'Harry Potter' and the Gospel of J.K. Rowling
Saturday, June 30, 2007
I had never read a "Harry Potter" book until three months ago, when a hopeful editor buttonholed me with a plea: Would I, a religion reporter, write about religious imagery in the series?
We reporters don't freely turn down editors' assignments, so a force-feeding of all six books ensued. After 3,362 pages and 12 weeks of very late nights, I can say I liked the series. I get the hype.
I even understand the intrigue that's leading real people to bet real dollars on the ending -- specifically, on whether the young wizard Harry lives or dies in the last volume, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," which comes out July 21.
It's true, Agence France-Presse has reported: Gamblers wealthy or odd enough to wager on fiction have put down money with bookies. The prevailing bet? Potter to die.
His death will be a noble one, it is prophesied in the blogs, a death both sacrificial and necessary to save the world from the satanic Lord Voldemort. I agree with this line. I also expect Harry's death to show that his character's path is modeled on the Gospel accounts of Jesus, and, more significantly, that the link between him and wizardry-school headmaster Albus Dumbledore is patterned on the most essential relationship in the Christian Bible -- that between Jesus the Son and God the Father.
I never much enjoyed literature lessons on Christ imagery. I felt them too presumptuous of what authors were thinking, and I didn't like that they effectively telegraphed the readings, if only in retrospect. Still, critics have long enjoyed noting similarities to Jesus in classic fictional characters -- from Santiago in "The Old Man and the Sea" to Aslan in the "Chronicles of Narnia."
By the second Harry Potter book, I began to think the relationship of Harry and Dumbledore was underpinning the narrative in a supernatural, and distinctly Christian, way.
That author J.K. Rowling's series is based on a battle between good and evil is so obvious it's hardly worth mentioning. There's Harry and Dumbledore against Voldemort; the House of Gryffindor against that of Slytherin; even, symbolically, Fawkes the phoenix against Nagini the snake.
A more profound, if subtle, moral interplay is found between Harry and Dumbledore, who effectively lead the joint forces of good. Harry is a boy wonder, revered and reviled for his special powers by the respective forces of good and evil at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Headmaster Dumbledore is the best wizard there is, a seemingly omniscient force for good who rarely reveals his powers in full and who closely observes others' courses of action.
Dumbledore knows Harry plays a unique and indispensable role in the battle against evil, and outwardly helps him from time to time. Yet for most of the series, Dumbledore keeps Harry unaware of the goings-on known or orchestrated by Dumbledore involving the bigger picture. In the course of his young life, Harry often feels Dumbledore is ignoring his personal needs.
A well-known, heart-wrenching passage in the Bible, from an anguished Jesus on the cross, captures their relationship well: "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?" When Jesus says that, he feels abandoned by God. We know from earlier in the Gospels that he understands the special role he is afforded by God the Father. But at that moment, it's as if he feels separated from God or doesn't comprehend the metaphysics of God's plan to redeem the world through his sacrifice.
Harry Potter, too, knows he is special, that he is the only good wizard or person ever to survive a killing curse from Voldemort. He has a special scar on his forehead, a remnant of that battle.