Harry Potter and the fictional foils, part two: Neville and Ron
Updated: Jun 9, 2020
If we're discussing foils, as we are, it's worth asking what purpose a foil serves, beyond the definition of character, and specific to any individual work's larger purposes. In the cases of Dudley and Draco, they clearly help to make the point that Harry is patient in the face of hardship and blatant unfairness, that he's unassuming and un-self-seeking, and that his affections, when he bestows them, are for personal qualities and not for social propriety (Dudley) and or for rank or prestige (Draco). While it ought to be noted that Dudley is really more venal--often comically so--than outright evil, the fact that Hary ends the cycle on good terms with both, relatively speaking, is a demonstration of their effectiveness: the foils, in these cases, have done their work, and Harry is better for having known them.
And while a large range of further- (if not better-) developed characters also help to set off Harry's best qualities (think of Hermione's rather unattractive stiffness and allegiance to rules for their own sake, a trait that's often displayed for our amusement, which allows Harry to appear more game and able to bend the circumstances when needed for the reader's satisfaction; or consider Snape's overplayed personal dislike of Harry, a caricature-worthy pattern of action that he never completely, even with increasingly explicit exposition, shakes off--and which is hard to credit in a full-grown adult who must surely have had emotional experiences not directly related to Harry's mother by the time we meet him), two more come to mind who, at least in their initial appearances, seem particularly suited, if not explicitly written, to make Harry shine by comparison.
Both Ron Weasley and Neville Longbottom grow into heroic status of their own in the course of the cycle, but both seem to exist, at least initially, to make Harry's achievements seem all the more remarkable.
But that raises a question immediately: as is repeatedly made clear, Harry is neither so abnormally gifted as a wizard, nor so knowing an adolescent, that he does not encounter the difficulties we might expect for a young man in the throes of adolescence. His work in class is often related to us through his anxieties about getting things right, or through his embarrassments at everyday failures. Two instances come to mind: though others are much more adept than he, his negativity in his Divination class--he seems to dislike the subject because he dislikes the teacher (though she is comically shown, in one instance, to possess especially those skills that Harry faults her for not displaying), in fact, he all but labels her as a fraud, which is unfair: other students, the text makes clear, are productive under her instruction. The second is his shaky competencies whenever he is taught by Professor Snape--though a teacher's hostility is a very real and very powerful discouragement to success. Harry has to work at his achievements, as is shown in his difficulties when dueling--against Draco, initially--and in the control of his thoughts when it becomes necessary to protect his inner world from Voldemort. This second consideration is illustrative: Harry is prone to poor self-control, most particularly when he ought to show better discipline in his emotional reactions--much of the plot of The Prisoner of Azkaban seems, during its first half, to lurch forward in response to Harry's outbursts of annoyance or anger. In fact, Harry's greatest academic success, in the classroom, comes from cribbing Snape's student notes in his textbook--of which Hermione, normally perhaps a little too proud of her expertise, thoroughly disapproves of as cheating.
But Ron and Neville are muddlers-through of the first order, in very different ways. Ron manages to come into his own as a foil in the middle of the series, but Neville is, unfortunately, marked from the start. Small for his age when we first meet him, Neville is immature and unable to meet the challenges of his first year at Hogwarts: not only does he never fail to spoil a lesson or cause himself embarrassment, his attempts to better-organize himself to meet his new environment--such as when he writes down the password for Griffyndor castle for memory's sake, which is immediately stolen, leading to a minor disaster--always, without exception, fail him. He is so inept, and so flatly written as a comic character, that it's only with the darkening emotional climate of the successive books, and the revelation of his status as a near-orphan--that Rowling begins to redeem him. At first a sad clown, the kid who always gets things wrong and the eternal hanger-on whose presence proves others' sympathy, Neville is only recognized for his skills in Herbology (and then in a characteristic way, when he brings an offensively exploding plant onto the Hogwarts Express, with predictable results), before rising, at the last moment, to truly heroic status when he's revealed, late in the last book, as a sufferer for the noble cause of resistance against the newly-evil school administration and, at last, when he destroys the final horcrux holding the last bit of Voldemort's soul by killing the villain's snake familiar, Nagini.
