Good morning, Nerdy Bloggers!
Here is the introduction to my undergrad thesis on Christian symbolism in Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia Now remember, I wrote this in 2006, before the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but after reading Deathly Hallows, I was very pleased to see how much I actually got right. I think my ego grew 3 sizes that day. :) Anyway, without further ado, here is the introduction!
“Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.” – C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: and Other Addresses, 31.
It is common knowledge that C. S. Lewis is a Christian and much, if not all, of his writing is tied to Christianity or theology in some form or manner. A common reaction to C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia is one of a Christian nature. Indeed, in the article, “In Defense of C. S. Lewis,” Gregg Easterbrook says,
Lewis, a prolific writer of Christian commentary, enfolded religious themes into the stories, allowing children to read them as adventure yarns and adults to appreciate the symbolism. In one book Aslan dies and is resurrected; in another he appears as a lamb and serves the children roast fish, the meal Jesus requested after the resurrection.
Lewis is indeed quite intentional in his use of symbolism in Narnia. What is perhaps not as commonly known, however, is that the same type of symbolism is used in a similar book series. This series is the popular Harry Potter novels by J. K. Rowling.
This claim might seem startling, considering the reaction among many Christians to the Harry Potter novels has been almost anything but positive. From the books often topping the banned books list, to many book burnings, many Christians are completely opposed to Harry Potter and its author. Despite all of this, however, Rowling is insistent that her novels present no threat to Christianity, and many find the novels useful in discussing matters of faith. Michael Nelson writes in his article, “Fantasia: The Gospel According to C. S. Lewis,”
She’s a member of the Church of Scotland and, whenever she’s asked, says, ‘I believe in God, not magic.’ In fact, Rowling initially was afraid that if people were aware of her Christian faith, she would give away too much of what’s coming in the series. ‘If I talk too freely about that,’ she told a Canadian reporter, ‘I think the intelligent reader—whether ten [years old] or sixty—will be able to guess what is coming in the books.
Nelson also points out that Rowling’s Harry Potter books bear striking similarities in Christian themes to Lewis’ Narnia. He notes that both series bear themes of, “…courage, loyalty, friendship, compassion, forgiveness, persistence, and self-sacrifice with a compellingness that puts William Bennett’s Book of Virtues to shame.” These themes are present and quite explicit in both series of books. This being said, one may question what content in Harry Potter could compare to Narnia. J. K. Rowling, despite all the negative feedback she has received from the Christian community, has also been heralded as a writer whose work is akin to that of the Inklings, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis. Alan Jacobs points out in his article, “Harry Potter’s Magic,” “Joanne Rowling has expressed her love for the Narnia Books…but as a literary artist she bears far greater resemblance to Tolkien.” There are many elements in Rowling’s novels from which one could derive a Christian theme. Identifying and explaining some of these themes is the object and goal of this thesis.
In Harry Potter, one of the foremost themes is love, in the sense of sacrifice, familial ties, and friendship. The reader sees this in the loving self-sacrifice of Harry Potter’s parents for an infant Harry; Harry, Ron, and Hermione (The Trio) bear much love for each other and display this in their actions towards one another; Harry shows great love for his Godfather, Sirius Black, and Sirius returns this love in many ways, including self-sacrifice; and this similar love can be seen in Harry’s love for his teacher and friend, Albus Dumbledore, as well as Dumbledore for Harry. Similarly in Narnia, we can see this same type of love in the Pevensie children for each other, and foremost, in Aslan’s love for the children and his creation, the world of Narnia.
As Narnia has the center Christ figure of Aslan, likewise, there are many Christ figures in Harry Potter. This differs in only one factor: Narnia is much more of an allegorical representation of Christianity with only one true Christ figure, whereas Harry Potter is more symbolic, featuring many Christ figures. Some of the Christ figures in Harry Potter are Harry’s parents, Lily and James Potter; Albus Dumbledore; and in many respects, Harry Potter himself is a type of Christ figure.
One of the other main themes in both Harry Potter and Narnia is one of redemption. In both series, the reader finds many of the characters being redeemed or in need of redemption. In the Harry Potter series, at the end of every book Harry and his comrades are redeemed, sparing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, where Harry and Hermione redeem Sirius Black from execution. This theme of “setting the captive free” can indeed be found Biblically (think Barabbas, who in the Gospels was set free instead of Jesus). Likewise, in Narnia, there are multiple symbols of redemption. Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Prince Rilian in The Silver Chair, and even Digory Kirke’s deathly ill mother in The Magician’s Nephew, all point to some sort of redemptive theme, echoing the Biblical theme of redemption. These are but a few symbols of redemption found in each series.
