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August 14, 2007

10

The Potter Business – a Christian defence?/.

by quaesitor

Well, i’ve finished HP7 at last. And in common with a frighteningly large number of others, I now feel the need to add my voice to the veritably wiki-sized catalogue of comments. I should come clean: having read the first 4 books, I lost steam (they all seemed to blur into one). But because the film we wanted to see the other day wasn’t on, Rachel & I saw The Order of the Phoenix, which means that the only one i didn’t read/see was the 6th (Half-Blood Prince). I mildly regret this because there were a few gaps that i could have done with filling before book 7 (but it was nothing that Wikipedia couldn’t sort out). Having now finished HP7, I confess to feeling a little bereft. The parallel universe of Wizards and Muggles (or non-wizards) is, on reflection, as engrossing and awe-inspiring a spectacle as they come. It is not without its questions and concerns, which I’ll come to in a mo. But impressive it certainly all is.

It’s all too easy to knock successful things – after all, who wants to look as though they’re following the crowd of several billion schoolchildren? But you have to admit that very often things are successful for a reason (though this is not always the case – quite why Posh & Becks, or even Jordan & Peter, STILL cause such media interest will always remain a puzzle). It would be churlish in the extreme to deny the many causes of Potter’s supremacy. I will do my level best to avoid plot spoilers!

THE SECRETS OF HER SUCCESS

  • Rip-roaring yarns – Rowling’s might not be the greatest writing (as many critics seem to persist in observing – and there were occasions when the style did clunk a bit – but to be fair, how do you keep coming up with new metaphors for fear welling up inside Harry when he seems to have spent his entire schooling being terrified out of his brains?). But you cannot doubt her page-turning genius. Once an HP book is started, it requires an almost impossible act of will to look up and engage with one’s real-world surroundings. The narrative bounds along at such pace that one is constantly justifying squeezing in ‘just one more chapter’. How those who read HP7 when it first came out without the excuse of being on holiday or shirking work and other responsibilities is a mystery to me.

  • Intricate Narrative Puzzles – the thing that has really blown my mind with HP7 is that intricacy of the plot. It is clear that the narrative arc of all 7 stories was planned from the start. Half-remembered details and very minor characters suddenly have a clear and sometimes integral significance once you see the whole. It is quite simply an incredible achievement.

  • Consistently brilliant invention – round every corner, there are new details bringing this parallel universe to life – from the Weasley twins’ confectionery business interests to the genius of the Room of Requirement, Shrieking Shack and Hagrid’s menagerie, not to mention Dementors, Horcruxes and the range of state of the art broomsticks (!).

  • Consistently funny – this is one of the things that seems to have attracted adults as much as children to the books – because there really are some laugh-out-loud moments. It is refreshing how much of the humour is without malice and generally good-natured. That is not to be sniffed at all in our self-satisfyingly cynical age. Having said that, HP7 is definitely the darkest of the series (as the publishers love to remind us), and there is therefore less humour and light-heartedness all round.

  • Likeable though flawed characters – there is a realism about the main characters, for all the unreality of the magic and wizardry. The baddies are of course rather pantomimish (eg whenever the Malfoys appear, you can almost hear the boo-hisses in the cheap seats), although some are especially intriguing – like Severus Snape. But even though we are rooting for the good guys, we see them battling against the odds with the hangups, insecurities, bickering and petty feuds that are all too recognisable from our own, rather more mundane, existence. And that is why we like them.

  • Satisfying and moving conclusion – to be honest, I didn’t really believe that interest could be sustained all the way through 7 HUGE books, or worse, that Rowling could possibly deliver a denouement to do justice to the promise of the early books. But it is and she does! I was racing through to the end desperate to find out how it all fitted together – and there were things that i never anticipated but made perfect sense by the end (especially in terms of the 7th Horcrux & the role of Snape). Some bloggers have confessed to some disappointment, but i think it does the job well. While i was sad to finish, i was satisfied – which is in and of itself no small achievement.

