Harry Potter and the Art of Theology
|Autor:||Wandinger Nikolaus, Drexler Christoph, Peter Teresa|
|Abstrakt:||J. K. Rowling's novels are read as containing an implicit theology that is essentially Chris-tian. We argue this case here for a theology of sacrifice and the novels' allusion to a Messi-anic calling of their main character.|
|Publiziert in:||Milltown Studies 53 (Summer 2004), 131-153.|
Part Two: Sacrifice and Mission1
MAIN THEMES (CONTINUED)
The word sacrifice is indeed religious in its origin, yet in Western languages it has taken on a secular meaning as well: to give up something for a higher good. On a superficial level, it is this secular sense in which the word sacrifice is very prevalent in Harry Potter. Before we take a closer look at that, however, we want to introduce the interpretative pattern with which we are looking at the theology of sacrifice. It is the mimetic theory of René Girard.2 We want to utilise his approach here for three reasons: 1) It offers a common frame of reference for the manifold uses of “sacrifice”, seeing inherent connections between its different meanings without overlooking the differences. 2) It has already been taken up by some Christian theologians as an excellent tool of interpretation of the Christian faith, especially when dealing with the notion of sacrifice – though this stance towards it is certainly controversial.3 3) Mimetic theory itself does something similar to what we try to do here: it looks at concepts, and attempts to explicate some of their implicit meanings, distinguishing what is essentially Christian from other forms of religion.
We agree with Girard that the secular sense of sacrifice is an offspring of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and that therefore it is not as free from religious meaning as one might suppose. We do not have the time and space here to develop Girard’s whole mimetic theory, nor to argue for it. We will simply summarise the theory as far as this is necessary for our comparison with J. K. Rowling’s novels, and then see what insights it provides for us with relation to those novels.
In R. Girard’s mimetic theory the human ability to emulate models is the quality distinguishing humans from animals. This ability enables them to learn much faster and develop more skills. However, human imitation is not limited to the copying of behaviour. It tends to replicate the desires and motivations of the models imitated. When two human beings, a model and his/her imitator, desire the same object, they become each other’s rivals as well. And therefore the human characteristic of emulation also leads to conflict and strife. Girard thinks that the earliest precursors of human society at the threshold of hominization tended to fall into a war of all against all, and therefore the just emerging human civilisation endangered itself to the point of self-annihilation.
Mimesis, however, provided a way out as well: In a situation where everyone is the model/rival of almost everyone else, it is rather easy to project the blame for this violent chaos on only one member of the group. When someone starts blaming and fighting a member that has a particular mark of distinction, the others will easily emulate him. If this process continues, the number of imitators will expand exponentially and eventually the war of all against all will have turned into a war of all against one. This one will be blamed for all the strife in the group and be killed. After this primordial murder the murderous horde then is suddenly overwhelmed by the experience of universal peace: since the supposed cause for all the evils has ceased to exist, the warring stops and the group or tribe experiences a peace it has never experienced before. The victim they have just killed is now not only blamed for having caused all the troubles but also credited with bringing about this miraculous peace.
For mimetic theory this is the beginning of religion and of religious sacrifice. The murdered victim, who has been accorded so much power in the persecutors’ perception, is divinised and a cult springs up for this deity. Every time the social fabric is threatened again, the society tries to recreate that miraculous occurrence of peace by doing exactly what they had done in the primordial murder: unanimously killing somebody, sacrificing to the god who can save them. Ritual regulations can be seen to serve the exactness of the reproduction of the original event. As cultures develop, animals or even fruits of the field might be substituted for humans. But the point of origin of religious sacrifice, the primordial sacrifice, is collective, unanimous murder of a person who is no more guilty of the evils of the world than his or her killers are. It is the killing of a scapegoat.
Girard argues that in the biography of Jesus of Nazareth we have many of the elements of this too: Jesus’ contemporaries (Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and Romans) ganged up against him, because they feared he threatened the social fabric, and killed him; subsequently Jesus’ disciples claimed his divinity and called his death a “sacrifice”.4 So far Girard agrees with many who emphasise similarities between mythology and Christianity. However, he completely disagrees with those who want to see Christianity as mythological too, because Christianity looks at these events from a perspective changed by 180 degrees.
While the myths agree with the killing mob that the victim has to be killed in order to fulfil the divine will because he or she is really guilty, the Christian reference texts do the opposite. They show that the killing of Jesus5 was a murder in the guise of justice, only made possible by deceit and violence. Not the killed person was guilty and had to be eliminated to fulfil the divine will, rather he was a victim being murdered by people resisting God’s will; also the Christian texts claim Christ’s divinity not as a result of his death but starting with his birth.
This way Christianity has transformed the meaning of the term “sacrifice”. Christ’s sacrifice was not the killing of a victim because God wanted that killing; it was the free acceptance by that victim of the pain and suffering and death imposed on him by sinful humans, an acceptance for a higher good, namely the salvation of all people, including those killing him, it was the living of the love of enemies to the very end.
