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God, Merlin and Christ in the World of Harry Potter

November 26, 2010

Harry Potter is the cross-cultural phenomenon of our times. But it is not only a story. A wide range of scholars admit that a deeper layer of symbolism runs throughout the novels.

“Rowling has imagined this universe in such minute and clever detail that we feel we’ve been admitted to a looking-glass world as palpable as Tolkien’s Middle-earth or L. Frank Baum’s Oz – a Grimm place where the fantastic and the fabulous are routine, but also a place subject to all the limitations and losses of our own mortal world.”[1]

However, the scholars disagree over the nature of symbolism. It is interesting to see the cultural spectrum of commentators on Harry Potter. It has aroused the curiosity of evangelical Christians like John Granger[2] and Travis Prinzi,[3] of Catholic commentators like Michael D O’ Brien,[4] and of literary critics like Harold Bloom.[5] It has also drawn the severe criticism of Richard Abanes,[6] and also the rebuke of the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Christian commentators like John Granger, Travis Prinzi, James Thomos, David Jones etc. believe that the books are full of Christian symbolism.[7] While being unable to claim that the books are an allegory of the Bible or the New Testament, they claim that it is a symbolic work which imitates the story of the Christ in various ways.[8] Harry Potter is claimed as a Christ figure, along with Albus Dumbledore. Lily Potter is given the status of God Himself.[9] The Chamber of Secrets is compared to the Arthurian legends and in consequence a Christian symbolism is claimed for the books.[10]

On the other hand, another group of Christian commentators consider Harry Potter as a pagan and evil influence over the Christian society – pagan and evil being one and the same thing in their orthodox Christian worldview. They think of it as the work of the Satan, which inspires and encourages children towards the Occult and Satanic practices such as witchcraft and wizardry. Michael D O’ Brien and Richard Abanes are some such commentators.

Not all the criticism comes from the Christian groups. Marguerite Krause argues that the universe of Harry Potter is a godless universe. She thinks of the Harry Potter universe as a world without religion. According to her the philosophy of the world of Harry Potter is secular humanism.[11]

Rowling scarcely replies to criticism. Scholars and critics try to guess about her beliefs and ideas through the literary influences on her. Jessica Mitford, the renowned socialist was a decisive influence on Rowling.[12] Rowling has publicly accepted that politically she leans towards the Left, rather than the opposite side.[13] She has recently endorsed the Labor party in Britain. On September 2008, on the eve of the Labour Party Conference, Rowling announced that she had donated £1 million to the Labour Party, and publicly endorsed Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown over Tory challenger David Cameron:

“I believe that poor and vulnerable families will fare much better under the Labour Party than they would under a Cameron-led Conservative Party. Gordon Brown has consistently prioritised and introduced measures that will save as many children as possible from a life lacking in opportunity or choice. The Labour government has reversed the long-term trend in child poverty, and is one of the leading EU countries in combating child poverty. David Cameron’s promise of tax perks for the married, on the other hand, is reminiscent of the Conservative government I experienced as a lone parent. It sends the message that the Conservatives still believe a childless, dual-income, but married couple is more deserving of a financial pat on the head than those struggling, as I once was, to keep their families afloat in difficult times.”[14]

All this indicates that her worldview is not particularly religious; that the defining idea of the Potter world does seem to be secular humanism. Rowling has herself accepted that Hogwarts is a multi-faith school, thus endorsing the idea of multi-culturalism, the ideology of the Labour Party in the UK and of the liberals throughout Europe and the Western world. She has made it clear that her fictional world does not endorse a particular religion over others.

“Literalist Christians who brand Harry a dangerous role model for children because he is not a Christian (arguably true), or because he actively promotes a competing religion (arguably false), are missing the point. Harry and his friends, through all their adventures and personal growth and intellectual discoveries, demonstrate time and again that they have no interest in or need for any kind of religion at all.”[15]

Her images are also, according to her own statement are full of pagan symbolism. She uses the symbols of the Western civilization which have been intertwined with Christianity for the past two millennia; but the worldview is decidedly secular, with pagan images littered throughout.

