Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has a host of artistic problems, but its most profound failures are of moral understanding. Whereas the original novels by J.K. Rowling embraced the Christian sanctity of life, understanding that death was an evil, and expressed hope for repentance and forgiveness of sins, this late coming play, written by Jack Thorne and based on a story by Thorne, Rowling, and Jack Tiffany (and which premiered one year ago this July), reinterprets the senseless murder of a good person as something good, if not something to celebrate, and despairs of both forgiveness of sins and of final victory over evil. This is so antithetical to the largely Christian spirit of Rowling’s novels that the play can hardly be seen as having any connection to them; the play displays immense knowledge about the facts of the novels, pandering to the more obsessive fans with innumerable references to various levels of obscurity (in fairness to the obsessives, I know about these references because I caught them myself), but it has no understanding of the deeper thematic structure of the novels, which is consistent with the Christian virtue of hope.
Trying Too Hard to Understand Evil
The play partly revolves around the efforts of Harry’s son Albus and Albus’s friend Scorpius Malfoy to go back in time to save the life of Cedric Diggory, whom the evil wizard Voldemort kills simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Voldemort sees Cedric as an irrelevant “spare,” whom he can kill on a whim. The novels, however, make clear that Cedric is anything but an irrelevant spare: he is morally upright, a charismatic leader, and an incredibly gracious competitor. His death is the pointless cutting short of a life with the immense potential for good. His friends and loved ones are never able to come to understand why he had to die, not through any lack of wisdom on their part, but because there is not any real reason for him to die at that time, and because evil is too irrational and destructive to be truly understood.
Cursed Child, however, posits that, due to the interference of Albus and Scorpius, Cedric is corrupted by the lust for glory that he is completely corrupted, to the point that Harry’s final triumph over Voldemort is reversed due to Cedric’s interference. The defeat of Voldemort is now, according to Cursed Child, contingent on the random slaughter of this good young man, while he is still good.
Rowling’s original novels understand that death is evil, if not the greatest evil. They make clear that to live at the expense of pure and innocent lives, such as by slaying unicorns to live off their blood, or to kill people to rend one’s own soul and hide it away, are both unspeakably evil. Rowling never shies away from depicting the deaths of good people, but these deaths are never good things: they are murders or suffered as self-sacrifices for the love of others. They are genuinely sad occurrences, even tragic when they involve the fall of a good person.
This play, however, does not understand that the point of Cedric’s death is its pointlessness; it does not understand that the very reason why Voldemort must be defeated is that he randomly slaughters the good. One should be at a loss when confronted with Cedric’s death, and the play is right to know that his death seems meaningless. The problem is that not understanding the significance of this meaninglessness, the play turns the murder into a good thing to make it more digestible. It is now good that Cedric is dead, as otherwise, Voldemort would never have fallen.
Evil does not have significance. It is a deprivation of the good. The Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart says that while the terrible history of suffering is not morally intelligible, “it would be far more terrible if it were,” because it would make God responsible for suffering, instead of suffering being a wound in creation. For Hart, evil “can have no positive role to play in God’s determination of Himself or purpose for His creatures (even if by economy God can bring good from evil).” If evil plays such a role, it
requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of — but entirely by way of — every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.
In giving Cedric’s death this significance, the play gives that evil a positive role to play in the defeat of evil; Cedric must die for Voldemort to fall, and this is utterly counter to the Christian understanding of suffering. It makes rejoicing in Voldemort’s fall loathsome.
This also raises the question of consequentialism: is it acceptable to kill one good and innocent person to save many? The Church teaches that “one may never do evil so that good may result from it,” and Rowling’s novels largely reflect this. As Mark Shea points out, the wise wizard Dumbledore struggles with the temptation to do things for the greater good; in his youth it is the temptation to dominate the less powerful for their own good, and later he succumbs to the temptation, plotting his own death in order to frustrate Voldemort’s plans to obtain a great weapon. That plan, however, fails. All his balancing the relative weights of various lives and goals, for the sake of “the greater good,” does not bear fruit. The novels make clear that the killing of one good person – even one for whom death is imminent – does not save the many, and therefore demand a higher moral standard. This play, however, subscribes to a different ethic, not to question the novels, but, one suspects because it is so caught up in the minutiae of world-building that it is blind to the novels’ ethic, not unlike many other fans.
