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Over the last couple of months Clemency and I read all the Harry Potter books. Well, she listened, I read, except for the sizable chunks, on car journeys, where Stephen Fry helped out via Audible. Clemency had never read them before, but I had, once. Back in the late 90's and early years of the century I joined the queues, elbowing teeny boppers out of the way to get my copy of each book as it fell hot off the press, devouring each of them whole in a few hours flat, then waiting years for the next fix. We also, courtesy of Netflix and Google Play, watched all the films, but more of that later. This time, reading, the pace was more sedate. And measured. And thoughtful. After 15-20 years I had forgotten so much of the plot that,  although I knew what was going to happen in the end, I could savour, like it was new, the ingenuity and wit and erudition of this great, convoluted, clever story.

J. K. Rowling is the one you'd want on your team in a pub quiz. Given that her alter ego is Hermione Granger, it should come as no surprise that Ms Rowling seems to have read a lot of books about a lot of stuff and that many items from her very large storehouse of mythical, linguistic, historical and theological knowledge tumbles out and finds its way into her books. For instance, the orphan Harry has an owl named Hedwig. St. Hedwig is the patron saint of orphans. For instance the all seeing caretaker is Argus Filch. In Greek mythology, Argus was a watchman. For instance in both the cellars of Hogwarts and in the Greek underworld the way is guarded by a three headed dog who is put to sleep by music. And so on. And so on.

What impressed me most though was the ending of the series. The main theme of the books, or so J.K. Rowling says, is death, but they are also about a number of other things, including good and evil, which is beautifully, ingeniously, accurately portrayed as a struggle between doing what is right and doing what is expedient. There are some ferociously evil characters in the Harry Potter universe, but none of them, even the unredeemably corrupted and incomparably powerful Lord Voldemort can exercise power without the support or acquiescence of others. Harry, and indeed everyone in his universe is constantly faced with the choice between the right way and the easy way. People make their calls on this, influenced by their courage or their own petty ambitions, their insight or their ignorance, their openness or their prejudice. As the series progresses, the corrupted further their lust for power by  spreading fear and lies and  the wizarding world falls under bondage and Voldemort almost holds sway.

At the end of  seventh and last novel, The Deathly Hallows, Harry walks alone into the forbidden forest, knowing he must die. The small, fearless remnant of  those who placed hope in him remain behind him in the school, outnumbered and overpowered by Voldemort's surrounding army. In the faithful company of all the saints, Harry walks undefended and unresisting to meet the dark lord. He encounters death and his (supposed) corpse is carried in triumph back to his followers by the gloating Voldemort. But then the miracle occurs. Deprived of Harry, their last hope,  the little ones: the school children; the burghers; the oppressed house elves; the marginalised centaurs; the families, nevertheless rise and defeat the Death Eaters in open battle. Finally Harry, having chosen life over the easy escape of death, faces Voldemort, who is filled with self doubt and fear. The two face off and gamble everything on their knowledge and understanding; particularly, the question of who is the rightful master of the Elder Wand - the most powerful magical implement in the world. Harry at the end is shown to understand more, and he triumphs.

Rowling is, by all accounts, a Christian. Certainly her story is redolent with Gospel values. Love wins over the lust for power. Life wins over death. True power is shown to reside in the small, the oppressed and the weak. Throughout the book Harry is not portrayed as exceptionally clever or powerful. He is able, and he is extraordinarily brave, but his enemies jeer that his victories have come about by good luck and by the efforts of other people, and they are mostly right. Harry is not a superman. He is, rather, a kind of every-man - a symbol of what we might all be if we assent to truth and goodness. Harry seeks nothing for himself and he ends the book alive and adored. Voldemort, seeks to straddle the globe but dies a weak and broken little man and his diminished corpse is laid out like that of his victims.

The epilogue of the book is instructive. Harry has defeated the most powerful dark wizard to have ever lived; he is in possession of the Elder Wand and he owns all of the Deathly Hallows, which give him mastery of death. He is in a position to command the world, and yet, we see him at last as a happily married man in his mid thirties, the father of three, working in a middle management position in the civil service. He is at peace with himself and content, quietly shrugging off the fame which others thrust on him. The ending, as it does in every story, defines all that went before it.  The victory in the end is the victory of something bigger than Harry Potter, which he has intuited and to which he has given service. It is the victory of something bigger than J.K. Rowling and to all of us. This work of fiction presented me with something that is profoundly true.

And the movies, which all this prologue is trying to get to, don't seem to get it. The films are not really very good, at least not to start with. The first five try and cram too much into too short a space and, although the supporting cast is stellar, the principals are not, so the movies work as animated, coloured illustrations to the books but not as much else. The Half Blood Prince is a reasonable film, and the two part The Deathly Hallows is actually quite decent. Until it gets to the end that is. Instead of the subtlety and power of Rowling's ending, the movie opts for a gee whizz special effects duel between Voldemort and Harry. They duke it out with fire and smoke and falling masonry and wrestling until Voldemort meets his end spectacularly in some kind of magical disintegration. In other words, Harry is not every-man acquiescing to something greater than himself, but one superhero battling another, and in the end, by a whisker, he wins by dint of sheer force. The movie is about the triumph of power. Good box office, no doubt but it kind of misses the point. The books affirm something that I recognise as worth affirming while the movies end up as a paean to the impotent Gods of this age: power and the accumulation of stuff. 


Alden Smith said…
A cynic might call Rowlings work ‘Old mythology told in 7 fat cheque payments’ and the Star Wars franchise as ‘The journey of the hero that never stops paying’ which although true enough on one level it should not stop us allowing our ears to hear, our eyes to see, our brains to comprehend and our spirits to be challenged towards transformation by the deep truths held within these timeless stories. The stories that at were once told around a camp fires under the stars are now writ large (but not any larger in their essential truth) and told in a modern idiom upon Hollywoods big screens.

To understand the vast background and context from which these stories draw their energy I would highly recommend reading Joseph Campbells “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”.

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