How is this dilemma to be resolved? Whom to believe? The Christian scholars who claim that every symbol in Harry Potter is Christian? Or the other Christian scholars who claim that it is entirely pagan and evil? Or we shall go for the commentators like Krause who claims that Rowling shows the end of religion in her books? Or we shall believe Rowling herself and the influences upon her?

As Rowling has not responded to any of her critics, whether positive or negative, Christian or non-Christian, we have to rely on literary and cultural influences on her and the statements she makes about her work and inspirations.

One other way of determining whether the world of Harry Potter is a Christian universe or a secular humanist one is to do a statistical analysis of her books. We can get a clue by checking how many times the Christian expression, ‘My God’ is used in the books. We can also check whether Christ and its derivatives are used in the books; whether church going is mentioned at all.

It can be argued that God is not mentioned in the world of Tolkien either. The world of Harry Potter is not a parallel universe like that of Narnia or an entirely imaginary one like the Middle of Earth of J R R Tolkien. It is the very same world in which we, the Muggles, the non-magical people live. The activities of the wizards are hidden from the non-discerning eyes of the Muggles; and since in our world, Europe and Britain are primarily Christian, if a writer does not mention Church, then he/ she is most likely portraying a secular world.

On doing a statistical analysis of the word ‘God’, we find that it is used just seventeen times throughout the 4,100 pages long story. It is not used even once in the first and the second book. In third book it is uttered by one of the most evil characters of the book, Malfoy, the arch-nemesis of Harry Potter.

Malfoy swears by the word, ‘God’ while lamenting over the fact that half-giants like Hagrid are getting to take classes at Hogwarts.

“God, this place is going to the dogs,” said Malfoy loudly. “That oaf teaching classes, my father’ll have a fit when I tell him.”[16]

In the fourth book again, it is Malfoy again, who uses the word, ‘God’. He says it while teasing Harry and his friends, by telling them that he has some classified information, which the ordinary and poor wizards like Harry does not have the means to have.

“Don’t tell me you don’t know?” he said delightedly. “You’ve got a father and brother at the Ministry and you don’t even know? My God, my father told me about it ages ago . . . heard it from Cornelius Fudge. But then, Father’s always associated with the top people at the Ministry. . . . Maybe your father’s too junior to know about it, Weasley . . . yes . . . they probably don’t talk about important stuff in front of him. . .”[17]

In book five, it is Uncle Vernon who utters the word, the Muggle uncle of Harry Potter, who hates witches and wizardry. Vernon Dursley and his family is depicted as the rank-and-file snobs and hypocrites of the contemporary society who pride on their mediocrity by thinking of themselves as normal, and hide their subconscious jealousy of the powers of the magical people by looking down at them as inferiors and abnormal people. Harry’s power to do magic is considered as abnormality by the Dursleys, as expressed in the Chamber of Secrets.

“I WARNED YOU! I WILL NOT TOLERATE MENTION OF YOUR ABNORMALITY UNDER THIS ROOF!”[18]

Uncle Vernon utters the shunned word at the beginning of the book, after the Dementors have attacked Harry and Harry has saved Dudley from them. He is furious at him and as usual, blames him for Dudley being in shock. Vernon and Petunia have always tried to ignore that Harry has magical abilities and hence they hate Harry receiving owls. This time too, he is furious as Harry receives an owl from Sirius, telling him not to get out of the house.

“FOR GOD’S SAKE!” roared Uncle Vernon, pulling great clumps of hair out of his mustache, something he hadn’t been driven to in a long time. “I WILL NOT HAVE OWLS HERE, I WILL NOT TOLERATE THIS, I TELL YOU!”[19]

Only after half of the series is over, the name of god is uttered by a good character. By the time her fifth book was published Rowling had been receiving a lot of criticism that she means to destroy Christianity and promote other religions. She of course, did not want to rally for a particular religion, even other than Christianity. All she was doing was to depict a secular universe with a lot of cultural images. So from this point on, we get to read the word ‘god’ uttered by good characters too. Maybe, the reason behind this was to deflect the criticism that she was trying to depict an entirely materialistic and consumerist universe with no regard for deeper truths and spiritual dimensions.

