In her interview with Oprah Winfrey, J. K. Rowling acknowledged that the Harry Potter series had a deep and intentional connection to Christianity. She said, “There is a lot of Christian imagery in the books. That’s undeniable. And certainly in Hallows [it is] very clear . . . That’s an allusion to a belief system in which I was raised.”
However, many us remember early resistance to the Harry Potter series from our Christian parents and Pope Benedict alike. That started to abate with the publication of books like Looking for God in Harry Potter by John Granger, which helped many Christians find an ally in Harry Potter where previously they had seen a potential risk.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the last book in the series, Rowling includes overt references to Matthew 6:19, “Where you treasure is, there will your heart be also” and 1 Corinthians 15:26, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pp. 325, 328).
Despite the fact that Rowling’s books are loaded to the brim with witches, potions, and evil incantations, there can be little doubt that the Christian tradition informs much of Harry’s story. Here are five ways J.K. Rowling’s beloved series mirrors the Christian narrative.
1. The Stag on the Lake — The Trinity
Toward the end of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry finds a way to produce a corporeal Patronus charm strong enough to ward off more than 100 Dementors. However, Harry is able to do this only after he has come to believe, if only for a very short amount of time, that his deceased father had returned to perform it. The Patronus charm is immensely difficult and can be produced only using the force of the strongest memories.
In this scene by the lake, Harry is in two places at once thanks to Hermione’s Time-Turner. During his first encounter with the Dementors, Harry is rescued by the producer of a powerful, stag-shaped Patronus. Harry catches a glimpse of this figure and comes to believe it was his father. This lost and orphaned boy, who sat for hours in front of the Mirror of Erised wishing for his deceased parents, finally has an hour in which he believes his father has returned from the dead to reclaim, protect, and care for him.
The words used to produce this particular charm are “Expecto Patronum,” which can be translated as “in expectation of the father.” It is with these words and on the grounds of the fresh memory of having believed in his returned father that Harry is eventually able to produce a fully corporeal stag that drives away the Dementors. It is this second Harry that rescues the earlier one.
The Patronus stag canters back across the water and is said to stare at Harry. Harry stares back and names it Prongs. It is not hard to notice that Harry’s Patronus, the image of his authentic identity, just happens to have his father’s animigus shape and nickname.
So who is it that is looking at Harry when the silver stag stares at him? Rowling leaves this in delicate and poetic indefiniteness. The stag is, of course, both Harry and James, mysterious and paradoxical as that may be. This paradoxical unity of father and son walks across water and yet emerges out of Harry himself. An external savior does not rescue Harry. The rescue, if it can be called rescue, comes from within the very spirit of the boy himself.
2. The Room for Requirement as The Room of Hidden Things — Forgiveness
One of the most engaging magical elements of Hogwarts castle is the Room for Requirement. It is a room that magically and intuitively becomes whatever the entrant needs it to be. But the Room has another name: the Room of Hidden Things. When the room becomes the Room of Hidden Things, therein rest the “objects hidden by generations of Hogwarts inhabitants” (See Half-Blood Prince, p. 526). When a student comes to hide something, he or she sees every other object that has ever been hidden in the Room. So why would the Room of Requirement do something that is not required?
Perhaps it actually is doing something that is required — but what? The Room makes it inescapably clear that I am not alone in my desire to hide indiscretions and bad decisions. The Room does not provide easy mercy or undeserved reassurance. It does, however, allow the student who may be at his most lonely and isolated moment to see that he is not, in fact, the only one.
Rowling is offering her young reader a form of mercy. Even as I enter the Room in the utmost secrecy and isolation, I will not likely leave feeling as such, for I will have come to realize that uncountable “generations” have come to this same room before me — and for the very similar reasons. The Room does not offer easy or vicarious forgiveness, but it can offer something like hope.
3. Albus Dumbledore — John the Baptist
In A Conversation between J.K. Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe, Rowling reveals that Albus Dumbledore is “John the Baptist to Harry’s Christ.” This is echoed in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince where Dumbledore says of Harry, “But your blood is worth more than mine.”
When I read the Gospel of Mark, I tend to see a John who might be seen as coaching Jesus, much in the manner Dumbledore coaches Harry. It is only after He has gone to see John that Jesus decides to go into the desert and face temptation. I think Rowling is saying something very powerful in her assertion that it is Dumbledore — that is, John the Baptist — and not Harry who has known all along that Harry will have to die.
4. Dobby’s Grave — Death and Resurrection
“He heard the authority of his own voice, the conviction, the voice of purpose that had come to him as he dug Dobby’s grave” (Deathly Hallows, p. 482).
The younger Harry who had complained about being left to “grope in the darkness” without a plan from Dumbledore is a Harry who is still in the last stages of his childhood reliance on guidance. The later Harry, the one who speaks with his own voice, with the voice of purpose and conviction, is no longer a child. We must remember that Harry dug Dobby’s grave by hand.
. . . he had set to work, alone, digging the grave . . . He dug with a kind of fury . . . On Harry dug, deeper and deeper into the hard, cold earth, subsuming his grief in sweat . . . understanding blossomed in the darkness . . . He felt as though he had been slapped awake . . . Deeper and deeper Harry sank into the grave . . . Harry lost track of time . . . Harry placed the elf into the grave, arranged his tiny limbs so that he might have been resting, then climbed out (Deathly Hallows, pp. 478-80)
Dobby is not the only one who goes into this grave. Harry descends into the “hard, cold earth” as well. There is something of Harry that is buried along with the elf. Yet, even as one part of Harry dies, another part rises.
5. Forbidden Forest — Gethsemane
In Mark 14:35, Jesus asks his Father to “Take this cup from me.” Jesus is “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” I, like so many others, find this scene to be at the center of what it means to think about Christianity. Here we get a Jesus who seems so real and human that it is hard to believe that the text is 2,000 years old. A Jesus who is scared and overwhelmed is a Jesus I can relate to. It is in this scene that I meet, perhaps for the first time, a Jesus who feels fully human to me.
J.K. Rowling built seven beautiful novels that lead us up to the desperately reluctant Harry walking into the Forbidden Forest to face the mania of Tom Riddle. Rowling’s description of Harry’s walk into the woods juxtaposes Harry’s incredible desire to hold onto life against his determination to face his calling and responsibility. Rowling gives us no easy superman, no confident champion of courage. She gives us a Harry who feels this crazy struggle the way I imagine I would — terrified, despairing, and a hair’s breadth from quitting. She gives us a Harry who makes it easy to imagine what all this might feel like if it were happening to me. Rowling’s Jesus does not walk into the woods for me, not in place of me, but as me.
Image courtesy of Dallas Epperson.