I’ve been intending for a long time now to put some of my thoughts and predictions concerning Harry Potter into writing, and with The Deathly Hallows coming out in less than a month, I better do it. Predictions lose their significance if they are made after the fact. I’m told that a number of folks at the CCA this past week were in the process of re-reading the books in anticipation of the upcoming release, and I know that is also the case among my young friends at Emmaus.
Last summer, I had the great fun of presenting a sectional on the theological significance of Harry Potter at the Higher Things conference. The idea for that topic came from my reading of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, book six in the series; which goes to show how long it took me to realize that J.K. Rowling has a whole lot more going on than just a good yarn. She hasn’t always been given the credit she deserves as an author, though I suspect that the massive success of her books worldwide has been some consolation for that. She is intelligent, well educated and highly literate, and she knows her craft well. No, not witchcraft, but the craft of writing. In the case of Harry Potter, she has emulated some of her literary heroes, such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, in crafting a story that works at several different levels.
The story of Harry Potter is ultimately a christological story. I don’t think that is saying it too strongly. To put it in Lutheran theological terms, it is a story of the significance of Holy Baptism, a journey of repentance and faith, through death into newness of life. In book after book, Harry is catechized by his spiritual fathers into the image of his father, James; and in the fictional literary universe that J.K. Rowling has created, this is an image like unto that of Christ our Lord, an image of self-sacrificing love. The story of Harry Potter is not a morality tale, but a tale of faith and love, and of hope in the face of death.
Rowling is a Christian, and while she has evidently suffered some disillusionment with the institutional church, it is to her Christian faith in Christ, crucified and risen, that she has turned for comfort and understanding in her own life. That’s how I take it, anyway. I’m not suggesting that she is an orthodox theologian, nor even a "theologian" in the usual sense; and I don’t recommend that anyone read the Harry Potter books as a course in systematics. I read the first five books, and most of book six, and thoroughly enjoyed them, without recognizing any Christian subtext. In retrospect, I’m not sure how I missed it, but I just didn’t think of it, and I certainly wasn’t looking for it. Read the books for fun, or choose not to read them at all, and that’s okay. But for myself, my enjoyment and appreciation of the books, and my understanding of them, have all increased with a recognition of their christological story.
When I was interviewed about Harry Potter on "Issues, etc." last year, following my presentation at the Higher Things conference, I was eager for a chance to talk about the christological symbolism and allusions that permeate the books. Although I enjoyed the interview, the folks who called in to the program were mostly interested in the question of whether it’s okay for Christians to read these books at all. Actually, some of the callers had no question about it; they only called to tell me that I was doing the work of the devil in speaking positively about Harry Potter. I don’t share that opinion, obviously. The elements of magic in the books are simply a literary device within a fictional universe created by the author, and that’s all I’m going to say about it here.
I’m not going to go into detail concerning the pervasive christological symbols in Harry Potter, either, because there are frankly far too many of them, and John Granger has already done a marvelous job of discussing this in his wonderful little book, Looking for God in Harry Potter. I discovered that gem and devoured it toward the tail end of my preparations for last summer’s conference sectional, and I was delighted to find it affirming many of the things that I had found on my own, as well as helping to clarify and substantiate those points and bringing others to light. If you’re at all interested in this topic, I highly recommend Granger’s book. He has another book coming out, also, which I will look forward to reading as soon as I have the opportunity to do so. I’ll probably wait until after reading Deathly Hallows, just because the real thing is always better than books (or blog posts!) about the real thing.
What I do want to offer here is simply my "big picture" assessment of the Harry Potter series, and how I believe it will be resolved in the end. If I’m wrong, everyone can enjoy pointing that out to me, and my faith won’t be shattered as a result. If I’m right, my faith won’t be any stronger for it, and I’ll probably need to repent on account of my prideful ego, but I’ll bask in the satisfaction of having understood Rowling’s masterful work. That is, I think, part of the fun in reading a series like this.
