, the skillset needs to be within the person that executes God’s grace. Therefore, when one discusses free will, they also need to account for human action.
That said, accounting for human action within Harry Potter leads to the conclusion that Harry was incredibly lucky (read: blessed by God’s grace) in that much of what he was able to accomplish against Voldemort and the Death Eaters was due to multiple instances of a convenient series of events. For example, the only reason that Harry was able to identify R.A.B. as Regulus Arcturus Black was because he happened to see the door that led to the bedroom of Sirius’s deceased brother (Rowling, Hallows 186). Similarly, when Harry, Ron, and Hermione infiltrate Gringotts, they are only able to escape because the Lestrange vault happened to be right next to a dragon that had been so routinely tortured that its first instinct upon being relieved of its chains was to escape the bank entirely, which enabled the escape of the trio after robbing a bank that had been touted since the first book as being impenetrable (Rowling, Hallows 541–43).
Furthermore, Harry’s resurrection at the end of DH, which cements his status as a Christ-like figure, was a consequence of Voldemort himself taking Harry’s blood at the end of Goblet for Voldemort’s own resurrection (Rowling, Hallows 709). Voldemort could have resurrected with the blood of any of his enemies, (Rowling, Goblet 9) yet he chose Harry’s and in doing so enabled Harry’s survival and his own eventual defeat. Thus, one might argue that since Voldemort’s choice is the catalyst for the continuation of the prophecy the Harry Potter universe continues to be an advocate for the free will argument within destiny. Even so, Voldemort was unable to revive himself without the help of Pettigrew, and Pettigrew’s return to Voldemort was the result of Trelawney’s other prophecy from Azkaban.
Given by Trelawney at the end of Harry’s Divination exam, the second prophecy dictates that a servant of Voldemort’s will break free and help him return to power. Harry interprets the prophecy as representing the fact that Pettigrew escaped at the end of PoA and that therefore what happened was his fault since he had convinced Remus and Sirius to spare Pettigrew’s life. On the surface this would mean that it was Harry’s choice that fulfilled the prophecy, since Harry did not remember the prophecy until he was discussing the previous night’s events with Dumbledore (Rowling, Azkaban 426).
Dumbledore himself counteracts Harry’s perspective that he was the cause of Pettigrew’s escape by citing the chaos created by free choice: “The consequences of our actions are always so complicated, so diverse, that predicting the future is a very difficult business indeed” (Rowling, Azkaban 426). The argument that the future cannot be predicted due to the chaos of free choice goes directly against the arguments of Luther, who states:
God foreknows nothing contingently […] he foresees and purposes and does all things by his immutable, eternal and infallible will […] everything we do, everything that happens, even if it seems to us to happen mutably and contingently, happens in fact nonetheless necessarily and immutably […] the will of God is effectual and cannot be hindered, since it is the power of the divine nature itself; moreover it is wise, so that it cannot be deceived.
Taking the arguments of Luther into account, it seems only natural to assume that Harry Potter advocates against this view, if for no other reason that there is no character within the series who advocates for God as a prominent figure for the inhabitants of the wizarding world. Nevertheless, there are Christian imagery and themes all over the Harry Potter books.
Furthermore, the deep structure of the series is in line with Luther’s teachings in that despite this surface-level rejection, there is an internal consistency and replication of actions from each book to the next. When Harry, Ron, and Hermione are preparing to leave the Burrow and hunt horcruxes, Harry tries to convince Ron and Hermione that they don’t have to come with him, and Hermione cuts him off saying “We’re coming with you. That was decided months ago – years really” (Rowling, Hallows 96). Hermione is speaking in the moment, but also referencing Ron and Hermione’s insistence on helping Harry to protect the Stone from Snape at the end of the first book. Harry would not have been able to defeat Voldemort at all were it not for the help of Ron and Hermione, and thus their friendship is a powerful force in the series.
Friendships are often governed by choice, but in the case of Harry, Ron, and Hermione it wasn’t so much choice as happenstance. The three of them might never have become friends if it weren’t for Voldemort letting the mountain troll in on Halloween. Voldemort does so as a distraction because he wants to regain his full power, which he lost because of his defeat in 1981 because he was following the words of the prophecy.
Harry Potter is known as “The Boy-Who-Lived” and “The Chosen One” encoding the fact that the majority of his actions had him placed on a predetermined path via the prophecy made before his own birth. This leads to the conclusion that Harry’s achievements cannot be attributed solely to his own will, despite the opinions of many characters within the series itself. In sum, the Harry Potter series is one that teeters on the edge of the fate and free will debate, but as this paper has shown, the explicit message advocating for free will masks a determinist structure to the story.
Written for ECS 100B: European Cultural Studies Proseminar: Making of European Modernity, April 23rd 2018
 All references to the Harry Potter books within this paper are as follows: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone = Stone Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets = Chamber Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban = Azkaban Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire = Goblet Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix = Order Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince = Prince Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows = Hallows
 Death Eaters are the followers of Voldemort.
 The number of generations which must pass before someone descended from a squib is referred to as a muggle is unclear.
 Note the case of the Umbridge family: Dolores Umbridge is the daughter of a wizard and muggle, and while she was born magical, her younger brother (name unknown) was a squib. (Rowling, “Dolores Umbridge”)
 Cited as: Dworsky, Lauren. “Free Will and Determinism in Harry Potter.” Mugglenet. 20 Dec. 2004. 9 Oct. 2007 <http://www.mugglenet.com/editorials/editorials/edit-ldworsky01.shtml>. Inspection of the website indicates that this resource is no longer available.
 Kwikspell is described as “A Correspondence Course in Beginners Magic” (Rowling, Chamber 127) which Harry discovers while alone in Filch’s office. This discovery is how Harry and his friends discover that Filch is a squib, and Filch is humiliated and angered by the discovery on Harry’s part, indicating that he very much wants to learn magic and is ashamed that he was not born as a wizard.
