Hitting Rock Bottom: Human Sacrifice in the Dresden Files

Hitting Rock Bottom: Human Sacrifice in the Dresden Files

Spoiler Warning! Usual disclaimer: I am going to hit some pretty big series spoilers in this one. If you haven’t read Changes and Ghost Story and Cold Days (and possibly Skin Game) and if will be bothered at the revelation of the major plot points, then do not read this post. You have been warned.


“In other words, we have to begin a new life, and we cannot do so until our previous life has been brought to an end. When runners reach the turning point on a racecourse, they have to pause briefly before they can go back in the opposite direction. So also when we wish to reverse the direction of our lives there must be a pause, or a death, to mark the end of one life and the beginning of another.”

—Saint Basil from his work On the Holy Spirit, in the Office of Readings for Tuesday in Holy Week.


People who have gone through a 12 step program use the phrase “hitting rock bottom” to mean the moment of realization when someone finally admits how bad their life has gotten over time because of their addiction, and that they really need to get help or make a change. In Changes, you could safely say, Harry Dresden hits rock bottom when he commits murder, in the form of a ritual sacrifice, not once but twice. At this point he’s truly made the greatest mistake of his life. He has taken two human lives unjustly and done so for utilitarian reasons. Moreover, he knows it. Also, he thrust his apprentice, Molly, unprepared into a major battle which may have permanently damaged her psyche and put her in charge of a dangerous secret which also caused her great psychic distress. 

Harry knows without a doubt that what he does is wrong, but he convinces himself that the end justifies the means. He tells himself that saving the life of his innocent daughter, Maggie, justifies killing Slate. He doesn’t kill Slate because he is a murderer, and deserves to be punished, but, rather, to get the power of the Winter Knight so that he can rescue Maggie from the vampires of the Red Court who would sacrifice her life in order to destroy Harry. 

Next, Harry tells himself that killing Susan, Maggie’s mother, who has finally become a vampire, is also justified as the only way to rescue Maggie but also because with one blow he can destroy the entire Red Court, all at the price of one innocent human life. It is better, Harry reasons, echoing Caiaphas, the high priest of the Sanhedrin: “nor do you consider that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish.” (John 11:50) He eases his conscience with the knowledge that Susan agrees with his poor moral reasoning. While this choice is made in the heat of battle, under extreme pressure, and Harry is therefore possibly less culpable, he’s still responsible for the whole string of actions and poor choices that led him to the moment when that seemed to him to be the only possible action he could take.

But what’s done is done. At this point Harry can either continue down the path that he has set his foot upon, reckoning human life as a tool to be sacrificed whenever it is expedient, or he can begin a new life and go back in the opposite direction. Yet, having once crossed the line, having taken a human life, how can Harry be sure he won’t make the same poor choices all over again? How does he close that door now that it’s been opened? In order for that new life to happen, to turn away from the path of expedient murder, Harry has to die. And thus the most hopeful turn the series could take is precisely the one it does take in Ghost Story: Harry dies and thus Harry has a much-needed shift in perspective. He’s forced to step back, to stop acting rashly. He has time when he cannot do anything but sit and think about what he has done. And he’s forced to confront how powerless he is to undo all the terrible unintended consequences that his friends and his beloved city suffer as the result of his rash actions and selfish choices.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I wanted to look more closely at the two scenes when Harry knowingly and deliberately commits murder.

The Murder of Lloyd Slate

I stood in the cold wind, not moving.

What I did with the next moments would determine the course of the rest of my life.

“You know this man,” Mab continued, her voice still gentle. “You saw his victims. He was a murderer. A rapist. A thief. A monster in mortal flesh. He has more than earned his death.”

“That isn’t for me to judge,” I whispered quietly. Indeed not. I was tempted to hide behind that rationale, just for a moment— just until it was done. Lie to myself, tell myself that I was his lawful, rightful executioner.

But I wasn’t.

I could have told myself that I was ending his pain. That I was putting him out of his misery in an act of compassion. Necessarily an act of bloodshed, but it would be quick and clean. Nothing should suffer as much as Lloyd Slate had. I could have sold myself that story.

But I didn’t.

I was a man seeking power. For good reasons, maybe. But I wasn’t going to lie to myself or anyone else about my actions. If I killed him, I would be taking a life, something that was not mine to take. I would be committing deliberate, calculated murder.

It was the least evil path, I told myself. Whatever else I might have done would have turned me into a monster in truth. . . .

