Monday, September 17, 2007

The Potter's Hand

It’s been two whole months since the Harry Potter saga came to a dramatic close, and since I ended my last post with a reference to a meaningful quote from the Potter series, I wanted to jot down a few thoughts, post-Hallows.

I just read that the Harry Potter movies have surpassed James Bond as the highest grossing movie franchise in history (when not adjusted for inflation). I continue to be amazed at the staggering numbers that Mr. Potter has wracked up. For example, Book 6 sold more copies in its first 24 hours than The DaVinci Code sold in a year (and you remember what a big deal that book was when it hit the stands).

All number crunching aside, what makes Harry Potter so profound for me is that Book 7 ratified the underlying theme for the whole series – that it is ultimately a reflection on death. Underneath the lovable characters and memorable moments and a most engaging writing style, is a very deep and thought-provoking mediation on life and death.

From the opening chapter of Book 1, “The Boy Who Lived”, the whole Potterverse is moved and shaken by one man’s pathological fear of death and his willingness to go to any means to avoid it (that would be Voldemort), and one boy’s life shattered by death and healed by love (that would be Harry).

At the heart of the life-death dynamic is the power of love. Not namby-pamby, fairy tale or even classic romantic love, but sacrificial love. This kind of love is what Harry learns about and acts upon, and of what Voldemort has no knowledge whatsoever. Sacrificial love is the agent which defeats death, and while this truth comes up throughout the series, Book 7 abolishes any doubt to Rowling’s intentions otherwise.

HP is hardly the first fiction to wrestle with the subject of death, or even to name sacrificial love as the counter to death, but what made the whole series ring true was the way death was addressed in Book 7. Prior to the release of Deathly Hallows, one literary critic I read (whose name and article reference I’ve tried to find but so far have been unable) notes that what essentially dies in the HP books is God. The world of Potter, he observers, is utterly devoid of faith, prayer, or even mention of church or God. While this is actually an accurate observation, the deeper issue implied is not so much that ‘God’ dies in HP, but rather that the Christian God dies. And, really, up to the close of Book 6, there would be little to refute this position.

Then Deathly Hallows arrived. Interestingly, I had read the aforementioned (and so far elusive) article just prior to July 21st, and so this ‘absence of God’ was very much on my mind as I began reading Book 7. That is also why I was struck early on when, after George Weasley is seriously injured (he loses an ear) Mrs. Weasley tells Harry that George is going to be alright, and Harry says, “Thank God” (pg 74), which might be the first time “God” is specifically mentioned in the whole series. That is fairly innocuous, but as the book goes on, when Harry and Hermione go to Godric’s Hollow and visit the graveyard, two quotes from Scripture are found on gravestones. One quote on Kendra Dumbledore’s grave is from Jesus himself, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:21). The other on James & Lily Potter’s grave is from 1 Corinthians 15:26, “And the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” 1 Corinthians 15 is one of the most profound passages on the bodily resurrection in all of Scripture.

Perhaps this may be construed as mining for nuggets of “Jesus under every rock,” perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but I don’t think I am. Granted, the verses of Scripture are never explicitly identified as such in the text, but Rowling is subtly telling us that the love which defeats death is in fact love in the Christian sense – that is “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay his life down for his friends” (John 15:13). After all, she very well could have used other verses, or none at all.

This type of love empties the self and pours out for the sake of the other, even to the point of death (Philippians 2:8). This concept of love (agape in the New Testament) is distinctly Christian. Not that Rowling’s characters are Christian, nor are the stories themselves “Christian”, but the themes and concepts of love and life and death and the way she resolves them are very much Christian. If this is so, was it intended, or is this all just a radical coincidence? I don’t think so.

While Harry is hardly a Christ-figure, nor is he intended to be, the sacrificial love he demonstrates is. Does this make HP a Christian series (much to the dismay of the angry fundamentalists who condemned it from very early on)? No. HP is “Christian” as much as Lord of the Rings is “Christian,” in that, while the stories and characters themselves are non-Christian, the themes and concepts that they deal with are (for example Gandalf’s resurrection as Gandalf the White, and Aragorn being the true returning King, whose hands are healing hands).

And so, the greatest books of this present day and age (despite what Harold Bloom and company may think, they are) end with a resoundingly subtle Gospel message. Not just that love defeats death, but it is love that drives one to take the place of anther in death which is at the heart of the HP stories. From the fateful substitution of Lily, Harry’s mother, to Harry’s own journey to the forest (Harry’s Gethsemane) to give his life that others may live, these stories convey a Christian understanding of sacrificial love. And note, it is not “I love these people so much that I will die,” but rather, “I love these people so much that I will die in their place so they might live.” There’s a big difference between the two. Changing gears to a more theological bent, the former basically attributes to the Cross a moral example atonement, whereas the latter ascribes the classic understanding of substitutionary atonement – that Jesus Christ died for our sins, that is, in our place for the just judgment against our evil hearts and deeds.

I look forward to re-re-reading the whole series again sometime in the near future, after I have finished my latest enterprise of taking on, once again, the Lord of the Rings.

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