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J.K. Rowling and Maternal Magic

By Amy DePaul

As feminist mothers, we don't have too many heroines in popular movies and novels – Ripley in "Aliens" remains a notable exception. (Can anyone forget the battle between Sigourney Weaver's character and the vicious, egg-producing creature that has taken over the space colony and is threatening the little girl Ripley adopted? I still get goosebumps…)

There was a wonderful moment along these lines in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Voldemort's and Dumbledore's armies meet on the sacred grounds of Hogwarts Academy of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It's when the incredibly powerful death eater, the loathsome Bellatrix Lestrange, is dueling with three opponents at once. One of them is 16-year-old Ginny Weasley, whom we've come to know as a Quidditch player, former victim of Lord Voldemort, and Harry's girlfriend.

Though skilled and brave, Ginny is no match for Bellatrix, which is where her mother, Molly Weasley, comes into the picture. Up until this time we have come to know Molly as the protective, nurturing matriarch of the six Weasley children. She's a mom who knits sweaters for each of her kids at Christmas and whips up expert meals with the help of self-chopping knives and self-pealing potatoes.

But author J.K. Rowling decided to show us another side of Molly Weasley in her final installment of the Potter series. During Ginny's life-threatening duel with Bellatrix, Molly breaks in and, to my surprise and I suspect that of many other readers, announces in full maternal fury: "NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!"

Showing her supremely dexterous dueling skills (again, who knew?) she finishes off Lord Voldemort's most important lieutenant, and only then do we remember that Molly is a member of the Order of the Phoenix (sort of a magical justice league) and that she has opposed the dark lord since his initial ascent more than 17 years ago. We also note with satisfaction that she never wavered in her commitment all these years, despite the obvious distractions of raising six children.

Molly Weasley is not the only mother-warrior in the Potter series. There is also the tomboyish "Tonks," as she is called. Known for her fighting skills and magically changing hair, Tonks dies in battle against Voldemort, leaving a son behind.

Tonks and Molly are two maternal characters in Rowling's books who prove heroic – yet another reason why the series was such an enjoyable reading experience for me. I'd argue that very few popular books and movies explore the surprisingly empowering side of motherhood. Yes, mothers are often depicted sacrificing themselves or loving their children despite hardship. But when do mother characters get to be both able, involved maternal figures as well as defenders of their cause? When are mothers portrayed as fully realized people whose actions alter the course of history?

J.K. Rowling, perhaps because of her own well-known experience as a single mother, has a special place in her story for the role of fierce maternal power to save lives and demonstrate courage, as well as to advance key story lines. Her series explores maternity with a sense of respect that I can only hope will filter down to her young readers.

The most obvious example is the character of Lilly Potter, whose ultimate sacrifice for her son not only saves Harry from certain demise but protects him long after she dies and enables him to impede the dark lord's otherwise unstoppable, murderous quest for power. "Old magic," as Voldemort angrily disparages Lilly's act of love of her son, has made the dark lord's death wish for Harry a frustratingly unachievable task, which makes all the difference in the story. Lilly's sacrifice not only validates maternal importance but also illuminates a deeply held desire that I believe many mothers harbor – the power to protect our children when we're far away from them or even after we're gone. In this way, the Harry Potter series was truly a fantasy, and while it draws on many conventions of the hero fantasy/narrative, its prominent role for mothers made it more satisfying for readers like me than "Star Wars" or Lord of the Rings.

The importance of maternal protection proves decisive once again in book 7, when the dark lord strikes Harry down. After visiting a sort of limbo between existence and the world beyond, Harry returns to his conscious self but remains face down, feigning death. Voldermort then demands that one of his followers examine what he hopes is Harry's corpse, and Narcissa Malfoy, mother of Potter foe Draco Malfoy, volunteers for the job. Narcissa bends down to Harry and put her face near his, quickly detecting his heartbeat. But she doesn't alert the Dark Lord. Rather, she whispers a question to Harry: is her son Draco still alive? Yes, he whispers. She then tells Voldemort that Potter is dead, because this ruse will get her back into the castle where her imperiled son is. It is her collusion with Harry that allows his surprise comeback, enabling him to defeat Voldemort (finally). Granted, the Dark Lord's death doesn't come as a complete surprise to readers. Still, who would have guessed his victory would be made possible by a Voldemort follower acting out of something so useless (by Voldermort's standards) as maternal instinct?

Voldermort himself never knew a mother's love. The mistreated Merope died after his birth, leaving him to be raised in a muggle orphanage. But in an interview this year with The Leaky Cauldon website, Rowling makes clear that things might have turned out differently for Voldemort: "Of course, everything would have changed if Merope had survived and raised him herself and loved him."

Maternal love can be excessive, too. This is a point Rowling demonstrates in Petunia's indulgence of her bratty son Dudley. Questionable motherly love is also explored in the story of Barty Crouch Sr., a rather severe Ministry official who condemns his own son, a criminally insane death eater, to life sentence in Azkaban. Barty Jr. escapes the dreaded prison because his mother drinks a potion that allows her to take on his appearance and assume his place in jail, serving his life sentence for him. Once free, Barty Jr. rejoins Voldermort and resumes his evildoing, though he is caught eventually and subjected to the ultimate punishment, a "kiss" from a dementor prison guard by which the dementor sucks his victim's soul out of his body. Clearly, the sacrifice of Barty Jr.'s mother was misdirected, which explains how it failed to protect him in the same way Lilly's shielded Harry. Mother love is powerful, Rowling seems to be saying; it works best when used in pursuit of just causes.

Mmo : September/October 2007

Amy DePaul is a writer and college instructor in Irvine, California. You can read more of her articles at AlterNet and other publications such as this one. She is currently re-reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Also on MMO:

Beyond nanny-mama drama
By Amy DePaul

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