Thoughts for the Serious Reader of Harry Potter
Thank you for the commentary, John; I look forward to hearing the rest. I think your concept of “spiritual authority” is very close to what I meant by “church.” I can’t help much on the Freudian aspect, though, as I’m not that kind of psychologist. (I can tell you a few things about Ron’s hormones, though!)
It is interesting how any remnants of actual Christian practice are almost entirely erased from the Wizarding world. Christmas and Easter are no more than school breaks marked with presents or chocolate eggs, and their weddings and funerals are presided over by a title-less white-haired wizard whose words don’t even register to the invisible camera on Harry’s shoulder. Yet the Dumbledore and Potter families put scripture verses on their tombstones.
i am glad that harry can talk to dumbledore via picture, maybe there are pictures of all the others that have past. maybe harry will become a future headmaster at hogwarts. that would be cool. i am also glad that harry, ron, and hernoine are in-laws. the three were like family anyway this just makes it legal. wow! you get so wrapped up in the characters its like they are real, but they aren’t.
it has been a wonderful ride. thank you ms. rowling and may God continue to Bless you.
John, this was an amazing article to read. You truly did a great job at compiling all the evidence needed to prove that Rowling did indeed write a book about struggling with faith succeeding in faith. This article was such an eye-opener to me! Now Rowling’s “struggle to believe” all makes sense. How uplifting it is to know that triumph over death awaits those who choose to believe in the awesome power of love and faith in Christ. Rowling makes this profession clear in her choice of inscription on the Potters’ headstone: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). She has struggled to believe, as we all have, but J.K. leaves us convinced that faith does indeed pay off, both in this life and the afterlife, for those who believe. Once again, very well done John.
I wanted to point one thing out that you didn’t include in the article. I found it very telling that Rowling admitted to choosing the name “King’s Cross” for the place Harry went when he died for a reason. I’m surprised that you didn’t mention the following excerpt from the Bloomsbury chat when mentioning King’s Cross in this article. Perhaps this didn’t fit in with the “faith struggling” material you were discussing, but it found it worthy to remember nonetheless:
Katie B: Why was Kings Cross the place Harry went to when he died?
J.K. Rowling: For many reasons. The name works rather well…
The name DOES work rather well, huh? Let’s keep this little secret among the All-Pros… We wouldn’t want any of this article, or the reavealing interviews with Jo, to appear under the radar of someone like Richard Abanes, would we? It really would pain me to see what Richard would “make up” contrary to what Rowling has told us 😉
I wish your daughter good luck on her undertaking. Sounds more brutal then Quidditch.
This article was quite well written and thought provoking. Good job! I like it when books are full of Christian meaning. I think that’s the number one reason I don’t really care all that much for Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Trilogy. It is spiritually devoid of meaning. It has little or no Christian anything, and therefore cannot speak to me on the deeper more fundamental levels I find Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, and even The Secret Garden, do. I find it quite strange that Christians, many of who don’t like Potter, swallow up the Inheritance books with little thought about the much more occultic elements found within them. Not to mention the outright new age/athiestic/pagan beliefs that seem to saturate his characters. Also, lacking in the Inheritance books is the clear distinction between good and evil. Potter on the other hand doesn’t only scream “Christian” a number of times throughout the series, but has a number of moral lessons, clear distinctions between good and evil, and enough food for thought to keep one thinking for a while. I firmly belief Harry Potter is one of the better books out there. My biggest problems with Harry Potter isn’t the magic, it’s more the relationships and such and how they’re sometimes portrayed. (And I mean like Harry/Ginny, Ron/Hermione, Harry/Cho, etc. type of relationships. Not Harry/Dumbledore, Voldemort/Voldemort or Harry/Bellatrix.) A bit too much emphasis on “the gushy stuff.” if you will. The magic is much like Narnian magic and it is extraordinarily clear that muggles can’t do an ounce of it.
In a world that seems determined to make rubbish of the art of storytelling. (By rubbish I mean moral wise.) It’s refreshing to be able to read something that has many wonderful meanings and ideas and for the most part is devoid of the darker morals that the world holds on to. The novel writing world certainly needs a much greater amount of deep thinking Christian authors like Tolkien and Lewis were and, it appears, Rowling is.
