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The Hidden Key to Harry Potter
by John Granger
Zossima Press, 2002
(384 pages; $18.95, paper)
reviewed by Robert Trexler
Until now there have been two Christian evaluations of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. Some see the books as an introduction to selfish, if not satanic, practices, and others see them as having a moral, if not Christian influence. The Hidden Key to Harry Potter presents a third: Harry Potter is neither dangerous nor only potentially edifying but the Christian “everyman,” the author writing explicitly Christian fiction after the fashion of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R Tolkien. John Granger makes the astonishing claim that Potter’s popularity “results from the vicarious joy we experience with Harry as he seeks his symbolic perfection in Christ.”
Many Christians wonder how books with pagan mythology and magic can be Christian. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia show that pagan mythology can be adapted for Christian fantasy, and these works have become the model by which other attempts are judged. Vehement critics such as Michael O’Brien (in his book A Landscape with Dragons) and Richard Abanes (in his Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick) insist that Rowling’s books are radically different from Tolkien’s and Lewis’s. In an appendix, “Inkling Similarities and Differences,” Granger directly answers Abane’s objections, and indirectly O’Brien’s.
The book is divided into four parts. Part One, “Taking Harry Seriously,” describes Rowling as a highly skilled and careful writer. Contrary to popular legend, she did not step out of the welfare line and begin writing. Five years were devoted to outlining the plots and characters of all seven books. Rowling is no slouch intellectually, having earned a “double first” at the University of Exeter in French and Classical Languages. She has revealed in interviews that her favorite authors include Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and C. S. Lewis.
The greater part of the book explores the link to the literature of the Inklings, but in this section Granger also briefly describes the influence of Austen and Dickens: “Rowling’s humorous dialogue and believable characters can be traced to her affection for Austen novels. . . . Rowling’s critique of conventional institutions and human failings, from prisons and prejudice to schools and self-serving cowardice, also places her firmly in the Austen/Dickens school of activist authors.”
In the rest of Part One, Granger uses four major themes—prejudice, death and bereavement, choice, and transformation—to illustrate the basic morality of the stories. In the chapter on transformation, he argues that the books “are in general about changing for the good by making ‘good’ choices, and they are specifically the story of Harry’s transformations, really his book-by-book purification and perfection by fire.”
Part Two, “The Secret of Harry Potter,” deals with the books as symbolist literature. Granger shows that symbols of Christ from medieval literature are prominent in each book. The griffin, unicorn, phoenix, stag, centaur, hippogriff, red lion, and the philosopher’s stone (Rowling’s title for the first book, misleadingly retitled “Sorcerer’s Stone” by the American publisher) each have their own significance in regard to the divinity of Christ and his power to transform the human soul. Given the formula of Harry’s annual odyssey—escape, mystery, crisis, descent, battle, death-victory, return-ascent, and revelation (moral of the story)—each book can be read as a Christian morality pageant.
Part Three, “The Meaning of Harry Potter,” includes chapters on the themes, structure, and symbolism of the first four Harry Potter novels (the book was published before the fifth Harry Potter book appeared last summer). Part Four, “What Will Happen to Harry,” is a speculative look at developments in the future Potter novels.
A nine-page epilogue, “Modernist Criticism of Traditional Literature,” explains why many critics misunderstand traditional literature. Granger summarizes seven modern approaches to literary criticism, drawing on observations from C. S. Lewis’s essay “The Personalist Heresy.” “The Hidden Key,” he writes, “is an attempt to demonstrate that traditional (which is to say ‘anti-modern’) fiction can be discussed and understood more clearly if one refrains from thinking in the ways such works are criticizing.” This is the first book to address such issues and to provide evidence that Harry Potter rests upon traditional and Christian suppositions. Secular and religious interpreters of Rowling should consider this epilogue carefully, for it is central to the thesis.
Granger may occasionally read more into the books than Rowling consciously wrote, but his conjectures do not diminish the overall validity of his analysis. A book often communicates more than the author realizes. He makes his points with vitality, intelligence, and humor. It is refreshing to read sentences that don’t fall all over themselves equivocating for every eventuality, but the colorful writer always runs the risk of exaggerating his point or being misunderstood. The playful writing may have been overdone in a few places, and future editions could benefit from further editing and corrections of minor factual errors.
Granger’s degree in classical languages, his experience as a teacher of the Great Books, and his background in the profoundly symbolic Orthodox Christian tradition give him tools most of us lack. This seminal interpretation of Harry Potter is fun to read (often laugh-out-loud funny) and full of literary and spiritual insights. The Hidden Key elevates the study of J. K. Rowling’s books for scholars, parents, and fans. It should be required reading for anyone interested in the Harry Potter novels, traditional literary criticism, or the symbolist view of Christian fantasy.
Robert Trexler is the editor of CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society.