Authors often give fictional heroes Christ-like attributes--Billy Budd's death on the yardarm, Hemingway's old fisherman shouldering his mast--to give them mythical depth. Is Harry a Christ figure? The answer may dictate how we think about him--and tell us what to expect from upcoming books.
The chart below details Rev. John Killinger's reasons to believe Harry is a Christ figure. Highlights of the debate follow.
Selected Debate Highlights
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John Killinger, author of "God, the Devil and Harry Potter": J.K. Rowling has written the Christ story of the 21st century, and it's wonderful that she has attained such a magnificent following worldwide.
From this viewpoint, Harry is the hero of faith par excellence--a wounded hero, a very modest one, who is ready to sacrifice himself completely in behalf of others and who opposes Lord Voldemort, the personification of hatred and evil, with all his strength. Like most great Western literature, the Potter stories are founded on the mortal rivalry of good and evil, and Harry is the Christ-figure with both extraordinary (wizard) and ordinary (Muggle) credentials who becomes the focus of the conflict. Is he spiritual? Not in any self-concious way. But does his existence have spiritual consequences? Of course it does. Vast spiritual consequences. He is the very embodiment of spiritual meaning as we know it.
Richard Abanes, author of "Fantasy and Your Family": Harry is no Christ figure. Jesus of Nazareth sacrificed himself for his enemies. Christ died for the ungodly. He died for us while we were yet sinners. This is agape love--self-less, self-giving, god-like. Harry seems only willing and able to sacrifice for his friends. This is more akin to phileo love, or brotherly love. The parallel, therefore, does not exist.
Killinger: I suspect Rowling is much more deeply Christian than you think and simply doesn't choose, for whatever reasons, to make it a matter of public record...British literature from Beowulf to Bernard Shaw is deeply steeped in the Christian understanding of life and the world, and any writer coming out of that tradition is indelibly stamped and shaped by it. In fact, I'm sure you know that Rowling has said she loved C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein growing up. Could someone suckled on their writings fail to know and use similar structures in her novels?
In Harry's case, his unusual wound, his strange, miraculous childhood (remember the hair that grows back, the sweater that shrinks, his leaping over a building while running from Dudley?), his readiness to sacrifice himself for others, and his sustaining the Cruciatus Curse (in the latest book) are sufficient clues to link him to Jesus.
Another important clue is in the very first novel, "Sorcerer's Stone," when he is in a coma for three days after battling Voldemort. Consider too the scene in the second volume, "The Chamber of Secrets," when he leaps into the gaping maw he has opened up to the chamber and hastens, with no thought of his own safety, to rescue Ginny Weasley. Classically, this is similar to the "descent into hell" or "harrowing of hell" of classical Christianity, when Jesus was said to have assaulted the gates of hell to rescue sinners imprisoned there.
Dumbledore, a kind of God-the-Father figure, watches over Harry and gives him help from time to time as he battles Voldemort. And Harry gives himself unstintedly to the fight for the sake of all wizards and, ultimately, Muggles as well.
It's important, this question of whether Harry is a Christ figure. If he is, his battle with Voldemort is cast in very Christian, very apocalyptic terms. I strongly suspect that Rowling knows this and that it is going to play a big role in how the seventh and final novel turns out.
Abanes: This is all speculation. Rowling has never admitted to such allusions. Second, every three day moment in a novel is not a reference to Christ. Third, there are many similarities between the New Testament story of Christ and myths/legends throughout history. In novels there is often a messiah-like deliverer. As C.S. Lewis observed, the Christ story is the world's true myth come to life. At best, Rowling's novels are terribly derivative of age-old myths, legends, and stories. In fact, she habitually borrows from older (and better told, I might add) tales to flesh out her stories. Rowling's work is really nothing but a long string of mini-derivations dressed up in 21st century garb.
Killinger: Why do writers use Christ figures? It gives psychological and historical depth to their characters and their stories by linking them to the great Ur-figure of Western faith. Power flows into the character when this identification is made. In a flash, the entire landscape of the story is illuminated and transformed.
This is what happens to the Harry Potter stories when we recognize Harry as a Christ figure. We need to see it, and tell readers this is what they're seeing, and why they like it so much, i.e., they like it because it's about the most important story in history. The Rowling stories aren't just fantasies; they're literature of the stature of the Arthurian legends, Dante's "Divine Comedy," and the Miltonic poems.
Abanes: Harry's ethics, his selfishness, disregard for authority, and his "end justifies the means" mentality is hardly comparable to [other Christ figures in literature].
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.