Even more troubling, however, is that the play damns Cedric for sins he has not yet committed. He must die because he will sin and guarantee Voldemort’s victory. It predestines him to become corrupted and evil and defines him by his future sins. Pope Francis says that “nothing of what a repentant sinner places before God’s mercy can be excluded from the embrace of his forgiveness.” Imagine, however, being guilty of sins not yet committed, and having those weigh you down and define you. It’s difficult enough, sometimes, to rejoice in the forgiveness of past sins if you think that you’re going to be committing the same sins over and over again and asking forgiveness over and over again. It’s easy to despair in that situation. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry offers even Voldemort, who has torn his own soul apart and has destroyed almost all his own humanity, a chance to feel remorse and repent of his evil. Voldemort, not unexpectedly, rejects this offer, but the novel does not disdain even that faintest of hopes. The novels emphasize that people always have the choice to do good or evil, and while some people such as Voldemort may have hardened themselves to goodness so much that choosing good is unlikely, Cedric is one who had always chosen well. The play, on the other hand, gives Cedric less opportunity for repentance and redemption than Voldemort receives, and Cedric hasn’t even committed his sins yet. His future sin is unavoidable, so it is better for this good person to die now, according to the play, while that death is profitable. There is no hope for him.
In his encyclical Spe Salvi, on hope, Pope Benedict XVI describes how one can have hope in the future when one knows that one is loved by God, that one is redeemed, and that one is waited for by God. When one knows these things, when one can have the virtue of hope, one’s life is good. In Cursed Child, we know that Cedric will sin and that he will cause evil to triumph, and so his life is not good. The play encourages us to despair of his conversion, or of his overcoming temptation, and so to embrace his death as good. Even though Catholics might leave the confessional sure that they will sin again, they have hope that their sins do not define them. Because they hope in God’s mercy and forgiveness, they need not despair even if they believe that they will sin again, and so they know that their lives are good, because that goodness depends not on their virtue, but on God’s love. As Benedict says,
Here too we see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future: it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness. Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well… The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.
Cedric, however, is denied this hope for the future, which even Voldemort receives. He is now defined by his future sins.
The play also informs us that we cannot hope in the final victory over evil, as the characters are trapped in a cycle in which they must always be going back in time to fight the same evil again and again. Trapped in this cycle, there is no ultimate triumph over evil for which to hope. Instead, they shall always be running on a hamster wheel, and it shall be impossible to decisively defeat Voldemort’s evil. This has more to do with the comic book aesthetic in which Batman is defined by his struggle with the Joker, and so cannot ever ultimately defeat him, lest the soap opera end and Batman lose his identity, than it does with hope. Even though Harry’s life was tied up with Voldemort’s, that relationship was intrinsically finite, as Harry knew that they could not both survive; and it was always clear that they chose to live their lives in very different ways. This play (and the wretched film adaptations of the novels), however, seduced by Voldemort’s allure, the allure of a villain, reject that hope to follow the zeitgeist of comic books. The play ignores the fact that despite the fantasy trappings, the Harry Potter novels are very much rooted in the English tradition of murder mysteries, à la Agatha Christie or P.D. James, in which truth will out and justice be done, in favour of an eternally-lasting conflict.
The many good characters who die in the novels sacrifice themselves because they hope in something beyond themselves: the destruction of evil, but the play renders those sacrifices moot because their goal can never be achieved. In the novels, those sacrifices result in a banquet at which the divisions and rivalries of the various Hogwarts houses are laid aside, so they can celebrate together; the lion, the badger, the eagle, and the serpent lay down together. Cursed Child sends them back to square one, and because there is always the threat of time-travel, does not let them hope for that eventual celebration. Instead, there is only the despair of fighting an enemy one can never defeat. Whereas Rowling, in line with Tolkien and Lewis, originally has hope for evil’s final defeat, even though that evil might triumph regularly, Cursed Child rejects that hope.
Now, Cursed Child has many other flaws, but they are less relevant to this forum. Here, it is enough to say that even though the novels and the play might share character names and locations, their basic spiritual attitudes are so diametrically opposed that they can hardly be recognized as having anything to do with each other. I don’t think the Harry Potter novels engage with Christian faith perfectly – witness their odd conception of the soul, for one – but this play’s inability to perceive that faith’s presence or influence at all makes its centrality to Rowling’s original story abundantly clear.
For more on Harry Potter and hope, see Susan Johnston, “Harry Potter, Eucatastrophe, and Christian Hope,” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, 2011 Winter.