Monday, August 06, 2007

Harry Potter vs. Jesus

I hate to feel I need to put a "spoiler warning" on this: Really, if you haven't read the last book by now and you're sensitive about having the ending spoiled, the Internet is not a safe place for you at the moment...

For a universe defined by magic, Harry Potter's is surprisingly unmagical. The magic in his world allows tons of fun, imaginative, and unexpected possibilities, yet it seems to behave like a force of nature that can be studied, understood, and even researched in a scientific way (with Dumbledore writing papers on his work on the uses of dragon blood and the like). Some wizards are more powerful and/or more skilled than others, but there's no hint of a higher power or purpose any more than electricity or gravity might point to an ultimate purpose. Rowling even raises amusing questions about whether some magic is pseudo-magic (divination, Lovegood's work) when the evidence of its effectiveness is less conclusive.

Then there's the question of death. One of the themes of the Harry Potter series seems to be the virtue of accepting the finality of death. Rowling uses a Biblical quote about death being the last enemy to conquer, but attempting to conquer death was clearly the problem. Nowhere does the story praise the quest for immortality: lingering and continuing in spirit form after your time is up is shown as inability to achieve closure and move on. That's why I knew Dumbledore wouldn't come back like Obi Wan Kenobi to guide Harry at a critical moment or to save him.

All of these themes make Harry Potter a remarkably skeptic-friendly fantasy. The series is far more atheistic than His Dark Materials, a critically-acclaimed fantasy trilogy written by a bona fide atheist (see my discussion of atheist themes in Pullman's work which includes some further comparison of Rowling's style and Pullman's).

However, J. K. Rowling self-identifies as Christian. She is rich, powerful, and popular enough that she can basically get away with saying anything she wants to at this point, thus it seems reasonable to take her at her word and not try to come up with proofs that she's a closet atheist or something like that, no matter how tempting it may be.

So, to double-overcompensate for my pro-atheist bias, today I will ask the obvious Christian book critic question: Is Harry Potter's death scene a re-telling of the Jesus story?

I'm not going to try to prove the case either way, just throw out some ideas and let you decide. As a control, I'll compare these two stories to two other famous self-sacrificing-nonpermanent-death scenes from popular culture: It's a Wonderful Life and Star Trek II. (If you haven't seen these, George Bailey tries to kill himself so that his family will have the money from his life insurance policy and Spock steps into an area of deadly radiation contamination to fix the warp drive so the ship can escape in time.)

1. It had to be the hero in person, not someone else:
JC: yes, for some reason theologians can explain better than I can...
HP: yes, because he had some part of Voldemort's soul.
IAWL: no, nobody really had to die at all -- all they needed was some money.
ST2: not really, somebody else with similar skills and abilities could have done the same thing.

2. The hero was betrayed by a friend:
JC: yes, however the story indicates that Jesus knew it was going to happen and allowed it, thus their relative power levels leaves the betrayal question rather ambiguous.
HP: yes, and it was a difficult blow for Harry when he realized that his trusted friend Dumbledore had been grooming him for the slaughter all along.
IAWL: sort of: the problem arose when Uncle Billy handed $8000 of the bank's money to the enemy (named Potter, coincidentally...), but it was an accident.
ST2: no, Spock acted alone. His longtime friend/rival Dr. McCoy attempted to stop him and failed.

3. The hero was perfect:
JC: yes
HP: no
IAWL: not entirely, but he was remarkably virtuous.
ST2: perfectly logical.

4. The hero is entirely dead before coming back:
JC: yes, and this is an important component of the story: Jesus had to actually die in order to conquer death, so it wouldn't have worked for him to be very, very close to death and pull through.
HP: no, Harry had a "near death experience" which the text jokingly indicates was all in his head.
IAWL: no, George had a NDE similar to Harry's where he got to analyze his situation.
ST2: yes, Spock had a funeral and his corpse was shot out into space before his spirit was reunited with his body. Another point of similarity with the Jesus story is that in both cases it's not entirely clear the resurrection was part of the original story as opposed to having been added later.