Something has tickled my mind about that King’s Cross chapter. Does Dumbledore really impart any new information to Harry (that is independently verified later, at least)? Dumbledore also acknowledges that the scene is happening in Harry’s head, even though he laughs off the implication that it’s not real. Therefore, one could make the case that Harry is merely having a hallucinatory experience brought on by immense stress, pressure, and injury and that the entire episode with Dumbledore is conjured out of Harry’s brain and experiences.
I don’t believe this is so; at least, I think Rowling is trying to signal to us that this really happened. But it is not absolutely ironclad and airtight, and I do think that is deliberate: even in the most powerful spiritual experiences, there is room for doubt. One can always find a way to mistrust the experiences one has had of the Divine, and alternate explanations can always be found. (Think of the dwarves in Lewis’ The Last Battle.) That chapter, I think, is a manifestation of Rowling’s comment about struggling to believe, especially since the context is a face-to-face conversation with the dead. Yes, we think it can happen, we hope it can happen, we even have good reason to believe it can happen–but always, the question is, “Is this real?”
In that context, Dumbledore’s final answer is very interesting (“of course it’s in your head, but why on earth should that mean it isn’t real?”) The threat that Christians tend to see from “scientific” explanations is that the empirical methods behind those explanations presume philosophical materialism. Thus, if an explanation is sufficient to explain a phenomenon, the philosophical position behind that explanation goes further to say that it is sufficient. We do not need to posit supernatural causes since natural causes are sufficient to explain an occurrence; once we understand mental illness, we do not need demon possession as an explanatory mechanism. It’s that philosophical assumption that does so much damage, and Dumbledore’s answer clearly confronts it. Once again, it’s not a “yes” or “no”; it’s an acknowledgement of the pressing reasons behind the question that yet offers a reason to believe. That should be familiar–and comforting–to many Christians.
*does first comment dance*
Truly, HP:DH is marked by Harry’s search for the truth. Not only the truth about Dumbledore, which he is searching for, but also the truth he is not searching for, like the truth about Snape and even, in a way, the truth about himself. And these truths set him free.
Harry sees Dumbledore for the man he is (a good man with some great, ultimately fatal flaws); Harry sees Snape for the man he is (a not-so-necessarily-nice man, but a man who was once a child seeking acceptance, and a man who loved Harry’s mother enough to agree to protect the son of the man he hated); Harry sees himself for who he is and becomes the man he should become (for Harry is initially full of doubts and questions, and he at last puts away his child views for adult views and he answers these doubts with faith and trust).
I also think that the epilogue reflects that. I know some people made fun of Harry’s naming conventions for his children, but I think it shows how much Harry has changed. This Harry has forgiven the adults of his life for their mistakes, he has forgiven Albus, he has forgiven Severus, and he has forgiven James. All three men had disappointed or even hurt Harry in the past: Albus by hiding the truth about himself from Harry; Severus by being cruel and hateful and vindictive (and also hiding the truth about himself, incidentally); and James by being a foolish bully in his youth. This Harry truly knows it is our choices that define us, and this Harry can accept a son if he is accepted into Slytherin (my personal view is that Albus Severus ended up in Gryffindor, but I digress).
About Slytherin (I’m gonna digress again) … the fact that no Slytherin students fought in the final battle against Voldemort did not bother me. After all, most were underage and could not fight anyway, and the ones who were of age would be no more than 17 or 18 years old, and would be fighting against experienced Death Eaters. Really, a most daunting task: it would be like fresh recruits going up against seasoned soldiers, and would take a great deal of bravery. Plus, the ones of age would be Malfoy’s age, and like Pansy Parkinson, a great many were probably in his group, and would not fight against their parents or their parents’ friends (since so many of them seemed to be Death Eaters.) It seemed of the fighters from Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff, the ones who stayed to fight were from Dumbledore’s Army, and had received a lot of extra training against the Dark Arts from Harry. Of course, a lot of brave Gryffindors would stay, but that was to be expected: not only are they brave, but they know Harry the best, having been in his house.
And Slytherin did go against Voldemort, particularly in the person of Snape (whose role was crucial), but also in the person of Slughorn. I did really like that Slughorn, previously shown as being hesitant to fight against Voldemort (remember, at the beginning of HBP he was in hiding), did fight Voldemort in the end. Both Gryffindor (Professor McGonagall) and Slytherin (Professor Slughorn) – from polar opposite houses, mind you! – fought personally against Voldemort, and I thought that was telling. End digression …
Can’t wait to read more, John!
