Harry Potter, Wandlore and the Imago Dei

Two things in particular have led my to write the following. The first was a recent conversation with a couple of Christian friends. When I expressed my joy of finally being able to see the latest Harry Potter movie (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1), I received back some respectfully worded, but obstinate hostility towards the “witchcraft” contained therein. The second thing was a comment made a while back on facebook by a friend. He said something like “I don’t read fiction, I like to read books about real life.” My reaction: “Fiction is about real life!”

Does that comment strike you as odd? Then let me begin with

A brief explanation of the Imago Dei

In Christian Theology there is an idea called the Imago Dei. (Gen 1:26-17) This idea is that God has given us something that reflects himself. This “Image of God” sets humanity apart from the animal kingdom and the rest of the created order. What it precisely means to be an Image-bearer is widely discussed with many differing opinions. There are however two solutions within the broad mainstream that are relatively uncontroversial.

The first is that the Image has something to do with creativity. The context of the passage is the the creation narrative, where humans are revealed to be the intended apex or goal of everything that has come before it. Also, it’s not just any god whose image we bear, but the one and only true creator God, who calls things into being from nothing.

The second is that the Image has something to do with the function of humans. Like a mission or call to action. In the middle of and immediately after the enigmatic passage God says, “Let them have dominion…” and “fill the earth and subdue it…” We are, as humans, commissioned to go into the world, and bring about God’s dominion to an unordered environment.

This Image was not destroyed when Adam and Eve sinned against God. It was merely distorted. The power of sin began to reign and bought death, both spiritual death and ultimately physical death. Spiritual death is any separation from the life of God, symbolized by their banishment from Eden where the tree of life was. The entire narrative makes it clear that Image-bearers were intended to operate in relationship with the one who placed it there.

So what does this have to do with Harry Potter?

Previously I have argued that J.K. Rowling intentionally utilizes familiar symbols to layer Christian meaning into her stories.[1] One example of this is Harry’s wand – made of holly with a Phoenix feather core.[2]

If you know anything about holly, you probably know its a tree particularly associated with Christmas. You probably recall Deck the Halls with Bells of Holly. Not so widely known is the carol is The Holly and the Ivy.

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown.

The holly bears a blossom
As white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet Saviour.

The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.

The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn.

The holly bears a bark
As bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown.

Christianity has an long tradition of taking the pagan symbols and super-imposing Christian meaning over it. It does this with the hope that, in time, the overlaid meaning will replace the old entirely. In this way, a culture can be transformed into a one that is accustomed, receptive and honoring to the gospel of Christ. The Christmas holiday was, for instance, directly modeled on the Roman celebration of the Saturnalia, where wreaths and garlands of holly were used as decoration during the cold winter months. Being an evergreen, the decoration was a reminder of the life that was to come while all else was dormant and appeared dead.[3]

This carol above is an example of this kind of co-opting of religious symbolism. “White as lily” here alludes to Christ’s purity. Red berries correlate to the redness of Christ’s blood, shed to save sinners from death. The prickles represent the crown of thorns that adorned Christ’s head while on the cross. Possibly the bitter bark is a reference to the drink offered to Christ while being crucified. The carol’s first and last stanzas bear a feint reference the battle between the “Holly King” and its brother the “Oak King” that is a part symbology’s cultural heritage. Here holly is made out to be the preeminent tree and a permanent victor over ivy – the plant that tries to choke it. Holly was already thought by pagans to protect against evil and ward off bad luck,[4] so the old meaning is concomitant with the new symbolic meaning. Christ is the Holy King,[5] the defeater of evil, and the master of death.[6] Accordingly the evergreen becomes an apt symbol for eternal life.

It is easier to understand its symbolic meaning of the Phoenix feather core. The Phoenix is the “resurrection bird,” named so because they die in a burst of flames and are re-born in their own ashes. This was commonly understood and utilized in Christian art of past ages to be a symbol of Christ, the Resurrected One. The Phoenix plays an important anagogic role in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,[7] and in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Fawkes blocks a killing curse directed at his friend, allowing Dumbledore to vanish a snake an instant away from sinking its fangs into him.[8]

Harry’s wand is thus a symbol of sacrificial death, resurrection and everlasting life all rolled up into one. In sum, it is a symbol of Christ, and particularly of what Christ has done of our behalf.

