So, it seems we’ve reached the end of the Harry Potter saga, with the release of the final cinematic installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. I suppose I ought to say a few words, in memoriam.
My initial reaction to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books was, “Oh, this is a school story.” Something on the order of Owen Johnson’s “Lawrenceville Stories,” or Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Ann of Green Gables books. Setting the magic aside for a moment, It takes a fairly average orphan boy living with put-upon relatives and sends him to boarding school, which opens up a whole new world of opportunities, and obstacles. He has to deal with the usual problems of getting to class on time, managing his studies, coping with a couple of teachers who hate him for no obvious reason, standing up to bullies, and playing sports. Yeah, the teachers can turn you into a newt, and the sports involve chasing homicidal soccer balls whilst perched upon flying brooms, but the basic issues are pretty much the same.
We watch him grow up, one semester at a time. He finds a couple of true friends who stand by him in both good times and bad. He learns that lying and cheating may simplify his life short-term but always come back to bite him in the end. He finds mentors who teach him about courage, loyalty, and honor. He learns to be clever and resourceful. He discovers strengths, and weaknesses, he never knew he had. We like this kid. He reminds us of us, on our better-than-average days. We want to know more about him.
But it doesn’t end there. Harry discovers there’s evil in the world more dangerous than some bully shaking him down for lunch money, and this evil threatens him and everyone he cares about. The evil seeks power for its own sake and uses people as a means to that end. It’s a serious evil, deadly, humorless, and focused. It’s not enough for Harry to hide or run away from it. The evil has to be confronted and defeated, and he’s the only one who can put an end to it, once and for all. We know the stakes can be this high in our world, but it’s the kind of situation we might encounter in a war or a civil revolution. The sort of situation we hope never to experience. Better Harry than us. We read on.
Coming back to the magic, it’s an odd sort of magic–a technological magic based on exotic chemistry and the power of words. It’s used mostly to simplify tedious, mundane tasks and create elaborate practical jokes. Anybody looking for Witchcraft 101 here will be mightily disappointed. Substitute ray guns for the wands, and you’ve got a passable science-fiction world.
The most powerful magic in the story isn’t magic in the conventional sense at all. Love, unselfish and sacrificial, turns away the supposedly unstoppable evil without the benefit of incantations, potions, or charms. This same love sustains Harry throughout his journey, rescues him again and again against impossible odds, and is the key to his final victory.
This, for me, is what raised this series above the conventional school story or frivolous fantasy. There’s truth here, if we have eyes to see, and it clearly resonates with a culture starved for truth, even if it’s veiled in fiction. It’s the heart of the story. The Boy Who Lived, the boy evil couldn’t kill, who overcame death through the power of a love brave and generous enough to lay down its life for others.
Sounds familiar, somehow.
For additional reflections and retrospective on Harry Potter, check out E. Stephen Burnett’s posts at Speculative Faith, commentary from Andrew Peterson at The Rabbit Room, and a nice article by Sarah Pulliam Bailey at WSJ.com.