Monday, July 30, 2007

Harry Potter as a Christian allegory

When I first read 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone', way before the books became so famous - or notorious, depending on your viewpoint - I was impressed at what seemed, to me, a somewhat Christian worldview. In brief, I noticed:
  • the themes of integrity and loyalty
  • the importance of unconditional love
  • the power and value of sacrifice, even laying down one's life
  • the triumph of good over evil
I was also impressed at the style of writing, the clever mixture of genres - I don't think I'd ever before come across a fantasy school story with a good versus evil theme - the humour, and the clever plotting that made me totally unable to guess what would happen in the climax to the book.

I read the second book shortly afterwards, and was even more impressed. The same themes occurred, and the story was even more cleverly written, keeping me guessing, once again, to the end.

It was around that time that 'The Onion', the satirical (and often very rude) online magazine that writes spoof articles on all kinds of topics, decided to create an over-the-top article about the Harry Potter books. The aim, as far as I can gather, was to make fun of a few American Christian fundamentalists who - apparently - objected to the books because they were about wizards and magic.

Unfortunately, these disapproving folk apparently didn't understand satire, and took the article as truth. It began circulating in an email, which got forwarded and copied and ended up in hundreds and thousands of mailboxes. Christians who had never heard of Harry Potter started forwarding it on, not checking whether it was true or not. Many people, it seems, are all too trusting of emails from (supposely) 'reliable sources', and - worse - are perhaps secretly pleased to have something like this to condemn. Eventually it was widespread enough for Snopes to investigate - and of course they pointed out that (a) nothing published in The Onion is true (b) most of the claims in the article were ludicrous.

It was sad that Christians were so eager to pass on unpleasant gossip of this sort, but turned out to be a great turning point for JK Rowling. Schools and Churches in the USA (and even a few in the UK) decided to ban the book - which instantly made it highly desirable, and increased its popularity enormously. Rowling evidently appreciated this, since in the fifth Harry Potter book she makes reference to a newspaper being banned at Hogwarts School, thus guaranteeing that every student would read it!

Moreoever, Christians who actually did read the book tended to be positive about them. The evangelical magazine Christianity today has written several articles, indexed here, most of which are - on the whole - enthusiastic about the series. They are not, of course, direct teaching aids or overtly Christian. But - like the Narnia series by CS Lewis, or JRR Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' epic - they do revolve around Christian principles. In particular, they encourage all the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Two years ago, when the sixth book was published, people started making serious predictions about what would happen in the seventh and final novel. We knew that there would have to be a final confrontation between Harry and the evil Lord Voldemort - but which of them would die? Which of Harry's friends would be slaughtered along the way? Would the world be rid of evil at the last? What exactly was motivating Snape, the unpleasant potions professor? Why did Dumbledore, the wise old headmaster, keep so many secrets?

I assumed that there would be a positive outcome: that Harry would defeat Voldemort, and not die in the process himself, and that most of his friends would survive. I also hoped that there might be a more overt Christian theme - perhaps someone dying in order to give life to others, or even being resurrected, as Aslan was in 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'. Some of the predictions were clearly ridiculous - suggesting, for instance, that Harry would decide to join forces with Voldemort, or that Harry would turn out to be evil after all. The one I thought most interesting - and possible - was the one in Christianity Today, 'Waiting for Harry'.

I thought that 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows', which I read this weekend, was superb. It was an enjoyable read, it answered a lot of questions from the previous books, and it was sprinkled with overtly Christian symbols as well as the more broadly Christian principles. The Scriptures on tombstones have been mentioned in many places, as has the significance of Kings Cross station. Just a normal underground station that begins the journey to Hogwarts each year, but evidently chosen because of the meaning of the name. This becomes clear in the 'after-life' scenario towards the end of the book.

What of JK Rowling herself? The ridiculous - possibly libellous - suggestions in previous years that she herself was involved in the occult were obviously untrue. She has been quoted more than once as saying that no, she is not Wiccan. Yes, she tells us, she is a Christian. Perhaps in the USA people would say that even if it weren't true, but it's quite acceptable to be Wiccan in the UK. Far more so than admitting to being a follower of Christ. She has nothing to gain by admitting to being a Christian, and much to lose from the non-Christian majority.

