I’m at the end of my maiden voyage here on Beliefnet, and I’ve had a great time.
In addition to the fun I’ve had chatting with Orson about the Harry Potter series, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the high quality of the readers’ comments. Not only is there a high signal-to-noise ratio, but even when disagreeing, people are generally very polite. As a result, reading the feedback has turned into an unexpected pleasure.
In fact, while reading the last series of comments about how different readers became disenchanted with books in the past, I realized that devoted readers and religious believers have something in common: Faith.
Llyralei suggested (very politely) that I was being a little lazy as a reader when I complained that Rowling’s rules of magic seemed ill-defined, or contradictory, or, in some cases, non-existent. She encouraged me to use my imagination. The implication being that I should work harder to invent explanations as to why everything in the books makes sense.
In general, I think this is good advice. It’s the reader’s job to take the pieces and put them together. The reader is supposed to draw conclusions and fill in some of the blank spaces in any story.
However, it’s the author’s job to make sure that there are enough pieces. And that they fit together. And that once they’re assembled, that a sensible picture is revealed, and not just a bodged-together mélange of Dobby-ex-machina.
Llyralei’s comment is interesting to me, ultimately, because what she’s really doing is encouraging me to have faith. She’s suggesting that I have faith in the story, and by extension, faith in the author.
I believe all readers come to a book with a degree of inbuilt faith. We show up expecting something good. Hope springs eternal.
Then, as we read, two things can happen. Our initial faith can be rewarded and reinforced, or our faith can be abused and we become dissatisfied. Effectively, we can lose faith in the story.
I never appreciated the complexity of this interaction until I became a writer myself. Not only do all readers start with differing degrees of faith in your story, but each reader has different peeves they find intolerable to varying degrees. For some folk’s its typoes. [Gotcha –Ed.] Or sentence fragments. Other times, a sentence ending with a preposition will turn a reader off.
Thematic elements can do the same thing. Sexism, racism, classism, various flavors of politics or religion can make the reader give up on a story. Everyone has some sort of deal breaker. For my girlfriend, it’s the abuse of a child. We sat down to start watching Battlestar Galactica together a few months ago, and 30 minutes in, one of the cylons kills a baby. She turned to me, gave a fierce, brittle smile, and said, “I’m done.” Nothing in the world would convince her to watch another second of that show after that.
However, the main thing that builds or breaks the faith of the reader is the storytelling itself. Are the characters realistic, clever, and interesting? Is the world believable? Does the plot make sense? Is the tone of the story consistent and pleasing? There are a lot of ways for a reader to become disenchanted with a story. And if that disenchantment goes too far, the reader will eventually abandon the story.
The same is true of religion. I’ve known people who have gone through rough stretches in their lives. Times when terrible, nonsensical things have happened to them. Because of this they eventually gave up on the concept of god-the-author. They lost faith and decided that god was either nonexistent, or cruel, or inscrutable. Either way, they gave up on the idea that someone out there was going to bring everything to a good conclusion.
Only now do I realize that they stopped going to church for the same reasons that I stop reading a book. Loss of faith.
What does this have to do with Harry Potter specifically? Two things.
The first is this comic that I read a while back. It seems to encapsulate this whole idea pretty tidily.
The second is this. Most people are introduced to religion early in their lives. Similarly, a lot of folks started reading Harry Potter when they were young. What’s more, many older readers picked up Harry Potter without ever having read a fantasy novel before, which makes them young in a different way.
Faith comes easier to us when we are young. We are less cynical, crotchety, and emotionally calloused. Sometimes the article of faith is simple: Harry Potter is a cool book.
Sometimes the article of faith is more complex: there’s an old man with a beard in the sky, and he wants you to be good. If you say the name of Amida Buddha you will be reborn into the Western paradise after you die. These things are easier to believe when we are children, because everything is easier to believe when you’re a child.
When I was a child, I thought as a child. But now that I’m older, I’ve sharpened my critical capacity and can’t help but ask questions when things don’t make sense to me. That goes for both religion and for books.
I once heard someone compare faith to a glass of water. They explained that when you’re young, the glass is smaller and easier to fill. But as you get older, the glass gets bigger and the same amount of faith won’t fill it to the top anymore.
Again, I think this works for religion and for books. I know I’ve gone back to read some childhood favorites and cringed at the storytelling. The book is the same; I’m the one that’s changed. I simply don’t have same degree of unquestioning faith that I used to.
So while I do have a certain amount of faith in the Harry Potter books, it’s not blind faith. There is a difference. And while I trust Rowling’s ability to tell me a story, each unanswered or contradictory element erodes that faith. Now, after so many of these things, I’m having trouble fully enjoying the later books.
But that’s me. For others, obviously, this isn’t the case. As with all matters of faith, it is a personal thing.
