For the launch of this new blog here on PsychCentral, I could think of no theme more important to write about than the conflict between love and hatred, no movies more appropriate and timely to illustrate that conflict than the final two Harry Potter films, with a comparison to Peter Jackson’s film masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’ve read and enjoyed all of the Harry Potter books as well as the first seven films. Since I first encountered the Tolkien books more then 40 years ago, I’ve read them at least five times; I consider the Jackson films to be nearly perfect adaptations.
While it’s possible to view the conflict at the heart of both epics as a Manichaen struggle between good and evil, light and dark, as a psychotherapist I find it much more revealing to leave the moral realm behind and come down to the purely personal. Instead of thinking about the struggle between the wizards aligned with good versus those who practice the dark arts as an external battle, we can instead view it as a metaphor for the conflict within all of us: the struggle between loving and destructive impulses. (I’ve written about this conflict on my ‘After Psychotherapy’ website; you might find that discussion of interest.) In this sense, J.K. Rowling’s epic functions as a vast, complicated and wonderful fairy tale (no disrespesct intended) in Bruno Bettelheim’s sense, an externalization of internal mental processes.
In his speech in the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore tells Harry that the greatest power he possesses is his capacity for love; in The Philosopher’s Stone, he says that love is the one thing Voldemort cannot understand. Harry and Voldemort are polar opposites, fairly black and white as is typical of characters in fairy tales. Harry and the other “good” characters have quirks but no serious flaws; with the possible exception of Snape, the “bad” characters are purely evil and demonstrate the one quality that is the hallmark of all evil characters everywhere, whether it’s in the Harry Potter films, The Lord of the Rings, or any of the other epics that focus on this theme: they take pleasure in destruction and the infliction of pain.
Most people have both loving and hateful impulses; one of the greatest emotional challenges we face in life is
figuring out what to do when we occasionally feel them both toward the same person. This is especially true for small children who have less control over themselves than adults (usually, anyway!). Children can easily say “I hate you!” to their parents, and their fantasy life is often filled with violent destruction when they are angry. (Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are wonderfully illustrates this process.) For us grownups as much as for small children, it’s an emotional challenge to make sure your feelings of hatred don’t do damage to someone you care about in the heat of the moment.
The earliest strategy for dealing with this kind of ambivalence is splitting, of course — keeping the good feelings separate from the bad ones, often by sheltering the loved one from hatred and anger while directing the hostility elsewhere, at somebody else. This is what fairy tales, in part, help us to do. They give us good characters we can love and bad ones we can hate. By imagining ourselves into a fantasy world, we can take comfort in these clear divisions; when evil is destroyed, we can feel that love has triumphed over destructiveness. In the coda to Book 7 of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling tells us that Voldemort has been forever vanquished and that love, in the form of happily married life with children, reigns triumphant.
Real life doesn’t work that way.
More about Harry Potter and the problem of ambivalence in Part II.