love and Harry Potter

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.”

(Matthew 6:19)

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.”

(John 15:13)

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.

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the obligatory Harry Potter post

In case you were wondering, yes I went to the midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

And yes, I am suffering from a lack of sleep today, but not so much that I don’t want to share my experience with you. I think this is especially relevant because many of my readers come from friendships I’ve made through Catholic media. I often don’t think of myself as a “real” producer of Catholic media although I am both a practicing Catholic and a blogger and podcaster (perhaps more accurately a commentator on a couple of podcasts).

In spite of my discomfort with the label, I cannot deny that I am both Catholic and a producer of new media, so today I find myself capitalizing on both experiences to delve into the world of apologetics. It’s not what you’re accustomed to hearing about when you see the word apologetics, though. You see, I am about to launch into a defense of Harry Potter.

Yes, I am a Harry Potter Apologist. Let’s put that out there right now so you can either call me a heretic or a hero. In either case, pray for me and my on-going conversion. I can’t have enough people praying for me. That’s a good thing.

But back to Harry and his wizarding world. I love the stories. They are well-written and full of all kinds of interesting and wonderful studies of the human condition, mythological constructs, and yes, supernatural events. It’s not unlike many of the other stories that have become a part of our cultural literacy in the last couple of hundred years.

While I am sometimes hesitant to speak directly on Catholic themes because I feel ill-prepared and poorly trained in that area, I can speak from my training as a professor of literature (in fact, you can here me expound on a lot of this stuff in SQPN’s Secrets of Harry Potter, a podcast that explores the literary, mythological, historical, and religious themes of the series) and join a conversation that resurfaces in Catholic blogs and social media every time a book or movie in the series is released.

I do not believe Harry Potter is intrinsically evil, nor do I think it directly, or even indirectly, makes our children into little pagans. I do believe, however, that it is a parental right to determine what one’s children read, so I would no more label the series evil than I would call it essential reading. That is up to the individual to decide.

However, I have increasingly found myself in the position of having to defend my admiration for the series in relation to my obedience to the teachings of the Catholic Church. I’m not talking about the folks who don’t “get” the stories or who don’t like them for the simple reason that these kinds of fantasy stories are not appealing. That’s a matter of taste. I don’t like detective stories. There are enough genres to satisfy everyone’s tastes.

I’m talking about the people who label me a bad Catholic or even a heretic for enjoying the stories. Turnabout is fair play, as they say, so I automatically label them small-minded and a bunch of unoriginal tunnel-visioned lemmings. See? I can be passionate, too. 🙂

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. Anton Chekov, a 19th century Russian writer, suggests that we should read a variety of literature. In those cases where the stories challenge our value systems we have the unique opportunity to decide for ourselves what to make of it. In a brief letter to critics titled “On Morality in Fiction,” Chekov explains that it is his job as a writer to create stories and it is “entirely upon the reader to add for himself the subjective elements that are lacking in the story.” I am mature enough in my faith to recognize the elements that are compatible and contribute to thoughtful analysis, and those elements which are conflictive.

Thomas Jefferson, the American statesman best known for his part in writing the Declaration of Independence, is often paired with Chekov for holding the opposing view. Jefferson, in “On the Dangers of Reading Fiction,”  believes that reading fiction that challenges our values leads to “a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life.” He’s probably right, too. Certainly, reading anything without any critical thinking turns us into unoriginal thinkers, and has the potential to pick away at our sensibilities until we are desensitized, or worse, apathetic to the values we once held strongly.

I see the merits in both arguments, yet I more comfortably fit in with Chekov’s viewpoint. In defense of the series, I’d like to offer a couple of blog posts about two very important themes: love and redemption. I hope you come back tomorrow to read about the saving power of love, and later this week to read about healing and redemption. In the meantime, I’d like to know where you stand — with Chekov? or Jefferson?

a public service announcement from Captain Obvious

I am not 21 anymore.

Heck, I’m not 39 anymore, forget Jack Benny.

We went to the midnight show of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It was worth it–no regrets. But man, I am dragging my butt this morning, and there will be no relief until late tonight because not only am I at work and already taught an 8 am class, today is the day I teach in the evening as well.

I suppose I can pick up a little bottle of Visine at the drugstore during lunch. I wonder if I can close my door and camp out under my desk instead of wolfing down a sandwich?

Remind me of why I thought this was a good idea.

Oh yeah, it’s HARRY POTTER! What’s wrong with you–doesn’t everybody live, breath, and eat Harry Potter? Well, no, as a matter of fact, I don’t, but I do love the series and have enjoyed the movies except for that weird departure in #3.  Also, I want John Williams back, but that’s another story.

Still, it was a great film. I’ve read the books several times, but still look forward to the interpretation on the screen, and I was not disappointed with this one. Part of the reason I went last night is to avoid getting spoiled, so I’ll be careful here. At least for a week or so.

I loved the way the camera moved from point to point. It was particulary cool when the Weasleys were introduced at home, but the unusual angles and long, encompasing shots were equally lovely in other scenes. I was especially taken with the way that cad, Malfoy, was filmed. His isolation was captured nicely. I really felt sorry for him in the film, although the book captures his mother’s desperation much better.  If I’m going to be critical of anything in the film, it’s that the book carries much more pathos than the film–perhaps because there is just so much to convey and not everything can be covered on the big screen. Too bad, because the places where it was executed well, it was great.

Somehow, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anyone, Dumbledore’s death could have been played to devastate the audience but it didn’t, except for one woman in the audience who was openly (and rather loudly) sobbing, that death scene could have had a greater emotional impact, and for me, fell somewhat short. Perhaps it’s just that I had expended all my grief in the book.

However, that very scene had a BRILLIANT use of light to symbolize how the Light can banish the Darkness. Read that as you will — it will make sense when you see it.

It also makes me impatient to see the rest of the story. Overall, I give it both thumbs up. At this point, they’d really have to do something really stupid to screw this up. Enjoy it. It doesn’t have the flashy special effects of the last movie–this one has a somewhat deeper, somber feel, but it works and is appropriate. It also has a great deal of comic relief to balance it.

Incidentally, the best casting in the history of the world: Helena Bonham Carter. Closely followed by Alan Rickman.