‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is Death’ 2 August, 2007

This quotation from St Paul (1 Cor. 15:26) is the epitaph that Harry Potter reads on the grave of his parents, and a kind of motto for the seventh and last of the Potter novels by J.K. Rowling that was published at the end of July. The books have divided Christian and literary opinion but have by now entranced several generations of children. As everyone knows, the books have been staggeringly successful. Now that the seventh is complete we can see more clearly what JKR has achieved in this meticulously planned and carefully executed series. They are about death and the desire for immortality, human virtue and the nature of evil, and in the end the victory goes to courage, self-sacrifice and love.

The idea that she has been trying to seduce children into the occult is ludicrous. Rowling is a Christian, and an admirer of C.S. Lewis. It may well be that when she chose as the motto of Hogwarts School the phrase ‘Never tickle a sleeping dragon’ (Draco dormiens numquam titillandus), she had in mind Lewis’s famous remark that stories of this kind can ‘steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.’ It seems that Rowling may have felt that Lewis ‘tickled’ those dragons a bit too much, and she was determined to be even more careful.

One writer on Harry Potter, John Granger, seems to have accurately discerned the deeper structure and intention of the series – indeed, many of his predictions concerning the seventh book have come true. He also shows why the books have been so popular. One of his important insights is that Rowling uses symbolism drawn from Christian alchemy to express the journey of the human soul – Harry’s transformation in Christ. As Rowling herself said in 1998, ‘I’ve never wanted to be a witch, but an alchemist, now that’s a different matter.’ Granger explains that alchemy – as understood by Shakespeare, Blake, Milton and C.S. Lewis – is not ‘stupid chemistry’ (let alone anti-Christian magic) but ‘the art of the transmutation of the soul.’ The outward work on metals and chemicals was merely a reflection of the inward work of purification, the ‘Great Work’ represented in the series by the seven years of Harry’s education at Hogwarts.

So if you want to find Christianity in Harry Potter, you have to look deeper than the surface of the text. Harry’s friends Ron and Hermione correspond to Sulphur and Mercury, which together work on Harry’s ‘Lead’ to transform him into Gold by the end of the series. The ‘Golden Snitch’ that the ‘Seeker’ (Harry) has to capture in the seven-a-side game of Quidditch is another symbol of the same process (the image of the Snitch on the cover of Granger’s book is from a 1613 alchemical text). Harry’s ‘patronus’ (a silver Stag that appears in order to protect him) is a common medieval symbol of Christ.

Follow the links, read Granger, and you will begin to appreciate just how clever J.K. Rowling has been in weaving her tapestry of archetypes. In a sense, the literary quality of the prose is irrelevant here. Plot, wordplay, character development, relationships, symbolism, are more important, and they are the real reason the books have such an extraordinary effect on readers. There is room for disagreement about whether she succeeds in bringing the series to a satisfying conclusion, but criticism will miss much of the point if it does not take alchemical symbolism into account.

For a recent interview with Rowling that talks about her Christian faith see here. On the “gay Dumbledore” issue see here.  For an article by Michael Ward in Touchstone magazine on the hidden “astrological” code in C.S. Lewis’s seven Chronicles of Narnia see here.