5. After his death experience, the hero continues his life as before:
JC: no, Jesus miraculously appeared to some followers a few times, but his death scene ended his everyday life.
HP: yes, he continued as before, grew up, raised a family, etc.
IAWL: yes, but maybe he appreciated his life a bit more.
ST2: yes, he even went on to appear in several more films. He may have made a joke line here and there about having been dead, but his experience doesn't even stand out as a turning point in the Star Trek universe.

6. The story describes the pain of the hero's decision:
JC: yes, Jesus was extensively tortured and asked God if he could get out of it.
HP: yes, Harry contemplated how much he will miss the joys of life.
IAWL: not really, George's choice comes off as a rash act of desperation and despair.
ST2: no, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one." The choice is the logical one, and that's good enough for Spock.

So what do you think? Is Harry Jesus? Is Spock?

Anyone have any further points of comparison or other stories that could be added to this list?


C. L. Hanson said...

p.s. There's another essay on Harry Potter and humanism in this fortnight's Carnival of the Godless!!!

B.G. Christensen said...

I don't know. It felt to me like Rowling was trying to draw a Christ parallel. Or at least an Aslan parallel. :) The whole concept of Harry having to willingly sacrifice himself in order to rid the world of this great sin (Voldemort) that he had taken upon himself innocently just felt too overhanded to be coincidence. Wasn't Hagrid even hung up on a tree when Harry approached the Death Eaters' forest party? And then of course Hagrid becomes Mary Magdelene when he proclaims that Harry's body is missing. It even occurred to me--though I don't think this is the case--that Rowling did this intentionally as a sort of "See, I'm Christian!" to the ultraconservatives who burn Harry Potter books.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mr. Fob!!!

You may be right. At first I thought it was ridiculous to see this as a Chrisian allegory (since self-sacrifice is a common theme), but now that I look at it, there are actually a lot of parallels...

beatdad said...

No matter what a Christian might have to say about Harry Potter being Christlike; I did see the parallel.

Bailey in IAWL does not seem like a Christ story; more like David and Goliath with tons of anti-Monopoly undertones....

Anonymous said...

I also agree that the allegory is there and less than subtle. I'm not sure Rowling did it to prove anything to the fundamentalist Christian mob ... for whom the disconnect of magic from god (black magic) is pure evil.

Another parallel is LotR though it's much more a composite of all the characters so not as easy to compare.

I really like that you put Spock in there. I think the Vulcan race plays a key role in the whole human drama of Star Trek. They were the first to greet humans on behalf of the universe ... were a constant companion-advisor in the person of Spock ... in fact, Spock's half-humanness (mudblood – god who fell) made him a symbol of the condescension of god-like logic to bring grace and friendship to the human race, though at the cost of partial rejection by Vulcan and human alike.

And in death, though another could have done what he did, he was simply the one who happened to be in the right place at the right time to offer himself in the manner of logic and for the benefit of preserving those he was meant to protect -- certainly this is congruous with what "Spock" symbolized, a union of: time, space, logic (justice), compassion (mercy).

Sorry about rambling on ... I can be a trekkie nut.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Wayne!!!

Yeah, now that I lay out the case for "Harry as Jesus" and use some similar narratives as controls, the parallel becomes so friggin' obvious that it pains me that I originally perceived it as reached.

Hey Mel!!!

Very good insights on what Spock symbolized. To be honest, the comparison with Harry Potter and Jesus makes Spock's sacrifice seem that much more noble because of the fact that he wasn't "the chosen one." Instead of the question being "Will you fulfill your great destiny?" it's a question of a deadly situation facing a whole group, and choosing to be the one who makes the sacrifice.

Really the death scene in Star Trek II is touching, and I know it's ridiculous to say that partially because the movie itself was so campy and partially because Spock's resurrection actually cheapens his sacrifice. But in Spock's case he had to be resurrected -- not to conquer death, but because he was a fictional character who was too beloved to be allowed to die...

jennhi said...

Also, after Harry died and came back to life, Voldemort was unable to harm anyone on Harry's side. He essentially 'saved' everyone by dying, since dying for someone has some kind of magic. Not new to Deathly Hallows; this was explained in one of the earlier books about Lily dying for Harry, thereby 'saving' him as well. Just when Harry died, the protection his dying offered was spread over a larger population, because he loved everyone in it. Parallels scream a bit too loudly.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Jennhi!!!