In developing this message, Jesus could draw on the rich tradition of his Jewish people: In the book of Job there are already indications that the one accused is innocent and that it is not God who punishes him, but God stands at his side against the front of accusers.6 Many Psalms thematise the cries for help of the lonely innocent person to God against an overwhelming mass threatening him.7 Finally the Songs of the Suffering Servant completely reveal that the one who is killed by the masses is the chosen one of God.8
By exposing the true nature of sacrifice and transforming it, the Judeo-Christian tradition has basically overcome the mechanisms of ganging up against an innocent victim, according to Girard. By that he does not mean that it doesn’t happen anymore; he means that it does not convince anymore. The periods during which a majority really believes in the guilt of their scapegoats become shorter. But scapegoating incidents during the 2,000 years of Christianity, from anti-Jewish pogroms and the witch-hunts to outright Nazism up to modern-day media witch-hunts or demonisation of one’s political enemies, are remnants of what he calls the scapegoat-mechanism: the human tendency to collectively blame someone else and produce more victims by persecuting them. We do not call them sacrifices anymore because we have – through the Christ experience – learned that they are no service to God but rather the opposite,9 and we have reserved this term for the Christian sacrifice;10 but we call its objects victims and scapegoats – terms which were closely connected to ritual sacrifice in many pre-Christian cultures.11
Now we are a long way from Harry Potter, or are we? Girard mentions an Old Testament story to highlight what he means by transforming the concept of sacrifice. In it he encounters a woman he calls “the most perfect figura Christi that can be imagined”12. It is the story of King Solomon’s judgment (1 Kings 3:16-28)13. The bottom line for Girard is here that the woman who is prepared to give up her child, in doing so risks “her own life if necessary, in order to save his life. This is her only motive and there is nothing ‘sacrificial’ about it”14 in the sense of pre-Christian sacrifice. Now so it happens that one of the most important events, mentioned over and over again in Harry Potter is that Harry’s mother, Lilly, has given her life to save Harry’s, and this is explicitly called her “sacrifice” (e. g. HP 3, 213).
Rowling’s choice of that word seems anything but accidental. By the sacrifice of her life, Lilly15 Potter not only saved her son momentarily from Voldemort’s attempted murder, she worked, under certain conditions, a life-long protection for him:
‘Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realise that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign … to have been loved so deeply […] will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.’16 ‘You would be protected by an ancient magic of which he [Voldemort] knows, which he despises, and which he has always, therefore, underestimated – to his cost. I am speaking, of course, of the fact that your mother died to save you. She gave you a lingering protection he never expected, a protection that flows in your veins to this day. I put my trust, therefore, in your mother’s blood. I delivered you to her sister, her only remaining relative. […] She may have taken you grudgingly, furiously, unwillingly, bitterly, yet still she took you, and in doing so, she sealed the charm I placed upon you. Your mother’s sacrifice made the bond of blood the strongest shield I could give you.’17
Here Rowling clearly uses sacrificial language, even to the point of bringing blood and sacrifice together. Let us in a first step compare that to the Christian language of Christ’s sacrifice: Christ gave his life, so that all other human persons could be saved and protected from the power of sin.18 In both cases, Christ’s and Lilly Potter’s, death is the result of evil actions. Those that kill them have absolutely no intention to offer a sacrifice – yet they behave very much like sacrificers in Girard’s analysis of pre-Christian sacrifice. By freely giving their lives to save someone out of love, Jesus and Lilly Potter transform this act of violence against them into an act of salvation for someone, and thus make it a sacrifice in the Christian sense. Here the parallel is substantial and striking.
Yet the differences should not be overlooked either: Christ was persecuted because of a religious message he had – Lilly Potter was persecuted for being Muggle-born and for protecting her son, but also for resisting Voldemort’s racist ideology; Christ’s salvific will in his sacrifice included all of humanity, also his persecutors (cf. esp. Lk 23:34), Lilly Potter was willing to give her life for her only son and not for his, or her own, enemies too; and finally: Christ’s death and resurrection are facts for the Christian believer, Lilly Potter is a fictitious character in a children’s book. Do these differences not refute our argument for genuine parallels? The first one certainly does not do so. Otherwise we could draw no comparison between people who risk their lives for a worthy non-religious cause and Jesus, and this does not seem acceptable. There are noble causes to risk one’s life for (e.g. resisting racism) that qualify for a comparison with Jesus’ deed but are not religious in themselves. The value of the gift of life does not depend on the cause being explicitly religious.
If we concurred with the third one, we would have to admit the futility of our whole endeavour: comparing Christian faith with a series of novels. But again Western literature is full of fiction that – deliberately or accidentally – draws on Christian imagery and belief, and no serious scholar would deny that these parallels are genuine, nor that elaborating on them can be helpful in understanding Christianity as well as in understanding literature. What makes Harry Potter different is the fact that it is a children’s and teenagers’ book, and its milieu is a world of wizards and witches, which strikes many people as heathen and anti-Christian. However, if it is true that Rowling’s magical world is not a means of advancing superstition and mythology, but only uses mythologems as a setting for a story permeated by important human values, one should not be fooled by the milieu into overlooking the real content. And if that content, i.e. these values, happens to be shaped by deeply Christian ideas, as we are convinced is the case,19 should not educators who want their young ones to find the tradition of Christianity enticing to them be glad that they read these novels anyway and enjoy them without having the feeling of being lectured to?
