Thursday, May 26, 2011

St. George's "Holey" Ear

... and More Subtle Religious References in Deathly Hallows

(Forenote -- I had originally planned to post this during Holy Week, when I thought it would be appropriate.  But, alas, my work schedule was so hectic then that I could not do the research and work which I thought this post deserved.)

Throughout the Harry Potter series, JKR alluded to religious themes and imagery so subtly that many fans didn't even recognize she'd done so. I remember clearly reading an argument on a chat loop before the release of Deathly Hallows where a couple of fans were arguing over whether the DH cover had Harry in a Christ-like pose. One fan insisted it could not be because the Potter series was devoid of religious references, which was why he found it so appealing.

I knew that fan was in for a surprise, or a disappointment depending on his POV, because from the beginning, it had seemed to me, JKR had consistently woven in religious ideas and symbols, just in such a subtle way as to be largely unobtrusive and definitely non-preachy. Of course, it helps too that she drew from a wide range of religious ideas, not just Christian, and thus people tended to focus on her Greek, Roman and Norse mythological references (while I preferred the Egyptian). Any resemblance to Christian overtones could have been seen merely because these religions share some common beliefs.

It was obvious, however, that JKR followed the hero's journey with each book and even had an overarching hero's journey for the whole series. Harry's death and resurrection experiences had grown more intense as the series progressed, and nothing but the ultimate death and resurrection would do for the final installment. Once JKR committed this self-sacrifice to Harry, it would instantly be recognizable as Christ-like, even though there are other death and resurrections of other mythological heroes as well.

What makes Harry's death and resurrection more Christ-like in Deathly Hallows is that it is not the only subtextual allusion to Jesus. If you look through the story, you will find numerous references to other Christ-like images (particularly some pertaining to his last few days of life). Starting with a big one -- Harry being the "Chosen One."

But there are others, some quite interesting. Here are some links I've found to show how JKR subtly wove in references from the Christ story to enhance and deepen her own work.

1) St, George and His Holy Ear:

One thing I've noticed with JKR's work is that sometimes upon a first reading, some setting, action, or characterization comes across to me as a bit odd, somewhat forced or strained. Usually, in these cases, when I examine it deeper, I find that it's because she's drawing upon a mythological, literary or historical reference that she wants to use in a new way. George's ear is a perfect example. Maybe it's just me, but having George's ear cursed off seemed a bit odd to me. Usually a writer would go more for something like the loss of a hand, arm or possibly a leg, but an ear? Why?

Well, it turns out that when Jesus was arrested, one of his companions, seeking to offer protection, drew his sword and cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest. Coincidence? Maybe. But considering that even George himself felt "holey" and "saintlike," I tend to think the link is deliberate. It's like she's teasing us, giving us a deliberate early nod in the direction she wants us to go with that "saintlike" and "holey."  She's setting the rules of the game saying, "Now, see how many more of these religious Easter Eggs you can find." She knew her fans well.

2) Pouring Out the Loot of the Money Changers in Gringotts:

We met these goblin money-changers from Harry's first entry into the wizarding world. Viewed with distrust and uncertainty by many witches and wizards, the goblins, like those who exchanged money in the Jewish temples or collected taxes like Zacchaeus, lived on the edge of two worlds.

When Harry, Ron and Hermione enter Gringotts to retrieve the Hufflepuff cup, they must fight their way out of a rising mound of burning treasure that pours out of the room when opened, and their exit causes tremendous destruction. As with Jesus' visit to the temple, he "poured out the changers' money" (John 2:15) and generally set about wrecking the place -- though he didn't have a dragon to help as Harry did.

3) Upstairs at Aberforth's and the Upper Room:

The room in which Aberforth hides the trio and offers them bread and mead is upstairs in his pub. An Upper Room. Need I say more?

I guess I better -- Jesus ate his last meal with his disciples in an upper room in a home in Jerusalem, sharing with them bread and wine.