THE GOSPEL OXYGEN SHE BREATHES
So much for the plus points. There are probably many others, but these seemed to be the main ones. But what has zapped me between the eyeballs (especially in HP7) is how CHRISTIAN it all is. Yes, i know that is perhaps surprising to some. But others have noticed it as well – but it has really stimulated these little grey cells. Rowling’s HOGWARTS definitely seems to me to originate from the same muse as Tolkein’s MIDDLE EARTH & Lewis’ NARNIA (though perhaps has more in common with Tolkein than Lewis because the allusions are less obvious). This needs a bit of explanation. Of course, Harry Potter is nothing like as literary and nor is it written as detailed allegory – but I’m talking about the oxygen Rowling breathes, the worldview she inhabits, which seems profoundly Christian.

  • The Battle between good v evil: many Hogwarts advocates pick up on this and rightly so. Basic to the whole saga is the perennial battle between good and evil. But there’s more to it than that – for of course, how good and evil are defined these days varies immensely. In Rowling’s world, good seems best exemplified by the members of the Order of the Phoenix, who epitomise the virtues of friendship, loyalty, love and self-sacrifice – all in the context of the pursuits of wisdom and humility (hence Dumbledore’s confession about his own lack of humility as a young man, as recorded near the end of the book). These virtues are what Christians aspire to, even if we fail to attain them. They are in contrast to the behaviour of the Death-Eaters – it is each man and woman for him- or herself, and loyalties (such as they are) tend to last only as long as they are useful (eg Voldemort’s treatments of the Malfoys and Snape in HP6 & 7).

  • The Dominance of Death: Rowling has made no secret of the fact that death is an obsession – and it overshadows the whole HP series. After all, the whole point of Harry’s mystique is that he didn’t die when Voldemort killed his parents. And, as someone who read Classics at university (hinted by the fact that nearly all the spells and curses in the books are in Latin – well, a Latin of sorts), Rowling clearly seems to be hinting something by Voldemort’s name. Harry’s nemesis and arch-enemy has death in his name – and of course in character, he is heartless and chillingly oblivious to the suffering & lives of others.

In her conception for the books, Rowling had some very clear rules for herself. Here she is in an American radio interview (given after the 3rd book had come out) (grateful to Tony Watkins excellent Damaris review for this link & quote):

Lydon: Peter, what is your guess about Lily – the real story about Harry’s mother?
Peter: Er – I don’t really know, but I’m guessing that maybe she is going to come back to life, maybe in the seventh book or something like that …

JKR: Well, it would be nice, but – I’ll tell you something – you’ve raised a really interesting point there, Peter, because when I started writing the books, the first thing I had to decide was not what magic can do, but what it can’t do. I had to set limits on it immediately, and decide what the parameters are. And one of the most important things I decided was that magic cannot bring dead people back to life; that’s one of the most profound things, the natural law of of death applies to wizards as it applies to Muggles and there is no returning once you’re properly dead. You know, they might be able to save very close-to-death people better than we can, by magic – that they have certain knowledge we don’t, but once you’re dead, you’re dead. So yeah, I’m afraid there will be no coming back for Harry’s parents.

From Accio Quote

Now this is significant because it is a direct correspondence with the real world – death remains as much of an enemy for wizards as it does for muggles. Which is the background for the first of 2 scriptural thunderbolts in HP7: 1 Corinthians 15:26: ‘The last enemy to be destroyed is death.’ To say that death is a central preoccupation of the Bible is an understatement. From Genesis 3 and the expulsion from Eden onwards (especially after the unique death drumbeat genealogy of Gen 5), it remains the enemy to beat all enemies, the fear of which is the one that stands over all fears. You could even say that an answer to death is the Bible’s supreme concern. So it is no wonder that it is a concern to someone breathing gospel oxygen (if i can put it like that).

