Book Reviews2 Harry Potter and “the Death of God”

Published with permission from the author
by Michael D. O’Brien

Well, July 21st has come and gone and the world is muggling onward. The date, of course, was the publication day of the seventh and final volume of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The previous six books have been translated into an estimated 66 languages so far, and have sold close to four hundred million copies, a figure that will continue to swell as sales for this consummation of Potterworld continue, and various new editions are released—the boxed sets, the leather bound special editions, the audio books and digital-with-images, et cetera, et cetera. Moreover, the fifth film was released on July 11th, and doubtless two more films (and perhaps spin-off sequels) are to follow. All told, it is the grandest trans-cultural event of epic proportions in the history of mankind, rivaled only by the Bible.

I use the word rivaled with some consideration, not only because of the impact of the series on the modern world, but also because of the worldview it so powerfully implants in its devotees. In short, the series is a kind of anti-Gospel, a dramatized manifesto for behavior and belief embodied by loveable, at times admirable, fictional characters who live out the modern ethos of secular humanism to its maximum parameters. It is all about us. It is all about the late-Western preoccupations of Homo Sapiens Sapiens, man as knower. More precisely, it is all about Homo Sine Deo, man without God, who, in order to find his identity in a flattened cosmos, must pursue power and knowledge at all costs lest he be blasted into non-being by a killing curse. He feels abandoned, alone, and believes, therefore, that he must rely upon himself—though he will bond, to a degree, with those who assist in the revelation and development of his hidden identity. The stakes are the highest as he seeks this ultimate holy grail, for his mortal life is at radical risk. There will be deaths along the way, plenty of them, and in myriad manifestations.

Lev Grossman, in the July 23, 2007, issue of Time magazine, writes, “If you want to know who dies in Harry Potter, the answer is easy: God.” In this he has expressed the core problem with the Potter series. There is much that could be written, and has been written, about the specific problems in the books. Without neglecting the valid point that good fiction need not be overtly Christian, need not be religious at all, we might ponder a little the fact that the central metaphor and plot engines of the series are activities (witchcraft and sorcery) absolutely prohibited by God. We might also consider for a moment the fact that no sane parents would give their children books which portrayed a set of “good” pimps and prostitutes valiantly fighting a set of “bad” pimps and prostitutes, and using the sexual acts of prostitution as the thrilling dynamic of the story. By the same token we should ask ourselves why we continue to imbibe large doses of poison in our cultural consumption, as if this were reasonable and normal living, as if the presence of a few vegetables floating in a bowl of arsenic soup justifies the long-range negative effects of our diet. Leaving aside a wealth of such arguments, let us consider Lev Grossman’s insight.

“The death of God?” many a reader will respond. “Surely he is making too much of the matter! Aren’t we discussing a single phenomenon in a vast sea of cultural phenomena? And aren’t there a lot of positive values in these books and films—even some edifying moments of courage and sacrifice? And isn’t it all about love?” Yes, in a sense it is. But what kind of love? What kind of sacrifice? And for what purpose? The series is also about the usefulness of hatred and pride, malice toward your real or perceived enemies, seeking and using secret knowledge, lies, cunning, contempt, and sheer good luck in order to defeat whatever threatens you or stands in the path of your desires. It is a cornucopia of other false messages: The end justifies the means. Nothing is as it seems. No one can really be trusted, except those whom you feel comfortable with, who support your aims and make you feel good about yourself. Killing others is justified if you are good and they are bad. Conservative people are bad, anti-magic dogmatists are really bad and deserve whatever punishment they get (hence the delicious retributions against the Dursleys). The ultimate cause of evil is rejection of magic: the arch-villain Voldemort, for example, first went off track when he became a dysfunctional boy abandoned by his anti-magic father. Then there’s the adolescent romance in the atmosphere, a potent element when mixed with magic, usually latent but growing with each volume and culminating in domestic bliss for the central characters at the end of the final volume. Yes, Harry faces near-satanic evils, passes through an unceasing trial of conflict and woe, triumphs against insurmountable odds, saves the world, marries Ginny and brings forth with her a new generation of little witches and wizards. If it were a spoof or satire we might laugh. But it presents itself as very serious stuff, this festival of noxious half-truths and overt falseness, interwoven so conveniently with some positive values, some attractive role-modeling, and the timeless authorial device of an under-dog orphan as the hero/anti-hero of the series. So pleasurable, so thrilling at every turn. So deathly and hollow.

