J.K. Rowling herself cited how Christianity shaped not only Harry Potter’s finale, but the saga as a whole. Walk through Harry’s passion, death and resurrection, and learn why Lily and James’ tombstone says “The last Enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26).
Full transcript from episode
In 2007 J.K. Rowling herself said that the two quotes that most epitomises the HP series were the Bible verses found on the gravestones of Harry’s parents and Dumbledore’s sister. These quotes were verbatim from Mt 6:21 and 1 Cor 15:26 that is: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” and “The last Enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” Indeed, nothing shouts of Rowling’s religious influence more than the finale of book 7: Harry’s passion, death and resurrection if you like. Just as Aslan’s sacrifice in Narnia forever blasted any doubt that the lion was a Christ archetype, so too does Harry’s sacrifice and resurrection reveal his messianic mission, in just as profound ways as Narnia, for those who have the eyes to see it.
But don’t take my word for it, when J.K. Rowling herself was asked whether she was a Christian by the Vancouver Times she said: “Yes, I am, which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God. Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about, then I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’s coming in the books.” In other words, if people knew she was Christian before book 7, they’d be able to guess how the book would end… i.e. in a conquering death and resurrection. Okay, so how is HP’s ending so Christian? Today, we’ll hone in on three details.
- First, we’ll explore the significance of beheading the serpent Nagini, and specifically, the Mother Mary-like role that Lily Potter plays in aiding her son’s defeat over evil!
- Secondly will be Harry’s passion and death in the Forbidden Forest, facing off to Voldermort.
- Thirdly of course will be his resurrection, and how like Christ, it was his wielding of mercy and love that ultimately defeats death.
Part 1: the beheading of the snake Nagini.
Before we look at Harry himself, let’s look at the serpent. Cast your mind back all the way to the Fall at Genesis, where God prophesised that one day, Eve’s offspring would crush the head of the serpent. This offspring was of course Jesus, who indeed tag-teamed with Mary the new Eve to crush Satan once and for all. In the grand story of salvation, Christ remains the chief victor, but not without the humble cooperation of Mary. This is why in Marian art and statues, she is often depicted standing victorious over a serpent under her heel. Well, this very Mother-Son prophecy/theme is echoed in HP… right from page one all the way to the finale. In the beginning of Harry Potter, recall how it was Lily Potter’s sacrifice that actually what saves Harry life, and through Harry, this same love eventually destroys the Dark Lord. How? While Voldermort himself is of course very serpantlike (from Slytherin, has slitted eyes, speaks parseltongue) this head crushing biblical motif is captured most profoundly in the beheading of Nagini, the massive pet serpent that followed Voldermort around everywhere. Nagini of you recall, was the last horcrux that needed to be destroyed in order to actually vanquish Voldermort. Just as the crushing of the serpent in the bible spelled the end of Satan, the crushing of the serpent’s head in Harry Potter spelled the end of Voldermort.
But what roles does Lily Potter play in this beheading? Recall that the weapon wielded by the very humble Neville Longbottom was actually the Sword of Gryffindor. And who should have led Harry to find the lost sword in the wilderness but a mysterious doe… the Patronus of Lily Potter. Lily provides the weapon that would crush the serpent’s head! While it is true that it was Snape that casted the Patronus, we know that the doe was actually Lily’s, whom Snape loved since childhood. Lily then, becomes a Marian archetype in Harry Potter, whose love for her son, aids in the eventual destruction of both evil and death. And this theme wasn’t just abstract theology for J.K. Rowling – for during her darkest, darkest days, battling a broken marriage, emotional abuse, unemployment and depression, she cites how it was her love for little Jessica, her daughter, that provided light enough to conquer her dementors.
I’ve always mused whether this life giving, life saving motherhood theme might just be a reason why Harry Potter resonates so much with our culture. For deep in our conscience, entire swaths of society may well be ashamed of how it views motherhood, and the dignity of life within her.
Part 2: Harry’s passion and death during his confrontation with Voldemort.
So the Battle of Hogwarts has just taken place, and there are countless casualties on either side. Harry’s Passion you could say began chapters before, as he wrestled with the truth of Trelawney’s prophecy, that at the ‘right’ time, he too must die, and that through his death, he would bring about the defeat of Voldermort. This was always his fate from the beginning, and it was known only to Dumbledore and Snape. And so, the Gethsemane of Harry begins in the outskirts of the Forbidden Forest. There is first a beautiful moment, where just as an angel appeared to comfort Christ in Gethsemane, the spirits of his mother, father, godfather and Lupin appears, offering words of comfort and love.
“You have been so brave” Lily says.
“You are nearly there, very close… we are so proud of you” says his father.