Well – we skipped the second objection. This one does hold. Indeed, so far we find no indication that Lilly Potter risked and found her death to save Voldemort and his adherents from their evil ways. It was not the love of enemies that motivated her, but a mother’s love for her child. Yet this does not devalue our argument. If Girard is right that the woman in Solomon’s Judgement, who also risked her life for her child, was a figura Christi, then Lilly Potter can be seen as one too. What follows is that the figurae Christi are not Christ, his deed outweighs theirs by far, but that should not really surprise us. Therefore we feel encouraged to search for even more parallels between “sacrifice” in Harry Potter and in Christianity, at least according to Girard’s interpretation.
At the end of the fourth novel we find a perfect primordial sacrificial scene, which we have already mentioned. Harry has been kidnapped by Voldemort and blood is taken from him by force, so that Voldemort can recreate a body for himself. When that has been accomplished the evil Lord summons his supporters, the “Death Eaters”, who form a circle around Harry, and then Voldemort aspires to humiliate, torture and kill Harry. As we know, Harry escapes at the last minute by the help of the echoes of his dead parents.20 We are presented by an exact scene of primordial sacrifice: a mob ganging up against the lonely one, encircling him, intending to kill him. Even the motif of blood is there again, and there is a corpse too: Harry’s schoolmate Cedric, who was accidentally kidnapped with him and killed in the first instant because – unlike Harry – he was irrelevant for Voldemort’s plans: “‘Kill the spare.’” (HP 4, 553) The one exception is that Harry escapes, the sacrificers do not succeed, the novel takes sides with the victim, and thus stands in the tradition that Judaism began and Christianity took up from it. Thus from this perspective, Harry Potter is clearly non-mythological, for it takes sides with the victims and not with the persecutors – the distinguishing mark in mimetic theory.
So far we have seen depictions of the Christian and the primordial sacrifices with all their differences in Harry Potter. The term “sacrifice” however is only used to designate the former, and here it is consistently used, not only for Lilly’s death but for other instances where someone gives up something for the sake of another.21
Now we want to pose the question of whether Rowling does see the connection that mimetic theory proclaims between sacrifice and mimetic desire on the one hand, and the resulting social phenomena on the other. Rowling indeed describes the social phenomena and their mimetic contagion in a superb way: Harry being the focus of admiration and jealousy in quick and almost unbelievable succession; Harry’s being king and culprit and their being linked and caused by his prominence and difference from all others22 are a recurring theme throughout the novels: At the end of volume one Harry is the celebrated saviour of the Philosopher’s Stone, victor over Voldemort and winner at Quidditch; when his special ability to speak Parsletongue is discovered, he is thought to be the Heir of Slytherin and almost all fellow students fear and revile him. The same thing happens in volume four, when Harry has to participate in the Triwizard Tournament, although he is under age: the admiration for his alleged accomplishment to get his name into the Goblet of Fire, which chooses the participants, quickly turns to envy and suspicion.
In fact when we change sides for a moment to the evil-doers in Harry Potter, wecan see that from their perspective it contains the stereotypes of persecution Girard proposes to expose texts of persecution23: There is a social crisis characterised by “a generalized loss of differences”24: Muggle-borns are taught and raised at Hogwarts. There are “crimes that ‘eliminate differences’”25: marriages between persons of complete wizard ancestry and those with mixed ancestry, generating “mud-bloods”; Harry bears several marks that make him likely to be chosen as a victim: he is “abnormal” in many ways, as we have already seen, and many of his abnormalities change from being seen as extraordinary abilities to being viewed as exceptional liabilities (scar, Parsletongue, boy who lived etc.). And finally the violence purported by Voldemort and his supporters is real in the novel. So, if Harry Potter had been written from Voldemort’s point of view, we would have all of these affirmed by the novels themselves. Rowling however writes her novels to tell them from the opposite point of view, a view that has already exposed the fallacy of the persecutors’ arguments. In doing so, she proves again that her story is deeply rooted in Christian, anti-mythological thinking.
The two sacrificial scenes – Lilly giving her life, Voldemort trying to take Harry’s life – show exactly the two sides of the same coin, one emphasising the sacrifice of self-giving, the other stressing the violent nature of creating victims. The connection between the two is manifest, even if it is not explicitly stated in the novel. Lilly’s sacrifice was necessitated only by Voldemort’s persecution, and his persecution intends the annihilation of the obstacle in a classical tale of “twin” rivalry. At the end of the fifth volume, Harry and the readers are told why Voldemort intended to kill a 15 months old baby in the first place, because of a prophecy: “‘The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches … born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies … and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not … and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives …’” (HP 5, 741). So, we have here the crisis of loss of differentiation replicated on the level of two individuals: Voldemort tried to kill Harry because he did not want an equal beside himself.
There are so many aspects in Harry Potter that simply fall into line with Girard’s analyses that we feel confident to say: the Potter-series is to count among the books that have exposed sacrificial and scapegoating mechanisms, even more so because it applies to them the religious language of sacrifice and reserves that purely to that understanding of sacrifice that can be called Christian.
