Guest Post #3 – The ‘Harrying of Hell’ The Harrowing in Philosopher’s Stone and Deathly Hallows (Beatrice Groves)

Beatrice Groves, Research Lecturer and tutor at Trinity College, Oxford, and author of the just published Literary Allusion in Harry Potter finishes off her discussion of the thematic axis of the Hogwarts Saga, Stone-Goblet-Hallows, with a brilliant revelation of the shared Christian symbolism in each of the beginning, central, and final Harry Potter novels. It is Part 3 of 3 Guest Posts Professor Groves will share with us to celebrate the publication of her wonderful book. 

The ‘Harrying of Hell:’ The Harrowing in Philosopher’s Stone and Deathly Hallows — Part 3 of 3 Literary Allusion Guest Posts

As noted in my previous blog-post, a deepening of the Christian symbolism in Harry Potter is visible along the Stone-Goblet-Hallows story axis, as early events gain in significance as they are repeated through the series. This is likewise the case in the topic explored in this concluding post: the echoes of the Harrowing of Hell within Harry Potter. There is a comic harrowing in Philosopher’s Stone, a brief echo of this scene in Goblet of Fire and then a final fulfilment of this harrowing imagery in Deathly Hallows.

The Harrowing of Hell is mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed. It was a particularly popular part of the Christian narrative in the medieval period and describes how – between his death and resurrection – Jesus enters hell, frees its captive souls and defeats the powers of darkness. It is depicted in the medieval dramatisations of salvation history (known as the mystery cycles) as well as stained glass, manuscript illuminations and poems such as Langland’s Piers Plowman. And it is part of the medieval aesthetic of Harry Potter’s world that its imagery of the triumph of good over evil draws on the harrowing.

It might be natural to assume that ‘harrowing’ refers to Christ ‘ploughing up’ hell – a verb which the Oxford English Dictionary vividly describes as ‘to break up, crush, or pulverize with a harrow.’ The OED claims, however, that the ‘harrowing’ of hell comes instead from the verb ‘harry’ – which means ‘to lay waste, sack, pillage, spoil.’ This is obviously pleasing for the current discussion as it means we could talk of the ‘Harrying’ (rather than the ‘Harrowing’) of hell.

But it also means that the name does not point to the destruction of hell but its despoliation: the crucial narrative event is the freeing of captives. The climactic harrowing of Deathly Hallows – discussed at the end of this post – is anticipated by earlier, comic examples which focus precisely on this aspect; moments in which Harry is freed by his wizarding friends from the hell that is his life with the Dursleys.

At the opening of the series, Uncle Vernon to takes Harry to a dark, isolated, broken-down hovel thinking that not even magic will be able to rescue him there. Suddenly, however, the sound of knocking breaks in on the narrative: ‘BOOM… Someone was outside, knocking to come in’ (Stone, Chap. 3). The most famous aspect of the harrowing is Christ’s portentous knocking on the gates of hell. Traditionally, he knocks three times and breaks down hell’s gates with his final knock. With Hagrid’s third knock, likewise, he smashes the door down.

When Christ knocks at the gates in the mystery plays the devils are thrown into confusion, rightly fearing that the sound presages the end of their power over the captive souls of mankind. Uncle Vernon, likewise, turns pale with terror. Despite the shock however, Uncle Vernon (like Satan desperate to hold on to his captives at the harrowing) clings to his desire to keep his power over Harry and send him to the evocatively named Stonewall High rather than let Hagrid take him away to freedom. Like the devils in the harrowing plays, however, he suddenly becomes comically weak and ineffectual, powerless to prevent his ‘captive’ going free.

Hagrid’s effortless power in the face of Uncle Vernon – twisting his gun into a knot – nods to a classic part of the harrowing narrative which illustrates Christ’s effortless triumph over Satan. In the Chester mystery play of the harrowing Christ is ‘so forceful and strong’ (play 17, l.121) and the Towneley play describes him as ‘full fierce in fight’ (play 25, l.139). The York Harrowing exults ‘great is your might’ (play 37, l.349) as Christ breaks down the gates of hell. One medieval poet puts this victory in terms that are particularly reminiscent of Hagrid’s destruction of the Dursley’s door: ‘he has… broken down hell’s doors with his foot.’[1] In the N-Town Harrowing, likewise, Christ declares ‘your dark door I throw down;/ Now I well know my fair friends’ (play 33, ll.44-45). [John: images of the Harrowing with the broken down gates here?]

