On our plane trip from St. John’s to Seattle, the kids and I made a game of counting how many people we saw — on the plane, in airports, on the street — reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. We counted eight — which, when you think of the number and variety of books and readers in the world, is pretty amazing. Driving through Seattle today I noticed that a car ahead of us had a message hand-lettered in white paint on the back window: I TRUST SNAPE. There’s no question that the Harry Potter books have made a bigger impact on popular culture than another novels of our generation.
As the conclusion to a seven-book series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is almost completely satisfying. No, it’s not a perfect book — there are flaws, and in wrapping up the storyline J,K. Rowling was bound to disappoint some readers who might have hoped for different outcomes for favourite characters. But that wrap-up answers so many questions that have been raised throughout the series and brings the characters and their stories to such a satisfying conclusion that most of us who’ve followed Harry’s adventures from the beginning are left feeling that all-important sense of closure.
Writers like me, who start books without the slightest idea how we’re going to finish them, are also left in awe at the accomplishment of a writer who can weave such a tight-knit plot that seemingly random comments made in Book Two become crucial to the conclusion of Book Seven.
The strength of these books has never been in Rowling’s literary ability — they are not very literary books; her style is probably most comparable to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books and there are many writers of children’s fantasy who are more skillful wordsmiths and worldbuilders than either of them. But what Rowling does well is create characters that readers care about — complex characters whose motivations we can argue about for ten years — and lead them through a storyline so filled with twists and turns that one hundred pages from the end of the six-hundred-page final volume, we’re still unsure whom we can trust and how the conflict might finally be resolved.
Spoilers from this point on … if you haven’t read if yet but you plan to, don’t click!
The long-standing questions that have plagued readers throughout the series — most importantly questions regarding the loyalty and motives of Severus Snape, the unpleasant Potions master — are finally and decisively resolved here, in a conclusion that makes it clear that while Snape has never been a nice guy or even, really, a good guy, his loyalty cannot be questioned. Everything Snape has done throughout the series makes sense when Harry finally views Snape’s memories in the Pensieve after Snape’s death — everything makes sense in the light of Snape’s lifelong unrequited love for Harry’s mother, Lily.
Speculation that Snape was in love with Lily (based on next to no evidence in the first six books) was rampant among fans before this book came out, and I always dismissed it as overly imaginative fanwanking. But Rowling presents Snape’s best-kept secret so naturally that once I, like Harry, had finished looking into the Pensieve, it seemed the only possible explanation.
The other major adult character in the series is Professor Dumbledore. Readers have never been led to doubt or question Dumbledore’s motives or his goodness as they have with Snape — Dumbledore has always been presented as the wise, almost godlike (or at least Gandalf-like) father figure who knows best and guides Harry throughout the stories.
Dumbledore’s death at the end of Book Six does more than force Harry to carry on without his mentor, though — it opens the way, in The Deathly Hallows, for a flood of posthumous rumour and speculation about Dumbledore’s past, his secrets, and his real goals. All of this leaves Harry unsure whether he should trust his memory of Dumbledore and the task Dumbledore left for him to do.
The greatest irony about the Harry Potter books is that they have drawn so much venemous criticism from conservative Christians, when in fact they are deeply rooted in a Christian worldview and they examine ethical, moral and spiritual questions in powerful ways. Moral complexity, particularly in the person of Snape, has been present since the very first book — even at eleven, Harry learned that good guys don’t always look like good guys, and bad guys are not necessarily creepy and sinister. But the depth and difficulty of these questions has grown just as Harry and his friends have grown, and in Deathly Hallows they are seventeen-year-olds trying to decide who can be trusted and what path to follow in the adult world.
Trust is the central theme here, as Harry struggles with whether he should continue to believe in Dumbledore’s goodness and trustworthiness as new facts, different points of view, come to light. We learn that Dumbledore’s past involved a youthful flirtation with the darker side of wizardry, and a lack of care and attention for vulnerable family members he should have cared for. Harry’s struggle at this point is very relevant for the Christian: as people keep telling him he should choose to believe the best about Dumbledore, Harry reflects that he cannot simply “choose” what he’d like to believe; he must know the truth.
He does discover many more facts about Dumbledore, but ultimately Harry realizes that faith cannot be based on perfect knowledge. There is always a leap required — when you have learned all the facts you can, and your heart is still divided, the leap of faith takes you past uncertainty. When you choose to believe, only then can you move forward. Harry makes that leap standing beside the grave of Dobby the house-elf (who dies one of many sacrifical deaths in this novel); he chooses to believe in Dumbledore despite his doubts, and from that point on he is able to make progress on a quest that has, till that point, seemed largely pointless and frustrating.
When I say the Harry Potter books are steeped in a Christian worldview, I mean that they are stories about the struggle between good and evil. There is real good, and real evil, and the books teach that evil CAN be defeated and good can (and will) triumph. This is the essence of the Christian story, and perhaps of all great stories.
But the Harry Potter books also teach that the conquest of evil comes at a price. Beloved characters, people Harry cares about — die fighting Lord Voldemort. (But Ron survives! Yay!!) And Harry himself has to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, to be willing to die without any assurance that there will be a way out.
Two Bible verses are quoted in this novel — both are found in inscriptions on tombstones. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” and “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” both express ideas central to the themes of the novel. The verse that is not quoted — because it doesn’t need to be, because it’s implied so clearly it might be the watermark behind each page — is “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
This is exactly the choice Harry faces — to willingly, knowingly lay down his life. In doing so he moves from being an Everyman to being a Christ-figure — as every man can do, showing truly Christlike sacrifical love, the love that (in the magical world of Harry Potter) provides a protective shield against the most powerful curses and can even defeat death.
Appropriately, Harry doesn’t kill Lord Voldemort — Voldemort unintentionally kills himself as his own curse backfires against him in the final battle. Harry never has to utter the Killing Curse. Harry is a far from perfect Christ-figure: he makes mistakes, has weaknesses, has failings. But his choices — like those of Snape and of Dumbledore — have placed him clearly on the side of light. That’s another important theme in the series, one Dumbledore articulates to Harry early on: it’s not your background, your circumstances, or anything external that defines who you are. It’s the choices you make.
Just as Harry is not a perfect hero, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is not a perfect book, nor is the series a perfect series. It has its flaws as a work of literature; it has its flaws as a moral work, too. Even those who don’t believe that “wizard” equals “Satan worshipper” may find some things they don’t like or don’t agree with in these novels (my concern, as a parent and teacher, is that throughout his school career Harry constantly disobeys the rules, lies about what he’s been doing, and gets away with it!)
But good storytellers know that what matters most is creating a story that engages your reader and asks the questions you believe urgently need to be asked, even if not every detail of the story fits your theological framework. Jesus, the best storyteller ever, knew that — go read the parables.
The Harry Potter books are not parables — they are not even semi-allegories, like Lewis’s Narnia books. J.K. Rowling is certainly not Jesus, nor is she C.S. Lewis or even J.R.R. Tolkein. Her novels are, perhaps, most like Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings — not in terms of literary achievement, but in the sense that they are stories firmly rooted in the same tradition as the stories of the Bible. They are stories in which human beings are capable of sin, deception, and frailty but also great courage and goodness, stories in which good triumphs over evil and and love is the most powerful weapon of all, stories in which the greatest thing anyone can do is to lay down his or her life for a friend — or an enemy.
(For a very thoughtful blog post on this novel and moral themes in the Harry Potter books, please read Bub and Pie!)