Harry Potter and the game of symbols

The final main chapter of the Ravenclaw Reader is by John Granger, who is rightly proud of the fact that TIME Magazine once described him as the Dean of Harry Potter Studies. He was one of the few people arguing from a relatively early stage that the Potter books were Christian in their themes. As someone who’s been making that argument since 1999, I salute him for that stand, although in terms of the books as Christian fantasy he goes further than I would, and sees themes and structures I beg leave to doubt are there.

Unfortunately, this essay is a very particular example of what I see as over-elaborated reading strategies. Here’s an example:

There’s the Gryffindor or “Golden Griffin” from Dante’s Purgatorio, the golden lion of the house symbol as Lion of Judah (and hat tip to Aslan, no doubt), the Phoenix or “Resurrection Bird” of lore, the Unicorn from tapestry and legendary tradition, the White Stag of St Godric and other holy men, the Hippogriff from Orlando, and the Philosopher’s Stone of alchemy … (p.206)

Now while this proves that Rowling and Granger are both widely read, it seems more probable to me that Rowling is simply drawing on the (largely) Western (largely) Christian cultural storehouse of imagery rather than creating “several traditional stand-ins for Christ” as Granger has it. Quite simply, I feel he offers an over-interpretation, an ingenious eisegesis of his own.

Whether Granger is drawing on alchemy or Mary Douglas’ theory of ring-composition (taking the dubious ability of readers to detect chiasmus everywhere to new and complex heights) he is fascinating but (in this reader’s view) entirely over-fanciful. It is perhaps not surprising that the generous response by Josephine Gabelman suggests that

we ought not to be overly scrutinising the extent to which the books correspond to Christian symbolism, but, instead considering the very real way by which they engage in something akin to religious thinking (p.228)

She spells out that by this she means “wondrous thinking”, or the “transgression of the possible”. In a sense, of course, this is part of the point of (much or all?) fiction, and perhaps especially children’s and fantasy fiction. It is to provide an exercise yard for the imagination, to enrich the possibilities we have for seeing differently. It is this that Rowling does so well. And I think it is this that lies at the heart of the series’ success.