22/04/2008

Looking for God in Harry Potter (by John Granger)

Way back in the late 1990s when I first read 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone', before there was any controversy about it, I was impressed at the clear underlying Christian message that permeated the book. The overriding theme is that sacrificial love is stronger than death. The 'good guys' show loyalty, courage and integrity, while the 'bad guys' are selfish, sneaky and spiteful. It's written in the context of a classic British school story, of course, with a touch of humour, some great characterisation, and a strong climax and ending with good triumping over evil.

I liked the book so much that soon afterwards I read 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets', and felt much the same way about it. I was pretty shocked when one or two Christian friends of ours decided the series was inappropriate or worse, and started reading about the ridiculous rumours going around, started by a satirical online magazine. As I continued reading the books soon after they were published, I was more and more certain that the critics were wrong, and that the Harry Potter series were as strongly Christian as the Narnia series by CS Lewis.

Eighteen months ago I found and read 'A Charmed Life' by Francis Bridger, which I found overwhelmingly positive about Harry Potter from a Christian perspective, and very reassuring. I then became aware of John Granger, a Greek Orthodox homeschooling Christian in the USA, who has not only written some books about the 'keys' to unlocking the Harry Potter books, but has a fascinating website, Hogwarts Professor, full of essays and discussions about the nature of the series. Unfortunately, his books were temporarily out of print at the time, but recently I was able to get hold of 'Looking for God in Harry Potter', which was updated after the publication of the sixth book in the series, 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince'.

I read this, not needing any further assurance about the strongly Christian nature of the series. The seventh book ('Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows') confirmed this without any question, as I explained in an article on another blog about Harry Potter as a Christian allegory. Allegory isn't really the right word, of course - it's more that he is a 'type' of the Christian 'everyman', growing up and maturing through the series, learning the real meaning of unconditional love, and finally being prepared to give his own life for the sake of all his friends - and, indeed, his enemies.

I was, however, interested in the 'keys' that John Granger had talked about, the many classical literary allusions, and the slightly puzzling references to alchemy, which I only knew of as a pseudo-science a few centuries ago.

'Looking for God in Harry Pottery' starts with a quick overview of the magical world of Hogwarts, pointing out how the magic in the series is nothing to do with the sorcery forbidden in Scripture, and addressing the criticisms of those who want to ban the Harry Potter books. Indeed, John Granger himself had never planned to read the books, assuming they were indeed evil; however one of his children was given a copy, so he thought he ought to read it himself, in order to explain why he felt they were not appropriate reading. In doing so, he immediately saw the positive nature of the Christian themes running through them, and ended up reading them aloud to his large family.

The book then looks at the patterns in the book, the various themes that are repeated, and the way they mirror the greatest stories in literature, including the Christian journey through life. In the chapter explaining alchemy, it sees this too as a literary device, and Christian parallel. The alchemist seeks to transform base metal into gold, and to find a stone giving eternal life. The Christian seeks to transform himself from a sinner into one cleansed and forgiven, and finds Christ, giver of eternal life.

Alchemy traditionally has certain stages, with connected colours (in particular black, white and red) which are mirrored in several ways through the books, in the names of various characters, and particularly in the last three books. I would never have spotted this myself, but could see immediately what was meant, and why the last three books followed the structure and plot-lines that they did.

There's also an examination of the many classical Christian symbols used in the books - stags, unicorns, phoenixes, centaurs, and more - far too many to be a coincidence, particularly given JK Rowling's classical background. And finally there's a chapter on each of the first six books, showing how they fit into the overall theme, how Harry matures and develops, and what we as readers learn. There are some predictions about the seventh book, which are remarkably accurate overall, and a conclusion explaining how John Granger talks about Harry Potter with children in general.

I read this book over a couple of weeks; it's not particularly light reading, although it's very well-written, and accessible to anyone. But there was a great deal to think about, so I preferred reading just a chapter or two at the time, giving me a chance to ponder before embarking on the next set of revelations.

If I have a slight criticism of the book, it's that the author's American slant occasionally shows through. Most of his analysis of the various names was very accurate (eg Hermione being related to Hermes, Ginny (Ginevra) to Guinevere, and so on). But when he claims that 'Potter' is pronounced the same way as the Latin 'pater' he is thinking of American English rather than the British English in which JK Rowling was thinking; similarly when he tries to suggest that 'Harry', dropping the 'H', sounds the same as 'heir-y' ('hairy' without the H) he is again, in my view, off the mark. Neither of these work for British readers, and seem to be trying to read far too much into the name.

That apart, I thought that 'Looking for God in Harry Potter' was excellent, and would recommend it highly to anyone wanting to understand more about the structure and theme of the books, whether or not they are Christians. Most classic British literature is, after all, suffused in Christian thinking one way of another. I'd also recommend it to anyone who feels the books are not appropriate, or are 'evil' in any way. You may still decide not to read them, of course; but perhaps the immense popularity of the books will make more sense.

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