Saturday, February 28, 2009

Respect for the Body: Lessons from the Deaths of Mad-Eye Moody and Boromir

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.


Erin said...

Great points about Moody and Boromir both. The latter is especially interesting; Boromir's funeral is such a moving moment, but I never really stopped to think about it as something that dramatically shaped the course of half the Fellowship's future journeys... And burying Dobby was such a crucial turning point in Deathly Hallows. Such an earthy act, entwined with a spiritual awakening.

LOST focuses an awful lot on the treatment of dead bodies, particularly in this season. I don't know just how Providence fits in on the show, though John and Christian may provide some clues. I do think that how a character responds to dead bodies tells a lot about where they're coming from. Sayid was on Oceanic 815 because he stayed in Sydney a day longer to bury his friend; Hurley insists on burying Nikki and Paolo, and he scolds Sawyer for not treating the skeleton of Roger Linus with respect; Daniel wanted Naomi's body taken back to the freighter... Anyway, interesting subject!

Beth said...

Erin, thank you so much for bringing up Harry's burial of Dobby. That is such a key scene in DH, and such a major turning point for Harry. It's so striking that he makes perhaps the most crucial decision of his life (whether or not to go after the Hallows or to refuse their allure and choose to faithfully obey Dumbledore's instructions instead) while standing in the grave of his good friend, a loyal friend who gave up his life to save Harry. And it seems so meaningful that Harry chooses to bury the body by actually digging the grave with his own hands and not taking any sort of magic shortcut. Respect for the body again. Necessary grief. The showing of honor. Harry needs to do all that. And in the doing of it, he finds the courage once again to choose "what's right over what's easy."

"Brothers, never grow tired of doing good." (or "doing what is right" some versions say) 2 Thessalonians 3:13 -- a verse I'm working on with Sarah right now. Sometimes I think that the daily practice of choosing "what's right over what's easy" even in seemingly little things, is one of the most important parts of our formation as people of God. I worked on a script for a documentary a number of years ago, a tribute to the life of a religious sister who had spent years working in hospice. One thing that struck me was how very down to earth she was, especially when it came to her own "spiritual disciplines." For instance, denying herself a piece of candy, she said, didn't have to be something silly or legalistic. Not when she viewed in the larger sense of self-discipline, a small daily practice that could train her to "do the right thing" or to "let go" at a much more crucial time in her life. I remember having an "a-ha" moment over that, realizing that it's often the training in the little things, over a long period of time, that gives us ability (with God's help!) to make the right decisions when it comes to a time of crisis or fear. In those huge instances, we often don't have time to "figure out" what's the good and right thing to do, but if we've been trained to do the right things in the small ways, then doing the right thing in the big crisis moment will seem almost like a natural reflex. That, I would argue, is what Dumbledore was trying to do with Harry all along in the series. I've been struggling to find ways to articulate this for months and years...I think we're really missing something when we don't look at what Dumbledore is doing with Harry as a form of spiritual mentorship.

Whoops...I've wandered far afield from my original thoughts or from your comment, which was wonderful (and sparked my meanderings!). I like your LOST ruminations too. I'm glad I'm back into the show this season and enjoying it again. And I think you're quite right that you can tell a lot about the various characters in the ways they honor their fallen comrades. Wasn't it Claire who insisted on holding a memorial service on the beach for all the people who originally died on flight 815? I remember thinking how much I liked and admired her for that. I'd forgotten that bit about Sayid. He's certainly a complex mix of someone who seemed to value/honor life but who has been trained to take it far too easily.

Edna said...

Wow. You have given me a lot to think about. I have been to a two visitations and a funeral this weekend (not people close to me; friends' loved ones), and I really don't like the whole viewing of the body thing. Maybe I need to think about it a little more and understand why we do that.

Beth said...

Edna, my condolences to you and your friends. What a hard week. I can certainly see how reading this post in a week like that could feel challenging!

I know every culture has different ways of handling how they say good-byes to loved ones, and I know I've been to funerals where the viewing of the body also made me feel uncomfortable/uneasy, and yet I think for me, personally, the uneasiness often comes in the fact that those moments are the ones that bring the reality of the loved one's death home to me most clearly.

I am not always comfortable with my own body (not at all). I often don't treat it as well as I should. When I'm tired and stressed, I eat junk. I complain about what a nuisance it is to have to sleep when I'm busy. Etc. But it's beginning to dawn on me, the older I get (which may have something to do with it!) that how I live an embodied life is more deeply connected with my spiritual life than I ever thought.

At any rate, this theme seems to keep jumping at out me in the things I'm reading! :-)