Exactly, another good point.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to all those who worship Jesus or HP, but I love that you point to Spock's superior nobility. :) Of course, it's his humanness arising to godliness rather than the condescension of god ... so much more hope in the idea that we would rise to the occasion rather than requiring god to descend.

Beautiful. Just the kind of thing that really angers the gods!

C. L. Hanson said...

Well, you know, I don't go out of my way to blaspheme, but when the shoe fits... ;^)

Paul Sunstone said...

It's been a while since I've read Fraizer or Joseph Campbell, but isn't death and resurrection a pretty common motif in the world's mythologies?

AnnM said...

Waah! I can't even read the comments. I'm waiting to read book six (that's right, book SIX) until my study is finished at the end of the month so I can unpack all my books and find it. After that (and when my dh has finished with it) I can read book seven.

I will have to check back with your essay in September.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Paul!!!

I think it is, but since Rowling hails from a Christian background it seems reasonable to imagine she's making reference to Christian mythology, even if the Christian tales ultimately trace back to earlier legends.

Hey Sam!!!

Sorry -- I hope you find your book soon so you can join the rest of us!!! :D

Paul Sunstone said...

I think it's true Rowling is drawing from the Christian myth in her stories, C.L., but I was attempting to suggest that she might also be drawing from other death and resurrection myths too. I'm not up on my comparative mythology enough to know, but in this day and age it just seems likely to me that an author might be familiar with myths from a variety of cultures. Of course, I've had insomnia for a few days now and am somewhat daffy with sleep loss, so maybe my idea isn't as spot on as it seems to me at present. :)

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about this last night - I think The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe also has a parallel character - Aslan. I know C.S. Lewis is a famous Christian and also noted that the story had obvious allegories.

Very interesting to think about. (Should I mention I don't think I've ever seen Star Trek II all the way through? Just the fourth one, which I've seen many times).

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Paul!!!

Yeah, it would be interesting to do some more extensive analysis to see if Rowling appears to be drawing on other traditions as well.

Hey Aerin!!!

I've never read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but I've heard it's a famous Christian allegory. So perhaps Harry Potter is too...

Anonymous said...

Very interesting article. I do think JKR leaves some interesting questions about the place of religion in the muggle community. They don't appear to have any equivalents to our major muggle monotheistic religions, but for some reason, they celebrate Christmas - clearly a muggle holiday?! Considering how confused Mr Weasly gets about things like cars and telephones, you would expect the Christmas story to be a source of endless confusion and wonder to the magic community.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Tobe38!!!

Yeah, I was kind of wondering about Christmas too. The wizards don't seem to see it as a muggle holiday, and it's not at all clear that the wizards are celebrating the muggle "Christmas story" as opposed to tracing their Christmas practices back to Pagan traditions. I've even read one blogger somewhere who suggested that in the Harry Potter universe, Jesus was a wizard who made a horocrux...

Lynet said...

From this interview article:

And unlike Lewis, whose books are drenched in theology, Rowling refuses to view herself as a moral educator to the millions of children who read her books. "I don't think that it's at all healthy for the work for me to think in those terms. So I don't," she says. "I never think in terms of What am I going to teach them? Or, What would it be good for them to find out here?"

"Although," she adds, "undeniably, morals are drawn." But she doesn't make it easy. In Goblet, the good-hearted Cedric Diggory dies for no reason. In Phoenix, we learn that Harry's dad, whom he idealized, had been an arrogant bully. People aren't good and bad by nature; they change and transform and struggle. As Dumbledore tells Harry, "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." Granted, we know Harry will not succumb to anger and evil. But we never stop feeling that he could. (Interestingly, although Rowling is a member of the Church of Scotland, the books are free of references to God. On this point, Rowling is cagey. "Um. I don't think they're that secular," she says, choosing her words slowly. "But, obviously, Dumbledore is not Jesus.")

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Lynet!!!

Well, of course Dumbledore is not Jesus -- Harry is Jesus!! ;^)

But seriously, the fact that her books are morally complex instead of hitting you over the head with a lesson is one of their strengths. It's also cool that she refuses to spell out a correct interpretation in interviews: it gives people room to come up with their own interpretations.

