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Harry Potter Part II: The Good and the Not So Good

            A good way to evaluate Harry Potter is to compare it to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Taking into account the facts that Tolkien’s masterpiece is the standard for fantasy literature and that Rowling is writing a slightly different genre and for a different audience, Harry Potter holds up fairly well.  Nevertheless, Rowling falls short at a crucial point.  That shortcoming, however, is one that much Christian thinking about God and evil shares.  We desperately need to hear Tolkien in order to avoid the errors of moralism and a simplistic faith that cannot withstand the tidal waves of disappointment in the face of the hiddenness of God.

            The similarities between Tolkien’s and Rowling’s works are obvious.  They are both fantasy literature, have a deep concern with the dangers of power, and share a typically English appreciation for normal life.  The differences are just as important.  Harry Potter is also a coming of age story and shows a marked preoccupation with death.  The Lord of the Rings is an epic tale and so more in tune with the tragic dimension of life.

            As a coming of age story, Harry Potter is necessarily geared to a younger audience than Tolkien, and, at least in the earlier volumes, is at the level of intelligent older children.  As Harry, Ron, and Hermione grow up, the story becomes more appropriate for adolescents and young adults.  I think this is why Rowling has so much more humor than does Tolkien.  Her marvelous gift for invention is used to entertain children and teens.  Howlers, disgusting jelly bean flavors, and quidditch are great fun.  She also includes a wonderful collection of queer beasts and odd ball characters. 

            Tolkien is the better stylist.  As an epic author his prose has a gravitas that is lacking in Rowling, and his landscape descriptions carry the reader into a world of sweeping grandeur.  At times Rowling’s writing contains some painful lapses. 

            Rowling does avoid the trap of simplistic characterization, a failing of many children’s and cosmic conflict stories.  Her characters are not mere cartoon figures of pure good and evil.  There is internal conflict and failure by the good.  Hermione can be a prig.  In addition to Ron’s adolescent addiction to snogging (which is Rowling’s fault not his), he is subject to juvenile jealousy, and Harry can feel real hatred.  Harry also has to come to grips with the fact that his father had mistreated Snape, and, as a young wizard, even Dumbledore had lusted for power. 

            Also, some of the bad characters are not purely evil.  The Malfoy family is a case in point.  Lucius Malfoy, a nasty bigoted man, in the end is a weak person.  His wife Narcissa is too, but at the same time she is strongly devoted to her son Draco, a devotion that leads her to lie to Voldemort and save Harry Potter.  Draco, the bad boy bully in all the earlier stories, still has enough decency not to want to kill Dumbledore and in the end, if not reconciled to Harry, at least has become a husband and a father who is no longer actively hostile to Potter.

            Both Rowling and Tolkien finish their tales in the typically English fashion in which the great cosmic battle for evil results in the reestablishment of normal life.  In Tolkien the Shire is restored, and Sam becomes happily married.  In Harry Potter the main characters are married and send their children to Hogwarts.

            Yet this return to the normal points to the most serious shortcoming of Harry Potter. Rowling’s portrayal of evil lacks the depth of Tolkien’s.  Harry’s loss of his parents and friends poignantly portrays the human desire to escape the tragic consequences of death.  Voldemort’s quest for immortality shows how that desire can be perverted to very evil ends.  In the end, however, Harry can go on to live a normal life, having matured from his combat with evil but not being permanently marred by it.  He can live a normal life even though he has a scar.

            The effect of evil upon Frodo is lasting, symbolized by his loss of a finger and the injury received on Weathertop that never completely heals.  Frodo does not just have battle wounds.  He is a wounded person.  He cannot return to a normal life in the Shire and is granted passage to Valinor where he will find peace.        

            As I watched Harry snap the Elder Wand and cast it into an abyss in the movie version of The Deathly Hallows (in the book he returns it to Dumbledore’s grave) so that it could never be used for evil purposes again, I couldn’t help but think of the contrast with Frodo and the ring of power.  Harry, the true hero, resists the temptation to abuse power.  In The Lord of the Rings Frodo fails.  He cannot resist the temptation to keep the ring and use its power for himself.  The ring is only destroyed because Gollum wants it for himself, takes it from Frodo, and then falls into the fires of Mount Doom.

            In Tolkien evil is not defeated by the heroic efforts of an individual.  Evil defeats itself in what he calls a “eucatastrophe” (See his “On Fairy-Stories” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams edited by C. S. Lewis.).  Tolkien’s eucatastrophe is undoubtedly derived from the biblical notion of evil defeating itself, especially in the cross of Christ where the forces of evil do their worst and unwittingly trigger the means of saving the world. 

            The theme of evil defeating itself is present in Harry Potter.  The killing curse that Voldemort uses upon Harry is his own undoing, but in the final analysis it is Harry’s heroic action that saves the day.         

            We Christians often present the Bible as a collection of tales about heroes from whom we can learn moral lessons and ways to live victoriously.  We look for evident victories.  Sadly our quest for evident victories means that we will seek power to win them.   In so doing we walk by sight and thus succumb to power’s hidden capacity for evil. 

            We forget that God has chosen to reveal the biblical characters as sinners and frequently as failures.  The hero of the biblical narrative is God, and his ways are not only higher than ours they are often hidden from us.  In the darkest hour, at the moment of testing, the Christian will often fail. Yet even then the unseen hand of God’s providence is working to overcome evil.  Indeed, the very victories of evil, such as the cross, are the moments of its greatest downfalls.  By trusting in the hidden God, we learn to walk by faith and not by sight and overcome the temptations of power.  As the Lord told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).


4 thoughts on “Harry Potter Part II: The Good and the Not So Good

  1. Thank you for this reminder: “We forget that God has chosen to reveal the biblical characters as sinners and frequently as failures.”

  2. Hmm. Thank you for explaining to me why I thought Harry Potter would have been more powerful if he had given his life at the end and stayed dead. I have wondered if that was Rowling’s original intention, changed because an editor wouldn’t let her disappoint the children.

    1. I can’t speak to Rowling’s original intention, but she often speaks about her books. I saw where she said that she considered killing Ron. Maybe she speaks or writes about it somewhere.
      I know that she is influenced by Christianity and includes objects like the resurrection stone, but she doesn’t quite go all the way. Harry doesn’t die and then be raised from the dead like Aslan, but then maybe he shouldn’t since he is just a mortal.

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