Ron “Snape never eats here,” Ron told Harry quietly. “Thank God. C’mon.”[20]

Later on we get to read the word, once again by an ambitious character working for his benefit, but unconsciously aiding the evil side. Cornelius Fudge utters the word, while trying Harry for using magic outside the school of Hogwarts.

“I — not — I haven’t got time to listen to house-elves! Anyway, that’s not the only — he blew up his aunt, for God’s sake!” Fudge shouted, banging his fist on the judge’s bench and upsetting a bottle of ink.[21]

For the first time we get to hear it from a good character when Sirius utters it.

I’m not the weapon after all, thought Harry. His heart swelled with happiness and relief, and he felt like joining in as they heard Sirius tramping past their door toward Buckbeak’s room, singing “God Rest Ye Merry, Hippogriffs” at the top of his voice.[22]

In the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince the word is uttered for a total of four times. Once by Hermione, once by Ron and once by the mother of Voldemort, Merope. Hermione exclaims over Harry not telling her about the announcement of the O.W.L result at time.

“Today?” shrieked Hermione. “Today? But why didn’t you — oh my God — you should have said —”[23]

Another evil character, Merope then utters it:

“My God, what an eyesore!” rang out a girl’s voice, as clearly audible through the open window as if she had stood in the room beside them. “Couldn’t your father have that hovel cleared away, Tom?”[24]

And on page 243 Ron says:

“Thank God,” shivered Ron as they were enveloped by warm, toffee-scented air. “Let’s stay here all afternoon.”[25]

Harry says it only once in the entire series in this book. Harry – talking about Malfoy using the Polyjuice Potion.

“God, I’ve been stupid,” he said quietly. “It’s obvious, isn’t it? There was a great vat of it down in the dungeon. . . . He could’ve nicked some any time during that lesson. . . .”[26]

In the seventh book of the series, the word ‘god’ is mentioned the most number of times. Out of the entire count of seventeen, seven times it has been taken in this book.

On page 74 Harry exclaims after reaching the safety of the Burrow:

“Yeah,” said Harry. “Thank God.”[27]

On page 78 Mrs. Weasley says it thanking the return of her son, Bill:

Thank God.[28]

On page 142, Ron exclaims:

“Nightmare, Muriel is,” said Ron, mopping his forehead on his sleeve. “She used to come for Christmas every year, then, thank God, she took offense because Fred and George set off a Dungbomb under her chair at dinner…”[29]

On page 185 Ron uses it again:

“Well, as long as it doesn’t get them into trouble, though they might’ve been arrested already. God, that’s revolting,” Ron added after one sip of the foamy, grayish coffee.[30]

On page 274 too Ron says it:

“Blimey, I hope they escaped,” said Ron, leaning back on his pillows. The tea seemed to be doing him good; a little of his color had returned. “I didn’t get the feeling Reg Cattermole was all that quick-witted, though, the way everyone was talking to me when I was him. God, I hope they made it. . . . If they both end up in Azkaban because of us . . .”[31]

On page 298, it is used by Ted:

“Ah, God bless ’em,” said Ted. “What did they think, that they’d be able to use the sword on You-Know-Who? Or on Snape himself?”[32]

For the last time, it is used by Ron on page 756

“So that’s little Scorpius,” said Ron under his breath. “Make sure you beat him in every test, Rosie. Thank God you inherited your mother’s brains.”[33]

So, if the characters of Harry Potter very rarely swear by the name of God, do they not swear at all? Or do they swear by any other name?

In fact, they do swear in testing circumstances, quite like normal people. It is just that the word by which they swear is not ‘God’, but ‘Merlin’. Merlin is a half-mythical, half-historical character in the history of Britain. He was the chief Druid of the pagan Britain. He stood for the local and ethnic culture and pagan religion of Britain. Only in extreme circumstances did he support the Christian king Arthur, but even then he never compromised his pagan values.

In all, the name of Merlin is mentioned thirty-three times in the books, just one less than the double of the number of the word ‘God’ mentioned in the books.

The fact that the characters of Harry Potter swear more by the name of Merlin, than by the name of God, shows that the cultural motifs portrayed by J K Rowling are pagan, not Christian.

