What Civilization Does Harry Potter Create?

By Orson Scott Card
Spoiler alert: This post reveals the ending of Book Seven.
So we’ve lived in J.K. Rowling’s moral universe for a decade now, seven volumes worth. Where did she take us, and to the degree that we have been reshaped (or reaffirmed) by that moral universe, what has she made of us?
What hath Harry Potter wrought?
In a response to my previous post, Janet Zuk wrote: “I also do not think that Harry truly represents a “Christ” figure in the books, and more especially in Book 7. I do however think that there is much evidence that the characters act in the spirit of Christ.”
Zuk then makes a sound case for this. And we could speculate for a long time about just how much Christianity permeates the moral universe of J.K. Rowling.
One does not have to be a Christian, or a believer of any kind, to have a strong influence from the public religion of the culture one grew up in. Unlike Philip Pullman, for instance, who is so obsessed with Christianity that he spent the third volume of His Dark Materials making savage, one-sided attacks on a religion very much like the good old C of E, J.K. Rowling seems to ignore Christianity itself, including only the superficially Christian aspects of Christmas — the gift giving, the decorations, the bangers, but not much in the way of mangers or angels.
In fact, though, one can see in this, not hostility, but rather a kind of reverence.
If Rowling thought of Christianity as a quaint cultural phenomenon merely, she might have been tempted to have funny stuff from Christian folk culture as well as pre- and extra-Christian European folk culture.
For instance, I can imagine a version of Harry Potter where, right along with the castle ghosts, all the students had funny little guardian angels paired with devils trying to turn them toward right or wrong.
And along with the portraits on the walls, the Virgin Mary might be popping up in sightings everywhere — in woodgrain patters on furniture, in figurines found by schoolchildren on the Hogwarts playing field.
There could be a professor of hagiography, teaching students which saint to pray to for particular miracles to counter spells and curses.
Do you see how easy it would have been? Now, one could speculate that Rowling’s motive in not literalizing Christian folk beliefs in the Harry Potter universe was to keep from alienating Christian readers. But considering how some Christian readers responded to the book as it is, one could only conclude that any such aim was only partially successful.
In fact, though, there is no reason to posit some venal motive for Rowling’s choices here. She knew that for most of the worldwide anglophone culture (for she certainly was not thinking of translations of her first book when she wrote it and was thrilled with a 500-copy first printing), witches and magic were part of the cultural memory but not a matter of serious belief.
Witches were part of Halloween, or of long-past superstitions. It was fun to for her to explain just when the Wizarding World went “underground” and show wizards and witches as living among us yet blissfully unfamiliar with our ways. Her story was funny and scary by turns.
Yet she never even approached the line between these lightly-held beliefs and the more deeply-held beliefs of Christianity. This says nothing about what she herself believes about particular doctrines of Christianity, but it says much about what she treats with respect.
The result was that most readers were immediately comfortable in the world of Harry Potter and stayed that way. Only a few people in our culture really believe in witches of the Halloween or Salem varieties (and those mostly condemned the books). So she could redefine them how she wished.
I have had people ask me why, as a believing (nontraditional) Christian, I didn’t show God taking action in the worlds of my science fiction. My answer was simple enough: I don’t take sacred things and make light of them. When I take stories from scripture, I treat the source material with great respect; and, above all, I do not invent cool stuff for God to do in my stories.
As with Lord of the Rings, there might be an offstage purposer (Gandalf’s assertion that certain things were “meant” to take place), never named or seen; but his hand remains invisible, and the mortals are left to work things out pretty much on their own, with no certainty about what was “meant” or even fated to take place.
Rowling keeps about the same distance from God that Tolkien did in his great fantasy work. That is, she is willing to have quite astonishing confluences of events that lead to fortunate outcomes. Cynics might call them coincidences, but not so, or not in the pejorative sense. If Harry had just happened to get the want that was the twin of Voldemort’s, we might groan; but instead we are told that the wand chooses the wizard, so the confluence of events is not random coincidence, it is instead the natural outcome of what has gone before.
When Rowling first told us that it was “love” that saved Harry Potter from Voldemort’s killing curse, I almost gagged. Oh, no! I inwardly cried. She’s going to sink into maudlin banality!


