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We all know about the furore in some sections of the Christian church over the supposed wickedness of Harry Potter. I don’t intend to give much air-time today to the arguments of the anti-Potter protestors. Suffice it to say that, as a Christian myself, I don’t believe at all that Harry is an evil and corrupting influence on his fans. In fact, my view is that when we look closely at the ideas about moral choices and the nature of good and evil that are contained in the story, we find surprising parallels to themes that are prominent in biblical Christianity.
Or perhaps they’re not so surprising, if you concur with C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia Chronicles, who believed that what he called ‘sub-Christian’ values can be identified in much of the best secular literature, even the pagan myths that he loved from childhood and throughout his life. By sub-Christian values he meant images and principles that can form a foundation for understanding fully-fledged Christian doctrine (Lewis, Christian Reflections 39–40) . He also believed, perhaps more controversially, that human beings are designed by God to be deeply attracted to ideas in literature that draw us closer to a knowledge of God.
This is not to say, of course, that J.K. Rowling has deliberately included biblical Christian imagery in Harry Potter. Even C.S. Lewis, at the moment when the inspiration for the Narnia Chronicles first came to him, wasn’t intending to write specifically Christian children’s fiction (Lewis, On Stories 53). The Christian parallels in those stories emerged naturally from his deep personal faith; they were not pasted in as the ‘lesson for today’. We know very little indeed about Jo Rowling’s religious beliefs beyond the fact that she believes in God, is a member of the Church of Scotland and attends church ‘more than to weddings and christenings’ (Rowling. Interview with Evan Solomon), but I’m sure that Harry’s story would be infinitely less compelling if it was merely some kind of morality tale.
Having said that, in this paper I want to explore just a handful of the ‘sub-Christian’ values that I see in Harry Potter. They concern the danger of using surface appearances to judge character, the importance of personal choices between good and evil, one aspect of the use and abuse of power, and the way in which Harry is protected by his mother’s sacrifice. I shall also touch on the character of Fawkes the phoenix and his similarity to one person of the Trinity.
One of the factors that make the Harry Potter stories so intriguing is that appearances are very often deceptive. Sometimes appearances are unintentionally deceptive—as in the Mark Evans incident—but usually the reality beyond the surface is genuinely central to the plot (most spectacularly, it has to be said, in Goblet of Fire). Jo Rowling has a tremendous gift for changing our perception of people and situations in the blink of an eye, by dropping in some new bit of information about them. It’s as if the world she creates is a kaleidoscope: she gives it one twist and all the pieces fall in a different pattern.
In Order of the Phoenix, Harry himself experiences this kaleidoscope effect again and again. ‘Dudley demented’ shows him that there are memories in Dudley’s pampered childhood that are not all sweetness and light, and deserve pity; the Pensieve discloses much the same about Snape; Aunt Petunia suddenly reveals herself as truly his mother’s sister rather than a bitter distant relative; Cho goes from being the unattainable crush to a silly, shallow cry-baby; and, hardest of all to bear, James drops from hero status to the rank of immature show-off and bully—but with the saving grace that he ‘grew out of it’ (OotP 592).
And then there’s Luna Lovegood, who, in that final conversation with Harry in the last chapter of Order of the Phoenix, stops appearing dreamy, eccentric and gullible and blossoms instead with serenity, inner strength and dignity, and what looks suspiciously like faith.
If there’s one thing that Harry learns from all this, it is that it’s always misleading to judge people by their outward appearance, or even by shallow acquaintance. And this is a theme that is very much to the fore in the Bible. The principle is most explicitly stated in the Old Testament story when the prophet Samuel visits a certain family to choose the next king of Israel. There are seven handsome, strapping lads presented to him one by one, and immediately Samuel assumes that the good-looking eldest of the brothers will make an ideal king. But God says this to him: ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. Human beings look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7, NIV). In the end, the youngest brother, David, who has been left out of the party to look after the sheep (a very low-status job in that culture), gets the thumbs-up from the Lord, and is anointed as the king-in-waiting.