Wow. Excellent excellent excellent post. Totally agree w/ you. Thank you, John!
Which of the existentialists do you suspect is JKR’s favourite?
Random musings before breakfast here in SoCal…
What do you make of the meaning of Aberforth’s crucial help to Harry & Co provided via the mirror at various points (and in other ways too)? C.f. Travis’ post on Aberforth and Albus today on SoG:
Was he presumably just trying to help Harry survive, trying to help the victims of his brother’s latest scheme? If so, it’s incredibly ironic that Aberforth’s blue eyes in the mirror at Malfoy Manor, eyes Harry at the time assumes to be *Albus’*, were so crucial in helping Harry *believe* in Albus again.
What, if anything, is Rowling saying here about the roles of doubt, doubters, etc. in the struggle to believe??
Also, the importance of eyes shows up again…Albus’ eyes, Aberforth’s eyes, the mirror, etc. Harry looks into Aberforth’s eyes but thinks they’re Albus’. So he communes w/ Albus’ ‘soul,’ not Aberforth’s. Need coffee in order to ponder all this further….
All the best to your daughter at VMI and to you and your wife as her parents…
Thinking of VMI and Lexington—once you’re done riding the HP wave (if ever!), you could look at the importance of faith for a certain Gen’l. Thos. Jonathan Jackson as your next field of exploration. I really like James I. Robertson’s biography but IMHO he doesn’t fully understand Jackson’s faith and its affect on him. It’s been years since I read that biography but I remember thinking at the time that Robertson was slightly tone-deaf to the faith dimension in his interp of Stonewall.
Regarding the comments of dewyn and esoterica: It is notable that one key event Harry seemed to believe was a “miracle” (Dumbledore sending him help from beyond the grave via the mirror shard) turned out to have a perfectly “natural” explanation: It was Aberforth who answered the plea, not Albus. But Harry’s choice to take the right path (Horcruxes, not Hallows) was not the result of unquestionning faith in one particular miracle’ otherwise, he’d have changed his mind as soon as he met Aberforth. Once he had been transformed, he couldn’t go back. Once saved, always saved?
lmf3b, I don’t know that I’d try to derive a specific doctrine like “once saved, always saved” out of that episode (but then I wouldn’t try to derive specific doctrines out of anything in Harry Potter–symbolic, not allegorical, you know.) In addition, I’d attribute Harry’s decision on Horcruxes to the sacrifice of Dobby (over Easter weekend, no less) rather than the miracle of the mirrored eye.
But I do agree that Rowling does give us a perfectly logical explanation for the intervention, which is the kind of thing that can drain faith of its potency in real life. Yet she also gives us the Deluminator that infuses Ron with a mystical light that tells him what to do. That never gets explained away; it remains a mystery, magical. From a functional standpoint, I’m a little wary of the storytelling device because it very much seems a deus ex machina; from an interpretative standpoint, I’m very much impressed that it IS a deus ex machina and allowed to remain so.
I’m kind of surprised I haven’t seen more commentary on this aspect (Holy Spirit connection? anti-Enlightenment–the “Deluminator”?) because it seemed to me one of the most significant unexplained elements in the book. But the fact it remains unexplained lends credence to the other side of the belief struggle: sometimes things happen, things work, and the supernatural explanation is both simple and sufficient. Not all is explained away, and there is still mystery and magic at work around us.
If I were to win the lottery, quit work and write an opus on Harry Potter , perhaps I would title it _Harry Potter and the Problem of Finitude_. (Guess that’s what comes from having my HP books stacked on top of my Tillich and Kierkegaard…. my reading this spring was eclectic! The themes of the series include the question of death, or finitude writ large, the finitude of knowledge, as discussed in this post, and the intersection of love and finitude–b/c in HP love is never an open-ended, joyful, optimistic thing–it is always closely twined with loss, grief, remorse, and sacrifice–to the point where love, sacrifice, grief and remorse are often barely distinguishable one from another. I think this last point is as much a mark of the series’ “Christian” nature as any other, b/c God’s love for humanity is expressed not by ominipotent power or mushy benevolence but by kenosis and limiting Godself through incarnation and crucifixion.
