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Harry Potter as a Metaphor for Struggling with God

by Christina Littlefield

 

Introduction

The beauty of fantasy, of myth, of children’s tales is in the depth lying just below the surface. With their simple prose and delightful images, such stories point to deeper truths; they illuminate aspects of the human condition; they teach us how to live. Philosophy and theology are threaded through such narratives, invading the popular culture, engaging the lexicon, and become part of the zeitgeist precisely because they speak to the core of who we are as human beings. To quote mythologist Joseph Campbell, ‘it would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation’(3).

It is for this reason that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter masterpiece has so captured the popular imagination. In the same vein as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Rowling weaves deep truths into her narrative as she expounds on the nature of love, of friendship, of sacrifice, of good and evil. Like her predecessors, Rowling keeps explicit religious references out of her work. However, as a product of her culture, Christian concepts of love, the soul, the afterlife seep in. These are most apparent in the seventh and last work, which actually quotes two passages from the bible and best embodies the mythical elements of the suffering hero whose sacrifice brings victory. More importantly, Deathly Hallows provides a beautiful metaphor about man’s struggle with God. Here, Harry undergoes one of the most painful transitions of adulthood, the shedding of a childlike, naive trust and the rebuilding of a stronger, more complicated faith.

In Deathly Hallows, the most intense conflict is not between our beleaguered protagonist and his arch enemy, Lord Voldemort, but between Harry and his internal frustration with the man he all but worshipped, Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore. In the previous book, Harry had affirmed that he was Dumbledore’s man through and through’ (HBP 326, 334, 604–05). However, as Dumbledore’s ‘secrets and lies’ come to light in book seven, Harry’s frustration and anger grow. Sent on a potentially deadly mission by a man he now questions, Harry wishes this cup would pass away. He yearns for Ginny, for love and for family, for a world where Voldemort never killed his parents and where he was not the Boy Who Lived. He wrestles with whether to chase Hallows or Horcruxes, whether to save his own skin or pursue the ‘greater good’. Despite his doubt, Harry never wavers from his path, bowing to Dumbledore’s will even unto death. As this essay will show, Harry’s journey follows the pattern of the biblical prophets who questioned and wrestled with God. It also captures the angst of a generation unsure whether God is worth believing in, and perhaps Rowling’s own difficulties in keeping the faith.

Shortly after book seven came out, Rowling told Meredith Vieira in a Dateline interview that book seven was largely about her struggle with religious beliefs, her struggle being to ‘keep believing’ (Vieira). In other interviews, Rowling has declared that while she is a Christian and a church–goer to some degree, her faith is of the questioning, doubtful sort, always in flux. ‘The truth is that, like Graham Greene, my faith is sometimes that my faith will return. It’s something I struggle with a lot’ (Adler). Rowling has repeatedly told interviewers such as Vieira that the series looked at death and questioned the afterlife because of her struggle to come to terms with the loss of her mother.

Like many people of faith struggling to find their way in a post–modern world, Harry’s journey has joyful heights and heart–wrenching lows, and steps of faith guided by instinct the brain cannot fathom but the heart trusts. In Deathly Hallows, Harry is a seeker of truth, and his journey serves as a metaphor, or a guide, for others on the same path.

Dumbledore as a Metaphor for God

Before we dive into the text, a disclaimer is necessary. Dumbledore is not God. Harry is not Christ. However, their relationship does parallel the Gospel story, particularly its themes of death and resurrection. With Harry, this is his physical death and resurrection, the death of the Horcrux within him and the resurrection of his own, untarnished soul, and the death of his childlike trust in Dumbledore and the resurrection of a deeper, adult relationship. The myth of the dying and returning hero is so prevalent throughout world mythology that C.S. Lewis believed it must have been imparted on man’s unconscious by the divine, and that in Christianity man found the myth made flesh (Lewis, Surprised by Joy 224). Rowling’s characters are flawed human beings, mere mortals and yet not mere mortals, for they are endowed with superhuman gifts and set apart for special purposes. Like Gandalf the Grey or Aslan the Lion, Dumbledore is the divine, trusted leader of the Harry Potter series, guiding the long–suffering hero along his quest. Harry is like Frodo or the eldest Pevensie child, marked for an adventure that will stretch his capabilities. In Rowling’s story, however, the relationship between mentor and mentee becomes far more nuanced as Harry comes of age.

