Sunday, August 19, 2007

"Stay Close to Me": Marian Imagery in Deathly Hallows (Warning: Spoilers Aplenty)

Blogger's note: This is the first of several spoiler-filled posts on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I'll write a few on the wonderful eucatastrophic and Christian themes in the book before I get to the elements that troubled me. If you either haven't read or haven't finished the book, do not read this post now. Feel free, however, to read the spoiler-free post below this one.


One of the more pleasant surprises for me when I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was Rowling's Marian imagery expressed through the character of Lily. Lily, as readers of the series know, has protected Harry through her blood and her love for him. In some ways, she has provided a picture of Christ in the series, though there is no one-to-one correspondence. But in Chapter 34 of Deathly Hallows, "The Forest Again," Rowling provides a picture of Mary in just a few sure strokes of her pen.

We finally come to the point where Harry, knowing that he is about to die, opens the snitch, thus activating the Resurrection Stone. For Christians, the very name of this object provides much food for thought. Resurrection is, of course, the lynchpin of the Christian faith: Christ's resurrection is the event in human history without which, according to St. Paul, Christians' faith is in vain. Christ's resurrection has made it possible for human beings to live eternally with God once they are reconciled to Him.

The fact that the object is a stone is also significant. In the Old Testament scriptures, the forthcoming messiah is described as a "stone." In the New Testament, those Old Testament passages are seen as applying to Jesus. Now I'm not saying that Rowling necessarily equates the Resurrection Stone with Christ (Rowling avoids one-to-one correspondences throughout the Harry Potter series), but it does point to the Christian faith of which she has proven more open lately.

And when the Resurrection Stone is activated, four people appear: James, Sirius, Lupin, and Lily. Of the four in question, only Lupin's presence surprised me. I didn't expect to see him without Tonks, and another character who I expected to appear is absent. (That's the topic of another forthcoming post.)

But of the four, it's Lily with whom Harry (and Rowling) is most concerned. She has the biggest smile and, to Harry's comfort, looks "as though she would never be able to look at him enough." (He experiences the same feelings concerning her.) She is the first to speak, commending Harry for his bravery with obvious wonder and pride in her voice.

Yes, a mother's love is important to a 17-year old who has never known her. But there's more happening here than just on that very real and important level.

Lily is the only one to whom Harry utters four very important words: "'Stay close to me.'" Oh, he asks the group members whether they will stay with him. But she is the only one to whom he utters a plea.

Here I found the words of the "Hail Mary" echoing in my mind: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death."

Harry knows that he is about to die. The snitch has "opened at the close" of his life. He is also in some ways a Christ figure at this point, willing to die in order to save the world from the evil Voldemort's rule. And he gathers most of his strength and comfort now from his mother, who in some ways is reminiscent at this point of Jesus' mother Mary standing vigil under the cross where her son was crucified.

Whether she alludes to Mary consciously or unconsciously, Rowling, an Anglican, is not the first fantasy writer to do so. J.R.R. Tolkien, a Roman Catholic, provided a much more detailed image in The Lord of the Rings through the character of the Lady Galadrial. By Tolkien's own account, his faith initially unconsciously influenced his writing, but when he revised the novel before publication, he made some religious elements more explicit. He himself noted the connection between Galadrial and Mary.

It's also true that other Christian allusions can be read into Rowling's scene here. Recalling that there are some parallels of Lily with Christ, one can connect the disciples on the road to Emmaus' words to the risen Christ to "[s]tay with us" (Luke 24:29) with Harry's plea to his mother. And Harry's words also evoke a well-known hymn by Anglican cleric Henry Francis Lyte, "Abide with Me."

The end result is this: with the resurrection imagery, the obvious depiction of the communion of saints in the group of four walking with Harry, and Harry's words to his Mary-like mother, we have some strong Christian imagery here relating to Christ's death on the cross and subsequent bodily resurrection. Those events, for Tolkien, pointed to the ultimate eucatastrophe, the ultimate "good news": that Christ's death on the cross for our sins had made it possible for every human being to be reconciled with God. In her own way, and with an incredible economy of words, Rowling also points to that truth.

Monday, August 6, 2007

First Deathly Hallows Thoughts (No Spoilers)

I finally finished it somewhere around 10 PM this evening, just a few hours ago. And, not surprisingly, I find myself unable to sleep, still pondering the book in my mind. How could it be otherwise? J.K. Rowling has done now for a younger generation, and willing adults (even fortysomethings such as myself), what George Lucas did in the late 1970s and early 1980s: provide a generation with its very own mythology. I didn't come to Harry Potter until 2004; nonetheless, the series quickly became a part of the fabric of my being. And I took this book more slowly than I could have, because I quite simply didn't want it to end; heck, I only teasingly murmured complaints when my wonderful wife hijacked the book for the first half-week or so after its release, since I didn't know if I wanted to start down the last journey! Then when I was not even 150 pages into the book, I paused for a day or two to skim reread Half-Blood Prince. And at times I had to put the book down for hours due to the enormity of the events contained therein; I simply was not ready to continue.

For this book inspires a lot of emotion for those of us invested in the story: joy and tears are there in abundance. Those who like to scour the books for literary and other pop culture references will have fun: beyond the expected Inklings influences, there are also moments that seemed to me to be inspired partially by the Matrix and Star Wars film series.

But now it's over, and my first reaction comes from a fantasy saga that I read when a teenager (alas, I cannot remember which one): "Go in peace, for I have seen (or, in this case, read) a marvelous tale." It's epic. It's stunning. It's deeply moving. At the same time, it's not perfect. There's enough in this tome for two books, and at times things aren't developed as well as they should be -- particularly since a good bit of the novel is made up of well-written and thrilling, but (alas) page-consuming, action set pieces. Less of concern are several minor items with which to quibble. But most dismaying from my point of view, two of the character arcs (they are interrelated) do not convince me and leave me unsettled from a Christian point-of-view.

Fortunately, my lesser disappointments fell by the wayside when I read the last chapter. It's easily the best chapter of the entire seven books, even if it was one of the earliest composed in draft form -- and that's saying a lot, considering the last 150 pages or so of Order of the Phoenix and several chapters in this book. Rowling's tip of the hat to Julian of Norwich at the very end is a treasure.

And what we're left with -- those of us who have made Harry's quest our own -- is a wonderful myth with some significant Christian, and eucatastrophic, overtones. There's much to discuss, to ponder, and for which to be grateful. I plan to write more later; this is just a quick reaction, and time will permit more detailed analyses later, I hope.