The Atheistic World of Harry Potter
During the endless speculation about Harry’s potential death before Book Seven came out, I keep butting up against a question: What happens when someone dies?
In the early books, the fact that this question isn’t addressed wasn’t a big deal. But later on it seemed increasingly odd that there wasn’t more attention given to the subject. When main characters started to die, there still wasn’t much discussion on the subject.
It took me a while to realize the problem. What happens after death is a profoundly religious question, and, simply said, there isn’t any religion in the world of Harry Potter. It’s conspicuously absent to the point where we know that the author must have intentionally left it out.
Orson made some very good observations in his most recent blog about this. He credits Rowling for leaving religion out of the books due to reverence. He suggests that rather than deal with it lightly, she chose not to deal with it at all.
This proves that Orson is a better person than I am. My suspicion was that Rowling was avoiding religion because bringing it into the story would open up a very difficult, very messy can of worms. I like his thought better than mine, so I’m going with him.
But leaving religion out of the story has, effectively opened a different can of worms. As the books progressed, it was almost like someone had gone through and blacked-out the remotest hint of any sort of religion with a heavy marker, like those censored government documents you see in the X-Files.
For example, during Dumbledore’s funeral, we don’t know if anything religious was said. The same thing is true of the wedding ceremony in Book Seven. The result is that there is an increasingly large hole in Rowling’s world where religion would normally be.
And that means the questions religion is designed to answer can’t be dealt with. What happens when people die? In the Potterverse, no one knows. No one speaks of it.
Well…that’s not entirely true. When Severus dies Harry does some asking around. He talks to Nearly Headless Nick. But oddly, Nick doesn’t know anything about the afterlife.
Who is the only person who hints that such a thing exists? Luna. At the end of OOTP Harry asks her:
“…has anyone you known ever died?”
“Yes,’ said Luna simply, “my mother. She was a quite extraordinary witch, you know, but she did like to experiment and one of her spells went rather badly wrong one day. I was nine.”
“I’m sorry,” Harry mumbled.
“Yes it was rather horrible,” said Luna conversationally.” I still feel very sad about it sometimes. But I’ve still got Dad. And anyway, it’s not as though I’ll never see Mum again, is it?”
“Er – isn’t it?” said Harry uncertainly.
She shook her head in disbelief. “Oh, come on. You heard them, just behind the veil, didn’t you?”
And that’s it. It seems like the only person willing to suggest the possibility of life after death is the crazy girl who wears radishes in her ears and believes in the Crumple-Horned Snorkack.
While it might have started as reverent avoidance of a subject, at some point this omission became glaring. When Luna mentions seeing her mom again, Harry stutters and looks confused, as if the thought has never even occurred to him. It’s almost like Luna has gone off-script and Harry knows if he uses a word like “heaven” in his reply, the censors are going to yank the film out of the camera and burn it.
The Nature of the Soul in the Potterverse
I’ve already run long in this, my final blog post. Since I’ve been so impressed with the comments people have been making so far, I’m going to throw out a few open-ended questions about the nature of the soul for all you big thinkers out there to chew over when I’m gone.
1. What is a soul?
We know that souls exist. The Dementors threaten them. Voldemort tears his up and hides pieces of them all higgledy-piggledy over England. But we don’t know what a soul actually is. Is it different than a person’s mind? Is it different than a person’s life-force?
C.S. Lewis said: “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” Does this seem to be the case in Harry Potter? Is the soul the seat of being, or a just the piece of a person that doesn’t die?
2. Are the ghosts in Harry Potter trapped souls?
Nearly-Headless Nick claims that “wizards can leave imprint of themselves upon the earth, to walk palely where their living selves once trod.” That seems to take soul entirely out of the picture. These aren’t spirits. They’re imprints.
However, Nick also says that “very few wizards choose that path.” What’s more, he says it somewhat mournfully, as if implying that becoming a ghost isn’t a particularly wise thing to do, and that he regrets his own sorry state. If a ghost is just an imprint, the soul should be free. So why do wizards avoid doing it?
2b. How do the conscious portraits differ from ghosts?
They possess the ability to think and reason, and they can act of their own free will. Dumbledore doesn’t become a ghost, but he does continue to direct events from his portrait after his death. If it’s really him, then does that mean a piece of his soul is trapped in the picture?
3. Do only wizards have souls?
Only wizards can become ghosts. Only photos of wizards become animated. Only wizards can do magic. This seems to imply that either Muggles don’t have souls, or, at the very least, that wizards’ souls are way better.
If that’s the case, was Voldemort right all along? If not in his methodology, then at least in his assertion that wizards are a superior class of human being?
That’s all I’ve got room for. Thanks again, it’s been fun.