Who Dies in Harry Potter? God

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(This week’s Time comes with a mini-essay by me about Harry Potter and What It All Means. Because this Potter fellow just isn’t getting his due in the press — damn that biased, death-eating MSM! The slot for the piece in the mag is fairly short, so I’m going to post the unedited, extended-play version here.)

Joanne Rowling has three fancy houses and more money than the Queen, but she still doesn’t have a middle name: the “K” is just an empty invention, which she added for effect when she published her first book. Whatever she’s doing, it’s working. Since 1997 — the year Princess Diana died and the word “weblog” was born — Rowling has sold more than 325 million books. The fifth Harry Potter movie is eking out respectful reviews, and the final novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, will be released at midnight on July 20th. A theme park is in the works in Orlando, Fla. By now quite enough has been said about Harry Potter. But what does Harry Potter say about us?

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 form an extended argument for Christian faith (or at any rate for faith in Aslan. Close enough.) Now look at Rowling’s books. What’s missing? If you want to know who dies in Harry Potter, the answer is easy: God.

Oh, Rowling has had her share of outrage from the religious right, but they’ve missed the point completely. Rowling isn’t a Satanist — if anything the Satanists should be as offended as the Christians. Harry Potter lives in a world that has been scrubbed clean of any religion or spirituality of any kind. He is surrounded by ghosts, and has even eavesdropped on the afterlife in the basement of the Ministry of Magic, but Harry has no one to pray to, even if he were so inclined, which he isn’t. Not even the lovably prissy Hermione darkens a church door. In real life Rowling is said to be a member of the Church of Scotland, but on paper she has more in common with celebrity atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens than she does with Tolkien and Lewis.

What does Harry have instead of God? Rowling’s answer, at once glib and profound, is that Harry’s power comes from love. (“Big deal!” thinks Harry when Dumbledore offers him this revelation in Half-Blood Prince.) This charming notion represents a massive cultural sea change. In the new millennium magic comes not from God, or nature, or anything grander or more mystical than a mere human emotion. It’s the most anthropo-centric vision possible: even in our fantasies, where we give ourselves permission to believe in dementors and blast-ended skrewts, love is all you need, and love is all you get. By choosing Rowling as the reigning dreamer of our era, we have chosen the most hard-nosed, realistic of fantasists, a writer who dreams of a secular, bureaucratized, all too human sorcery, where psychology and technology have superseded the sacred.

And we congratulate ourselves on having tossed aside all that high-flown mystical stuff. But when the end comes — and it’s almost here — where will that leave Harry? He’ll face tougher choices than his fantasy ancestors. Frodo was last seen skipping town with the Elves, en route to the Grey Havens. Lewis sent the Pevensie kids to the paradise of Aslan’s Land. Something tells me no such comfortable retirement awaits Harry in the Deathly Hallows.