A Stoic Looks at Deathly Hallows: A Note from Prof. Edmund Kern of Lawrence University

Edmund Kern, Associate Professor of History at Lawrence University and author of The Wisdom of Harry Potter: What Our Favorite Hero Teaches Us About Moral Choices, is teasing out the ambivalences of the religious meaning in Ms. Rowling’s novels for his class on Harry Potter at Lawrence. I asked for and received his permission to post a recent email he sent after the revelations of the Open Book Tour, that the “religious undertones” of the book were intentional, even “obvious,” and that Ms. Rowling “always thought of Dumbledore as gay.” Prof. Kern is concerned that readers will overstate the specific religious meaning, if there is any, in Deathly Hallows; the spirituality of the books, he argues, is intentionally open-ended, much like the author’s treatment of politics. As he puts it, “the books remain ideologically ‘open,’ and they remain focused on individual responsibility (in the tradition of liberal political theory), rather than offering revolutionary critiques of either politics or religion.” We certainly agree more than we disagree on this, if my interpretation of Ms. Rowling’s “struggle to believe” and understanding Deathly Hallows I think puts me just enough at odds with his religious/spiritual distinction that we can have an interesting discussion. I have promised to send your comments to him about this conversation starter for his response. Your comments and corrections, please!

JKR’s revelation that she’d always thought of Dumbledore as gay has led me back to her treatment of religious imagery. She’s sneakier than even we give her credit for. Here’s my promised, much longer take on recent “revelations.”

As you know, I like your reading of the Potter books, but I still feel more comfortable taking a more cautious approach. “Imagery” (whose presence she’s confirmed) is not the same thing as “message” (whose presence she still hasn’t confirmed). I’m not trying to be cute or coy here, but trying to pay attention to what she actually said.

The spiritual aspects of the books really do become more pronounced in books 6 and 7. The Christ-imagery is there, along with the passages from Matthew and 1 Corinthians. But Rowling also leaves the whole issue of spirituality–let alone religion, as its usually understood–rather ambivalent.

Already in her remarks to Meredith Viera on NBC, she suggested that the final chapters are about her struggle (my italics): “my struggle really is to keep believing.” Hmmm. Even in the article that you cite, she speaks of “parallels” and “references,” and we again see her invoking that word “struggle.”

Her honesty seems to support my impression about the ambivalences: “my faith is sometimes that my faith will return.”

Ultimately more important for literary analysis, Harry’s spirituality strikes me as imminent rather than transcendent. His triumph is not dependent upon some moment of grace bestowed from above (no deus ex machina, no “eucatastrophe,” as Tolkien would put it); and Harry’s reward is romantic love, sex, children, and a “normal” family life with Ginny. Likewise, Harry’s “apotheosis” in “King’s Cross” (there’s that Christ-imagery again) is more like a near-death experience than anything out of Christian metaphysics. Check out Oliver Sacks in The New Yorker (23 July 2007) outlining, among other things, near-death experiences as neurological events.

I’m also pretty sure that the “Dumbledore,” in those scenes, tells Harry nothing that Harry doesn’t already know. Thus, “Dumbledore” never truly leaves Harry, because he’s “alive” in Harry’s memories (a point the headmaster makes about Harry’s parents in book 3). As “Dumbledore” says, it’s Harry’s party, it’s in Harry’s head, but it might nonetheless be something real. There’s plenty to suggest that the setting is a “magical” place located between the boundaries of life and death, rather than the heaven (or Limbo or Purgatory) of Christian metaphysics. Again, “parallels” and “references” don’t quite square the circle.

