Harry Potter Is Here to Stay
As part two of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows opens in theaters worldwide this month, we have reached the final chapter—of sorts. It's a phenomenon that began 13 years ago with the release of the first installment in J. K. Rowling's series. I'm a Potter pundit who has written and edited as many books about the Hogwarts saga as there are novels in said series. So you would think I'd be sad to see the tale of the boy wizard come to an end.
But I'm not, because the tale is not ending. Harry is here to stay.
What makes me think that Potter mania will not go the way of the Hula-Hoop and pet rock is the remarkable ripple effect of Harry's seven-year battle with the Dark Lord. The Hogwarts saga has reshaped our ideas of what a story can and should do, and writers and filmmakers have and will continue to respond to this new set of audience expectations.
Rowling's Literary Genius
With sales of well over 400 million copies—dwarfing all published works not written by God or Chairman Mao—the Harry Potter series is the shared text of our time. Rowling's creation has infused the imaginations of generations of readers—children, parents, and grandparents. The 4,100 pages in its seven books have been turned into eight Warner Brothers movies, becoming the most successful film franchise ever, ahead of Star Wars and James Bond.
This cultural tsunami suggests Harry Potter is not a passing fad. Rowling's storytelling reveals traditional artistry, with symbols and themes borrowed from Dante, Shakespeare, the Inklings, and other literary greats. Most remarkably, Rowling uses three literary devices that are hallmarks of the series: (1) a complex yet nearly invisible "ring composition"; (2) an alchemical drama; and (3) an engaging picture of the faculties of the soul. Let me explain.
• Ring compositon: The whole series, as well as each book therein, conforms to the touchstones of traditional story scaffolding. Anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her book Thinking in Circles, calls it "ring composition." She describes it as "a construction of parallelisms that must open a theme, develop it, and round it off by bringing the conclusion back to the beginning." Bible readers might call it chiasmus.
Rowling repeatedly hits the three marks of ring writing. The Potter series and each novel have beginnings and ends that meet up. They have "centers" that both return to the question raised in the beginning and answer that question in the end. And, each book and each chapter has its mirrored image or "reverse echo" in the book or chapter on the opposite side of the story divide. "Parallelisms" define these stories.
I think Rowling picked up this chapter structure from her close reading of C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and Charles Williams's seven novels, which have a similar if not identical structure. Both Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (marketed and sold in the U.S. as Sorcerer's Stone) and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for instance, are 17 chapters long; both have their story centers in chapter 9; and both show an echoing effect between chapters before and after this divide.
• Alchemical drama: Lewis and Williams, and Rowling after their example, write in circles not just because Boethius, Dante, and medieval poets did, but also because they aim to transform readers by giving them an experience of literary alchemy.
Stanton Linden, in Darke Hierogliphicks, says that Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton used the vocabulary and images of alchemy to present allegories of Christian transformation. In alchemy, the darkness of lead becomes illumined and enlightened to become gold—a solid "light of the world"—and the alchemist's heart is restored to Edenic perfection. As a literary medievalist, Lewis used the alchemy motif most obviously in his Space Trilogy. In the world of alchemy, the three movements of transformation are known as the black, white, and red stages. The Space Trilogy parallels these stages as we witness the spiritual dissolution, purification, and perfection of Ransom, the saga's hero.
Rowling confirmed her use of alchemical drama in a 1998 interview with Scotland's The Herald. She said, "To invent this wizard world, I've learned a ridiculous amount about alchemy. Perhaps much of it I'll never use in the books, but I have to know in detail what magic can and cannot do in order to set the parameters and establish the stories' internal logic."
Thus, it's no coincidence that the title of Rowling's first work is Philosopher's Stone. Rowling writes in a narrow but deep stream of English letters that begins in Shakespeare's Globe Theater, permeates the works of the metaphysical poets (Blake, Coleridge, and Yeats), and is seen in novels from Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities to Williams's Many Dimensions.
• Soul triptych: 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.
This type of story works because, entering into fiction, we suspend disbelief. We shut down our critical faculties. Looking with this "eye of the heart" (instead of the mind), we see our reflection looking back at us from the hero—who represents the spirit in these triptychs—and identify with what he or she experiences.
In Rowling's world, Harry plays this role—as hero and spirit—to the max. He always chooses the right path, usually at risk to his life while fighting the Dark Lord. Dumbledore tells Harry repeatedly that Harry's power is his capacity for love. Harry survives many near-deaths because of his "bond of blood" with the sacrificial love of his mother. Seven years in a row, Harry dies a near death and "rises from the dead" in the presence of or as a symbol of Christ. Our hearts recognize, resonate with, and thrill to Harry's annual death to self and resurrection.