But as the series went on, I saw that she was doing much deeper. For what seemed at first to be a paean to mother love was something much deeper and more subtle. Rowling was actually setting out to define love, which is far more difficult that many would suppose.
We all use the word love as freely as if we knew what it meant. But it includes so many things. We keep treating it like altruism, as if any happy result for one who loves denies the unselfishness or sincerity of the love. We can’t make up our mind whether love is a feeling or a relationship or a decision or a commitment or a way of life.
Rowling tells us it was Harry’s mother’s love that made him impervious to the killing curse and rebounded it onto Voldemort, and then proceeds to show us love in many, many forms.
Hagrid’s somewhat comical and inappropriate love for dangerous creatures.
Firenze’s love that led him to accept exile from the centaurs in order to serve in the cause of thwarting Voldemort.
The fussy, fuddy-duddy, yet absolutely comforting love of Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, who easily found room for Harry in their family circle (and I have long shared Patrick’s discomfort that Harry makes no offer to help them financially).
The romantic love of young teenagers, with crushes and snogging, hurt feelings, jealousy, shyness and yearning — the stuff of which Romeo and Juliet was made.
The fierce loyalty of old friends — James, Remus, Sirius, and Peter — and the magnitude of the crime of treachery that breaks those bonds.
Harry’s love for Dumbledore as a surrogate father (one of several) and yet more than a father — almost, one could say, the love of a sinner for the priest who judges and alone has the power to absolve and purify him. Harry seeks and follows his counsel rather as Romeo followed Friar Lawrence’s (and sometimes, seemingly, with as disastrous an effect).
Harry’s unselfish love for Ginny that insisted that, for her sake, though she gave herself to him, he would not keep her, for he could not be what she needed him to be.
Harry’s friendship with Ron and Hermione — turbulent, childish, yet growing into something fine.
Snape’s hopeless yet undying love for Lily.
The love of wicked people like the Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy for their son Draco — a love that, because it was greater than their devotion to Voldemort, distinguished them from Narcissa’s sister Bellatrix.
Bellatrix’s worshipful devotion to Voldemort.
Voldemort’s absolute lack of love for anyone.
In the end, though, it came down to something as simple as this: Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)
Harry Potter’s act in surrendering himself to Voldemort was not, however, a private decision. He was not just sacrificing himself, he was doing so in obedience to Dumbledore. Severus’s memories showed that Dumbledore expected Harry to die at Voldemort’s hand, because only as Voldemort killed him would Harry be able to overcome Voldemort.
This is a vital distinction. If Harry simply decided, as a result of his own reasoning, that he had to surrender to Voldemort in order to save his friends, then what would we have thought of him? I, at least, would have thought him a dolt: Harry’s friends weren’t “dying for him,” they were putting themselves in harm’s way in order to join in the struggle against evil.
It would have been a species of ignorant hubris to appoint yourself a sacrifice, when you have no way of knowing that your offering will actually make a difference. Indeed, with Harry dead, what likelihood was there that a casual liar and murderer like Voldemort would keep any promise that he made? Everything he said was a lie, however many traces of truth he might employ in the service of his lies.
But when Harry actually does it, he does so in obedience to Dumbledore’s will. He has received no promise of the outcome. But he knows that the wisest man he knew believed that it was necessary, right, and good for Harry to accept this death — and so he went willingly enough.
Along the way, he had the closest thing we can imagine to the ministration of angels — not as cutely literal angels like the broomstick-riding witches, but real people from Harry’s life, returning in spirit to comfort him on his way to offer his life to the enemy.
Harry does not know Dumbledore’s plan; he has spent half the book doubting Dumbledore. Yet despite all doubts, he surrenders himself to Dumbledore’s will.
He makes Dumbledore, therefore, his purposer: It is by following Dumbledore’s will, not his own, that he will give his life, and his death, meaning.
Who Is God?
It would be easy enough to say that God, in the Harry Potter series, is that which saved Harry in the first place: “God is love.”
But Rowling takes the stronger tack, for a fiction writer: She puts a human character in the role of purposer.
Like Tolkien with Gandalf, Rowling makes it clear that Dumbledore is mortal; only when Dumbledore dies, he stays dead. Yet does he? His portrait is still giving orders to Snape, which can’t be the usual way with those portraits of former headmasters, or they could simply have left a dead headmaster in charge. Dumbledore’s portrait, at least when it is talking to Snape, is still plotting and planning, still giving other people missions to fulfill, and not just continuations of old missions — Dumbledore reacts to new events. His soul is still present in these actions, not just his image.
If we had any doubt of this, it should be dispelled by Harry’s interview with Dumbledore after Harry is dead. Dumbledore is dead, after the flesh, but he is still the primary purposer of this story. The actions of human beings take on meaning and importance only in relation to his plans, and whether they support or wish to thwart them.
Yet, because Dumbledore is literally not God in the story itself, Rowling is free to make him vivid and individual. She is liberated from the awe that would be owed to a literal God-character. Dumbledore has a past; he made mistakes; he is fallible; he does not know the outcomes either, but only guesses (though his guesses are usually very good).
