Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Religion in Harry Potter

Glamourousgeek raised an important question in her essay found on Harry Potter Lexicon, Merlin, God, and You-Know-Who: Religion in the Wizarding World, on whether religion plays a role, if any, in the Harry Potter novels. She suggests that J.K. Rowling (hereafter JKR) “is avoiding the subject of religion altogether” and cleverly argues that the lack of characters with Christian names, the manner of how Christmas is celebrated, and the existence of wizarding superstitions suggest that there is no appearance of religion in the series. Now despite the fact that there are no overt references to Jesus Christ or Christianity in Harry Potter; however that is not to say that there are no hints of the world’s largest religion in the series when the evidence proves otherwise.

One hint of religion in the series would be the only two Christmas carols mentioned by name in Harry Potter (glamourousgeek wrote that there were none). The first example would be when an empty helmet was singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” after all the suits of armor at Hogwarts were bewitched to sing Christmas carols to passersby (Goblet of Fire, Chapter 22, page 395). This famous carol adjures the “Faithful” to “Come and behold Him, Born the King of Angels; O come, let us adore Him…Christ the Lord”. The next example would be Sirius Black singing at the top of his voice “God Rest You, Merrye Hippogriffs” on the way to Buckbeak’s room at Grimmauld Place (Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 23, page 501). Sirius’s song was a play on another famous carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” which has the following lyrics “God rest ye merry, gentlemen; Let nothing you dismay; Remember, Christ, our Saviour; Was born on Christmas day…” The fact that JKR’s official website features an instrumental of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” every Christmas suggests that both carols are the same, albeit with some innovative creativity by Sirius himself.

Speaking of Sirius, there is one important fact about his relationship to Harry that glamourousgeek failed to mention: he is the godfather to the Boy-Who-Lived. This would mean that Harry Potter received a Christian baptism as an infant. Godparents are figures who sponsors a child baptism (a child cannot speak on their own behalf) and could be either a relative or in the case of Sirius, a friend of the child’s parents. They are responsible for not only caring for the child if he or she is unfortunately orphaned but also looking after the spiritual upbringing of the child. JKR has said in an interview that Harry only has one godfather and that “when Harry was born, it was at the very height of Voldemort fever last time so his christening was a very hurried, quiet affair with just Sirius, just the best friend” (JKR at the Edinburgh Book Festival, August 15, 2004). According to the Book of Common Prayer, during the ceremony the godparent has to repeat the Apostles Creed (a famous creed in the Early Church) before the child is baptized in “the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”. A christening is anything but irreligious and its presence, even if in passing, in Harry Potter is telling.

Glamourousgeek in her article places too much emphasis on the meaning of characters names and what they suggest about religion or lack thereof in Harry Potter. She writes,“On reading the Harry Potter books the first thing that made me aware of the tendency to avoid religion was the surprising lack of common Christian names such as John, Mary and Paul…the names with obvious religious origin are really surprisingly few and far between”. This is an absolute statement (and very general) and I am not sure if the writer considered the following. Firstly there are other characters with religious names other than three of the Marauders (James Potter, Remus John Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew). Just take a look at some of the Hogwarts students in Dumbledore’s Army in the fifth book: Hannah Abbot, Michael Corner, and Zacharias Smith. Other examples include Gideon Prewett of the original Order of the Phoenix, Barnabas Cuffe of the Daily Prophet, and Andrew Kirke, a younger student and fellow Gryffindor Quidditch teammate of Harry in the fifth novel. Secondly JKR has said in different interviews that she collects names from all different places including “medieval saints” and even wrote on her website that the inspiration for Hedwig (Harry Potter’s pet owl) was St. Hedwig, who is coincidently the patron saint of orphans. Other examples of characters that have saint names would be Godric Gryffindor based on St. Godric (protector of stags) and both Percy Ignatius Weasley and his deceased uncle Ignatius Prewett based on St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of the Apostolic Fathers of the church and St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Why cannot glamourousgeek just accept the fact that the characters have the names that they have primarily because of JKR’s creativity?

Now what are we to make of all of this? An argument can be made that the reason why Christianity is not mentioned in the series is that religion is not particularly important to the story. And they are right. The story is about Harry Potter and his Arthurian or even Messianic quest as the Chosen One to defeat and vanquish the murderer of his parents and self-appointed terrorist leader of the Wizarding World, Lord Voldemort. Religion is placed in the background and not because religion is a negative thing. JKR herself is a Christian and a member of the Church of Scotland. Harry Potter certainly contains Christian virtues, symbols, and themes of descent into hell and resurrection. What is disturbing is the number of Potter fans who would prefer Harry Potter to be free from religion entirely, including most specifically Christianity. What would be the alternative, that the wizards and witches in the Wizarding World are pagan or a part of Wicca? There is no evidence in the Potterverse to even suggest this. If you look at British history you will see that at one point, Christianity was the only religion on the Isles. How can you explain the appearance of the main ghost of Hufflepuff, the Fat Friar? Friars are usually part of a mendicant order focusing on living a life of poverty and service to a community. The Fat Friar was most likely a Roman Catholic. Maybe the lack of religion in the novels serves as a credit to JKR. After all JKR has said in an interview in October 2000 with The Vancouver Sun that, “Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’s coming in the books”.

1 comment:

Eeyore said...

I can't agree with you more on your assessment of the Christian influence in Harry Potter, and all the uses of Christian names. It is amazing to me as well, that there are so many people who flat out refuse to see it.

I was part of a forum starting in early 2001 where I enjoyed discussing the first four books. Whenever the subject of religion came up, there were those of us who are Christians who had seen Christian themes, but what always surprised me was the reaction (over-reaction, really), of those who were of another faith or who claim to be atheists. And after Order of the Phoenix came out and Dumbledore told Harry that it was Love that would defeat Voldemort, some of them were outraged. I left that site for a while because of the arguing that ensued.

What I found is that I can enjoy their company discussing everything but the Harry Potter books. I was delighted when I found John Granger's "Looking for God in Harry Potter", as he tied together all those loose ends I had noticed and explained a lot of the literary background I had missed altogether.

The essay that you mention had the same effect on me--how could she miss and dismiss some very obvious religious, specifically Christian, connections? It seems to me that she must be of the same frame of mind as some of my forum friends who don't want to see what is obviously right in front of their faces.

I look forward to Deathly Hallows for that reason alone--it's going to be rather weird to realize that there won't be any more HP books to look forward to. But when we get the 7th book, and devour it as I'm sure we all will, we will at least know what it takes for Harry to defeat evil Voldemort, and then JKR can finally talk about her beliefs and how they influenced her writing.