  • Ethical Concerns: there are a number of sub-themes which resonate with a Christian worldview (although of course that is not to imply they are exclusively Christian). The biggest is the opposition to the racism behind the Death Eaters’ agenda: to wipe out so-called mudbloods (ie non Wizard-born wizards) and to control and oppress all muggles. The Order of the Phoenix is determined to stand against this (hence the need for Phoenix protection of the British Prime Minister in no 10). And Harry is himself consistently open to relationships with non-Wizards (despite his own genetic purity) – from Dobby the house-elf to muggle-born wizards like Hermione. Very often, it is these friends who come to his rescue at the most crucial moments.

  • But the spells and charms?? Many Christians are understandably disturbed by the wizardry in the books – and it is there on every page. After all the series is set in a school for wizardry! Of course, we should never underestimate the seriousness and dangers of the occult. The spiritual world is real and not all of it is benign. And the essence of animism and a great deal of occult practice is to seek ways to manipulate the spiritual realm for one’s own agendas. We must be clear about this. Now, perhaps I’m being naive here, but i am not sure that it is entirely fair to dismiss the HP books on these grounds. This is not necessarily the thin end of the wedge.

    • They are clearly set in a fantasy world – but to reject Hogwarts because it is fantastical would mean (for consistency’s sake) rejecting all kinds of other children’s fiction – eg Peter Pan, Superman, Beatrix Potter etc, not to mention Middle Earth & Narnia. But children can tell the difference much more than we give credit for (or even than video game junkies can, which i think is far more serious a problem). Fantasy surely has its rightful place in the canon of children’s literature (whatever that is).

    • Magic and spells in fiction are not necessarily unhelpful or unchristian – after all, in Middle Earth, there is a magical good v evil battle when Saruman fights Gandalf; and then think of the wonderful Creation narrative in The Magician’s Nephew as Aslan magically sings Narnian life into existence (which is in total contrast to the destructive rage of Queen Jadis in her home world of Charn). No one disputes the Christian power of these two fantasies. Why shouldn’t HP have resonances with the gospel as well?

    • What matters in the book is not the spells and magic per se, but what they are used for. There is a moral framework surrounding them. This leads to the next and most important main point here.

  • It is love not magic that matters in the end. Without wanting to spoil too much, the dramatic denouement of HP7 is actually about NOT using magic to defeat death – or rather an approach that completely catches Voldemort off guard, because it is about a powerless and selfless sacrifice that turns the evil magic in on itself. There are clearly resonances here with Aslan’s deeper magic in The Lion, the Witch & The Wardrobe, both in terms of his own sacrifice and the means by which Jadis is destroyed. And surely it is here that the gospel oxygen is at its most detectable. For in the New Testament, there is no alternative means to destroying death than by a powerless and selfless sacrifice which turns the evil of sin in on itself. Such sacrificial love is simply incomprehensible to the Death Eaters and those in their thrall – again without revealing too much, it explains why Voldemort never really understood Snape, but why Dumbledore always did.

  • Other hints of the gospel?
    • King’s Cross – I agree with Tony Watkins here; it is surely more than coincidence that King’s Cross is the station chosen to reach Hogwarts from, and more significantly, that is the venue for the dazzlingly surreal conversation Harry has with Dumbledore in HP7. For surely it was the cross of a king that was the means to defeating death in the real world? (Photo taken from Wiki)

    • The annual celebration of Christmas – I’m not sure about this, but isn’t it interesting that even in this magical, fantastical world, Christmas always features? Probably reading too much here – and it may be simply the fact that Christmas Day festivities are eagerly anticipated for the pressies by children all over the western world, regardless of whether they are Christian or not. But Rowling could easily have substituted it with a wizard/pagan equivalent that one might have expected was more in keeping with the ambiance of Hogwarts. Philip Pullman (of His Dark Materials fame) certainly would have done.