 “The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches … born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies … and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not … and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives … the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies …” (Rowling, Order 841)
 “In attacking Harry […] Voldemort creates and opponent instead of eliminating one. […] these effects and events are not the result of the prophecy itself, not an outcome of its predictive necessity or control of future events. The prophecy itself neither forces nor fates. The events and their effects are rather the outcome of Voldemort’s own actions, Voldemort’s own decisions. Even the fact that the prophecy designates Harry is not simply fated, but due to Voldemort’s choice.” (Wolosky 90)
 Dr. Granger notes that the Harry Potter series “raise[s] the question of responsibility for our actions and points out that our choices have moral significance. […] Again and again, we see that it’s our choices that shape us; if we make the good, hard choices against evil, we will become a better person [sic].”(Granger 80) Nevertheless, Granger continues to say that “it’s clear that even Rowling’s characters are born with a destiny.” (Granger 80) Granger postulates that even though Harry has a destiny “his freewill choices are what will make the difference between his prophesied end or not.” (Granger 82)
 “A prophecy […] in the Harry Potter universe is not necessarily a prediction for future events, but an explanation of the casual chains that will occur should certain actions be taken in the first place. If a prophecy is not heard, the events may or may not unfold as foretold because prophecy itself can be a motivator for actions it seeks to explain.” (Donaher and Okapal 56) “the prophecy […] is a convenient mechanism for explaining some of what occurs in the novels, but does not determine those events since it is the intentions formed by characters like Harry which form new causes.” (Donaher and Okapal 56, emphasis theirs)
 When Dumbledore asks Harry if he would still go after Voldemort without the prophecy, Harry considers first all the people that he has lost because of Voldemort and Harry replies “I’d want him finished, […] And I’d want to do it.” (Rowling, Prince 512)
 “It will happen tonight […] The Dark Lord lies alone and friendless, abandoned by his followers. His servant has been chained these twelve years. Tonight, before midnight, the servant will break free and set out to rejoin his master. The Dark Lord will rise again with his servant’s aid, greater and more terrible than ever before. Tonight … before midnight … the servant … will set out … to rejoin … his master …” (Rowling, Azkaban 324)
 See Looking for God in Harry Potter, by John Granger.
 The Burrow is the ancestral home of the Weasley family.
 “A Horcrux is an object in which a Dark wizard or witch has hidden a fragment of his or her soul for the purpose of attaining immortality. Horcruxes can only be created after committing murder, the supreme act of evil. The process for the creation of a Horcrux involves a spell and a horrific act is performed, after the murder has been committed. There are usually protective measures made to prevent a Horcrux from being stolen and destroyed, such as Counter-Charms and Jinxes. The Horcrux is considered the most terrible of all Dark magic.” (“Horcrux”)
 “‘But will [the invisibility cloak] cover all three of us?’ said Ron. ‘All – all three of us?’ [said Harry.] ‘Oh, come off it, you don’t think we’d let you go alone?’ [said Ron.] ‘Of course not,” said Hermione briskly. ‘How do you think you’d get to the stone without us?[’]” (Rowling, Stone 271)
 “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.” (Rowling, Stone 179)
Donaher, Patricia, and James M. Okapal. “Causation, Prophetic Visions, and the Free Will Question.” Reading Harry Potter Again: New Critical Essays, edited by Giselle Liza Anatol, Praeger, 2009, pp. 47–62.
Fouque, Charlotte M. “Free Will and Determinism: A ‘Compatibilist’ Readings of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series.” J.K. Rowling Harry Potter, edited by Cynthia J. Hallett and Peggy J. Huey, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 74–81.
Granger, John. Looking for God in Harry Potter. SaltRiver, 2004.
“Horcrux.” Harry Potter Wiki, http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Horcrux. Accessed 22 Apr. 2018.
Luther, Martin, and Erasmus. Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation. Translated by E. Gordon Ruppe and P.S. Watson, The Westminister Press, 1969.
Pierce, Jeremy. “Destiny in the Wizarding World.” The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy, edited by Gregory Bassham, Wiley, 2010, pp. 35–49.
Pond, Julia. “A Story of the Exceptional: Fate and Free Will in the Harry Potter Series.” Children’s Literature; Baltimore, vol. 38, 2010, pp. 181–206, 292.
Rowling, J. K. “Dolores Umbridge.” Pottermore, https://www.pottermore.com/writing-by-jk-rowling/dolores-umbridge. Accessed 21 Apr. 2018.
—. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.
—. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. 1st American ed, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007.
—. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. 1st American ed, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2000.
—. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. 1st American ed, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005.
—. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Scholastic, 2003.
—. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.
—. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. 1st American ed, A.A. Levine Books, 1998.
Wolosky, Shira. The Riddles of Harry Potter: Secret Passages and Interpretive Quests. 1st ed, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
On Writing About Harry Potter – Word-for-Sense and Other Stories
June 7, 2020 @ 22:42
[…] which was the primary focus of that class. If you would like to read the entire essay you can do so here, though I recommend setting some time aside to do so, since it is on the longer […]
July 9, 2020 @ 04:35
I think a pretty big example of determinism is the Time Turner sequence from Azkaban. The particular flavor of time travel Rowling chooses seems to indicate that using the Time Turner doesn’t allow one to change the past. Hermione and Harry never had any choice whether or not to go back in time to save Sirius and Buckbeak, because they had already done it in the original sequence of events.
July 10, 2020 @ 08:38
I can definitely see what you mean. The fact that they had already gone back in time and where a fixed part of the sequence of events created a loop that was itself at least a localized form of determinism & thus we might extrapolate that point of view as belonging to the general worldview of the series.