Harry Potter and the Order of Archetypes: Peter Pettigrew, the Shapeshifter
We look at some of our favorite witches and wizards in Harry Potter, and how they fit into literary and social archetypes. This week: Peter Pettigrew
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By definition, the shapeshifter is impossible to pin down in their motivations or even their true character in its entirety, as its very nature is to add another layer of uncertainty and subsequent tension to the story. Often, the shapeshifter may embody other archetypes as well, flitting from one to the other: mentor to villain, trickster to herald, and back and forth until the hero’s journey is complete. On a more existential level, the shapeshifter can be a representation of the protagonist’s desire for change within themselves, or at least this archetype offers the hero a new perspective on himself and his relationships with others, and how they work within his own destiny.
Whatever mask the shapeshifter chooses to don is meant to misdirect the hero, who is left to decipher this character’s misleading intentions and loyalties, all the while choosing whether to trust in them or not. Ultimately, though, the shapeshifter’s function is to confuse, to distract, to help or hinder the hero’s journey however they wish.
In the end, the shapeshifter is neither truly friend nor foe; they live to serve themselves, and are always on their own side without regard to the bigger picture of good-versus-evil.
Such is the case with Peter Pettigrew, who was by all accounts a talentless wizard who got by on the coattails of those more skilled than he. Yet he managed to fool everyone in his betrayal. Lily, James, Sirius, Remus, and even Dumbledore believed Peter to be an innocent incapable of temptation to the Dark Arts, because that’s the persona he chose to present. Whether that was ever his true self, we the audience may never know, but still Peter succeeds in the shapeshifter’s modus operandi: He fools the hero (who, in this case, would be his fellow Marauders) into believing what he needed them to believe, so that he might live through the war, no matter on whose side he ended up.
When it is revealed that Scabbers is actually Pettigrew in Prisoner of Azkaban, Peter’s character is plainly seen by Harry and the rest. But the man in question remains something of a mystery to the reader. We may be able to decide based on the text that Peter is a villain, a traitor, or at the very least reprehensible in his cowardice, he never claims to have done “the right thing” in his betrayal of the Potters and his allegiance to Voldemort, but the necessary thing to ensure his own well-being:
“Sirius, Sirius, what could I have done? The Dark Lord… you have no idea… he has weapons you can’t imagine… I was scared, Sirius, I was never brave like you and Remus and James. I never meant it to happen… He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named forced me… He—he was taking over everywhere! Wh—what was there to be gained by refusing him?”
This does nothing to diminish Peter’s betrayal of his friends, but the reader is left with questions to which Harry never receives answers: Does Peter share those pureblood supremacist ideologies so vehemently voiced by the Death Eaters? Does he at least sympathize with Voldemort’s cause? Or—as is suggested by the text—did Peter simply run to cower behind the man who seemed the sure victor in the First Wizarding War?
There is, however, evidence to suggest that there is intentional evil in Peter. For all his talk of being forced into Voldemort’s ranks, Peter quite easily framed Sirius for Lily and James’ murders, as well as those of the dozen Muggles who had gathered to watch Sirius and Peter’s confrontation some twelve years prior to the events of POA. So while Peter is easily influenced by his own fear and the power of others to manipulate that to meet their own ends, he remains his own first priority, which gave him the motivation necessary to do whatever it took to get him through any and all conflict alive.
This urge to survive by any means necessary meant that someone as incompetent as Peter Pettigrew would need to pledge loyalty to whoever seemed the most powerful. During his Hogwarts days, those people were his friends, but the likes of James Potter, Sirius Black, and Remus Lupin would be replaced by Voldemort in the not-so-distant future. But Voldemort is able to see through Peter where his friends could not, as demonstrated in Goblet of Fire when Voldemort says, “Your devotion is nothing more than cowardice. You would not be here if you had anywhere else to go.”
Indeed, once Peter’s true colors were revealed at long last in POA, he could no longer hide behind any mask he chose—there were no masks to be had in the face of such a skilled Legilimens as Voldemort. And so to preserve his livelihood as a servant of Voldemort’s, Peter scrambled to do whatever he could to please his master: He handed over Lily and James, sought out what was left of Voldemort years later, kidnapped and tortured Bertha Jorkins for information, killed Cedric Diggory on his order, and even gave up his own right hand to the potion that would fully resurrect Voldemort in GOF.
Still, despite this apparent loyalty to Voldemort, Peter only did what was in his own best interests. He only went looking for Voldemort after POA because he had nowhere else to turn while his former friends were after him for vengeance, and seemingly only followed Voldemort’s orders in his continued efforts to save his own skin. Peter may have aligned himself with the Dark Arts, but it’s unclear as to whether or not he had the same political agenda; he only wanted to live, no matter the state of the world he would live in once the wars were done.
In fact, Peter dies due to his own hesitation. When, in Deathly Hallows, Harry reminds him of the life debt he owes since Harry stopped Sirius and Remus from killing him years earlier, Peter is not unmerciful or ungrateful enough to go on killing Harry without a qualm. No, Peter hesitates, and as such the magical hand Voldemort endowed upon him senses this weakness and turns against him; Peter dies teetering on the edge between evilness and redemption, presumably without knowing which way he would have fallen.
At the end of the series and Peter’s life, we never get a definitive measure of his true self. Although characters like Harry and Voldemort can have their gray areas, one ultimately represents good and the other evil; Harry has just enough middle ground to make him real and relatable, but there’s no real wriggle room for Voldemort’s arc to turn redemptive. Peter, meanwhile, has a foggy sort of morality that is never truly resolved. We never learn the real why behind his actions: Was he simply predestined to be a traitor? Was there some sort of catalyst that tipped his scale between good and evil? Was it his fear that motivated him, more than any love he had for his friends? Did he have love for them at all, or was it eaten away in the midst of war and his own survival instinct?
We can’t say for sure, and maybe Peter never knew himself; perhaps, in the end, his will to live was all that was left of him, no matter what may have been there before. The lies he spun to keep himself alive and the masks he wore to deceive those around him ultimately left him without any real personhood. Peter Pettigrew never fought for anything or anyone but himself; his selfish desire to keep himself alive, regardless of those he would leave dead in his wake, rendered him a shell of a man who died at his own hand, without ever knowing what he could have become if he’d only wanted to be something more than just alive.
Be sure to check out our other Harry Potter and the Order of Archetypes installments.