This kind of complex yet illuminating expression of theophany is a far cry from what is possible in “realistic” fiction, where writers are reduced to the “God” of A Prayer for Owen Meany. Unable to remove the acts of God from the real world, John Irving was forced to leave God incomprehensible or ironic.
Rowling, by contrast, was able to make the relationship between God and man into an intimate yet uneasy child-parent experience. Harry looked to Dumbledore for answers, for help, for rescue, and sometimes received it (as when Dumbledore gave Hermione the idea for how to undo the disastrous events of a very bad day), but often did not.
But to Harry, God was real, personal, tangible. He did not have to worry about the existence of God, he only had to worry about whether he could or should trust him and obey him.
The result is that the God of A Prayer for Owen Meany is distant and repellent; what beauty there is in the ending (and it has great beauty) comes from Owen’s faith, not from the unspeaking and, in some senses, unspeakable God that he has tried to serve.
The fantasy novel, by not dealing with a particular God from a particular real-world theology, and instead having a mortal stand-in for God, is able to make God more real and emotionally compelling. It’s one of the reasons we write fantasy when we want to tell the truth about something that matters. Unlike Irving, Rowling did not have to deal with her readers’ preexisting attitudes toward the God of Harry Potter, because that God was not God at all. We discovered Dumbledore as a man and only gradually saw him become a god-figure.
This happens more often than we think in the literature of the fantastic. Isaac Asimov, for instance, who believed himself to be an atheist, nevertheless had god-figures in most of his novels: Hari Seldon, R. Daneel Olivaw. Purposers show up again and again in Romantic storytelling (of which fantasy and science fiction are the current incarnation), and for good reason: Without them, the heroic story is much harder to bring off.
At the very least you need a foreseer — the Bene Gesserit Witch who examines Paul Atreides at the beginning of Dune and lays out, in effect, precisely the miracle that he would need to perform before he could become Muad-dib.
How Harry Decides
But the spiritual burden of Rowling’s tale is not borne by Dumbledore alone (for what mortal could bear it?). We have something else going on, which may or may not be as explicitly connected with any existing religion as Dumbledore can so easily be.
Harry makes intuitive, instant decisions that are invariably wiser and better than the actions that he plans and puzzles over. Time and again he acts rashly, on impulse. When he’s young, the impulse merely reveals magic that he hasn’t learned to control, as when he frees a snake from its confinement. Later, though, these impulses are always moral choices: What is good for Harry vs. what is Good.
Look at the pattern of Harry’s moral choices. The morality is situational, but Harry shows almost no scruples about breaking rules when they become meaningless or downright wrong.
Most of the time, the rules are those of the school, set down to maintain safety and good order. These are good rules, but not deep rules. Forbidding the students to leave their dormitory after a certain time definitely protects both students and school; but it carries very little moral freight, and readers are untroubled when Harry and his friends break those rules to achieve a higher purpose.
But Harry also lies — in fact, he is every bit the liar that Snape accuses him of being. He lies to cover up what he’s doing. He lies to protect other people. He lies to protect himself. He even conceals things from Dumbledore.
But lying, too, is one of those vast grey areas of morality. When a Gestapo officer asks you whether you know of any Jews hiding in your neighborhood, it is lying to say that there are none that is the righteous act, and it is telling the truth that would be a mortal sin.
Harry’s lies are rarely at that level of moral clarity — and there are lies that he comes to regret. But by and large, Rowling’s world is pretty amoral about lying. It is only what a lie is used for that determines its moral value. Voldemort’s lie about Harry’s actions just before Voldemort killed him is a vile one and we hate him for it (though we also relish knowing that Harry is not as dead as Voldemort thinks he is). But it is not Voldemort’s lies that make him evil; they are not in the moral Sorting Hat.
Harry’s decisions that matter are impulsive acts like seizing the opportunity presented by the Tom Riddle’s dead diary — Harry tucks an article of clothing in it and gives it to Lucius Malfoy on the hope that Malfoy will discard it by giving it to Dobby. It works out exactly as Harry planned. But it was not, really, a plan. It was an impulse, a spark of an idea that could not be contemplated. It had to be acted on without consideration.
Even when dealing with Kreacher, Hermione’s sermon about why Kreacher is the way he is prompts Harry to speak more kindly and civilly to the house-elf that betrayed Sirius Black — but they needed something from him, and such civility was not, in itself, transformative.
Instead, what won Kreacher over was the impulse, not thought out at all, to give Kreacher the locket. Dead as a horcrux, it still had power as a symbol of the family that Kreacher served, and Harry’s act of kindness and acceptance — his impulsive act — transformed the house-elf to an unpredictable degree. Harry could not have imagined that the locket would mean as much to Kreacher as it did.
So, like the third son in so many fairy tales, a seemingly trivial, impulsive act of kindness made all the difference in that portion of the tale: Harry won an ally where he had previously had an enemy.
Where do these good impulses come from?
We know the source of Harry’s parseltongue — that came from Voldemort’s backfiring curse in Harry’s toddlerhood. We know why Harry feels a link with Voldemort, and even why Harry’s wand chose him. But we are never given any source for Harry’s impulsive acts of kindness than … Harry himself.
