The answer is: Love!!
Such a climax is bound to result in more than a few eyerolls. After all, we’ve seen it so many times. In Frozen, Elsa can control her powers through love! In Beauty and the Beast, Belle restores the Beast’s health and humanity through love! Even outside the cheesiness of Disney, in the new Wonder Woman movie, she gains enough power to defeat the bad guy through love! In my beloved A Wrinkle in Time, Meg overpowers IT and saves her brother through love!
And of course, in Harry Potter, it’s love over and over again – the day is saved by Harry’s mom’s love, by Snape’s love, by Dumbledore’s.
It seems like it’s modern day deux ex machina. When the situation gets too out of control, play the love card and all is well. Voldemort mocks Harry Potter with this very phenomenon in the book “The Deathly Hallows”:
“Is it love again?” said Voldemort, his snake’s face jeering. “Dumbledore’s favorite solution, love, which he claimed conquered death, though love did not stop him falling from the tower and breaking like an old waxwork? Love, which did not prevent me from stamping out your Mudblood mother like a cockroach, Potter – and nobody seems to love you enough to run forward this time and take my curse. So what will stop you from dying now when I strike?”
Of course, Voldemort is wrong, and love is part of what gives Harry Potter the power to defeat him. But what is the “love” that is solving all these profound problems? Warm feelings, platonic or romantic? A conditioned pleasurable response? A serotonin cocktail? “Love” can apply to so many feelings and situations that it almost loses any sort of concrete meaning.
I did come to a new understanding of this, however, when I recently saw the musical “Wicked” on Broadway. There was a quote I didn’t notice the first time I saw the show and that isn’t on the soundtrack – but which is important enough to be repeated several times.
Elphaba and Fiyero take turns saying the following:
“You’re still beautiful”
“You don’t have to lie to me.”
“It’s not lying… it’s looking at things another way.”
In this case, love is the ability to make a creative leap. First Fiyero learns to love Elphaba when he sees her virtues – standing up for others, being out spoken, and even the green skin – as suddenly precious and worthwhile. Elphaba can make the creative leap of loving him even made of straw.
Seen in this way, love is an act of elasticity, of making connections where they were none. It’s creating something that is more than the sum of its parts. It’s a new way of seeing “the other,” of embracing that other and folding it into your own matrix.
As far as super powers to conquer evil go, that’s actually a pretty good one. Where Voldemort was stuck in his selfishness, Harry Potter could form bonds and build on them – making insights, education, community, evolution. All of this is explained much better in the book than in the movie. In the book during the final confrontation between Voldemort and Harry, Harry explains all about how Dumbledore’s plan to defeat him comes about because of love – Snape’s life long love for his mother, which compelled him to commit acts of heroism again and again. And Harry’s love for his friends allowed him to “die” and kill off the horcrux within.
“Love” is a rather imperfect label to put on all that plotting and loyalty and heartache, but might be the best we’ve got.
“Empathy” is another word for this sort of love, at least for the more universal sort that we could apply to all living creatures. The theme of empathy runs through all of Harry Potter, in all the little non-Voldemort plots from the abused house elves to the trapped bank dragon.
In the super-hero realm we can also find contemplative takes on what all this love and empathy means. My new favorite show “Legion” tackles the dichotomy of empathy vs. fear in a monologue by the mutant Oliver Anthony Bird.
Good evening. We are here tonight to talk about violence. Or maybe human nature.
We are here to talk about human nature. Wait. A quote.
A great philosopher once wrote, “In times of peace, the warlike man attacks himself.”
This is the root of all our problems. And by “this,” I mean “we.” We are the root of all our problems our confusion, our anger, our fear of things we don’t understand.
Violence, in other words, is ignorance. Figure your shit out. That’s what I’d say.
There are two kinds of stories we tell our children. The first kind: Once upon a time, there was a fuzzy little rabbit named Frizzy-Top who went on a quantum, fun adventure only to face a big setback, which he overcame through perseverance and by being adorable.
This kind of story teaches empathy. Put yourself in Frizzy-Top’s shoes, in other words.
The other kind: Oliver Anthony Bird, if you get too close to that ocean, you’ll be sucked into the sea and drowned! This kind of story teaches them fear.
And for the rest of their lives, these two stories compete. Empathy and fear.
Empathy and fear compete in our fiction and they compete in ourselves. And we can move in one direction or the other by the stories we take in and that we share with our children. They become the stories we tell ourselves, the narratives use to make sense of the world and our place in it.
Maybe that’s why readers of Harry Potter are more empathic – you can’t vicariously share in the victory his powers of empathy/love/creative reconstruction without a little rubbing off on you, too. And if that’s not actual amazing (if cheesy) magic, I don’t know what is.