Friday, December 17, 2010

The Real and Reasonable Darkness in Harry Potter

I am a bit ashamed when Christians get bent out of shape over the magic of Harry Potter. It demonstrates a lack of critical thinking, a Luddite approach to the arts, and a very valuable missed opportunity to engage with culture in a meaningful way. If anyone reads the Harry Potter series and comes away thinking that the main point is spell-casting and the making of witches, then they simply fail to grasp the point of the series. The themes in Harry Potter are much deeper than wand waving and wizardry.

Truly, the heaviest theme in the series is not witchcraft, it is the exploration of death and dying. I would make the argument that death is the central theme of the Harry Potter series. How the main characters deal with death essentially defines who they will be as a person. Death, in one way or another, profoundly shapes Harry Potter, Voldemort, and even Severus Snape. The reason that Voldemort has any followers is that he has promised them immortality. They are the "Death Eaters," the ones who will escape death.

This is precisely why the "darkness" in Harry Potter grows as Harry grows and as the series continues. As a child, Harry is haunted by the murder of his parents. But because he is a child, death still seems a far off notion, the world of the living and the world of magic are what fascinate Harry. Harry is innocent, and though he has had to deal with the spectre of death his entire life, "The Boy Who Lived" is still just a boy at the outset.

As the story progresses, Harry has to cope with more and more death because, as I mentioned before, Voldemort is really, really evil. Harry not only has to deal with the murder of his parents, but by the end of the series he has had to deal with the death of his beloved "adoptive" father Sirius Black, he sees his friend Cedric Diggory murdered before his eyes, Mad-Eye Moody is slain, his pet owl Hedwig is killed, and his faithful servant Dobby the Elf is also killed by an evil witch. All of these deaths are tragic, but noble. Harry's friends my die, but they all do so acting quite bravely, each one dying in defense of Harry himself.

Ghosts first clue us in to this struggle with death. Ghosts are funny things, a sort of darkly humorous side item that appears in the series. "Nearly Headless Nick", who is played by John Cleese in the movies, is especially funny. When Harry's father figure, Sirius Black, is slain in battle with Death Eaters, Harry is hopeful that Sirius will return as a ghost. He speaks to Nearly-Headless Nick about it, but Nick tells him that Sirius will never be a ghost. Ghosts are people who died but were afraid to "cross over." Ghosts, then, are rather pathetic creatures in this light. They are those who are unliving, longing to live as they once did, but unable to embrace the fact that they never will.

Another magnificent scene in the series is when Harry gets into the carriage that takes the students to Hogwarts the year after he sees Cedric Diggory die. Up until that year, Harry, along with most of the students, believes that the carriages are drawn by magic. This time, Harry sees that the carriages are really drawn by red-eyed, leathery winged horse creatures. His friend Luna Lovegood informs him that these are "Thestrals" and that only those who have "seen death" can see Thestrals. This is a wonderful bit of writing. It symbolizes how Harry's eyes are being opened to the reality of death. Harry's battle, in the end, is not really against Voldemort. Voldemort is really more pitiful than a ghost. Harry's battle is with death, and once Harry faces the fear of death, and recognizes the fact that he must indeed die, then he is free from all the threats of Voldemort.

So if one wishes to be critical of Harry Potter, I hope that they will not do it because he waves a wand and shouts Latin"ish" phrases. Be critical because of how the series explores death, friendship, love, and bravery. I believe, if a Christian or anyone else, will judge the books on those merits, Harry Potter will come out a winner every time. The growing darkness of Harry Potter is not due to Mrs. Rowling's turn to the darkside. The growing darkness is because as Harry becomes aware of the reality of evil and death as he matures, so does the reader. It is a natural progression, not an increase of wickedness. Like Thestrals, the darkness was always there, you just couldn't see it before.

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