This is not really compatible with at least some branches of traditional Christianity. Harry’s virtuous impulses are not depicted as coming from any outside source. Rather they are expressions of what Harry really is, deep in his soul, untainted by what he might talk himself into through conscious thought.
Harry makes many mistakes through ignorance, anger, impatience, and his inability to abide tyranny or unfairness. But the decisions and actions that matter most in his story are the ones he makes from the heart, in the instant, even when they look completely wrong: For in Rowling’s moral universe, actions born of love, loyalty, and generosity cannot, or at least do not, turn to evil ends.
So the reader of the Harry Potter series comes away with what message? That we must act according to our intuition?
Not at all. Harry’s intuition is repeatedly wrong. He’s wrong a lot. This is not the Force, where he needs to close his eyes and leap into darkness. He is expected to analyze; he is held accountable, sometimes at least, for his mistakes.
Rowling makes a point of telling us when Harry’s impulsive actions are important: She frames them by telling us just how impulsive they are, by making sure that Harry has no plan in mind and could not say why he does the thing he does.
This is in clear contrast to Harry’s moments of cleverness or desperation or any of the other sources of his decisions. When Rowling tells us that Harry doesn’t know why he’s doing something, but nevertheless does it, the action is (at least as far as I remember) generous and good, and while in the short run it might have harsh consequences, in the long run it redounds to the good, not just of Harry, but of the world he was born to rescue.
There are those who might have thought of these moments as “inspired,” which implies an external source — something acts upon the character to inspire him.
But I have seen no justification in the text for such a belief. Harry’s is not inspired. These choices do not come from outside him, the way Dumbledore’s instructions do; nor do they come from his physical nature, like his attraction to Cho and, later, Ginny.
These impulses are Harry’s own soul taking control away from his mind and his body. These are the moments when we see best who Harry really is.
And, as is made explicit in Harry’s dead-time conversation with Dumbledore, it is precisely Harry’s soul — who he really is, the nature revealed by those loving, generous, even extravagant impulses — that ultimately triumphs over Voldemort’s miserable, sick, wizened, and subdivided soul.
So when we emerge from the Harry Potter series, what have we become? What does the community that holds this story in its memory recognize as virtuous, noble, of good report, praiseworthy?
Acting on the impulses of love, without calculation or self-interest.
And since it is precisely this virtue that must be present in any community for it to endure and thrive, the Harry Potter novels have, in their way, buttressed western civilization at a time when it was sorely in need of this moral principle.
Harry Potter surrenders himself to the plans of God and accepts his own sacrifice because he trusts that it is right, and because he is strengthened by a knowledge of the love of his beloved dead.
Harry Potter’s soul is ready to triumph over evil because he has repeatedly acted on the impulses arising from the love in his soul.
And we are going to move forward into the next decades with millions of our young people infused with this moral worldview, shaped by it, or reinforced in it.
In practical terms, this bodes well for us, just as it boded well for us that Frodo, Sam, and Gollum were embraced by the generation before.
What did you weep for at the end of this book? I was touched by the death of characters we loved — Dobby most of all, perhaps because there was time to mourn him.
But the moments when the tears flowed and I had to stop reading aloud were the moments of approbation, when Harry’s virtues were recognized by others. I wept when the headmasters in the portraits applauded him.
I wept most powerfully, in other words, for joy.
Call this worldview Christian if you want. I am uninterested in the question of which, if any, existing religion the Harry Potter series affirms.
What matters to me is that, to the degree that readers believe in and care about this story, and internalize it, they will be reinforced in their noblest impulses. They will honor love and generosity where it occurs. They will know, whether or not they consciously saw it, that what made Harry Potter great was not his heroic deeds per se, but rather the quick, quiet, unplanned actions that revealed his noble soul.
It is the true, deep Harry Potter — the one invisible to Snape and, most of the time, invisible to Harry himself — who prevailed against Voldemort. It was no trick of magic, no coincidence of wands; it was not the result of the bond between Harry and Voldemort; it was not the result of his mother’s love and sacrifice.
Or rather, it was all these things, but they would not have been enough without the virtue inherent in Harry himself.
This is hardly a picture of sinners in the hand of an angry God, or of fallen man. Harry is not made good by some outside divine force, not according to the text of this book. Harry’s goodness is who he really is.
And we, because we embrace these books, are made better because we have the memory of being Harry Potter, and making his choices, and carrying out his acts, and being blessed for it, receiving honor and then, more importantly, receiving the joy of being able to create, with the woman he loved, a home for children they could raise together.
The Harry Potter series is a handbook for building and maintaining a civilization worth living in. That’s what the moral universe of fiction does, at its best.
I can’t really predict whether the Harry Potter series will endure for decades or centuries.
But I can tell you that I want to live my whole life in a civilization composed of people who cried for joy as much as grief at the end of the Harry Potter books.
I wish the same to you.

