Acts of Sacrifice

by Dan H

Dan H on Harry Potter, Aslan, and John Sheridan
I still, technically, have a weblog, although I haven't updated it in over a year.

One of the things I wrote about when I still did update it was the movie version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardobe. In particular, I felt that it was interesting that in movie!Narnia the Salvation of Narnia was supposed to come from the Pevensies, whereas in book!Narnia and BBCAdaptation!Narnia it was very much supposed to come from Aslan.

I don't think it was conscious, but this subtle change pretty much destroyed the underlying moral message, and the underlying emotional impact of the book. Incidentally it also undermines the original Christian message, but religion isn't really what I'm interested in for the purposes of this article.

In the movie, Aslan sacrifices himself to save Edmund, and the strong implication is that he does so because otherwise the Prophecy would not be fulfilled, and the Four Kings and Queens would not be able to Save Narnia and the White Witch would win. In the movie, Aslan makes a sensible strategic decision. His life for the lives of everybody else in Narnia.

In the book, however, the exact opposite is true. It is Aslan, not the four children, who is the key to driving back the White Witch. When Aslan dies on the round table he is not only sacrificing himself, he is sacrificing Narnia itself, and he is doing it purely for the sake of one rather horrible little boy. Again I should briefly mention that this is rather central to the Christian message: Jesus was not one man dying for many, he was God dying for You.

As you probably remember, I've just come from an epic slog through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. One of the things that sat most awkwardly about that book was Harry's "sacrifice" at the end. Like movie!Aslan Harry makes a strictly Utilitarian decision: by his death he can weaken Lord Voldemort, and therefore achieve his goals (or, perhaps more precisely, the goals of that manipulative fucker Albus Dumbledore).

Perhaps I'm just selfish, but I genuinely don't see that as any kind of meaningful sacrifice. Both Aslan and Harry reach the decision that they can, by their deaths, further the goals they are working towards better than they can by remaining alive. It's just resource management. It certainly isn't heroism. It most definitely isn't Christ-like, despite Harry's miraculous resurrection and the revelation that his death broke the power of Lord Voldemort and redeemed Hogwarts.

There's an episode of Babylon Five, which I don't actually like very much (because it's very, very heavy handed) which actually highlights this point remarkably well. In the episode Comes the Inquisitor, the Vorlons send a man named Sebastian to B5, and Sebastian proceeds to torture the hell out of John Sheridan in an effort to get him to admit that he is unworthy of his destiny.

So Sheridan gets zapped, Delenn shows up, so the Inquisitor zaps both of them, and they do the traditional: "Wait! Don't kill my romantic interest! Kill me instead!" speech.

Here's where it gets interesting, where the distinction is drawn between the sacrifices of Movie!Aslan and Harry Potter, and the kind of sacrifice that actually has a meaning.
How do you know the chosen ones? No greater love hath a man than he lay down his life for his friend. Not for millions, not for glory, not for fame... for one person. In the dark. Where no one will ever know or see. I've been in the service of the Vorlons for centuries, looking for you. Diogynes with his lamp looking for a man willing to die for all the wrong reasons.

Now okay, it's a bit preachy, it's a bit JMS, and ultimately I'm in no way convinced that Sheridan actually displays the qualities which Sebastian attributes to him, but I think it recognises something which both the Narnia movie and the Potter books failed to recognise. It is easy for a fictional character to sacrifice themselves for an objectively defined Greater Good. Defeating Voldemort or the White Witch are obviously big important endeavours and they require that people make sacrifices. But it's precisely because those tasks are so vast that the decision to sacrifice oneself in their service is ultimately meaningless. If your destiny (sorry, "Destiny") is to die, then dying is really your only option, whether you go to your doom with your head held high or blubbing like a little girl is ultimately meaningless. In the Potterverse the vaunted Gryffindor courage is little more than a good old British stiff upper lip: putting a brave face on it while you do whatever it is you were intending to do anyway.

I should probably take a step back here and say that I'm very much talking about fictional characters here. Real people have survival instincts, they have millennia of evolution telling them to save their own skins. In the real world, a soldier going into battle, a policeman tackling an armed criminal, or an aid worker working in a warzone are all showing tremendous courage, even heroism, just by going about their daily lives. A fictional hero, though, has to be more than that. A hero must, by definition, not just be doing his job. A hero who is also a solider must do things which the ordinary soldier is not called upon to do, and ordinary soldiers are regularly called upon to lay down their lives for a cause.

The test which Sebastian places before Sheridan is a simple one, but one which cuts to the heart of what "sacrifice" really means. He does not ask "what will you sacrifice for your destiny" he asks "what won't you sacrifice for your destiny" or to put it another way "what will you give up your destiny to protect."

I think it's actually a very important question for any "hero" to ask. A hero is generally working towards some higher goal, and they will often make tremendous sacrifices in pursuit of that goal. The greatest sacrifice a hero can make, therefore, is not their life, but the very goal towards which they have struggled for so long. When your entire live has been devoted to something, dying for it is a small step, giving it up is what takes real moral courage.