[Not-so-quick aside: Ah, Dumbledore. He really is the consummate Stoic–ordering those things within his control and accepting those outside it. In his defense, he forces nothing upon those who find themselves working on behalf of his plans. They remain free to walk away at any time; here, I find his discussion of the Mirror of Erised and the Prophecy in book 6 particularly instructive. Harry can run; Snape can give up. They both choose–out of love, out of understanding what is at stake–not to do so. I’ve heard some fans complain that Dumbledore, in effect, sent Mad-Eye to his death (along with poor Hedwig) by insisting that Voldemort be given a shot at Harry, so that Snape might further ingratiate himself with Harry’s nemesis. Mad-Eye has been constructed in such a way that I can hardly see him objecting. He, too, willingly takes on necessary danger; “constant vigilance” is not the same thing as “protect yourself at all cost.” (Hedwig, too, is always ready to serve–Ok, I’ll admit I’m pushing it!)]

The “baby” in “King’s Cross” is another interesting example. The suggestion is that “souls” are the sole (forgive the bad pun) responsibility of the individual in question. (Remember, Dumbledore’s statement to Snape about the state of the latter’s soul with regard to the arranged “mercy killing” whose added benefit was the protection of Draco.) What I’m not sure of is whether the “baby” represents the part of Voldemort’s soul that had attached itself to Harry’s, or the part that remained in Voldemort’s worldly body. (I’m not sure Rowling knows either, but I’m leaning toward the latter.) Voldemort was, once again, affected by the killing curse directed at Harry. We know, at the least, that he was blown off his feet like Harry.

Might he not be in the same “place” as Harry following that action? In other words, is seems possible that the piece attached to Harry had been destroyed, while the worldly part remained, like Harry’s soul, caught between life and death. When Harry returns to life, so too might that soul fragment–which is then offered the opportunity for remorse in the final showdown. Thus, quite literally, there’s nothing that Harry can do while betwixt and between, although he is free to do something about it once he returns fully to life.

I’m not sure that I buy this line of argument, since maybe the fragment in Voldemort has to remain in his body to keep Harry tied to the world–but the fragment in Nagini should accomplish the same thing. Still, I’ll hang my hat on the claims about responsibility and remorse.

I’ll concede, there’s not much to prevent readers from reading their own religious beliefs into the passage, even though, in the last analysis, love and death remain the great mysteries–both remain terrible and wonderful.

Now, none of this particularly bothers me, but these observations do point in the direction of a spiritual rather than religious experience. As I claimed in The Wisdom of Harry Potter: What Our Favorite Hero Teaches Us About Moral Choices, Rowling’s series does not offer a message of transcendence through religious faith. Nothing in the final two books changes my opinion about this, despite some prominent Christ-imagery. Sacrificial love does not belong alone to the Christian tradition.

The upshot? Ultimately, Rowling gives her harshest fundamentalist critics more than enough ammunition to continue their attacks. It’s already started; check out Ray Gano’s piece at www.theconservativevoice.com/article/28765.html.

The question is whether they will choose to continue. Some will, no doubt, but I don’t think the media will be interested in pursuing such attacks, because the theology required to untangle Rowling’s ambivalences is far, far more complicated than were the initial salvos about devil-worship and relativistic morality. (These attacks could easily be labeled and dismissed as stupid.)

I don’t quite see the Potter books as Christian allegory, even if they remain consistent with religious faith. Although I disagree strongly with the negative connotations that Lev Grossman attaches to the absence of God in the Potter books, I do think that he’s right in pointing to that absence. Some passages from the New Testament (which are really quite secular in their out-of-context content) and some prominent symbolism really don’t fill that void.

Finally, the focalized narrator of JKR’s third-person limited omniscient voice seems to suggest that religion isn’t a part of Harry’s spiritual life. If danger and the threat of death, not to mention the fate of the wizarding community, aren’t enough to prompt religious musings, I’m not sure what will. I’m left thinking about her ambivalences again. She offers no secular orthodoxies in her send-ups of government, and by not addressing religion directly, she manages to avoid suggesting any religious ones either. The books remain ideologically “open,” and they remain focused on individual responsibility (in the tradition of liberal political theory), rather than offering revolutionary critiques of either politics or religion.