Like Lewis, Williams, and other greats, Rowling has written a spiritual allegory of the soul's transformation to perfection in Christ. Fiction, as philosopher and historian of religion Mircea Eliade explained in The Sacred and the Profane, serves a religious function in a secular culture. Moderns are immunized against sacramental experience, prayer, and worship, yet still long for the transcendent, something beyond the ego. We find it in sports, film, and music, but most powerfully in books, especially in novels in which the heart recognizes its reflection in a character like Harry. We recognize and imaginatively experience our hearts' end in Christ's victory over death.
Harry's Effect on Popular Lit
The elements that made Harry Potter so popular have combined to create a new template for popular fiction.
Three of the best-selling series of the 21st century are Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games, and Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking. The three series are in different genres—teen gothic romance, post-apocalyptic anti-war novel, and dystopian young-adult science fiction, respectively—yet their commonalities are striking. Each is alchemical. Each is crafted in a ring composition. Each has a soul triptych with a central character we identify with. Each has a sub-theme about thought or mind as the fabric of existence. Hence, Edward Cullen's telepathy in the Twilight series, the mental Noise in Chaos Walking, and Dumbledore's message to Harry in The Deathly Hallows that the greater reality is "inside his head" (an exchange Rowling describes as the "key to the whole series"). Each of these books' heroes, too, has resurrection experiences after a sacrificial death.
It would be amazing enough if Twilight and Harry Potter, together with sales of over half a billion copies, followed this model. That Collins and Ness also use it while featuring the "thought as fabric of reality" theme makes this pattern remarkable. The storytelling genius behind Potter mania has bled into the work of the next generation of novelists, dubbed "Generation Hex." Publishers are on the lookout for authors who write like Rowling. It's no doubt one reason Little, Brown and Company offered Meyer—an unpublished, stay-at-home mom—a $750,000 advance: Her debut book popped positively at every Potter checkpoint.
The Magic Behind the Magic
The literary elements that typify the Harry Potter series have been around a long time. But Rowling's novels have brought them to our full attention. Rowling instinctually knew what readers want by using these tools, the magic behind the magic, so to speak.
Rowling did not create the truth of the Eliade thesis, that novels satisfy a spiritual hunger in a secular culture. But her saga has confirmed it spectacularly. Harry Potter revealed rather than created the great spiritual hunger of our time. The publishing industry and Hollywood are responding to this by delivering stories that borrow Rowling's model. The industry simply cannot ignore the Potter-Twilight elephants in the accounting room.
Despite these massive successes, the idea that Rowling's writing template is shaping our future book and film experiences may seem a stretch. Still, I'm convinced that Harry Potter is not only reshaping our present and future but also our past, at least our understanding of it. As literary critic F. R. Leavis wrote (about Jane Austen) in The Great Tradition, Rowling's "achievement has for us a retroactive effect: as we look back beyond her we see in what goes before, and see because of her, potentialities and significances brought out in such a way that, for us, she creates the tradition we see leading down to her. Her work, like the work of all great creative writers, gives a meaning to the past."
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.
So, as Harry Potter has become the shared text of Generation Hex, its readers are given fresh points of access into these classics. And these entry points will inevitably color our understanding of what came before us.
The release of the final Harry Potter movie isn't an end at all. The Hogwarts saga, through its revelation of the great hunger of readers for transcendence and, ultimately, resurrection, has provided both a role model for future novelists and screenwriters, as well as incentives for publishers and studios to seek out these postmodern parables. This is a great thing. The love of these books and their characters confirms the power of traditional Christian literary arts to reach and stir the human heart. It also confirms Tertullian's remarkable observation that "all souls are Christian souls": that we all have darkened hearts that only Christ can illumine.
John Granger (no relation to Hermione) is the author of several books about Harry Potter, including The Deathly Hallows Lectures and How Harry Cast His Spell: The Meaning Behind the Mania for J. K. Rowling's Bestselling Books. He writes at HogwartsProfessor.com.
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Check back for a review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 before its July 15 release.
For more commentary on Harry Potter, see John Granger's blog at HogwartsProfessor.com.
Previous Christianity Today coverage of Harry Potter includes:
Is Harry the Chosen One? | As Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince opens, we are once again reminded of the characteristics that make him something of a Christ figure. (July 14, 2009)
(A Bit Less) Positive About Potter | How Focus on the Family, Prison Fellowship, and others have—and haven't—changed their views about the books over the years. (July 26, 2007)
Redeeming Harry Potter | The initial Christian outcry against the boy wizard seems to be dying down. Maybe that's because more and more of us are discovering multiple redemptive themes in the series. (November 15, 2005)
Editorial: Why We Like Harry Potter | The series is a 'Book of Virtues' with a preadolescent funny bone. (January 10, 2000)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part 1 | Darker and slower-paced than the other films, but an intriguing character study. (November 18, 2010)
Harry Potter 7 is Matthew 6 | The young wizard may not have read the Bible, but someone else certainly did. (August 2, 2007)