Set apart by a strange prophecy, Harry was chosen at age 1 to be Voldemort’s arch nemesis, touted as the Boy Who Lived and marked with strange powers unusual even among magical beings. Rowling has told reporters that she chose a lightning scar because it seemed ‘cool’, but in mythology, it is a mark of the divine (Rowling). The thunderbolt as a sign of the gods dates back to Mesopotamia, was inherited by the Greek god Zeus, and is seen as a sign of Buddhahood in the Far East (Campbell 87–88). Harry’s greatest weapon, of course, is his ability to love despite his neglected upbringing. He has an inherent sense of justice mixed with an endearing vulnerability, which keeps Harry grounded despite a clear ‘saving–people thing’ (OotP 646). It is his human frailties, his temper and foolish rashness, his hopes, fears and desires, that endear him to the reader.

Dumbledore is an eccentric, mysterious figure, described by Ron as ‘barking’ in Philosopher’s Stone (219). His Chocolate Frog proclaims him to be one of the greatest wizards of his age, having defeated the dark wizard Grindelwald in 1945, discovered the 12 uses of dragon’s blood and worked on alchemy (‘Albus Dumbledore’). What matters to Harry is that Dumbledore is seen as a champion of all that is good and right, and he is the only person Voldemort ever feared. Throughout the series, Dumbledore is a friend, guide, and father–figure to Harry. Compared to Harry’s other guides, such as Hagrid, Lupin or Sirius, Dumbledore has a touch of divine perfection. To Harry, he is all–powerful and all–knowing. Rowling keeps Dumbledore on a pedestal for Harry until book seven, and then shatters it, symbolically forcing Harry’s transition from childhood to adulthood, from naive certainty to complicated, doubting faith.

Seeds of Doubt

Harry repeatedly affirms his trust in Dumbledore throughout Half Blood Prince, but at the beginning of Deathly Hallows, Harry is adrift. Biographies on the late headmaster make Harry realise how little he knew about Dumbledore’s past, and, as he ponders his own future, he regrets all of the questions he did not ask (HBP 24–25).

The first real seeds of doubt are sown at Bill and Fleur’s wedding, when he hears more about Dumbledore’s past from Elphias Doge and Ron’s Auntie Muriel (HBP 131). Rowling here portrays Harry as a Seeker, and not in the Quidditch sense. Harry is a Seeker of Truth. He wants to know the whole, unvarnished truth of Dumbledore’s past. Doge’s insistence that Harry should not let anything ‘tarnish’ his memories of Dumbledore frustrates Harry: ‘Did Doge really think it was that easy, that Harry could simply choose not to believe? Didn’t Doge understand Harry’s need to be sure, to know everything?’ (DH 127). Harry later has a similar encounter with Hermione, who similarly tells him not to trust what Rita Skeeter writes but only his own knowledge of Dumbledore (153).

Harry’s need for the truth can be seen as a metaphor for religious seekers after answers from God. Like Harry, they need to weigh all the evidence and rationally to come to grips with their faith, often again and again. Rationally–minded seekers can be easily frustrated by those whose faith comes easily, those who never question and never doubt. Biblically, however, Harry is in good company. For every prophet like Isaiah who says ‘Here am I’ (Isa. 6:8), there is another like Jacob who literally had to wrestle with God (Gen. 32.24–32).

The news that Dumbledore might have had a Squib for a sister, that he might have been responsible for locking her up or even for her death, deeply unsettles Harry (DH 128). But the worst blow was learning that he and Dumbledore had both lived and lost loved ones in Godric’s Hollow. Rowling writes:

Harry thought of Godric’s Hollow, of graves Dumbledore had never mentioned there; he thought of mysterious objects left, without explanation, in Dumbledore’s will, and resentment swelled in the darkness. Why hadn’t Dumbledore told him? Why hadn’t he explained? Had Dumbledore actually cared about Harry at all? Or had Harry been nothing more than a tool to be polished and honed, but not trusted, never confided in? (DH 147)

Harry feels forsaken, left to blindly follow a suicide mission by a man he now wonders if he knew at all.

