Thursday, July 31, 2008

Happy Birthday, Harry! (And JKR too...)

Yes, it's Harry Potter's birthday today! It's not often that I find myself celebrating the birthdays of literary characters (how often do we even know when a certain character's birthday is?) and yet it's easy to remember Harry's. Not only because it's the same birthday as his famous author, J.K. Rowling, but because Harry's birthdays play such a central role in the opening chapters of the books. In fact, last night I was up late, and as it neared midnight, I found myself wondering if Harry was lying awake somewhere thinking about all of his birthdays, especially that very memorable eleventh one...

In honor of Harry's birthday, I thought I would post a reflection that I first wrote and posted exactly one year ago today. I posted it then on "Re-Reading Harry," a blog that my friend Erin and I had put together in the months leading up to release of Deathly Hallows. It was our place to reflect on and enjoy the books together.

Here's what I was thinking about this time last year, having finished my first read-through of DH. I was working on a second read-through (aloud, with my hubby) when I wrote this. It sums up at least some of the ways that I see Christian imagery and themes permeating the novel.

Harry's Walk Toward Death

My favorite image of Harry, and one that I’ve repeated over and over, is that he has been, all along "a beloved son worth dying for." That idea really colored my reading of Deathly Hallows.

It would be so easy to see Harry as the Christ figure of DH, and in many ways, with his sacrificial, surrendered walk toward death (with all the evil figures jeering and taunting him, so reminiscent of Aslan padding to the stone table) I think we are supposed to view him in that light. But it’s not a neat one-to-one kind of comparison. Harry is a type or symbol of Christ here, much in the way that each of us as Christians ("little Christs") is supposed to be. I think the deeper way to read this scene is to realize that Harry is still what he’s always been most deeply throughout the books: Every Man.

The verse that kept coming to mind for me is this one: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live..." I also thought of Bonhoeffer’s quote "When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die."

Harry is bid to "come and die," to give up his life. That he is ready to do so, and willingly puts himself in the place of sacrifice for those he loves, shows us how much he has learned from his mother. He has her eyes, and all along I’ve wondered, as I know so many others have too, if that did not mean he also had her willingness to die for others. It turns out he does. He sees that parallel too. When he’s talking to Riddle as they circle each other in the great hall, he tells Riddle that he’s just done for all of his loved ones what his mother did for him. He sees his sacrifice in that mold, that light.

What fascinates me and makes me realize that Harry is still "Every Man," a picture of a soul that is growing in holiness and sanctification (there’s that alchemical nod) is that it’s not Harry’s willingness to die that *saves Harry.* He is able to walk up to death (with the help and encouragement of his cloud of witnesses, the loved ones who have gone before him) and he is able to take death and essentially go through it and come out on the other side, because the ancient magic, the grace, the power of his mother’s blood refuge is STILL operating. I know we’re told that protection ceases when he comes of age and leaves his aunt’s house. But because that blood still runs in Voldemort’s veins (life running in the midst of death! darkness not being able to overcome it!) that protection is still kept alive. And so Harry lives. Dumbledore tells him that Voldemort's use of that blood tethers Harry to life. What a fascinating phrase. He is still dependent on someone else’s sacrifice (and it strikes me this makes Lily, not Harry or Dumbledore, the key Christ figure in the books).

Harry is healed by what he goes through there in the forest and in King’s Cross, especially when Voldemort’s curse seems to cast out/kill the evil bit of Voldemort that had attached itself to Harry all those years before. Or am I reading that aright? (I'm not sure if the twisted baby in King's Cross is supposed to be that bit of Voldemort that had lived in Harry, or is a picture of what Voldemort will be left as for eternity because of the choices he's made. Hard to know.) It's hard to understand fully what happened there, but it certainly seems as though evil/sin has been cast out of Harry, or that he has been, in a sense, healed of what almost amounts to demonic possession or at least oppression. That too seems to point to Harry as an every man figure.

I love that it was King’s Cross where he has the final big talk with Dumbledore: a train station, a journeying place, and the one that Harry has always known as a "liminal" place (a door between the muggle world and the wizarding world, and now a door into an even more real world than either of the other two). I suspect a lot of us had Lewis on our minds as Harry walked through the forest to meet his death, and King’s Cross reminded me of Lewis too – both the "Wood Between the Worlds" and also the train station in Prince Caspian where the kids are called back to Narnia.

I don’t think we’re to miss the sacrificial almost crucifixion like aspect of what Harry has just gone through. When he comes back to life and wakes on the forest floor, Narcissa’s nails pierce him. If I’m not mistaken, her nails were even described as blood red in an earlier book.

And I love how he emerges from the forest almost re-born, a new man, a new creature. When Hagrid carries him, weeping, in his arms, I think we’re supposed to think about the first time Hagrid carried Harry out of the wreckage of his parents’ house when he was just a baby. Unbeknownst to Hagrid, Harry has survived yet another killing curse. And he is still as dependent as a baby on outside help and grace. I think that’s one reason I love Harry’s character so much. He is a "savior" figure, a hero, but he is enabled to do what he does, to respond to his call, only because he himself is saved by a love deeper and more ancient than his own. His own sacrifice, his own ability to love, his own overcoming of temptations...all of them are born as a response to the love that is first shown to him.


Erin said...

As most excellent a post as it was a year ago, and it makes me even hungrier for Harry. At least there are two things to look forward to Potter-wise in the coming months - the sixth movie and the Beedle the Bard book! Happy belated birthday, Jo and Harry!

Beth said...

Thanks, Erin. You may be the only person in the world who has actually read this post twice (besides me!). :-) I'm looking forward to movie and Beedle the Bard too. And I know what you mean about feeling hungry for more Harry stories!