This verdict, though, has to be cautioned somewhat. Because Harry Potter uses sacrificial language only in a positive sense, it is in danger of misguiding its readers into a fallacy of sacrificial theology, which is not so rare in Christianity either: The fallacy to think that a self-sacrifice out of love is easily distinguishable from one out of fear or auto-aggression. It is not, and that is the reason why Girard for a long time was reluctant to use sacrifice in a positive sense. Again, at a closer look, there are some indications in the novels that they are aware of this danger, but we are not completely convinced that they are clear enough.
The first is in the scene where Harry discovers that Pettigrew was the traitor whose treason enabled Voldemort to kill his parents. When Lupin and Black accuse Pettigrew, he defends himself by saying that it was only under Voldemort’s death threat that he betrayed the Potters. “‘THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED!’ roared Black. ‘DIED RATHER THAN BETRAY YOUR FRIENDS, AS WE WOULD HAVE DONE FOR YOU!’” (HP 3, 275). Here Black clearly expresses his expectation of self-sacrifice instead of sacrificing someone else. Yet, can self-sacrifice be expected in that way? If the love motivating it is not there, can it be genuine?
We deem this very problematic. In our opinion a right understanding of sacrifice can only prevail when the notion of sacrifice is connected to the theology of grace, as we have indicated it in the second section. Without that, self-sacrifice becomes a moral obligation (as Black would have it), and this would be the starting point for its perversion. Under certain circumstances, however, self-sacrifice becomes a Christian “commandment”. It belongs to those Christian commandments that are only possible within a framework of love and grace, but it should be noted that these are very different from mere moral obligations.26 In this sense Pettigrew could and ought to have given his life for the friends whose gift of friendship had nourished him so long. Yet his fear was stronger, he made the wrong choice.
The second scene is at the end of book four and it clearly depicts a perverted view of gratefulness and self-sacrifice: In order to regain his body Voldemort needs Harry’s blood, but he also needs human flesh, which he does not take from Harry. Instead Pettigrew “donates” his arm (cf. HP 4, 556f.). We could say Pettigrew sacrifices his limb for the purpose of giving life to Voldemort. Later on Voldemort creates a new arm for Pettigrew by an act of “grace”, however only after ignoring his whimpering for some time during which Voldemort punishes unfaithful servants (cf. HP 4, 559-563). From the whole set-up of the scene we can recognise it as a direct reversal – a perversion in the literal sense – of relationships built on giving out of grace and self-sacrifice out of love; it is self-sacrifice out of sheer terror and giving in order to control and dominate. Even the well-intentioned demand on someone to sacrifice themselves may easily turn into such a reign of terror, not by outside force but by inner-psychic violence. That is why we think that sacrifice may not be demanded the way Black demanded it from Pettigrew. We miss this critical element in F. Bridger’s otherwise excellent theological analysis of sacrifice in Harry Potter.27
To end this section about sacrifice, let us merely mention the witty representations of some of the remnants of the scapegoat mechanism we still find in today’s culture in Harry Potter: Rowling gives wonderful caricatures of today’s public relations and media business: in volume two Gildroy Lockhart is a great star and also a fraud; in volume four, a journalist called Rita Skeeter twists her stories for the best sell, by focusing public opinion against Harry, the exceptional boy; and in volume five the main newspaper, The Daily Prophet, prints not what seems most likely, but what readers most like to hear: namely that Voldemort is not back. Those that maintain the opposite, Harry and Dumbledore, are consequently covered with a smear campaign, ridiculed and even banned from important functions. All this changes, when the public mood shifts, as Hermione analyses with her razor-sharp intellect:
The writers of the Daily Prophet are “‘very complimentary about you now, Harry,’ said Hermione, scanning down the article. ‘›A lone voice of truth … perceived as unbalanced, yet never wavered in his story … forced to bear ridicule and slander …‹ Hmm,’ she said, frowning, ‘I notice they don’t mention the fact that it was them doing all the ridiculing and slandering in the Prophet …’” (HP 5, 746)
Harry Potter, the hero of the series, is distinguished from his fellow students, and in fact from all the other characters of the novels, not by having been hurt (as we have seen), but by being defined by that injury and its consequences: he is the boy with the scar and he is the boy who lived. However, he acquired that scar, like most people, not by freely accepting it, but by having it forced upon himself. He now has got to live with it and its unique consequences.
