In my previous piece on Harry Potter, I only scratched the surface of the books’ riches. There’s so much of spiritual interest and benefit in the stories that it would take a book to explore it. But I’ll fit as much as I can into a blog post.
Faith, hope and love
Faith, hope and love are three of the great themes of the New Testament, famously brought together by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. They’re also arguably three of the key themes of Harry Potter.
Harry’s faith is in Albus Dumbledore, the good and wise headmaster of Hogwarts. Like God, Dumbledore appears to be virtually all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. Harry trusts him implicitly. And when a dark plot temporarily ousts Dumbledore from the school in Chamber of Secrets, it’s Harry’s trust in Dumbledore and his loyalty to him in the face of evil that brings Dumbledore’s aid to him in a crisis. When Harry prays desperately for help, help comes.
Of course, eventually Harry’s faith is severely challenged. Dumbledore is dead, his character is in question and he appears to have sent Harry on a wild goose chase without help. This is Harry’s great test of faith, and it ultimately leads to him becoming a mature adult, with an adult relationship with ‘God’ (Dumbledore).
Hope is less spelt out in the stories, but arguably it’s the hope that good can triumph over evil (despite all the odds stacked against them), and the hope of a better world, that drives Harry and his friends on in their fight against Voldemort. At times things seem hopeless, particularly in the fruitless search for ‘horcruxes’, but Harry’s hope and dogged determination get him through.
‘The greatest of these is love’. Harry is by no means perfect, but he has a great capacity for love, and this is his greatest strength and his primary weapon against evil. Time and again his love for others is what saves him from the far more magically powerful Voldemort. By contrast, Voldemort’s inability to love (or to even see the value of love) is ultimately his downfall.
Care for the poor and marginalised
Harry’s love is shown most obviously in his readiness to put himself in mortal danger to rescue others. However, I think it’s equally demonstrated by his willingness to stand with, and stand up for, the poor, weak, marginalised, despised and rejected. Harry’s best friends are Ron Weasley, whose family are poor because his dad’s love of Muggles (non-wizards) has held him back from promotion; and Hermione Granger, who is (for some) a despised ‘mudblood’ (her parents are both Muggles).
Harry also draws around him, albeit slightly reluctantly, a crowd of no-hopers and social misfits. Chief among them are Luna Lovegood, who (in the books) looks and sounds deeply odd, though she is courageous, good-hearted and emotionally intelligent; and the haplessly clumsy Neville Longbottom who under Harry’s mentoring grows to be one of the books’ true heroes. And of course there’s Hagrid, who many dismiss as a stupid monster-loving oaf not fit for human society, but who Harry knows to be good-hearted and kind.
Some have accused the stories of being overly left-wing, and it’s true that Rowling’s own political leanings are in that direction. But in focusing on the needs of the poor and the outsider and critiquing the powerful and the privileged, Rowling is arguably echoing a bias found in the Bible itself – e.g. James 5:1-5:
“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes… Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you…”
The perils of power and popularity
A related recurring theme in the books is that power corrupts, whereas love redeems. Dumbledore warns Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge that he is ‘blinded by the love of [his] office’, and he remarks to Harry that ‘it is those who seek power who are least suited to wield it’.
And though Rowling herself is (albeit reluctantly) a celebrity, the character of Gilderoy Lockhart offers a strong warning against vanity and celebrity-obsession. Lockhart is handsome, popular and successful; a wizarding celebrity, bestselling author, pin-up and household name – everything that many in our society would admire and emulate. But he is also vain, self-obsessed, and a talentless fraud who takes credit for others’ successes. In the end his come-uppance is severe, if just.
‘Purity’ and racism
The difference between those who love people and those who love power or position is again highlighted in the theme of ‘blood purity’. When Voldemort finally (though covertly) takes power in the final book, he instigates a kind of Nazi police state where those not deemed to be of ‘pure’ wizarding blood (read ‘Aryan’) are systematically persecuted and eradicated. And of course, power-hungry people like Umbridge who see themselves as Voldemort’s opponents nonetheless naturally align themselves with the evil regime he is secretly controlling. Their desire to control others makes them easy puppets in his hands.
By contrast, Harry, Ron and Hermione break into the Ministry and risk their lives to rescue those with ‘impure blood’ who are about to be sent to Azkaban (effectively concentration camp), in a parallel with Schindler’s List. And the anti-Voldemort resistance movement urges its supporters to go out of their way to protect Muggles as well as wizards: ‘Every human life is worth the same, and worth saving.’
The unforgivable curses
In the wizarding world there are three ‘unforgivable curses’, the use of which on another person will lead to life imprisonment. It’s interesting to see what Rowling considers beyond the pale – murder (avada kedavra); torture (crucio – related to ‘excruciating’ and ‘crucifixion’); and total control or possession of another person, forcing them to do your bidding against their will (imperio).
Despite being in constant mortal danger, Harry steadfastly refuses either to commit murder himself or to sanction others to kill on his behalf. In Prisoner of Azkaban he stops Black and Lupin from killing Wormtail (the man responsible for his parents’ deaths), saying ‘I don’t reckon my dad would’ve wanted his best friends to become killers – for you’. Even at the very end when duelling to the death with Lord Voldemort, Harry refuses to kill, instead letting Voldemort destroy himself with his own rebounding curse.
Harry’s attitude echoes that of Martin Luther King: ‘through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder’.
Nonetheless, Harry does use the other two ‘unforgivable’ curses. He uses crucio twice, both times out of furious anger, to avenge others; and those on whom he uses it are regular inflictors of the curse on defenceless victims, including children. Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling that Harry lets himself down a little here.
Harry also uses imperio once, as the only means to complete his mission to find and destroy ‘horcruxes’ (parts of Voldemort’s soul bound to physical objects). It’s hard to see how he could have acted otherwise, and he doesn’t use it to cause harm, but it does raise questions of whether the end ever justifies the means.
Mercy and second chances
There are dozens of other elements and themes in the books worth looking at, but for now I’d like to draw out just one more key theme – that of mercy and second chances.
Dumbledore (representing God) believes very deeply in second chances. When people fail or fall, as they mostly inevitably do in some way, he doesn’t reject them, berate them or hold their past sins against them for future reference. He simply offers them a second chance.
Dumbledore also believes in people’s innate (albeit well-hidden) goodness, and trusts where others wouldn’t.
So when Hagrid is (wrongly) expelled from Hogwarts, Dumbledore keeps him on as gamekeeper, entrusts various important missions to him and ultimately encourages him to become a teacher. When Snape turns away from following Voldemort and comes to Dumbledore in desperation, Dumbledore takes him on, never giving away Snape’s secrets nor holding his past against him. He also employs Lupin who most would shun because he is (through no fault of his own) a werewolf.
Harry too follows Dumbledore’s lead in showing mercy both to enemies and lapsed friends. He spares the treacherous Wormtail’s life, saves his bullying cousin Dudley from the Dementors, reluctantly befriends the house-elf Kreacher who betrayed Sirius to his death, and even saves the life of his arch-enemy Draco Malfoy. When Ron lets him down, he welcomes him back. He even offers Voldemort a final chance at repentance, to save his soul from perdition. Harry may be far from perfect, but he is merciful; and perhaps it’s in his mercy that he is most Christlike.
Anyway, enough of me. Go read the books and see what else you find in them yourself. 🙂