Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Whatcha Reading Wednesday: HP Goodness

How Harry Cast His Spell: The Meaning Behind the Mania for J. K. Rowling's Bestselling Books - Paperback

Today's WRW actually is motivated by the fact that I need to return this borrowed book to Kelly, whom we get to see tomorrow (yay!) A few weeks ago with she visited, Kelly loaned me two books, and I've gotten through the first and am working on the second.

How Harry Cast His Spell, by John Granger

I may not have spelled this out too clearly on my blog, but I absolutely loved Harry Potter. Loved! When I finished The Deathly Hallows, I put my book down, wiped the huge tears pouring from my eyes, and thought, That was a masterpiece. How she brought together every small detail and how she wove light and truth through everything was incredible.

Any props I gave to Rowling, however, were pennies compared to what I now give to her after reading Granger's book. He opened my eyes to the genius of her work.

In the first chapter, Granger writes, "I am convinced that the fundamental reason for the astonishing popularity of the Harry Potter novels is their ability to meet a spiritual longing for some experience of the truths of life, love, and death that are denied by our secular culture. Human beings are designed for transcendent truths, whether they know it or not, and they pursue experience of these truths and some exercise of their spiritual faculties anywhere they can" (2).

Granger's purpose is not to prove to HP haters that they're wrong (although he does do that!), but it is to show that Harry Potter is at its core Christian. Rowling uses traditional literary symbols that are Christian in foundation throughout the entire series. It's much more than Harry being a Christ figure at the end, however; it's symbols that I should have learned in my lit classes at school, but for some reason did not.

So, here are just a few key elements of the book. Really, I'm just scratching the surface. Buy the book!

  • Harry's Hero Journey: His hero journey follows (for the most part) the traditional literary journey and even includes a "descent" or spiritual death, a resurrection, and a Savior. Think Chamber of Secrets: Harry begins at Privet Drive, heads to Hogwarts to find that year's mystery, descends through the bathroom chute into the chamber where he will fight Voldemort (or some form of him, as he does in every book), "dies" because of the basilisk wound, but rises with the help of Fawkes' healing tears, and ends at Platform 9 3/4 again. Death? Resurrection? A Savior? That sounds familiar. You can apply this hero cycle to any of the books.
  • Spiritual Clues in the Gryffindor/Slytherin opposition: Gryffindor is named for Godric Gryffindor, whose first name means "godly" or "worshipful." Gryffindor means "golden griffin", which is traditionally a symbol for Christ - part lion (king of the earth) and part eagle (king of the sky). The phoenix, which also becomes associated with the Gryffindors, is sometimes called the "Resurrection Bird" and is also a symbol for Christ. On the other side, Slytherin's founder Salazar just sounds snake-like, making us connect Slytherin with a serpent. Their leader is the Dark Lord. Granger points out, then, that the central conflict in the novels is between the descendants of Gryffindor and Slytherin, a fight between good and evil.
  • Alchemy: Alchemy was the medieval "science" whose goal was to find a Philosopher's Stone that could turn lead into gold. (Remember that the first novel in HP is actually titled Philosopher's Stone; the American version is Sorcerer's Stone.) Granger simply defines alchemy as the "transformation of something common into something special" and says Rowling uses alchemy a "metaphor for change" and a "resource for powerful imagery" (30). All good stories have an element of alchemy in it, in that the reader (or viewer) changes through the story with the character. But Rowling is different: she actually uses traditional alchemy symbols and metaphors (and uses them a lot!), just like the greats did. There are three stages in alchemy: the dissolution of the metal, called the nigreda, or black stage, where the old is being killed and dissolved; the ablution or washing of the new material, called the albedo, or white stage, where the material actually turns a brilliant white; then the perfection of the material (gold now!), called the rubedo, or red stage. Quiz! How many characters can you associate with these stages? Albus Dumbledore, Sirius Black, Rubius Hagrid, to name a few. (Don't forget that on the frog card containing Dumbledore, he and Nicolas Flamel were alchemists!) Not to mention that the alchemical work is done by using two principal catalysts: sulfur and mercury, often called the "quarreling couple." Any two people fit that in the book? Of course! Cool Hermione Granger (initials are HG, for mercury, and Hermione is the female version of Hermes, who is the Greek messenger god...Mercury!) and passionate, red-headed Ron Weasley. There are other alchemical images throughout: dragons, egg, water, grave, which Granger explains with connections to alchemy. But the biggest thing for me is Harry's transformation. Is he not the poster-boy for alchemy? His transformation is from lead to gold throughout the entire series. So what has this to do with Christianity? We must remember that medieval literature was grounded in Christian elements and symbols, and the idea of alchemy became nearly a spiritual one of change from base to purity.
  • Doppelgangers: A German word that means "double-goer," we're familiar with this word to mean someone who looks like someone else. In literature, it can be a character's complimentary figure, and can be like a Jeckyll/Hyde thing (same body) or a Frankenstein and his monster thing (two bodies). What it points to is a struggle between the natures, or possibly a dual nature. (Think flesh and spirit struggle for the first, God-man for the second). A few ways that doppelgangers were used (and by the way, they are huge in the books): animagi, Patronuses, "half-breeds," characters trying to live in two worlds (Snape), Polyjuice potion, not to mention all the pairs! Slytherin-Gryffindor, Harry-Draco, Ron-Hermione, Grindelwald-Dumbledore, just to name a few. This doppelganger thing comes to a head in Harry and Voldemort, representatives of Gryffindor and Slytherin, joined by a prophecy, and, whether they want it or not, part of each other. Not surprisingly, this actually goes back to the alchemy element: "Opposites have to be reconciled and resolved ("die" and be "reborn") before they can be rejoined in perfect golden unity. Opposites have to be reconciled and resolved for there to be a new life. One part of a pairing or both must die for there to be new life" (48). Granger explains this further (so read it), but sums up by saying: "Harry and Voldemort, with their mirrored and magically joined bodies and souls, are reflections of the body-soul unities we all are and of the choice each of us makes between carnal- and spiritual-mindedness. For whatever reason, call it the Fall if you like, our hearts are dark, and this choice isn't always easy. But making the hard, right choices, we can die to that evil within, and having won that interior battle, the exterior enemy is defeated when we choose to confront him" (52).
I don't know about you, but I can't wait to read Harry Potter all over again now that I've been a little more enlightened. And can you believe what I've summarized for you is just the first five chapters of twenty? Granger goes on to develop the main themes (Pride and Prejudice, Death and Bereavement, Personal Transformation, and Choice), hash out each novel, then spends three incredible chapters on The Deathly Hallows.