We mentioned already that there are positive and negative consequences for Harry in that. More important than singular properties of Harry’s in this context is that his life is defined by the role and function his scar imposes on him and his struggle to find a stance toward that: can he accept it and fulfil it, does he accept it but fail, or does he reject it? There are indications for each of these three possibilities in the novels. The most prominent of those cases is Harry’s success is rescuing Arthur Weasley after he has been attacked and gravely injured. Through his scar, Harry is linked to Voldemort and witnesses the attack, and because of his alert the victim can be taken to hospital in time and thus is saved from certain death (cf. HP 5, 408-425). Yet what saved Arthur Weasley’s life, costs Sirius Black’s. After Voldemort realises that he is linked to Harry, he deceives him into believing that his Godfather, Black, is in the same situation as Weasley was, only to lure Harry into his presence and reach his goals that way. Here, Harry is eager to accept his role as saviour, but he fails just because of his eagerness, and in the process causes the greatest loss for himself. As a consequence he is tempted to reject his role all together28, as he has been several times before when he had to suffer insults because of his special status.29
From all this it becomes clear that through the course of events Harry has got the call to a mission, we could also say he has got a vocation. This is even more enhanced when we consider the prophecy we mentioned already and which is the reason why he carries the scar (cf. HP 5, 693). With this prophecy we have enough material to state some parallels between Harry’s childhood story and the infancy of Jesus, as several authors have done already.30 Both Harry’s and Jesus’ birth is preceded by a prophecy about their role; this supposed role causes a potential rival to try and kill the baby, yet he fails and kills others instead; therefore both survive and, after living in hiding for a time, they return to start their mission.31 The differences are: The prophecies surrounding Jesus’ birth do not state a particular adversary of his, do not speak of the possibility that he might kill someone, and do not make him the equal of anyone else. King Herod does not kill Jesus’ mother, and the infants he does kill in his search for Jesus do not freely give their lives for Jesus, they are simply slaughtered. These differences are substantial enough not to draw a direct link between Jesus and Harry, yet the similarities are strong enough to try to find out what Harry’s mission might be and then compare that to Jesus’. In doing so we will risk a good deal of speculation on how the series might proceed. If this speculation should turn out to be correct in principle (we do not claim to predict any details), this can serve as verification for our having grasped the thrust of the story. If it should turn out wrong, we would have to reconsider in how far our analyses have been falsified.
For that purpose let us look at Harry’s prophecy a little closer: As readers of HP 5 know, it does not unambiguously refer to Harry but its reference depends on Voldemort’s actions. It refers to a person born on July 31st (when the seventh month dies) to parents who have defied Voldemort three times. This description fits Harry Potter as well as Neville Longbottom. Yet Voldemort only tried to kill Harry, not Neville, and by this action he made the prophecy’s description definite. And he did something else by that: he marked him as his equal. This explains why Harry has abilities that only the Heir of Slytherin could have. His mother’s sacrifice provided him with the power the Dark Lord knows not. Now he stands at a deadly opposition with Voldemort for neither can live while the other survives.
When we think back of the motif of the twins linked in a struggle of rivalry we can guess why that is: Voldemort in a sense was right to see a deadly rival in Harry, but by trying to kill him he only made him that rival, he made him his equal. We take that to mean more than transferring some qualities and abilities to Harry, it means transferring his status, his very being. This is even more emphasised, however subliminal and tacitly, by Dumbledore’s reading of the smoke of an unnamed instrument of his. The smoke forms a serpent’s head. Then Rowling takes the reader’s attention off what Dumbledore sees to tell us merely:
‘Naturally, naturally,’ murmured Dumbledore apparently to himself, still observing the stream of smoke without the slightest sign of surprise. ‘But in essence divided?’ Harry could make neither head nor tail of this question. The smoke serpent, however, split itself instantly into two snakes, both coiling and undulating in the dark air.32
So there are now two Heirs of Slytherin: Tom Marvolo Riddle (= Lord Voldemort) and Harry James Potter. Yet the second one has powers which the first one does not know and which have been described as the powers of love. This must have consequences for his mission too. So Harry’s mission (or vocation) on the one hand is dependent on Voldemort’s, yet it has been transformed by love, and we may suspect that this turned its mission upside down, or, when saying it in snake language “head to tail”, as Rowling implies.
The four founders of Hogwarts school, after whom the four houses are named, “‘for a few years […] worked in harmony together, seeking out youngsters who showed signs of magic and bringing them to the castle to be educated. But then disagreements sprang up between them. A rift began to grow between Slytherin and the others. Slytherin wished to be more selective about the students admitted […]. He believed that magical learning should be kept within all-magic families.’” The argument could not be settled and Slytherin left the school, after building a secret chamber beneath it, housing a monster. “‘The heir [of Slytherin] alone would be able to unseal the Chamber of Secrets, unleash the horror within, and use it to purge the school of all who were unworthy to study magic.’”33
Opening the secret chamber and unleashing the monster is only a means to an end, the end is a racist purge of the school of witchcraft and wizardry. Harry has already prevented Voldemort from using that means, but Voldemort has not yet given up on reaching the ends; on the contrary, he has expanded the scope beyond the school towards the whole magical world. And he is only logical in this: Hogwarts, the school, serves like a microcosm of and symbol for the magical world. And of course, besides teaching certain skills and abilities, a school in any society is an instrument for refining and passing on the society’s main values. So Hogwarts is a sign and an instrument for the unifying values of magical society as a whole. What Slytherin wanted to bring to Hogwarts, he wanted to bring to society as a whole. And in volume five, we see very clearly what that is. None other than the wise and ancient Sorting Hat provides us with the information:
‘Though condemned I am to split you / Still I worry that it’s wrong, / Though I must fulfil my duty / And must quarter every year / Still I wonder whether Sorting / May not bring the end I fear. / Oh, know the perils, read the signs, / The warning history shows, / For our Hogwarts is in danger / From external, deadly foes / And we must unite inside her / Or we’ll crumble from within’ (HP 5, 186f.)34
The question is tolerant unity or intolerance and divisions, harmony versus chaos, peace without selection of scapegoats or peace at the expense of victims. We not only encounter the question at the heart of Girard’s reading of sacrifice again, we also stand here at a vital question for our real world. And in Harry Potter Hogwarts is the sign and instrument for that, either for unity or for a rift running through society. Consequently, if Harry’s mission is dependent on Voldemort’s, yet contrary to it (head to tail), his task is to unify the wizarding world, to work against this split-up and to find peace for Hogwarts and through it for the whole society of witches and wizards, and beyond them to the Muggle world.