JK Rowling, we learn elsewhere, is a member of the Church of Scotland. She didn't want to talk about her beliefs in advance of the publication of book seven, since - she said - it would give away the ending. Since the ending is a clear demonstration of voluntary sacrifice, life after death, resurrection, and protection transmuted to others, that surely shows beyond all shadow of doubt that the series is intended as a broadly Christian allegory.

What themes do I see that reflect Christian thinking? There are many, but in brief:

Sacrificial love: This one has been mentioned many times. Harry's mother dies to save his life in the first book, and this gives him a protection much stronger than evil. Without giving away too much, this is mirrored at the end of the seventh book in a very powerful way.

Love for enemies: Harry (and, to a lesser extent, Dumbledore, Ron and Hermione) stand out in their caring even for those who hate them. Harry saves Pettigrew's life in the third book, and Draco's life in the seventh, even though either of them would be happy to kill him.

Equality of races: Harry and his friends believe that all life is valuable. That of Muggles (those who are not wizards), of half-breeds such as Hagrid, of house-elves, even of goblins who show them little respect. Harry's respectful treatment of Kreacher, the unpleasant house elf left to him, leads to a remarkable transformation.

Principles rather than details: Harry and friends are not averse to breaking school rules when it's for higher purposes. Sometimes, of course, it's for their own purposes, but they're never deliberately trying to hurt anyone. They understand that rules are not unbendable; they provide a useful structure, but sometimes need to be abandoned. Just like Jesus choosing to heal or pick corn on the Sabbath.

Just in case anyone comes across this and thinks I'm off my rocker, here is just a small selection of the many, many other articles and blogs who also believe that there is a strong Christian theme in JK Rowling's books.
And for information about JK Rowling herself:
  • Fantasia - About CS Lewis, primarily, but with reference to JK Rowling as well.
  • Fantastic posts - brief biography of JK Rowling
  • Accio quote - about JK Rowling
  • Further to the epilogue - JK Rowling in a recent interview, telling us what she left out of the epilogue to the Deathly Hallows book


Hoots said...

Excellent and well-done. I blogged your post along with the daisy-chain of links I followed finding it. I haven't prayed about it yet, but I think the Holy Spirit has been at work this morning leading me through the wilderness we call the Blogospohere. I can't come up with any better explanation.

Steve Hayes said...

Thanks for a good and thoughtful article, though I think it is going a bit too far to call it a Christian allegory. The pilgrim's progress it's not.

And I have you to thank for introducing me to Harry Potter in the first place, on one of the FamilyNet BBS conferences, you wrote about the first couple of books, and so when I saw Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in a book shop I thought "That's the book Sue was talking about", and bought it, and promptly asked the family to get me the next book for Christmas, which they did. And then, of course, we were all hooked.

But though I don't think it's Christian allegory, it does, of course, plug Christian values -- lover, loyalty, friendship.

Actually the most disturbing and Voldemortish thing is the way you trace the gullibility of some Christians, and the ease with which they believe and propagate urban legends. I suppose Harry Potter is an allegory of that -- the fact that Harry himself is a horcrux.

Buffy said...


I really enjoyed your post, I thought it summed up all the issues around Harry Potter very well.

Martin LaBar said...

Well said.

One pre-requisite for deciding whether something is a Christian allegory might be to decide what makes a work of fiction Christian. I tried that, with rather indifferent success.

Perhaps the people who gleefully (?) passed that Onion article on as the truth were some of the same ones who have been forwarding "news" about Barack Obama being a Muslim, without checking.

Anonymous said...

There is a new, just released book entitled, "The Lord of the Hallows: Christian Symbolism and Themes in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter," which is now available online at, or Denise Roper, the author, examines the Christian themes present in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter, and compares Rowling's series with "The Lord of the Rings" by J. R. R. Tolkien and "The Chronicles of Narnia" by C. S. Lewis. The book also gives a fascinating explanation of the sources of Harry Potter's subtle religious symbolism, which includes a study of iconography derived from the Bible, the writings of the Early Church Fathers, Ancient and Medieval bestiaries, Christian artwork, and the Arthurian quest for the Hallows of the Holy Grail.