Elsewhere in the Bible, there is a strong message that it will never be easy for us to distinguish between good and bad people. For example, Jesus tells a parable about wheat growing in a field alongside tares—a kind of weed that, in its early stages of growth, is almost identical to wheat. In the parable, the farmer counsels his workers to let the two plants mature side by side and not to try to judge which is which until they’re both full-grown, for fear of uprooting the good along with the bad (Matthew 13:24–30). Of course, the behaviour of Severus Snape in Half-Blood Prince might raise questions about this parable: what if the bad, in the late stages of growth, destroys the good anyway? But the issues surrounding that question would take a separate paper to consider, exploring the limits of grace, the ‘weakness’ inherent in goodness, and the signs of true repentance.
Those issues aside, the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments, is adamant that it is unacceptable for us to leap to judgment about other people’s moral condition, and Harry Potter serves to confirm the reason for this prohibition: it is that none of us ever knows the full truth about another person. Unlike God himself, we cannot see into their hearts—just as Harry can’t see into the heart of Dudley, Snape, Aunt Petunia, Cho or his father James.
The fundamentalist Christians who are up in arms over Harry Potter sometimes complain about the fact that Rowling’s good and evil characters are not easily distinguishable from one another—that the two kinds of quality are mixed together in a way that muddles right and wrong into shades of grey. They claim that Rowling is attempting by this to confuse and corrupt her readers’ moral judgment. Looking at biblical principles, however, I believe that quite the opposite is true: she expects her readers to recognise that outward appearances are deceptive and that it is vital to look beyond those appearances, to learn to discern the reality of the heart, which is not immediately obvious. In this, she is perfectly in line with a major theme of the Christian Bible.
‘It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities’ (CoS 245). Dumbledore’s reassurance to a very worried Harry here in Chamber of Secrets is actually a challenge to every character in the story, and it’s a challenge that grows more and more important as the story progresses. At the point when Voldemort returns to full strength, the starkness of the choice between ‘what is right, and what is easy’ (GoF 628) becomes very clear indeed. In fact, though, in the (almost) four books leading up to this point, characters have been making choices that have been shaping the kind of person they truly are, such that they find themselves on one side or the other without really knowing how they got there. A case in point is Percy, who, for the first three books, has been portrayed as a figure of fun, mocked by Fred and George, somewhat indulged by his parents, but consistently choosing a path of single-minded ambition—from prefect to head boy, to cauldron thickness monitor to right-hand man (so he thinks) of the head of the Department of International Magical Co-operation.
This too is a theme that can be found within Christian thought. Underpinning the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament is the idea that people in real life can build good character gradually, by repeatedly and deliberately choosing good ‘paths’, and evil character by repeatedly choosing evil ‘paths’. And Proverbs also suggests that the true quality of a person’s character, whether basically good or bad, strong or weak, is shown up under the pressure of unpleasant or unexpected circumstances: as one verse in the book says, ‘When the storm has swept by, the wicked are gone, but the righteous stand firm for ever’ (Proverbs 10:25, NIV). Until the reported return of Voldemort racks up the pressure, we can laugh at pompous Percy, but it’s a shock to realise, at the end of Goblet of Fire, that his loyalty to his family and to Dumbledore is suddenly being called in question, because of the accumulated choices that he’s made over several years.
The sad thing is that Percy himself doesn’t seem to realise that he has gradually sold his soul to the organisation. By contrast, his father Arthur, who has made the hard but admirable choice to stand up for Muggle rights throughout his career, is well aware that it has cost him promotion at work. His broom-cupboard sized, windowless office is testament to the injustice that he has experienced as a result of his choices, but his integrity and loyalty to the cause of the Order still stand firm.
In this context, it’s interesting to note Dumbledore’s exact turn of phrase in his tribute to Cedric Diggory: he doesn’t speak of ‘a choice between what is right, and what is wrong’; he says, ‘a choice between what is right, and what is easy’. To me, this echoes Jesus’ words: ‘The gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it’ (Matthew 7:13–14, NRSV). It is all too easy to drift on to the wrong side in Harry Potter—people have to make a conscious choice to resist evil, and there’s a personal cost involved. Once again, we find that the Bible gives exactly the same message in its analysis of the moral dilemmas we often face.