The Death of Faith

After the trio’s blundered attempt to break into the Ministry of Magic, Harry enters a period of deep soul–searching and frustration reminiscent of the Jews wandering in the desert (Exod. 14.1–31, 17.1–7, 32.1–6, Num. 13.26–14.45). As Harry and his friends wander without direction, Harry’s frustration with Dumbledore grows. Ron’s parting words echo in his head: ‘We thought you knew what you were doing. ... we thought Dumbledore had told you what to do ... we thought you had a real plan!’ (DH 257). Harry’s darkest moment comes after the narrow escape from Godric’s Hollow. Seeing the graveyard opened a new wound of pain and anger at Dumbledore for not having shared that bond with him, and the loss of his wand has left him feeling unprotected and vulnerable (DH 267, 286).

His fury at Dumbledore broke over him like lava, scorching him inside, wiping out every other feeling. Out of sheer desperation they had talked themselves into believing that Godric’s Hollow held answers, and convinced themselves that they were supposed to go back, that it was all part of some secret path laid out for them by Dumbledore; but there was no map, no plan. Dumbledore had left them to grope in the darkness, to wrestle with unknown and undreamed of terrors alone and unaided: nothing was explained, nothing was given freely, they had no sword, and now, Harry had no wand (DH 287).

All inner certainty crashed once Harry read of Dumbledore’s flirtation with the dark wizard Grindelwald. He had thought Dumbledore to be the embodiment of good, was in fact risking his life fighting the Dark Arts under Dumbledore’s direction, and yet when Dumbledore was Harry’s age, he had been plotting Muggle domination. Harry’s anger and disillusionment overwhelm him:

‘Look what he asked from me, Hermione! Risk your life, Harry! And again! And again! And don’t expect me to explain everything, just trust me blindly, trust that I know what I’m doing, trust me even though I don’t trust you! Never the whole truth! Never!’

His voice cracked with the strain, and they stood looking each other in the whiteness and the emptiness, and Harry felt they were as insignificant as insects beneath that wide sky.

‘He loved you,’ Hermione whispered. ‘I know he loved you.’

Harry dropped his arms.

‘I don’t know who he loved, Hermione, but it was never me. This isn’t love, the mess he’s left me in. He shared a damn sight more of what he was really thinking with Gellert Grindelwald than he ever shared with me.’ (DH 295)

This is Harry’s Garden of Gethsemane (cf. Matt 26.36–45; Mark 14.32–41; Luke 22.39–45; John17.1–26). Lost in doubt and hurt, Harry cannot lay hold of the good Dumbledore he thought he knew. Skeeter’s portrait of Dumbledore has clouded everything. Later, he’ll learn that Dumbledore was, even in death, working to help Harry, sending Snape to bring Harry the sword of Gryffindor. But right now, overcome by the darkness, he cannot see the light. In this moment he does not believe Dumbledore ever loved him, but that he was just a pawn in Dumbledore’s quest for the greater good. He is like the wandering Jews, who, though visibly led by God, still doubt they will ever reach the Promised land and yearn to be back in Egypt (Num. 14.1–4).

Resurrection

Light breaks through the clouds quickly, as the silver doe leads Harry to the sword and Ron returns to his side (DH 298, 302). The usefulness of the Deluminator Dumbledore left to Ron reminds Harry that his headmaster’s quirkiness was never without purpose and Harry admits it would be ‘immensely comforting’ if Dumbledore were somehow watching over him (317). After Hermione’s unravelling of the Deathly Hallows, Harry begins to believe that maybe Dumbledore has a plan for him. It is to Dumbledore Harry instinctively turns in desperation when in Malfoy’s cellar, and to Dumbledore’s will he bows while digging Dobby’s grave (378–91).