Martin Luther wrote of how the harrowing was traditionally depicted with Jesus as a conquering hero dressed in ‘a cape and with banners in his hand as he makes his descent and stalks and assaults the devil, as he storms hell and rescues his own people from it.’[2] That Christ is rescuing ‘his own people’ – what the mystery plays call ‘my fair friends’ or ‘my folk’ (Towneley cycle, play 25. l.198) – is also part of Hagrid’s rescue of Harry. Hagrid is asserting that Harry belongs in the wizarding world, not the Dursley’s world, when he rescues him in order to take him back to ‘Our world’ (Stone, Chap. 4). Hagrid rescues a captive child and promises him happiness in the world in which he truly belongs, as Jesus does at the harrowing: ‘Come forth now, my children…/ With me now shall you go/ To joy and endless bliss’ (Towneley, play 25. ll.372-4).

The portentous sound of the knocking, Uncle Vernon’s fear, Hagrid’s goodness and power, the flattening of the door and the rescue of Harry from captivity all mark the moment as a comic harrowing. Hagrid’s larger-than-life form embodies the irrepressible entrance of magic – the magic that will be Harry’s salvation – into the miserable, closed world of the Dursleys in which Harry has been trapped for so long.

The clear harrowing links of the Hagrid’s rescue of Harry in this opening novel – and the letters pouring through the fireplace that preceded it – are echoed in Goblet of Fire when the Weasleys come to rescue Harry from the Dursleys, knocking on their boarded-up fireplace with ‘a loud hammering of fists’ (Goblet, Chap. 4). When Hagrid enters the cold shack in Philosopher’s Stone he immediately gets a roaring fire going. Mr Weasley, likewise, once he has broken through the blocked-up fire place – to the horror of the Dursleys – lights a warm, merrily crackling fire in their cold hearth.

The idea of hell as symbolically ‘cold’ (like the storm-lashed hovel in Stone and the boarded up hearth of Privet Drive) might seem odd; but it can likewise be found in a comic, parodic harrowing in Rowling’s favourite Shakespeare play: Macbeth. In Macbeth Act 2 scene 3 (known as the ‘Porter scene’) there is a portentous knocking on the gates of Macbeth’s castle: ‘Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, I’ th’ name of Beelzebub?’ (2.3.3-4). The Porter finally opens the door with an explicit acknowledgement of the harrowing parallel: ‘But this place is too cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter it no further’ (2.3.16-17). ).

In the mystery plays performed at Coventry – those which Shakespeare is most likely to have seen – there was Harrowing play with a (probably comic) ‘devil-porter.’ The sound of knocking and the references to hell, Beelzebub and devil-porters in Macbeth makes this moment into a parodic harrowing. In doing so, Macbeth aligns its protagonist with the powers of darkness and sides with those who enter the castle and will eventually punish Macbeth for his wrong-doing.

Rowling is likely to know about the Harrowing from the Apostle’s Creed or simply from her general knowledge of the Christian story. It is also possible, however, that she is aware of the classic mystery play link with this scene in Macbeth or that she has seen a mystery play dramatisation of the harrowing (for mystery plays have once again become popular in Britain[3]). (The word ‘mystery’ is certainly used a great deal in this comic harrowing scene – ‘it’s a great myst’ry;’ ‘the mystr’y is…;’ ‘this is the real myst’ry of the thing;’ ‘that’s the biggest myst’ry’ [Stone, Chap. 4]!).

Macbeth’s parodic harrowing is the most famous example of the now accepted link between Shakespeare and the mystery plays[4] (for a good recent discussion, see chapter five of Kurt Schreyer’s Shakespeare’s Medieval Craft [2014]). Like the Porter scene in Macbeth, Hagrid’s parodic harrowing is comic. The portentousness of the moment – the mysterious arrival of a powerful stranger breaking in through the darkness – and its allusive power are comically undercut when Hagrid enters saying ‘Couldn’t make us a cup o’ tea, could yeh?’ (Stone, Chap 4).

Hagrid makes his tea and his delicious, slightly burnt, sausages on a fire that warms and lightens the cold hovel. Light breaking in on darkness is a major part of the symbolism of the harrowing and it is central to two of its most famous depictions.  The Gospel of Nicodemus (a fourth century Apocryphal Gospel which is the source for most harrowing imagery) describes how ‘on a sudden there came a golden heat of the sun and a purple and royal light shining upon us.’ Both York and Towneley Harrowing plays describe a ‘glorious gleam’ (York, play 37, l.42; Towneley, play 25, l.30) which delights the souls who wait in darkness.

