Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Moral Universe of J.K. Rowling

There is a lot of snobbery about the Harry Potter series. A quick google search reveals many sites which warn you that indulging in this fantasy series will leave you in a dire state  from a spiritual or literary point of view. Tosh and nonsense! Reading about Hal and his pals will neither render you immune to the salutary effects of good literature nor allow a foothold for Satan in your life, as one Southern Baptist site proclaimed ( keep taking the meds, dear...)

Rowling’s novels are especially seductive to adolescents ; they feature teenagers with supernatural powers, a sense of being pitted against greater forces, friends, homework, risk, love, loyalty and triumphs. With a wonderful setting and fast moving plot lines, they fire the imagination and feed the emotions but also – and this interests me most of all – Rowling roots all of this in a universe of good and evil, right and wrong and her message of moral choice is the lynch pin of it all.

In the first two books strong moral, even religious, concepts emerge. Particularly fascinating is the idea of Harry and Voldemort as two sides of the same coin, even their wands are linked by the same phoenix feather at their core. At the end of book two ( I think) Harry has divined that they are in some way twins and in an anguished moment,confides to Dumbledore his fears because the sorting hat considered putting him in Slytherin ( the house of all dark wizards ) before, giving in to Harry’s pleas, it places him in Gryffindor ( associated with courage and integrity.)
“ Ah Harry” says Dumbledore,” it is our choices that make us who we are.”

The message is clear, within Harry, as with all of us, exists the capacity for good and evil and the free will to choose between them.

I could ramble on for ages about morality and ethics in Harry Potter. I am sure that Professor Lupin’s departure from Hogwarts, after being exposed as a werewolf, is a reference to social prejudice - akin to homophobia. “They won’t want my sort teaching their children” says the basically good ( if lunarly- challenged) Lupin,bitterly.

However, in terms of Christian mythology the ending most resonates. In Rowling’s universe the fear of death and the desire for eternal life leads to ultimate evil (and in this way she could be said to be anti- Christian.) However, a willingness to relinquish life to benefit others leads to triumph and this could be said to be a profoundly Christian idea with the paradox that he who would gain his life must lose it and that greater love has no man than he lay down his life for his friend. Sacrifice runs through the books, starting when Lily Potter sacrifices her life to save her son, leaving on him the protective mark of love.

Rowling is essentially a humanist; in the legend of the Deathly Hallows the man who cheats death through the invisibility cloak ultimately chooses to relinquish it and giving the cloak to his son, “greeted death like an old friend" and goes with death "gladly, and as equals".The humanist in Rowling sees death as part of life, to be accepted as inevitable and "gentle" even without the consolation of an afterlife.

Harry also voluntarily chooses death to defeat Voldemort and bequeath life to his friends. As he makes his way through the midnight grounds of Hogwarts, the descriptions of the grip of terror and sweat are so intense that Rowling must be consciously evoking Gethsemane,
"He had no strength... he could no longer control his own breathing. It was not after all so easy to die."
Harry, on the brink of life, prepares to sacrifice everything yet wishes the cup of suffering to pass from him, he is hardly sure he can do it, his is no gentle meeting with an "old friend" at the end of life but a bitter Golgatha that goes against every instinct, except love.

Harry’s willing sacrifice is, of course, the one act that can defeat Voldemort. Sacrifice and moral choice runs through Rowling’s ethic, a humanist ethic but one that cannot resist the force, resonance and validity of a Christian ideology.


  1. I think that there is often a lot of needless paranoia out there on the internet but I'd also say that I think some things are more important than they appear to be.

    I for one wish children would devour the Bible as much as they do Harry Potter.

    There was something else I was going to say but I forgot!

  2. Hi Friend/ TAG

    I have that forgetting problem - but I'm older than you. Thanks for commenting.


  3. My children rarely devour the bible!