Harry Potter and the Order of Archetypes: Draco Malfoy, the Anti-hero

In a weekly series, staff writer Katie Majka takes a look at some of our favorite witches and wizards, and how they fit into literary and social archetypes.

From Shakespeare’s Hamlet to the contemporary Lisbeth Salander to the very fabulous Deadpool and Captain Jack Sparrow alike, audiences dive into the stories of anti-heroes as fervently as they cheer on the indisputable good guy. Oftentimes we crave the anti-hero for the lack of heroic qualities that gives them their name—after all, none of us are flawless paragons of good, and the anti-hero often embodies qualities that we have, no matter how we’d rather not admit to it.

The anti-hero is often self-serving, prone to pettiness and dishonesty, and lacks the (sometimes blind) courage of the typical hero. But perhaps the most comprehensive way to describe the anti-hero is in TV Tropes’ definition: “The classical anti-hero’s story tends to be as much about overcoming his own weaknesses as about conquering the enemy.”

Enter Draco Malfoy.

While Draco is not the main character of the Harry Potter series, he is a central one, and as such his anti-hero status is just as credible as Harry’s hero one. Since Harry doesn’t turn out to be a powerful Dark wizard (as some of the Wizarding world suspects, due to his defeat of Voldemort), and the Malfoys continue to be Dark wizards and blood purists, his and Draco’s rivalry is an almost natural one.

Behind Draco’s animosity towards Harry is a heavily implied envy, as is demonstrated in Chamber of Secrets when he complains to his father that “[Harry]’s not even that good [at Quidditch], it’s just because he’s famous… famous for having a stupid scar on his forehead… Everyone thinks he’s so smart, wonderful Potter with his scar and his broomstick.” While Draco’s jealousy is not of Harry’s situation as an orphan left to suffer at the hand of his abusive family, much of it does stem from Harry’s fame and likability, not to mention the sting of rejection when Harry refused his handshake on their first train to Hogwarts. Draco Malfoy has grown up in a world where his name alone has power, and he doesn’t have to ask to get what he wants.

Draco wasn’t interested in Harry’s friendship when they first met at Madam Malkin’s, but only when he found out who Harry was and determined that, should Harry become a powerful Dark wizard, an alliance would suit the Malfoys. Personally I can’t blame him for this, as at the time Draco is an eleven-year-old boy who has grown up in a privileged world where the friends you make are all about connections (or so we can assume about old-fashioned pureblood society). While privileged mentalities and behaviors should be examined and dismantled, that’s too mature of a process for an eleven-year-old to have begun.

So it would seem, throughout the series, that Harry is Draco’s main and only adversary, but their rivalry eventually boils down to little more than a school-age one; when faced with the actual evil in their world, while Draco and Harry don’t join forces or become friends in any capacity, their enmity for each other is replaced by the drive to keep themselves and their loved ones alive until the war’s end.

There is a time in which Draco embodies the evil in their world—he is prejudiced (specifically classist), he spits out slurs as easily as he does any other word, he goes out of his way to antagonize anyone who doesn’t share his narrow-minded view of the world, and he lacks empathy for anyone outside of his immediate family. It is there that we find not only Draco’s, but every Malfoy’s saving grace: They love each other, and would do anything to protect each other from what would harm them, even when their greatest threat turns out to be their own choices.  

It’s Draco’s fear for his family that eliminates him as a true villain. He has little care for the well-being of the Wizarding world, and none at all for the “greater good” that Harry and his friends fight for, but Draco only wants to protect himself and his family. Once Lucius failed to obtain the prophecy and Voldemort consequently disgraced the Malfoys, there is little else that Draco can do but attempt to get his family out of the war alive. He accepts a mission Voldemort intends for him to fail in order to bring honor back to the Malfoy name, and to prove that he’s just as much a Death Eater as his aunt Bellatrix, but ultimately discovers that he simply can’t. He can’t kill someone in cold blood, he can’t accept the ideals he thought he already held, and he can’t be the person he had striven to be for so long.

As befits the persona of the anti-hero, Draco’s courage is nonexistent at worst and nontraditional at best, but his family is always at the forefront of his mind. He initially reached out to Harry in the hopes that it could restore the Malfoys’ respectability after the first war, and he shouldered responsibility for his father’s mistakes during the second. No, Draco didn’t have a choice in the matter, as Voldemort set him to the task of killing Dumbledore, but the only reason Draco kept trying while he cracked under the pressure was to save his family. Eventually he had to come to the realization that he couldn’t murder, and so that fate would befall him, either by Dumbledore’s or Voldemort’s hand; but perhaps if he tried, he would save his family from further punishment.

There always seems to be a pivotal moment in which a character sees the error of their ways, or they see themselves in a new light when another character calls them on their shortcomings. This tends to play a turning point for the character to change, but that’s not how it works in reality; while entertainment does mirror life in many ways, the sudden change of heart is more of a way to cut plot corners than anything else. But Draco’s change is a gradual one, a realistic struggle between what he knew and how wrong he was about it. It’s this attribute that truly defines the anti-hero, and it’s one we can all relate to.

Draco ultimately came to realize that his superior status was not enough to save him or his family

Whether we voluntarily engage in self-exploration or are forced, as Draco is, to take a closer look at ourselves and how our prejudices affect people, we find that we all have problematic mentalities to tackle. Draco ultimately came to realize that his superior status was not enough to save him or his family—what good were his prejudices when those who shared them were willing to throw his family to the dogs? There were no friends to be found in the midst of his hatred, only fear.

What sort of life would have been there for the Malfoys if Voldemort had won the war? Certainly not the powerful, well-respected existence that Draco had envisioned. Intolerance only breeds more intolerance, more misunderstanding, more hatred, and more fear, as Draco learned, and there was no true reward to be reaped. The Malfoys had been disgraced under Voldemort’s reign, and without any personal gain, Draco realized that they had just as much to fear from Voldemort as the non-magical community did.

 Draco’s emotional struggle stole Moaning Myrtle’s heart and has had fans swooning since Half-Blood Prince, but J.K. Rowling has attributed much of Draco’s romantic appeal to Tom Felton—and while Draco the character does have the “dark glamour” of the anti-hero, we all have to admit that Felton’s looks really sell it. Rowling went on to say that the fact of the matter remains that Draco himself “was not concealing a heart of gold under all that sneering and prejudice.”

Ah, well. We can’t turn the bad boys into good ones, but Draco manages to cover that ground well enough on his own. There is something to his internal struggle, and the fact that it breaks through to change Draco, as J.K. Rowling revealed on Pottermore that “The events of Draco’s late teens forever changed his life. He had had the beliefs with which he had grown up challenged in the most frightening way: he had experienced terror and despair, seen his parents suffer for their allegiance, and had witnessed the crumbling of all that his family had believed in. People whom Draco had been raised, or else had learned, to hate, such as Dumbledore, had offered him help and kindness, and Harry Potter had given him his life. After the events of the second wizarding war, Lucius found his son as affectionate as ever, but refusing to follow the same old pure-blood line.”

So, yes, Draco is largely motivated by selfishness—his desire to prove himself, to restore his family to power, and to live through the war, without any regard to the world in which he lives. While, as Rowling stated above, Draco went on to adopt a more tolerant lifestyle, his focus during the war is to protect himself and his family.

Draco Malfoy isn’t a hero, and he was never going to save the world. But through his struggle, he was able to show us all that sometimes all you can do is save yourself, and that’s just as important.

Be sure to check out our other Harry Potter and the Order of Archetypes installments