Monday, July 18, 2005

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood of Christ

I spent some time last week defending Harry Potter against the charge that he is incompatible with Christianity. I have now finished the latest installment in the Potter saga, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and I now think that I was not only right, I understated the case. J.K. Rowling's vision is not just reconcilable with orthodox Christian thought, it uses elements of Christian theology as a moral underpinning and as an explanation of why the world is as it is.

Now, I'm not claiming that Harry Potter's world is an integrated and purposely-thought-out Christian allegory, like Narnia. Neither is it a coherent mythical world whose author is so steeped in Christianity that everything is viewed through this lens, like the worlds Tolkien invented. But neither is Hogwarts a secular adventure, where evil is defined as material harm to others. Voldemort is evil not just because he has caused mayhem, or killed people. He is evil because he has deliberately torn asunder something within himself that was created to stay whole.

This revelation of what, in the wizarding world, constitutes the ultimate -- yes, I will say sin, although Rowling does not use the word -- comes while Dumbledore and Harry are pursuing information about Voldemort's past through means of the Pensieve. This device, to which we were introduced in Prisoner of Azkaban (and which is, by the way, a tempting object for any wife whose husband insists on contradicting her based on his own obviously faulty recollections) enables third parties to enter a virtual reality of another's memories. Dumbledore has gone to great effort to obtain memories of those who surrounded Tom Riddle, the future Voldemort, in his youth, in an attempt to identify his weaknesses and so defeat him. A breakthrough comes when they obtain an honest memory from the new Potions master, Horace Slughorn, a elderly man who taught Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts when Riddle was a student, and who previously provided what was obviously an altered memory.

Riddle has stayed behind after a gathering to question Slughorn alone. He wants to know about the making and use of a Horcrux, an object in which a person has concealed part of their soul:

I don't quite understand how that works, though, sir," said Riddle. His voice was carefully controlled, but Harry could sense his excitement.

"Well, you split your soul, you see," said Slughorn, "and hide part of it in an object outside the body. Then, even if one's body is attacked or destroyed, one cannot die, for part of the soul remains earthbound and undamaged. But of course, existence in such a form....few would want it, Tom, very few. Death would be preferable."

But Riddle's hunger was now apparent; his expression was greedy, he could no longer hide his longing. "How do you split your soul?"

"Well," said Slughorn uncomfortably, "you must understand that the soul is supposed to remain intact and whole. Splitting it is an act of violation. It is against nature."

An act of violation. Against nature. I'm not sure you get much closer to an orthodox account of The Fall without actually quoting from the Philokalia. The language, and the idea, is right out of the Eastern Fathers of the Church. But there's more.

"But how do you do it?"

"By an act of evil -- the supreme act of evil. By committing murder. Killing rips the soul apart. The wizard intent upon creating a Horcrux would use the damage to his advantage: He would encase the torn portion --"

"Encase? But how--?"

"There is a spell, do not ask me, I don't know!" said Slughorn, shaking his head like an old elephant bothered by mosquitoes. "Do I look was though I have tried it -- do I look like a killer?"

Of course, later, the epicurian, comfort-loving Slughorn realizes that through his own careless attitude -- even telling Riddle that it's natural to feel some curiosity about these things....Wizards of a certain caliber have always been drawn to that aspect of magic.... -- he has contributed to the ascent of horrific evil in his world. His response? Instead of doing what he can to rectify his error, to assist those who are braver and more energetic than he, he succumbs to fear and shame and attempts to hide what he has done. The circumstances under which he relents lead me to another conclusion: in certain circumstances, magic in Harry Potter is a symbol of grace. But I think I'll leave that one for another post.

26 comments:

Hunter Baker said...

I don't know what moves Rowling, but it could be that she, like so many, has a basic Christian orientation on the world whether she knows it or not.

Very, very common in my experience.

Tlaloc said...

"An act of violation. Against nature. I'm not sure you get much closer to an orthodox account of The Fall without actually quoting from the Philokalia. The language, and the idea, is right out of the Eastern Fathers of the Church. But there's more."

Please. The language is right out of any of a million myths. The bringin of fire by prometheus was "against nature." The sundering of Nut was "a violation."

You are looking into a generic mythos and seeing what you want to see, nothing more or less.

We could just as easily call Alien a metaphor for original sin. The egg of it gestates inside until the evil bursts onto the world destroying not just the sinner but those around them. Oh my god Ridley Scott's a subversive christian!

Christianity deals with many of the same generic memes (that word you hate) as all the other myths. That's precisely what makes it a good myth (and a bad religion). It's why seeing such concepts (filtered of course through your preferred view) is so very common for Hunter.

Abigail said...

