Saturday, July 22, 2006

The World According to JK Rowling

A few weeks ago, I decided to read the first Harry Potter book out loud to my children, one chapter a night. They were delighted by it, so a neighbour lent us a copy of the second book. Which both my son and I read (my daughter is a bit young for a book that length).


No, not that -- the books are wonderful, the characters are so real they are a delight, and the archetypes steal your soul away. But they are supremely addictive. Getting the books out of the library for my son, I have been sneaking time myself to read them. I have just now read to the end of the 6th book. And like everyone else, I have to wait till next year for the 7th and final book to find out how Harry's quest ends.

But besides being swept up by the story, I am struck by the message, so profoundly modern and defiant, here in what's considered a children's book series.

For example, most of the series was published after 9/11. Although Rowling wrote the outline for the seven books five years before she published the first book in 1998 (?), the influence of modern events is still strong. The government (the Ministry of Magic) in the first book is a neutral and even kindly organization. By the third book, it has become profoundly evil, using evil means to fight the evil of Lord Voldemort. It uses arbitrary arrest of innocents to make the War Against Terror look as if it is achieving something. It tries to gain the approval of popular hero figures like Harry and Dumbledore, who refuse on the grounds that they don't want to be posterboys for an organization that is doing harm.

And like in the War on Terror, the evil entity has split itself into terror cells which live hidden in common objects to be awakened when needed.

But I digress... It's the theology of JK Rowling that intrigues me.

Most of the characters are archetypes, while the children/teenagers are ordinary people. This is what gives the book its power. For example, Dumbledore is the all-knowing, all-seeing wizard headmaster of the Hogwarts School, the most powerful wizard in the world, the equal of the evil Lord Voldemort. In fact, he was also the teacher of Lord Voldemort and the one who rescued the orphan from a terrible childhood. Dumbledore is the Zeus figure, the God figure, complete with long white beard, flowing robes, and a kind, forgiving but stern nature.

It's no accident that he is killed at the end of the 6th book, by a man he had forgiven and taken under his wing (Professor Snape).

At the end of Book 6, God is dead. The pain the reader feels at this event is profound. The final chapter is devoted to a funeral so that the reader can grieve.

I am dimly aware that many Christian fundamentalist groups protested the Harry Potter series because it featured magic as witchcraft (laughable, of course, because if it had featured magic as "miracles" then of course it would have all been perfectly acceptable!!). But how much more confrontational to traditional theology is the heart-wrenching death of the God archetype. Rowling does not hide the existentialist implication of this death, either:

And Harry saw very clearly as he sat there under the hot sun how people who cared about him had stood in front of him one by one, his mother, his father, his godfather, and finally Dumbledore, all determined to protect him; but now that was over. He could not let anybody else stand between him and Voldemort; he must abandon forever the illusion he ought to have lost at the age of one: that the shelter of a parent's arms meant that nothing could harm him. There was no waking from his nightmare, no comforting whisper in the dark that he was safe really, that it was all his imagination; the last and greatest of his protectors had died and he was more alone than he had even been before.

So then what is God, what is love, what is the meaning of life in an existential, death-of-God world? The 7th book will feature Harry taking on the quest against evil alone, first by going back to his roots to understand how it all started, and then tackling the problem one piece at a time. He knows there are five pieces. He knows he might die doing it. He is struggling, like us, to find meaning.

In a typical archetypal quest, the hero must "slay" evil. And Harry himself, in the final pages, makes clear his need both for revenge for all these deaths, as he explains to his two friends:

...his eyes upon Dumbledore's white tomb, reflected in the water on the other side of the lake. 'That's what he wanted me to do, that's why he told me all about them [the horcruxes of Voldemort's soul]. If Dumbledore was right -- and I'm sure he was -- there are sitll four of them out there. I've got to find them and destroy them and then I've got to go after the seventh bit of Voldemort's soul, the bit that's still in his body, and I'm the one who's going to kill him. And if I meet Severus Snape along the way,' he added, 'so much the better for me, so much the worse for him.'

