For Harry and his friends starting school at Hogwarts, magic comes with a certain degree of power: the ability to make a feather levitate, to turn a match into a needle, to fly on a broomstick. But Rowling also hints at what happens when adult wizards grow greedy for power and the dangerous ramifications of that desire. Thus, not only does Rowling associate greed and the desire for power with evil, but she also argues that even more innocent desires can be harmful, because they can lead to a destructive kind of greediness.
Voldemort is the prime example of how power and greed are dangerous, as the desire for power leads him to becoming the most evil wizard in history. In one of the book’s early chapters, Hagrid explains Voldemort’s backstory to Harry: decades earlier, Voldemort had wanted power and thus turned “as bad as you could go.” Those who stood up to him were killed—including Harry’s parents, Lily and James. Thus, the desire for power is immediately associated with evil. Voldemort is so powerful that wizards don’t even want to say his name, instead calling him “You-Know-Who” or “He-Who-Must-Not Be-Named,” demonstrating how power can breed fear. This fear, in turn, allows Voldemort to gain more power, as he enlists followers simply because people are afraid of him, or are enticed by the power that he has and want some of their own. Voldemort, having been inexplicably unable to kill Harry as a baby, disappears for eleven years, but he returns when Harry begins school at Hogwarts. He takes over the body of a professor, Quirrell, and tries to steal the Sorcerer’s Stone in order to revive himself and eventually return to power. Quirrell himself also reinforces this association of power with evil. He tells Harry, “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.” Yet, because this statement is being spoken by a character who has been overtaken by an evil wizard, Rowling implies that this kind of philosophy only serves those who are evil.
While Voldemort is easily associated with greed and the desire for power, other characters also toy with the same feelings. Rowling shows how seemingly benign desires can bleed into greed, ultimately arguing that deep desires can be dangerous and ultimately lead to bad choices. Harry himself is tempted by intense desires; one day while roaming in the castle at Hogwarts, he finds the Mirror of Erised (“desire” spelled backwards). The Mirror’s reflection shows Harry with his parents next to him, and he is filled with an intense longing for them. He returns to the Mirror again and again, trying to see more of his late parents, until Dumbledore discovers him in front of the Mirror. Dumbledore tells Harry that the Mirror shows one’s innermost desires—which is why Harry sees his parents, since he’s never truly known them—but he also cautions Harry that many wizards have wasted their lives or have gone insane because of what they see in the Mirror of Erised. Through Dumbledore’s advice, Rowling demonstrates that desire and greed—even if the greed stems from a perfectly innocent and understandable place—can be dangerous, and must be approached with caution. Harry’s cousin Dudley is another embodiment of greed. Dudley receives more presents from his parents each year, eats as much as he wants, and gets anything he asks for. Vernon and Petunia spoil Dudley with both material goods and attention as a way of loving him. They don’t intend to turn him into a repulsive person, but nonetheless their actions instill that greed in him. Even though he is not nearly as bad as Voldemort, Rowling thus reinforces the association she has created between greed and bad character.
If love is the driving good force in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, then power, greed, and desire serve as the primary forces of evil. Though characters are not always so black and white—even predominantly “good” characters can be tempted by these ideas—they are ultimately defined by their abilities to overcome dangerous desires and greediness.
Power, Greed, and Desire ThemeTracker
Power, Greed, and Desire Quotes in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
“See, there was this wizard who went…bad. As bad as you could go. Worse. Worse than worse. […] This wizard, about twenty years ago now, started lookin’ fer followers. Got ’em, too — some were afraid, some just wanted a bit o’ his power, ’cause he was gettin’ himself power, all right. Dark days, Harry.”
“Not Slytherin, eh?” said the small voice. “Are you sure? You could be great, you know, it’s all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that — no? Well, if you’re sure — better be GRYFFINDOR!”
Harry heard the hat shout the last word to the whole hall. He took off the hat and walked shakily toward the Gryffindor table. He was so relieved to have been chosen and not put in Slytherin, he hardly noticed that he was getting the loudest cheer yet.
“It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. You, who have never known your family, see them standing around you. Ronald Weasley, who has always been overshadowed by his brothers, sees himself standing alone, the best of all of them. However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.”
“That’s chess!” snapped Ron. “You’ve got to make some sacrifices! I’ll make my move and she’ll take me — that leaves you free to checkmate the king, Harry!”
“Do you want to stop Snape or not?”
“Look, if you don't hurry up, he’ll already have the Stone!”
“Harry — you’re a great wizard, you know.”
“I’m not as good as you,” said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let go of him.
“Me!” said Hermione. “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things — friendship and bravery and — oh Harry — be careful!”
“A foolish young man I was then, full of ridiculous ideas about good and evil. Lord Voldemort showed me how wrong I was. There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”
“Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign… to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed, and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.”
“You see, only one who wanted to find the Stone — find it, but not use it — would be able to get it, otherwise they’d just see themselves making gold or drinking Elixir of Life.”