I’m sure some on both the right and the left will see this as evidence of her cowardice, but I believe that there’s value in her ideological openness. She challenges readers to make sense of Harry’s experience in light of their own, rather than offering answers. I think she ultimately treats religion or spirituality in the same fashion.


  1. I agree, she has been, and continues to struggle with her own beliefs. I’ve been noting her physical transformation over at Harry’s Request forum. I think it mirrors her mental struggle. I’ve posted early photos of JK as a fresh faced, redheaded “Lily” and more current pictures of a dour blonde, snake adorned (locket and sandals), enthroned “Narcissa.” If Slytherins are unredeemable, then what is she saying about herself?

    I’m not sure, after all this time, if she has come to terms with her mother’s death from MS. I think that is where the struggle with faith originated. It’s sometimes hard to reconcile a loving God with such a horrific death.

    Facism seemed to be ever present in DH, so I’m not sure that I agree that she left politics out. I’d also point out her “Question the gov’t and media” statement in NY recently. I’m pretty sure that statement was aimed at Americans in particular. She didn’t say it in Canada so far as I know.

  2. gullchasedship says

    Problem is you could say the same thing about Lewis and Tolkien, yet no one denies that their books were informed by their Christian faith.

  3. So he says Rowling doesn’t offer any revolutionary critiques of religion… it seems to me that we’re at a place where a mass-market work like HP would be revolutionary by offering an AFFIRMATION of traditional truths. Critiques we’ve got coming out of our ears.

    Given the way Harry’s life is described, it’s hardly a surprise that religion doesn’t play a part in his life. The boy was never TAUGHT. He was raised, after all, by the Dursleys, who would have to be counted as faithful devotees of Mammon. The kind of people for whom Sunday just means a bigger breakfast and a bigger newspaper, followed perhaps by some golf with prospective drill-bit customers. But if we imagine that, after Deathly Hallows, somebody actually set out to instruct Harry in the tenets of traditional Christianity, it seems to me that it would strike him as intuitively “right”– that it squares with his experience.

  4. John — I’d go with the former rather than the latter when it comes to that wretched child-like thing in the King’s Cross moment. I think she means it as the fragment of Voldemort’s soul that was attached to Harry. Now bereft of its host, it’s dying … and beyond any help that Harry or Dumbledore could give it (if they wanted to).

    And as to the list of characters willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for a greater goal, forget not Emmiline Vance whose murder came about with Snape’s help … and must have been planned in advance by Dumbledore and the Order for the purpose of furthering Snape’s cover.

  5. JKR also suggested that she struggled in her faith as Graham Greene did. From information I gathered about GG, “the novels of Graham Greene often had religious themes at the center. In his literary criticism, he attacked most modern literature for having lost the religious sense and for lacking such themes, which he argued, resulted in dull, superficial characters who: wandered about like cardboard symbols through a world that is paper-thin. Only in recovering the religious element, the awareness of the drama of the struggle in the soul carrying the infinite consequences of salvation and damnation, and of the ultimate metaphysical realities of good and evil, sin and grace, could the novel recover its dramatic power. Suffering and unhappiness are omnipresent in the fallen world Greene depicted, and Catholicism is presented against a background of unvarying human evil, sin and doubt. The novels often powerfully portray the Christian drama of the struggles within the individual soul from the Catholic perspective. Greene was criticised for certain tendencies in an unorthodox direction — in the world, sin is omnipresent to the degree that the vigilant struggle to avoid sinful conduct is doomed to failure, hence, not central to holiness. [Chrystyan notes here that in her tradition that righteousness comes from Christ’s robe of righteousness—imputed righteousness–not from our own selves–struggling with sin and asking forgiveness of God and others is a lifetime process.] Greene also indicated that constructing a vision of pure faith and goodness in the novel was beyond his talents.” I believe JKR did a fine job writing about religious themes in the Harry Potter books and depicted the struggles within the individual soul from a religious perspective not unlike GG.