JulieAnn said...

I come from a totally different place, Carol. If you read my post entitled "Spidey Sense",(

you'll see what I mean. I think that Harry, Jesus, Spock, Frodo, Batman, Luke, Anakin...the list goes on and on, are not literal depictions of one another, but mere archetypal representations of the Hero's Journey. It is a theme that recurs within the psyche of every human being, which is why we resonate with them so well.

So is Harry Jesus? Yes. We all are in that we are supposed to (IMO) take the lessons from these characters and people and apply them to our own lives in order to unravel the mystery of our own journey, our own psyches.



C. L. Hanson said...

Hey JulieAnn!!!

That's a very good way of looking at it.

Actually when I first started looking at Harry Potter in terms of Christian vs. secular themes, I was thinking it was clear that the story is more a standard archetype than a Christian allegory. I wrote this post almost to play "devils' advocate" to see if I could prove the case that it's meant to be a retelling of the Jesus story.

Now that I've written a post on it and seen arguments on both sides in the comments, I think I'm more conflicted on what the "right answer" is than when I began... ;^)

Zeolite said...

"Yeah, it would be interesting to do some more extensive analysis to see if Rowling appears to be drawing on other traditions as well."

I think she did draw from other traditions, at least a little, based on her naming of people, animals, things, and places. I suspect there are many connections that the linked-to website has missed too.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Zeolite!!!

Thanks for the link -- it looks like an interesting site!! Of course I'd noticed that a lot of the names and magic words allude to other things, and it's cool to see that people have compiled these into a central database.

AnnM said...

Hey Chanson,

You saw that Rowling has been quite forthcoming about the Christian allegory (and Dumbledore being gay)?,8599,1674073,00.html

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks for the link Sam-I-Am!!!

I'd heard about Dumbledore being gay, but I didn't hear anything about the Christian allegory. (And actually, I don't see anything about the Christian allegory in this article...)

Bjarka99 said...

Well, of course Rowling was drawing parallels, as she draw parallels with any other big ancient work. She studied Classics at uni, so she's very knowledgable about myths and stories from the ancient times that still have a great importance this days. We just see the Christian ones so clearly because they are the stories we know more about, but if you studied Classics and a bit of mythology, you'll even see more of that than Christian stuff.

Also, if you trace the answers Jo gave when asked about religion throughtout the years, you'd see that she's clearly been struggling with faith and everything. In the 2007 documentary "A Year in the Life" she said she had no idea if god existed at all.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Bell Dema!!!

I think you're right that Rowling makes lots of allusions to classics other than the Jesus story. I actually wrote this post way back before she stated that the Jesus parallel was deliberate (when people were just speculating about it). But that's interesting that she stated in a documentary that she didn't know whether God exists -- I hadn't heard about that at all.

Carla Schmidt Holloway said...

I wrote a paper about this in high school actually, but it centers around the archetypal hero myth, like how Beowulf and Jesus and many other heroes in mythology have similar life stories. If you go to they have comparison's to other fictional stories with Harry Potter, like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, and if you try to think of similarities to Jesus while reading those lists I think you'll find a lot.
For instance:

Unique birth story where he narrowly escapes death
Harry almost killed by Voldy
Jesus almost killed by Herod

Not raised by parents (at least not one)
Harry raised by aunt and uncle, Jesus raised by Joseph even though God is his father

Destined to save the world by dying

These are very general, but there are more, and I definitely think it all ties into the type of Campbell/Propp theory about myth.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Carla!!!

Probably true.

Derek said...

I like your break down of the four characters. It's funny Harry was demonized for so long, and now a bunch of priests are coming out showing how Harry is actually Jesus and Rowlings books can be used to teach Christianity. My take on it is that they're similar because they 're both a mix of older mythologies (and they're both literary characters). I'm launching a book next month, "Jesus Potter, Harry Christ". Let me know if you or your readers want a review copy, I'll send you one.

Derek said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Derek!!!

Sounds really interesting! I'd love a review copy myself. Please send it to chanson dot exmormon at gmail dot com. Thanks!