Warning, Disclaimer, etc... I waited a week. Exactly a week. If for some strange reason you have not yet finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows stop reading now. This post contains my thoughts on the themes present in the final book and therefore contains spoilers. Consider yourself warned.
As we finally hold in our hands the complete saga of Harry Potter what we find is not just an entertaining story of young witches and wizards coming of age in a parallel world to ours, but a beautiful story of repentance, love, and redemption. A lot has been said about these books not being great literature, but that really just misses the point. They are good stories that tap into the mythic nature of life and give us an imaginative retelling of the most common (and hence most visceral) story known to man - the sacrificial death and resurrection of the hero.
At one point in the book, Harry visits Godric’s Hollow, his birthplace, and goes looking for the graves of his parents. In the graveyard he stumbles upon the graves of Dumbledore’s mother and sister. On their tombstone is the verse "where your treasure is there will your heart be also." Rowling deliberately refuses to explicate its significance at that point, but in it I see the theme of the whole series. What is a person's treasure? What is their heart's desire (as the Mirror of Erised revealed in the first book)? This is the theme that is repeatedly returned to throughout the series. We see characters that are hungry for power and wealth (Voldemort, the Malfoys) or for personal safety (Dumbledore's brother). Those "treasures" define their entire life. In Harry we see a boy who starts out desperately wanting a family and a place to call home gain and lose that over and over again. And it is only when he let's go of his desires (for family, for revenge, for home) and places the needs of all others before his own that he sees clearly what must be done to save the world. It is this overcoming of selfishness that marks the process of redemption for many of the characters in the book. In small ways they let go of selfish treasures they had been hording and take steps towards loving others more fully. Lupin overcomes his lifelong fears of hurting others to give Tonks and their child the love they need. The Malfoys, hurt and discarded in their attempts to gain prestige, money, and power, find that what really matters is family (a sentiment they had always ridiculed the Weasleys for). Even Dudley Dursley moved from being utterly self-centered to acknowledging that he needs Harry. They all had to sacrifice a part of themselves to become better people.
Two characters in the book though chose to give up everything for the sake of others. Like his mother before him, Harry realizes that in order to save those he loves he must be willing to give up his life. So to answer the question of whether Harry lives or dies, one can only answer yes. Harry, fully aware of the only way Voldemort can be defeated, willingly gives himself over to be sacrificed by the enemy. In a scene that recalls Aslan at the Stone Table, if not Golgotha itself, Harry offers up his life for the salvation of others. This sacrifice out of love stands in direct contrast to how Voldemort "sacrificed" parts of his life. Voldemort gave up parts of his soul (for Horcruxes) in desperate attempts to cling to power and overcome death. His sacrifices sprung from selfish ambition and not love and so each subsequent sacrifice made his life more miserable and helpless. So much so that even in the end, when faced with death and offered the chance to repent, he chose to cling to evil and power and remain in that misery.
But what of our sacrificial hero? Here we are treated with a scene that seems to come straight out of C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce
or The Last Battle
(Rowling has said all along that Narnia was her inspiration for these books). After being attacked by Voldemort, Harry awakes to find himself in
a dark wood
a mystical version of King's Cross station (talk about amazing metaphorical allusions) where he encounters his mentor and guide
Dumbledore. Here he discovers that what Voldemort has killed in him is the evil part of Voldemort's own soul (represented as a crying baby). So instead of taking the heavenly Hogwart's Express further up and further in on the next great adventure for the organized mind (as Dumbledore had once referred to death), Harry returns to life to finally defeat evil once and for all. What I love is that it is at this point that Harry having already demonstrated sacrificial love offers Voldemort the opportunity to repent and feel remorse. As Harry offers him a choice and seeks to merely disarm Voldemort of his evil intentions, it is Voldemort's ultimate arrogance and refusal to repent that destroys him as his own killing curse rebounds. Our hero has sacrificed himself, conquered death, and lives happily ever after.
Oh yes the book held other gems in storytelling and was a very satisfying conclusion to the series. I applauded Snape's vindication. I cheered audibly as Mrs. Weasley took on Belletrix and Neville proved himself to be a true Gryffindor by pulling Godric's sword out of the sorting hat to slay Nagini. I cried as beloved characters died at Hogwart’s last stand. Rowling crafted an entrancing story and amazingly managed to tie up every loose end. I love this series as a story, but I resonate with the themes of sacrifice, redemption, and love that tie the stories together. Having defended the books for years to Christians who feared the magic, the wands, and all the "trappings of a world in which they do not believe" (who all the while promoted the "Christian" values of Narnia and Middle Earth), I restate my opinion that they owe Rowling an apology. For while the Harry Potter books aren't just Christian books (they can be enjoyed by people of all faiths or no faith), they echo the most central tenets of our faith. The allegory of the resurrection, the call to sacrificial love, and the reminder that for where our treasure is there will our hearts be also are themes that all Christians should be able to embrace. It isn’t perfect theology or a one for one allegory, but it is a good story. For in the retelling of our deepest and most mysterious truths Rowling has ultimately cast a goodspell.
Labels: Book Reviews, Entertainment, Theology