This would have been performed by ‘some cunning device’ such as ‘candles or lanterns with lenses or reflectors, either using polished bowls or liquid-filled glass vessels to intensify the light.’[5] There were also fires lit in the traditional harrowing plays (particularly prominent, perhaps, at Chester where the harrowing was performed by the Cooks’ guild). The editors of the Towneley plays note ‘the light which serves as a beacon to the saved souls was probably provided by a torch, but there may also have been a fire and perhaps a cauldron’ and there was certainly a fire at Coventry, for a payment was made to ‘hym that kepte the fyer.’[6]

Hagrid (and to a lesser extent Mr Weasley) bring warmth and light to Harry with their merrily burning fires after the cold misery of his time with the Dursleys. When Hagrid lights his fire, Harry is filled with deep comfort and the room is filled ‘with flickering light’ (Stone, Chap. 4); and when Harry wakes the next morning, likewise, it is to a hut which ‘was full of sunlight’ (Stone, Chap 5). The light imagery, however, is even more striking in the final harrowing of the series when Harry finally overcomes Voldemort and at that precise moment light breaks in on the scene.

The single combat between Harry and Voldemort in Deathly Hallows is cast as a harrowing because it is the final, martial encounter between good and evil in the series; and the martial nature of the harrowing is a crucial reason for its popularity. The harrowing allows writers and artists to depict Christ as a glorious victor ‘fierce in battle and worthy to win honour’ (Towneley play 25, ll.139-40). It portrays Christ as a physically dominant hero who vanquishes Satan not only through obedient, self-sacrificial love at his Passion, but also through physical prowess. The western culture of masculinity (bred on classical martial heroes) has long struggled with the inversion of traditional heroism embodied by the Passion. Christ’s choice to suffer rather than fight is a truly radical inversion of the idea of what a hero should be; and this is one reason for the traditional popularity of the harrowing (despite its scant biblical witness).

In Deathly Hallows Harry passively submits to a sacrificial death in a way that echoes the Crucifixion (as referenced in the previous post). Nonetheless, the heroism of self-sacrifice alone is clearly felt by Rowling to be just a little anti-climactic. The readers of Harry Potter, therefore, like the audience of the mystery plays (in which Jesus’ death is followed by his Harrowing of Hell), watch their hero die a perfect, obedient death in which he sacrifices himself unresistingly for the good of the others; but they also get to see their hero rise from the dead and have one final, victorious duel with his enemy. Christ-as-knight (Christus Victor) breaks into hell, defeats the devil and saves all the souls within it; and at the end of Harry Potter the hero defeats Voldemort in a chivalric final single combat in the Great Hall, freeing all from the Dark Lord’s power.

The light of Christ’s entrance into hell, as discussed above, is a crucial part of the harrowing imagery. In the York plays, the captive soul of Isaiah speaks of ‘a glorious gleam that gladdens us and gives us hope that our release is coming’ (play 37, ll.42-3). This is an allusion to Isaiah’s famous prophecy that ‘the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined’ (9.2). This reference to Isaiah is part of the way that the harrowing joins in the biblical presentation of the triumph of God’s love as the triumph of the light: ‘and the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not’ (John 1.5).

This ascendancy of love, expressed as light breaking in on darkness, is given narrative expression in the Harrowing of Hell when (as described in the Gospel of Nicodemus) ‘on a sudden there came a golden heat of the sun and a purple and royal light shining upon us.’ Harry defeats the Dark Lord at the precise moment that a spectacular dawn light breaks in on the Great Hall: ‘a red-gold glow burst suddenly across the enchanted sky above them, as an edge of dazzling sun appeared over the sill of the nearest window’ (Deathly Hallows, Chap 36, p.595). In both Harry Potter and the narrative of the harrowing the arrival of light symbolises the triumph of love.

As John Granger notes the clearest connection between the first, last and central Harry Potter novels is ‘the simple, undeniable link is that Harry fights the Dark Lord man to man only in these three books.’[7] And it is in this final battle that the comic harrowing of Hagrid’s entrance in Stone, and the subtle echo of this in the Weasleys whisking Harry to freedom in Goblet, find their fulfilment in the final symbolic harrowing of the series when Harry battles Voldemort in the Great Hall as light breaks in upon it and his friends suddenly discover that they are free of the Dark Lord’s spell.

[1] Douglas Gray, ed., English Medieval Religious Lyrics (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1992), p.36.

[2] Martin Luther, Sources and Contexts of The Book of Concord, Kolb, R. and Nestingen, J. A. (eds.) (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001 [1533]), p.246.