4) Welcomed with Palms and then Threatened with Betrayal:

Harry goes from being welcomed with open arms into the Room of Requirement when he first returns to Hogwarts, to, after Voldemort issues his ultimatum, having Pansy Parkinson scream to find him and hand him over. In fact, when Harry first enters the RoR, it seems to him like a tree house -- a palm tree maybe? Seamus even said that it "sprouted a pretty good bathroom once girls started turning up." (p. 465) Odd choice of word, sprouted, isn't it?

5) The Garden of Gethsemane and The Dark Forest:

Harry meets the Death Eaters and Voldemort in the Dark Forest. Jesus is betrayed and arrested by the High Priest's guards in the Garden of Gethsemane.

6) Narcissa Malfoy and Mary Magdalene:

Now, this point is probably going to seem like the oddest link to you, and I admit I may be totally off, but I find a detail extremely intriguing in the image of Narcissa bending over Harry's body to verify his death for Voldemort.  Her hands "softer than he had been expecting" crept from his face to touch his chest and feel his heart beating. And notice this one revealing detail, "her long hair tickled his face." (p. 581, Bloomsbury edition)

Where in the Jesus narrative have we seen a woman bending over Jesus, touching him with her long hair? Mary of Bethany (also believed to be Mary Magdalene) pours an expensive perfume over Jesus' feet and then wipes it with her hair, anointing him the Messiah, the Saviour. By lying for Harry, Narcissa not only seeks to save the life of her son, but ensures that Harry can save the entire wizarding world.

While it may seem odd that JKR would use Narcissa Malfoy to portray Mary Magdalene, we should remember that for many centuries Mary Magdalene was seen as an outcast and a prostitute.

7) King's Cross and Jesus' Crucifixion:

Let's examine the intriguing scene in King's Cross. First, look at the name -- King's Cross. Jesus was labeled a king as he died on a cross. King's Cross is where Harry experiences his final and most fatal death.

And he's not alone. Two other beings are there with him at King's Cross, just as Jesus is surrounded by two other people being crucified. One hurls insults at Jesus and torments him with not being able to save himself from death while the other reaches out to Jesus in friendship and belief.

Harry, too, is accompanied into King's Cross with one who is decidedly antagonistic -- the portion of Voldemort's soul which had been lodged in Harry for so long, and Dumbledore -- next to Dobby, Harry's greatest fan.

8) Sunrise over the Great Hall and Resurrection:

I don't think it's coincidence that the final defeat of Voldemort happens as the sun is rising in the Hogwarts Hall. The women found Jesus' tomb empty at sunrise. The empty tomb, and the Great Hall with Slytherins and Gryffindor's comforting each other in the wake of Voldemort's death, are both symbols of restored hope.


It seems to me that one critical element is missing in this comparison. You may well ask, where is Judas in Harry Potter?

Snape, of course. Except the way JKR molds her Judas, not only is Snape truly remorseful, he was always on Harry's side. In the end, Snape and Judas meet death as a result of their action.  Nagini's magical cage encases Snape's head as she delivers her deathly bite into his neck. According to Matthew, Judas hangs himself (a neck wound), and the 30 pieces of silver he returned in remorse to the chief priests used to buy the potter's field.

In studying the way JKR crafted these references to lie below the surface but still make their point, we can better learn how to weave in analogies and metaphors into our work as well, without beating the reader over the head with our message.  In the end, while JKR subtly uses Christian imagery, she does not use it exclusively, which is what truly gives her work broad appeal and which enabled that prior-mentioned fan able to read, and feel comfortable, with a story he considered not religious.

I know I've missed many references in trying to keep this post (relatively) short. Can you point out any more?

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  1. Oops! Just caught a type. It should says that Harry's death and resurrection was NOT the only reference to Christ.