Harry understood, and yet did not understand. His instinct was telling him one thing, his brain quite another. The Dumbledore in Harry’s head smiled, surveying Harry over the tips of his fingers, pressed together as if in prayer.

You gave Ron the Deluminator. You understood him ... you gave him a way back ...

And you understood Wormtail too ... you knew there was a bit of regret there, somewhere ...

And if you knew them ... what did you know about me, Dumbledore?

Am I meant to know, but not to seek? Did you know how hard I’d find that? Is that why you made it this difficult? So I’d have time to work that out? (391)

This is the moment when Harry, despite all of his previous fear, anger and doubt, suddenly gets a glimpse of understanding, and recommits his faith in Dumbledore. He chooses to destroy Horcruxes rather than pursue Hallows, even though he knows Voldemort is about to claim the unbeatable Elder Wand. It is the first time Harry chooses not to act. Harry’s choice here is a leap of faith without any certainty he’ll land safely on the other side. He is acting in faith that his faith in Dumbledore will return, will be rewarded. It’s also a choice he must keep making even though he is racked with doubts.

Throughout the novel, Harry talks to and questions the deceased Dumbledore much in the same way a person of faith might talk to and question God: he tries to decipher what he thinks are signs; he thinks he finds the truth only to be repeatedly disillusioned; his path is one of instinctual moments of clarity lived out in darkness and fog, yet forever aiming to follow his headmaster’s will. The only thing he knows for sure is that in the past, Dumbledore has known best. Harry acts in faith that Dumbledore’s path is the right way.

Harry affirms this decision to follow Dumbledore even when he learns the ‘greater good’ requires him marching to his death. Rowling writes that Dumbledore’s seeming betrayal was ‘almost nothing’ for Harry, for he saw that Dumbledore, while Machiavellian in his string–pulling, was delivering another blow to Voldemort (DH 555). Harry calls on his parents, on his godfather Sirius and his mentor Lupin to enable his self–sacrifice, but not on Dumbledore. Yet he bravely marches to his death. If his moment of darkness in the woods was his Garden of Gethsemane, this is his moment on the cross, when Jesus cries ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15.33).

Faith Reaffirmed

Rowling, fortunately, does not leave us in despair. Like the prophets of old, she reaffirms Harry’s faith. The scene at King’s Cross does not restore Dumbledore to his divine pedestal – Dumbledore, in fact, declares that he has long known Harry to be ‘the better man’ (DH 571). However, it shows that Harry’s trust in Dumbledore was not misplaced, that Dumbledore did love him and care for him, and was acting not only for the greater good but for Harry’s good. It was only through Harry’s sacrificial death, only by giving up his life, that Harry could keep it. Had he known the full truth, that his death would bring victory, his sacrifice would not truly have been a sacrifice. The magical protection that later shields his friends would not have worked had Harry not truly thought he was going to his death.

Dumbledore also explains that he feared telling him about the Deathly Hallows because Harry had to learn about them, but not pursue them. It was his struggle, his perseverance in seeking the Horcruxes, that ultimately provided the tools he needed to defeat Voldemort and become Master of Death (DH 566–58). Dumbledore left Harry in the darkness not to make things difficult, but for his own good.