The least evil path. Harry’s other, more evil paths are truly demonic: “I could still call Lasciel’s coin to me in a heartbeat— and Nicodemus and the Denarians would be more than happy to help me. I am also one of the only people alive who knows how to pull off Kemmler’s Darkhallow. So if Nicky and the Nickelheads don’t want to play, I can damned well get the power for myself— and the next time I call your name, I won’t need to be nearly so polite,” he tells Mab.

But of course the major flaw here is not in Harry’s choice of the least evil of three evil paths, but in his limiting himself to only one path, and that an evil one: that of getting power and rescuing Maggie. He could choose to accept that he is powerless. He could turn to God in prayer and ask for a miracle. He could rely on his friends, trust in their help, call on Michael. He never thinks of trying to find another way. He must be in control, no matter what the cost. He cannot accept that sometimes evil things happen and there is nothing that good men can do to stop them.

But Harry doesn’t believe that God could possibly care for him. And he thinks that he needs to save the world— on his own. Under his own power. And that is his tragic flaw: his pride. Hubris.

He knows that what he is doing is wrong. He rejects the possible justifications he could use to lie to himself. “I would be taking a life, something that was not mine to take.” And yet he doesn’t know it deeply enough. He doesn’t shrink away from the horror. And that is because he’s become used to treating people as tools to get what he wants. It’s a deep habit of his. While he does try to do the right thing, he still doesn’t really know how not to use people; it’s what Justin DuMorne taught him. Because of his past wounds and deficient teacher Harry doesn’t know how to trust or to love. He has learned to rely only on his own strength, to only ask for help as the last, desperate, resort and to then use his friends (and family and other beings) as a means to an end. And with those deeply ingrained habits of isolation and utilitarianism and turning away from God, when push comes to shove Harry does what he always does: muscle through under his own power until he can’t any more and then take whatever means necessary to get the job done.

The Murder of Susan Rodriguez

At the novel’s climax, in the midst of the giant battle with the vampires at Chichen Itza, Harry learns that Martin is a double agent and all of Martin’s actions have been to put Susan and Harry in a position to destroy the entire Red Court in one blow. He tells Harry and Susan that he infiltrated the Fellowship of St Giles on behalf of the Red Court so that he can destroy them from the inside, fifty years of maneuvering to put himself into position to destroy them and win the Red King’s favor. This revelation enrages Susan and she, the trapped mother, kills Martin and in the process completes the final step necessary for her transformation into a vampire. But Martin is actually playing an even longer game: his aim is to turn the tables on the vampires and to destroy them all. The destruction of Susan and the Fellowship and the loss of his own life is the price he’s willing to pay to bring down the vampires. And in his callous, utilitarian willingness to spend human lives to achieve his ultimate goal, he stands as an image of what Harry is poised to become.

Martin maneuvers Harry and Susan into position so that it seems they have no choice but to cooperate with his plan. Like a fanatic suicide bomber he doesn’t care that he will not survive the realization of his aim: he goads Susan into killing him and into becoming a full vampire so that she and Harry will be forced to believe he has no alternative but to kill Susan, not only to save Maggie, but to destroy all of the Red court. 

There are two points in this scene where Harry invokes his need for God’s forgiveness. The first is when he sets Susan in motion, passing on the insight he has just stumbled upon himself: Martin is the one who told the vampires about Maggie:

“One day I hope God will forgive me for giving birth to the idea that came next.

Because I never will.”

When Susan realizes the depths of Martin’s betrayal, she turns on him and kills him. And yet Harry feels that he, not Martin, is ultimately responsible for Susan’s fall. Even as he realizes that Martin set the whole thing up, he also knows that it was he who put the pieces together and then nudged Susan into motion.

The second time Harry invokes God’s forgiveness is after he has killed Susan. Even though he knows that once her transformation is complete and she is fully a vampire she will be completely under the sway of the Red King and will turn on him and try to kill him, still in this moment she is not trying to kill him. This is clearly not an act of self defense in the heat of battle. Harry has time, albeit a brief time, to make a decision to kill Susan. Even though Susan is complicit, even though she begs him to kill her, Harry is not at all confused about what is truly at stake: he is taking an innocent human life.

Susan looked back at me, her eyes streaming he last tears. “Harry, help me,” she whispered. “Save her. Please.”

Everything in me screamed no. That this was not fair. That I should not have to do this. That no one should *ever* have to do this.

But . . . I had no choice.

[ . . . ]

I put Susan on the altar and said, “She’ll be safe. I promise.”