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posted July 27, 2007 at 1:06 pm

You’re post bring to mind a couple key issues that bothered me about the fundemental workings of Harry’s and Voldermort’s relationship and the end of the book.
Are we really to believe that Lily and Harry was the first time that love happened to intercede with the Killing Curse? That this was the only time that anyone had ever acted out of true love?
I guess the answer might come fromt the prophecy, but the prophecy sort of fell by the wayside (which is fine by me. Too many prophecys can bore me)
And finally, perhaps I’m the only one who wondered at the end, but who was going to become the new Headmaster? (I don’t have the book in front of me to double check, but I sure hope it didn’t say and I missed it) After all that had happened, they needed a time of rebuilding and I’m not sure who was going to step in to do that. Education and helping people learn seems so important to me that this would have been a nice puzzle to solve. When Harry went up and saw them all applauding, I assumed that it was going to be him… but it wasn’t.

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Barbara Kramer

posted July 27, 2007 at 1:10 pm

Thank you for a beautiful and insightful essay. I hope that Harry Potter continues to enthrall generations of young readers. The story is timeless – good vs. evil – love conquers all. This is a series of books that I plan to read and reread even at my age (60+). Those who see evil in these books are missing something wonderful.

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posted July 27, 2007 at 1:28 pm

I still have a lingering question about the “Christ figure” question. If we knew for a fact that Rowling intended for Harry to be a Christ figure, would that make any difference? There’s a little known quote from her several years back in a Canadian newspaper where she was asked if she was a Christian, and her response:
“Yes, I am, which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God. Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’s coming in the books.”
So for a long time I’ve suspected that the last book would be some form of Christian allegory, however loose (and I think anyone would agree that it’s hardly definitive at all). I’m just curious as to whether or not Rowling’s motives herself would change anything? Or are her personal religious beliefs and intentions unimportant to the question?

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posted July 27, 2007 at 4:28 pm

I also wondered who would become the new Headmaster. I’ve since come to the conclusion that it would be McGonagall. I also wondered who was the Headmaster 19 years in the future. I wonder why she didn’t say?

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posted July 27, 2007 at 7:06 pm

Thank you for this essay. I have a hard time expressing to my friends and family what exactly I got out of Harry Potter, so I will probably direct them here.
As to Harry’s soul: for me, one of the clearest images of this is towards the beginning of the book, when Harry’s friends drink the Polyjuice Potion to act as decoys. When Harry’s hair is dropped in, the potion turns gold. Harry has, as we would say, a “heart of gold”.
But at the same time, it must be recognized that Harry’s friends, teachers, and others have been working very hard to make sure that he did indeed become such a golden soul. As Dumbledore remarks, his life is remarkably similar to Tom Riddle’s, yet they become completely different people.

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posted July 28, 2007 at 1:18 am

Thank you so much, Mr. Card, for your thoughts in this essay. I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve said. I, too, wept for joy at many moments during my reading of book 7.
Those moments got me — sucker punched me in the gut — just like at the end of Peter Jackson’s “Return of the King”, when Aragorn tells the four Hobbits, “No, my friends — you bow to no one.”
And then everyone there, including Aragorn, bows to the Hobbits. That scene simply breaks me down every time I see it (which is often; I have two children that love LotR, Harry Potter, and Star Wars).
I’ve read those “weeping for joy” heartbreaking moments in your works, of course (Ender’s Shadow and Shadow of the Giant, for instance), and there were several moments like that in Deathly Hallows. That kind of fiction is the best, in my opinion; it not only entertains; it teaches, opens up new worlds to us, makes us think (sometimes very deeply), and enlightens us. Thanks to you and to J.K. Rowling for making it happen!

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posted July 28, 2007 at 3:01 am

I found myself surprisingly devestated by Dobby’s death. My current theory is that because Dobby had a kind of childish purity of heart, killing him was tantamount to killing a 5 year old.
Thank you so much for your essays. I have really enjoyed them.

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posted July 28, 2007 at 12:30 pm

I also felt that she respected Christianity by leaving it be.
I wondered why she would even mention Christmas, but she was careful to leave it stand and that all the kids would wish a “happy Christmas”
to each other.
The higher purposes were what drove Rowling on.
I always enjoyed the scenes where the students interacted. There was a sense of normalcy and simple joy of sharing life and friendship. Harry rarely had that. He was usually turning something over and over in his thoughts.
“Poor kid”, I’d think. “He’s got no one.”
But, even as a Christian, most of my struggling thoughts are not up for discussion with another human being. I turn them over and over–lifting them up to God the Father, and Jesus, who isn’t visible. His Holy Spirit, the Comforter, is who I bounce things off of to keep walking with the Father. The answers come.
And the best answers are loving and selfless.

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posted July 28, 2007 at 12:52 pm

I am a christian and all I see in this article is a bashing of the author, Do we as so called Christians act like that? I thought we were to love and pray for these people. And as for the movies and books what is the difference between the sin in those, or the sins of the world why is everyone focusing on Harry Potter? If we are teaching our children by bible standards then they would know the difference between fiction and non-fiction. It is my belief that anything you put before God is a sin, whether it be Christmas,Easter,Halloween, even the cross. ‘I was once asked what I thought of Halloween and I stated anything that you put before the Lord is sin, she said”but it is evil, I told her only if you make it that way, why dont you call it candy day, dress you kids up in nice little costumes and have fun. I feel people are focusing on the least important and not on GOD!!!!!

