I was never able to get into Harry Potter. When J.K. Rowling’s first book was released on September 1, 1998, I was a die-hard Game of Thrones fan, eagerly awaiting A Clash of Kings, the sequel to G.R.R. Martin’s bestselling book.
I had little time or interest in Hogwarts, the ridiculously named school (let’s be honest) where children with British accents are taught wizardry and witchcraft. Even when the movies came out, I had little interest and only made it halfway through the second film, Harry Potter and the Chamber Secrets.
Years later, things have changed. My children are suddenly into Harry Potter. My daughter, 10, is reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and as a family we’ve been blazing through the films.
I can’t say I love the movies, but they are enjoyable to watch with children, and parts of Rowling’s epic fantasy story are endearing, wise, and instructive. Some of the characters also are wonderful, especially Dumbledore, the grandfatherly Gandalf-like wizard filled with knowledge and humble wisdom.
However, when my children asked me who my favorite character was, I answered without hesitation: Dolores Umbridge.
The Best Villain ‘Since Hannibal Lecter’?
Umbridge, portrayed in the films by English actress Imelda Staunton, isn’t some apparition of the underworld or a creature of the Dark Forest. She’s the Senior Undersecretary to the Minister of Magic, the man who runs the government (the Ministry of Magic) in Rowling’s fictional world.
Umbridge wears pink, preaches about “decorum” in a saccharine voice, smiles constantly, and resembles a sweet but stern grandmother. Her intense, unblinking eyes, however, suggest something malevolent lurks beneath. And boy, does it.
“The gently smiling Dolores Umbridge, with her girlish voice, toadlike face, and clutching, stubby fingers, is the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter,” horror author Stephen King wrote in a review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the book in which Umbridge is introduced.
Umbridge’s ‘Desire to Control, to Punish’
What makes Umbridge so evil that King would compare her to Hannibal Lecter, the man widely considered the greatest villain of all time?
I asked myself this question, and I believe the answer lies in the fact that Dolores Umbridge is so real—and in more ways than one.
First, it’s noteworthy that Rowling based Umbridge on an actual person from her past, a teacher she once had “whom I disliked intensely on sight.”
In a blog post written years ago, Rowling explained that her dislike of the woman was almost irrational (and apparently mutual). Though the woman had a “pronounced taste for twee accessories”—including “a tiny little plastic bow slide” and a fondness for “pale lemon” colors which Rowling said was more “appropriate to a girl of three”—Rowling said “a lack of real warmth or charity” lurked below her sugary exterior.
The description reminded me of another detestable literary villain: Nurse Ratched, the despicable antagonist of Randle Murphy in Ken Kesey’s magnificent 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Kesey’s description of Nurse Ratched conjures to mind a character much like Umbridge.
“Her face is smooth, calculated, and precision-made, like an expensive baby doll, skin like flesh-colored enamel, blend of white and cream and baby-blue eyes, small nose, pink little nostrils—everything working together except the color on her lips and fingernails….”
While there are similarities in the appearances of Dolores Umbridge and Nurse Ratched, their true commonality is what’s underneath their saccharine exteriors.
In Order of the Phoenix, we learn Umbridge is a power-hungry tyrant who will destroy anyone who challenges her authority or even disappoints her. She has Professor Sybill Trelawney (Emma Thompson) fired on the pretense that she couldn’t prophecy on the spot.
"No! NO! This cannot be happening... it cannot,” Trelawney sputters. “You c - can't! You c - can't sack me! I've b - been here sixteen years! H - Hogwarts is - my h - home.”
Umbridge is unmoved by the pleas of her colleague.
"It was your home, until an hour ago, when the Minister of Magic countersigned your Order of Dismissal,” she responds. “Now kindly remove yourself from this Hall. You are embarrassing us."
Professor Dumbledore intervenes on behalf of Trelawney, pointing out that Umbridge might have the power to fire her, but not to expel her from the grounds.
“That power remains with the headmaster,” Dumbledore points out, as Trelawney is escorted back inside.