  2. Once again you amaze me. Of course, not being Christian, I feel like I get a pass on this one! LOL. Numbers 1, 7, and 8 seem irrefutable to me. Very nice. The others ring true as well, but again, I'm not as familiar with the stories, so I can't really say. I do love how she brings in so many different mythos in the books. It's amazing how layered she made it.

  3. I would argue that Peter Pettigrew could also be considered Judas. He betrayed James and Lily to death the way that Judas did Jesus, and eventually choked himself (as Judas did...with ropes). Then again with the name Peter, some might align him with Peter who denied Christ, but Peter ended up being the leader after Christ's ascension to heaven. So I see Pettigrew more like Judas.

  4. Pretty cool. I'm a Christian and I never once caught onto those scenes b/c I was wrapped up in the story. a sign of good writing! Great job, Susan.

  5. Lisa and Laura -- I was looking forward to hearing both of your perspectives on this because of your different perspectives. I'm so glad that it still resonated somewhat with someone who's not Christian and that for someone who is, it still hit a few surprises. Thanks, as always!

    Jenna - You're definitely right about Peter and I'm sorry I didn't mention him. What it seems to me that JKR does is to mirror James and Lily's backstory with Harry's current story. Lots of readers had caught onto this before DH, and had aligned the Marauders with Harry's closest friends and were expecting Neville to betray Harry like Peter. I was so glad this didn't happen! Thanks for your insight!

  6. Fantastic post! I love analyzing things like this (as you probably guessed with my "theme" post :) ). I try to reference different mythology with my work, but I'm an amateur compared to JKR. One of my secret daydreams is that someone will analyze my work like this once it comes out. :)

  7. Jami - after having read your blog many times and getting to know you online, I'm sure you'll realize your secret daydream! :-) Thanks for your comment!

  8. Great post! I agree with you, I always thought there was a definite Christian imagery that JKR had woven into the narrative without making it *too* obvious - in fact, I'm sure I read an interview of hers where she said that Biblical themes are very much there but she couldn't make them too revealing because then we would know how the story ends.
    I actually think that most popular fantasy, stories, especially those with sequels, liberally employ the use of Biblical motifs. And that's because of the universal values that are a part of this myth, from ambition and desire to evil and the forbidden.
    In my second year at college, a friend and I compared Voldemort to Satan for our term paper. We just started out with a few basic points of comparison, but it turned out very long indeed!

  9. Hi Kriti, sorry to be slow to respond. Somehow I missed this comment. You're right about that interview with JKR. I've heard the same interview. And your term paper on Voldy sounds fascinating. So, you got several inches of parchment on him, eh? :-)

  10. Here's one that I think clinches that Harry is a Christ-figure and not just, say, Horus. Was the omission deliberate?

    Harry's friends cannot be killed BECAUSE he died for them.

    It's not just that Harry sacrifices himself, in line with the dying-god theme. His death specifically guarantees the lives of his friends. That is why, for example, Bellatrix cannot hurt Molly.

  11. Hi Anonymous, thanks for pointing it out. No the omission was not deliberate. In fact, I'm surprised to see I didn't have it in there. I guess I've talked about it so much in other places that it felt like I'd written it here as well.

  12. You left out the allusion of Harry's parents and friends, who upon the revealing of the resurrection stone, comfort him in the Forbidden Forest, are like the angels who come to comfort Jesus after his agonized prayers, asking for God to take the "cup" of death--Jesus' task for the world--away from him. In the same way, Harry doesn't want to die, but has to come to grips with what is required of him. Harry's "I'm ready to die" parallels Jesus', "Father, Your will be done." It is only upon acceptance of the ultimate task that the comforting of the angels for Jesus and Harry's loved ones takes place.

    I recommend an essay written by J.R.R. Tolkien, "On Fairie Tales," which is not about "fairy tales" but about stories of depth and truth, to all your readers. His point is that, for a story to be great, it needs to hold the truth of the greatest of stories: the story of Jesus' death and resurrection.