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Alan Jacobs on Deathly Hallows (and more)

August 28, 2007

Via John Granger

Alan Jacobs have written a review/article about Deathly Hallows; The Youngest Brother’s Tale, where he writes some pretty insightful thing about the Harry Potter series. But I feel that he is wrong on at least two important accounts. Let me quote:

The key theme of the whole series is the opposition of death and love: the devastation wrought by those whose fear of death causes them to shun love as a weakness, and, in contrast, the rich rewards in store for those who will not allow the fear of death to block love, who know that love risks all for the beloved. Preceding the events of the first book are the sacrificial deaths of James Potter, in a vain attempt to save his wife and son, and of Lily Potter, in an equally vain attempt to save Harry. In the fourth book of the series the deaths resume: Cedric Diggory in that one, Sirius Black in the next, Albus Dumbledore in the sixth. In this final installment the named dead exceed a dozen, and many more remain unnamed. Among those whom Harry knows and cares for, all of them, in this book and in the previous ones, die for someone they love, or for something they believe in. (…)

Many readers have already exclaimed that Harry’s final quest marks him as a clear Christ figure. This is wrong, seriously wrong, and I think J. K. Rowling goes out of her way to tell us so. People (characters in the books as well as readers) think that Harry is a unique person of unique power, but at a dozen points in the series we are clearly shown that he is not: he is called the Chosen One, but he is chosen by Voldemort, and Dumbledore emphasizes to Harry the sheer contingency of this choice. The work of the Cross is done by Christ alone; Harry always has help. (It’s worth emphasizing that while each of the Horcruxes is destroyed, each is destroyed by a different person.) At his moment of agony Christ was abandoned; at the end of his quest Harry is supported and comforted. As my friend Jay Wood has noted, if Harry resembles a biblical figure it is not Christ but rather Stephen the Protomartyr. But the comparisons with Stephen are limited too: for a more precise analogue, I encourage you to rummage through your children’s books until you find an old copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard. Surely you have one. Read the story of the Three Brothers, and pay particular attention to the youngest. You’d be surprised what you could learn.

I would not say that Lily Potter’s attempt to save Harry was in vain. Firstly it did in fact work, he didn’t die. Secondly, I feel that it’s wrong to call sacrificial love “vain.” But this might be a “slip of the keyboard,” as one of the commentators over at HogPro put it. It may be that he only meant that she died in the process, and that Voldemort didn’t grant her dying wish. But it was a very weird sentence indeed.

I firmly believe that Harry is a Christ figure, but he isn’t a new Aslan. He is more of a Frodo, a Sam or an Aragorn — characters who resemble Christ in different ways. And just as The Lord of the Rings has it share of Christ figures, so does the Harry Potter books; Lily, James, Hagrid, Dumbledore, Harry, Ron, etc., etc. It is also worth noting that a Christ figure isn’t the same as a Christ allegory, and that a Christ figure is often more of a Christian. John Granger points out that he has, since 2002, said that “Harry is a Christian Everyman, from his name to his status as seeker, which in no way diminishes the edifying and symbolic meaning of his serial near deaths and faux resurrections, not to mention his sacrificial death and victory in Deathly Hallows.”

The reference to The Youngest Brother’s Tale is a good one, and I believe he is correct in saying that Voldemort is shadowed in the eldest brother, Dumbledore in the middle brother, and Harry in the youngest. But that doesn’t rule out Harry as a Christ figure (understood typologically.) Rather, it complements it. And this is in fact a “rule” in typology, that the type should not be to close to the original.

Let me end with a quote from Alan Jacobs article “Harry Potter’s Magic” from January 2000 (First Things):

The fundamental moral framework of the Harry Potter books… is a familiar one to all of us: it is the problem of technology. (As Jacques Ellul wrote, “Magic may even be the origin of techniques.”) Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is in the business of teaching people how to harness and employ certain powers-that they are powers unrecognized by science is really beside the point-but cannot insure that people will use those powers wisely, responsibly, and for the common good. It is a choice, as the thinkers of the Renaissance would have put it, between magia and goetia: “high magic” (like the wisdom possessed by the magi in Christian legend) and “dark magic.”

Hogwarts was founded by four wizards, one of whom, Salazar Slytherin, at least dabbled and perhaps reveled in the Dark Arts, that is, the use of his powers for questionable if not downright evil purposes, and for centuries many of the young wizards who reside in Slytherin House have exhibited the same tendency. The educational quandary for Albus Dumbledore, then-though it is never described so overtly-is how to train students not just in the “technology” of magic but also in the moral discernment necessary to avoid the continual reproduction of the few great Dark Lords like Voldemort and their multitudinous followers. The problem is exacerbated by the presence of faculty members who are not wholly unsympathetic with Voldemort’s aims.

Harry is stunned [in Chamber of Secrets] because he realizes for the first time that his confusion has been wrongheaded from the start: he has been asking the question “Who am I at heart?” when he needed to be asking the question “What must I do in order to become what I should be?” His character is not a fixed preexistent thing, but something that he has the responsibility for making: that’s why the Greeks called it character, “that which is engraved.” It’s also what the Germans mean when they speak of Bildung, and the Harry Potter books are of course a multivolume Bildungsroman-a story of “education,” that is to say, of character formation.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 29, 2007 11:30 am

    Your analysis is a spot on, Kjetil. Congratulations. I too was surprised that Jacobs is apparently unaware of Christ figure – Christ allegory distinction. Well, I am sure he is but then it makes me wonder why he wrote part of his essay in a way he did.

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