Harry Potter Discussion on BBC Radio – Beyond Belief

Beyond Belief is a radio program from the British Broadcasting Corporation broadcast weekly on BBC Radio 4 that explores the place and nature of faith in today’s world. Yesterday we were treated to our own esteemed headmaster Prof. John Granger, author of Literary Allusions in Harry Potter Dr. Beatrice Groves and co-host of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Vanessa Zoltan joining the host Ernie Rea to discuss the Christian allegory and religious themes in Harry Potter.

The program can be accessed here from around the world, and it really is a very fun and informative listen. Please join me after the jump for my own notes from this fascinating program.

The discussion starts with Ernie asking John about the Potter Panic in the early days of the Harry Potter phenomenon, giving John the opportunity to relate the origin story of the Dean of Harry Potter Scholars

Harry Potter is a direct Christian allegory culminating in the sacrifice of the hero for his friends and his subsequent resurrection and the final defeat of evil. Beatrice explains that the reason J. K. Rowling was pleased not to have been questioned over her faith prior to the publication of Deathly Hallows is the massive spoiler this would have given to the series. The main question fans were asking prior to publication is would Harry live or would Harry die, and the answer is of course – both.

The discussion is illustrated by passages from the series read in a wonderful Lancashire accent by Julie Hesmondhalgh.

Beatrice explains the sacrifice of Harry, just like the sacrifice of Lily protected Harry from Voldemort, Harry’s sacrifice for his friends rendered Voldemort’s Spells useless. Vanessa adds that Harry very much has his friends with him in mind as he offers himself up. John offers the death of Tom Riddle in the Chamber of Secrets as medieval Morality play complete with biblical allegory and symbolism of the phoenix and the sword of faith.

Vanessa describes Hagrid as the mother figure both within the Jewish tradition and as the memorable Pietà image of Hagrid carrying Harry from the forest.

Beatrice explained that C. S. Lewis uses direct allegory of Christ in Aslan, while this is more true of Dumbledore in Harry Potter (he also dies a sacrificial death), Harry is more of an everyman character that the reader can identify with as with the medieval Piers Plowman. The reader identifies with Harry, in Lewis the reader identifies with the children.

Vanessa sees Rowling as being influenced by traditions other than Christianity in the books as well, she mentions the holocaust imagery in the later books and she saw the character of Hermione as being coded Jewish. Ernie asked what Vanessa meant by coded, and the response was a list of physical characteristics. I did wish for a deeper discussion on the term coded because it does imply a degree of author intention surreptitiously applied. What discussion we had perhaps confirmed my prejudice, that often this use of the term ‘coded’ reveals more of the reader than the author.

The last enemy that shall be defeated is death I Corinthians 15:26

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also Luke 12:34

The inscriptions on both Harry’s parents and Dumbledore’s gravestones. John reminds us that Rowling considers her work to be an exercise in talking about mortality and morality. Rowling believes that the invisible interior aspect of the human person – the soul survives death, and this is the aim and end of the human life properly led. Beatrice reminds us of the Luke 12:34 quotation on the Dumbledore tomb, about storing what matters to us where it is indestructible – in heaven. This is explained as a metaphor for how the series sees Harry and Voldemort’s ambitions: should Harry gather the Hallows or destroy Horcruxes.

Ernie asks Vanessa about the concept of using Harry Potter as a sacred text and she responds by describing the utility of using an almost universal shared text, one that many people already read habitually at set times or at times of struggle and grief. Vanessa describes this reading practice as ritualistic. John objects that a sacred texts has to be given to us by the transcendent divinity. Reading Harry Potter as a sacred text is “a fools errand”. Vanessa claims that John’s view is Christocentric and doesn’t allow for other religions. John contends that his view is the same as most major religions, and his view is contrary to the reader response and historical critical method.

(An aside: I have found the early episodes of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text useful to me as a useful primer of Lectio Divina and Midrash for someone who has no tradition of examining spiritual text beyond the daily readings from the Book of Common Prayer, but the idea of pretending that Harry Potter is a sacred text is foolish if not used a conscious absurdity.)