But that is the point, isn’t it. If the universe in which we live is not “hallowed” (sacred, holy) but rather hollow and deadly, then we must do what we can to change it, right? There is no God, apparently, so we must be our own gods. If there is no father (as every orphan knows) than we must be our own fathers. A tough job for anyone to do, but with the help of some incredible powers it can be done. And even if there is, after all, something in existence a little more than the material world and this materialist magic, can it be trusted? Definitely not, according to the story. There are hints of other realms in the Potter series, immaterial or metaphysical dimensions devoid of any reference to a higher moral order. But these are window-dressing to the cosmology Rowling establishes. Throughout the series there is overwhelming evidence that a Gnostic worldview is being slowly but surely presented. In fact, it is a new form of that ancient archipelago of heresies, a neo-gnosticism that borrows remnants of Judeo-Christian symbols and mixes them with cultic concepts of life and afterlife. For example, toward the end of the final volume, Harry’s headmaster and mentor, Dumbledore, meets with Harry in a nebulous otherworldly zone, after Dumbledore’s death and Harry’s pseudo-death, before the latter’s mysterious “resurrection.” Yet even these and other metaphysical references are merely used to serve the author’s real goal, which is the exaltation of the humanist ideal. Such humanism cannot long survive without a “spirituality” of some kind or other—and what better spirituality for Homo Sine Deo than one which offers the thrills and rewards of the preternatural, without moral accountability to God. One might call this, paradoxically, the religion of secular humanism. In this religion, as in most other religions, the world is gravely threatened and needs its saviour. What, then, is a lovable hero to do in this situation? He must grow up, it goes without saying, and he does so throughout the seven tales by coming into the realization of his inherent semi-divine powers. These are never referred to as god-like powers because that would be a tacit admission of some kind of higher authority, and Potterworld will admit no absolute hierarchy in creation.

J.K. Rowling has stated in one of her interviews that, “My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry’s parents. There is Voldemort’s obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price, the goal of anyone with magic. I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We’re all frightened by it.”

Indeed there are myriad forms of violent death in the seven volumes, usually as the result of battles involving curses, hexes, and potions. The reader loses count of the human characters and other creatures who die in the series, and as far as I can remember none of them die naturally. Potterworld is death’s realm, death’s sovereignty, and its perpetual reign can be transcended only by using the tools of death. Throughout the series, death and power are inextricably entwined. Moreover, death is both the ultimate threat and the ultimate solution to problems. For example, in volume six Dumbledore is killed by the evil Severus Snape who works for the arch-villain Voldemort. In volume seven we learn that Snape was a kind of double-agent, secretly loyal to Dumbledore and Harry. It is revealed that Dumbledore had asked Snape to kill him—mercy killing—and their dialogue about it sounds uncannily like justification for euthanasia and physician-assited suicide.

Finding out who you are is crucial to overcoming death. Gradually you discover by experience, along with dedicated study of arcane forbidden knowledge, that you are more than you think you are; indeed you have a right to the secrets that will reveal you to yourself, and reveal your worth to others. You will be loved, feared, adulated, hated, but you will never be ignored—as long as you have pluck and supportive peers, and the added powers that secrets will give you. Your innate magic powers will be released by increased knowledge and will become mega-magic when exercised. The powers must be used, of course, because there are some really vile enemies out there, and the arch-enemy is after you in a big way, and he has powers too, so it’s important that you possess powers as awesome as his, if you want to defeat him. You will struggle and fall and rise again, but in the end you will triumph. You will become the saviour of the world.

Rowling has tapped into the human drama, the story that is as old as the Iliad, but without Homer’s deep insights into human motivation; as old as Beowulf, but with the roles confused and the lessons lost; as contemporary as The Lord of the Rings, but without Tolkien’s depiction of humility, genuine virtue, and wisdom. She has taken pains to make her tale more complicated than a simplistic bad guy versus good guy scenario, more complicated even that a scenario with the frontier lines of good and evil merely shifted. Clever and inventive, she has scrambled all the frontiers, interior and exterior, vertical and horizontal, and the only orienting factor is the fate of the dynamic ego of the central character. His is not so much a Nietzscheian “will to power” as it is the will to survive, gradually evolving into the will to identity, with power as a necessary reinforcement of the quest. But she has also made Harry a likeable boy, and a hurting boy. Most young readers will identify. He is so very much like many young people in our times who are abandoned in one way or another, with shattered families or siblings absent through abortion, or otherwise alone because of contraception and sterilization. They have suffered from various forms of devaluation, neglect, loneliness, and some have been humiliated by bullies (other unhappy children who lack identity and have seized power over weaker children as the only available means of self-affirmation). Check out your local school yard. It’s all there—the Harrys and Hermiones, the vicious Draco Malfoys and his gang of sycophants. It’s the human condition and it varies little from age to age, culture to culture—wherever man rejects the saving power of grace.

