Deepening Your Potter Appreciation

Last weekend saw the opening weekend of the final Harry Potter film installment and with it the great crescendo of Pottermania has broken like a giant wave on legions of moviegoers. Given that the Potter franchise has become the top grossing movie franchise of all time, this is obviously no small thing.

All the more reason, then, to think a bit deeper about the Harry Potter stories and perhaps why so many love them. First a confession: while I’ve read all the books and enjoyed them immensely, I’ve not yet seen Deathly Hallows: Pt. 2. That’s because I’ve not yet seen the previous two films. Now, before you equate me with the guy that lives under the rock in the Geico commercial, just know that I have three small kids. Let’s just say that makes the logistics of watching movies, whether in the theater or at home, a bit more complicated. If nothing else, I’m in the stage of life where I fall asleep, not during boring activities, but while doing things that I actually enjoy.

So far be it from me to add an original thought on this matter. Instead, I’ll point you to a few articles that I found helpful:

(Warning: beyond this point there be spoilers…)

1. Relevant’s Ryan Hamm sheds light on the infusion of Christian imagery and themes throughout the Potter stories.

In 2007, J.K. Rowling told reporters: “To me [the religious parallels have] always been obvious. But I never wanted to talk too openly about it because I thought it might show people who just wanted the story where we were going.” To people who have read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or have seen Deathly Hallows Part 2, this quote seems completely obvious.…

Later, Harry sacrifices himself to save his friends … sound familiar? He wakes up in an all white area called (seriously) “King’s Cross.” Then he rises again and returns to Hogwarts to save his friends, deal the final blow to the Evil One and put things to rights.

If none of this rings a bell, it’s time to pull out your New Testament.

Harry’s life, death and resurrection are needed to break the back of evil and death and restore the wizarding world to fullness. It’s an almost on-the-nose Christ parallel so obvious it would be annoying … if it weren’t so compelling. It’s as “obvious” and as moving as a lion sacrificed on an altar who taps into an ancient magic of love misunderstood by a wintry white witch. It’s as blatant and wonderful as when a wizard falls to his death … and returns as Gandalf the White to save the world.

2. What accounts for the huge resonance of the Potter stories? Alan Jacobs, professor of English at Wheaton, offered some compelling insight in an essay appearing in Books and Culture shortly after the final book was published (I think you might need to subscribe online to view it in full). In it, he channeled the response of a famous author in his own right to the highbrow criticism of “penny dreadfuls,” the boy adventure stories of his day:

Then came riding into the fray a young man—twenty-five at the time—named Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who, though a journalist and an intellectual himself, repudiated the hand-wringing of his colleagues and planted his flag quite firmly in the camp of the penny dreadfuls: “There is no class of vulgar publications about which there is, to my mind, more utterly ridiculous exaggeration and misconception than the current boys’ literature of the lowest stratum.” Chesterton is perfectly happy to acknowledge that these books are not in the commendatory sense “literature,” because “the simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such an invisible dramatis personae, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac.”

Nor should our nurses have done so, because what matters most about the penny dreadfuls is the soundness and accuracy of their moral compass, and their power of inspiring their readers to discern the significance of moral choice: “The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared…. The average man or boy writes daily in these great gaudy diaries of his soul, which we call Penny Dreadfuls, a plainer and better gospel than any of those iridescent ethical paradoxes that the fashionable change as often as their bonnets.”

And above all, what Chesterton loves about the penny dreadful is this: “It is always on the side of life.”

Moving on to consider the Potter stories, Jacobs continues (with tongue somewhat in cheek at first):

What could one say in defense of these books, so unliterary, so unsophisticated in their morality and style, so bourgeois, so heteronormative? Perhaps only this: that J. K. Rowling has produced, in the vast, seven-book, thirty-five-hundred-page arc of Harry’s story, the greatest penny dreadful ever written.

After delving into specific aspects of the stories, Jacobs later remarks,

It should be obvious at this point that the Harry Potter books amount to something more, far more, than your average penny dreadful. But they belong, firmly, to that moral universe, even as they expand it beyond what we might have thought possible. Many years ago Umberto Eco wrote that the greatness of Casablanca stems from its shameless deployment of every narrative cliche known to humankind: “Two cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us. For we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.” The Harry Potter books are like that: every trope and trick of the penny dreadful raised to the highest power and revealed in all their glory.

3. John Granger, who has written extensively on the Potter series, hits a somewhat different note than Jacobs in this this article for Christianity Today*, where he points to some of the carefully crafted literary characteristics of J. K. Rowling’s saga. For example:

Rowling puts a peculiar Inkling twist on the schoolboy novel formula of three lead characters. Ron, Hermione, and Harry embody the three faculties of the soul. These faculties are described by Lewis in the essay “Men Without Chests” (from The Abolition of Man), what we call “body, mind, and spirit.” It’s a literary mechanism as old as the Legend of the Charioteer in Plato’s Phaedrus and the “soul triptych” in The Brothers Karamazov. We see it more recently in Frodo, Sam, and Gollum on Mount Doom; Han, Luke, and Leia in Star Wars; and Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in Star Trek.

Later, Granger offers this bold summary:

Rowling admits that her writing essentially grew out of the “compost heap” of her prior reading. And a rich heap it is. Shakespeare, Dante, Dickens, Austen, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Lewis, Tolkien, even Nabokov receive more than hat tips and cursory allusions. Her choices of narrative voice (Austen’s Emma), alchemical structure (Dante’s Comedia, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), ring composition (Lewis, Williams, and many others), heart hero (Dostoevsky’s Brothers, Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables), and her eye and mirror symbolism (Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, MacDonald’s Lilith, Dodgson’s Alice) are the stuff and substance of her greater magic.

4. Finally, if you didn’t catch Covenant Seminary professor Jerram Barrs’ presentation at The Crossing of “Harry Potter and the Triumph of Sacrificial Love,” take a listen here.

All this may be too much for the Harry Potter fan that simply wants to enjoy the movies or the books. But if nothing else, these resources and others like them might demonstrate we have good reasons for doing that after all.

* In fact, see his response to Jacobs here, though note he walks it back a bit in the comment section.

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