My husband sent out a blanket email to his coworkers last week that said, “Please, NO SPOILERS! We are reading the seventh and final book aloud as a family and I don’t want to know what happens. Just a week, and we’ll be done. Thanks.”
The “Harry Potter” in the tagline was redundant. Everyone knew which book he meant. They graciously bit back commentary and debate until we did, indeed, finish reading all 759 pages out loud.
It’s been a family tradition since book one: the younger of our two sons was still of “read aloud” age when Harry first appeared with his inaugural quest for the Sorcerer’s Stone. We wanted to be able to discuss plot twists as we went along. Plus, there were all those questions about Harry’s magic glorifying the occult.
For the first four, I read every book myself first, to be vigilant. But by then, I knew what book seven confirmed beyond doubt: J.K Rowling’s series, to borrow from British author C.S. Lewis, “baptizes the imagination” in the deepest Christian themes of redemption and sacrifice.
Not openly or didactically, any more than Lewis or J.R.R.Tolkien do in their famous fantasy adventures that share the same themes. But by book seven, a reader would have to be deliberately blind to miss Rowling’s true allegiance.
In every book, Harry is forced to choose between “what is easy and what is right,” to quote his mentor, Albus Dumbledore. In all seven – the last one, literally – he experiences a type of resurrection due to sacrificial love.
He is led, in book seven, to a sword to help him defeat the evil Voldemort that appears, at first glimpse, like “a great silver cross.” On the grave of his parents he finds a quote from I Corinthians: “the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” He learns, over and over, that death is not the end, and more important, that there are things in this life much worse than death.
Just as Harry first enters the wizarding world through Diagon Alley, Rowling asks us to look at reality diagonally – to see the eternal truths beyond our mundane, material world. And I think humanity’s innate longing for such truths is a major reason these seven books have been such a mind-blowing cultural phenomenon.
Rowling is the Tolkien of our age.
For Tolkien, writing his trilogy as totalitarianism marched across Europe, to understand the nature of good and evil wasn’t enough. We must make a stand.
“Stand your ground,” Aragorn urges his fellow warriors at the gates of Mordor in the last great battle of the Lord of the Rings. “A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but not this day. This day we fight! For all that you hold dear on this good earth, I bid you stand!”
Book after book, Rowling’s characters make the same stand. Through them, I believe she urges us to do the same, and not just against such obvious evils as prejudice and terrorism’s murderous advance.
One of Rowling’s most terrifying creations is the dementor, a soul-sucking wraith that feeds on the joys of its victims, leaving them hopeless and despairing.
Movies like Saw, Hostel and Captivity – torture porn, working in the same arena as Rowling but with a far different ambition – are the dementors of our age, promising vicarious thrills but instilling the soul-sucking message that life is meaningless, little more than a sick joke, and slaughter is rousing entertainment.
The directors say they’re harmless escapism, that viewers know the difference between right and wrong. But what happens to minds and souls baptized in misogyny and sadism? What kind of emotions, exactly, are released by rape, garroting and evisceration?
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are,” said Albus Dumbledore. They also show, I think, what we long for.
That longing is for recovery, Tolkien believed, or rather, “the regaining of a clear view.” Seeing things not as they are, but as we are meant to see them.
This is why society resonates to the great stories – the ones, Samwise Gamgee told Frodo, “that really mattered, full of darkness and danger, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end.”
Those stories stayed with you, he said, they “meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. … Folks in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding onto something.”
“What are we holding onto, Sam?” Frodo asks.
“That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”
There are things that evil can’t know. This is the message of Harry Potter, and it matters. Rowling got it right.