[WARNING: PLOT SPOILERS THROUGHOUT THIS REVIEW.]
I first met Harry Potter when my grandmother was dying.
On New Years Day 1999, she had a massive stroke from which she would never recover. Not wanting her to die alone, we took turns sitting by her bedside, round the clock. The night I spent with her, I brought along my Bible, the biggest cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee I could find, and a new novel, picked up from the bookstore on the way to the hospital: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
Both the Bible and the "Boy Who Lived" proved good company during the watches of the night. Both pointed the way to hope in the face of death.
And there was at least one echo from the Scriptures in the Sorcerer's Stone: Lord Voldemort, the Hitleresque dark wizard in J.K. Rowling's fictional works, was defeated not by power but by loveby a young mother who sacrificed her life to save her young son. In Rowling's world, that kind of love is stronger than any magic. It can even conquer death.
By the time Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows opens, however, it seems that death finally has the upper hand. Albus Dumbledore, Voldemort's greatest enemy, lies buried on the ground of Hogwarts. Lord Voldemort's Death Eaters have launched a reign of terror and are on the verge of replacing the Ministry of Magic with a Nazi-style government that will enslave muggles and "mudbloods" alike. Anyone who stands in their way will be eliminated.
The body count starts earlyon page 12, to be exactand the hunt for Harry and his friends doesn't let up for the next 700 pages.
A master storyteller
(Warning, spoilers approaching).
Rowling may not be as elegant or precise a writer as C.S. Lewis, or have a mythology as elaborate as J.R.R. Tolkien's, but she is a world-class storyteller. And what a yarn she spins. There are midair broomstick chases, last-minute escapes from Voldemort's clutches, a daring break-in at Gringotts, the goblin bank, and a siege at Hogwarts involving just about everyone from the previous six books. From Harry's departure from No. 4 Privet Drive to his final showdown with Voldemort, the action rarely stops. When Rowling does pause for breath, she reveals a secret that advances the plot.
And once in a while, she sneaks in a magical moment that made at least this reader set aside the book, as there were too many tears to see through. Those moments usually come between a parent and child: when Molly Weasley stands between a death eater and her children; when Narcissa Malfoy risks her master's wrath for her son's sake. There's even a moment, much like the closing graveyard scene of the Goblet of Fire, when Lilly and James Potter speak to their son: "We are so proud of you."
Then there are all of Harry's friends. Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger, Neville Longbottom, and even Luna Lovegood all acquit themselves nobly in the Deathly Hallows. They will not be silent or turn aside in the face of evil. They remain loyal to Harry, even when such loyalty threatens their own lives. They are mercifulonly one side in this war uses killing curses. And they are brave beyond measure, especially Neville, who does his parents proud in the Deathly Hallows. If my children grow up to have friends like themor be such friendstheir lives will be immensely rich.
That may be one of the enduring lessons of the Harry Potter epic. Jesus said that our lives do not consist of the abundance of our possessions (Luke 12:15). In Rowling's world, that is certainly true. Love, friendship, loyalty, laughter, joy, familyall of these matter much more than all the gold in Gringotts. Or in the Dursleys' well appointed but soulless home.
A whisper of Christ
Along with revealing the back-stories of Albus Dumbledore, Severus Snape, and Petunia Dursleyall of which should satisfy longtime Potter fansRowling reveals another secret in the Deathly Hallows. It happens when Harry, Ron, and Hermione visit Godric's Hollow, to the house where Voldemort killed the Potters. There, Harry sees the murder through Voldemort's eyes. When the Dark Lord broke into their house, James Potter rushes to defend his wife and son, but it was hopeless. Caught without a wand in hand, he was no match for Voldemort.
Lily, on the other hand, had a choice. Voldemort wants to kill Harry, not her, and tells her to step aside. She could live and let her boy die. Instead, she lays down her life to protect him. The act of substitutionary sacrifice saved her son's life, just before the opening of the Sorcerer's Stone.
As Rowling said in an online interview (mugglenet.com/jkrinterview.shtml), the "caliber of Lily's bravery was, I think in this instance, higher because she could have saved herself. Now any mother, any normal mother, would have done what Lily did but she was given time to choose. James wasn't. It's like an intruder entering your house, isn't it? You would instinctively rush them. But if in cold blood you were told, 'Get out of the way,' you know, what would you do?'"
Jeff Weiss, religion writer for the Dallas Morning News, said the first six Harry Potter books are remarkably secular. After the Half-Blood Prince was released, he wrote: "After 3,365 hardcover pages, we know an awful lot about the orphaned wizard, and as far as we know, neither he nor anyone else in the books has ever set foot inside a church, spent a moment in prayer or acknowledged (or even contemplated) the existence of God.
"In the new book, as in the earlier volumes, Christmas is a holiday of feasts, presents and decorationswith no whisper of Christ."
Writers such as John Granger (hogwartsprofessor.com), however, argue that Rowling's fictional world is loaded with Christian symbolism, but always in the background. In the books themselves, the only hint of Christianity comes in the form of Sirius Black, Harry's godfather. Since he has a godfather, Harry was baptized as an infant. (Rowling said the baptism, or christening, was "a hurried, quiet affair" (books.monstersandcritics.com/news/article_858.php).
But Christ begins to whisper in the Deathly Hallows. A few pages before the flashback of the Potters' death, Harry and his friends visit the last resting place of Lily and James Potter, in the church graveyard in Godric's Hallow, on Christmas Eve.
First they see the grave of Kendra and Ariana Dumbledore, the mother and sister of the late Hogwarts headmaster. It bears this inscription: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (None of the characters seems to know that these words are from Matthew 6:21.)
Not far away is the Potters' tomb, with a different inscription: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." The quotation is from 1 Corinthians 15: 26, part of a long passage about the resurrection. In Godric's Hollow, Rowling begins to reveal that, like Narnia, her world has a "deeper magic." Love, expressed as substitutionary sacrificechoosing to lay down your life for your friendshas a power that Lord Voldemort, like the White Witch before him, is blind to. That blindness becomes his undoingwith the help of Harry and his friends.
When C.S. Lewis started out to write The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he didn't have Christianity in mind. "Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something abut Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tales as an instrument, then collect information about child psychology and decided what age group I'd write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out 'allegories' to embody them," Lewis once wrote. "This is all pure moonshine. I couldn't write in that way at all."
"Everything began with images," Lewis continued. "A faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sled, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn't anything Christian about them. That element pushed itself in of its own accord."
Something similar seems to have happened to J.K. Rowling. She began writing about wizards and quidditch and Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans, and somewhere along the way, Christ began to whisper into the story.
And the whole world was listening.
Bob Smietana is features editor of the Covenant Companion and the co-author of GP Taylor: Sin, Salvation, and Shadowmancer.
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