Hit series full of life questions
The gospel of Harry Potter
Hetty Zock wasn’t an instant fan. When the Harry Potter craze started twenty years ago, she picked up the books along with everyone else because they seemed like fun, and not much more. But by the end of the second book, she’d changed her mind. ‘They are amazing’, she says. ‘I read the rest of them in one go.’
Her favourite character? Hagrid. No doubt. ‘I love him’, Zock says, laughing. ‘The tender way he looks at a newly hatched baby dragon!’
Zock is a religion psychologist. She has worked at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies. As a religion psychologist and coordinator of the spiritual care master programme, she focuses on all sorts of existential issues. How do people define identity in a secular society? ‘If you get ill and you die, what does that mean? Or when someone else dies, how do you deal with the grief?’
She saw many of these questions arise in the books about the ordinary boy who suddenly turned out to be quite special. ‘The magic of Harry Potter doesn’t come from supernatural powers. It’s the magic of human beings and what they’re capable of, the magic of imagination, humour, and solidarity.’
Everyone was extremely serious. I was surprised
Last week, it was obvious that these themes – and Harry Potter – continue speak to people. When the Groninger Studentpastoraat (a religious fellowship specifically aimed at students) asked her to give a lecture about the boy wizard, she thought maybe forty people would show up. 450 actually did. They had to move her lecture to the Nieuwe Kerk just to seat everyone.
She admits she was quite nervous about it. ‘I didn’t discover the books until I was older, so I didn’t grow up with them. And this is generation-defining fiction’, she says. She was worried her audience wouldn’t understand what she was trying to tell them. Would they take her subject as seriously as she did? But it turned out she needn’t have worried. ‘Everyone was extremely serious. I was really surprised.’
She thinks credits author J.K.’s Rowlings’ use of existential themes for the enduring popularity of the story. ‘But she makes use of various traditions, from the Bible to science fiction. That means the books can be interpreted in various way: a children’s book, a boarding school story, a horror story, or a story about a hero and his quest.’
The lake of dead people that Harry and Dumbledore encountered in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a reference to the river Styx, the body of water that separates the living world from the underworld in Greek mythology. Harry’s scar can also be traced back to this myth; the hero Achilles was dipped into the river Styx by his mother, making him invincible. His only weak spot was his heel, which is where his mother held him as she put him under. The heel can be compared to Harry’s scar, which he got in spite of his mother’s protection. ‘It’s his weak spot.’
But Harry Potter is also a thoroughly modern story. ‘There are so many different world views; people can kind of pick and choose practices and ideas from each to construct their own.’
Dumbledore is a role model, and so is Harry Potter
Rowling’s books can also help readers find their own way around existential questions. ‘In The Half-blood Prince, there are so many themes relevant to adolescence: intimacy, relationships, finding your own identity, and all the issues that come along with it.’
The books also guide readers through these tricky experiences, often through the gentle advice of Dumbledore. ‘If you put everything he says together, it reads just like wisdom literature. His words can really help people in difficult situations. Dumbledore is a role model, and so is Harry Potter.’
Language of imagination
The message in the books is clearly a humanist one, about sacrificing yourself for the greater cause, overcoming danger, and the importance of love and solidarity. The fear of death also plays an important role. The evil Voldemort – his name, Vol de mort, means ‘flight of death’ – is trying to escape death, which eventually leads to his own demise.
It’s the magic of human beings, imagination, humour, and solidarity
Zock loves it all. She hails from a liberal protestant family, and was raised to believe there isn’t one ultimate truth. ‘I see religious traditions as strong languages of imagination that say that there must be something more to life. That’s what I think the magic in Harry Potter is. It’s fascinating, but it’s also something that’s beyond our comprehension.’
Zock finds the discussion about books in some Christian circles complicated. ‘It’s fascinating that the Harry Potter books are seen as mirroring the life of Jesus, but at the same time there are groups who are vehemently against this. Some people think Harry Potter is of the devil.’
But she feels the magic in the books should be seen as metaphorical, and not literal. ‘There are so many quotes that establish this. Like the prophecy about Harry and Voldemort which says that one will have to kill the other. But as Dumbledore explains, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Voldemort himself caused Harry to become his enemy… it’s kind of complicated’, says Zock.
Zock sees Harry Potter as a modern mythological hero. He’s a hero on a mission, like in the stories about King Arthur, or Frodo in Lord of the Rings. It’s the magic of human beings and what they’re capable of – the magic of imagination, humour, and solidarity.’
Should we all share this interpretation when we are reading the books? She shakes her head. ‘You don’t have to. You can just view it as a series of exciting books. But it’s there.’