Harry Potter, Christ Figure?

Professional Harry watchers on whether J.K. Rowling's hero is meant to resemble Christ

 

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Patrick Madrid, editor of the Catholic magazine, Envoy

: There's no question that the Harry Potter books are wildly popular, but I must respectfully but firmly disagree that they are "of the stature of Dante's "Divine Comedy." In narrative technique, character development, plot structure, and literary sophistication, Ms. Rowling might be ranked with Tom Clancy or Stephen King (though even that would be debatable). But the moral and philosophical depth of her stories do not, in my view, anywhere near approach the profundity of the Divine Comedy.

The basic premise of the Potter books is that magic, when used competently by "good" witches and wizards, is both fun and exciting and can be beneficial. When used by "bad" practitioners, it's scary and detrimental to others. The story lines all revolve around that dual premise. However clever and entertaining the adventures Harry and his pals get into, however vivid the imagery, these are still basic tales of fun and adventure. On literary merit alone, the Potter tales rise to the level of "Nancy Drew" and "The Hardy Boys" series--stories that were extremely popular and widely read in their day.

I don't see an authentic "Christ figure" in Harry Potter, if by "Christ character" one means a figure that is suffused with a moral innocence and authority that is illuminated and proved through his actions and by his suffering unjustly at the hands of others. If that's not what those who claim to see a Christ character in Harry Potter mean by the term, then what do they mean? And if that is what they mean, then would they also see Christ characters in the Hardy Boys?

Thomas L. Martin, professor, Florida Atlantic University: Leaving aside Harry's "Christlikeness" for the moment, Harry Potter does conform to what [mythologist Joseph] Campbell would call the pattern of the mythic hero. Potter is marked at birth for something special, prophecies foretell the high destiny he faces, the various mentors and rivals he encounters along the way, and then, of course, the ultimate showdown with evil. These characteristics not only link him to Christ--in Campbell's system--but also Cinderella, Odysseus, Buddha, and other heroes of other times and places.

Andrew Blake, professor, King Alfred's College, Winchester (UK): As a lifelong reader of Lewis and Tolkien, one of the interpretive grids through which I read everything is that of the Christianity-modelled redeemer. My first responses to Harry Potter were that he is being written (and remember, he hasn't yet been fully written) as a redeemer. So far, so Christ-like. But there are of course caveats.

As a reader of Campbell, too, I may agree there is a germ of redeemer-narrative throughout the history of literature and film. I may even agree that all this is important because it is an analogue of human maturation--that this [mythmaking] is "all in the mind." Certainly, Harry's search for his own identity through the confusions of orphanhood, the enmity of the Dursleys and Voldemort, the conditional help offered by Dumbledore and so on can be seen as an analogue of personal psychic development.

The trouble is, I don't in the end believe Campbell--I don't think we all respond to universal narratives because we all have minds. We respond because there are things outside of our minds that we urgently need to understand. This may be matters spiritual (the meaning of life) or material (the workings of capitalism).

I think the success of Harry Potter happened contingently. Harry Potter was published at a time when popular culture, anticipating the Millennium, was busy reflecting on its religious inheritance and trying to find a way forward. Thus [the heavily Christ-figured movie] "The Matrix," but also a rash of other movies that try to find some kind of spirituality working through the confusions of contemporary life. Think of "Stigmata," "The Body," and "End of Days," or even "Strange Days." And think of the enormous worldwide success of the first film in The Lord of the Rings sequence.

So if Harry is indeed, in his postmodern way, a para-Christ, then he is surrounded by others. Which says something about our continuing search for meanings; but might also suggest that in another decade, as the Millennium recedes into history, another zeitgeist will emerge, and the Christian narrative may well become less important, and the ways in which we read Harry will change too.

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