  6. colorless.blue.ideas says

    While I agree with TrudyK that the best interpretation is that the “thing” in King’s Cross is the small fraction that was attached to Harry, I don’t think that it was dying. Oh, no, much worse and without help. It was living . . . but totally alone and bereft of the rest of itself, past grace, beyond comfort. It is rightly called Hell.

    Not a pleasant thought, but a seemly (and admonitory) warning.

  7. Graham Greene’s novel, THE POWER AND THE GLORY, read in high school, has left an impression that cannot be erased of the nature of humanity and grace, and the cost of discipleship in even the most faulty disciple. I am grateful beyond measure for the insights he gave me. And as a then Baptist, I had no problem with the failure of the priest to achieve holiness on his own – “all our righteousness is as filthy rags”. But what I recall is the wonderful moment when -for the possibility that the condemned had repented, the priest turns back to do his duty to the criminal and for Christ to pronounce the absolution grounded solely in the Deity’s love for humankind from the Cross that cost him his earthly life. What a picture of grace and human cooperation with it!

    I find myself 4 decades later thinking of Harry Potter in the same manner.
    This is – I think – what will be the experience of the Millenials when they encounter the life of their foutht and fifth decades. Yes, the current critics wanted to avoid the issue – it’s not fashionable. But as the exemplars Lewis and Tolkien demonstrate, it is not the durrent critics who are best prepared to assess impact and value of an author’s works.

    JKR has stolen past wtachful dragons aplenty and planted the banner of Eternity in the hearts of many. Whether they pledge allegience and fealty to that banner is not the matter of moments, but of their lifetimes.

    True, some few of us have the sense of what will happen, having been captured by the banners planted in our hearts past the watchful dragons of modernity and postmodernity decades ago. But we are few, relatively, a small people among the nations of postmodern, postChristian bloggers! Yet we have glimpsed the future. Betcha we’re right.

  8. Arabella Figg says

    Imagery points to message. The books aren’t tract as fiction. Rowling does have an inclusive feel, though, which I consider advantageous as millions outside the Christian Ghetto will read, enjoy and be motivated/elevated by the series. And those within will be challenged toward examination rather than shoving their inner metaphorical elephant under the metaphorical religious rug.

    To anyone who would accuse Rowling of cowardice, I suggest they put out their own vulnerable, honest multi-book exploration of faith struggles and the tension between good and evil, and then give interviews baldly discussing this. I found Rowling’s “struggle to believe” interviews quite touching and courageous; afraid of controversy she’s not. Reminds me of a certain carpenter. Yet she had the good sense to employ some evasive (and thus tantalyzing) tactics.

    I believe the soul fragment was Harry’s Horcrux, since all Horcruxes had to be destroyed (killed) and there was no one at King’s Cross but Harry, the fragment and then Dumbledore. (Heavens, if so, are there are eight separate LV soul fragments enduring immoratal suffering?)

    King’s Cross seemed to be some sort of waystation–perhaps in Harry’s head as he put everything he already knew together (an echo of his experience after Dobby’s death), or perhaps also real (an echo of the “silver cross” sword/baptism in The Silver Doe chapter). It could also be the raw baby was LV’s now rejoined complete soul (theory: the waystation was outside time, thus Dumbledore, knowing Harry would return and defeat LV, kept deflecting Harry’s attention away from it because he wanted Harry to make a free choice.

    Chiron, fashion choices change over 17 years, so please don’t judge a person’s inner faith by them. After all, what does this existentially say about the expanding (pun intended) popularity of adjustable/elastic waistbands with aging boomers?

    Fullatricks is washing her expandable fur and looking smug…

  9. I think «The Theology of Harry Potter» (and of Albus Dumbledore and of Joanne Rowling) is strong and profiled on the questions where the tehology of Alchemism is strong and profiled. But it is weak, unclear and ambiguous on the questiones where Christian Alchymism is weak, unclear and ambiguous.

