The last ten years of our family journey has included the exploits of a character well-known in the literary world. When the young Harry Potter emerged from a cupboard under the stairs in Privet Drive, Little Whingeing, his story began to weave its way into households like our own. We have explored and reflected on the epic tale of a young boy who discovers his place in a world he had never imagined.
The series has been a watershed in publishing history, introducing a generation to reading, and countless others to a world of mystery, magic and intrigue. This echoed in our own house, where our already-book-loving children embraced Harry, Hogwarts and all its accoutrements with joy, becoming embroiled in the mysteries which beset him, and the characters integrally intertwined with his journey.
Harry Potter has provided our family with much food for reflection and conversation. The novels unfold powerfully around themes of love and sacrifice, power and servanthood, hope and despair. Whilst Rowling’s setting amongst witches and wizards appears disturbing for some Christians, it remains the backdrop for what is ultimately the greatest struggle of all: to be human, and to recognise the source of life itself.
The chief character – Harry – has to learn when to go it alone, and when to recognise the power of community; whom to trust, and what to trust about himself; how to recognise truth and humbly respond to it, as well as understand the nature of power in both its possibilities and illusions. As in most of life, these answers emerge through some murky circumstances – obvious in retrospect, seminal in the reader’s hopes, but as in life, always remarkable in the ways in which it turns: contingent upon circumstances, yet seemingly guided by a higher power. When in the final book Harry acknowledges Ron Weasley’s heroic deed, Ron laments “you make it sound a lot cooler than it was.” Harry’s response reminds us of the power of the ordinary act: “Stuff like that always sounds cooler than it really was.”
Harry – renowned as “The Boy who Lived” – is famed for being the only one ever to have survived a deadly attack by his now-arch-enemy. Tempted to let this nomenclature define his actions, Harry is constantly reminded (and rebuked) by his friends that he doesn’t need to do it alone. Bearing a unique burden, Harry struggles to trust his friends with sharing the responsibility and the burden, and at other times is unsure of where true friendships are found. One of the earliest observations of humanity still holds true for Harry: “it is not good for a human to be alone.” Learning to trust while aware of the very human flaws of others, cognisant of one’s own flaws, is Harry’s struggle also.
It is of the essence of great literature that it touches upon and unfolds the greatest human themes. A response to those who might be turned off by the magical elements of a story can be found in Jesus’ encounter with the religious of his day: “straining at gnats and swallowing camels” is how he described it.
The Potter story has reached its conclusion for us, but its deeper questions abide. Many conversations have been held unpacking these themes, occasionally in the context of real struggles in our own lives.
J K Rowling has embodied something of the human struggle in which we all share in the character and story of Harry Potter, even recognising that little bit of magic which is in us all – which bears and reflects the imprint of God.
Rev Gary Heard is pastor of The Eighth Day, a Baptist Community in West Melbourne.