Second-choice title would be _Harry Potter and the Nature of Love_…..
Your mention of Kierkegaard brought to mind a recent essay I read in the Christian periodical Books & Culture. One particular paragraph I think, might be relevant to why some are willing to accept JKR’s statements regarding her own faith and its impact on the themes in her books, at least as far as they go, while others discount what JKR has said. In this paragraph the writer is discussing a recent biographer of Kierkegaard (Garff), who is skeptical of Kierkegaard’s statements regarding his own motives. I think the distinction he draws between a reader motivated or animated primarily by love, vs. one motivated or animated primarily by skepticism or some other less charitable motive, is a good one. Might this also apply to why some read JKR and see Christian themes all over the place, while others read the same books and see (or think they see) occultism and anti-Christian themes?
“If someone takes Kierkegaard’s testimony in The Point of View as credible, is not that person in danger of being duped, if Kierkegaard is, as Garff claims, fictionalizing his life and works? Is it not safer to take the critical, suspicious road that Garff himself travels? Kierkegaard himself addresses this question in Works of Love in some reflections on the Pauline claim in 1 Corinthians 13 that “love believes all things.” In this section of the book, he argues that a loving person and a mistrustful person may have the same knowledge about a given individual, but they draw different conclusions from what they know, the loving person always choosing to interpret the individual in the best possible light. The mistrustful person regards this as gullible foolishness, an invitation to be deceived. Yet there are many ways of being deceived. To allow one’s suspicion and mistrust to cheat one out of love is to be deceived in the most terrible way about the most important thing in life. The lover who believes in another may be deceived about some finite, temporal event, but has a sure grasp on the most fundamental truth.”
“Those who are unashamed to be described as lovers of Kierkegaard [or might we say Harry Potter?] may take some comfort from these thoughts. Of course they forfeit the status of being shrewd, superior beings, who have seen through Kierkegaard’s [JKR’s?] web of deception. But perhaps they partly escape the fate of those people that Johannes de Silentio, the pseudonymous author of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, calls “associate professors,” whose “task in life is to judge the great men.” The lives of these judges display a “curious mixture of arrogance and wretchedness—arrogance because they feel called upon to pass judgment, wretchedness because they do not feel their lives are even remotely related to those of the great.”
dewyn, interesting commentary on the Deluminator, but it led me to think of it as inversion. If the Deluminator symbolises the progress of materialism as explication, then the apparent absence of light is darkness; that is, the apparent containment of the light seems explanation enough to grope about in the darkness of existentialism, but reality is that the Deluminator limits understanding and removes an essential aspect of life. In Ron’s case, he moves beyond the limits of materialism (and he does represent the body/physical within the trio) when the light is released from its supposed limits to illumine the person to tru humanity. Thus, the Deluminator is the Enlightenment, a useful mechanism of explanation on one level of human existence, but a encapsulating, cacoon-ing, limited view of the whole of reality.
Make sense to you?
“”Yes, I am,” she says. ”Which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God. Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’s coming in the books.”
Apparently I’m not the only person who thought that “Pius Thicknesse” was a bit of a (well-merited) poke at the earnest Christian Harry Haters:
Karl, it occurs to me that the Kierkegaardian meditation you referenced on the difference between skeptics and loving persons also applies to the whole pattern of Harry’s decision-making re: Dumbledore throughout DH.
I wouldn’t go too far explicating the Deluminator (JKR may just have given it a Latin name meaning “putter-out of the lights”) as the Enlightenment, because when its little ball of light inhabits Ron, it doesn’t take up residence in his head. It’s in his body, and it draws him toward those he loves. Not an intellectual light but an emotional or spiritual one.
Anyone considered that perhaps Dumbledore was more of a “John the Baptist” figure? He prepared the way for Harry, and diminished as Harry’s role in the great story intensified. Just a thought…
Imf3b says: “It is notable that one key event Harry seemed to believe was a “miracle” (Dumbledore sending him help from beyond the grave via the mirror shard) turned out to have a perfectly “natural” explanation: It was Aberforth who answered the plea, not Albus. But Harry’s choice to take the right path (Horcruxes, not Hallows) was not the result of unquestionning faith in one particular miracle’ otherwise, he’d have changed his mind as soon as he met Aberforth.”
