Monday, 7 February 2011

The soul and prophecies in Harry Potter

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I have been, very belatedly, hooked by the Harry Potter series; which initially I was indifferent-to, or mildly hostile about.

It required that I read the end of the series (to 'get' what the books were doing) and then went back and read the earlier books (albeit in some peculiar order, which I cannot now recall).

Now I am very taken with them, and regard them as genuinely inspired (whereas, previously, I saw them as merely ingeniously contrived - the product of a magpie bricolateur, rather than of a wise and farseeing owl - as I now think).

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The most stunning, and heartening, thing about the series is their moral seriousness underpinned by a transcendental perspective: which is pretty much exactly what the modern world requires.

The Harry Potter books provide a rich Christian perspective - but not too rich nor too obvious (indeed, not-at-all obvious - there is their strength); they provide about as much as our deeply corrupt and barren modern world can reasonably digest.

Much more, and the books would have been merely a cult. As it is, there is a great deal in HP, and it has gone out to tens (or, more likely, hundreds) of millions of people - and the books have not merely been read-through, but devoured, multi-read, and assimilated. 

Remarkable.

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The first and most vital thing is that the Harry Potter series is predicated on the reality of the immortal soul.

The reality of the soul is not argued; it is accepted: as indeed it must be.

It is there; indispensable and woven through the whole story: Death is real, necessary and irreversible; yet the soul is eternal.

And the soul is regarded as being a person's primary concern; susceptible of change as a result of choices.

(And free will is foundational, assumed, intrinsic to the series as well, as it must be.)

The soul can be maimed and diminished, irreversibly, by choices during life - as we discover from Harry's sight of Voldemort's maimed and diminished soul in the King's Cross chapter of Deathly Hallows.

Such damage cannot be undone after death.

That is what I mean by moral seriousness.

How many other works of late twentieth century mainstream literature can compare with this? I can't think of any at all.

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The second aspect is prophecy.

We moderns have a big, big problem with the reality of prophecy - which I take it is a self-made and artificial problem, because earlier generations did not share it.

That there were real prophecies was a given: the problems related to discerning the real prophets and prophecies from the fake; and understanding the real prophecies, and recognizing when they were being, or had been, fulfilled.

But the reality of the phenomenon of prophecy was not in question.

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In relation to Harry Potter the explicit explanation of prophecy (both from Dumbledore, and by JKR) is psychological - prophecies are real because (and only because) people believe them, and make them come true.

http://www.the-leaky-cauldron.org/2007/11/19/new-interview-with-j-k-rowling-for-release-of-dutch-edition-of-deathly-hallows

But as pointed out in this insightful blog posting...

http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/archives/2008/08/prophecy-potter.html

...this is not quite right, since Dumbledore clearly recognizes when Professor Trelawney is making a real prophecy (only twice, when she goes into an altered state of consciousness and is apparently unaware of what she is saying and does not recall it), and when she is just consciously making-up stuff.

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My feeling is that these are moments when JKR is pointing off-stage, beyond the world of HP, since true prophecy is supernaturally inspired (and is beyond the capability of 'magic'); ultimately true prophecy would imply God.

(Prophecy implies God even when a specific prophecy might well be 'demonic' - indeed it might well be that most true prophecies were indeed demonic - because the existence of demons is predicated on the existence of God)

Rowling must have known, or been inspired to act on the basis, that she could not bring God explicitly into Harry Potter, or else her book would have been restricted to a Christian genre and a Christian sub-culture.

The Harry Potter novels are therefore compatible with a Christian perspective, subtly point to that perspective, but in an entirely optional and 'deniable' fashion.

You don't need to acknowledge the presence of Christian underpinnings; but they are there if you notice them, want them, or need them.

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As CS Lewis recognized after publishing That Hideous Strength and Perelandra, it is one advantage for the Christian apologist in our secular public discourse that almost any amount of theology can be 'smuggled' into fantasy novels without being detected, but still having an effect - so long as it is not explicitly labelled as such.

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Given the sheer scale of their sales, and the obvious devotion of their readership (and no book can have much real influence on people unless it inspires multiple re-readings - which the series clearly does) - I would have to regard the Harry Potter books as one of the most hopeful and potentially fruitful recent phenomena of the Western world.

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