One Fine Potion: The Literary Magic of Harry Potter
Baylor University Press
The mark of a great book discussing the Harry Potter books, especially if, like me, you have kept abreast of the current Potter scholarship, is that you learn something knew or see the Potter books in a new light. Greg Garrett’s book is exactly this sort of book, and I might even say it is best introduction for the reader new to the theology of Harry Potter yet written. Garrett gave me new eyes to see in many places, or approached the books from a fresh angle.
This is not, of course, to say there is no crossover with other good and valuable books of Christian scholarship on the subject. That’s pretty much inevitable, but out of all the books I’ve read before, this one reads like a rounded whole, and stands easily on its own, a self-contained work. This is very much the place to start.
Garrett approaches the Potter books using the four levels of interpretation popularized in the Middle Ages, a tradition that is rushing back into Christian scholarship (Peter Leithart has written extensively on the Medieval four levels in his book Deep Exegesis), and tackles the magic in the books, the morality, the way they build community and friendship, and then finally, the anagogiccal level of reading the book as a means of theological meaning for our own lives. This approach was highly effective and not bothersome at all.
In fact, there is almost nothing to complain about in the book. Garrett is sufficiently a fan of the Potter series that even into the deep details he shows a familiarity and grasp of the material and its deeper implications (something which has not always held true, even with Christians writing in their favor). The only trouble I had was in the final chapter, when he argued that Harry was a Christ-figure and Dumbledore the representation of the Holy Spirit. I don’t think he meant to imply that Harry was the same sort of Christ-figure as, say, Aslan, but Christians are so used to seeing a Christ-figure as Jesus-in-story-form that it is dangerous to even make mention of it. The reality is that Harry is not Aslan, Harry is Frodo, a Christian-figure. He does not stand for God or Christ, but for the journey of the Christian Everyman walking the way of the cross. Harry represents us, not Jesus.
Even more strained a reading, however, is that of Dumbledore as the Holy Spirit. While Garrett does reveal some interesting parallels, I found his defense for the most part to be a stretch of the material. Dumbledore is too much a flawed character to truly represent God in any form; the text suggests to us that Dumbledore represents the Wise Mentor, Harry’s Confessor, and therefore stands as a symbol of the Church. Like the Church, Dumbledore has a flawed past. Rowling has also said that Harry has a lot of her in him, including her struggle to believe – what this gives us, then, is that Rowling, in story form, is wrestling over the past misdeeds of the Church on her struggle to believe in God, and at King’s Cross (hear: the cross of the King) finally forgives the Church and accepts it, flawed history and all. We all follow Harry on this journey, and so Rowling is asking us all to forgive the Church its errors because its sins are also covered by the King’s Cross.
It was also nice to see the book published by the well-regarded academic publisher, Baylor University Press; hopefully this trend will continue, and more scholarly presses will open this discussion into higher plains of discourse. Nevertheless, if you have any interest in the deeper meaning of the Potter books, this small book is the culmination of much of the research and study that has gone into the epic of our times. It is one of the best places to start.