This may not have been a “miracle…from beyond the grave,” but is it not still a miracle that Aberforth would watch out for and aid Harry at Albus’ request, Albus whom he dispised? When Aberforth was convinced LV had “won, it’s over, and anyone who’s pretending different’s kidding themselves”?
Is not the the good, faithful action of a hurt, bitter human heart a more unnatural act than if it had been carried out by an Order member? I find Aberforth, a conflicted, wounded character, worth serious pondering.
And, in the end, Aberforth overcame his lifetime antipathies and walked down that long hallway to participate in the final battle against evil.
The greatest miracles take place within the human heart.
Rumbleroar sends a purr…
again, wow. it’s nice to come to such an intelligent discussion on this subject. I’ve been trying to convince my parents that HP is not occult or dangerous in its use of magic, which has proven difficult since they have not read the books. While I think in the first six books it is possible to say that Christian/Christian-friendly content could be merely incidental, DH is explicitly Christian, from the rather obvious use of Bible verses to clear parallels to Calvary via Lewis’ stone table/’deeper magic’. again, great.
Best wishes to your daughter. I’m entering my final year at the university next door, and have heard many tales of rat year from VMI friends. Good for her for going for it. 😀
A Mink! Thank you for your best wishes from W&L!
I figured I would make my first comment ever on one of the Christian topics, since after all that is what led me to find this great website/John’s books. Let me start out by saying thanks to John for your great insight and your “intelligent” interpretation of questionably the greatest book series of all time. I would also like to thank you for being bold enough to “go against the grain” and find the Christian symbolism/meaning of the books instead of taking the easy road out and going with the general consensus. I am halfway through Looking for God in Harry Potter and I am loving it. I am going to have order your other publications online since I can’t find them in any bookstore around here :(.
I started reading the books right around the same time you did John, the first 3 were out and I attended the release of Goblet. At the time I was just reading them more for entertainment then and didn’t really give thought to a “Deeper meaning”. I knew there were a lot of Christians who were condemning the books because of their “occult” content, but I figured those people had either not read the book or were just “extremists” because I found nothing wrong with the “magic” they were using.
On the other hand it wasn’t until the closing of Half-Blood Prince where Dumbledore is murdered that I started wondering if there was something more to these books then just a fun story. When I read that scene I strongly felt that it was in a way a symbol of Christ dying, the way he was all calm and even nice to the people who were ultimately trying to kill him. But I didn’t really pursue any Christian explanations of the books until after I read DH and found the whole book, especially the ending, to be explicitly Christian. Well that’s when I started searching and I found this wonderful site full of intelligent and mature topics, which unfortunately on the internet is hard to find sometimes.
Back to the topic of Christian content in DH I found this to be interesting:
John said: “Romulus, do you maintain, as you have every time you’ve appeared on our program, that Harry Potter is still alive?“
“I do,“ said Lupin firmly. “There is no doubt at all in my mind that his death would be proclaimed as widely as possible by the Death Eaters if it had happened, because it would strike a deadly blow at the morale of those resisting the new regime. ‘The Boy Who Lived’ remains a symbol of everything for which we are fighting: the triumph of good, the power of innocence, the need to keep resisting.“
Maybe this is JKR’s way of telling people that Jesus is still alive…let me go in depth a little on this thought. Many people have argued whether Christ was just a man who did some good things on the earth or whether Christ was indeed the Messiah. When Christ died, the Bible tells us he was put in a tomb and then 3 days later the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty. After that the people that Jesus appeared to were proclaiming that Jesus is alive!! Bear with me here I am not very good at putting my thoughts into words..If this were not true then why didn’t the governmental and religious officials parade Jesus’ body around in the streets to contradict those “heretics”. And if the disciples stole his body like some believe why would most of them accept persecution, all they had to do was renounce that Jesus was Lord. I mean how many of you would die, so that a lie you told wouldn’t be revealed? Instead we have no accounts of anyone disproving these eyewitness accounts. That’s just something to think about.
Anyways, sorry this post was so long with only one little half-thought out point in it. But lastly I would like to thank all of you at HogPro for your input and thoughts, I feel honored to even post on the same page as some of you lol but I hope to get better as I learn more about literature in general and Harry Potter!
