I've been working my way very slowly through Travis Prinzi's delightful book Harry Potter & Imagination: The Way Between Two Worlds. There are books I gulp, and then there are books that I want to gulp but realize early on that I would be better served by enjoying slowly and steadily, reading them with pen in hand. Travis' book falls into the latter category for me. After I'd raced through the first two chapters, I decided to start over (with that pencil handy) and read it at a more sane pace. I'm glad I did, for it stands up to that kind of rigorous reading.
I keep meaning to jot some of my thoughts about the book here, but haven't had the opportunity. This morning, however, I was reading along in Chapter 4, Travis' treatment of how Rowling defines and deals with evil in the HP series, and came upon his comment that...
"...Rowling is no Gnostic dualist when it comes to the human being. While there is no unambiguous discussion about a future bodily resurrection in the Christian sense of the idea, Rowling shows tremendous respect for the body. When Mad-Eye is killed, there is no question in the minds of Bill and Lupin about what must be done:
"Mad-Eye's body," said Lupin. "We need to recover it."
"Can't it --?" began Mrs. Weasley with an appealing look at Bill.
"Wait?" said Bill. "Not unless you'd rather the Death Eaters took it?"
Nobody spoke. Lupin and Bill said good-bye and left."
Travis goes on to say how significant it is that they all accepted the importance of recovering Mad-Eye's body before the Death Eaters got to it. "There is nothing of the kind of dismissal of the body that we often hear at funerals..."
I was struck by this (and his following reflections) on various levels. But I also paused because a lightbulb went off over my head. "Ah!" I said. "Boromir!"
Remember Boromir in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings? He was the member of the Fellowship who tried to take the ring from ring-bearer Frodo, then died in a valiant attempt to save Merry and Pippin from a foul band of Orcs.
Back in 2002, my friend David Mills wrote a terrific article for Touchstone magazine entitled The Writer of Our Story: Divine Providence in the Lord of the Rings. I commend the whole article, which is archived here. But the section that stood out to me when I first read it and the one I've not forgotten in all these years is what David writes about the death of Boromir and his friends' care for the body of their fallen comrade (fallen, one might almost say, in more than one sense):
"To obey the laws of their world, they must bury their fallen comrades, but if they do, they will lose several hours before they can chase the Orcs. “First we must tend the fallen. We cannot leave him lying like carrion among these foul Orcs,” says Legolas, and Gimli agrees. But Aragorn says, “But we do not know whether the Ring-bearer is with them [the Orcs] or not. Are we to abandon him? Must we not seek him first?”
It is, as Aragorn says, “an evil choice,” and as far as they know, one that will decide the fate of the whole world. The Orcs, they assume, are servants of Sauron and are taking the Hobbits to him. If the Orcs have captured Frodo, Sauron will get the Ring and the world they love will die. If the Orcs have only captured the other Hobbits, Sauron will torture them in unimaginable ways and learn from them Frodo’s plan and his last known location. Then it will not take Sauron long to find Frodo, and when he finds him, the world they love will die.
It is obvious, to most of us, that they ought to leave the body. Boromir had betrayed them, after all. Burying him could do him no good and would lead, almost certainly, to the final success of evil. And yet they bury him, because that is the right thing to do.
When I first read the book, as a typically secular-minded American twelve-year-old, this scene astonished me. It made no sense. It seemed to me a flaw in the story that these three heroes should do something so pointless and irrational and self-defeating. This is the reaction of those who do not believe in Providence."
David's further comments, in the context of his article, show that if we're looking aright, we can actually see the hand of Providence clearly at work in their seemingly senseless but respectful action. "Because the three spend several hours burying Boromir, they never catch the Orcs who had kidnapped their friends..." he writes, and goes on to explain the whole "domino" chain of events that arises from the fact that Merry and Pippin escape on their own, meet the Ents, etc.
The issue of Providence is one that I think has been under-explored thus far in Harry Potter studies. Is there something comparable going on, either in this decision of Mad-Eye's friends or in other moments where we see Rowling's characters choose "what is right over what is easy"? (to quote Dumbledore). Worth pondering.
But for today I'm simply enjoying the parallels of the two scenes, and what they tell us about proper respect for the body in stories shaped by Christian vision. Bodies, of course, as Travis points out, "matter" (and what a lovely play on words). In a week where we've been reminded by the church that "we are dust and to dust we shall return" we also remember that the sign marked on our foreheads is the sign of a cross, and that our bodies, along with the rest of us, have been fully redeemed by the God who first made human bodies and called them good and then took on flesh in order to redeem fallen and broken humanity.
In a culture often uncomfortable with bodies (that too often chooses to worship, indulge, denigrate or neglect bodies, all skewered responses to the flesh) it's refreshing to come across stories that put bodies in proper perspective. They are not the end-all, but they matter. To God and therefore to us.