At this point we can again name parallels with the Christian faith: It was part of Jesus’ ministry “to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (John 11:52), his adversary being the diabolos, who causes chaos and rift. Jesus is the one who is to bring about human reconciliation and unity without excluding any scapegoats, rather by being excluded as a scapegoat himself. And the church views herself in this vein, when she calls herself “a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race”35. Of course we chose this wording deliberately already before, when describing the role of Hogwarts in Harry Potter. By that we wanted to emphasise the analogy, which again leaves out the explicit reference to God, but incorporates the inter-human aspect so perfectly that it is a case of implicit theology of unity, we could say an implicit ecclesiology.36
Conversely, we admit that it is a very loose analogy: Hogwarts does not function like a religious community, it is just a school. But as a school it educates all the magically talented students from the British and Irish islands, it seems, and therefore it is indeed a catalyst for the societies it serves. Its impact upon their unity or discord is much greater than any other school’s. We do not want to follow up this ecclesiological analogy any more, it would lead us too far.
Instead let us return to the question of how Harry might be able to accomplish his mission. We have not yet attended to one element of his prophecy: “either must die at the hand of the other”. This means for Harry “that he must be either murderer or victim, there was no other way” (HP 5, 749), a message that causes Harry to worry greatly and Dumbledore to cry when he tells the boy (cf. HP 5, 744). Exactly here we find the gravest stumbling block for any messianic interpretation of Harry Potter. If Harry turns murderer, he is no figura Christi, because Christ became victim. Yet from the novels so far, we have no indication of how Harry could save the wizarding world by transforming Voldemort’s victimising him into a self-sacrifice of love: wouldn’t that only mean the takeover of Voldemort? Although the author reportedly warns her readers not to be too sure that Harry will survive all seven volumes, it seems highly unlikely that she would agonise them by having Harry die in the end. Indeed it is likely that the end will be the completion of his coming of age and his school education after seven years, but also the conclusion of the process of healing and forgiveness Harry has struggled with.37
But from what we have learned so far, we postulate: there must be another way. Too much of Harry’s messianic symbolism would be in vain, if Harry killed Voldemort like good cop versus bad guy. We trust therefore that Rowling will find another way. The prophecy was only reproduced with gaps in between, and in the final fight of volume five many prophecies have been destroyed, two of which have been related to us in a very fragmented form38. It is possible, though unlikely, that they indicate a different solution. Dumbledore might be the one to overwhelm Voldemort. That would spare Harry from becoming a murderer, but it would not change the fact that peace in the wizarding community would be brought at the expense of a member of that community: Lord Voldemort, so again it would not qualify as the Christian solution. Another hypothetical possibility would be the Dark Lord’s repentance and conversion, but that seems very remote too, though not completely out of the question, if we take the Star Wars saga as point of comparison.
If Voldemort tried to kill another person very close to Harry, and Harry deflected the curse back onto Voldemort, Voldemort would be killed at Harry’s hand, as the prophecy says, but not by Harry but actually by himself, Harry would merely be the deflector of the curse, and it would not be a murder but the defence of another. This could well be coupled with Harry’s willingness to give himself as a sacrifice for the life of someone else, and in trying to kill Harry, Voldemort could this time find his final and irrevocable downfall.
There is also the possibility that Voldemort is defeated without being killed in the normal sense of the word. Dumbledore tells him: “‘your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness –’” (HP 5, 718). To Harry Dumbledore relates that a locked room in the Ministry of Magic contains “‘a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than the forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there. It is the power held within that room that you possess in such quantities and which Voldemort has not at all.’” (HP 5, 743)
But let us end these speculations by declaring again that we find messianic elements in Harry Potter and by mentioning that this, of course, poses new dangers of temptation for Harry. The New Testament tells us that Jesus was tempted by the devil to misuse his status as Son of God in a self-righteous manner (cf. Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-13). Harry will certainly be tempted by the evil side more than he has already been. And again he will have to determine what he is by his choices, graced with his talents and gifts, and burdened with the injuries he has sustained.
Concluding this lengthy paper here, we still have not said everything that could be said theologically about Harry Potter. We have not attended to the question posed by some, whether Voldemort and Dumbledore are images for the devil and God (we think there are some superficial analogies, but they are not very substantial). We have not talked about what Harry Potter says about life after death (we think considering this would be worth while, but it is still too unclear, so it has to wait till the series will have been completed). And there would be more.