Now some of Harry Potter’s more strident Christian critics will no doubt suggest that this doesn’t exactly amount to a full-orbed explanation of the Christian message (ie Creation, Sin/Fall, Redemption, New Creation). Fair point – it doesn’t. But then, so what!? Does every narrative have to have the same storyline? Does every character have to have the same flaws or life goals? Of course not. That would be irredeemably dull. Fiction is meant to transport us, but also, paradoxically, to reveal reality to us (well as it seems to me anyway). And there are such profound things going on in JKR’s world that i definitely want to encourage my children to read and learn from her. The heart of the books – death and Voldemort being defeated by humble, self-sacrificial love – is as Christian as it gets.

____________

In case this has all got a bit too heavy/serious for you, here is some light silliness to finish with:

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. drfrank
    Aug 15 2007

    Good post, Mark.

    Clearly fantasy has its ‘rightful place in the canon’ of adult literature as well… !

    Have you read Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy, and if so, how do you think it adds up?

    Reply
  2. Aug 15 2007

    Yeah, fair point on the fantasy thing. i guess i just had my head down for those people who worry about the impact on children such fantasies might have.
    I remember being aware of Earthsea at school but never got into it…

    Reply
  3. Aug 15 2007

    I’m not convinced. There is no resurrection. Death is only defeated in the ‘I don’t fear it anymore sense’. Well you should if there is no resurrection. I’m sorry. It has Christian parallels, but fails at the final hurdle of Christian analogy. Great series though!

    Reply
  4. Aug 15 2007

    Also the Stephen King one is the best.

    Reply
  5. Aug 15 2007

    Ah, but i think that’s precisely my point about gospel oxygen – it certainly doesn’t contain every gospel detail – and the problem of death remains at the end of the book. But there’s no doubting, surely, that the values and realities of hogwarts are profoundly Christian (which is what i was getting at in the final para).

    Reply
  6. Aug 16 2007

    Mark, excellent piece of writing – enjoyed reading it and agreed with all of it. I’d missed the King’s Cross allusion and wonder on if it is not too much – but JKR has rarely been careless with details…

    like you, I’m sort of sad that it’s all over (the anticipation side of waiting) but the books suffer a 3rd, 4th and so on reading very very well.

    Reply
  7. Aug 23 2007

    Great summary, but if you’d read book 6 I reckon you’d think that was darker….

    Reply
  8. Liz
    Sep 19 2007

    Great analysis Mark – I have been thoroughly gripped by the books and was so moved by the ending. A couple of thoughts: I thought there possibly was resurrection in that if he had chosen to die rather than go back (at that conversation with Dumbledore) Harry could have gone on the train to wherever it was going on to (unless I misunderstood?). However, I think both these books and Lord of the Rings are different from Narnia, in that there is no creator God (as far as I can see) – just a battle between good and evil. Where is God in Harry Potter – or in Middle Earth? Narnia has Aslan, which makes it far more Christian.

    Reply
  9. Sep 19 2007

    Thanks Liz. Fair point about the final train journey possibilities. On the Creator God point, i see what you mean. However, while things are certainly more explicit in Narnia, i don’t think it is that which in itself makes them Christian. It is to do with worldviews, and as i’ve said above, the oxygen that is breathed. After all, God notoriously fails to make an appearance in the Book of Esther in the Bible – but it has to be one of the most inspiring stories about the sovereignty of God there is…

    Incidentally, while i’m here, thanks to Rosie for her comment. I think though that the fact that HP6 is darker is neither here nor there – there are some pretty dark parts of the Bible, after all – and because the Bible is primarily an ultra-realistic book, it portrays life with warts and all, darkness as well as light (just read Job, Ecclesiastes and the passion accounts of Jesus).

    Reply
  10. Liz
    Sep 20 2007

    But Esther does occur in the context of the whole bible, with all that we (and the Jewish people at the time) have learned about God – and there’s surely not much more fundamental to the Christian worldview than the existence of God? Harry shows great self-sacrificial love, but he is just a human (or wizard), same as all the rest. Isn’t it more like humanism? I guess it could be like Joseph, where God chooses an ordinary guy to further his sovereigh plans – but Joseph does acknowledge this, which surely makes a difference?
    Feeling argumentative!

    Reply

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