Monday, August 06, 2007

The Last Harry Potter

The other morning I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and now know what happens at the end of the boy-wizard saga. In many ways I found this last more engaging that most of the earlier novels, but perhaps that was because it successfully concludes the tale J. K. Rowling set out to tell rather than leaving us at a point where we know that there is a lot that still needs to be resolved.

As the series has progressed it is clear that Joanna Rowling has developed as a storyteller, and in this last book of the series she demonstrates admirably the way in which she has mastered her craft -- and, it has to be pointed out, has made an awful lot of money in the process! Indeed, I found myself wondering whether she has opened an account for herself at Gringotts Bank! My wife said she doesn't have to worry about her pension, to which I responded that she probably owns the pension fund...

Before publication there was a great deal of speculation about the ending, who would die, and so forth. By the time I got to the last page I was nodding my head and whispering, "How appropriate," for there is satisfaction in the way in which the characters mature is brought to an appropriate conclusion. While I am sure there will be websites popping up with all sorts of alternative endings (if that hasn't happened already), the way the threads are pulled together left me feeling very satisfied and able to continue chewing over the substance of what I had read.

But it wasn't so much the tale that kept nudging me as I read along but what I saw happening with the story. For most of the Potter books I have found myself walking through a landscape that was vaguely familiar, for they are in many respects a variant on the English boarding school stories with which I grew up. Also, having gone to boarding school there were elements that were entirely recognizable, although Hogwarts might have been a lot more interesting than the Victorian hallways, classrooms, and quadrangles where I learned the three Rs.

This book does not stop there but takes us into a bigger landscape. Now I have read it I realize that there were earlier hints that the Potter saga was moving in this direction, but only as the end of the tale approaches do we see the reality of this emerging. There were times when I thought I had wandered into something that was more akin to a Tolkienesque world than the boarding school genre with which we started.

I suspect debates will continue for years about whether Harry Potter has a Christian flavor or not. My wife's aunt in England is firmly of the opinion that the floods that have caused such devastation there are God's judgment on a nation that allowed such anti-Christian stories to sully the minds of the country's children. She is a lovely and godly woman, but I have to disagree with her. However, I am not entirely sure that I agree with Bob Smietana, writing for Christianity Today, that "She began writing about wizards and quidditch and Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans, and somewhere along the way, Christ began to whisper into the story." (

Yet if Christ did not whisper into the story, we were taken to the edge of that larger stage upon which the Lord God in Christ worked out the drama of salvation. While I am not entirely sure in the elaborate mythology of Tolkien that I was ever able to see, as it were, a Jesus figure, Tolkien certainly gave me a wonderful sense of the great divide between good and evil in which Christ is the primary player. This last Harry Potter is somewhat similar.

Just as you cannot leave a Tolkien book without knowing that there is something more than what we can see, touch, feel, and smell, the same is true with this final volume in Rowling's series. If I were an inquistive kid reading this story I would have all sorts of questions about right and wrong, good and evil, life and death, whether there is a resurrection from the dead, and so on. I think I would also have a much more highly developed sense of justice. It is a fabulous launchpad for conscientious Christian parent to talk seriously with their children.

While there is no mention of God, the church, Jesus, or any of the paraphenalia of ecclesiastical life, there is a lot more to these books than may at first glance meet the eye. Some years ago I was a little concerned when a kid brought a Potter book to church with her, I don't have those misgivings now. There are, perhaps, things that a young mind can learn about the topography of time and eternity that Joanna Rowling does not know she is imparting to her readers.

Just as we do not abandon the myths that surround King Arthur, the Holy Grail, and so forth, so here is a 20th and 21st Century myth that broadens our scope and widens our vision. It is entirely possible that the Potter stories will take their place alongside these older tales that have shaped our culture, in the company also of the likes of authors like Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad. Maybe there's even something of a Moby Dick in there, too.

I grew up with several Ron Weasley-like boys, and I have to confess that every time I read about Hermione Granger I see elements of both my wife and my elder daughter. Dumbledore in a strange way is not unlike a very influential teacher in my own growing up, while when I manage to expel Alan Rickman's movie portrayal of Severus Snape from my mind that wily professor is very like the gangly man with a beak-like nose who taught me to love English literature and the beauty of our langauge. This means, I think, that these characters have become friends, which I suspect is something any novelist wants of her or his creations.

Rather than being scared of the Potter books, in a few years time I am looking forward to being able to sit down with my ganddaughter, Hannah, and read her the first of the Harry Potter stories, hoping that it will give her a love for the language, too, and that it will help her to understand the vastness of the temporal and eternal landscape across which we are rowing our fragile barques.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Harry Potter is in many ways the classic coming-of-age hero story. Each one of us must figure out who is trustworthy, who our friends are, and learn to discern good from evil. Here in the southern U.S., Hogwarts does not correspond visually to the average public school experience. Ah, but there are many other similarities! Thanks for your encouraging review!