HogProfs Round Table: Harry Potter’s Baptism

On the eve of Holy Theophany and as the Anglican Communion considers re-writing their baptismal rites (again), what better time to have a discussion about a curious extra-canonical Hogwarts Saga event, namely, Harry Potter’s infant baptism? Ms. Rowling discussed her lead character’s Christening in the Sparks-Anelli Interview, 2005, and I’ve asked our four Hogwarts faculty members on call to share their thoughts to jump start our conversation. It’s a subject that brings in all sorts of issues beside the usual question of how much Christian content there really is in the stories, to include the relative importance of interviews versus the published works, Harry as a Christ figure, and what we can tell about fictional character’s beliefs if they never express them explicitly (as is the rule in the UK).

Please jump right in the conversation to share your comments and corrections!

From the Sparks-Anelli Interview, 2005:

ES: Who is Harry’s godmother?

JKR: Didn’t have one.

ES: Really?

JKR: Well, Sirius never had time to get a girlfriend, let alone marry.

ES: They could have just picked some other close friend of the family.

JKR: At the time that they christened Harry, they were in hiding. This was not going to be a widely attended christening, because he was already in danger. So this is something they were going to do very quietly, with as few people as possible, that they wanted to make this commitment with Sirius. And — yeah. Can’t say much more.

I asked Prof. Elizabeth Baird Hardy whether she thought this was worthy of some discussion and she told me:

Oh, I certainly think so, especially since that baptism would have happened in that Godric’s Hollow church, where the Potters, Dumbledores, and even Peverells appear to have been members (non members might be still buried in the church cemetery, but usually it was customary for the cemetery to be for members. That may require some research into British burial practices!).

Boy, what a fun pastorate, a town which includes a number of wizards who may or may not attend regular services!

My two questions about the Christening that I sent my faculty fellows are:

(1) Would the story be any different if Harry hadn’t been baptized, beyond Sirius not having an ‘official’ relationship status?

(2) Was that status all Ms. Rowling was after in the extra-canonical event or does it provide important ‘coloring’ to the story?

My quick answers to these questions to start the conversation, the second of which questions, of course, only the author can know, is that if Harry’s baptism were the only explicit Christian referent in the 4100 pages of the books, I don’t think the story-line would be much changed at all. Sirius as Harry’s de facto uncle or legal guardian would suffice for God-father.

But it’s not a stand-alone post-Deathly Hallows, in which we go to the Godric’s Hollow church and graveyard and read revealing scripture on tombstones. It seems as Elizabeth points out that this means the Potter and Dumbledore families were members of that church community or they wouldn’t have enjoyed the privilege of burial there. That it was a priority to have him baptized in wartime, when Harry’s life was in danger,  speaks to more than just a desire “to make this commitment to Sirius,” as Ms. Rowling said. A family isn’t making or expressing a commitment to god-parents at an infant baptism but to God in Christ.

My prep school’s motto is Finis Origine Pendet: the end hangs from the beginning. Certainly Harry isn’t raised as a Christian nor does he seem to have a devotional bone in his body. He is, however, a great Seeker with a pure heart who loves sacrificially and rejects evil. However hurried and private his baptism may have been, the vows made in his name then (as well as the attendant graces and illumination) seem to have taken.

Prof Pazdziora replied:

Yet another example of how fully and with how much detail Rowling constructed the back story of her world. Which puts her more firmly in the Tolkenian school of fantasy than she may want to admit, I think, but the influence is there and unavoidable.

1. Yes and no.

Yes, in that it’s important to the spiritual themes of the book, and the notes of realism, that James and Lily were reasonably devout Anglican (or Scottish Episcopal? Where is Godric’s Hollow, anyway?) and would be concerned with the spiritual well-being of their son. Also, it sets us Sirius unequivocally as a spiritual mentor and role model for Harry, as well as potentially his legal guardian. While you say correctly, John, that ‘a family isn’t making […] a commitment to godparents,’ the godparents are making a spiritual commitment before God to the child, viz., to be responsible for their spiritual growth and nurturing. The awareness of his commitment, however irreligious his temperament, does, I think, weigh heavily on Sirius and in particular invests his death with a sort of gravitas. Remember, alchemically it could be said that Sirius oversees Harry’s nigredo.