In fact, the contrast between his hapless comic relief and his emergence as a grown warrior is a little too grand a sweep; we may cheer Neville on, but his origins in the story are laughably pathetic while his end is so laudably skillful and his character seems, in retrospect, to lack believability. There is just a little too much whiff of authorial device about him, and when he crops up, in his final mention, as the Professor of Herbology to Harry's children, the convenience is entirely pat. He had had a good run, we might feel, and he had to go somewhere--if only because someone was bound to ask.
Ron, on the other hand, is the magical-world 'normal' kid to Harry's muggle-raised discoverer; Ron knows at first hand everything Harry has never experienced, and therefore becomes Harry's explainer. (This is true, more or less, of the entire Weasley family, the one magical family--though we are introduced to several--that we get to know best, the one we see in everyday wizarding life: a life denied Harry.) Unaware of even the presence of telephones (do the Weazleys not have a television set? And why would wizards not?), Ron is nonetheless versed in magical communication, used to an environment where spells alter the form and purpose of everyday objects--his mother is seen distractedly doing housework magically in many of her appearances in the books--and, as the younger brother of several Hogwarts graduates and older students, he's thoroughly informed about what is about to happen to him and Harry. So he is a source of information, and his good-natured acceptance of Harry's continual wonder (the wonder that allows us, as readers, to wonder with him) at their environment is part of the Holmes-and-Watson-esque device through which we learn of the wizarding world: Harry is uninformed, and so Ron must inform him, so that we ourselves, privy to Harry's experience through his eyes, can understand the scene to which we've been transported.
But Ron comes into his own as a comic foil as he and Harry mature. If we're ever to think of Ron seriously, the moment is not in the middle books of the series, particularly as it pertains to the main characters' growing awareness of their sexuality. Ron is played flatly for comedy in his all-hands romance with Lavender Brown (as he is not in the movie, where the obsessive attachment in the book is passed off, unkindly, even with a hint of sexism, onto Lavender: she becomes on film the Monster Girlfriend of male fantasy, and she's clearly not to be taken seriously again until she's pictured among Harry's supporters in the final film). By comparison, Harry's dalliance with Cho Chang, and his later, more serious relationship with Ginny Weasley--which has to be negotiated over the pre-existing friendship with Ron in his role as her older brother--is described in much more dignified terms, while the action is less physical, less overtly sexual, and more restrained. Like nearly every narrative device in the Potter books, this is a hoary pattern: the sidekick falls first, to get the embarrassment and surprise out of the way, which then prepares the main character for a more dignified experience of his own. We might venture to suggest that Harry learns by Ron's heedless example, and though he's headstrong and undisciplined in other ways (that anger, which could also, less accurately if more charitably, be described as a sense of justice), the repeated mention of Ron and Lavender's embraces (how many American children learned the word 'snog"--and reviewed it several times in the course of the text--thanks to this element of the story?) is no doubt a caution: they look and behave like fools.
In other ways, Ron is also the emotional 'grower' meant to illustrate the pitfalls of maturation over which Harry glides rather peacefully. In this regard, Ron reaches his peak, perhaps, when he admits to Harry and Hermione that he could not stand to face his family--and explain his abandonment of them in The Deathly Hallows--upon returning. (Hermione responds in girlish, selfish anger, but we have no female foils or explicit role-models for her, it would seem: she may be the most emotionally isolated character in the books, without even the appearance of her parents, let alone a close female friend of her own, throughout.)
So Ron stumbles and rights himself while Harry learns to walk, and the more mature, richer relationship between Ron and Hermione that follows is also a pattern Harry observes. Harry and Ginny share a kiss before his exile in The Deathly Hallows (described respectfully in the text), and then we see them married at the end of the book. Clearly, things went well. If we consider the marriages to which Harry is privy as he grows, from the strong-yet-farcical Dursleys to the troubled and rapt (and altogether too brief) union of Lupin and Tonks, and finally the mature and supportive Weasleys, we risk extending ourselves beyond the scope of the story--and into the decidedly weaker stuff of The Cursed Child, the play written consciously to extend the franchise: a derivative and less satisfying work.