Moreover we have not mentioned valuable insights of Harry Potter for other fields like pedagogy, philosophy, moral values, developmental psychology etc. We leave all these things for others (or for later), yet we are certain that there is valuable material in these respects in Harry Potter. We want to end with an appeal to see the value in these books: Of course, their primary audience is teenagers, who see in them adventures, see the enticing world of magic with possibilities and powers that do not exist in real life. But while they do all that, they read about a boy and his friends going to school and through the end of childhood, through puberty and adolescence, as they are doing; with problems like them; and they see them struggle with these problems in ways that are structured by Christian patterns. They are not instructed or lectured by the novels but given positive models to identify with and to emulate. The wide adult audience of the books, however, suggests that there is even more to them: they touch on themes of all-human importance, as we can say with Tillich, on themes that are of universal and unconditional concern. To us it seems good that young and old can have fun in reading these novels, while simultaneously being familiarised with an implicit Weltanschauung Christians can recognise as more or less their own. Indeed these books seem to reconnect adults to their own youth and with today’s youngsters and this way they help us to avoid a certain kind of guilt. After all it is true that “youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young …”39
1 Continued from the previous issue of the Milltown Studies (MS 52).
2 The most important works of his for our analysis are as follows. Girard, R., Violence and the Sacred,Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1977. Girard, R., The Scapegoat London: Athlone Press, 1986. Girard, R., Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World London: Athlone Press, 1987. Girard, R., Job London: Athlone Press, 1987. Girard, R., I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001. Girard, R., Violence, Difference, Sacrifice, in Adams, R. (ed.), Violence, Difference, Sacrifice: Conversations on Myth and Culture in Theology and Literature, Notre Dame, In.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993, 11-32, esp. 26-33. Girard, R., Violence Renounced, in Swartley, W. M. (ed.) Violence Renounced, Telford, Pa.: Pandora Press, 2000, 308-320. Girard, R., Mimetische Theorie und Theologie, in Vom Fluch und Segen der Sündenböcke. Raymund Schwager zum 60. Geburtstag (BMT 1) (Ed.: Niewiadomski, J. / Palaver W.). Thaur: Kulturverlag, 1995, 15-29. Girard, R., Tatsachten, nicht nur Interpretationen, in Dieckmann, B. (Hg.), Das Opfer – aktuelle Kontroversen. Religions-politischer Diskurs im Kontext der mimetischen Theorie (BMT 12) Münster: LIT, 2001, 261-279. For an overview cf. Palaver, Wolfgang, René Girards mimetische Theorie. Im Kontext kulturtheoretischer und gesellschaftspolitischer Fragen (BMT 6). Münster: LIT, 2003.
3 Chilton, B. The Temple of Jesus. His Sacrificial Program within a Cultural History of Sacrifice. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992. Williams, J. G., Sacrifice, Mimesis and the Genesis of Violence. A Response to Bruce Chilton, Winona Lake, In.: Institute for Biblical Research, 1993. Schwager, R. Violence and Redemption in the Bible (transl. by M. L. Assad), New York, NY: Crossroad, 2000. Schwager, R., Jesus in the Drama of Salvation. Toward a Biblical Doctrine of Redemption (trans. J. G. Williams & P. Haddon from Jesus im Heilsdrama. Entwurf einer biblischen Erlösungslehre), New York: Crossroad, 1999. Schwager R., Deity/God and Sacrifice: Religious History and the Theory of René Girard, in Society for Incultural Pastoral Care and Counseling, 1998, 7-12. Schwager R., Suffering, Victims and Poetic Inspiration, in Contagion. Journal of Violence, Mimesis and Culture 1 / Spring (1994) 63-72. Schwager R. / Niewiadomski J. / Goodhart S., A Jewish-Christian Dialogue I, in The Pulletin of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion 7 ((October 1994), 11f. Schwager R., “Christ’s Death and the Prophetic Critique of Sacrifice”, Semeia 33 (1985), 109-123.
4 Cf. The Letter to the Hebrews.
5 Or of other lone victims in Biblical history, starting with Abel in Genesis and ending with the Baptist in the gospels.
6 Cf. Girard, R., Job. (see footnote 2).
7 Schwager, R., Must There Be Scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible (translated by M. L. Assad., New York, NY: Crossroad, 2000, esp. 91-109.
8 Ibid., esp. 126-135.
9 Cf. Girard, R., Things Hidden (see footnote 2), 180-262.
10 Cf. Girard, R., in Adams (see footnote 2), 1993, 11-32, esp. 26-33.
11 The Latin expression sacrificium designates the act of ritual, religious sacrifice, victima the human (or later animal) being sacrificed. The term scapegoat has changed its meaning from a religious one in Judaism to the nowadays prevalent meaning of someone being blamed unjustly (cf. Girard, R., Things Hidden [see footnote 2], 130-134).
12 Girard, R., Things Hidden (see footnote 2), 241.
13 Cf. Girard, R., Things Hidden (see footnote 2), 237-245 with the corrective additions made by Girard in Adams (see footnote 2), 1993, 26-33.
14 Girard, R., Things Hidden, 241.
15 The name can be seen to carry an allusion to Mary, the mother of Jesus, cf. Maar, M., Warum Nabokov Harry Potter Gemocht Hätte, Berlin: Berlin-Verl., 2002, 60.