No, in that Rowling is a writer talking about back story, and if you’re not Tolkien your back story is extra-canonical and really doesn’t matter to anyone but you and your geeks, if you’re lucky enough to have geeks, and Rowling is. But if, say, Harry wasn’t christened–but that would be very odd, because we can extrapolate, as has been said, that James and Lily were Anglicans, so they would have baptized Harry, just out of tradition at least. So the interview and back story material, while interesting, is irrelevant, as we can extrapolate it for ourselves from the text. As far as the non-presence of a godmother–again, from a writer’s standpoint a godmother wasn’t needed to the story. Molly Weasley already filled the Mother-Figure slot, and the addition of yet another character in a series that isn’t The Wheel of Time would be putting too much strain on an already creaking scaffold.

2. May have already answered this in the above, but it does provide colouring, in that it contrast with the assumed piety of the Potters with the gross materialism of the Dursleys, it gives Sirius a spiritual significance and gravitas that he might not otherwise have, and it deepens the spiritual ties to the church in Godric’s Hollow. It gives Harry a defined origin, as it were; this is where Harry Potter is from. But it is extra-canonical, and we don’t need to know about the details of the christening, and who might have been the godmother, etc., to help us enjoy the story. It’s good for geeking out with, but it’s nonessential.

Really, I read this sort of interview mostly as JKR having fun geeking over her own stories. As authors will do, if they enjoy it.

Prof Freeman took an entirely different line:

My answers:

1. Probably not.  Lupin made Harry godfather without any mention of a baptism or scheduling one (granted, it wasn’t exactly a good time to get together for a ceremony… do you think they bothered after Remus and Tonks were dead?) and the epilogue went out of its way to show what an attentive godfather Harry was.  Harry didn’t even seem to know he had ever been baptized and had no familiarity with the scripture verses on the gravestones so it seems exposing him to religious training does not seem to have been a priority for anyone. Whether the title is conferred in an actual ceremony or just something asked of a close friend seems to make little difference.

2. The only coloring I see that it adds is to deepen the mystery of, to what extent Christianity permeates any of the wizarding world. For the most part, we don’t see it.  Christmas and Easter are occasions for school vacations, gift-giving, decorated trees and chocolate eggs; no spiritual aspect is depicted. A nameless “tufty-haired wizard” (they don’t even bother calling him a pastor) shows up for weddings and funerals and seems to perform the ceremonies in an entirely secular manner.  For all we know, the christening was similar and may very well not have taken place in the church.  I also think it’s a stretch to assume the wizards in the graveyard were church members; for all we know those graves are as invisible to muggles as 12 Grimmauld Place and the Potter House memorial.

Actually, given the historical role of the Church in persecuting witches, I would expect the wizarding world, as a whole, to be quite hostile towards that institution.

The one hint we have of any wizard who was familiar with Christianity is Dumbledore, who almost certainly chose the epithets for both his family and the Potters, given that he seemed to be the main decision-maker for Harry (e.g. deciding he should live with the Dursley’s) after his parents died and Sirius became unavailable.

Was Dumbledore a devout believer or just fond of this curious Muggle book called “Holy Bible” in the same way he was of sherbet lemons and knitting patterns? Personally, I’d like to think he was a Christian, and that his religion played a role in turning him from neo-Nazi to the champion he became later. But it’s pure speculation. He may have passed down Christian values to Harry (“Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for another”) but he did not teach them through scripture and there’s no direct evidence he ever actually attended church.

Prof Freeman obviously hasn’t read or she disagrees with the evidence I gathered in Harry Potter Smart Talk that the Wizard-Muggle break in 1692 is between the Christian Hermetic Magi of the Radical Reformation (the Seekers, Friends, the followers of John Everard, etc.) and conventional, devotional believers (e.g., the Muggletonians). The late 17th Century is the time of the Restoration and a height of persecution of non-conformist Christian sects. Which is to say that Wizards and Witches as such are Christians by definition in Ms. Rowling’s sub-creation.

Please share your thoughts, comments, and corrections about Harry’s baptism below, whether you’ve read Smart Talk or not!

Comments

  1. I tend to disagree generally with Prof. Freeman. We do know that Rowling attended church as a youth by her own choice, even though her family didn’t. We have heard that she attends church now, not just for funerals and weddings. That to me is some confirmation that she understands the difference between a secular church affiliation (getting married or buried at a church because it’s the custom) and a religious connection.

    We also are told that Godric’s Hollow is one of the villages where muggles and wizards live together. Presumably the reason they can’t see the Potter house that was destroyed is that it was under the Fidelius Charm and that changed how it worked. But that’s really off-track.

