Growing up, I remember my sister and I waking up at 4:30 am to journey the half-mile to our cousins’ house. The streets were barely lit most of the time, but it was quiet – the kind of quiet that feeds a kid’s imagination. We made this journey on more than one special occasion…
When we arrived, we would all quietly nest ourselves in mountains of blankets and pillows while someone started the first movie. The moment those chimes came in with the Warner Brothers logo, we were gone – vanished from reality and sucked into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter for the next 20+ hours. I can’t remember how many times we completed the marathon, but toward the later years we would always celebrate a new HP with an entire day dedicated to our friends at Hogwarts. The marathon always ended just in time to go see the midnight showing of the newest film, complete with ridiculous puff-paint t-shirts that we made ourselves.
Watching Harry Potter with my cousins will always be one of the most cherished memories of my entire life. My cousin Lindsay would walk us through the parts that the movies didn’t quite explain as well as the books. While the rest of us hadn’t read them, we felt like we had. We also made a routine of watching the movies every time we got together, which resulted in a pretty solid understanding of the characters and the themes that were revealed in more depth each time. These were more than just movies to us. They were our constant in the ever-changing waters of family dynamics. They were our escape from the growing pains of adolescence. They were a safe-house to run to when our lives ventured too far apart. They were our playground to explore and understand good and evil, and to know that we not only had wizards to show us magic, but we had each other too. They allowed us to affirm one another in the way we responded to the characters, or the plot, or the emotions we couldn’t always control. They were our friends. They were us...
As we got older and we started going off to college, the viewings were inevitably fewer and farther between. We always held the tradition close to us, and we still try to watch them together when we’re all in the same city, but the past will always leave a bittersweet taste in our hearts.
This summer, my husband and I took a week off to enjoy each other and some time away. Our last minute decision took us to Universal Studios, where my adolescent heart swelled beyond capacity. The magic of Hogwarts came alive again, resuscitated before my eyes. I walked through Diagon Alley, naming each movie when I heard its score playing throughout the park. I drank butterbeer every single day and I felt 15 again. The memories were vivid, and I couldn’t help but smile and cry. I wished I could share that experience with my cousins. Someday, I promised myself, we would…
Once we got back to reality, I held HP even closer to my heart. And finally, now that I have a break between my final graduate classes I am able to read the books that inspired the unique friendship within my family. I hope to document my journey through the series, but I know there is far more to write about than my memory will hold. For once, I don’t want to read a book with a pen in my hand. I need to be fully consumed by this world and enjoy the leisure of reading. Therefore, there will be moments that I experience that I will not be able to recreate with words. I’m learning to be okay with that – it’s kept in my heart where it can live and thrive and inspire. Meanwhile, I’ll still try to capture everything that I can…
* * *
I sat down to read the first few pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and stopped to find that I had already read half the book. Obviously, they were written for children, so the reading is easy. Pair that with a story that hooks you by the nose and leads you through every mysterious corridor you could dream of, and you’re bound to be its slave.
As most know by now, I’m finishing my degree in apologetics this year. After immersing yourself in a topic like this for three years, you can never see the world the same. Now I find apologetic significance in every piece of creativity. HP is one of the grandest examples of imaginative apologetics in my opinion, along with The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. So it was no surprise when I came across moments of truth that could light up even the darkest room.
So far, the most profound truths have been delivered by Dumbledore. His character is quirky and mysterious, much like God I imagine. Dumbledore always seems to know what is appropriate for the other characters – what they can handle and when they should learn to trust the unknown. It’s also worth noting that Dumbledore’s character has flaws that I’ve wrestled with throughout the movies, so I am not definitively saying he is the ‘God’ character, merely the one who has the greatest sight. “Ah, music," he said, wiping his eyes. "A magic beyond all we do here!” Dumbledore acknowledges mysteries with respect and awe – leading others by example into the humbling state of constant learning. Despite his vast knowledge and power, Dumbledore is still a student to the divine.