[3] For the revival in popularity of mystery plays in Britain, see Jolyon Mitchell’s forthcoming Passion Play: The Mysterious Revivals of Religious Drama.

[4] It was first suggested in: Glynne Wickham, Shakespeare’s Dramatic Heritage: Collected Studies in Mediaeval, Tudor and Shakespearean Drama (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), pp.214-31.

[5] Clifford Davidson, Technologies, Guilds and Early English Drama (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996), pp. 84-85.

[6] The Towneley Plays, edited by Martin Stevens and A.C. Cawley, 2 vols. s.s. 13 and 14 (Oxford: Early English Texts Society, 1994), vol 2, pp. 592-3.

[7] Granger, J. (2011) ‘On Turtleback Tales and Asterisks: Picturing the Harry Potter Novels and their Many Interrelationships’, in Prinzi, T. (ed.) Harry Potter for Nerds: Essays for Fans, Academics, and Lit Geeks. Oklahoma City: Unlocking Press, pp.37-81 (p.58).

Thank you, Professor Groves, for this revelation of the embedded “Harrowing of Hell” in the first, fourth, and seventh Harry Potter novels! This work and your argument about ‘The Deception of the Devil’ in chapter 4 of your Literary Allusion in Harry Potter have re-set and challenged I think all previous discussions of the Christian content of the series. I am very grateful for your making “obvious” what was previously “obvious” only to the author.


  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Dr. Groves’s mention of Langland’s Piers Plowman seems particularly apposite, as, in Passus XVIII, we are told (here, in the 1957 ‘Everyman’ Attwater translation, from Larry Benson’s Harvard site):

    `This Jesus of his nobility · will joust in Piers’ arms,
    ‘In his helm and in his hauberk · humana natura;
    That Christ be not known here · for consummatus Deus,
    In Piers’ garment the Plowman · this pricker shall ride;
    For no dint shall him hurt · as in deitate Patris.’

    The typological play, of Hagrid, Mr. Weasley, and Harry ‘harrowing’ seems comparable to Piers’ arms or garment. But perhaps a comparison with what might be called ‘intercessory harrowing’ would also be apt, such as that of Trajan by Pope St. Gregory the Great, which most of us probably first met in Canto X of Purgatory in Dante’s Comedy (which might itself be considered a grand complex instance of ‘intercessory harrowing’ – of Dante by the Blessed Virgin, St. Lucy, and Beatrice).

  2. Beatrice Groves says

    Yes, I love that passage in Piers Plowman! – it was reading it, and the description of the harrowing that followed it, that first sparked my interest in harrowing imagery (which I first looked at in Shakespeare’s Henry IV part 1 – see Texts and Traditions: Religion in Shakespeare [2007]).
    I also think Piers Plowman is a useful parallel for the interplay between Everyman and Christian symbolism around Harry, for its central figure is an example of the flexible nature of allegorical writing at its inception in English literature. We are used to the idea that each person in an allegory stands for one person/thing/idea but this is not how Piers Plowman works. Its central figure starts as a simple Plowman/Everyman who asks for something better in this life, and becomes a figure of dissent whom others follow, but by the end of the poem he has become strongly linked with both St Peter and Christ. His Christian name ‘Piers’ is both an ordinary English name – a diminutive of ‘Peter’ – and a pointer towards both St Peter, the rock on whom Christ built his church and the rock which is a biblical metaphor for God, (2 Sam.22.2 and 47; Psalm 18.2). Piers the honest, everyday ploughman metamorphoses in something akin to Christ (XV.205), then the human nature of Christ (XVIII.22) and then a representation of St Peter (XIX.189).

    This links with the way metaphor works throughout the poem – in that it takes the ordinary seriously. Lavinia Griffiths has argued that is Christian writing, such as Piers Plowman, ‘figural devices and versions of metaphor… are able to include both mundane everyday life and the mysterious and spiritual, and they provide a means of seeking out the connection between the two.’ (Personification in Piers Plowman, (1985), 68). One more traditionally dominant theory of allegory is that the metaphorical meaning is a sweet kernel of truth hidden inside a rough shell of obscurity/mundanity through which the reader must pass. David Aers believes that the dreamer’s failure to use this reason when he is questioned (XII. 16-27) is a rejection by Langland of the whole chaff and fruit/rind and pith explanation of figural writing.