There is another reason to think that the culture portrayed by Rowling is more pagan than Christian. Swearing by the name of God is very normal among Europe and Britain; but swearing by the name of Merlin is entirely non-existent. The swearology of Harry Potter is entirely the work of Rowling’s imagination. The characters swear with: ‘Merlin’s beard!’ or ‘Merlin’s pants!’ etc. By not letting her characters swear by the name of ‘God’, which is the common practice, and by making them swear by an entirely new phrase, Rowling is making a cultural statement: she is using pagan motifs and values for her characters and her world. Instead of using the existing Christian swearology, she has invented a pagan swearology of her own.

  Book 1 Book 2 Book 3 Book 4 Book 5 Book 6 Book 7 Total
God 0 0 1 1 4 4 7 17
Merlin 2 2 4 2 11 5 7 33
Jesus 0 0 0

0

0 0 0 0
Christ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

In the first, the word god does not appear at all, while Merlin appears twice; in the second one it’s the same; the in the third book, god appears once, Merlin four times; in the fourth one, god once and Merlin twice; the fifth one, god for four times and Merlin eleven times; in the sixth one, god four times and Merlin five times, in the last one both are mentioned seven times.

So out of seven books, Merlin beats god in six and equals in one. That makes the score, 6-0. Quite a tilt in favor of pagan symbolism rather than Christian!

Despite the fact that Rowling’s fictional world exists in our own universe church-going is not mentioned in all of the seven books, even for once. Even the word, ‘church’ is not used at all. Mass and Eucharist are also not mentioned.

“One reason a sincere Christian might object to Rowling’s stories is their failure to present Christianity as a vibrant religion, relevant to the daily lives of its followers. None of Rowling’s characters ever talk (or even think) about Jesus, or the Bible, or salvation. Nowhere in any of the books, at Christmas or any other season of the year, do any of the characters go to church. This isn’t just a choice of certain individuals or families. The students at Hogwarts never go to chapel. For all we can tell from the descriptions given in the books, the school doesn’t even have a chapel. Daily announcements and special ceremonial occasions alike take place in the Great Hall.”[34]

Christmas is mentioned in the books, but just as a festival with no religious overtones.

“Rowling’s depiction of Christmas is all surface, no substance. In book after book, the trappings of Christianity are used as just another sort of background scenery, like the landscape or the weather. They have no meaningful content.”[35]

And in fact, Christmas is not the birthday of Jesus Christ but a pagan Roman festival which the Church later started celebrating as a Christian festival.

“Sometimes the Church took symbols or rituals from local pagan traditions and reinterpreted them to convey Christian messages. In other cases, instead of adapting polytheistic practices to its own needs, the Church labeled them as evil. Old gods were declared to be demons, which meant to worship in the old way – to seek to communicate with deities other than the Christian God – was, by definition, consorting with demons. The only acceptable way to approach the supernatural was through Christian ritual and Christian prayer. Anything else was magic, witchcraft, superstition – and thus forbidden.”[36]

As mentioned above, Harry Potter’s world is not a parallel world like Narnia but the same world in which we live. If this fact could be ignored… not the other, more striking one. Even the Muggle relatives of Harry, the Dursleys do not go to church or celebrate mass at home. They do not make signs of cross, or pray to god. They do not utter the name of Jesus Christ even once during the entire series.

“If church attendance was the norm for respectable people in the world of Harry Potter, you would think that the Dursleys would be prominent members of their local congregation. Yet on Privet Drive, as at Hogwarts, no mention of church services or church officials – ministers, priests, reverends, deacons – is ever made.”[37]

The name Jesus Christ is not mentioned at all by anyone in the series. Except Christmas, which was a pagan festival, there are no other Christian symbols in the series. It shows us a world devoid of Christian or religious symbols and full of pagan symbols, harking back to the pagan past of Europe when organized religion was non-existent and secular and spiritual world mixed freely.

 


[1] Beahm, George. Michiko Kakutani – Fact, Fiction and Folklore. Charlotesville: Hamptom Roads Publishing Company, Inc. 2005. p. xii

[2] Granger, John. Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader. New York: Zossima Press. 2007.

[3] Prinzi, Travis. Hog’s Head Conversations: Essays on Harry Potter. New York: Zossima Press. 2009.

[4] O’ Brien, Michael D. Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture. New York: F&T Press. 2010.