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(Rev.) Paulina K. Dennis

posted July 28, 2007 at 2:56 pm

As a writer (novelist, playwright, essayist) and an ordained minister (Congregationalist), I firmly believe that it is not necessary or desirable to be OVERTLY, even BLATANTLY Christian in our usage of most Christian themes. The Bible tells the Christ story quite well; and unless you have the artistry of a Franco Zeferelli (“Jesus of Nazareth”) or even Andrew Lloyd Webber (“Jesus Christ Superstar”) why retell it UNLESS there is some kind of new insight or scholarly discovery about that stupendous life? I think it is fitting that so many moral and ethical themes that we call Christian (and to be found in other places as well, we have the exclusive lock only on Jesus)have found their way into contemporary and more popular novels, films, etc. The question of good and evil and the man who sells his soul to the Devil (“Godfather,” “Star Wars”), the question of self-sacrifice, whether consummated or not (Luke in “Star Wars”, Frodo Baggins in “Lord of the Rings”) and the constant dealing with ethical issues, even religious issues, in, for instance, “Star Trek,” (in spite of Gene Roddenbury’s professed secular humanism!) The important thing is to get people thinking not only about why they are here at all, as well as, what are our responsibilities to one another and to the welfare of this planet? I work with youth all the time, in both theater and church; they will ask the most provocative questions, and they are deserving of the most thoughtful and serious answers. If “Harry Potter” ultimately ends up doing that, because J.K. Rowlings is obviously a serious writer (and teacher), as am I, and many of my colleagues, then that’s enough to get a further conversation going about what God does indeed expect of us. Let these works of popular literature stand on their own; they’ve done quite well so far, because the questions ARE being asked. Paulina K. Dennis

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Lois Walker

posted July 28, 2007 at 6:08 pm

to Orson Scott Card: as you are one of my favorite authors, it really touches me that you took the time to read this very popular “children’s series” and to write such a beautiful essay. You drew my attention to some points I hadn’t realized as I read, and reaffirmed for me why the tears flowed at certain points in the reading. I consider myself to be Christian, but didn’t insist on making either Harry or Dumbledore to be standing for deity. Your remarks just reaffirmed for me what a remarkable thing Jo Rowling has accomplished, and (God willing) will continue to accomplish as her books are read and reread.
to Becky: I think you need to reread Mr. Card’s essay, as you clearly didn’t understand the points he was making! And far from “bashing” Ms. Rowling, he praised her efforts very highly. One more thing: anyone who is focusing on love (not to be confused with counterfeits) is focusing on God; you may have read somewhere that “God is love” and that “everyone who loveth is born of God, and knoweth God”.

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posted July 29, 2007 at 10:38 pm

I couldn’t believe how much I cried at Dobby’s death. I didn’t particularly like him, I thought, but his death struck me hard.
Snape’s death also hit me very hard. I’ve supported his loyalty from the beginning, so it was really a blow to see him end in tragedy. Remus’s death had me crying, because he was the last of the Marauders. I was devastated to see those four gone. And I cried when Harry summoned up his parents, Sirius, and Remus. I don’t know why, but it really touched me.
This was a beautiful book, despite its flaws. Your and Pat’s essays have been wonderful. Thanks for sharing your experiences. :]

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posted July 30, 2007 at 12:25 am

Mr Card,
Yours is one of the best essays and analysis of the Potter books I have read in a long while. It will take a place of honor and easy reference in my files on Potter et al. As I have read in many of your books, you and Ms Rowling share a sense of the divine that gets far deeper than mere celebrity infatuation and leads to some real expectations, which in turn leads to genuine hope.
By the way, Among the deaths I most grive are those of Tonks and Lupin. I love and admire Tonks attitude and spirit, and Lupin’s ability to deal with who he is and still endeavor to be a positive presence. And I had to stop a while at Dobby’s death. He was a hero in a very unqie way. And I cheered (quietly, everyone else was asleep at 2 am) at Kreacher’s change of heart at allegiance.
I am waiting for some discussion about the 2001 Space Odyssey / baby in the background during Dumbledores final conversation with Harry, (almost) post-mortem. I’m still thinking about that one.

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John C. Randolph

posted July 30, 2007 at 2:51 am

Mr. Card,
I take exception to your cheap shot at Mr. Asimov in describing him as having “believed himself to be an atheist”. Frankly, that smacks of the insufferable smugness that all too many proselytizers radiate, when they tell me that I’m “searching for something.”
Asimov was indeed an atheist, and for you to imply otherwise is nothing less than snotty.

