People have stressed this often: the Harry Potter series is all about the power of love and choice. Often, it is about how love dictates choice. The greatest example of that is probably Severus Snape who, we’re led to believe, changed sides from ‘evil’ to ‘good’ because of his love for Lily Evans Potter. You choose who you become, you choose your fight (the difference between being ‘dragged into the arena and walking in with his head held high’ that Harry reflects on), unless, of course, you are Lord Voldemort.
There’s all sorts of examples of all sorts of love in the Potter books, and all of them are of varying degrees of intensity. Familial love, as most well-evidenced by the Weasleys and (I insist) the Malfoys; romantic love in the form of Ginny and Harry and Remus and Tonks and umpteen other couples; platonic, ‘friendly’ love exemplified by the Golden Trio and a more abstract, universal agape that is the province of Harry in his final stand against Voldemort. I would love to dissect all these examples, but in this post, I’m going to focus on what, to me, seems the most intense, powerful and selfless form of love in the books: the love of Sirius for Harry.
I know this is a bit of an unconventional choice, given that Lily’s ‘sacrifice’ is usually touted as the be-all and end-all of selfless love. While I certainly admire Lily for her willingness to die for her son (with no idea that he would live because of it), I think that she really, honestly, didn’t have a choice. I don’t think Lily ever believed that Voldemort would let her live, despite his commands for her to ‘stand aside’. She had no reason to think that he would show her mercy, given that she has ‘thrice defied’ him and is one of the core members of the Order of the Phoenix. She would have been silly to trust to his words. And even if she had listened and stood aside, she would probably have been unable to live with herself.
Besides, Lily’s is not the only example of a mother’s sacrificial love for her children. In Deathly Hallows, Voldemort kills a family when he is hunting Gregorovitch. We are told the woman ‘spreads her arms’ as though to ‘protect’ the children behind her. Technically, she also dies in the hopes that they may live; perhaps she was expecting them to escape in the fleeting moment of her death. In a manner, she also dies for them, protecting them. Yet, this ‘sacrifice’ accomplishes nothing.
Anyway, we’re quibbling here.
Why do I call Sirius’s love for Harry the most intense and powerful in the series? Let’s consider what we know:
1) Sirius was in Azkaban for 12 years. Not only was he thrown in here unjustly, refused a trial, but he was also a ‘high security’ prisoner which, I’m assuming, meant that he had more dementors around his cell than most other people in that hellhole.
2) From what we’ve read of the dementors’ effects on a person, being near one is an awful lot like suffering clinical depression. You are constantly forced to live out the worst experiences of your life, again and again and again, it seems impossible to find the will to live or change what you are hearing, and the only way to combat it is to force yourself to be cheerful. And eat chocolate, which is a known anti-depressant. Sirius, like his fellow prisoners, could be said to have suffered major depressive disorder for nearly twelve years. That is a long, long time.
3) Sirius kept himself from ‘going mad’–I would assume that means losing touch with reality and ‘retreating into [himself]’ the way many other prisoners do—by holding on to a thought that was ‘not happy’, the knowledge that he was innocent. While this no doubt held as an anchor against the dementors (‘they couldn’t take it away’), it would still not have ensured a healthy mind. Rather than becoming depressive, Sirius became dangerously obsessive, using his hatred of Peter as an anchor on which to rest his sanity. The fact that he muttered ‘He’s at Hogwarts. He’s at Hogwarts’ even in his sleep shows the extent to which he had shored his mental balance upon the idea of revenge.
4) Sirius conceivably escaped from Azkaban because of this obsession; it gave him the strength to transform and the will to live in a place where nothing else could. His mission is not so much to rejoin the world and become a citizen of it as it is to find and kill Peter for what he did to the Potters. That is why he heads to Hogwarts and breaks into the castle.
5) In spite of this overriding obsession, in spite of the fact that he stayed mentally grounded in hellish circumstances by basing his entire existence on this one desire, Sirius gives it all up when Harry asks him to.