    There is another way of thinking about allegory which is particularly suited to a visionary poem such as Piers Plowman, and which Dante claims can be found in the mystical writing of Richard of St Victor, St Bernard and St Augustine. Richard of St Victor writes that what the visionary saw before in truth and clarity he cannot recall in any completeness, for now he sees through a veil, ‘through a glass darkly:’ ‘the image of a veil and cloud suggest the state of mind of trying to re-create and regain the disclosure in the very act of expression.’ (Aers, Piers Plowman and Christian Allegory (1975), 62). This attractive model is how allegory works in some parts of the Bible and Piers Plowman, as a mode which through its ‘stating otherwise’ (the etymological root of allegory) allows us to get closer to that which we would not otherwise comprehend.
    I’m not claiming that HP is an allegorical work, just that – as in Piers Plowman – Harry as an ordinary boy/Everyman can work together with more numinous suggestions of meaning within the series, rather than cancel them out. And – fittingly for a text which, like HP, starts with a very ordinary hero and then builds greater layers of meaning around him – Piers Plowman is another text that uses chiasmus/ring structure. The ending of the (B-text) poem has many parallels with the beginning: the questioning of the dreamer (I.45 and XX.207); the two ploughing scenes (VI and XIX. c.200); world play on ‘cardinal’ (Pro. 104-9 and XIX. 407-23) and close phrasal repetition (Pro. 19 and XIX 203).

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Dr. Groves,

    Thank you for adding so fine and rich a reply to such a delightful and instructive ‘mini-series’!

    I was so excited when I first encountered A.V.C. Schmidt’s 1978 edition of the ‘B’ Text of Piers Plowman in the ‘Everyman’ library (though I’m not sure just how soon that was after it appeared) – and my sense (I hope not deluded) is, that it was a significant popularizing of attention to Langland – and I wonder if J.K. Rowling might still have felt the effect of that as an undergraduate, not so very many years later?

    I was struck not so very long ago, by what Tolkien says to his son, Christopher, in an airgraph letter of 25 May 1944, in discussing his orcs: ” ‘romance’ has grown out of ‘allegory’, and its wars are still derived from the inner war of allegory” (Letter 71). This, together with his attention to possibilities of ‘application’ and what Lewis variously writes about ‘supposal’ seem compatible with what you say here about different kinds and understandings of ‘allegory’ and Rowling’s Potter books.

    Your discussion in your second post got me wondering in how far varied Christian reactions to the Potter books corresponded to ‘intestine broils’ among self-described Christians, and the thought of disputes concerning ‘baptismal regeneration’ in particular came to mind. Harry’s having emphatically been baptized makes (I suppose) Sirius a ‘godfather’ in the strict sense – and has had me wondering for years about the inter-relations of Church and ‘wizarding world’ – for example, how many of those saints’ names you (and the first commenter) nicely note may be intended as deliberately given as saints’ names at ‘christenings’? And, may Harry’s being baptized implicitly have something to do with his ‘harrying’ (analogous with the explicit attention to baptism in Charles Williams’s All Hallows’Eve)?

  4. Beatrice Groves says

    Thank you – I’m really glad you’ve enjoyed it.

    I agree with you that it Schmidt’s was an excellent, and popularising, edition. And, though I was an undergraduate a decade later than Rowling, it was certainly the edition of Piers Plowman that I bought! – so it seems perfectly plausible that she may have picked it up too….

    Thank you for drawing my attention to the Tolkien quote about romance. Very interesting. Do you know Helen Cooper’s unparalleled work on the transformation of romance through time? – The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare (2004) – I think a number of HogPro readers might enjoy it. She looks at – among other things – how Spenser’s Faerie Queene is a Protestant ‘quest’ narrative that carries in its DNA the pilgrimage-inflected wanderings of earlier romances

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Dr. Groves,

    Thank you for the recommendation – I do not know it, but will try to catch up with it! (Village life has its disadvantages, when one is not near a good library and does not even have sure access to those within a day’s journey…). I’m really grateful to J.A.W. Bennett (that younger Inkling) for his contribution to OHEL (and to Douglas Gray for completing it), and its overview of chronicles, histories, and romances, and (dream) visions.

    I look forward to Helen Cooper on Spenser, who continues to astonish me. I have an unscholarly impression that Lewis’s Narnia books are generally indebted to him, and it dawns on me to wonder whether some analogous comparison might be made to the Potter books, with respect at least to many denizens of the ‘wizarding world’ (and whether Roger Lancelyn Green’s successful designation of Lewis’s as ‘Chronicles’ might also find an application to J.K. Rowling’s sequence of (very circumstantial) ‘annual accounts’).

  6. I’ve always thought “The Cave” in Half-Blood Prince was a marvelous metaphoric blend of the crucifixion and the harrowing, with Dumbledore in the Christ-role. It is Harry himself, another Adam, who is rescued.

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