Remus Lupin and Sirius Black also offer words to Harry, and promise to be with him, till the very end. Strengthened by this promise of a love more powerful than death, Harry then volunteers into the heart of the Forbidden Forest totally alone, to confront Voldermort. But confront isn’t even the right word …for he had no intention to fight, but rather to give his life, as a ransom for many. The words of Isaiah, spoken about Christ, captures this moment well: “Like a sheep being led to the slaughter or a lamb that is silent before her shearers, he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). Harry does walk on into the clearing, terrified but resolved. He doesn’t even raise his wand in defence, when the victorious Voldermort sneers “Harry Potter, the boy who lived, comes to die.” Harry gazes straight into his foe’s red eyes before Voldermort raises his wand, and casts the killing spell upon our helpless victim … from which everything then blanks out.
When Harry comes to, he is lying naked on the floor of a peculiar setting, it was a white washed, slightly mystical recreation of a place once familiar to him: Kings Cross train station. All is silent around him and for a while, he doesn’t detect any other presence around him. But then, he notices a terrible sound coming from underneath a nearby seat. When he goes to investigate, he sees what Rowling describes as “a small naked child, curled on the ground, its skin raw and rough, flayed looking and it lay under a seat where it had been left, unwanted, stuffed out of sight, struggling for breath.” Startled and confused as to what was before his eyes, he then has a vision of his old friend professor Dumbledore, coming towards him across the platform. The conversation that ensues between them is profound indeed, and worthy of an entire episode. But the nuggets of this, for this episode can be summarised as follows. The ugly creature was a representation of Voldermort’s soul that was now dying, having been struck by V’s own Avada Kedavra curse. Rather than killing Harry per se, the curse had only succeeded in killing the part of Harry’s soul that had been wedded to Voldermort’s soul from the very beginning, when his original curse had backfired on baby Harry. In Dumbledore’s words, Harry was the horcrux that Voldermort never intended to make, and by striking Harry in the forest, Voldermort had only killed the part of himself in Harry. The actual soul of Harry Potter remained intact, and indeed, could resurrect if Harry so desired it to. Okay. Let’s pause there for a moment here because of sheer profundity.
First of all, we can’t go past the name and place of this scene that Harry ‘dies’ and resurrects: Kings Cross station. We’re so used to the name King’s Cross because of other associations we forget that the original context for the name is of course Jesus’ Cross – the King of King’s Cross. Hence, of the gazillion locations Rowling could have chosen for Harry death/resurrection limbo, the name King’s Cross is not an accident. For when Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross, we know that within his soul, was laden the curse of our sin. Indeed, scripture tells us he had taken sin upon himself. But like Harry’s sacrificial death, the soul of Jesus doesn’t get destroyed by his sacrifice, rather, it only destroys our sin, sin which he carried for us. That hideous creature Harry sees in the station, struggling for breath, could be likened to our sin as it was being nailed to the cross, being put to death by death itself. It is the greatest turnaround in human history, the greatest drama, the greatest plot twist, the real fairytale ending. And you’d be hard pressed to find another literary parallel in our culture, that captures this gospel ending as profoundly as it is captured in Harry Potter.
Part 3: Harry’s resurrection, and the love that conquers evil
So eventually, Harry does return from the King’s Cross limbo, and Voldermort knows now he is pretty much powerless before him. He tries in vain to taunt Harry about how pathetic he is to think that love could destroy him.
“Is it love again?” he says, his snake’s face jeering. “Dumbledore’s favourite solution, love, which he claimed conquered death, though love did not stop him falling from the tower and breaking like an old waxwork? Love, which did not prevent me from stamping out your Mudblood mother like a cockroach, Potter – and nobody seems to love you enough to run forward this time and take my curse. So what will stop you from dying now when I strike?”
We the readers, know of course it IS love that will conquer Voldermort. But how? So far we’ve only been exploring the sort of the ‘logic’ of Harry’s death and eventual resurrection, and paralleling that with Christ’s. Our exploration wouldn’t be complete of course, if we didn’t dwell on the motive of love. As we’ve explored, this love is apparent in the Lily’s love for her son, Snape’s love for Lily and of course Harry’s love for his friends, venturing out in the forest on their behalf. But I actually think that this all conquering love manifests most profoundly in Harry’s mercy towards his three enemies. Mercy of course is not a separate virtue to love, but love’s highest expression, it’s most perfect expression. For mercy is what love looks like when it gazes upon a sinner. But! How did Harry exhibit mercy?