    To prove this thesis requiers a list of arguments, and I don’t presently sit on it to reproduce here at length.

    But when I, as an example, think of the two Scripture quotations, I find it impossible to believe that she (and Dumbledore) read them without so much as one single reflection on their context.

    Take 1 Cor 15:26: «The last enimy to be destroyed is death». This vers stands within a whole chapter of resurrection theology. It is impossible to read it without seeing the exclusive role of Christ in provideing human resurrection from the dead. He shall be the King, «unntil he put all enimies under his feet» says vers 25 (quoting Psalm 110:1). Then vers 26 goes on (interpreting the very last implication on which enimies were included in that Psalm quotation): «The last enimy to be detroyed (that is: by Christ) is death».

    Then take Math 6:21: «Where your treasure is, there will your heart also be». It is in the Sermon-on-the-Mount-context stated as an argument in favor of the preceding two verses: «Do not gather for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust corrupts, and where thieves break in and steal. But gather for yourself treasures in heaven» (where these thing don’t happen). Why? Because: «Where your treasure is, there will your heart also be.» Then what treasures are Dumbledore here haveing in mind? His mother, his father and his sister, all dead in consequence of some terrible chains of events, starting with the rapists, but including even the weakness of youngster Albus himself. It is his burning hope, his desperate hope, this pointer towards heaven from the Sermon on the Mount. We can’t believe that JKR inteded him to be so antiintellectuel as to pick and choose in the sermon, totally at random. He simply must have been aware of the bigger context.

    And the contexts of both Scripture quotations then are in fact the resurrection theology – which is also the most heavily emphasized theological dogma within Christian Alchemism.

    Yours: Odd Sverre Hove
    Bergen, Norway

  10. So, Harry’s reward is “romantic love, sex, children, and a “normal” family life with Ginny”?? Isn’t that what Aragorn gets? And Sam? And most of the kings of Narnia and Archenland? For years of faithful service to The Mission–years of turmoil, sacrifice, suffering, doubt, doing without, keeping on keeping on even when it seems hopeless–the reward for some characters is marriage and kids and all that; others pay the ultimate price.

    Harry’s reward may seem mundane, but to have a life of normalcy after the first 17 years of chaos seems more than a reasonable reward. It in no way means there wasn’t a price paid for the reward, or even that there was no spiritual turning point. There may not have been a bright-light-on-the-road-to-Damascus experience, but there was a release of anger, a turn toward forgiveness, and a recognition that complete restoration of a soul can only be accomplished through repentence, and that true repentence can even result in death, but a death that brings healing and peace. I have been crucified with Christ, yet it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me!

    Are these concepts unique to Christianity? Not entirely. I am no deep scholar, as many who post here are; I am a simple home school mom who spends her days trying to convince her child that printing is, indeed, a valuable skill–so I will have no problems being corrected. 🙂 But it seems to me that when Christian concepts are placed in a novel brimming with Christian symbols, then the concepts should be interpreted in light of Christianity.

    Does that mean the author is herself a perfect model of Christianity? No. Does it mean I agree with her all of particular viewpoints of Christianity? No. Does it exclude the author from struggling with her faith and admitting that she does so? No. Does it mean the author’s novel is itself, Gospel? Heavens, no.

    But none of that means that it’s not a Christian series just because there isn’t a dramatic salvation experience for a lead character and a presentation of the Four Spiritual Laws. One of my favorite explicitly Christian authors, Ted Dekker, writes exactly the opposite of those kinds of books. His characters seem to have more…”spiritual” experiences than Christian ones, per se. Some of them don’t even have “spiritual” experiences at all. Yet there is no doubt that he writes Christan books. He’s even published by, gasp, Thomas Nelson. I’m not trying to put Ted Dekker on par with JK Rowling, just making an observation.