Hey, I loved this article! Being a somewhat unorthodox Christian and a Harry Potter fan myself, I was delighted to find somewhat of a kindred spirit shining through in your article.
I felt the same things as I was reading Deathly Hallows.
Anyways, your article prompted me to write an article of my own, dealing with my thoughts on the nature of faith as I was reading through Deathly Hallows. And, as someone’s interpretation of a piece of literature often tells you far more about them than it does about the literature, I cordially invite you to hop on over to my blog and learn a little bit about me through hearing my thoughts regarding The Deathly Hallows. But please, don’t leave without reciprocating. I want to know more about you, so please leave comments and tell me what you think! Thanks!
John, this was great, and I agree with it.
Harry sorrowed in the Godric Hollow graveyard as one who had no hope. Yet, light and Christmas carols from the church brought Harry comfort. I’d give a lot to know the name of the Christmas carol he heard at the church and later coming from the pub that made Harry want to enter it (p. 331).
“The pub was fuller than before. Many voices inside it were now singing the carol that they had heard as they [Harry and Hermione] approached the church. For a moment Harry considered suggesting they take refuge inside it, but before he could say anything, Hermione murmured, “Let’s go this way,” and pulled him down the dark street leading out of the village in the opposite direction from which they entered.” (Wow! What a sentence! Hermione suggests they go another way, down a dark street and opposite which they entered – this is one example of the many fantastic spiritual applications we can make that fills the series!)
Understanding from ‘Seeker’ to one who ‘Knows’ occurred during the burial of Dobby as you put so well.
“Am I meant to know but not to seek? Did you know how hard I’d feel that? Is that why you made it this difficult? So I’d have time to work that out?”
Great thoughts both “terrible and fascinating” came to Harry as well has his desire “working out” in faith and trust to follow Dumbledore and complete the task set before him (Horcruxes not Hallows). A faith and trust deep enough that can say, ‘although he slay me, yet will I trust him.’
I viewed Dumbledore as spiritual head, Father, wise elder Christian or perhaps Harry’s true godfather (in the fullest sense). Dumbledore’s sin, temptation and involvement with Grindelwald give him unique insights into Voldemort’s evil day and history repeating itself. It should be mentioned that Dumbledore didn’t believe as Grindelwald believed. To his credit Dumbledore did stand up to him and defeat him. Dumbledore definitely understood loss and guilt from his experiences of the past; and when I think of Ariana and the summation of all his regrets, Dumbledore indeed was acquainted with sorrow and grief.
I thought the statement on blindness had a poignant spiritual application as Harry heard Aberforth’s pronouncements against his brother almost as Satan would try to thwart a believer’s desire to follow his Master.
“The firelight made the grimy lenses of Aberforth’s glasses momentarily opaque, a bright flat white and Harry remembered the blind eyes of the giant spider Aragog”. (p. 561)
“And his eyes were briefly occluded by the firelight on the lenses of his glasses. They shone white and blind again.” (p. 566)
I sorrowed for Aberforth because he saw Ariana as “gone, gone forever” (p. 567) perhaps not achieving a faith and belief in life after death and seeing loved ones again as Albus had, “Where your treasure is there shall your heart be also.”
In the end Harry gazes at Dumbledore and feels the balm of phoenix song again, the song that is sung when loyalty is declared and associated with his wise mentor (p. 747).
Further, I couldn’t help but be transported into the spiritual realm during the battle scenes in DH, where the physical and spiritual worlds seemed to me to blur. It also occurred, for example, when Bathilda turned into a snake. It made me think a lot about the works of Charles Williams as did That Hideous Strength for others.
Finally, in the room of requirement (p. 633-34) when the trio searched for the tiara, fiendfyre was unleashed by one of Malfoy’s cronies. John, my hair stood on end reading that section. While the enduring enmity between Harry (the Gryffindors) and Malfoy (the Slytherins) caused Ron to shout: “IF WE DIE FOR THEM, I’LL KILL YOU, HARRY.” (Yes, Jesus died for Slytherins, too. I am the door.) And the spiritual and physical worlds blur “as a great flaming chimaera bore down upon them, he and Hermione dragged Goyle onto their broom, and rose, rolling and pitching, into the air once more as Malfoy clambered up behind Harry.