At the same time, he approaches mystery with bravery and faith. When Harry references You-Know-Who, Dumbledore says, “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” So often in our culture, we distort the language of things that we hold in fear. We would much rather numb our minds into thinking that we’ve found a solution for the issue, when we still have yet to address the root of the problem. This defense mechanism is found in politics, social justice, religion, and any other big topic. Honesty has been encouraged, but context and accountability has been diminished - a lethal combination. When we soften difficult truths with language that is easier to swallow, we turn a blind eye to evil and pain that we may subsequently be endorsing.
Toward the end of the book, this idea is more clearly reflected in Voldemort’s philosophy - “There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it.” With culture evolving more and more toward the individual, the danger of losing sight of what’s good and evil is greater than ever. If everything is subjective, then it is all just a fight for power – a fight for more of whatever we want, void of compassion or love. This is the perfect picture of what C.S. Lewis would call the great sin – pride. In his book, Mere Christianity, Lewis says, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man... It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. . .As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on thing and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you. . .For pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.”
The central conflict throughout the entire HP series surrounds the fight for power, and the loss of objective morality. While the books certainly show us a decent quarrel between what is good and what is evil, I think the conflict not as illuminated (and possibly more important) is the conflict between objective and subjective truth.
This idea brings me to the next point of interest in the first book – the Sorcerer’s Stone. Dumbledore explains that with it, one could have “as much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all - the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.” Again, we see that pride and the greed that accompanies it lead to emptiness. Even with all the time in the world, all the experience that time can buy a person, it cannot satisfy the void that can only be filled with goodness and truth. What is life without meaning? What is time without purpose? What is existence without relationship?
On a deeper level, Harry’s mother offered him these things with her sacrifice. Life, but also meaning. Time, but also purpose. Existence, but also relationship. “Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. Love as powerful as your mother's for you leaves it's own mark. To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.” Love provides the protection of meaning, purpose, and relationship that power and pride could never offer to someone, even with endless life, time, and existence.
This concept is deepened in the Dark Forest, when Harry encounters Voldemort for the first time, feeding off of the blood of a unicorn. Firenze, a centaur, warns him, “Only one who has nothing to lose, and everything to gain would commit such a crime. The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain something so pure and defenseless to save yourself, you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips.” Living for the sake of life is not sustainable. There is an eternal hope in all of us that we cannot deny with every new day that we take on. When we respond to suffering and evil in the world, we’re responding to the part of us that was created from inherent goodness. We recognize that something around us is not in line with how we were wired and it causes distress in our system. When we take part in that evil, there’s a part of us that is damaged and our life doesn’t align with the fullness that we were made from. Just as Voldemort could not sustain himself on life that was obtained from an evil act, we cannot sustain ourselves when our actions are focused on the self.
To serve the self subjectively is to choose emptiness. When Harry discovers the mirror of Erised, Dumbledore explains the danger of a self-indulgent mindset. He says, "It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts . . . However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible. The Mirror will be moved to a new home tomorrow, Harry, and I ask you not to go looking for it again. If you ever do run across it, you will now be prepared. It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.”
The problem with idealistic thinking that centers on the individual is that we forget to embrace the form that we were given and the trellis on which we grow. We do not find meaning within our own limitations, but with possibilities that live in the unknowable. We do not find true purpose within ourselves, but outside of ourselves, reflected in the people we meet and the culture we make. We do not find reasons to exist within our own broken selves, but in relationships that we build with creation and the creator. This isn’t to say that self-care is wrong – it’s not. It isn’t to say that individual dreams, convictions, and thoughts are invalid – they aren’t. This is instead to suggest that our individual qualities shine the brightest and fulfill their purpose most fully when cultivated in the context of objective truth and structure of being.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone sets up a wonderful framework that provokes thought, emotion, and a foundation that points to truth. While the context is secular, I cannot think of a better method of translating these important values. Perhaps the “magic” is not endorsing witchcraft, but instead endorsing faith in something divine. Our culture, more than ever, needs creative pictures of the divine truth that we all live in, regardless of tradition. It's no surprise to me that the Harry Potter fandom is as immense as it has become - deep cries out to deep, whether we recognize it or not. We will always be drawn to images of eternity. The magical world unlocks the possibilities that our world holds beneath the surface. The themes have only started unraveling, and I can't wait for more...
1 - C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1980), 122-125.