    For parents to make a point of baptizing an infant during war means they were making a definite choice. If it didn’t mean much to them, they would have waited to do something that was just a social custom. And choosing Sirius, I agree, does two things in the story – it give Sirius a closer connection to Harry than Lupin has and it gives Sirius a reason to be so intent on saving Harry from Voldemort. As godfather, that is what he has promised he will do.

    The lack of religious training that Harry has is hardly surprising. He was barely over a year old when his parents died. Even if they had been able to attend church (which they might not have been able to do as they had to stay hidden for safety), Harry likely would have been in the nursery with the other babies, not old enough for Sunday School. And then he went to the Dursleys who seem not to be church attenders at all. So there was no opportunity for any religious education. Once he was at Hogwarts, we again see that he is in school but it’s not a school that teaches any religion. None of their classes dealt with philosophy or religion or even ethics, except at it applied to a specific spell (use of the Unforgivables). The little time that Harry spent with Sirius didn’t allow for any specific religious training either.

    But that doesn’t mean that at least some of the points of Christianity weren’t passed along to Harry by Dumbledore or even Sirius. Sirius probably didn’t go to church with his family, but he hung around James and the Potters a lot, so who knows what he might have come to believe. Unfortunately, he never gets to tell us. And for the purposes of the story, it really doesn’t matter. I think the most telling part to me was that there were verses from the Bible on the grave stones and the families were buried in the church graveyard. The English tradition, as far as I know, was that you weren’t buried in a church cemetary if you weren’t in good standing with the church. Those accused of heresy or those who were burned at the stake for witchcraft were often not even given any kind of burial, and certainly not next to the church. That gets back to the relationship of the towns people of Godric’s Hollow – since they seemed to live together peacefully, those medieval attitudes must have been resolved.

    Harry believed in an after-life and in self-sacrifice for others. He was not tempted toward power or personal gain. Over and over, he chose to do the right thing. I like to think that had something to do with his being baptized as an infant. Others may not. Until JKR is asked a more in-depth question and answers it, we’ll really never know.

  2. I should have said – those medieval attitudes toward witches must have been resolved. Also, I can’t imagine that the graves of wizards weren’t visible to the Muggles. If they couldn’t see them, there would be big empty plots where they might try to bury someone else. And if there houses or businesses were invisible, the same thing would happen – someone would try to build on the lot or put their business in a shop where some wizard already was. No, I think there had to be some sort of accceptance or acknowledgement of the wizards in Godric’s Hollow.

  3. I must let you know that all inhabitants (Christian and otherwise) of a Church of England parish have the right to be buried in the churchyard for as long as it remains open. Being buried there does not reflect good standing in the church community but only that you lived locally. I am sure that JKRowling would know this and not want you to read too much into the Potters’ and Dumbledores’ place of burial.

  4. Thanks, Gray, I stand corrected. I guess I’m still stuck in the book I was reading about the 15th century when not everyone was allowed to be buried in the church cemetary.

    I do still think it’s significant that she chose two verses from the Bible to include though, and I think she even said in an interview that they were important to the story.

  5. Perelandra says

    Hasn’t anyone considered that the sacred imprint of Baptism remains with Harry regardless of his lack of religious education by the godless Dursleys? I don’t know how it is in Anglican canon law, but among Catholics, anyone can baptize (even a non-Christian) as long as they has the right intention. Two godparents–no more– are usual since Trent but not essential. I had only one myself.

  6. Excellent point. I’d never heard that anyone could baptize as long as the intention is right. That’s interesting.

  7. As a footnote, any inhabitant of a Cof E parish has the legal right to be baptised and married in the church as well as buried in the churchyard. These rights extend to non Christians as well as non-practising Christians. If the incumbent disapproves of a non Christian marriage in the parish church then he/she may decline to conduct the ceremony but if the parishioner(s) can find another clergyperson to carry it out, then it can take place there. Interesting, isn’t it? Baptism can certainly be carried out by anyone in certain circumstances – think of Tess of the Durbervilles and her baby!

  8. Can I point out that in the Catholic Church the ordinary minister of the Sacrament of Baptism is the bishop, priest or deacon and, yes, anyone can baptize having the right intention but only in a necessity. In practice, this would presume that there was a danger of death. Nurses, for instance, have been called on to baptize the baby when the priest or deacon cannot be summoned.

Speak Your Mind

*