First things first: I want to stress that I feel nothing but sincere pity for the world weary and stressed news editors who recently had to sit around conference tables and, perhaps in the presence of oracles who read focus-group tea leaves, discuss one of the big questions of this news cycle.
That question, of course, can be stated this way: “What was this whole Harry Potter thing about?”
There is no need to get into the billions and billions of amazing statistics about this astonishing phenomenon in pop culture and in human culture — period. I mean, we’re talking about miracles, such as teen-agers reading books. Let’s leave it at that.
Who, what, when, where, why and how?
So, we have finally made it to the news cycle for the last movie. Editors knew that they needed an epic Harry Potter story and they needed one now. It must have felt something like the days before Christmas and, in newsroom culture, that is not a good thing. There is this giant thing taking over your city and your land and you have no idea what to write about it. It’s too big to cover. But you need a story.
Over at Poynter.org, the story is that journalists are relieved that this story is finally over.
But what, precisely, is the story? How did J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books end up becoming the saga, the myth, the received text of a generation? What was going on inside those book covers?
Tell me you cannot hear the conversations around that archetypal newsroom conference table as you read the top of today’s Washington Post feature that began on holy ground — A1.
Friday, it comes, the final detonation of the cultural blast that left millions of foreheads metaphorically imprinted with lightning-bolt-shaped scars. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2” is the final installment of the leviathan eight-film series based on J.K. Rowling’s monumental best-selling novels.
Since 2001, the Potter movies have been both a financial freight train and a jobs program for all of Britain’s aging character actors. The books have become almost holy.
“I’m holy. Holey, Fred, geddit?” (Don’t worry, your kids get it.)
It is a franchise that became a movement. A revelation. An era. Friday’s opening is the last chapter in a saga that has affected — at least via “Saturday Night Live” spoofs, mentions on university syllabuses, and in religious sermons — the world’s collective oversoul. Doled out incrementally over 14 years, it taught us patience.
“What has ‘Harry Potter’ meant?” asks Emerson Spartz, who founded the fan site MuggleNet.com as a home-schooled 12-year-old more than a decade ago. “What is the meaning of life?”
That’s a rather big question.
Perhaps the actual Post movie review for final movie captured the stakes best. This is how critic Ann Hornaday dared to open her piece:
It is finished.
That Biblical reference is fully intended when considering “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2,” the final installment of a movie series that surely owes part of its astronomical success to its rich symbolic underpinnings of sacrifice, resurrection and redemption.
This phenomenon was precisely the kind of beat-blurring story that I struggled to get editors to let me to cover when I was religion-beat reporter in Denver and Charlotte, N.C. Everyone knew that there were religious elements to this story right from the beginning, especially when the marketers producing the American edition of book one (“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”) decided to change the title.
But where did religion fit in, other than a few mobs of folks wanting to shred the books?
Harry & Co. received quite a bit of ink in my book at few years ago (“Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture“) and it will not surprise you to know that I returned to the subject this week in my column for the Scripps Howard News Service.
I decided, with the help of a Potter pro who has become a good friend, to try (in my usual 666 words or so) to sum up what the Godtalk side of Potter mania was all about. The expert I consulted once again was the ever quotable John Granger of HowartsProfessor.com, who gave me a few moments in a week in which he was being chased by NPR, The Wall Street Journal, etc., etc.
… (T)hat very first title — containing a medieval Christian alchemy image for eternal life — was a sign of debates to come. Publishers changed the title image to “Sorcerer’s Stone” in America, assuming Americans would shun “philosopher” talk. Before you could say “Deuteronomy 18 (There shall not be found among you anyone … who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells)” — the Potter wars began.
It mattered little that Rowling soon outed herself as a communicant in the Scottish Episcopal Church and told a Canadian newspaper: “Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said, ‘yes,’ because I do. … If I talk too freely about that, I think the intelligent reader — whether 10 or 60 — will be able to guess what is coming in the books.”
Thus, the series unfolded, with each book containing waves of medieval Christian symbols, including many used by artists to point to Jesus — such as white stags, unicorns, hippogriffs, a phoenix and a red lion. Meanwhile, the plots were built on alchemical themes of dissolution, purification, illumination and perfection, themes shared with Milton, Blake, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others. In each book, Harry Potter the “everyman” tries to sacrifice himself for others, before somehow being raised to new life in the presence of a Christ symbol.
Nevertheless, many critics failed to see how Rowling’s work stands in contrast to the spirits of materialism and individualism that dominate modern life, according to classics scholar John Granger, an Orthodox Christian best known as the scribe behind HogwartsProfessor.com and numerous related books. I met him at Nimbus 2003, an early global conference on Potter studies, and we have compared notes ever since.
“In a secular culture like ours, fiction of this kind serves an almost sacramental function for millions of people,” said Granger. “This offers a hint of the transcendent, a taste of spiritual transformation — but it’s not the real thing. … Reading ‘Harry Potter’ could, however, help some people become more open to transformative experiences and perhaps even to yearn for them.”
Here is where I want the input, indeed the help, of GetReligion readers.
You see, I quickly decided that there was more faith-based content in Potter mania than the one easy news hook, which some people are still using. You know, the “Conservative Christians hate anti-Christ Harry” headline.
That’s out there. I know that. But that doesn’t explain the thousands of conservative Christian home-school moms I met packed into the Orlando hallways of that Nimbus 2003 conference so long ago. We’re talking armies of witches and home-school moms and only the Christian home-school moms thought that the books contained large doses of their own brands of faith.
Thus, in this last column I attempted to create a short typology to describe the most common religious camps that I encountered during the Harry Potter era. The judgments pronounced by these camps went something like this:
* Rowling intentionally wrote occult books, creating a doorway into witchcraft for young readers.
* The books are merely tempting trifles celebrating adolescent behavior and mushy morals. They were not intentionally evil, but simply bad books.
* These fables are a mixed bag, mixing good messages with the bad. But if Rowling used Christian symbolism, it was as mere window dressing.
* Rowling intentionally wrote “Christian books” containing literal, almost mechanical allegories that can serve as evangelistic tools, in and of themselves.
* The books, according to Granger and many other academics, are part of a British tradition of storytelling built on Christian symbols and themes (including clear biblical references) and can be enjoyed on several levels, including as stories of transformation and redemption.
So here is my question. In this round of mainstream and online coverage, which of these Harry Potter religion camps made it into print? What other religion angles were pursued? Who was quoted? Or, to be blunt, did editors simply collapse from exhaustion and throw in the towel?
For example, did any of the coverage note that the Bible verses had been left off the tombstones in the pivotal Christmas Eve scene in the previous film? That’s a nice, crisp factual question. Did anyone bring that up? I mean, other than Sarah Pulliam Bailey in the WSJ.
IMAGES: The infamous Dallas Morning News image of Harry Potter as, literally, iconic savior. Also, the cover of the original British edition of book one.