As you might expect in a story about the battle between good and evil, in which the two sides struggle for supremacy, the Harry Potter books have a lot to say about the use and abuse of power. I’d like to highlight one aspect of this issue, first by contrasting the two extremes of evil and goodness in the story, Voldemort and Dumbledore.
After his revival in Goblet of Fire, Voldemort boasts to the gathered Death Eaters, ‘I am now going to prove my power by killing [Harry Potter]… you will be left in no doubt which of us is the stronger’ (GoF 571). At this stage, Voldemort believes that Harry is no longer a threat to his plans, so the desire to kill him stems from his sense of humiliation at having being defeated by Harry in the past. It serves no other purpose than to ‘prove’ that he can do it. When we remember Quirrell’s words in Philosopher’s Stone, ‘There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it’ (PS 211), we realise that for Voldemort and his followers, to exercise restraint gives the appearance of weakness, and to appear weak is simply unbearable. Voldemort must be constantly exhibiting his dominance over those round about him.
Contrast this attitude with that of Professor Dumbledore. In conversation with Professor McGonagall, sitting on the wall in Privet Drive, awaiting Hagrid’s arrival with baby Harry, Dumbledore says, ‘Voldemort had powers I will never have’; to which McGonagall replies, ‘Only because you’re too—well—noble to use them’ (PS 14). Dobby too is aware that ‘Dumbledore’s powers rival those of He Who Must Not Be Named at the height of his strength’ (CoS 18). Yet Dumbledore seems to have no desire to prove those powers to anyone. He has no fear of appearing weak, in private or in public. He just laughs, for example, at Rita Skeeter’s written description of him as ‘an obsolete dingbat’ (GoF 269), and of course he has given Dobby and the other Hogwarts house elves full permission ‘to call him a—a barmy old codger if we likes, sir!’ (GoF 332).
This kind of behaviour demonstrates one of Dumbledore’s outstanding character qualities: humility. And this isn’t a false kind of humility, which leads him to be a doormat for all and sundry. He does know the extent of his power, and he is prepared to make it plain when it really matters: witness his refusal to ‘come quietly’ when Ministry minions try to remove him from his office in Order of the Phoenix. No, his humility is based on a deep inner security that eliminates any need to justify himself or parade his ‘greatness’ before the rest of the world merely for the sake of maintaining his own image.
Dumbledore’s attitude to power in this respect is, I think, reflected in the life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. Jesus knew perfectly well that he had enormous power at his command: when faced with betrayal and arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, he said to his followers, ‘Don’t you know that I could ask my Father, and straight away he would send me more than twelve armies of angels?’ (Matthew 26:53, (CEV). He also knew that he had enemies, who tried to discredit him by calling him ‘a glutton and a drunkard’ (Matthew 11:19, NIV), but he never bothered trying to deny the accusation. On another occasion, when he found that many of his supporters were starting to drift away, he gave his twelve closest friends full permission to leave him as well. Of course, they refused (John 6:67–69).
Like Dumbledore, Jesus had absolutely nothing to prove, because he had a deep inner security that nothing could shake. In fact, that security was challenged right at the beginning of his ministry, when he was presented with three specific temptations to abuse his power: to produce bread supernaturally, to throw himself off a high building and miraculously survive the fall, and to strive for political status in ‘all the kingdoms of the world’ (Luke 4:1–12). One phrase that appears in two of those three temptations, as they are presented to Jesus by Satan, is ‘If you are the Son of God…’ Satan, like Voldemort, assumes that anyone with power must want to flaunt it, so he goads Jesus to stifle his humility and call forth a show of strength, just for the sake of proving it. Jesus resists all three temptations and, ever afterwards, chooses to use his power not for self-aggrandisement but to heal and help other people in dire need.
