A: Not even one. Especially not this one.
Like 8.5 or so million other readers, I learned this week of Harry Potter’s fate in the seventh and final installment of Jo Rowling’s serial tale about the wizard “boy who lived.” If you haven’t yet finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, read this post later, when you have. And enjoy the story in the meantime. (Or, if you’d rather read “Christian fiction” than “stories of the occult,” well, read on…and pray for my eternal soul while you’re climbing up on your moral high horse.)
Now that I have finished the book, I’ve allowed myself to sample the discussions that are “apparating” right and left in the media, particularly the blogosphere, and finding that “deconstructing Harry” is a favorite pastime of many.
Is J. K. Rowling a believer, Christian readers want to know? Were the three hallows – the resurrection stone, the elder’s wand and the invisibility cape – symbolic of the three temptations of Christ? Is Harry a Christ-figure? Could Hermione be Mary Magdelene? Does the fact that Harry arrives in King’s Cross to sort out his fate in the presence of fallen Dumbledore mean anything? “Come on, King’s Cross, get it?” And what about those Bible verses on the tombstones of Kendra and Ariana Dumbledore, and James and Lily Potter?
That these discussions are proliferating faster than the treasures in Gringott’s deepest vault is, hopefully, a tribute to Rowling’s masterful storytelling and the power of the story itself – not an attempt to “baptize” Harry Potter and cram him into a neat, evangelical box. Because that would do a disservice to the writer, the story, and every reader of it, now, and in the years to come.
“The reduction of literary works to pious epigrams is a jolly parlor game,” said writer Annie Dillard, “little more.” In her excellent book Living by Fiction, Dillard argues that “from any work of fiction we may derive an interpretive view of the world,” but “the novel, even the unabashed novel of ideas, is not a tract.” Now, here’s the quote that will likely get me into trouble. She went on to say that, “unless we are Marxists or fundamentalists, we do not judge a literary work according to whether or not we agree with its world view.” (Or the author’s, I would add.)
I don’t know what J.K. Rowling believes, but here’s what I believe. Harry Potter is a tremendous character, Rowling is a master storyteller, and Harry’s story is as redemptive and rich as they come. And that redemptive richness – its tensions between darkness and light, good and evil, love and jealousy, and its honestly-constructed characters who never, ever hit a false note – resonate with the Great Story, the Gospel Story. Because all the best stories do, whether they mean to, or not.
Is Harry supposed to be Jesus? I don’t think so. Harry’s Harry. But if Harry’s unselfish love makes you think of Jesus, well then, think of him. And if Snape’s conflicted spirit and long-held torch for Lily Potter make you think of the beautiful ache of longing inside all of us, well then, think of that ache.
If Dobby’s loyalty reminds you of John or Peter, or if Malfoy makes you think of Judas, no harm done. But to reduce the elements of this magnificent tale to a set of tit-for-tat matches renders it weaker than it would be otherwise.
Roman Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor claimed that the novelist “has to create a world and a believable one.” Who can deny that Rowling did exactly that? No, I don’t believe in wizards and spells and hallows and horcruxes, but I believe in Hogwarts as Hogwarts. It rings true to itself. It doesn’t need to be anything else – any more than Narnia needs to be anything but Narnia. “The virtues of art,” said O’Connor, “like the virtues of faith are such that they reach beyond the limitations of the intellect, beyond any mere theory that a writer may entertain.”
Every perfect piece of writing, every clearly-played note of music, every rightly-rendered piece of art rings with the clarity of the Greatest Story Ever Told. “A thing resounds when it rings true,” says Andrew Peterson’s lovely song “More”, “ringing all the bells inside of you. Like a golden sky on a summer eve, your heart is tugging at your sleeve, and you cannot say why.”
Whether it set out to do so, or not, Harry Potter rings true for me. I loved his story, beginning to end. Did you?
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Editor's Note: for more on the authors that Leigh mentions, and the works that Dillard and O'Connor wrote, please see the following:
Amazon link for the Collected Works of Flannery O'Connor
Annie Dillard's Pulitzer Prize winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Annie Dillard's most recent (2007) novel, The Maytrees