Harry Potter and the Meaning of it All

Donald T. Williams
Thursday, August 2nd 2007
Jul/Aug 2007

Now that the Harry Potter series has finally been completed, we can look back on the whole Potter legendarium and draw some conclusions.

Despite the hysterical rants of some Christians, the books are not occultic. None of J. K. Rowling’s magicians, not even the dark ones, has an attendant spirit or anything like that. Their “magic” is simply an alternative set of natural laws to which Muggles do not have access. Nor are the books an advertisement for Wicca. There is no neopaganism in the Potter universe, no worship of the Goddess or of Nature. Real-life Wiccans and other New-Age “witches” are nothing like J. K. Rowling’s magicians, which are a loose compendium of folklore, literary precedent, and her own imagination. What religion does intrude into the story is Christian as far as it can be identified. Biblical quotations are part of the plot of Book VII and are treated as expressing universal truths; Harry puts the sign of the cross over Dobby’s grave.

Rowling did make a tactical blunder for Christian readers in using the word witch as if it were morally neutral, in contrast to writers like C. S. Lewis, in whose Narnia books witches, reflecting biblical usage of the word, are always on the wrong side. It is curious that the word wizard (though not warlock) can be used neutrally much more easily than witch. For a warlock is simply a male witch. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Gandalf (good) and Saruman (evil) are both called wizards, but you could only call one of them a warlock and get away with it. Less sensitive to these connotations, Rowling erects unnecessary barriers for Christian readers who remember the way the word witch is used in Scripture (though some Christians object even to Lewis and Tolkien). But this lack of semantic sensitivity is more a reflection of increasing theological illiteracy in Western society as a whole than it is of nefarious intent by Rowling. It is certainly something to be criticized in the books, and biblical reality about real witchcraft is something to be taught to Christian children and contrasted with the diction of the Potter world; but the unfortunate nomenclature is hardly a justification for rejecting the series outright.

In reaction to those who want to burn J. K. Rowling as a witch (after all, she probably weighs the same as a duck!), we have people trying to read the Potter books as Christian works. I think these folks are over-reaching a bit, but they have more of a leg to stand on than the witch-hunters do. There are indeed themes in the books which reflect Christian teachings, but they fall short of the clear and powerful representation of the Gospel or of the full Christian world view that one finds in Narnia or Middle Earth.

Evil in the Potter universe is associated with a Nietzschean drive for power. “There is no good and evil,” says Lord Voldemort in the very first volume, “only power and those without the courage to use it.” It is a rare moment of honesty. Usually the Death Eaters pursue power while rationalizing the moral evils they commit in order to grasp and hold it by appeals to the greater “common good” which sound downright Orwellian. We see the same basic philosophy played out in all the villains, ranging from Voldemort himself, who does not stoop to justifying the imposition of his will, to Percy, who puts a little too much stock in being Prefect and ends up a tool of the Dark Lord until his repentance near the very end. On the other side we have Dumbledore, who turns down the post of Minister of Magic, being more interested in “love, friendship, truth, and loyalty” than in power. There are good insights here into the nature of evil and how it plays itself out in our own society.

The supreme theme of the whole series is one as old at least as Chaucer’s Prioresse: Amor vincit omnia, “Love conquers all.” It is love, not superior magical power, which conquers Lord Voldemort in the end. The central embodiment of this theme turns out to be, of all people, Severus Snape. Despite all appearances, he has actually been true to Dumbledore, killing him at the end of Book VI by Dumbledore’s own command to prevent the destruction of whatever chance for innocence remains in Draco Malfoy’s soul, and giving Harry the key to understanding everything toward the end of Book VII through the gift of his dying memories. Why? Because he has always been in love with Lily Evans, an unrequited love with the added indignity that she marries his chief rival and tormenter, James Potter, and becomes Harry’s mother. Though he is by ancestry and inclination a servant of the Dark Lord, his love for Lily causes him to end up on the side of good in the end—for love is the one thing that Voldemort cannot understand.

The centrality of love is strengthened by the theme of sacrifice. Lily sacrificing her life to save her son sets in motion the powerful forces that eventually lead to Harry’s triumph and Voldemort’s fall, and the willing self sacrifice of others along the way, including Dumbledore and even Harry himself (who thinks he is giving up his own life to save his friends but actually survives), contributes to the wonderful way in which this theme is worked out. Snape’s choice is in some ways the most impressive of all. He allows his whole life to be ruled by sacrificial love for a dead woman who did not requite it in life, knowing all along that he has no hope in this life of any reward for his self-denying acts save love itself. To sacrifice oneself for love is the very opposite of the Nietzschean drive for power which is the essence of evil in the series, and though at first love seems much weaker, it proves stronger in the end.

The central ideas of the series then resonate powerfully with central doctrines of the Christian faith, and I do not believe Rowling could have developed them as profoundly as she did without being influenced by Christian teaching. But they do not quite rise to a Christian view of the world. For love as it comes from fallen human hearts does not conquer all. Love conquers all only because God is love and because he has sacrificed himself in his Son.

The good Potter characters seem to find this all-conquering love by somehow looking within themselves, not by looking up and outward to the Source of it, which is Christ. One is left with the impression that it could be just love itself, love in the abstract, which conquers all, rather than the scandalously specific Love which comes only from the heart of God in the sacrifice of Christ. And only the sacrifice of that divine and innocent Victim could provide the propitiation which is necessary to the conquest of the evil which is found at the core of our own hearts. We as believers follow Christ in taking up our own crosses, in recapitulating his loving sacrifice in our own lives, indeed. The Hogwarts heroes could be read as exemplars of this truth. But only as our acts flow from that supreme Act do they participate in its power. Do Harry’s, Snape’s, and Dumbledore’s? It is, alas, unclear. To separate love and sacrifice from their Source, as if they could operate independently of it on their own, is to risk losing them as the Gospel evaporates into a bloodless humanism.

J. K. Rowling’s story never denies this more explicitly Christian view of love, but neither does it demand it. She comes awfully close to the biblical view, and she communicates much profound truth in falling just short of it. But she does fall short. She could have provided clearer hints and clues to the idea that in order to defeat evil we must look, not to love in the abstract, but outside of ourselves to the Source of love, which is Christ. A great Christian mythmaker like Lewis or Tolkien would have done just that (without making it too obvious). In the Stone Table of Narnia it is inescapable. But even in the more subtle Lord of the Rings, especially when clarified by the creation story in The Silmarillion, meaning and victory and hope come ultimately from “beyond the circles of the world.”

For what Rowling has accomplished in the Harry Potter series we should have a profound appreciation, but we should also have an awareness of what is missing—for that is, quite literally, crucial.

Thursday, August 2nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church