The first time I read HP I was disappointed--I thought the magic in it was the most unmagical magic I'd ever encountered in literature. When I revisited the books without the expectation that the magic would be numinous, I liked them just fine. The spells that are used daily in the halls of Hogwarts are, as Kathy says, merely an alternate technology. They're in the same category with Harry's quidditch prowess.

On the other hand, the magic the main characters use in their more cosmic endeavors--think of Harry's Patronus, for example--are a little more magical, for exactly the reason the smaller spells aren't occult: it all has to do with whether the magic in question puts you in contact with something Beyond or not--and what that something is.

Magic in literature is not just a natural symbol of grace; it's a natural symbol of sacramental grace, because the sacraments always use something created (water, oil, speech) as a pathway for grace. That's why we have potions, herbs, wands, unicorn hairs and phoenix feathers, and incantations.

I don't think Rowling could portray good and evil very convincingly if she hadn't in some way tapped into the real stuggle between good and evil, and noticed the weapons of war. Whether that comes intentionally through an acquaintance with Catholic theology (I say specifically Catholic, and not just Christian, because of the sacramental element), or less directly through an acquaintance with traditional myth (and the seeds of the Word contained therein, even before Christ), isn't so important. Most likely it's some mixture of the two.

Rowling's explanation, given in the fifth book, for how ghosts get to be that way was so satisfying, and at the same time so obviously ad hoc, that I suspect Rowling's subconscious literary sensibilities are carrying her further in the right direction than she realized she was going to go.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I dunno. Sounds like some sort of Manichaean circumcision, with the wrong bit thrown away.

James Elliott said...

Before we all start reading too much in to these books, let's not forget that Rowling comes from the British Isles, a culture rich in a mythology steeped in magic.

The British fascination with magic, spirituality, and the more casual approach to those themes, can be seen in its history and literature. The Arthurian myths, stories of the Sidhe, the druidic traditions, etc. are all emblematic.

Other British authors have wrestled with similar tales. Susan Cooper, for example, with her "The Dark is Rising" sequence.

There is, most likely, something of a Christian influence given the simple fact that Great Britain has long been Christian.

It is important to sound a note of caution: analysis of literature is a supremely subjective field. As well it should be, since the experience between reader and book is intimate and subjective.

Oh, and Kathy? Nice post. I thought it was well-written.

S. T. Karnick said...

Interesting observations, Kathy. I have not read any volumes of the book since the second one, but solely because I haven't got to them yet. I agree with the idea that it is important to see only what is really in a work of the imagination, but I also accept the premise that there is often much more going on in works of popular fiction and film than is at all evident on the surface. It is, in fact, the premise of my writing on the arts. Hence, I look forward to reading your further thoughts on this Potter book and the series as a whole, because I do believe that Rowling's story comes from a point of view that is at the very least highly influenced by Christianity. It certainly seems to me to bear far more of the earmarks of Christian fantasy writers such as Lewis, MacDonald, and the like, than of any other strand of English thought.

As to analysis of literature being inherently subjective, I agree that there is a degree of that, but different authors do have different worldviews, and there will have to be a right answer to the question of "what was going on in the author's mind during the writing of this thing?"--even though we outsiders will necessarily never be able to be absolutely certain of, and reach consensus on, what that answer is in any particular case. It would be silly to claim that Dostoyevsky's writings are anything but Christian, or that Sartre's show a strong influence of orthodox Judiasm. Therefore, I think that it is fine to find deeper meanings in fictions, provided that sufficient evidence is adduced to support the suggested understanding. Personally, I think that more evidence should be adduced in the present case, and as I said earlier, I look forward to your further observations on the book.

Tlaloc said...

"I agree with the idea that it is important to see only what is really in a work of the imagination, but I also accept the premise that there is often much more going on in works of popular fiction and film than is at all evident on the surface."

The problem is when you fool yourself into thinking what you see in the story is what the writer meant rather than a rorschach test of your subconscious.

Kathy Hutchins said...

You are looking into a generic mythos and seeing what you want to see, nothing more or less.

If there is One source of Truth -- if the world was made through a Creator and thus stamped with His nature in its very atoms -- then wouldn't you expect the same myths to occur in many places, to many peoples who have no contact with each other? Many people think that when a religious person calls his faith Truth, he is saying that only through conscious knowledge of that religion can Truth be known. Nothing could be further from, if you will pardon me, the truth. Many, many truths are available to all simply through introspection and observation of creation. These truths will, since they are elemental, have been grasped at from the earliest times, and passed down.

The problem for you, Tlaloc, is that there is nothing in the physical record that can falsify my explanation. It's not a problem for me, because I'm not a materialist.

