I’ll be a guest on the next episode of “The Secrets of Harry Potter,” SQPN’s Harry Potter podcast. The topic of the show is “Christmas,” so with that in mind, I decided to share part of one of my lectures on Christian symbolism in the Harry Potter series with those of you who follow this blog.
Early in the chapter called “Godric’s Hollow,” Harry’s despair is overwhelming:
They had discovered one Horcrux, but they had no means of destroying it: The others were as unattainable as they had ever been. Hopelessness threatened to engulf him. (Hallows 313)
But it is when Harry begins to lose hope in the chapter entitled “Godric’s Hollow” that Rowling uses the strongest Christian imagery in the series thus far. Harry sees the “little church whose stained-glass windows were glowing jewel-bright” and hears the sound of Christmas carols which “grew louder as they approached the church. It made Harry’s throat constrict, it reminded him so forcefully of Hogwarts.” (Hallows 323-324)
The stained glass window design from the book Harry Potter Film Wizardry
Christ the King is depicted along with the Four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Notice the four angels hovering and the descending dove of the Holy Spirit.
Then, as Harry and Hermione walk through the churchyard, they discover the gravestones of Kendra and Ariana Dumbledore, and of James and Lily Potter. The fact that these tombs are found in a churchyard means that the wizard and witches buried there were laid to rest in hallowed ground, which means the Dumbledores and the Potters were given a Christian burial.
That James and Lily may have belonged to a church or believed in the Christian religion isn’t such a radical idea as some might think. In a 2004 interview at the Edinburgh Book Festival, J. K. Rowling was asked if Harry Potter has a godmother. Her response was:
“No, he doesn’t. I have thought this through. If Sirius had married…Sirius was too busy being a rebel to get married. When Harry was born, it was at the very height of Voldemort fever last time so his christening was a very hurried, quiet affair with just Sirius, just the best friend. At that point it looked as if the Potters would have to go into hiding so obviously they could not do the big christening thing and invite lots of people. Sirius was the only [godparent], unfortunately.”
In this interview, Rowling revealed that Harry was christened, meaning that he was baptized as an infant. Further proof that the Dumbledores and the Potters may have held Christian beliefs can be found in the quotations from the New Teastament which are inscribed on their grave markers.
Harry stooped down and saw, upon the frozen, lichen-spotted granite, the words KENDRA DUMBLEDORE and, a short way below her dates of birth and death, AND HER DAUGHTER ARIANA. There was also a quotation: Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Hallows 325)
This inscription is from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6, verse 21, which should be examined in the context in which it appears in the Bible: This quotation is from Christ’s “Sermon on the Mount.”
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:19-21, NRSV)
This passage warns against storing up earthly treasures, as Voldemort did by using valuable objects such as Slytherin’s ring and locket, Hufflepuff’s cup, and Ravenclaw’s diadem to create Horcruxes in attempt to cheat death and gain physical immortality. In his youth, Dumbledore did something similar by seeking the earthly treasures known as the Deathly Hallows in order to become the master of death. Unlike Voldemort, Dumbledore learned that earthly treasures can be lost or stolen. He learned not to try to escape from death, but to embrace it. Dumbledore learns that the only immortality worth having is not in this life, but in the life one receives after death. In the graveyard scene, Harry has the notion that Albus Dumbledore may have chosen the inscription on Kendra and Ariana’s tomb himself. What we know of his experiences seems to indicate that he did.
Later in this chapter, Harry reads the writing on his parents’ grave markers, encountering the second Bible quote Rowling used in the novel:
The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.
Harry read the words slowly, as though he would have only one chance to take in their meaning, and he read the last of them aloud. “ ‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death’…” A horrible thought came to him, and with it, a kind of panic. “Isn’t that a Death Eater idea? Why is that there?”
“It doesn’t meaning defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry,” said Hermione, her voice gentle. “It means…you know…living beyond death. Living after death.” (Hallows 328)
Indeed, Hermione’s interpretation is closer to the truth than Harry’s. The Bible verse quoted here is St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, verse 26. Paul wrote to the Corinthians about Christ’s resurrection being an indicator that Christ’s followers would also be resurrected. In the Resurrection, death would truly be destroyed, and the faithful will “live beyond death” as Hermione described it.
Before they leave the churchyard, Hermione conjures a wreath of Christmas roses to lay upon the tomb of James and Lily. According to the tradition of Christian symbolism, the Christmas Rose is a symbol of the Nativity. The symbolism of the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus can also be found in the monument of the Potter family, a memorial sculpture that depicts James, Lily, and the infant Harry.
