As regular readers will know, this isn't a Christian blog, but I'm a bit of a Harry Potter fan, and by way of a bit of a change, I'd been planning a post about Christian ideas in the Harry Potter books - especially in the final volume, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows. I'd spotted the parallels myself, but I did a search of the net a few days ago, and found that the Christian-Potter link was still being hotly debated. It was therefore interesting to search again today and find that the author, J K Rowling, is now talking openly about the whole thing on her US book signing tour.
"To me (the religious parallels) have always been obvious," she says, quoted on that well-known theological web site, mtv.com, "but I never wanted to talk too openly about it because I thought it might show people who just wanted the story where we were going."
Of course, this is all particularly ironic because the Potter trilogy has long been vilified by many Christians due to its supposed links with witchcraft. Yet even before the final book, it seems that some such opinions were starting to soften, a change in perspective I can only applaud as a triumph of sense over superstition.
Spoiler alert: If you are a Potter fan who hasn't read the final volume, you may not want to read any further!
To illustrate the links with Christianity, the mtv.com article quotes a couple of biblical passages which appear in The Deathly Hallows and points out that towards the conclusion of the book, Harry appears to get zapped by his arch-rival Voldemort, only to apparently return from the dead in triumph. Meanwhile, another recent article (in Newsweek) points out that Harry spends his time between death and resurrection in a misty sort of afterworld which he calls 'King's Cross'. (Get it?)
What strikes me as particularly significant, though, is that Harry goes into the final battle with Voldemort in the full expectation of laying down his life to save his friends, after which gesture they are suddenly able to turn the tide of the battle in their favor - all because, we are told, of what Harry has done.
The evidence for the Christian connection seems to be scattered throughout the book(s), and more ardent scholars than I will no doubt gather it all in, but I'm particularly grateful because it helps to explain the puzzling presence in the final book of all those magical artefacts. Magic swords, enchanted chalices and the like are the stock in trade of fantasy fiction, of course. The critic Nick Lowe used to call them 'plot tokens'. But rarely have so many been introduced in a single volume as Rowling manages to cram into The Deathly Hallows.
To start with, there are the Horcruxes. Harry doesn't have to find three of the things, not even five, but seven of them. Why so many? No doubt the clever kids could cope with them all, but were there any adult readers who hadn't lost track of the blessed things by half way through the book? A single magical artifact can have a certain power and charm if the writer describes it well, maybe even three of them can work at a pinch, but any more is too many and seven is just plain boring. Would The Lord Of The Rings have worked better if Frodo had had to destroy seven rings instead of just one? I don't think so.
So why didn't the publishers ask Rowling to think again? Was it because she was adamant that there had to be seven Horcruxes? Because there are seven seals in the Book Of Revelation perhaps? Not to mention seven trumpets and seven basins into the bargain. (I think they were basins anyway - I can't really remember. Even St John could have done with a firmer editorial hand...)
And not content with those seven Horcruxes, Rowling goes on to introduce yet more magical artifacts. Half way through the book we finally encounter the Deathly Hallows themselves - all three of the d**n things: the sword of power, the ring of resurrection and the cloak of invisibility. Now what is that all about? Even Harry is uncertain whether to turn his attention to the Hallows or the Horcruxes, and readers can only sympathize with his plight. Perhaps it was a good thing that he didn't look too closely. If he'd realized that the Deathly Hallows might symbolize the Holy Trinity - the power of God the father, the resurrection promised by God the son and, well, Ghosts are invisible, aren't they? - he might have chosen them instead of the Horcruxes. But of course, that would have been a mistake on Harry's part. That would have been using Godhood for earthly power, as Voldemort wished to do. Get thee behind me, Satan...
Aside from this muddle of artifacts, however, I do feel that some aspects of the final Potter book can genuinely speak to the soul. Harry's time in the wilderness is surprisingly bleak for a children's book. I had expected a breakneck chase from one location to the next as they tracked down the various Horcruxes, but it isn't like that all. A lot of the time, Harry and his friends just sit around clueless, not knowing what to do next. As I read, I wasn't sure whether this was just bad writing or deliberately making a point. In the end, I think, there's sufficient evidence that the latter is the case. It's as though the characters have to look inside themselves to find the answers, a concept which will be familiar to readers of this blog. At one point, Harry remarks that he was meant "not to seek but to know", a curious quote in the context of the book - and one which holds echoes for me of one of my earlier posts on enlightenment. As for Harry's frustration that things haven't been properly explained to him, there are many times in my life when I've felt exactly the same. What exactly are we supposed to be doing here? Why doesn't life come with a proper set of instructions?
So why was the Harry Potter series so popular, I wonder? Can it really be explained by the cozy school-story comfort food of the earlier books? Or was it Rowling's reputed use of the law of attraction to sell her books that made the difference?
Or did readers perhaps unconsciously sense the underlying spiritual message right from the start?
The latter may seem unlikely, yet I find myself wondering too about that most popular book of the twentieth century, The Lord Of The Rings. Again, why the immense popularity? I've been a great reader of science fiction and fantasy, believing that the former - and sometimes the latter - are greatly underrated, yet when I first read Tolkien's trilogy as a teenager I was disappointed. The quality of his writing did not seem to match his world-building skills and, well, I could have done with a little bit of humor. Yet I found watching the movie of The Return Of The King a profoundly moving experience. As I watched, I began to realize that the Great Ring, which promised the bearer so much power yet which weighed him down and threatened to destroy him, might be seen as a symbol of the human ego - this great weight which we all carry - which had to be burnt and cleansed in the fire of the mountain.
I don't know if that's what Tolkien (or director Peter Jackson) intended or not, but it's a great way to watch the movie! Do other people see - or sense - something similar, I wonder? It sometimes seems to me that such ideas - the kind of stuff we discuss in this blog - are actually of great importance not just to a wacky minority but to the population at large: not consciously perhaps, yet glimpsed beneath the surface of popular art.
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