In vain I have struggled. It will not do.
My feelings will not be repressed.
You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love Harry Potter.
I started this post three months ago, when the news cycle would have freshened it up a bit. As it happened, I had to leave the task to those more capable at that time. But I can’t leave it alone. Maybe it’s because I have a girl crush on Emma Watson. Maybe it’s because I finally got the Golden Snitch locket I ordered on etsy. And maybe it’s mostly because I’m defensive about my boy Harry when certain individuals look at me askance.
This all started when my excellent colleague Shawn McEvoy shared how he went from a Harry Potter reviler to reverer (if there’s such a thing). And I thought, yeah, I did a similar thing. Better to stay away from even the appearance of evil, I once thought — even if the definition of “witch” and “wizard” being used is not exactly biblical.
In college, I met too many people who loved good (and I mean that in every sense) books and also loved Harry Potter, so I had to revisit my assumptions. I caved and read the first book the autumn after college. I was done with the whole series before winter.
My preconceived notions were completely blown away. I found myself contemplating the rampant magic in the series in a similar way as I contemplate the magic of Narnia, that token series people hold up as the measure of a good, wholesome, virtuous, and fantastic example of Christian children’s literature.
Sacrilege, to compare Jack to J.K. Rowling? Not in the least. Others have noticed the same thing.
I can’t explain without divulging the ending of HP, so stop reading here if you don’t want spoilers.
Here’s the story arc in a nutshell: Harry Potter is just a boy, but he’s a special boy. He discovers he possess innate talents that we could call “magic.” He goes to school, where he learns of the existence of the Dark Lord Voldemort, who uses magic for utter control and evil. He gradually realizes that he’s the only one who can stop Voldemort, though it will require his life. But for a while, he’s safe, because Harry’s mother died to protect him, and the rules of magic cannot overcome the rule and sacrifice of love. Voldemort, on the other hand, is terrified of death; he’s exchanged his humanity for immortality, and has no soul left for remorse. So when Harry offers up his life to make Voldemort mortal again, it’s so his friends can finish the work. He is the sacrificial lamb that goes to the slaughter. Except Voldemort’s proudest moment – killing Harry Potter – is ultimately his undoing, because he fails to understand the deeper magic of love.
That’s right. As others have noted, Harry Potter is ultimately a Christ story.
The story parallels that of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Both stories hinge on the sacrifice of an innocent to defeat evil, though Harry Potter takes seven full books to get there. Narnia simply has the benefit of beginning with that sacrifice and seeing how it plays out, while Harry Potter demonstrates the darkness of a world held hostage and waiting.
When Aslan returns to the Pevensie children, he offers them an explanation of how, yes, he really died, and how, yes, he’s really truly alive with them again. Here’s what he says:
“Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge only goes back to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”
Lewis and Rowling both grasped what we might call The Essential Truth: Evil has tried to overcome Love, but has not understood it. And so Love has conquered the greatest evil of all — Death.
As Tolkein would say, that’s true myth. That’s deeper magic. In a word, that’s real.
Some will assert that Christ-figures only serve to confuse those who don’t recognize Christ, but I disagree. C.S. Lewis himself once addressed the issue of a child loving Aslan more than Jesus, saying simply that as the child grows, the child will find what he loves in Aslan to be even more true of Christ. So I think he would say that eternity is not jeopardized by our stories; rather, we simple humans use the stories to help us understand a far greater mystery. To put it another way, we can’t look God full in the face as mere mortals. We simply don’t get him. But through story, sometimes, we can elaborate on the sacrifice in simpler terms, and return to the true myth with a greater appreciation for it. I think we also return to it more willing to look deeper, because the stories have whetted our appetites for whatever in them in true. So when the stories end, as Harry Potter and every other story ever written must, we may find in ourselves a longing that was not so sharp beforehand. For me, those longings help me reach deeper into that first and ultimate Mystery with a little more enthusiasm.
Harry is just a boy (who becomes a man). He has to discover what it means to die to self just like the rest of us. He’s not divine, so we can get inside his head to see the cost of sacrifice. There’s a bit of Everyman in him, and we relate more than we might realize. I think that’s why the series is so incredibly popular, because it tugs on people’s hearts even if they don’t know why. That’s why it’s part of the greater story, and why I dare to hope Harry Potter will endure for quite some time.
You see, I think it’s perfectly possible for people to tell stories they don’t mean to tell. I believe that because humankind didn’t create language. God did. We have to tell even our own stories in a language invented by heaven itself, so we shouldn’t be surprised when those stories turn out to mean something a bit different — or more — than we expected. Any writer will tell you that what flows from his pen partly creates itself, even as he guides the narrative. Story is a tricky thing, after all. But once again, that’s just part of the deeper magic, that we tell stories in words we don’t fully comprehend. Language is like that dim mirror in first Corinthians 13, which only lets us see in part what our words really mean. I still think we’ve barely scratched at the richness of language. Yep, even though we left Shakespeare 500 years ago. So I’m not surprised when stories that we think are turning one way veer seemingly off course and surprise us with their conclusions. It’s like George MacDonald said,
“One difference between God’s work and man’s is, that while God’s work cannot mean more than he meant, man’s must mean more than he meant … A man may well himself discover truth in what he wrote; for he was dealing all the time with things that came from thoughts beyond his own.”
That’s true for Harry Potter and a lot of other stories. That’s just another hint of deeper magic. And that’s just awesome.