\Back to Articles\
A Program Review
By Richard Terrell
of "Theology and Ethics in Harry Potter"
Given by Prof. Greg Garrett of Baylor University
At Doane College, November 17, 2011
Baylor University professor Greg Garrett gave a very interesting talk Thursday to a full audience of Doane College students, faculty, and visitors on the philosophical, theological, and ethical dimensions of the Harry Potter story.
The Potter phenomenon is quite astonishing and difficult to dismiss. The only books to have outsold the Potter novels are the Bible and the sayings of Chairman Mao. The Potter books constitute the highest selling fictional narrative in the history of literature.
Why does this story resonate so powerfully with so many people?
According to Dr. Garrett, the story reflects themes that are familiar in traditional myths and religious narratives (the great conflict between good and evil, courage, loyalty, friendship). Dr. Garrett holds that the Harry Potter story is the most effective re-telling of the gospel narratives he knows. He stated that author J. K. Rowling is a member of the Church of Scotland who likes the fantasy writings of C. S. Lewis and has stated that the two biblical quotations that show up in the concluding novel constitute the core vision of the entire narrative (quotes that were, interestingly enough, omitted from the movies). [These quotes are from 1 Corinthians 15:26 and Matthew 6:21: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death" and "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."]
Garrett addressed the issue raised by many Christian fundamentalists concerning the elements of magic and witchcraft in Harry Potter. Garrett reported that in all his conversations with people who have claimed the Potter story as a great influence on their lives, none have ever said that they were led into the practice of magic or other occult interests. The values discerned tend to go beyond those aspects of the story. Garrett posited the interesting observation that "magic is the physics" of the world of fantasy. Harry Potter is in a long tradition of fantasy where magic is fundamental to the storyline (also true of the stories of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien).
The essence of the Harry Potter narrative is centered in power and responsibility in its use. Hogwarts exists to train people to use magic responsibly, not simply to exercise power. Garrett related Hogwarts to a Benedictine monastery and the Benedictine rules regarding power and community. Harry Potter is about the power of community. The story is full of a vision of community, and Harry is not a stand-alone hero such as might be seen in many popular American movies. Harry Potter is, in this regard, distinctively British.
A book that I noticed not too long after the lecture was "Harry Potter and History," by Nancy Ruth Reagin. It is about the real-world background to the Potter stories; (for example it mentions the British boarding school context, also Nazism).
In regard to Hogwarts, Garrett points out that the four houses at Hogwarts each embody a certain value which, if carried to an extreme, can prove destructive. [These are Courage - - Gryffindor; Ambition - - Slytherin; Loyalty - - Hufflepuff; and Wisdom - - Ravenclaw]. Yet, with all working together they are effective in forming a community. At Hogwarts, the various students of the various houses are sure to bump up against people unlike themselves, and learning and growth results from that.
Garrett spoke of a number of things that related the Harry Potter story to the gospel story, pointing out that such an organization as the Order of the Phoenix carries an implication, via the mythical Phoenix image, to death and resurrection.
As for the larger theme of community, Garrett pointed out that Harry does not succeed without Ron, Hermione, and the others. Harry Potter is not about radical individualism. Further, the story speaks to the fallacies of our celebrity culture. What is a celebrity, but someone who is well-known, famous, but who has done nothing to deserve it? This is Harry's situation in the beginning: he is the "boy who lived." His name is known, but what has he accomplished? Nothing, at that point. Courage, however, leads Harry toward his destiny and transforms him into a genuine hero.
Essentially, the story is about transformation and "metanoia," which Garrett relates to repentance, as well as the process of becoming what one is meant to be. Garrett cited the character of Neville in this regard. Fueling this theme of transformation is the question of choosing between what is easy and what is right, a choice posed by Albus Dumbledore (meaning 'White Bumblebee') to Harry. Dumbledore faced a similar challenge. According to a statement to a fan who wanted to know if Dumbledore ever found true love, "Rowling said that she always thought of Dumbledore as being homosexual and that he had fallen in love with Gellert Grindelwald, which was Dumbledore's 'great tragedy;' Rowling did not explicitly state whether Grindelwald [who later became the second most powerful dark wizard, only Lord Voldemort being more powerful] returned his affections. Rowling explains this further by elaborating on the motivations behind Dumbledore's flirtation with the idea of wizard domination of Muggles [ordinary people without magical powers whom Grindelwald also wanted to dominate]: 'He lost his moral compass completely when he fell in love and I think subsequently became very mistrustful of his own judgment in those matters and so became quite asexual. He led a celibate and a bookish life.' "[While this is welcomed by many gays and controversial to many Christians, it offers a seldom contemplated approach to one's sexuality - - surrendering it for a higher purpose - - a Christian approach to the matter.]
There is in the Harry Potter story what theologians called "eschatology," a vision of the final things. And here is where the statement from I Corinthians is fundamental, and according to author Rowling the core of the whole: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." (Again, omitted regrettably from the movie of "The Deathly Hallows.") Harry is a literary Christ figure. He willingly goes to his death, and this act changes everything. Harry's death and resurrection opens the door to a better world to come. This is what Tolkien called the "eucatastrophe." Ultimately the story is about love overcoming death (which is seen in Harry's mother saying that it was her love - - not magic - - that protected Harry from Voldemort). There is a hint of reconciliation even between Harry Potter and his nemesis Draco Malfoy, as they acknowledge each other on the train platform (distantly, to be sure) as they prepare to send their own children, years later, off to Hogwarts.
It IS unquestionably a "school" story [also called also bildungsromans, or coming of age novels], and I think that is quite a bit of its appeal to the young people. That is their universe - - school. But, there is something singularly missing from Harry Potter and Hogwarts - - songs! You know, school songs that express the unity that all would have for the place. There are not even songs of loyalty to the specific houses at Hogwarts. I was remembering how we sang fraternity songs in the Sigma Chi house when I was in college. You'd think there would be some of that in Hogwarts, but nothing. This could give some charm to the movies, anyway.
As for political implications, I think people will argue about the political orientation of the stories on and on. I would say that it does implicitly indict totalitarian systems and "control freaks." The latter is through a character (Dolores Umbridge) who comes to the school and wants to control everything.
On the question of literary merit, my initial reaction to reading the first book of the Harry Potter saga was disinterest. I didn't see much there. Personally, my initial response to the first book was very similar to many others - - puzzlement as to what all the fuss was about. And I still do not think the literary quality of the books is particularly great; in fact I find certain aspects in that regard a bit irritating. HP, in my view, falls far short of Tolkien's works in literary quality, although Rowling draws inspiration from Tolkien.
Yet, as the story unfolded and I observed the phenomenon I concluded that perhaps I was missing something. This re-evaluation was enforced by the great enthusiasm of our granddaughter for the books. I haven't read all the books, but have enjoyed every one of the movies, and would admit that my first impressions were mistaken. One is puzzled to know why, if a biblical quotation ("the last enemy to be conquered is death") constituted the essential core of the story, according to the author herself, the movie-makers would have chosen to leave it out of the film version. This omission is, according to Dr. Garrett, "regrettable," especially in regard to the tendency of the last film to gravitate into too much of an action film.
The test for the Harry Potter stories will be to see if they actually take hold with people outside the "Potter generation" which was growing up as the novels were appearing. If so, then they will be considered classics. If not, then they will be remembered merely as a temporary phenomenon of a particular decade.