There’s one other thing I want to say about Dumbledore’s power and his humility. Probably my favourite scene in Philosopher’s Stone is at the Mirror of Erised, when Dumbledore finds Harry ‘back again’, staring at his parents’ reflections. Headmaster Albus Dumbledore—‘Order of Merlin, First Class, Grand Sorceror, Chief Warlock, Supreme Mugwump, International Confederation of Wizards’ (PS 42)—sits on the floor that night to comfort and counsel a single grieving child. Reading this, I can’t help but be reminded of a description found in the Old Testament, where God says through the prophet Isaiah, ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite’ (Isaiah 57:15, NRSV).
In his humility and his refusal to prove the power that he undoubtedly possesses, Dumbledore is a remarkably God-like, or Christ-like, figure. However, there are certainly ways in which Dumbledore does not resemble the Christian God—for example, as we know from Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince , he is not infallible. So I would not claim that he (or, indeed, any other character in the story) is a clear ‘type’ of Christ, as Aslan obviously is in the Narnia Chronicles.
Neither can I point to any obvious biblical symbols in the Harry Potter books. The lion and the snake, symbols of Gryffindor and Slytherin houses, both appear in the Bible, most obviously as images of good and evil respectively. So Jesus is described as the ‘Lion of the tribe of Judah’ (Revelation 5:5, NIV), while the serpent, of course, is the form taken by Satan in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1). However, the two images are ambivalent in the Bible, because Satan is also likened to ‘a roaring lion looking for someone to devour’ (1 Peter 5:8, NIV), while one of the stories of the Israelites in the Sinai desert involves a serpent-image lifted up on a pole, which has healing properties (Numbers 21:9)—and Christian theologians have seen this as a foreshadowing of Jesus being lifted up on a cross.
The only character who seems to come anywhere near being a biblical allegorical figure is Fawkes the phoenix, who, to my mind, shows some of the functions of the Holy Spirit—the third person of the Trinity—as he is portrayed in the Bible. In the Middle Ages certainly, possibly even earlier, Christians adopted the mythological phoenix as a symbol of resurrection. Also, Fawkes is associated with fire in Harry Potter, and fire is a biblical symbol of the Holy Spirit. But these things are, I think, minor points.
What interests me more is that, in the Bible, the Holy Spirit is described, depending on the translation you use, as the Comforter or Helper. The original Greek word means ‘one who comes alongside’. In this sense, ‘Comforter’ doesn’t mean someone who pats you on the head and says, ‘There, there, never mind, things are never as bad as they seem.’ It means someone who strengthens or fortifies the heart, equipping and encouraging us to take a stand and do what needs to be done. And that is exactly the function that Fawkes performs for Harry: as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them tells us, phoenix song ‘is reputed to increase the courage of the pure of heart’ (FB 32). Fawkes’s presence does indeed comfort Harry in the ‘there there, never mind’ sense, but, far more importantly, he imparts courage to Harry when it is needed most.
We see this most clearly in Goblet of Fire, in the singing web of light surrounding Harry and Voldemort as they remain literally locked in combat in the graveyard. There, we’re told, ‘it was almost as though a friend was speaking in [Harry’s] ear’ (GoF 576)—very evocative of the Helper, the ‘one who comes alongside’. Then, later, as Harry prepares to tell the whole story of Voldemort’s revival to Dumbledore and Sirius, Fawkes sings a single note, and ‘Harry felt as though a drop of hot liquid had slipped down his throat into his stomach, warming him, and strengthening him’ (GoF 603). So here Fawkes acts as the Comforter, encouraging and fortifying, equipping Harry for the task in hand.
Incidentally, it’s also interesting to note that Fawkes’s song in the graveyard is described as ‘the sound [Harry] connected with Dumbledore’ (GoF 576). Fawkes doesn’t draw attention to himself; he diverts attention to Dumbledore. In just the same way, the Holy Spirit in the Bible diverts attention away from himself and on to Jesus. As Jesus himself said, ‘The Holy Spirit will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you’ (John 16:14, NRSV). And then, in his letter to the Romans, Paul talks of the Holy Spirit praying our most desperate prayers for us ‘with groans that words cannot express’ (Romans 8:26, NIV). I see an echo of that verse in Half-Blood Prince, when the phoenix lament seems to Harry to be ‘within him, not without: it was his own grief turned magically to song’ (HBP 573).