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Anatoly M

posted July 30, 2007 at 9:58 am

I finally finished the reading and turned to my favorite author who “reviews everything”. If I may add a few cents.
J.K. Rowling created a masterpiece. As the great masters before her, she speaks about eternal essence of life: good and evil, love and hate, friendship and betrayal, sacrifice and cowardliness, fighting evil or submitting to it, freedom or subjugation, about special powers that require special responsibilities, and how Harry and his friends are growing up and struggling to find the meaning of, well, everything. It is very telling that very different people have found themselves equally enchanted by the books.
It seems to me that you can be a devoted Christian, or an atheist (as I am), or a card carrying member of Republican party or Democratic party (in US), or practically any party out there, a conservative (that’s me) or a Leftist – you will end up rooting for the same group of good guys. In time when we complain about a shrillness of a political discourse, and can’t agree about anything, this is a very welcome phenomenon. We share in our Judeo-Christian humanistic civilization much more than people realize. And looks like these values are universal enough, and the writing is good enough for the book to be adored in Japan, China and India as well. (I’d love to see reports from the Muslim world as well).
OSC is exactly right when he sees these books continue building our civilization, “a civilization worth living in”. It brings me a renewed optimism that millions of people “cried for joy as much as grief at the end of the Harry Potter books” the same way as I did.

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Sean McQullan

posted July 30, 2007 at 3:09 pm

The overview of morality in your essay is most true, and regardless of a persons belief in spirituality one should not take offence if you refer to Dumbledore as a God-character. The God-character as you put it is common in all works and yes even that of Mr.Asimov – It isn’t necessarily God, but a force that is stronger or wiser that you turn to. Our role models are our Gods, like the old belief of animal Gods you take what you see is good and righteous within something and you strive to do the same. The human soul is heir to a conscience; we all root for the good guys regardless of our institutional based beliefs. (With exceptions)
The 7th book overall brought a struggle, it was dirty and imperfect and you wanted more. Yet because of that it was complete, if everything was taken care of you could not imagine or create your own hopes and dreams for the characters. There is possibility for more, and if there wasn’t you as a reader would not have the same feeling of hope and optimism at the end. OSC in his works does something similar with Ender and other characters – I found myself crying at the end of Children of the Mind as much as I did at parts of the 7th book. Good Fiction brings out parts of the human character that we attach ourselves to and wish to be a part of and can see the flaws and imperfections in.
Fiction creates a world that is completely different from our own with one exception: people. The characters we love and hate and wish to journey with. The characters that make these worlds in our head seem real.
As Dumbledore put it: “Just because it is in your mind how does it make it any less real?” So as stated take all these lessons within and make them a part of yourself, to make this world a civilization worth living in.

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Dennis West

posted July 30, 2007 at 4:16 pm

Uncle Orson,
I really enjoyed reading your analysis of the series in light of religion. It definitely made me realize some new ways of seeing the stories that I hadn’t realized before.
On the topic of Harry’s acting on his impulses of love, I was particularly impressed when he was having his conversation with Dumbledore at King’s Cross when he kept being distracted by the whimpering baby nearby. His first impulse is to offer assistance and Dumbledore responded that there wasn’t anything that he could do.
That baby was Voldemort’s fragment of soul, and whether or not Harry realized exactly what it was, his impulse was that of compassion.
I’m looking forward to additional thoughts on the book(s) that you may be sharing on

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posted July 31, 2007 at 12:22 pm

I just want to second JCR. I don’t know anything about Isaac Asimov, but I hate how people try to figure out the religious beliefs of people by reading their fiction. I hope OSC isn’t suggesting we do that.

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posted July 31, 2007 at 8:26 pm

I love how the mark of truly rich story telling (or myth making if you like) is that people from entirely different religious perspectives can all find something in it that affirms their own world view.
For me, as a Buddhist, I saw a vivid depiction of Harry as a Bodhisattva. In the scene where Harry has been cut free from the negative part of his soul and from the pain, and emotional turmoil of the battle back on earth, he chooses to return for the benefit of others. It’s difficult to leave the peace of Nirvana, but he takes on the pains of re-entry to relieve the suffering of others.

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posted August 1, 2007 at 3:39 pm

I’ve always held the view that you can use the term “literary Christ figure” extremely loosely anyway. Just because the character didn’t physically carry a cross, die for 3 days, then rise again doesn’t mean he or she is not, at least partially, a literary Christ figure.
However, in the case of Harry, the thing that intrigues me most is the biggest difference between him and Christ: Harry Potter needed other people to die for him ahead of time, while he was prepared to ‘die’ and rise again; Jesus Christ died and rose again, and then others started dying for him afterwards. Other people died to prepare Harry – Jesus died to prepare us.

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Ian Lynch

posted August 2, 2007 at 9:12 am

Interesting that the two points of the book that brought me to tears were the same two that got to Mr. Card. I think the death of Dobby was a critical juncture for Harry. Clearly, the physical labor of digging the grave was a time of reflection for him. This is one of the many important spiritual lessons taught in this book.
Overall, Harry’s journey of meaning-making on display in this book is one of the critical elements of this plot. I was struck by the way he handled the question of what truth is. In chapter ten we read, “There it was again: choose what to believe. He wanted the truth. Why was everybody so determined that he should not get it?” That was a profound moment for me as reader, even if it took Harry a few hundred more pages before he started to see the need to trust in order to find truth. That struggle of whom and what to trust made this book compelling. In the end, Dumbledore helps Harry see that there is no reason on earth why what happens in one’s head is not real. And that is the moment when Harry very deliberately chooses to show the greatest love possible by laying down his life for his friends. This is not one of his typical impulses of the goodness of his soul, this is his ultimate intentional act. And we all knew he would do it. In this, he is a literary Christ figure, as it is in the great hero tradition of literature. Here, too, we all are inspired to do the same. Isn’t that the point of great fiction like this?