My spiritual life was affected through the reading of Harry Potter, and Granger has given me even more tools to allow it to permeate my soul, which is what good literature is supposed to do. It's supposed to change us, friends, not merely entertain us.

After writing this, I'm not sure I can give this book back to you, Kelly. Maybe I'll just "forget" it at home and have to keep it until next time :) Or I suppose I could take my own advice and buy one for myself.

Note: In light of the comment Stephanie made, I wanted to add that Granger's book is actually way more accessible than I make it out to be. I've squashed all of his ideas -- which he explains so well -- into a tiny blog post. (It is tiny, okay?) I would feel completely comfortable giving this book to a high school student, perhaps even a mature middle school student, so adults definitely will get it! Also, thought I should add that Granger keeps a website called Hogwarts Professor, which you may enjoy checking out. He talks not only about Harry Potter but other good reads. (And Steph, this will get your attention...he even talks about Twilight!)

5 comments:

  1. i LOVED harry potter!!! loved loved them, and i should re-read the whole series over again. this book looks really good; i hate when people who haven't even read the books bash them for being "anti-christian" etc so i'm sure i'll enjoy this!

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  2. Oh harty-har-har! You bring that book back Candace Feely. Or...I won't let you see my new stand mixer!

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  3. Marisa - you would love this book, then. It's awesome. And Kelly, I don't appreciate you using your stand mixture as collateral! I have to see that mixer. I have to!! I guess I'll be returning your book, then.

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  5. Wow! Looks like an awesome book, however possibly a little over my head. Maybe I will pick it up and see if I can get through it. Thanks for the summary!

    And PS, yes I am aware that the summer heat is not cooperating with my Fall plans! but I don't care!

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