Kathy Hutchins said...

The British fascination with magic, spirituality, and the more casual approach to those themes, can be seen in its history and literature. The Arthurian myths, stories of the Sidhe, the druidic traditions, etc. are all emblematic.

The Arthurian myths are, in the earliest forms in which we know them, explicitly Christian. A whole lot more explicitly Christian than Harry Potter. It's 20th C. writers like Marion Zimmer Bradley that have chosen to put a completely ahistorical pagan spin on them.

Kathy Hutchins said...

The problem is when you fool yourself into thinking what you see in the story is what the writer meant rather than a rorschach test of your subconscious.

I would be able to take this sort of thing a whole lot more seriously if I hadn't, over the past 30 years, met so many people who react with rage to the suggestion that the Chronicles of Narnia are straightforward Christian allegory. It takes an act of willful brainlessness to think that when one of the 20th century's most prolific Christian apologists writes a tale that involves the willing acceptance of death by an innocent to wipe clean the slate of a sinner, the cross is nowhere in the author's mind. Yet I've heard it over and over again from the kind of people who fly into an absolute snit if their kid's English teacher suggests that Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea contains a Christ figure.

S. T. Karnick said...

Exactly, Kathy. When the evidence is there, we should certainly accept it.

Tlaloc said...

"I would be able to take this sort of thing a whole lot more seriously if I hadn't, over the past 30 years, met so many people who react with rage to the suggestion that the Chronicles of Narnia are straightforward Christian allegory."

Why does that cause you trouble with my statement? That's a perfect example of what I was saying. You think I meant only Christians show that behavior?

Kathy Hutchins said...

That's a perfect example of what I was saying. You think I meant only Christians show that behavior?

Then why the resistance to the suggestion that Rowling -- a self-professed ardent admirer of C.S. Lewis, and a woman whose education would certainly equip her to understand and use the symbolism of medieval Christian art -- is purposely writing from a Christian perspective?

This is a very interesting essay by John Granger on the elements he has identified as Christian components of Harry Potter. It was published in 2002 and precedes the publication of Order of the Phoenix. I believe his thesis is buttressed by OotP and HBP.

Tlaloc said...

"Then why the resistance to the suggestion that Rowling -- a self-professed ardent admirer of C.S. Lewis, and a woman whose education would certainly equip her to understand and use the symbolism of medieval Christian art -- is purposely writing from a Christian perspective?"

Because it's only coming from people with a definitive desire to see christianity everywhere. If we had literary scholars analying Rowling and pointing out the christian references that'd be one thing, but you should never trust someone with an agenda not to see it as they want to see it.

Besides which since Christianity is nothing more than a hodgepodge of previous myths and beliefs slapped together how can anything be definitively christian? Anything you might say is "Christ like" was "Mithras like" long befopre Christ existed.

Locke said...

Tlaloc, you're myth-a-rific. Did you actually study something other than bits and bytes or are you just throwing around crap you read in the latest issue of Skeptic magazine?

Tlaloc said...

"Tlaloc, you're myth-a-rific. Did you actually study something other than bits and bytes or are you just throwing around crap you read in the latest issue of Skeptic magazine?"

Feel free to provide a counter argument. I did study comparitive religions, among many other subjects, in school and of course on my own.

Tlaloc said...

By the way in case you are wondering Mithras worship (which goes back a good 200 years before christ) focused on a god born dec 25th. He had twelve disciples. They shared a last meal in which he had them symbolically eat his flesh. Then he was executed and ressurected after three days.

Sound a tad familiar?

Mithras.

Kathy Hutchins said...

Tlaloc -- I don't want to burst any of your balloons, but we've heard about Saturnalia and Gilgamesh too. You would be a better conversationalist if you didn't have this default assumption that all Christians are morons. JRR Tolkien had more knowledge of comparative mythology stored in his little toenail than you'll ever absorb, and he remained a devout Catholic all his life and raised a son to be a priest.

Tlaloc said...

"Tlaloc -- I don't want to burst any of your balloons, but we've heard about Saturnalia and Gilgamesh too."

Good for you.


"You would be a better conversationalist if you didn't have this default assumption that all Christians are morons."

So then your explanation for a myth exactly like christianity but predating it by a couple centuries is...


"JRR Tolkien had more knowledge of comparative mythology stored in his little toenail than you'll ever absorb, and he remained a devout Catholic all his life and raised a son to be a priest."

There's learning and then there is understanding. There will always be people who seeing dinosaur bones will say "well God put them there." It's not stupidity but willful ignorance of reality. It is in short denial and there is no shortage of smart people who have found it a comfortable way to live.

Hunter Baker said...