In spite of this, however, much of the Christian public’s reaction to Rowling’s Harry Potter has been remarkably negative. From book banning to book burnings, Harry has caused quite the uproar among many Believers. The Greek Orthodox Church even published a pamphlet listing Harry Potter and his creator as champions of the occult, titling the pamphlet, “Would You Like to Initiate Your Children to Satanism?” Despite all of this, however, there are many who share the opinion that Harry Potter offers a symbolic look at Christianity similar to that of Lewis’ Narnia. However, there are many differing opinions within this group. Present are those who believe that Harry is symbolic, but that the symbolism found within is likely not intentional. William Bates in the article, “Magic, Christianity, and Harry Potter,” has found nothing to cause him to believe that Harry Potter is an occultist work. He says when comparing Narnia to Potter, “However, it would be fallacious to argue that Narnian Magic is acceptable because its author was a committed Christian whereas Hogwarts’ magic should be censured because no such claim is made by J. K. Rowling” (23). The point Bates makes here is well taken, and is perhaps hitting at the root of the negative reaction given by much of the Christian community. Similarly, Dr. Francis Bridger, Principal of Trinity Theological College, minister in the Anglican Church, and author of A Charmed Life: the Spirituality of Potterworld, has no opinion on whether or not Rowling’s works are intentional. Bridger pleads ignorance in this respect; he says, “Joanne Rowling may perhaps be none too pleased by this analogy—I have no idea whether she would consider herself a Christian or not…” (144). Like Bridger, many Christians simply do not know and do not dare to speculate the possibility that Rowling’s works have the potential for Christian discussion.
Conversely, also passionately involved in this discussion are those who find much symbolism in Harry Potter and believe it to be intentional. At the helm of this group is John Granger, an author, speaker, and college professor. Granger is known as the “Harry Potter Professor” and teaches classes on Harry via his website, HogwartsProfessor.com, on-line at Barnes & Noble University, and at Peninsula College in Port Townsend, Washington. Granger has spilled much ink on the topic of Harry Potter, having written two books on the subject (The Hidden Key to Harry Potter and Looking for God in Harry Potter) and edited a third book to be released in the near future, entitled Who Killed Albus Dumbledore? (and Is He Even Dead?). He bases his belief about Rowling’s intentions around a quote given by Michael Nelson (as mentioned previously in this introduction). Commenting further on this quote, Granger says, “I do not know the details of Rowling’s religious confession besides what is reported in our Muggle media, namely, that she is a member of the Church of Scotland and that she says her faith is key to understanding the books” (182). In agreement with Granger is Dr. Carrie Birmingham, Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at Pepperdine University. Remarking on the Hogwarts motto of, “Draco dormiens numquam titillandus,” (which is Latin for “Never tickle a sleeping dragon”), she says,
It would be as if the motto of Hogwarts were also Rowling’s motto. In writing a Christian symbolist work disguised as an attractive adventure set in a fantasy world of magic, Rowling sneaks past the watchful dragons, careful to avoid tickling them into wakefulness. Furthermore, in disguising Harry Potter as a series about witches and wizards, Rowling has lulled the dragons into deeper slumber, for a story which raises so many Christian hackles would appear to be a most unlikely venue for Christian teaching. (Birmingham)
This being said, it can be determined that the study of Christian symbolism in Rowling’s works is not simply an idea knocking about in one person’s head. Rowling’s novels are indeed replete with much Christian symbolism. John Granger points out, “There is no proof that Rowling is deliberately writing Christian literature, but the pervasive pattern of Christian symbolism is strong enough to support the claim that Harry Potter is Christian symbolist literature” (qtd. in Birmingham). Many are participating in this conversation; comparing Rowling’s works with a tested work of Christian literature, namely Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, will further prove their Christian nature. Studying these works in depth may prove useful for those who are interested in learning about more about Harry Potter before reading it themselves, or allowing their children to read the books. (It might also be helpful for readers to know that this author finds Harry Potter and Narnia both to be extremely edifying. Particularly considering that the author of this study is a former Harry Potter skeptic.)
The three symbols of love (specifically of agapē love as described in the Bible), Christ figures, and redemption can indeed be found in both Harry Potter and Narnia. The focus of this study will be on these three symbols, as they are portrayed in each series and in the Bible, and on the conclusions that can be drawn from them. The discussion brought about by Harry Potter and Narnia has been longstanding, and this thesis will only serve to further more discussion.
Bates, William. “Magic, Christianity and Harry Potter.” 21 Sept. 2006 <http://www.christaquarian.net/papers/bates_potter.pdf>.
Birmingham, Carrie. “Harry Potter and the Baptism of the Imagination.” 29 Apr. 2005. 11 Oct. 2006 <http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/home.
Bridger, Francis. A Charmed Life: The Spirituality of Potterworld. New York: Image Books, 2002. 144.
Easterbrook, Gregg. “In Defense of C. S. Lewis.” The Atlantic Online. Oct. 2001. 21 Sept. 2006 <http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2001/10/eaterbrook.htm>.
Granger, John. Looking for God in Harry Potter. USA: SaltRiver, 2004. 67-68, 99-100, 133, 135-36, 182.
Jacobs, Alan. “Harry Potter’s Magic.” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life Jan. 2000. Infotrac. Lamar Memorial Lib., Maryville, TN. 6 Mar. 2006 <htttp://infotrac.galegroup.com >.
Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory: and Other Addresses. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. 31.
Nelson, Michael. “Fantasia: The Gospel According to C. S. Lewis.” The American Prospect Online. 25 Feb. 2002. 21 Sept. 2006 <http://www.prospect.org/web/printfriendly-view.ww?id=6142>.