Accio Loose Ends

Although wandlore in Harry Potter is referred to as somewhat mysterious and difficult subject, a few facts do emerge. First, the magic inside a witch or wizard is harnessed and focused by the wand. An underaged wizard cannot fully control their own magic, so it is spasmodically and uncontrollably released. Second, the wand and the wizard form a partnership, learning to work together. Harry likens his holly and Phoenix feather wand to a familiar friend, whereas other wands fit strangely in his hand and do not produce the same strength of magic. Third, and most importantly, the wand chooses the wizard.[9]

So here we are presented with a picture of Harry (our “every man”) with magic inside him (the Image of God), forming a relationship with a wand (Christ) to transform, create and bring dominion to the world around him. There’s much more that can be said regarding Harry’s wand, its relationship to Voldemort’s wand, the elder wand, and the magic of imagination. I trust I have whet your appetite for more. [10]

To my friends I would repeat that an intelligent reading of Harry Potter is truly rewarding, and it would be a severe tragedy to unthinkingly dismiss something as evil without digging for the gold buried beneath, and dwelling on that which is true, honorable and excellent (Phil 4:8). There are riches aplenty to find. To my facebook friend, I would say fiction is wonderfully able to illustrate truths in ways that books on philosophy do not. Fantasy is a genre that is particularly capable of doing this. It creates a universe – and characters to populate it – that in some way reflects our own world. In doing so it can tease out and give answers to some the great questions of life, like what it means to be truly human – an Image-Bearer. Once again, I recommend Harry Potter.

Footnotes

1. See Stuart McEwing, “Muggle Matters: Is Harry Potter a Doorway to the Occult?” n.p. Online: http://talk.thinkingmatters.org.nz/2008/muggle-matters-is-harry-potter-a-doorway-to-the-occult/
2. Hat tip goes to Jane Hawes, “Guest Post: Tis the Season for Holly Wandlore” n.p. Cited 29 November 2010. Online: http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/guest-post-tis-the-season-for-holly-wandlore/.
3. David Beaulieu, “The Holly and the Ivy” 2 pages. Online: http://landscaping.about.com/od/holidayplants1/a/holly_and_ivy.htm. See also “Christmas Holly Trees: History, Winter Solsitice” n.p. Cited 29 November 2010. Online: http://landscaping.about.com/cs/winterlandscaping1/a/holly_trees.htm
4. Frederick Warne in association with the Royal Horticultural Society, Flower Fairies: The Lore and Language of Flowers (London, England: Penguin, 2004), 78.
5. It is by no means clear that “Holly” and “Holy” can be linked linguistically.
6. See Jane Hawes, “Guest Post: Tis the Season for Holly Wandlore.
7. See John Granger, “Harry Potter and the Inklings: The Christian Meaning of the Chamber of Secrets” n.p. Cited 29 December 2010. Online: http://www.george-macdonald.com/resources/granger.html
8. Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix, p 719.
9. Harry Potter wandlore. See Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone, p. 65.
10. Start here. Jane Hawes, “Guest Post: Tis the Season for Holly Wandlore.

3 replies
  1. charli
    charli says:

    so what is your opinion in taking children to watch Harry Potter films, and children who read Harry Potter books? Children don't have the same maturity, wisdom or prior [theological] knowledge to find the riches that are 'aplenty', or understand the 'Christian' symbolism of the wand, etc – so where does that leave the influence of witchcraft and the occult, considering these stories are primarily targeted at children. J K Rowling herself calls them children's books (as seen on an interview she recently had on Oprah, lol).

  2. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    It's always struck me as odd that Christians are the first to put down any stories containing magic…when the best of those stories are generally written by other Christians, or people in the Christian tradition (C S Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling etc).

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I think the value of the films should be evaluated separately from value of the books. A visual experience of a story is very different than a written or oral experience of a story. In my opinion, it is a parents God-given responsibility to carefully evaluate the sensibilities of their children, and then select what the stories they imbibe accordingly. For myself, I wouldn't hesitate to read to my children the books, but I might when it came to watching the Prisoner of Azkaban. That not because of the "witchcraft." Thats because of the violence and scary scenes.

    For the rest of it my response is two-fold.

    (1) No child thinks that the "witchcraft" in the world Rowling has imagined is the same as the actual world. For anyone who thinks that there is real witchcraft in the actual world, is not likely to think that that witchcraft bears any resemblance to the witchcraft in the Harry Potter novels. Its only those who are already off-their-rocker that are likely to confuse the two. Children who pretend to do magic or who play Harry, Ron and Hermione are displaying a healthy imagination, and their play is most likely preparing them to reflect the image of God as adults.

    (2) Even if children don't have the tools to read these books intelligently; to mine for the gold buried within and pick at the meaning, the stories are still excellent. C.S. Lewis said that great literature trains people in the stock responses (morality, truth, beauty, etc), smuggles in the gospel, and baptizes the imagination. In other words these books can prepare the way for the gospel to be understood and taken up. And just because they don't find the meaning on the first read through (I didn't), perhaps they will when they educated a little more, or shown by someone else. Far from being a doorway into the occult, I think they are a doorway into other edifying subjects and practices. If I were to not include the gospel, other examples would be things like reading the literature on which Rowling drew her inspiration, learning Latin, the classical philosophers such as Plato, mythology, symbolism, literary alchemy, political theory, and social justice, and more.

    Check this out… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgNSxA21CAE

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