Thursday, July 14, 2011

Love is the best kind of Magic

The last Harry Potter film opens tonight, and anyone that knows me knows I love my Harry Potter. I’m not upset about it being the last movie or feel like it’s the end of an era, because to me, that era ended four years ago when the seventh book was released just after my high school graduation. The movies are just visual a la mode next to a very rich cake.

But every time there is a new Potter book or movie, there are the arguments. Is Potter a demonic series luring children into the occult, or is Potter a Christian allegory? There is even a class at Yale that studies the theology within the series. Even the people who haven't read the books (that's you, most people against them), have a strong reaction. There is something powerful within those pages.

Up until the seventh book, my stance was that the series was not particularly Christian (compared to say, the Narnia series), but there were clear Christian morals in it. Love battling evil and ultimately triumphing? Christians don’t have a monopoly on the good beating evil story, but we definitely have it. Magic has been used in stories for generations, especially in moral-giving fairy tales. It doesn’t mean children suddenly reject God and think they can fly on broomsticks. To think that is seriously underestimating the capacity of children’s understanding.

But the seventh book drew me even further in the direction I already suspected. (Spoiler alert, though if you haven’t read the books by now, it’s sort of your own fault if someone reveals the ending. Rosebud is a sled.) In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry must find and destroy the seven horcruxes while also searching for the three deathly hallows that are told to conquer death. (This is a lot of props to keep up with. I won’t even go into the importance of 3 and 7 throughout the books.) Horcruxes are used by a person trying to work outside of the realm of nature and morality. A person has to commit an act of dark magic so bad (murder) that it literally splits his soul. It’s the ultimate of sin, coming from the desire to gain control over the (presumably good) natural order of the world. The result of distancing one’s soul so harshly is becoming alive, but less than human, incapable of the emotions and qualities that make humans good. The Hallows are from a wizarding children’s story (and if you haven’t read Tales of Beedle the Bard, you should!) where three brothers receive gifts from Death. Long story short, the moral of the tale is that to conquer death, one must embrace it and “greet Death as an old friend.”

Harry has to embrace death in order for Voldemort to be defeated. He walks up to Voldemort for the sake of the world and lets himself be killed. And then lives again.

Throughout the book, Harry is referred to as The Boy Who Lived. But in Deathly Hallows, he becomes an even more obvious Christ-symbol in his sacrifice and “resurrection.” (You can debate whether he actually died, but he clearly went to another place, spoke to those who had died before him, and came back.)

Harry: "Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
Dumbledore: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

I think another essential element of the series is the free will of the characters. Harry is fulfilling a prophecy, but it is one that Neville could have been burdened with just as easily. Nothing was cast in stone. Chapters of book six are dedicated to the history of Tom Riddle. If he were purely evil, this would be unnecessary, but it is laid out that Tom was evil by an unfortunate series of events coupled with bad decisions. And even after he has separated his soul into many parts, he is never so far that he can’t be redeemed. The soul can be repaired through remorse, and Harry even offers Voldemort a chance to redeem himself. (He doesn’t.)

Tom chose to take the path of evil, while Harry, also given a troubled childhood and similar choices, chooses good. And it is not an easy choice for him. He struggles with the burdens of being the “chosen one,” usually saying how he isn’t fit for that responsibility. But the community supporting him makes him capable of goodness beyond what one lone wizard could ever accomplish alone.

Most characters in the series are well-rounded. They have their flaws and temptations. Some choose the wrong side for very well-intentioned reasons. In the end, some see the errs of their ways and work to amend the wrong they have done (Severus Snape, the Malfoys). Who Harry sometimes views as just “the enemy” isn’t really so much more evil than he is, but someone else struggling through with very weighty burdens. In turn, those Harry idealized have less than sqeaky clean pasts (Dumbledore, Sirius).

By the end of the book, the Christian allusions (not to mention a couple of verses of the New Testament thrown in there) were so obvious to me, it baffled me that secular readers would still accept it. But they did, because the struggle of good versus evil is universal. It just goes by different names. As explained to Harry in the first book, "Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself." Children’s literature like this puts names to the universal battle, and opens children up to elements of the world unseen. I think that squarely puts the series on the side of good.

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