Deconstructing Rowling

By Dave Kopel

National Review Online. June 9, 2003, 10:30 a.m. More by Kopel on Harry Potter.

J. K. Rowling is an Inkling. That's the well-argued thesis of John Granger's fine book The Hidden Key to Harry Potter. Granger demonstrates the absurdity of the claim that Harry Potter is anti-Christian. And even if you've never worried about charges brought by misguided fundamentalists, The Hidden Key will substantially augment your understanding of what's really at stake in Harry's adventures.

The Inklings were originally a group of Oxford dons who wrote Christian fiction. The most famous of them are J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Lord of the Rings and the Narnia series never mention Christianity overtly, and in Tolkien's books, religion itself is absent from the plot. Yet these mythopoeic books aim to "baptize the imagination" of the reader — to teach her the importance of fighting for the right, no matter how powerful the forces of evil may appear.

Rowling has confessed herself to be a great fan of C. S. Lewis, her use of "J. R." for her byline evokes "J. R. R." Tolkien, and she is a member of the Church of Scotland (that's Presbyterian, for American readers).

The most useful parts of The Hidden Key are the author's extensive discussion of symbolism. Harry lives in Gryffindor House, founded by Godric Gryffindor. "D'or" being French for "of gold," we could translate the name as "golden griffin." The griffin has a lion's body and an eagle's wings; a hybrid of the animals that are master of the sky and of the earth, the griffin was traditionally a symbol of Jesus, master of the spiritual and temporal worlds.

The unicorn, too, is a traditional Jesus symbol; pure and powerful, it could only be tamed by a virgin, as Jesus could only be incarnated by a virgin. In Sorcerer's Stone, drinking its blood brings life, and its killing is an especially hideous crime.

The phoenix (which saves Harry's life in Chamber of Secrets) rises to life from its own ashes, and is described by T. H. White as the "resurrection bird." This explains the title of the almost-released book five, The Order of the Phoenix— that is, the alliance of people who band together to fight for resurrection values. "Order" also evokes the fighting Christian religious orders of the Middle Ages, such as the Order of the Knights of Malta.

Harry's father James was nicknamed "prongs," for his ability to turn himself into a stag. In Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry conjures a magical patronus to drive away the soul-stealing Dementors (Latin for mind-removers), the patronus appears as a stag, shining "as bright as a unicorn." The stag is also a medieval symbol of Jesus.

John Granger recaps the plots of the first four books, explaining each of them as a form of trial in which Harry's purity of heart is tested. In The Sorcerer's Stone, Harry is able to find the power of immortality (concealed in a magic mirror) only because he does not want to use it for selfish purposes.

The villain in Chamber of Secrets is Gilderoy Lockheart — the gilded, or false, king ("roi" in French) with a "locked heart." Lockhart, best-selling author of a string of false books, is, Granger suggests, modeled on Philip Pullman, the militant atheist and best-selling real-life author of the Dark Materials children's series — books that were written as a deliberate refutation of Narnia.

In the climax of Chamber of Secrets, Harry descends to a deep underworld, is confronted by two satanic minions (Voldemort and a giant serpent), is saved from certain death by his faith in Dumbledore (the bearded God the Father/Ancient of Days), rescues the virgin (Virginia Weasley), and ascends in triumph. It's Pilgrim's Progress for a new audience.

Prisoner of Azkaban revolves around two characters (Sirius Black the magician and Buckbeak the hippogriff) who are falsely accused and condemned. Jungian and Freudian themes abound, as Harry begins by fleeing from his fears (running away from the Dursleys), confronts his hidden memories of his dead parents, forgives the man who betrayed his father, and triumphs by mastering his fear. "Expecto Patronus," invokes Harry — or in Latin, "Expect the little father." As Harry achieves identity with his father James, the luminous stag appears and drives away the soul-killing Dementors, rescuing Harry's godfather Sirius.

Granger reveals the meanings of the names of all the important characters. Draco (dragon/serpent in Latin) Malfoy (faith in evil, in French); Harry's parents James (the brother of Jesus) and Lily (the Easter flower), nasty journalist Rita Skeeter (read a bloodsucking pest), and more.

And "Harry Potter"? Well, the name does evoke Harry Hotspur, the prince Hal of Shakespeare's histories. But if you say it with a French or Cockney accent, it also reminds us of "heir." For "Potter," Granger tells us to look to the Bible's "potter verses" (e.g., Isaiah 64:8), in which God is described as the potter who shapes man out of clay. Granger's summary of Rowling's theme is that we are all heirs of God.

The Potter books are a magical work aimed to liberate their readers from materialism and to elevate their spirits. Harry leaves the temporal world of London by entering Diagon Alley — that is, by moving diagonally, not in the lines of the ordinary material world. And Dudley's grotesque weight and surfeit of toys are an extreme case of a spiritual death from immersion in a purely material world: a world which Rowling shows can be put aside, if one can think and live diagonally.

Harry Potter fans are used to scouring the Internet for the morsels of hints Rowling has offered about the rest of the series. The last section of Hidden Key offers informed speculation about what will happen in the final books; of course, some of Granger's guesses might be wrong, but his exposition of the series' themes makes many of his ideas seem almost inevitable. For instance:

Harry will be revealed as the true heir of Godric Gryffindor and the climatic battle will be fought at Harry's birthplace, Godric Hollow. The heir of Gryffindor will confront the Heir of Slytherin (slithering, like a snake), Voldemort. Dumbledore has powers of invisibility; that is how he knew that the orphan Neville Longbottom (no-village, long at the lowest place) stood up to his friends in Sorcerer's Stone. Dumbledore will die, because Harry must defeat Voldemort himself. Snape's mixed feelings about Harry — he saves Harry's life, but is angrily jealous of Harry's fame — can be traced back to Snape's school days; then, Snape loved the green-eyed Lily (perhaps a Slytherin student, since the house color is green) who rejected him for James. No matter what — love and sacrifice will battle with death, at first appearing to be defeated, and then triumphing gloriously.

There's much more in Hidden Key: Rowling's extensive use of alchemical symbolism (alchemy being a process in which spiritual purification is correlated with metallurgical purification), Aristotelian and Platonic themes, and Arthurian legend. Like King Arthur, Harry was hidden as a baby, raised without knowledge of his true identify, watched over from afar by a great wizard, and proves that he is the true heir by pulling out a sword — in Harry's case, by pulling Godric Gryffindor's sword from Godric Gryffindor's sorting ("sword-in") hat.

Hidden Key can be read in an afternoon, and if you can interrupt your progress through the Order of the Phoenix for a little bit, Hidden Key will greatly add to your understanding of J. K. Rowling's magnificent work.

Dave Kopel is a contributing editor of NRO. 

More by Kopel on Potter:

A Dementor Short. Mugglewear Casual mars Harry hat trick. Reason Online. June 4, 2004. Review of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban movie.

Rumors: Quash one, fuel one. While debunking Harry Potter author's Satanist 'quotes,' News promotes drug's 'role' in deaths. Rocky Mountain News/Denver Post. Dec. 2, 2001.

Mugglemania. Harry Potter is the ur-libertarian who just might save civilization. National Review Online. July 22-23, 2000. 


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