Harry overcomes the multifarious evils that confront him, yet he does so without grace. We find ourselves cheering as he does it, and then go on to either passively accept these books or actively promote them as a path of liberation, a way out of the hurts, the unfairness of life, the negations of worth, the chain-link fences and enclosed compounds that would cruelly limit our beloved children, which is to say all children. Harry knows the way! This cute loser-boy evokes our instinctive compassion for suffering people; as he surmounts all obstacles we see that he’s a winner—just as each of us hopes to be in his own life. Yes, Harry is you and me. We love him. And such a perfect actor for the film role! Such a sweet, brave, vulnerable face. A good boy. A nice, nice boy.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows we see Harry coming of age. He has matured wonderfully. He has compassion for the weak, chooses to block the fatal curses and knock the wands out of the hands of those trying to kill him and others. This is so much the case that Remus Lupin remonstrates with Harry about it and receives Harry’s defensive reply to the effect that killing people is Voldemort’s way, not his. He even rescues his old tormentor Draco after he and his gang attack Harry and nearly burn him up with a mishandled Fiendfyre curse. This new development in Harry’s character may be a disappointment to those readers who enjoyed his old vindictive ways, but it also reinforces the position of pro-Potter people who do not see beneath the surface appearance of the characters and plots. As the critic David Haddon points out, “Harry has fulfilled Rowling’s stated belief that children are ‘innately good’, without need of repentance or redemption.” They just need to grow up and learn to use their powers “wisely.” There is no original sin in Potterworld. Just magic.

And why not, if we are locked in a claustrophobic universe, why not explore the path Harry has shown us? Yearning for the transcendent, as do all human beings, even when they deny it, why should we not be enthralled by preternatural powers offered as the substitute for genuine transcendence? Thralldom, you may recall, is an old English word for enslavement. The slave in his chains may dream and fantasize about freedom, but the fantasy does not make his chains disappear. Like the slaves of old, the enthralled of our times are left with whatever pleasures they can seize within the limited dimensions of their lives, and this usually means fugitive and secret pleasures—as the pagan realms of the past abundantly proved. Those in thrall to Potterworld may, for a while, be pleasured and distracted from their real condition by the orgy of sensations, by stimulated affections and the rush of adrenaline, by blood and gore and fright and lore, by fabulous imagery and ingenious invention. But take note that throughout the very complex web of plots and subplots the traditional symbols of Western civilization are simultaneously used and misused, are mutated, hybridized, contradicted and even at times inverted—because in this “fantasy” world, nothing is as it seems nor is it reliable, and even the architecture of thought slips and slides, leading us wherever the whims of the author wish to take us. A poor story-teller would not get away with this for a minute. But Rowling is a talented story-teller, and the massive symphonic effect of her dissolution of civilization’s basic principles is justified by many because she has entertained us and because, well, “it’s all about love.”

Genuine freedom is possible only where there is genuine love. And genuine love is not possible without truth. As Tolkien once pointed out in his essay on fantasy literature, the writer who hopes to feed the imagination in a healthy way must remain faithful to the moral order of the real universe, regardless of how fantastic the details of the fictional world may be. The Natural Law which God has written into our beings cannot be entirely eradicated, but it can be gravely deformed, leading to distortion of consciousness and conscience, and hence our actions. Healthy fiction, no matter how wildly it may depart from the material order, teaches us to love ourselves in a wholesome manner, by loving our neighbor. Indeed, even by loving our enemies—at least by trying to learn to love them, and by believing that it is right to do so. With grace this is possible. But selective love (coupled with selective hatred) does not lead to freedom. It is the feelings of love without the substance of love, the feelings of freedom without the foundations of freedom. If God is the absent father—or the father who perhaps never existed—the hero and his readers are left only with such emotions, their hooked loyalties, their love of the self’s insatiable appetites, which they feel cannot be denied without a killing curse of self-annihilation. That is why so many people cling fiercely to the “values” in the Potter books while ignoring the interwoven undermining of those very values. That is why the defenders of Potterworld exhibit such adamancy, frequently outrage, against critics. According to their perceptions, the critics of Potterworld are the enemies of freedom and identity.

Just as the rhetoric about freedom and democracy increases as the real thing declines, so too the rhetoric about “values” increases as the more real thing—that is, truth and virtue—declines. What will it take to awaken the dreaming slave from his delusion?

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Other articles by Michael D. O’Brien on the Harry Potter series:

Pope Benedict and Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the Paganization of Children’s Culture

Why Harry Potter Goes Awry: an interview with Zenit News Agency

The Potter Controversy: or Why That Boy Sorcerer Just Won’t Go Away

Harry versus Frodo

Interview With Catholic World Report: Special Tolkien Issue

The War For Our Children’s Souls


Michael O’Brien is also the author of seven novels and a book on the paganization of
children's culture, "A Landscape With Dragons: the Battle for your Child's Mind", all published by Ignatius Press.


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