Umbridge only smiles back at Dumbledore. “For now,” she says unblinking.
She’s not wrong. Dumbledore himself is soon forced to flee, and Harry and his friends have to teach themselves magic in secret, away from the eyes of Umbridge and her cronies, who have abolished magical training.
Rowling explained the psychology of the monster she created, whom she compared to Voldemort, “the Dark Lord” and Harry Potter’s primary antagonist.
“[Umbridge’s] desire to control, to punish and to inflict pain, all in the name of law and order, are, I think, every bit as reprehensible as Lord Voldemort’s unvarnished espousal of evil,” Rowling wrote.
The author is not wrong; in fact, I’d argue that Umbridge’s evil is worse precisely because of its varnish (so to speak). This is what makes Umbridge’s evil more sinister than Voldemort’s; it is far more real, much like that which Kesey depicts through Nurse Ratched, who torments and dominates the patients in her care (and eventually sees one lobotomized).
Bromden, the narrator of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, describes Nurse Ratched as essentially drunk on power, afflicted with an insatiable desire to control. For this reason, Ratched is seen as representing “authority, conformity, bureaucracy, repression, evil, and death.”
The Greater Good?
My kids didn’t like it when I said Dolores Umbridge was my favorite Harry Potter character, but I wasn’t joking.
Sure, the character I like the best is Dumbledore. (This was especially true when the character was played by the Irish actor Richard Harris, who portrayed Dumbledore in the first two films before his death in 2002.) But Umbridge is the best character, the one who can teach us the most.
In a sense, Umbridge is the unbridled power of the state personified. At one point in the film she has Harry strapped to a chair and is going to perform a forbidden spell on him to extract information.
Dolores Umbridge: Very well. You give me no choice, Potter. As this is an issue of Ministry Security, you leave me with no alternative. The Cruciatus Curse ought to loosen your tongue.
Hermione Granger : That's illegal!
Dolores Umbridge : [putting down a picture on her desk] What Cornelius doesn't know won't hurt him.
Later in the Dark Forest, Umbridge points her wand at Harry, Hermione, and Ron and is apparently ready to destroy them.
“For the greater good,” Umbridge says. “I want to do what must be done.”
The greater good.
These are three of the most dangerous words in history, and there’s a reason they are being spoken by the villain in Rowling’s story. These words are generally spoken as an admission that one is going to do something that is wrong, bad, or evil—but for a supposedly good reason.
The CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques”—a euphemism for torture—were done for “the greater good.” This seems to have made an impression on Rowling, who saw The Order of the Phoenix published in 2003, when these techniques were being used in the War on Terror, to much debate.
We’ve heard a great deal about the greater good in the last two years, three words that have been invoked to perpetuate some of history’s great evils.
"We have to start doing things for the greater good of society and not for idiots who think that they can do their own research,” CNN host Don Lemon recently said, “or that they are above the law and they can break the rules."
"We have to start doing things for the greater good of society and not for idiots who think that they can do their own research, or that they are above the law and they can break the rules." - Don Lemon pic.twitter.com/wLUOZklmsF— Caleb Howe (@CalebHowe) January 18, 2022
Lemon made these comments while praising Australia’s pandemic policies, which have turned the country into a virtual police state … all for the greater good of society.
Like Dolores Umbridge, Australian leaders (and Lemon) apparently see no problem in using force for the greater good, including using the military to enforce lockdowns and prohibit free assembly. They are a chilling reminder of what the Christian author CS Lewis once described as perhaps the most dangerous kind of oppression.
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive,” the Christian author once observed. “It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
The COVID authoritarians today are very much like Dolores Umbridge, who so loved bureaucracy, order, and authority that she created a “wall of rules” to enforce behavior. Like Umbridge, they are power-hungry, repressive, and petty—and very eager to trample others while pursuing “the greater good.”
But the truth is, freedom is the greater good. Villains like Dolores Umbridge can help us remember that.