Vanessa describes Dumbledore’s chaplaincy to Harry after the death of Sirius.

Ernie ask to talk about Rowling’s Christian journey, she baptised at 11, the same age one enters the Wizarding World. Beatrice does not believe this is by chance, she took this decision alone as her family were not practising Christians. Rowling was intrigued by her local church – St. Luke’s.

John is given the opportunity to talk about her Solve et Coagula tattoo. This may the key to her idea of Christianity, John believes this is related to repentance and renewal. She sees her journey as a journey of transformation and purification towards a spiritual end.

Vanessa believes that what makes the books beautiful is their ability to allow us to read our own ‘identity’ into the characters.

Beatrice believes that the books have a huge value as shared text, and shared a wonderful story of her brother visiting an orphanage in Zimbabwe.

My brother took Harry Potter and a range of other children’s books to an orphanage in Zimbabwe. He gave the books out to the children – and the only one they all picked on was Harry Potter. They would read a page each and pass it on – they only had one torch – and pass it on around the beds, then read the next page. There is something about Harry – he is an orphan so there a major draw for them – but there is something that draws people in about this story.

 

My poor scribbled notes cannot covey how truly entertaining and informative this discussion was. so please take a listen at the link above.

For further reading on these themes please consider purchasing:

Literary Allusions in Harry Potter by Beatrice Groves
How Harry Cast his Spell by John Granger
Harry Potter’s Bookshelf by John Granger

Comments

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    I have not listened, yet, but your notes stir me to a conjecture – in how far does HP work, not as “sacred text”, but with hagiographic conventions? – e.g., not only do (often unfamiliar) saints’s names abound – Hermione, Nymphadora – but consider that there are saints recorded as surviving what would be expected to kill them – before being blood-martyrs in fact – and even dying to live again (and presumably die again, thereafter), such as St.Lazarus. And, how far is, not allegory, but typology characteristic of hagiography – because, of saints’s lives?

    I would disagree that “Lewis uses direct allegory of Christ in Aslan”, and argue that Narnia is, instead, Lewis’s boldest science fiction, with Our Ascended Lord imagined making a new variously Earth-derived ‘world’ and ‘appearing’ in it (with what debt to the Corpus Areopagitica?) not only like the Lamb to St. John in the Apocalypse, but tangibly – and (mysteriously) vulnerably – not unlike Gandalf in Middle-earth, though far greater and more effectively. I wonder how much work with hagiographical convention is there, too – with Digory and Polly, the Pevensies (open-endedly with Susan!), Eustace, Jill, but also Emeth – to name several?

  2. Thanks for the notes, listening was great as well! Very interesting conversation.

    Maybe I’ve been living under a rock, I hadn’t heard of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast. I may still be processing. But I think this may give the Harry Haters something to actually be concerned about. (If they’re still around, I think that they pretty much went out with Beanie Babies.)

    If I recall, one of the early criticisms of Harry Potter by those who had read the books was a concern about situational ethics with all of the school rule breaking in the early books. (Well, and later on, with actually laws as well, however, the justification seems greater.)

    I do re-read Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings on a regular basis. I think that they obviously provide familiarity, entertainment, comfort, but also I believe that I’m getting something deeper out of them because they point to something bigger. As a Christian, that has specific meaning for me, because I believe in God, Jesus, sin, sacrificial love, and forgiveness. I think that all of that is there in the books for everyone. I’ve learned so much about Western literature through Harry Potter. the Strike series, and Hogwarts Professor. I realize that I still have a long way to go. But I think that Harry Potter is an amazing jumping off point, but not the be all and end all. I’m pretty sure that way lies madness.

    John, I believe that I actually read an article of yours talking about the Christian symbolism in the Chamber of Secrets well before I knew about (or you founded) Hogwarts Professor. I was like, I don’t know, seems like a stretch. (I think 4 or 5 of the books were out then.) Then when I read Deathy Hallows for the first time I discovered that I was extremely wrong.

  3. Thanks, Rebecca!

    I checked and ‘Harry Potter and the Inklings: The Christian Content of Chamber of Secrets‘ is still up at the George MacDonald Society website.

Speak Your Mind

*