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  Current Issue: Summer 2004

HARRY POTTER, CATHOLIC BOY

From "Harry Potter and the Catholic Imagination," an essay by John O'Callaghan, who taught philosophy at the University from 2001-2003. He now labors for the University of Notre Dame, poor lad.

by John O'Callaghan

Scholastic Books, the American publisher of the Harry Potter novels, changed the title of the first book from its British title, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone American readers apparently cannot be expected to buy a book with “philosopher” in the title. But this change misled many to think that the novels are fundamentally about sorcery, witches, and witchcraft. They’re not. They are about philosophy, literally the love of wisdom, the desire to understand better the highest causes of things, and they are about faith seeking understanding, fides quaerens intellectum in the lovely Latin phrase. These two themes are intertwined and have an ancient heritage in Western culture, from Plato and Aristotle through Augustine and Aquinas through J. K. Rowling, who gives narrative expression to them in a lively morality tale, pitting unfettered power and evil against the power of goodness and love, a culture of life versus a culture of death in search of the philosopher’s treasure: wisdom.

Consider the rich religious symbols used throughout the novels. We have the character of Lucius Malfoy — that is, Lucifer, surnamed bad faith. We have his son Draco, whose name is Latin for snake. We have Slytherin House, again the snake. By contrast we have Gryffindor House, gryffindor being French for golden griffon — a medieval symbol of Christ. We have, in the third novel The Prisoner of Azkaban, Lupin the wolf, symbol of poverty and St. Francis (the association with St. Francis is apt when we think of Professor Lupin’s ill health, and the rags he wears for clothes) and Sirius Black, the dog, who represents “watchfulness and fidelity” often used in religious art as a symbol of St. Dominic and associated with the Dominicans (who are known as the Blackfriars because of the black capes they wear over their white religious habits). And the villain of the third book is Peter Pettigrew, the rat, symbol of destruction and evil.

Most striking of images in the books is the deer or stag, who represents piety, religious aspiration, solitude, and purity of life. Unbeknownst to Harry it is his father in the form of a stag who appears when he utters the Patronus spell in the third book. Recall that Harry is passing out, about to be overcome by the kiss of a dementor (themselves unsubtle tributes to J.R.R. Tolkien’s ringwraiths.) In Latin patronus means defender or advocate, and is etymologically linked with the Latin for father. Expecto means “I await,” a waiting that may be tinged with hope as in the Nicene Creed, expecto resurrectionem. So the spell expecto patronum means “I await a defender, an advocate.” It turns out that the answer to Harry’s prayer is the father whom he hopes for. The son is saved by his prayer, and then sees himself standing next to the stag on the bank across the lake. Later the wise Dumbledore explains, “your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself most plainly when you have need of him…”

Perhaps the most dramatic and striking symbol in The Philosopher’s Stone, however, is the unicorn slaughtered by Voldemort. The unicorn in medieval art was a symbol of purity; legend had it that only a virgin could capture a unicorn. The unicorn would run to the virgin, lay its head in her lap, and fall asleep. For obvious reasons it was also personified as a symbol of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. When Hagrid and the children tell Ronan the centaur that a unicorn has been injured in the forest, Ronan responds by saying “always the innocent are the first victims ... So it has been for ages past, so it is now.” Seen in a religious light and with the association with Mary and Jesus, these words remind the reader of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents at the hands of Herod.

Voldemort’s name means one who wills death. But he does not will death for himself; he wants the eternal life that he believes the Philosopher’s Stone will grant him. No: he wills the death of others as the means to this eternal life. That is why he slaughtered the unicorn and tried to slaughter Harry. In the climactic scene he explains to Harry that ideas of good and evil are youthful and “ridiculous.” He says, “there is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.” For the attentive reader, this is a direct reference to Nietzsche, who had argued that this will to power is at the heart of philosophy, and the secret desire of the modern quest for absolute autonomy. And yet the authentic love of his mother protects Harry, and conquers this quest for unfettered power. Good, which is associated with love, triumphs over evil.

Finally, the mythic symbol of Dumbledore is the phoenix, again a medieval symbol of Christ because of its ability to rise from the ashes on the third day after it has been consumed in a holocaust. It is the phoenix that comes to Harry in the Chamber of Secrets, when he recalls Dumbledore’s promise to remain at Hogwarts as long as someone there thinks of him. The phoenix gives to Harry the gift of the sword of Godric Gryffindor with which he will slay the Basilisk. The name Godric is a pre-Norman Conquest English name that means “the power of God.” So we have in the scene the association of two symbols of Christ, the phoenix and the griffon. And the gift the phoenix gives to Harry is the power of God, the power of Christ, to slay the basilisk, a symbol of Satan.

In short: Hogwarts is not a school of sorcery and the occult mastery of nature. It is a school of virtue, a community of inquiry in pursuit of wisdom, an academy of philosophy.

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