The death of a fictional character is meaningful only insofar as it affects the narrative afterwards. When a fictional character sacrifices their life, the sacrifice only has meaning if it does not directly further their wider goals. Otherwise it's just a play, a strategic manoeuvre. Being dead but getting your way is infinitely preferable for a fictional character than being alive and losing.

When Lily Potter sacrifices herself to protect baby Harry, that's heroic. But her sacrifice is meaningful precisely because it is futile. From the Utilitarian mindset which governs Harry's later sacrifice, or the sacrifice of movie!Aslan, it's a completely stupid thing to do. As far as Lily is concerned, Harry is going to die no matter what she does, so really she should have just cut her losses and saved herself. Her sacrifice had power because she wasn't trying to achieve anything by it, she was just making a moral stand: no matter what, she wasn't going to stand aside and let her son be murdered.

In fact, one might almost say that the sacrifice of a fictional hero (as opposed to a real person doing a difficult and thankless job) is powerful only if it is ultimately futile. Its meaning resides in its very meaninglessness. It has to have a purity of intent, a simple moral decision that this line cannot be crossed, that this injustice cannot be borne, and all the "greater good" can go hang. The sequence in Pan's Labyrinth, in which the doctor administers a fatal injection to a captured solider who would otherwise be tortured is a fine example of this. This single act of mercy costs him his life, and it costs the rebels their doctor, but achieves nothing except the end of one man's suffering.

So for me, the most resounding moment of heroism in Harry Potter is not when he goes off to let Voldemort kill him, thereby destroying the chunk of Plot which resides in Harry's very soul. Rather, Harry's one moment of redemption in my eyes was when he flew into the burning Room of Requirement to rescue Draco Malfoy. Here he risks not only his life but his entire Destiny in order to save his worst enemy.

Unfortunately, Harry's principles are not always so unwavering. He happily uses Unforgivable Curses at little or no provocation, whenever it becomes convenient to his Quest, and it is his devotion to the Quest we are expected to admire, not his loyalty to any actual people (which is, let's face it, negligible).

I don't mean to single Potter out here. I think there's a general tendency in modern fiction to praise those who put the "big picture" ahead of the troubles of individual people. It seems to be seen, nowadays, as worthier to be concerned with large scale issues like destroying the Dark Lord than with small scale issues, like how many lives you wreck along the way.

Were I in the mood to make a trite political point, I might be inclined to draw parallels between this modern brand of heroism, and the attitude of a number of modern governments to problems like - say - international terrorism. So long as you take down the Dark Lord it doesn't matter what methods you use to get to him.

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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 10:38 on 2007-08-14
Hmmm...interesting, very interesting. *strokes goatee* Actually, it occurs to me that Harry's Big Deal is that he supposedly understands LOVE unlike Lord V. And that his sacrifice is, you know, this amazing, jesus-like act of LOVE. But surely the point of love is that it's personal and small-scale. I mean, it's LOVE that inspires the Malfoys to say "fuck this war and everything else, we're saving our son." If I had a son and he was walking off to lay down his life before a nose-less super-villain (and by, super, in this context I mean inept) I'd probably be all "Son, son, run away to Australia, you can live with Hermione's parents, go, go now." I wouldn't be saying "Hey, kid, death is fun. You're being really brave." LOVE is another one of those weird double-thinks, it's the ultimate selfish emotion that, nevertheless, inspires selfless acts. Thus Lily Potter dying for her son. Not Lily Potter grinning happily that the son she *gave her life to protect* is about to *fling his own away*.

Similarly, you'd think LOVE would not gather around Harry
Wardog at 11:01 on 2007-08-14
Also I have to wonder if the 7th book was trying to ship RAB/Kreacher, just because it occurs to me that drinking the Killing Juice himself was an insanely noble sacrifice, especially when Kreacher survived it and, in fact, had suffcieint dodgy plot-hole house elf magic to be able to get them both out of the cave again. Also to lay down your life for an attempt to kill your house elf strikes me as ... well ... is that LOVE do you think?
Arthur B at 12:28 on 2007-08-14
I think the general rule with Harry Potter books is that "if the fans think they can discern a relationship between characters which is not specifically stated in the text to be a relationship, they are Wrong because they are trying to corrupt the Holy Writ of Rowling".
Wardog at 16:52 on 2007-08-14
I don't know, I think there's definitely something going on between RAB and Kreacher... Greater love hath no man than he who is willing to lay down his life for house elf... Oh, sorry, we're talking about Rowling here so that should be LOVE.
Jen Spencer at 14:46 on 2007-08-15
My current favourite source of heroism: David Sumner in Straw Dogs. He is willing to fight the pack of maniac locals to the death because he will not stand by and let them lynch a slightly retarded murderer, and he certainly will not let them violate the sanctity of his home (again) to do it. You go dude!
Wardog at 10:36 on 2007-08-16
I haven't seen Straw Dogs, I'm afraid it's another one of those movies that would upset me. I gotta comfort zone and I'm sticking in it, dammit.
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