Communion Of Dreams

“Who Dies in Harry Potter? God.” Um, no.

[SPOILER ALERT – this post contains information about the final book in the Harry Potter series which some may consider spoilers. You’ve been warned.]

A good friend sends me links to book reviews. She knows that I don’t generally read book reviews, but every so often will see one that she thinks might tempt me, and passes it along. Every once in a while I’ll actually be interested enough to read one of the reviews she sends.

That was the case when I saw a link to a piece by TIME Magazine’s book reviewer, Lev Grossman, a couple of weeks ago which was titled “Who Dies in Harry Potter? God.” Given that this piece was published about 9 days before the last Harry Potter book was to be released, I thought it curious that the writer was making such a claim. So I read it.

It is an odd piece. I say that having read it four or five times. Here’s the relevant bit:

Rowling’s work is so familiar that we’ve forgotten how radical it really is. Look at her literary forebears. In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien fused his ardent Catholicism with a deep, nostalgic love for the unspoiled English landscape. C.S. Lewis was a devout Anglican whose Chronicles of Narnia forms an extended argument for Christian faith. Now look at Rowling’s books. What’s missing? If you want to know who dies in Harry Potter, the answer is easy: God.

And he ends his piece with this prediction:

When the end comes, where will it leave Harry? He’ll face tougher choices than his fantasy ancestors did. Frodo was last seen skipping town with the elves. Lewis sent the Pevensie kids to the paradise of Aslan’s Land. It’s unlikely that such a comfortable retirement awaits Harry in the Deathly Hallows.

OK, Grossman sure got *that* wrong. But in his actual review of the book, published July 21, he once again makes the assertion that JK Rowling has eliminated God, in this passage:

Her insistence on this point is a reflection of the cosmology of the Potterverse: there are no higher powers in residence there. The attic and the basement are empty. There may be an afterlife, and ghosts, but there is certainly no God, and no devil. There are also no immortal, all-wise elves, as in Tolkien, nor are there any mysticalMaiar, which is what Gandalf was (what, you thought he was human? Genealogically speaking, he’s closer to a balrog than he is to a man.) There is certainly no benevolent, paternal Aslan to turn up late in the book and fight the Big Bad. The essential problem in Rowling’s books is how to love in the face of death, and her characters must arrive at the solution all on their own, hand-to-hand, at street level, with bleeding knuckles and gritted teeth, and then sweep up the rubble afterwards.

I haven’t read either of the two novels that Grossman has written. And, as noted, I don’t read book reviews except very rarely and don’t believe I’ve ever read one of his. So I can’t say what his thoughts are on God and whether he intends this as a slam or not. But I have to say that I am not in the least bit bothered by the fact thatJK Rowling doesn’t turn to a super magic man to resolve things, and instead forces her characters to come up with their own solutions – to grow, struggle, and learn and then to live with the consequences of their choices. This is exactly the reason I have said all along that these books are not ‘children’s books’ in the usual sense.

Perhaps it is a commentary on how our society has changed since the time of Tolkien and Lewis that these books are different in this fundamental way, and are yet so phenomenally popular. But I don’t see it. Religion has a stronger hold on our culture here in America than it did some 50 years ago, and there have been concerted efforts by the far fringe faithful to ban the Harry Potter books from schools and libraries on the basis of them promoting witchcraft. No, I don’t think that Rowling has tapped into some kind of anti-religious Zeitgeist. Rather, she has told her tale with amazing skill, and has left plenty of room for belief or non-belief in the background, where it belongs. While many people of faith use that belief as a crutch, that is not a fundamental aspect of religion, nor is it an excuse for not growing up and dealing with the world in mature terms. We, all of us, people of faith and no faith, have to be responsible for the here and now, have to make difficult choices and live with the consequences. That is the pre-eminent message of the entire Harry Potter series, and I was very glad to see that Rowling did not shy away from maintaining that message to the very end.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

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