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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
by J.K. Rowling
© 2007 Arthur A. Levine Books

Commentary by The Rev. Torey Lightcap


It’s fitting that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the finest entry in this incredibly popular series —a compelling, articulate, tough, and deserving read from an author who both manages the details and remembers her larger purpose. J.K. Rowling has conceived and constructed a universe of words worthy of our attention. The primary object of her achievement, a plucky boy-man of seventeen named Harry, will rightly be read about and remembered on par with the likes of Aslan and Frodo for many, many years to come.

One of the worthy elements distinguishing Rowling from her contemporaries (detractors and imitators alike) is the simple fact that she has grown three fully-fleshed persons into adulthood, earning every plot moment the hard way. She has given them such free will that they could not help but flower, by her pen, into what they needed to be, even if whatever that ended up being had a certain ring of inevitability to it. As the beating heart of Rowling’s story, Harry is one of the most realized fictional characters for whom I have ever cared to develop deep feeling. (John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly and Dickens’s Pip spring to mind as rounding out the top three.)

As to any robust religious sense she might dare to disclose for her millions of readers, Rowling is, quite simply, a person of a deeply realized, hardscrabble faith and intellection, the pronouncements of others such as Dr. Dobson notwithstanding. That her faith is expressed in generically accessible (rather than grossly overt) forms is of little concern, at least to this reviewer. That her belief in the basic precepts of love, relationship, and charity occurs within a framework of wizardry fails to register as having any ultimately meaningful complaint. That her faith, as Merton says of faith, “is a principle of questioning and struggle before it becomes a principle of certitude and peace,” should embolden us to journey with her all the more. That she recapitulates afresh the terms of self-sacrifice and the final defeat of evil remains foremost.

There are two ways to go about looking for the expression of this theology in Deathly Hallows, and one of them is far less rewarding than the other. The first, more superficial (and yet wildly popular) way is to skim the surface for signs and wonders, some footprint traces or leavings of Rowling’s belief in the message of Jesus Christ. For those so trained, these can be found, be they unintentional or otherwise, as we poke around: a grave marked with a cross; the name of God invoked; hymn-singing at Christmas; the reappearance of a certain wizard who speaks at both funerals and weddings. All well and good among themselves, but perhaps little more than osmosis – the finely sorted evidence of living in our time and place.

The second, more reliable way – and surely the harder of the two – is to take these seven books as possessing a whole arc and message, just as a competent Bible scholar resists the urge to quote out of context, or to read strictly within his or her own canon, if such a thing be possible. (Please don’t mix my metaphors: I’m not arguing that this makes Jesus out of Harry, or even a Jesus, or even biblical – though he remains a Christological figure, of which there have been thousands in literature, and consistent with the moral formation the Bible intends.) This style of comprehensive reading lets the story give way to its underlying themes, where a tale as old as human history is retold, and old tropes are given new life. When we do this – when we let go and open up and read holistically and with sympathy – it turns out that Harry’s narrative is basically the story, the one about walking the way of the cross for the achievement of a greater good. And if we can’t find ourselves in at least one little glimmer somewhere across this constellation—these thousands of pages of characters and conflicts set on so great a stage—then great woe betide us.

Our second option, it turns out, is the far more liberating one anyway, because it lets story be story, and character be character, and plot arcs … well, you get the idea. It’s also much more liberating than trying to back fit Harry into a preconceived Christian framework: as Rowling draws it, his story is generally round-peg/round-hole with that of Christian belief as I know and practice it. C.S. Lewis saw the dangers of this retrofitting game played out years ago in his own work when he warned his readers that images, not allegories, dictated his content. The allegories that could be found, he said, were simply the product of the incredibly vital narrative in which he’d steeped himself. To read Narnia in the reverse was “pure moonshine.”

This is key. In the artistic process, as in life, who you are is who you are; or as the friar Richard Rohr says, how you do anything is how you do everything. Try writing five hundred or so pages without letting out any of your own deeply held beliefs. You can’t; you wouldn’t want to; you’d get sick and would have propaganda staring back up at you.

So come it must, and when it does – at least in Deathly Hallows – Rowling’s theology is a bit of a boiled-down feast. For her, life is summed up well in three pieces of Scripture, two of which she chooses to quote in one chapter and gloss in the rest of the book; and the last of which simply hovers invisibly over the entire Potter project.

The first two quotations appear on the headstones of long-deceased but plot-essential persons: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21) and “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26) The third, as I say, is an implication, hidden, as it were, in plain sight: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

We must know at some level that these pearls represent choice moments in Rowling’s faith life, that indeed this is her canon-within-the-canon, and nuggets to which she attaches the highest signification. We know them to be so palpably true for her because they are all over each of the seven books. Taken together, they are a powerful pastiche of Christian theology from the quills of Paul and John and Matthew: death has no dominion; self-sacrifice is the highest good; give to the things that matter, because you will become those things. Love, indeed, is stronger than death – and we need to believe that if we’re going to practice it; and the more we practice, so all the more will we believe.

We see these traits written on the living memories of the many now dead: Sirius, Dobby, Moody, Tonks, Lupin, and on and on.

We see these traits in the countless throngs of students and teachers and members of the Order of the Phoenix, locked and dying in grotesque battle with Death Eaters at the siege of Hogwarts.

We see these traits in Albus Dumbledore, who, though his good name begins to tarnish and crumble by the middle of Deathly Hallows, plots his own demise by the hand of another in order to position Harry to defeat Lord Voldemort and cleanse the world of a great stain for which he is partly culpable.

We see these traits in James and Lily, Harry’s parents, who step in front of killing curses without hesitation in order to protect their young son.

We see these traits in Ron and Hermione, who (with minor equivocation) endure with their friend Harry to the end – not because they promised to do so in a moment of sunny hope (and they did), but finally because being-in-relationship is the highest good they can imagine.

We see these traits in Severus Snape, who, unbeknownst to us, has been throwing himself on the mercy of a secret love for Lily Potter even long after her death; who puts himself through the worst imaginable existence for her sake; and who dutifully protects Harry like a son until he can no longer breathe.

And unless we are blind, we see these traits in Harry, stacking like bricks from the innocence and wonder of discovery in the first book to the turn of the final page of the seventh. He gives and gives and eventually gives it all – even, he thinks, his own life, for the lives of others. He does so as a matter of conscious choice, and in the one line of dialogue that her ghost is accorded (p. 699 of the U.S. edition), his mother acknowledges as much.

Harry, then, is the master of death because he and his animator both believe in the truth handed down from Paul and Matthew and John, that death is like a curtain or wispy pall, and no end in itself; that charity precedes the self; that love in all its wild manifestations is worth every risk. While Harry’s journey does not explicitly bear the name of Jesus as the expelled and resurrected one, still his life inheres in the marks of expulsion and resurrection to a planet of new possibility, hope, and future. Such is the essence of Harry and, battle done, the entire wizarding world.


Copyright ©2007 Torey Lightcap

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