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posted August 2, 2007 at 8:29 pm

Mr. Card,
Just what exactly is the difference between being an atheist and believing oneself to be an atheist?

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posted August 4, 2007 at 12:20 am

Uncle Orson –
Thank you. What a wonderful piece. I thought I was odd for crying at the headmasters’ applause. Pride in the accomplishments of an offspring/mentee (how I imagine the previous headmasters viewed Harry) often do me in. 😉
My other spot (beyond the obvious Dobby scene, which I think you nailed it in explaining that we readers had TIME to grieve there…) was when Lily told Harry in the woods “You’ve been so brave.” What a short line, and (tongue firmly planted in cheek) uncharacteristically lacking an adverb in dialogue attribution. Still makes my eyes well up. I could blame it on the curse of motherhood, but I’d rather put it toward what you said:
“But the moments when the tears flowed and I had to stop reading aloud were the moments of approbation, when Harry’s virtues were recognized by others.”
And I agree with you too…I want to live in a civilization who laughed and cried their way through these books, loving, hoping, caring, and allowing a talented storyteller and author take us far, far away, and simultaneously deep within.
KayTi (from Hatrack Writer’s Workshop)

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Lilly Bee

posted August 8, 2007 at 10:25 am

I’m curious about what the author herself thinks of all these comments. Did she really think of all the aspects while writing these books or did she just write as “it came to her”. Just wondering!

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posted August 20, 2007 at 5:25 pm

Enjoyed your interesting analysis. I loved the books and enjoyed the sensible, between-the-lines philosophy in all the books. I wonder if Harry Potter isn’t just an old-fashioned humanist who believes that the best society is built on character, integrity, love, a sense of community and personal contribution?
My only regret with the books (and I notice that you overlooked him as well) was that the character of Neville Longbottom was not more developed.

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peter dan

posted October 11, 2007 at 2:15 pm

Beautifully said and challenging. I think that the fight between good and evil in the soul of each character should also get mentioned. Dumbledore goes from hating muggles to protecting them,Snape remains faithfull despite overwhelming odds, Ron has to deal with jealousy, Percy has to decide between his love of rules and his love of family, Wormtail finds a fatal moment of compassion, Harry has his moments of anger and resentment dirrected at Dumbledore, Kreacher goes from hating Harry to being devoted to him. In fact,all the positive characters are ambivalent. J.K. Rowling introduces a positive character -say Lupin or James Potter- then shows you the character’s negative traits, and in the end lets the good overwhelm the bad.Even Narcissa, Malfoy and Dudley show signs of humanity. There are few unambiguously good charaters: Hagrid, Hermione, Neville, Doby. The unambiguosly bad characters: Voldemort, Bellatrix, Barty Junior are destroyed in the end. The way to reverse Voldemort slide into evil is, we are told, repentance. While Christianity is never explicitly addressed,it provides a context for the moral choices of the characters. While the world of wizzards and magic may appear exotic to us, we understand its moral underpinnings.

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Barbara Ilott

posted April 4, 2008 at 5:59 pm

One of the best, sanest and most intellegent essays I have read on this topic for a long time.
I would, however, like to expand one point: Harry’s innate ability to love.
At one point when Harry is complaining to Dumbledore that everyone says he looks like his father, D. replies that this is true – except for his he eyes. He has Lily’s eyes and D. opines that *in his soul* Harry is more like his mother. {Perhaps you remember that someone once said that “Eyes are the windows of the soul.” ?}
James is a bit of a rascal. Certainly as an adolescent he can be pretty unpleasant at times although he grows up to be a decent man. Lily is a different matter. Right from the start, her compassion for all around her shines through. Even as a little girl she is nice to Snape – a born outsider if ever there was one. She is kind and forgiving to her spiteful sister. She attempts to remain friends with – and an influence for good on – Snape long after anyone else would have given him the push. She even attempts to divert James from his bullying. Finally she has compassionate concern for Peter Petegrew even when he is on the point of betraying them. Thus her self-sacrificing love for her child is totally in character. The Lily who defies Voldemort is the Lily who stood up to Petunia and the Lily who stood up to James.
Lily’s influence in Harry’s genes is strong. Dare one suggest that Lily Evans Potter is also a “Christ-figure” ?

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william hart

posted November 13, 2008 at 10:18 am

this discussion misses the most important figure in the book: Snape.
it is the sacrificial, transformative love of Snape for Harry’s mother, and through her Harry that gives the final aspect of the books that grasp on the heart that I find most reminds me of the effects of Christianity on the behavior of men.
Snape lives in the midst of Voldemort’s supporters, and though appearing to reflect their creed, in fact is steadfastly determined to protect Harry no matter the cost to himself.

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