Perhaps the most striking concept to have emerged from the Harry Potter stories so far, though, if we’re looking for C.S. Lewis’s ‘sub-Christian’ values, is the idea that Harry has been protected for the whole of his young life since Voldemort’s attack by his mother’s sacrifice on his behalf and, most specifically, by his mother’s blood. As Professor Dumbledore puts it in Order of the Phoenix, ‘Your mother’s sacrifice made the bond of blood the strongest shield I could give you… Her blood became your refuge’ (OotP 737).
There’s more to blood than meets the eye in Harry Potter: remember how, in Goblet of Fire, when Harry recounts the fact that Voldemort took his blood, first Barty Crouch Junior ‘let out his breath in a long, low hiss’ (GoF 585); then Sirius ‘let out a vehement exclamation; and Dumbledore stood up so quickly that Harry started’ (GoF 604). The mysterious ‘gleam of triumph’ in Dumbledore’s eyes is also linked to the idea that Harry’s blood may have passed some kind of quality (is it protection or self-destruction?) on to Voldemort. There’s something extremely powerful—even sacred—about blood in the wizarding world.
Of course, the central tenet of Christianity is that Jesus Christ sacrificed himself on behalf of all humanity—and the shedding of blood (unpleasant as it sounds) is crucial to the way that sacrifice works. The book of Hebrews in the New Testament (written by an unknown author but one who has an in-depth knowledge of both Jewish and Christian theology) says, ‘Under the law [that is, the Jewish law of Moses] almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins’ (Hebrews 9:22, NRSV). So in biblical Christianity, the blood of Christ is a shield and refuge against sin and evil.
There’s another facet to this issue, though, which is found mainly in the Old Testament. In the book of Leviticus we can read of the custom among the Israelites that if an individual fell into severe personal difficulties, such that they amassed an unpayable debt or were even sold into slavery, the nearest blood-relative had the responsibility of ‘redeeming’ or buying back the person or their property (Leviticus 25:25, 47–49). Aunt Petunia may, as Dumbledore says, have taken Harry off the doorstep ‘grudgingly, furiously, unwillingly, bitterly’ (OotP 737), but in agreeing to do so she took on the role of something like the Old Testament ‘kinsman-redeemer’, just as Dumbledore had hoped she would.
Lily Potter’s blood can’t accomplish the protection and redemption of the whole human race, as, in some mysterious way, the blood of Jesus is said to do, but this aspect of the Harry Potter story could be said to reflect, very clearly, a central theme in the beliefs of Christianity.
So where have we got to in this study of biblical themes in Harry Potter? We’ve seen how dangerous it is to leap to judgment about the true nature of any character in the story, and I’ve suggested that this helps us to understand the importance of the fact that, in the biblical narrative, God looks at the heart of human beings rather than their surface appearance. We’ve looked at the ways in which people in Harry Potter shape their true nature through the choices they make, and how this reflects a Christian understanding of good and bad character-building. We’ve compared Voldemort’s thirst to prove his power with Dumbledore’s willingness to appear weak, and seen how Dumbledore’s attitude reflects God’s own humility and restraint. We’ve considered Fawkes as an illustration of the Holy Spirit—the one who comes alongside to strengthen and equip. And we’ve noticed how Harry’s refuge in his mother’s blood could be said to echo the function of blood sacrifice and redemption in Christian belief. These are just a handful of the ‘sub-Christian’ values that I find in the story. As I said earlier, none of this proves that Jo Rowling intended Harry Potter to be any kind of Christian allegory, but it certainly proves that the ‘anti-Christian’ charge against her is completely without foundation
Lisa Cherrett has been hooked on Harry since 1997, when her husband Chris bought the first three books in the series.
She works in Oxford as a sub-editor for BRF (Bible Reading Fellowship) and is the author of 'The Triumph of Goodness: biblical themes in the Harry Potter stories', published by BRF in 2003.
She enjoys researching her family tree, even though it is far from noble and ancient, and shows hints of a scorch mark here and there.