How do we deal with evil? This question lies at the heart of Christian faith: in a sinful world, how do we deal with the evil and violence that result from sin? Do we turn our back on it and hope it goes away? Do we fight it using the weapons of violence or some other kind of weapon? Or do we, in the end, embrace evil as the only way to succeed in the world? Those are the central questions faced by Harry Potter, the hero of the seven-book series by J.K. Rowling.
I admit that when the Harry Potter phenomenon first hit, I was a bit skeptical. After all, a series about witches and wizards that had hit the best-seller list didn’t sound that attractive to my tastes. I was partly doubtful that anything so hugely popular could have any literary quality and partly unsure of the subject matter.
Then a colleague suggested I read the first book. The first led to the second and the third and then the fourth (all that were out at that point). I discovered, first, that the Harry Potter books are an excellent addition to children’s literature. The first three are rather lightweight, but by the fourth book Rowling has created something that rivals the Narnia series and enters the epic proportions of Lord of the Rings. Add to that the extra level of meaning in the names and spells for those who know a little Latin, and the books become an intellectual exercise as well.
I also discovered that Harry Potter has nothing to do with any real-life religion that uses the terminology of witchcraft (commonly called “Wicca”). Rather, Rowling’s world of magic, of witches and wizards and spells, is a literary device, a fantasy world.
Harry Potter fits squarely into the category of fantasy literature, with its major influences being the Christian fantasy authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose Narnia chronicles and Lord of the Rings trilogy have shaped the Christian literary imagination for half a century now. Just as the works of Lewis and Tolkien are about the epic struggle between good and evil, and just as Lewis used the terminology of the “Deep Magic” and portrayed his evil character as a witch, so also the Harry Potter books draw on the language of fantasy.
And just as Tolkien and Lewis put average characters in central roles in the struggle between good and evil, so Rowling describes the challenges faced by an average boy given an exceptional task.
As the story line unfolds over the seven Harry Potter books, however, it becomes clear that Rowling is not merely interested in a wooden, clear-cut battle between good and evil. Both the characters and the story reveal a worldview that is deeply Christian at its core. Let me illustrate.
Both Good AND Evil
First, the characters in these books are not simply good or evil. Even characters who seem to be on the side of evil (like Draco Malfoy and his mother, Narcissa) reveal they are not unambiguously obedient to the archenemy Voldemort. In fact, Narcissa Malfoy demonstrates that the love of her son is more important to her than the life of Voldemort. In this she reveals herself to be closer to Harry’s mother, Lily Potter, than to any other character in the books.
Similarly, Severus Snape, an ambiguous character throughout the series, is revealed in the end to be a character who gives up his life for the love of another.
Conversely, the characters on the other side are not unambiguously good. Both Harry’s father and his godfather, Sirius, are portrayed as bullies in their youth. Sirius still abuses his house-elf. And
Albus Dumbledore, Harry’s great mentor, has a dark secret in his past.
Even Harry struggles with his task and his allegiance. He lies to Dumbledore about Tom Riddle’s diary and the Half-Blood Prince. He loses his temper with his friends. And at certain key points he tries to use some of the unforgivable curses, though he does so unsuccessfully.
Just as Christians believe the struggle between good and evil runs right through the center of the human heart, so the characters in these books are not unambiguously good or thoroughly evil. There is hope for those who are on the wrong side. And for some of those on the side of right, there has been both sin and forgiveness.
An Offer of Grace
That brings me to the second point: forgiveness. Perhaps one of the most startling points in these books is when Harry finally faces Voldemort at the end of the story. In a moment of high tension, the moment that will decide which one of them lives and which one dies, Harry asks Voldemort to think about what he’s done and try for some remorse. Remorse. In theological language we would call that repentance. When it comes to the moment of life and death, Harry gives Voldemort a chance to repent. Why on earth would he do this?
At this point in the story, the reader knows Voldemort has divided his soul and that he has done so by committing a number of murders. We also know, because we have been told earlier, that the only way Voldemort’s soul can be restored is if he is truly remorseful for what he has done. In other words, he needs to repent. Harry knows this, and rather than let Voldemort die in his sins, Harry offers him a chance to repent, to show that remorse, to become whole again. It is a moment of grace, all the more startling because two of the murders were of Harry’s parents. It is a deeply Christian act for Harry to offer grace and forgiveness to the one who has not only killed his parents but who has repeatedly tried to kill Harry himself.
Overcoming Evil with Good
Third, Harry’s struggle with good and evil follows the Christian path of resistance to violence. I’m not going to argue here that Harry is a Christ-figure in these books. He isn’t. He is, however, like one of the apostles, a follower, someone struggling to follow in the way of Jesus. The parallels in the last book are an extensive tribute to the way of Jesus in dealing with evil. Of the many parallels I will mention only a few.
Throughout the books Harry is severely tempted and tested, a testing that comes to its climax when he finds out the true story of Dumbledore’s life. He is tempted to abandon his task. But in spite of doubts he continues along the path of obedience.
In addition, those who stick by Harry to the end of the story are an unlikely band of outcasts and social misfits whom Harry and his friends have welcomed and befriended: Neville Longbottom, Luna Lovegood, the werewolf Lupin, the house-elf Dobby, and Hagrid, the half-giant. The fight against evil does not cast off those who are despised by the powerful and who seem to be liabilities.
Most important, Harry willingly accepts that his path leads to death and willingly walks that path. And, at the end of the whole story, he defeats evil not by the use of violence but by his signature spell, Expelliarmus, the disarming spell taught to him so long ago by Professor Snape. How is evil defeated? By disarming it. By taking its power away. This describes how Jesus defeats evil on the cross. He disarms evil, he exhausts its power, and he defeats it by refusing to fight it with the weapons of evil.
Interestingly enough, Rowling was reportedly hesitant about letting readers know she is a Christian because she was afraid that if people knew they would guess how the last book ended. I had clued in by the fourth book that a Christian worldview was at work here and spent the next three books wondering how she would achieve a defeat of evil consistent with that worldview. That I spent so much time wondering shows how difficult it is for many of us to imagine a way of dealing with evil that follows the path of Jesus.
But there is more. Rowling repeatedly asserts in the books that Harry Potter was saved as an infant because of his mother’s love for him. Some have suggested the assertion that love is what has defeated Voldemort in the past is a wishy-washy sentimentalism at the heart of this series (described by one reviewer as a “mere human emotion”).
Rather, Rowling demonstrates that the self-sacrificial love that saved Harry has a courage and a purpose that turns out to be anything but wishy-washy in practice. This is the love that enables Snape to be faithful to the side of good, even though it means his death. This is the love that enables Narcissa Malfoy to choose life over the death-dealing Voldemort. This is the love that causes Hermione and Ron to hang in there with Harry even when he withdraws into himself and seems impatient of their help. This is the love that not only enables Harry to face death for the sake of his friends but also empowers him to offer forgiveness to his most violent enemy.
This is the love the Bible calls us to as followers of Jesus. How does the Christian face evil? With love, the Bible tells us, with love. J.K. Rowling gives us a small insight into what that love can look like in the life of one person. And, in so doing, she gives us the chance to imagine what that love might look like in our own lives and relationships as well.
- Have you read the Harry Potter books? What enticed you to read them, or what turned you off about them?
- As fantasy literature with a Christian bent, the Harry Potter books, according to Sylvia Keesmaat, reveal the deep struggle between good and evil. Take some time to discuss Sylvia’s insight into this.
- Name a time when you experienced such a struggle in your life. How did you resolve it? What Christian insights were revealed to you as a result of that struggle?
- Would you recommend the Harry Potter books to your friends and relatives? Why or why not?