16 HP 1, 216, Dumbledore speaking.
17 HP 5, 736f., Dumbledore speaking.
18 On a level of structuring imagery there is even a parallel between Harry’s bearing an invisible protecting mark as a result of that sacrifice. In Christian teaching the sacrament of baptism, by which the believers receive the grace to share in Christ’s saving deed, confers unto them an indelible mark on their soul (Cf. DS 111, 780, 904 for grace; DS 1609 for the character indelibilis). This parallel, however seems too much dependent on association to make very much of it. Also, while the protection given in baptism rests on Christ’s blood, it is not passed on through blood relation but through baptism, an act of free will. (Here Dumbledore’s earlier quoted remark about the importance of our choices is much more in tune with Christianity than the dependence of the protection on blood-relation. We consider this really a lapse in Harry Potter’s implicit theology.) What we do make of it is that Rowling’s world is fraught with imagery that is at home in Christianity.
19 As are Bridger, F., A Charmed Life. The Spirituality of Potterworld, New York, NY: Doubleday, 2002. Killinger, J., God, the Devil, and Harry Potter. A Christian Minister’s Defense of the Beloved Novels, New York, NY: Thomas Dunne, 2002. Spinner, K. H. (ed.), Im Bann des Zauberlehrlings? Regensburg: Pustet, 2001. Maar, M., Warum Nabokov Harry Potter Gemocht Hätte, Berlin: Berlin-Verlag., 2002.
20 Cf. HP 4, 552-558; 572-581.
21 Just to name two examples: Ron wants to sacrifice himself in a perilous game of wizards’ chess in order to save Harry and Hermione (cf. HP 1, 205). Dumbledore gives up his position to save Harry, Hermione calls this a sacrifice (HP 5, 587). There is one exception to that: Dumbledore realises that Voldemort tried to posses Harry in order to provoke Dumbledore to try and kill Voldemort by killing Harry. Dumbledore calls that “sacrificing” Harry (cf. HP 5, 730). But that exception is not an argument against the consistency: for here Dumbledore relates Voldemort’s thoughts, and therefore he also uses Voldemort’s conception of sacrifice, the primordial one. The fact that Dumbledore did not do it shows that it is not his conception.
22 Cf. the first two chapters of Girard, R., Job, (see footnote 2), where Girard explains why being king and culprit lie so near to one another.
23 Cf. Girard, R., Scapegoat (see footnote 2), 12-44.
24 Ibid. 24.
26 Cf. Rahner, K., “The ‘Commandment’ of Love in Relation to the Other Commandments” Theological Investigations 5, Baltimore MD: Helicon Press 1966, 439-459.
27 Cf. Bridger, F., A Charmed Life. The Spirituality of Potterworld, New York, NY: Doubleday, 2002, 94-99.
28 “Harry […] could not stand being himself any more … he had never felt more trapped inside his own head and body, never wished so intensely that he could be somebody, anybody, else …” (HP 5, 724). “I DON’T CARE! […] I’VE HAD ENOUGH, I’VE SEEN ENOUGH, I WANT OUT, I WANT IT TO END, I DON’T CARE ANY MORE –’” (HP 5, 726).
29 “He was sick of it; sick of being the person who is stared at and talked about all the time. If any of them knew, if any of them had the faintest idea what it felt like to be the one all these things had happened to … ” (HP 5, 196).
30 Cf. Maar, op. cit. 59f.; Killinger, op. cit., 14-34.
31 The fact that pre-11-year-old Harry performs magic involuntarily is no parallel to the miracles attributed to Jesus in apocryphal writings for us, for the simple fact that those are apocryphal, meaning that the church did not recognise in them genuine representations of her faith (against Killinger, op. cit. 15-34).
32 HP 5, 416, emphasis added.
33 Both quotations: HP 2, 114, Professor Binns, teacher of History of Magic, speaking.
34 Exactly that happens to Hogwarts through the High Inquisitor Dolores Umbridge. It should be noted, that Rowling uses a term reminiscent of the darkest chapters of church history and, of course, of Dostoyevsky’s great parable of Christ’s antagonist, the Grand Inquisitor (cf. Dostoyevsky: The Brothers Karamazov, Book 5). The Hogwarts inquisitor’s name tells us what she does: un-bridge, tear down bridges between people and supplant them with walls of suspicion and violence by the use of what must be called the first instalments of torture (Harry is forced to mutilate himself with a magical pen that engraves the words he has to write for punishment into his skin; cf. HP 5, 240-248). It would therefore not surprise us, if she turned out to be more than just a misguided law-and-order cop, but a “Death Eater”. She is eager to use the torture spell (cf. HP 5, 658).
35 Second Vatican Council: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, no. 1.
36 “A deep, true and lasting peace among people which is not based on sacrificing third persons and can exist without polarization onto enemies is very difficult or even exceeds human strength. If it nevertheless becomes reality, this is a clear sign that God Himself (the Holy Spirit) is acting in the people. This logic of incarnation is shown in the biblical message as well as numerous ‘signs of the times’ in human history.” (Research Group Innsbruck: Dramatic Theology as a Research Program: http://theol.uibk.ac.at/rgkw/xtext/research-10.html#_1_9)
37 Cf. Maar, op. cit. 156.
38 1: “at the solstice will come a new …”; 2: “ … and none will come after …” HP 5, 692.
39 HP 5, 728, Dumbledore speaking.
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