The door, get to the door, the door,” screamed Malfoy in Harry’s ear, and Harry sped up, following Ron, Hermione, and Goyle through the billowing black smoke, hardly able to breathe and all around them the last few objects unburned by the devouring flames were flung into the air, as the creatures of the cursed fire cast them high in celebration: cups and shields, a sparkling necklace, and an old, discolored tiara—
“What are you doing, what are you doing, the door is this way!” screamed Malfoy, but Harry made a hairpin swerve and dived. The diadem seemed to fall in slow motion, turning and glittering as it dropped toward the maw of a yawning serpent, and then he had it, caught it around his wrist—
Harry swerved again as the serpent lunged at him; he soared upward—straight toward the place where, he prayed (and they say Harry doesn’t pray!), the door stood open: Ron, Hermione and Goyle had vanished; Malfoy was screaming and holding Harry so tightly it hurt. Then, through the smoke, Harry saw a rectangular patch on the wall and steered the broom at it, and moments later clean air filled his lungs.”
Has anyone cosidered the possibility that Harry Potter might fit the type of an existential hero? This concept would fit with the theme of Harry’s crisis of faith in Deathly Hallows, and Ms. Rowling’s “struggle to keep believing.” It would also tie in nicely with the World War II-related themes, since the form of existentialism which most people know and love (or not!) is the French variety which emerged in the wake of World War II, personified by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.
The horror of the world wars had a profound impact on the French psyche. The twentieth century opened with great optimism that human reason and science could conquer all problems, and that social progress, prosperity and the continual advancement of civilization were inevitable. The death, destruction, cruelty and utter barbarism that the European continent witnessed twice in that century, and most strikingly duirng the Holocaust, completely shattered that faith in the “modern myth.”
The big existentialist question at that time was, “Where do we go from here? What can we believe in? What must we do?” Unfortunately for France, most of the thinkers who defined that era came to the conclusion that there was no transcendent meaning, and it was up to us to create meaning for ourselves.
But the answer to the great existential question need not be nihilism.
The essential theme of existentialism (yes, I know that’s something of a contradiction in terms!) is that we are defined by the choices we make. This is a problem for Christians only if we make the wrong choices and seek meaning in the wrong places. (Of course, it’s also a problem for Christians who reject the notion of free will.)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian and a hero of the German resistance against Hitler, has been referred to by some as a Christian existentialist because of his emphasis on the importance of choice and right action as the Christian’s response to God’s grace. He himself made the decision to confront directly the evil of Naziism, in spite of doubt and very difficult circumstances. He ultimately gave his life for that cause.
This is the very sort of dilemma faced by Harry at the darkest point of Deathly Hallows. He feels isolated and afraid. He has been abandoned by Ron. His faith in Dumbledore is shaken. He is tempted to abandon the mission given him, and chase instead after the deathly hallows, in an unwise quest for the wrong kind of power. But after the heroic example of Dobby, who sacrificed his life in order to save Harry, Harry makes the decision that he must dedicate himself to the mission given him by Dumbledore, and pursue the right path, regardless of his desires and emotional inclinations.
I recall that Lev Grossman, in his famed essay, “Who Dies in Harry Potter? God,” defines love, the overarching theme of the Harry Potter books, as a “mere human emotion.” But for the Christian existentialist, and for Harry Potter, love is so much more than that. Love is a decision, an act of the will, a commitment to act for the good of others regardless of our emotions. Good thing for the wizarding world that Harry emerges from his existential crisis and made the right choice in the end!
Mary N., your comments about mid-20th century nihilistic existential questions reminded me of Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” When I read it several years ago, it was for personal reasons during a time of upheaval; I didn’t read it in the context of post-world wars existentialism. Thanks for this perspective. It must have been a powerful rebuttal to the Sartres and Camuses of the day.
Frankl, a psychiatrist who endured horrors in a concentration camp, wrote a powerful book, which I encourage everyone to read, especially an updated one with the section of later presentations at the end. Frankl deals with existential questions of how and why people do or don’t survive cataclysmic events in the context of meaning and faith. It’s a positive existential take.
Kitties don’t search for meaning, they search out warm laps…
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