Consider that aside from Voldermort himself, the person who hated Harry most was Draco Malfoy. Yet, recall what happened a few chapters earlier in the Room of Requirement when both he and Draco were caught in the Fiendfyre, a fire which Draco’s own goonies had cast. Having found the horcrux diadem of Ravenclaw and mounted a broomstick to escape, Harry could have then and there, just flown out of the room and left Malfoy to perish once and for all in the fiend fire. Yet, Harry insists to Ron and Hermione that they return and rescue their pathetic wandless enemies… with Ron yelling “if we die for them, I am going to kill you myself”. And so, risking their own lives, they dive back into the fire and pull their nearly unconscious enemies onto their broomsticks, before just making it out on time. This minor detail may seem insignificant given the war that was breaking out before them. But like Bilbo’s mercy towards Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, Rowling made sure that this the smallest act of mercy will soon to be the undoing of all evil. Because the fact that Harry saved Draco also meant that he knew Draco was still alive inside the castle. This knowledge would in turn inspire Draco’s mother Narcissa Malfoy to betray Voldemort right under his nose. Recall that when Harry returns from Kings Cross limbo land, he is still lying on the forest floor looking rather dead. Voldermort, terrified of his unconscious foe, refused to check on Harry himself, and instead sends Narcissa to investigate. She does, and the following passage ensues:
“Hands soften than he had been expecting touched Harry’s face, pulled back an eyelid, crept beneath his shirt, down to his chest and felt his heart. He could hear the woman’s fast breathing, her long hair tickled his face. He knew hat she could feel the steady pounding of life against his ribs. She whispered “Is Draco alive? Is he in the castle?” The whisper was barely audible; her lips were an inch from his ear, her head bent so low that her long hair shielded his face from the onlookers. “Yes,” he breathed back. He felt the hand on his chest contract, her nails pierced him. Then it was withdrawn. She sat up. ‘He is dead!’ Narcissa Malfoy called to the watchers.”
Narcissa Malfoy lies to Voldermort under his nose, and buys enough time for the heroes to destroy Nagini. As it turns out the love between mother and child again proves stronger than Voldermort’s instincts. But thinking Harry dead, the death eaters and V then start cheering and parading the body of Harry about in Hogwarts. Of course, Voldermort doesn’t even conceive that Harry was just waiting now for the opportune moment to strike. The moment Neville kills Nagini with the sword of Gryffindor, Harry springs back to life. The whole taunt about love happens. But significantly, even THEN, the resurrected Harry actually offers mercy towards Voldermort with the hope that he might repent of his ways! Facing off one another, he address Voldermort by his real Tom Riddle and says
“You’re right, but before you try and kill me Tom, I’d advise you to think about what you’ve done… think and try for some remorse Tom.”
“What is this?”
Of all the things that Harry had said to him, beyond any revelation of taunt, nothing had shocked Voldermort like this. Harry saw his pupils contract to thin slits, saw the skin around his eyes whiten.
“‘It’s your last chance, said Harry, it’s all you’ve got left… I’ve seen what you’ll be otherwise… be a man … try … try … for some remorse…”
“You dare…” said Voldermort again.
“Yes I dare,” said Harry, “because Dumbledore’s last plan hasn’t backfired on me at all. It’s backfired on you Riddle.”
Voldemort’s hand was trembling on the Elder Wand and Harry gripped Draco’s very tightly. The moment, he knew, was seconds away.
The staggering mercy of this dialogue not only surprises us readers, it also surprises Voldermort too, as Rowling described. See the mercy of Harry is not something that Rowling wanted to keep subtle, for the very bookends of The Deathly Hallows almost begins and ends with mercy. Recall how Harry saves another archenemy, Dudley Dursley from having his soul sucked out by the death eaters. In other words, the three people that Harry should most call enemies were all extended mercy… and if such a feature doesn’t exhibit Jesus’ messianic qualities, I don’t know what would.
J.K. Rowling persecuted and misunderstood
Can you begin to see dear friends, why many Christian writers are now recognising Harry Potter as one of the “greatest missed evangelisation opportunities?” As it turns out, the book that was most shunned by Christians for decades might just provide the richest language to speak about Christianity. And as we draw close to the end of this episode, spare a thought for J.K. Rowling, as she herself faces a new barrage of persecution … not from Christians this time, but from angry mobs that are more or less anti-Christian in worldview. Having bravely asserted a rather Christian understanding on gender and the necessary place of defining the sexes, she has been called every horrible name imaginable, had publishers cut ties, loyalties severed, books burnt, and reputation cancelled. Yet for the wellbeing of those she believes to be most at risk, she is standing her ground. If we want to know the heart of young Harry Potter, look to the woman and mother standing unflinching before the world.
A reflection and encouragement
For your practical pilgrim reflection, I want to draw your attention to the name Voldemort, which means he who flees death. To Voldermort, death is the worst, most terrifying thing in life, so much so he would literally split his soul to avoid it. In contrast to this, Harry, Snape, Dumbledore and Sirius are all those who openly embrace death. They are not afraid of death because they have discovered that there are things worth even dying for… such as love for one’s friends. What about us Christians today, what is our attitude towards death? How might we be trying to create horcruxes to hang onto the illusions of this passing life, and in doing so suffocating our own soul? Instead, what would you be willing to give your life for, or give your life to, knowing that through Christ, death is not the finality? Just a small reflection to help you on your way!
Dear friends, the cultural and spiritual significance of Harry Potter for our times cannot be overstated. I wager that the themes of this episode would strike some of you as unusual, considering how much of the conversation around Harry Potter in Christian circles has pivoted around how un-Christian and even dangerous it is. Well if this is still a genuine roadblock for you, I do highly recommend listening to Episode 17, where I carefully explore some common objections to Harry Potter, calling out misinformation and hearsay while carefully disseminating fact from fiction about the story … and its author. More significantly, Episode 17 begins to present why Rowling actually names Christianity as one of the major inspirations behind Harry Potter.