She nodded at me, her body jerking and twisting in convulsions, forcing moans of pain from her lips. She looked terrified, but she nodded.

I put my hand over her eyes.

I pressed my mouth to hers, swiftly, gently, tasting the blood, and her tears, and mine.

I saw her lips form the word, “Maggie . . .”

And I . . .

I used the knife.

I saved a child.

I won a war.

God forgive me.

Once again he so clearly knows that he’s made the wrong choice. His conscience might have been malformed by his years with Justin, but it’s working enough for him to know that it’s wrong to deliberately take a life. And yet he also knows that he would choose the same way again.

He tells himself one lie: that he had no choice. It’s true that by that point in the battle he had no good choices. But that’s not the same as having no choice. And committing murder is a terrible, evil choice. And he knows it. “God forgive me,” he says. And yet… I don’t think he does believe that God will forgive him. He doesn’t really quite believe in God. (Though he also doesn’t really quite *not* believe in God either.)

As terrible as these two murders are, they nevertheless represent the logical culmination of Harry’s previous trajectory. They may be horrific, but they are narratively coherent. We have been able to see for a long time that Mab and Lea have been pursuing Harry. As have the Denarians. As have the vampires. And as has the White Council. Somehow or other, it was clear, he was eventually going to end up backed into a corner where he would face a true choice for good or evil, God or expediency.

The Road to Recovery?

Given who Harry is, what he has done, and the state of the world in which he lives, logically, there are only a handful of possible outcomes from this point on: He could resist all the advances of those who want to corrupt him and be overwhelmed and lose and die and watch those he loves die. Or he could somehow gain more and more power until he has grown so powerful that he can overcomes all his enemies— though Harry realizes that path itself is one in which he loses his humanity. But the one choice he never really allows himself to consider is that he could stop resisting and join Michael and Father Forthill and the forces of light that fight on the side of God. When Harry is in possession of Lasciel’s coin Michael tries to persuade him to do just that.

But Michael also suggests that the price for freedom from the demon’s influence is for Harry to lay down his wizardly power. And Harry’s identify is so bound up in being a wizard that that seems like no choice at all. To cease to be a wizard is to cease to be himself, to betray his very nature. But is Michael correct? Is the only way for Harry to truly be good to lay down his power and become a mere human? Is the power itself somehow corrupting or unacceptable in the sight of God? Or is it only that so long as he is under the influence of the demon the power is too great a temptation and will eventually lead him to fall totally under the power of the coin? Or is it possible that Michael is wrong? Certainly Uriel’s gift of soul fire (and his other interventions) suggests that Harry has not completely put himself beyond the pale, that there are divine forces standing in his corner, backing him up and that Uriel at least considers Harry’s power to be licitly in play.

Essential to the twelve step recover process is acknowledging that you do not have control over your addiction and that only turning control over to a higher power can free you. Although Harry isn’t fighting a substance addiction, there is a lot of similarity in his need to be in control. In Changes everything is stripped away from him: his office, his home, his car, his magical tools, and finally his life; but all of those are incidental compared to the moment where he betrays his own moral compass, doing what he knows to be wrong, taking a life.

In Ghost Story he is finally forced to acknowledge that he isn’t in control. He’s forced to rely on his friends but because he’s incorporeal and because of Molly’s evident slide into madness, he is forced to acknowledge his limitations and theirs and to accept them as much more active partners. And finally, in making a pact with Mab he is forced to give over control over just about everything to serve at her pleasure as her Winter Knight. Since he has refused to submit to God, who he doesn’t quite believe cares about him, he turns instead to Mab and submits to her, the evil that he knows. He’s grown up with fairies, with his godmother Lea. But now Mab becomes his higher power and he answers to her in a way that he has never had to answer to anyone.

Serving under Mab will Harry learn obedience? Will he learn the limits of his ability to save himself? Will he move closer to being able to accept Michael’s God and Uriel’s God, the God of the Knights and swords and Father Forthill? Or will he lose himself altogether? It seems that there may be a way out and that, for a limited time at least, service with Mab might be the first step on Harry’s road to salvation. Paradoxically, selling his soul to the fairies might just be the means by which Harry saves it.

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  • Yes!!!!! That is what I hope for. After following harry all these years I cannot bear to think of him as lost.

  • Dresden prayed. Uriel appeared. Harry got confirmation that his daughter was his daughter. Clearly therefore you are either bad at reading (incompetent) or a liar abusing the text for utilitarian purposes. Nice try.