[5] Bloom, Harold. Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes. Wall Street Journal. 07-11-2000.

[6] Abanes, Richard. Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick. Indianapolis: Christian Publications. 2008.

[7] Prinzi, Travis. Hog’s Head Conversations: Essays on Harry Potter. New York: Zossima Press. 2009.

[8] Granger, John. Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader. New York: Zossima Press. 2007.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Granger, John. Looking for God in Harry Potter. New York: SaltRiver. 2006.

[11] Lackey, Mercedes. Mapping the World of Harry Potter. Dallas: BenBella Books. 2006.

[12] Fraser, Lindsey. Harry and me. The Scotsman. 2 November 2002: interview with Rowling, edited excerpt from Conversations with J.K. Rowling.

[13] Jensen, Jeff. “‘Fire’ Storm,” Entertainment Weekly, September 7, 2000

[14] Ben Leach. “Harry Potter author JK Rowling gives £1 million to Labour”. The Daily Telegraph. London. 20 September 2008.

[15] Lackey, Mercedes. Mapping the World of Harry Potter. Dallas: BenBella Books. 2006.

[16] Rowling, J K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Inc. 1999. p. 113.

[17] Rowling, J K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic Inc. 2000. p. 169.

[18] Rowling, J K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Inc. 1999. p. 2.

[19] Rowling, J K. Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Inc. 2003. p. 35.

[20] Ibid. p. 77.

[21] Ibid. p. 149.

[22] Ibid. p. 501.

[23] Rowling, J K. Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Inc. 2005. p. 99.

[24] Ibid. 209.

[25] Ibid. 243.

[26] Ibid. 454.

[27] Rowling, J K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic Inc. 2007. p. 74.

[28] Ibid. 78.

[29] Ibid. 142.

[30] Ibid. 185.

[31] Ibid. 274.

[32] Ibid. 298.

[33] p. 756.

[34] Lackey, Mercedes. Mapping the World of Harry Potter. Dallas: BenBella Books. 2006. p. 61.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2010 10:06 PM

    its not christ.. its some other god.. i agree.. signs of paganism 🙂

  2. Rose Johnson permalink
    January 5, 2011 3:07 AM

    I would like to point out that the Dursley’s weren’t exactly the most respectable people on earth. Have you read the books? They neglected Harry, abused him throughout the entire series. It’s a good thing they didn’t go to church, that would make Rowling definitely supporting another side as Christianity. The Dursleys were not Christian, as proved by Aunt Petunia hating her sister for being different, by Uncle Vernon starving Harry (book 1), by Dudley being a bully (his favorite sport was Hunting Harry- book 1). I am a Catholic, I’m a Harry Potter fan. They fit together, I promise you.

    By not using God within the series as the swear word, I find it to be polite. If she had used God instead of Merlin, that makes it unChristian. Using God’s name in vain is a sin, and with her having Malfoy (not a good character) use it, and Ron (who has no knowledge of the Muggle world besides his dad- probably where he had heard that swear), and Hermione (who used it once, but she has knowledge and uses it in the most common way- Oh my God) use the word, she is definitely not playing against the Christian side. The use of Merlin is unheard of in the real world. She used something no one had anything against. Doesn’t that prove that she wasn’t playing for the pagans?

    Your arguments, I’m sad to say, need a little more thought.

    • May 15, 2011 8:46 AM

      ‘The Dursleys were not Christian, as proved by Aunt Petunia hating her sister for being different, by Uncle Vernon starving Harry (book 1), by Dudley being a bully (his favorite sport was Hunting Harry- book 1).’

      Why would that be? After all the premise is that Harry and co. are not Christians…

      ‘I am a Catholic, I’m a Harry Potter fan. They fit together, I promise you.’

      People can live with contradictions, no problem in that…

  3. Charlie permalink
    January 31, 2011 2:19 PM

    When the harry and hermione go to godrics hollow in the seventh book they mention it being christmas eve and hearing singing from the church. Godrics hollow is a wizarding community so this would have to meen the people singing at the church on christmas eve are wizards.

    • May 15, 2011 8:46 AM

      As I said, in the seventh book there is some balancing act and there are some obligatory Christian symbols…

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