The difference is in the gospels and the historic person of Jesus Christ. They simply do not line up with common myth.

Of course Lewis and Tolkien would argue that Christianity is the coalescing of true myth. The others predated something that was actually true.

Tlaloc said...

"The difference is in the gospels and the historic person of Jesus Christ. They simply do not line up with common myth."

The history of Christ in the bible EXACTLY aligns with the Mithras myth. As for the gospels you'd have to narrow down which part you are referring to.



"Of course Lewis and Tolkien would argue that Christianity is the coalescing of true myth. The others predated something that was actually true."

Which is exactly the same as saying God hid the dinosaur bones for us to find. And exactly as wrong. When you have to imagine god playing elaborate practical jokes to account for the physical evidence you've gone too far.

Kathy Hutchins said...

So then your explanation for a myth exactly like christianity but predating it by a couple centuries is...

First you'd need to give me something a little more authoritative than a link to Wikipedia to indicate that you actually understand and are ready to vouch for the quantity and reliability of the archaeological evidence for a Mithraic cult exhibiting all the detailed characteristics you name in 200 BC. I'm far from knowledgable in this area, but what I've found just idly poking around suggests that most of what you're dishing up as settled fact is in fact tenuous speculation, and that the earliest definite evidence of a Mithraic cult that exhibits all these parallels to Christ is post 150 AD. Which muddies your timeline a bit.

Hunter Baker said...

Kathy, we need you for the Journal of Church and State. Sounds like you'd make a tenacious checker of references.

Tlaloc said...

"First you'd need to give me something a little more authoritative than a link to Wikipedia to indicate that you actually understand and are ready to vouch for the quantity and reliability of the archaeological evidence for a Mithraic cult exhibiting all the detailed characteristics you name in 200 BC."

Feel free to tell me what exactly you'd consider rigorous enough to convince you.



"I'm far from knowledgable in this area, but what I've found just idly poking around suggests that most of what you're dishing up as settled fact is in fact tenuous speculation, and that the earliest definite evidence of a Mithraic cult that exhibits all these parallels to Christ is post 150 AD. Which muddies your timeline a bit."

No not really because with even a tiny bit of common sense we can sort out the two propositions:
A) Mithras worship stole from Christianity
B) Christianity stole from Mithras worship

Mithras was a long established and popular worship among the Roman legions of the time (the most powerful army of the age of course). Christianity was a tiny sect, oppressed and with no political power whatsoever. Now you really want to claim that this powerful large church decided to copy a nobody little cult? And all the worshippers just went along with it? Or is it vastly more probable that the weak sect decided to ape aspects of a powerful religion in order to mke headway in conversions?

Furthermore we can see that CHristianity takes this same pattern over and over through history. They move into an area, absorb the local myths and use that to help spread their own gospel. Hence they took the goddess Ashtaroth and made her the demon Asteroth. Bel becomes Baal (another demon). And so on.

Not only does the idea of Christianity stealing from Mithras fit the logical interpretation it also fits Christianities Modus Operandi throughout he next several centuries.

Tlaloc said...

"Kathy, we need you for the Journal of Church and State. Sounds like you'd make a tenacious checker of references."

No, hunter, what she is is a ferocious denier of anything she doesn't want to hear. Global warming, the population crisis, her own faith's rather seedy past...If it's bad for her outlook it simply doesn't exist no matter how many experts say otherwise. That's the last thing Christianity needs.

The problem here is that you want to treat your faith as a history and it's not. A religious text is about the worst historical document you can imagine becuse it is inevitably so compromised by myth as to be unusable. Rather than focusing on the stupid small stuff you should be worried about how your faith compells you to live.

Was Jesus the son of God? Really doesn't matter. I mean that literally. It's a triviality whether he was or wasn't. What matters (if you follow his faith) is how he wanted you to comport yourself.

He wanted you to treat the lowliest beggar the same as you would the most powerful individual. He wanted you to engage in charity. He wanted non-violence. Comfort your enemies. Turn the other cheek. This is what matters in CHristianity. Not the Homicidal Hang ups. That's the small stuff that people get so worked up over they eventually kill each other for.

Does the eucharist become christ's flesh or is christ in the eucharist? IT DOESN'T MATTER. It's a freasking cracker. Don't worry about it, go out there and set up a soup kitchen. Read to sick kids.

If you are going to follow your faith then you have to let go of all this petty BS.

No Christ wasn't ressurected after three days. Does that mater? His message is equally valid whether he was the son of god or just some really groovy kid.

Listen to the message and leave the history out of it.

Anonymous said...

The preceding statement by Tlaloc is so ignorant of the meaning of Christianity it's mind-boggling.