I want you to consider the magnitude of that sacrifice. For Sirius (and Lupin, to a lesser extent), Peter is the reason their lives fell apart so spectacularly. Twelve whole years of Sirius’s life were defined by what Peter had done, and those twelve years were also, perhaps, made a trifle more bearable by the knowledge of it. And yet, when his godson asks him to give it up, to let him go because his ‘dad wouldn’t have wanted his best friends to become killers’, Sirius lowers his wand.
Honestly, I don’t think I would have had the presence of mind to do that.
Now, let’s consider other instances of Sirius’s regard for his godson. On the first indication that he might be in trouble, Sirius risks life, limb and soul to come back to England (from wherever in the tropical world he is) to watch out for him. He subsists on rats in Hogsmeade in order to be close to him, unarmed with anything except his Animagus ability. His devotion prompts a response from the usually emotionally-obtuse Ron: ‘He must really love you, Harry. Imagine having to live off rats.’
Sirius pretty much replaces his obsession with revenge with a deep and unconditional love for Harry. His regard for Harry is not really surprising, given his reported love for James and Sirius’s own supremely loyal nature. I think the only point at which Sirius really comes close to breaking is when he is cooped up in Number 12, Grimmauld Place. The house does to him what twelve years in Azkaban did not manage to: drive him slowly but surely around the bend. He resorts to alcoholism, littering his table with Firewhiskey bottles and carrying around a ‘distinctly Mundungus-like whiff’ of spirits.
Even then, his first thought is for Harry. When Harry needs him, Sirius rushes out of the house and barrels into the Ministry, regardless of his personal safety. You could say that this is because of his ‘reckless’ nature, his need to be doing something for the Order. But even if it is, to a certain extent, informed by this need to be in action, Sirius’s rushing out of the house and to Harry’s side is consistent with previous actions. When Harry is in trouble, he will do anything to make sure he gets out of it. Therefore, it’s unfair to pin the onus of that particular action totally on his need to expend energy.
In fact, I believe that Harry’s later insistence on it being Snape’s fault that Sirius risked himself is a form of self-defense, a walling off of the fact that it was really, ultimately, for Harry’s sake. This defense mechanism is, again, consistent with Harry’s refusal to let other people die ‘for’ him in Deathly Hallows. He knows it’s what happened with Sirius, and the pain of that knowledge ensures that he will do his best not to let it happen again, going (literally) to suicidal lengths to make certain of this.
We know that Sirius’s love for Harry is reciprocated. Even Voldemort knows that ‘the one person’ Harry would literally do anything to save is his godfather. This is what he picks up from Kreacher, from the Malfoys. Sirius is the ‘closest thing’ to a parent that Harry has: he’s the first person Harry thinks to write to when in trouble, he turns to him for reassurance and support in times of moral dilemma (such as when he witnessed Snape’s worst memory), he trusts him within a few hours of meeting him. After his death, Harry is unable to really talk about his passing with anyone, the closest he comes to it being a brief conversation with Luna Lovegood. We know however, from vague references in Half Blood Prince, that Harry is nowhere near close to healed; every time Sirius is brought up in conversation, Harry closes the subject off and casts about for something else. If not, his friends do it for him.
Why I call Sirius’s love selfless is for the reason I’ve underlined again and again in this post: many of the actions he performs for Harry give him absolutely no advantage, nothing in return. He gives up a quest for revenge (which, as I have pointed out, is no ordinary quest, as far as such things can be ordinary), centres his life around a boy he’s met only a couple of times and then dies for said boy, all to ensure that he remain protected, safe and, most importantly, happy. That last is, really, the only reason I can see Sirius letting Peter live in that one pivotal moment in Azkaban. It would make Harry happy.
There’s a point in the movie-sequence of Lily’s death where she’s standing before the cradle that holds Harry and whispering to him:
You are so loved, Harry. So loved.
I think Sirius, more than anyone, highlights the truth of those words.