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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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.