Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Harry Potter and the hallowing of death

Warning: spoilers aplenty
"...there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying." (p. 577)
It seems J. K. Rowling has been reading my blog. She must have been doing so even as far back as Order of the Phoenix, 718, where the idea is also expressed.

As I mentioned before, the final Harry Potter novel is by far the most theological. Not that such themes were absent from the rest of the series, but Deathly Hallows takes them to a new level. In particular, I'd like to reflect a little on death in Harry Potter.

It's been there from the opening chapter of Philosopher's Stone: "The Boy who Lived". Muted at first, Rowling starting popping off characters from the middle of the series: Cedric (Goblet of Fire), Sirius (Order of the Phoenix), Dumbledore (Half-Blood Prince) and the final book is almost Shakespearean in its blood bath: Mad-Eye Moody, Tonks, Remus Lupin, Fred Weasley, Bathilda, Colin Creevy, "and fifty more", plus Severus Snape, Bellatrix, Voldemort himself and, of course, Harry.

Or does he? For all the discussion of a Christ-like death and resurrection, Harry does neither. The much-pondered penultimate chapter "King's Cross" is quite clear that Harry never died: "He failed to kill you with my wand. ... I think we can agree you are not dead" (570); indeed, Harry's blood in Voldemort's veins has kept him alive while the dark lord lives (567). King's Cross is a near-death experience (from which it would be possible to board a train and go "On" as Dumbledore says: 578)) occurring in Harry's head. It is here that wounds are healed and glasses are no longer needed (except for Dumbledore's, confirmed as a fashion accessory: 567). This is Harry's taste of restoration, of 'resurrection'. When he comes back, he is again the scarred, mortal boy who almost died. Except that he has now also become a man: "You wonderful boy. You brave, brave man." (566)

The Resurrection Stone is no such thing. It is a ghost stone, able to bring back shadows of those who once were. Indeed, the very desire to see the dead again is what mislead Dumbledore into attempting to use the stone and so destroyed his hand (and his health). The dead who are 'raised' by this stone at worst make the user himself want to die in order to join them, and at best give some moral encouragement to the living. The dead do not live again, except in life-and-love-sustaining memories.

When Harry and Hermione read the tombstone of his parents, they discover 1 Corinthians 15.26: The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. Confused, and thinking it sounds like a Death Eater sentiment, Harry asks "Why is that here?" to which Hermione replies: "'It doesn't mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry. [...] It means ... you know ... living beyond death. Living after death." I've posted before on life after death, and how that's not what 'resurrection' means in the Bible. Resurrection is life after life after death, as N. T. Wright puts it. It is not life continuing despite death, a transition to another form of existence. It is life again and better.

Harry is no Christ, dying to save those he loves (what about dying for his enemies?) and rising triumphant. Of course, there are parallels and of course this story has been powerfully shaped by Christian archetypes. But if any are tempted to read the Gospel narrative in light of its portrayal of 'death and resurrection', they will be gravely misled.

I'd love to say much more, and perhaps I will continue these thoughts at some stage, but for the moment, I'll end with one final reflection.

Voldemort: his name means 'the flight of death', but I wonder whether it mightn't also mean 'flight from death'. "He fears the dead. He does not love." (577) Here, finally, is an insight more properly called Christian. It is the fear of death that drives Voldemort, that blinds him to love and the more powerful magic: "Of house-elves and children's tales, of love, loyalty and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped." (568) Death, though an enemy, is not to be feared. The hope of resurrection liberates us from obsessing about staying alive.
Ten points for the location of the picture.

14 comments:

Drew said...

nice.

Chris Tilling said...

Great post - so well put.

andrewE said...

Yes, I think you're right. But I think also that the best we can hope from a myth is an echo of the gospel which pales in comparison to the reality.

Ryan said...

Wow man, great post. Well said.

geoffc said...

You said you may post more about this topic, please do.

One way I think the book doesn't parrallel the gospel, and it is the same for LOTR as well, is that Good is guaranteed to prevail over evil. There is never that assurance in HP like there is in the bible. Harry could've stuffed it up and evil may have prevailed.

byron smith said...

AndrewE - yeah, I feel I was a bit harsh. I did really enjoy the books, just found the discussion of resurrection a bit disappointing. Would have been better if she'd used another term.

GeoffC - I'll try. Though I have to return my borrowed copy of #7 this evening and so won't get to look closely at the text anymore.

Dave Lankshear said...

Does ANYONE at Byron's church have a copy to lend him? I need more of his reflections on the Gospel of St Hallows!! ;-) Excellent.

Anonymous said...

hey byron,

haven't entered into the world of blogs for several months and hit yours to find some suggestion that hp7 is no fun because she has some funny ideas about resurrection!?

Was she promising anything? I'm confused about the expectation you seem to have. Is there something about J.K. Rowling that I don't know that would give you reason to think that she would be putting forward the kind of theological reflections that you would approve of??

over at st a's i'm organising a lunch-time post-potter depression support group so that should be amusing! hp et al have been providing me with much needed but highly dangerous escapism during this insanely heavy period of evil hsc trials marking which i am hating with the fire of a thousand suns...

It's em a by the way... can't be bothered to get a google account so I can't log on as me and have my little picture next to my comment. tragic...

byron smith said...

Dave - it was a church friend who loaned me a copy in the first place.

Em - I'm sorry if my tone was wrong. I quite enjoyed the 7th book. This was a simply a reflection on it pouring a little cold water on some of the gushing enthusaism from some Christians delighted to find Harry-as-Jesus. Particularly when she uses the term 'resurrection', but continues to perpetuate common misunderstandings of it (as 'some kind of post-mortem existence which means death isn't so bad after all') - that bugs/disappoints me.

Fiona said...

Snape isn't dead, there is no portrait of him on the wall in the headmasters office. So clearly he had previously thought that Voldermort might kill him using the snake and had taken an antidote, now he is in the tropics somewhere working on his tan.

But other than that, thanks for a really great post. It didn't occur to me before that Harry didn't die.

(I read your blog sometimes but don't post. It makes me think a lot though so, thanks)

Hecta said...

The place is St John the Baptist's, Ashfield.

byron smith said...

Fiona - Snape not dead? I'm afraid he has to be, on Rowling's fairly rigid conception of a neat ending. It would simply be too messy to have him floating around after his role and the lack of a public vindication.

Hecta - ten points. You've now hit the lead this month.

byron smith said...

HuffPo: An interesting Yale course on HP and theology.

byron smith said...

Brad Littlejohn has offered his thoughts on the film adaptation: De-Theologizing Harry (or, The Death of the Death of Death).