Certainly, 'killing' the evil one is a necessary part of any archetypal quest. Yet before Dumbledore is killed, on the eve of the last quest he takes with Harry, he suggests that there may be more to conquering evil than mere revenge. He makes this clear during a discussion of Harry's powers, of what he could use to destroy Voldemort. Dumbledore's [God's] statements about prophecy, power, and enmity provide a framework for meaning in a post-doctrinal world:

'But I haven't got uncommon skill and power,' said Harry, before he could stop himself.

'Yes, you have,' said Dumbledore firmly. 'You have a power that Voldemort has never had. You can -- '

'I know!' said Harry impatiently. 'I can love!' It was only with difficulty that he stopped himself from adding, 'Big deal!'

'Yes, Harry, you can love,' said Dumbledore, who looked as though he knew perfectly well what Harry had just refrained from saying. 'Which, given everything that has happened to you, is a great and remarkable thing. You are still too young to understand how unusual you are, Harry.'

'So, when the prophecy says that I'll have "power the Dark Lord knows not", it just means -- love?' asked Harry, feeling a little let down.

'Yes -- just love,' said Dumbledore. 'But Harry, never forget that what the prophecy says is only significant because Voldemort made it so. I told you this at the end of last year. Voldemort singled you out as the person who would be most dangerous to him -- and in doing so, he made you the person who would be most dangerous to him.'

'But it comes to the same --'

'No, it doesn't,' said Dumbledore, sounding impatient now. Pointing at Harry with his black, withered hand, he said, 'You are setting too much store by the prophecy!'

'But,' spluttered Harry, 'but you said the prophecy means --'

'If Voldemort had never heard of the prophecy, would it have been fulfilled? Would it have meant anything? Of course not! Do you think every prophecy in the Hall of Prophecy has been fulfilled?'

'But,' said Harry, bewildered, 'but last year, you said one of us would have to kill the other --'

'Harry, Harry, only because Voldemort made a grave error and acted on Professor Trelawney's words! If Voldemort had never murdered your father, would he had imparted in you a furious desire for revenge? Of course not! If he had not forced your mother to die for you, would he have given you a magical protection he could not penetrate? Of course not. Harry! Don't you see? Voldemort himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everwhere do! [...]

...It is essential that you understand this!' said Dumbledore, standing up and striding about the room, his glittering robes swooshing in his wake; Harry had never seen him so agitated. 'By attempting to kill you, Voldemort himself singled out the remarkable person who sits here in front of me and gave him the tools for the job! It is Voldemort's fault that you were able to see into his thoughts, his ambitions [...] and yet, Harry, despite your privileged insight into Voldemort's world, you have never been seduced by the Dark Arts, never, even for a second, shown the slightest desire to become one of Voldemort's followers!'

'Of course I haven't!' said Harry indignantly. 'He killed my mum and dad!'

'You are protected, in short, by your ability to love!' said Dumbledore loudly. 'The only protection that can possibly work against the lure of power like Voldemort's! [...] I do not think he understands why, Harry, but he was in such a hurry to mutilate his own soul, he never paused to understand the incomparable power of a soul that is untarnished and whole.'
We create enemies out of people by treating them like enemies, and we create prophecies out of words by following them as if they were scriptures.

And every act of love we do, even if it fails, is still part of the life that protects against evil. Ultimately, love is the only weapon we have against evil.

And in fighting against evil, we have to protect against destroying our own souls.


At 12:50 AM, Blogger Robin M. said...

Oh yeah. It's not Quaker theology but it is marvelous reading, in part because it is about the triumph of good over evil.

Maybe next year, maybe longer for the seventh book. :-(

I think that the reasons I liked the DaVinci Code are the same reasons I like Harry Potter - not because I believe either of them is non-fiction, but because both of them have enough of real life and other mythologies to keep my imagination engaged.

At 4:27 PM, Blogger Chris M. said...

The part that struck me was that, as the Sorting Hat reminded him a few years later, Harry chose to be in Gryffindor rather than Slytherin. He used his free will to make the right choice.

-- Chris M.
Tables, Chairs & Oaken Chests


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