    Here’s hoping and praying that no matter what her authorial intent or personal faith crisis may have been in recent years that 1) she resolves whatever her issues are and comes to deep and complete peace with Jesus and 2) that the themes of her books will slip past watchful dragons and baptize imaginations for many a generation to come.

  11. I disagree with the “spiritual v. religious” dichotomy Prof. Kern sets up here. “Spirituality” is far too tenuous a concept and is really the wrong way to think about a series of books with such a strong alchemical skeleton. John has shown too much alchemical and Christian symbolism to let such a loose classification as “spiritual” get much traction. The books are clearly religious; moreover, they have a clearly Christian context and subtext.

    Now, if the proffered distinction is between “religious” and “theological”, then I think the professor could make a stronger case. Rowling’s aims are literary and symbolic; she explores the theme of sacrificial love conquering death and explores the hope offering by life beyond death. She is not, however, trying to be descriptive and authoritative; that kind of surety is striven for by theology proper.

    Thus, the door is open to think that the Resurrection Stone is mental magic fooling Harry into seeing his loved ones instead of actually bringing them back to a temporary life of sort or that King’s Cross might just be a near-death brain experience. Rowling may believe in life after death, hope for it, have good reasons to think it true, but she may also lack metaphysical certainty. Theology says, “it is thus”; Rowling seems to be saying, “I believe; help thou my unbelief.” Thus the experience is immersive instead of didactic, and that works not only with her religious subtext but also her literary goals (like narrative misdirection and the character twists.) Still, there’s just far too much context to call it “spirituality”, even if there’s not enough to call it allegory.

    Oh, and I do agree with the professor about the fragment of Voldemort Harry sees in King’s Cross. I think it’s the living part of Voldemort that’s left (Horcrux soul bits, I think, are completely destroyed.) Harry says something like, “I’ve seen what you’ll be” when giving Voldemort the chance to repent (or feel remorse, as it were.) I also think it’s a pretty potent picture of Voldemort’s hell: perpetual powerlessness. (Now that I’ve filled my alliteration quotient for the day, I’ll close.)

  12. I am really enjoying this thread and as it happens my brother has addressed (in an essay on another topic, which hopefully will be published on a well known site) the question of where was the Kings Cross meeting taking place.

    I do not have permission to reproduce his detailed reasoning here but I want to jump in to put forward two points for your consideration:

    that the information provided by Dumbledore at Kings Cross was mostly – but NOT ENTIRELY – known to Harry (sloppy of me: I worked out why and have forgotten and I have no notes to back up this assertion so I am hoping another will come forth and back me up please!)

    that Dumbledore’s main pre-occupation is not with Harry’s mortal body but with the fate of his soul.

    Snape’s memories reveal a conversation where Dumbledore tells the astonished ex-potions professor that it is “essential” Voldemort kill Harry, and further on Dumbledore was clear “the connection between them grows ever stronger, a parasitic growth.”.

    My brother goes on to note that Parasites feed off their hosts, not the other way around, what would have been Harry’s fate had he not had his soul detached from Voldemort’s? Or, if Harry’s body had been so badly damaged he could not return to it, his conjoined soul would have had to ‘survive’ in that state, but, again, if Voldemort’s soul was parasitic, what would have been the fate of Harry’s soul?

    As Dumbledore puts it at Kings Cross “Oh, yes! Yes, he destroyed it.” Voldemort not only murders a part of himself, but also restores to Harry his soul “whole”, and, “completely [his] own.”

    The point I am labouring to make is that JKR’s writes so as to allow readers the freedom to take Kings Cross anyway they like – but only up to a point – because detailed analysis will show that information is passed on that is not known to Harry beforehand.

    In addition Harry is offered a choice whether to ‘go on’ or to return – this is only meaningful if it is a REAL choice not just some fantasy in his head.

    Finally I suggest that JKR’s evident pre-occupation with the condition of a human’s soul above and beyond all other considerations, makes it rather awkward to interpret the books from the standpoint of one who does not believe in a hereafter.

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