July 17, 2011


Harry Potter Is Here to Stay: Why the final movie is only the beginning of the Harry Potter phenomenon. (John Granger, 7/13/2011, Christianity Today)

Rowling's storytelling reveals traditional artistry, with symbols and themes borrowed from Dante, Shakespeare, the Inklings, and other literary greats. Most remarkably, Rowling uses three literary devices that are hallmarks of the series: (1) a complex yet nearly invisible "ring composition"; (2) an alchemical drama; and (3) an engaging picture of the faculties of the soul. Let me explain.

• Ring compositon: The whole series, as well as each book therein, conforms to the touchstones of traditional story scaffolding. Anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her book Thinking in Circles, calls it "ring composition." She describes it as "a construction of parallelisms that must open a theme, develop it, and round it off by bringing the conclusion back to the beginning." Bible readers might call it chiasmus.

Rowling repeatedly hits the three marks of ring writing. The Potter series and each novel have beginnings and ends that meet up. They have "centers" that both return to the question raised in the beginning and answer that question in the end. And, each book and each chapter has its mirrored image or "reverse echo" in the book or chapter on the opposite side of the story divide. "Parallelisms" define these stories.

I think Rowling picked up this chapter structure from her close reading of C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and Charles Williams's seven novels, which have a similar if not identical structure. Both Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (marketed and sold in the U.S. as Sorcerer's Stone) and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for instance, are 17 chapters long; both have their story centers in chapter 9; and both show an echoing effect between chapters before and after this divide.

• Alchemical drama: Lewis and Williams, and Rowling after their example, write in circles not just because Boethius, Dante, and medieval poets did, but also because they aim to transform readers by giving them an experience of literary alchemy.

Stanton Linden, in Darke Hierogliphicks, says that Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton used the vocabulary and images of alchemy to present allegories of Christian transformation. In alchemy, the darkness of lead becomes illumined and enlightened to become gold—a solid "light of the world"—and the alchemist's heart is restored to Edenic perfection. As a literary medievalist, Lewis used the alchemy motif most obviously in his Space Trilogy. In the world of alchemy, the three movements of transformation are known as the black, white, and red stages. The Space Trilogy parallels these stages as we witness the spiritual dissolution, purification, and perfection of Ransom, the saga's hero.

Rowling confirmed her use of alchemical drama in a 1998 interview with Scotland's The Herald. She said, "To invent this wizard world, I've learned a ridiculous amount about alchemy. Perhaps much of it I'll never use in the books, but I have to know in detail what magic can and cannot do in order to set the parameters and establish the stories' internal logic."

Thus, it's no coincidence that the title of Rowling's first work is Philosopher's Stone. Rowling writes in a narrow but deep stream of English letters that begins in Shakespeare's Globe Theater, permeates the works of the metaphysical poets (Blake, Coleridge, and Yeats), and is seen in novels from Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities to Williams's Many Dimensions.

• Soul triptych: Rowling puts a peculiar Inkling twist on the schoolboy novel formula of three lead characters. Ron, Hermione, and Harry embody the three faculties of the soul. These faculties are described by Lewis in the essay "Men Without Chests" (from The Abolition of Man), what we call "body, mind, and spirit." It's a literary mechanism as old as the Legend of the Charioteer in Plato's Phaedrus and the "soul triptych" in The Brothers Karamazov. We see it more recently in Frodo, Sam, and Gollum on Mount Doom; Han, Luke, and Leia in Star Wars; and Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in Star Trek.

This type of story works because, entering into fiction, we suspend disbelief. We shut down our critical faculties. Looking with this "eye of the heart" (instead of the mind), we see our reflection looking back at us from the hero—who represents the spirit in these triptychs—and identify with what he or she experiences.

In Rowling's world, Harry plays this role—as hero and spirit—to the max. He always chooses the right path, usually at risk to his life while fighting the Dark Lord. Dumbledore tells Harry repeatedly that Harry's power is his capacity for love. Harry survives many near-deaths because of his "bond of blood" with the sacrificial love of his mother. Seven years in a row, Harry dies a near death and "rises from the dead" in the presence of or as a symbol of Christ. Our hearts recognize, resonate with, and thrill to Harry's annual death to self and resurrection.

Like Lewis, Williams, and other greats, Rowling has written a spiritual allegory of the soul's transformation to perfection in Christ. Fiction, as philosopher and historian of religion Mircea Eliade explained in The Sacred and the Profane, serves a religious function in a secular culture. Moderns are immunized against sacramental experience, prayer, and worship, yet still long for the transcendent, something beyond the ego. We find it in sports, film, and music, but most powerfully in books, especially in novels in which the heart recognizes its reflection in a character like Harry. We recognize and imaginatively experience our hearts' end in Christ's victory over death.

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Posted by at July 17, 2011 6:15 AM

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