The Biblical Pattern

The pattern Harry goes through, from certainty, to doubt, to despair, to a hesitant trust and back to faith again is repeated time and again in the Old and New Testament. It takes only a cursory knowledge of the bible to think of times when God’s followers – those who had direct, intimate knowledge of his goodness and reality – still doubted that God really knew what he was doing in their lives or in the world. Abraham argued with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah (18.16–33). Sarah forced her maidservant on her husband because she disbelieved God would grant her a child in her old age (Gen. 15.1–5; 16.1–3; 18.10–15). Jacob literally wrestled with God, earning the name Israel (Gen. 32.22–32). Moses tried to claim a speech impediment to get out of leading his people to freedom (Exod. 4.10–17). The Israelites turned away in fear from the Promised Land (Num. 14.1–44). Israel’s kings gave themselves over to lust and greed, making bargains with rival nations for protection rather than trusting in God (e.g., 1 Kings 11.1–13; 21.1–18). The prophet Jeremiah wished he was never born (Jer. 20.14–18). Job railed questions against the heavens (see especially Job 29–31). Most of Jesus’ disciples fled after his arrest (Matt. 26.56; Mark 14.50). Peter denied him three times (Matt. 26.69–75; Mark 14.66 72; Luke 22.54–62; John 18.15–18, 25–27) Jesus himself cried so hard in the Garden of Gethsemane that he sweated blood, wishing that somehow God could make the cup of suffering pass him by (Luke 22.39–44). All, in the end, affirm God and bend themselves to his will. God’s will always proves to be the best path.

Doubt, questioning, uncertainty – these appear again and again throughout the Old and New Testaments. God appears to even welcome questioning, even if he rarely grants answers. The Old Testament psalmists, finding themselves in the depths without God, were quick to question or even blame God for their situation, reminding him of his promises and calling him back to their side. Their response to agony is to cry out, asking why or how long they must suffer. ‘Why, O Lord do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?’ (NIV Psalm 10.1). ‘How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me‘ (Psalm 13.1). ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from the words of my groaning?’ (Psalm 22.1). Yet even as they suffer–some on the brink of death and utter separation from God – they maintain the conviction that God may choose to save them yet, and these prayers serve as one last appeal to make that happen. Although waves of fear and doubt and even death threaten to overtake them, the ‘my God’ tradition that Yahweh hears when called upon gives them hope and allows them to ‘wait on the Lord’ a little longer (Broyles 222).

One moment a believer might be secure in his certainty. Another a believer is rooted in darkness: despair overwhelms. Talk to people of faith, and they will likely share stories of God’s providence in their lives, but they will also likely have known times where they doubted in the darkness what God had shown them in the light. Over and over again, the prophets felt despair, felt doubt, questioned and tangled with God, but in the end, they always affirm his goodness.

Religious Seekers Today

Harry’s struggle speaks volumes to religious seekers today as a metaphor for their own struggle with God. World Values Survey data files indicate that more than 70% of Western Europeans and 94% of Americans still believe in a supreme being, the doubt comes over who that supreme is and whether he – or she – is worth following. Westerners have left the church in droves, with less than one–third of the population attending regularly in the United States, roughly only 16% attending on average across Western Europe and less than 9 percent attending in Great Britain (World Values Survey). Such surveys show a high rate of what this researcher likes to call cultural Christianity. For instance, while they do not attend church very often, 80% of the British interviewed told surveyors they identify with a religious denomination, and more than 60% think about the meaning and purpose of life. Cultural Christians still believe in something; it is just not articulated in traditional terms.

Secular distrust in God has many sources. The erosion of faith began with the rise of Enlightenment ideals that placed trust in mankind’s reason, not God. Science and new historical criticism further eroded faith in the bible in the 19th century. But people also lost touch with the church, which was seen to be maintaining the old authority structure rather than helping modern individuals meet their needs or assert their basic rights (See Bruce, Davie, Marty or McLeod for an overview on secularisation). While many people worldwide still believe in Christianity–the faith has experienced a growth spurt south of the Equator – most Westerners tend to practice ‘religion a la carte’ mixing their cultural Christianity with other spiritual and philosophical ideas (See Cox; Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks; Newbigin, Gospel in a Pluralist Society, and Romanowski). Many distrust organised religion, connecting the hypocrisy of Christians to God, and do not see his relevance for their lives. In times of anxiety, men and women search for answers, often turning to God, but question why he does not supersede the laws of the universe to end the pain and agony people see. As Lewis notes, in today’s modern world, God is the one on trial.

The ancient man approached God (or the gods) as the accursed person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the Bench and God is in the Dock (Lewis, God in the Dock 244).

J.K. Rowling put Dumbledore on trial in much the same way, ultimately declaring his innocence and Harry’s faith. Only time will tell if God fares as well.

 

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