So here is how I see it. The point to the story is the triumph of self-sacrificing love over a self-serving lust for power. In particular, self-sacrificing love is stronger than death, and it lives beyond death; whereas the selfish attempt to preserve one’s own life in this world (at the expense of others) results in a soulless existence that is far worse than death. Voldemort, for all his bravado and tyranny, lusts for power because he fears death above all, and he is frantic in his efforts to avoid it. He cannot imagine anything worse than death, although his existence is hardly any sort of life at all. He knows no real life, because he knows no real love. He has spurned the loving kindness that was shown toward him, and he has had no love for others, no mercy and no kindness. So he is driven by fear of death, because he has no care or concern for anything other than himself. He craves only his own self-preservation, and this very craving devours him, even as he deliberately rends his own soul through acts of pure evil.
Harry is being catechized by his parents and friends, and by his various "spiritual" fathers, so to speak, to learn the self-sacrificing love that will finally triumph over Voldemort. This victory will not come by way of a power struggle, as though Harry’s love would make him strong enough to kill Voldemort. Rather, Harry will defeat Voldemort in much the way that Christ has trampled the serpent’s head and defeated Satan, that is, by laying down his own life and allowing himself to be killed. The real crisis, at the end of The Half-Blood Prince, is that Harry is being driven by his anger and a hot-burning desire for revenge, instead of being led by the sort of love that others have been showing him since the very beginning. He has yet to understand what really happened with Dumbledore and Malfoy and Snape in the tower. The key is in the fact that what mattered there was Dumbledore’s mercy toward Malfoy. Snape, for his part, was neither a traitor nor cowardly, but courageous in carrying out Dumbledore’s orders. The headmaster laid down his own life, in order to spare Malfoy from rending his soul through an act of murder. In doing so, he has given Harry one more lesson in the way of love instead of hate.
All along, others have been risking themselves for Harry, and sacrificing their lives for Harry. It was his mother’s self-sacrificing love that protected Harry from Voldemort in the first place. Now that protection has been circumvented, but the principle involved is still at work. Dumbledore has understood this, and has trusted this, while Voldemort can only think in terms of power and personal advantage. Harry has known love, and he also loves others fiercely, and this will be his strength and his victory. His hatred for Voldemort (and Snape), which is already threatening to take over and undo him, will reach a fevered pitch with Hagrid’s death, but it will be overcome by his love for Ron and Hermione and Ginny. For the sake of that love, Harry will allow Voldemort to kill him, and in that self-sacrifice Voldemort will find himself defeated.
I agree with others who have suggested that Harry is the final horcrux, in which a portion of Voldemort’s soul has been sealed. From infancy, Harry has borne this curse of death in his own body, and he will finally bring an end to it by laying down his body in death. That’ll be Voldemort’s undoing, the death of death and hell’s destruction. The victory will belong to self-sacrificing love.
I’ve resisted the temptation to imagine for myself the details of how all of this will transpire. J.K. Rowling has far more creative talent for such things than I do. But I am predicting that these are the broad strokes that will bring the story to its climax. Harry’s death will bring an end to Voldemort. And then, I think, there will be a resurrection of sorts; whether in heaven or on earth, I do not know, but there will be some evidence of Harry’s life after death. We’ve already been taught at various points that there is life after death, and I believe that will be demonstrated conclusively in Harry’s case. He will be, yet again, the boy who lives.
As I understand it, the final word of the seventh book is supposed to be "scar." At least that’s what I’ve been hearing for a long time. J.K. Rowling has had the final chapter, or some portion of it, locked in a safe from the beginning. We’ll all be finding out soon enough. But here is my prediction about that final word: In Harry’s resurrected body and life, his forehead will bear no scar. That’s different than our dear Lord Jesus Christ, who ever bears the marks of His victorious Cross and Passion, even in His risen and glorified body. In the fictional literary universe of Harry Potter, his scar has been the signature mark of the curse of death, and I believe that the removal of that scar will signify the victory of life.
Well, that’s it, then. Have at it now, or revel in my mistakes after the real thing is out there for all of us to read and enjoy. I’m fine either way. I’m looking forward to sharing the conclusion of the story with my children, as I have the previous six books.
Please note that no animals, college guys, or mythical creatures were harmed in the writing of this blog post. It is, however, unauthorized by either J.K. Rowling or any of her publishers.
Homily at Evening Prayer (last night)
18 hours ago