This hauntingly beautiful chapter takes place on Christmas Eve. In the works of Lewis and Tolkien, the significance of Christmas cannot be overlooked. The four protagonists in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe receive gifts, weapons they will need to fight against the White Witch, from Father Christmas. They learn that Aslan is on the move and the White Witch’s reign over Narnia is soon to end.
The timeline that Tolkien devised for The Lord of the Rings shows that the nine heroes of The Fellowship of the Ring departed from Rivendell on December 25th. This was the beginning of their quest to destroy the One Ring , an event that would result in the downfall of the dark lord Sauron. According to Tolkien, Middle-earth’s future is our past and present. Tolkien chose the December 25th date to foreshadow that in Middle-Earth’s future, the Incarnation would occur that day, an event that marked the beginning of the end of mankind’s enslavement to sin and the defeat of Satan.
The White Witch and Sauron are the “Satans” of the fictional universes they inhabit. If they knew that the events occurring at Christmastime would lead to their destruction, we could surmise that these adversaries would cry out in rage at their impending doom.
On page 342, Harry and Hermione, disguised as a middle aged couple, make a narrow escape from the trap set for them by Voldemort.
And then his scar burst open and he was Voldemort and he was running across the fetid bedroom, his long white hands clutching at the windowsill as he glimpsed the bald man and the little woman twist and vanish, and he screamed with rage, a scream that mingled with the girl’s, that echoed across the dark gardens over the church bells ringing in Christmas Day…
Voldemort’s wail of frustration, piercing the cold night air at just the very moment the church bells proclaimed the birth of Christ, reminds me of an English Christmas tradition.
An old Christmas Eve custom called ringing the Devil’s Knell, persists in the town of Dewsbury in Yorkshire. The practice sprang up around the folk belief that the Devil dies each year at the moment when Christ is born. The Church bells still toll on Christmas Eve in Dewsbury announcing the Devil’s demise. [This is a quote from The Encyclopedia of Christmas byTanya Gulevich, page 183.]
This tradition is also found in Ireland.
Many believed spirits walked abroad on Christmas Eve and deemed it wiser not to venture outdoors after dark. About an hour before midnight, church bells all over Ireland began to ring. This tolling, known as “the Devil’s funeral” or the Devil’s Knell, announced the death of the Devil, who was believed to expire annually on Christmas Eve with the birth of Jesus Christ. (Gulevich 286)
Harry had escaped from being murdered by Voldemort once again, not on the Eve of All Hallows, but on Christmas, the holiest night of the year. Rowling brilliantly sounded the Devil’s Knell in triumphant counterpoint to the Dark Lord’s scream of rage: this event heralds the beginning of Harry’s triumph and serves as a warning to the Dark Lord that his days are numbered.
It is on the day after Christmas that Harry and his friends begin to make real progress in accomplishing their mission to defeat Voldemort. Just as King Arthur’s knights followed the white stag through the forest to find the Grail Chapel, Harry followed the silver doe to a frozen forest pool where he saw a shape like “a great silver cross” (Hallows 367). It was the Sword of Gryffindor hidden beneath the ice. The sword is one of the most fundamental Christian symbols:
The Cross is God’s sword, held at the hilt by the hand of Heaven and plunged into the world not to take our blood, but to give us His.– Peter Kreeft
Harry, while wearing the locket, tried to retrieve the sword, but the Horcrux around his neck began to choke him. It was when Harry began to drown that Ron returned to save his life. Proving himself to be a true Gryffindor, Ron pulled the sword from the water and severed the locket’s hold on Harry. Voldemort, like Satan the Father of Lies, made a desperate effort to claim Ron as his own, and Ron, like the weasel who strikes against the venomous serpent, was able to strike the first fatal blow against Voldemort by destroying the locket Horcrux with Gryffindor’s sword.
In terms of Christian symbolism, this chapter gives us two sacramental images, baptism (Ron, like John the Baptist, draws Harry up from the water) and reconciliation (Ron is truly sorry for abandoning Harry and is forgiven by him).
If you liked this post, you can read more about this topic in The Lord of the Hallows: Christian Symbolism and Themes in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, which is available from www.outskirtspress.com/thelordofthehallows.
The “Secrets of Harry Potter” podcast’s Christmas episode will be recorded on Wednesday morning, and I’ll be a guest on the show. Please watch this blog for updates about this new episode. 🙂 Meanwhile, here’s SHP’s review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One: http://secrets.sqpn.com/2010/11/26/shp-62-deathly-hallows-part-i-movie-review/ Enjoy!
Please comment on this post. I’d love to hear your thoughts about Christmas in all seven of the Harry Potter novels. 🙂
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