The Harry Potter series is a love story, a love story that works on many levels, from the burgeoning romantic love of its main characters to the deeper bonds of true friendship, the love between a mother and child, to the universal love we have each other as brothers and sisters. There are hints that even beyond that, there is a greater love. It is there, perhaps, that the series receives its greatest criticism because J.K.Rowling does not acknowledge God explicitly.
While most people get caught up in the plot which follows a very traditional model of the archetypal fight between good and evil, power and submission, the theme of love outweighs all other motifs.
In the beginning of the story, we are introduced to the orphaned Harry who is being raised by his aunt and uncle. Harry’s parents die fighting against an evil force, Voldemort, who is intent upon conquering death. Voldemort wants to live forever and uses magic and deadly hexes to accomplish this end. He demands allegiance, but his control is based upon fear – Voldemort depends on many people to help him attain this immortality, but it is flawed from the beginning – even those he thinks are loyal to him abandon him in his final battle.
Harry’s father, James, dies while attempting to protect his wife and infant son from Voldemort’s deadly violent spree. When Voldemort gets past James, he faces Lily, Harry’s mother, who places herself in front of Harry to protect him from the deadly curse. Various characters state throughout the series that love saved Harry on that fateful night.
In fact, love saves Harry time and again. His two best friends, Ron and Hermione, form a bond with each other that is both flawed because of petty jealousies, weakness, and selfishness, and beautiful because their love for each other surpasses those failings and embraces forgiveness, reconciliation, and unconditional acceptance of each other. I certainly aspire to that kind of friendship, to be loved for who I am, warts and all – but also to be so giving and forgiving to look beyond the unimportant and value my friends for their dignity and worth.
Mrs. Weasley showers Harry with a maternal love that he lacks. The Weasleys are the closest thing to a family that Harry has. He forges a quick, almost desperate bond with his godfather, Sirius, but in another example of sacrificial love, Sirius dies in a battle protecting Harry. Although there are many people who love Harry, his greatest desire is to know his parents. One of the most meaningful lessons that he learns comes from the inscription on their tombstone:
“And the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”
(I Corinthians 15:26)
I have to admit that I was surprised to see this quotation and immediately looked it up to see it in context. It speaks to the ultimate battle against sin and death (which Voldemort wished to conquer). In the series, it serves as a foreshadowing of a battle yet to come.
Christ won that battle when he conquered death and rose from the dead. Because He sacrificed Himself for us, He has also equipped us then to triumph in His name – in other words – to fight the battle against sin and death and receive the promise of eternal life.
Harry learns that the way to his own salvation is through this model of sacrificial love (and Voldemort, rejecting love, is destroyed). Voldemort seeks a flesh and blood immortality, when in fact, our salvation comes from the acceptance of death.
Harry’s greatest moment of empowerment comes at the end when he submits to death. In a scene that plays better than the terrible reunion from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, we see, or rather, feel the presence of everyone who has loved Harry and has died. Harry calls upon this “communion of saints” to buoy him as he faces Voldemort in the last battle.
Another quotation from scripture appears in the series, this one from Matthew. It provides some insight into the greater theme of the stories. Dumbledore, the headmaster and Harry’s mentor, has faced his own shortcomings and failures. His selfish pursuit of power led to the death of his beloved sister. He placed the following inscription on her tomb:
“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Dumbledore learned that lesson in a tragic way since he avidly pursued the deathly hallows that Voldemort covets. It seems that everything that Dumblesore did after his sister’s death was in atonement for the hubris he exhibited in wanting to be the most powerful wizard of all.
Dumbledore’s position as headmaster automatically places him in an instructional role, but it is in the one-to-one occasion of mentoring Harry that we really come to understand his life’s philosophy as evidenced by this scriptural reference. The challenge to know which things are important in life — what has true value — is at the heart of the series.
It is love. Love is the central theme. It is responsible for the salvation of many characters in so many different ways. The sacrificial love of James and Lily saves Harry as an infant. His friends forgive and forge on with their commitment to each other and to Dumbledore’s Army because in spite of their failings they love each other. Sirius distracts Bellatrix from a clear shot at Harry and succumbs to the deadly killing curse in Harry’s place. The Malfoys turn away from Voldemort because of their love for their son Draco. And in my favorite scenes in the movie, we see the most misunderstood character, Snape, struggle with his unrequited love for Lily, and his commitment to help protect her son at the expense of his own life.
In that last battle at Hogwarts we see the death and destruction that Voldemort’s evil has wrought, but conversely see the spirit of love and righteousness that in engenders in the opposition. Harry does not face this alone, but is supported by his classmates, professors, and I imagine, society at-large as represented by other adult wizards that join the fray. Many of those good wizards die in the battle, but they do so willingly in defense of their values — in revulsion for all that Voldemort represents. It is in the scene that we glimpse the stakes of this battle as several beloved characters die in the fight.
Finally, Harry responds to Voldemort’s ultimatum: he will not harm the others if Harry comes forward alone.
Even though Rowling didn’t explicitly use it, I think we are all familiar with the following:
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Not only did a host of characters do this in the battle (and in fact, throughout the series)but Harry makes the decision to meet Voldemort alone, in spite of his friends’ pleas against it, hoping to put an end to it. Harry has something that Voldemort lacks: love. It gives him strength and the resolve to fight on. In a bit of an ironic twist, maternal love saves him again when Draco Malfoy’s mother, a Deatheater herself, saves Harry by “confirming” he is dead when he compassionately tells her that her son is alive.
He faces death unafraid, knowing that what follows is something…more.
And indeed, more follows. In one of the last telling scenes (before the atrocious epilogue — I hate it!) Harry, Hermione, and Ron are walking alone trying to make sense of the aftermath. Harry holds the last of the deathly hallows, the wand that would make him the most powerful wizard of all.
In a nod to Dumbledore’s own error, Harry destroys the wand, confirming that he has learned the lesson well: the things in life that are of true value cannot be measured in earthly things.