Religion And Afterlife In Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone
‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ is a fantasy novel aimed at children and young teenagers, in which a boy named Harry must defeat the dark wizard named ‘Lord Voldemort’. He does this with the help of his friends and the strength of his magic, made stronger by the power of ‘love,’ and begins to fulfil the prophecy made at his birth. This essay will explore how Rowling uses religion, religious symbolism, and ideas of good, evil, death and immortality in this popular novel. In ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,’ Rowling makes few explicit references to religion. This could partly be to appeal to a wider audience, and fit with the theme of an alternate universe where wizards and magic exist. In the wizarding community, they make very few references to either a ‘god’ or religious festivals. However, the Hogwarts community does celebrate Christmas, following ‘muggle’ traditions such as decorating Christmas trees, hanging mistletoe and exchanging presents. Rowling even employs an implicit reference to a ‘Santa Claus’ - like figure (which comes from no specific religion, but rather ancient superstition), as both Harry and Ron wake up on Christmas Day with presents at the end of their beds. For example, on page 199, “on Christmas Eve, Harry went to bed looking forward to the next day for the food and the fun”. This suggests there is a celebratory mood in the castle on Christmas, but implies it has no religious meaning for the wizards, and instead is celebrated in the spirit that non-Christians celebrate Christmas.
The non-religious themes of Christmas, like friendship and traditional pagan beliefs, such as hanging mistletoe, are instead celebrated by Harry and his friends. Again, the Easter holidays in the Sorcerer’s Stone pass without the characters acknowledging the holiday itself. Instead, Rowling makes reference to the huge amounts of study and upcoming exams the Hogwarts students have to face, much like the typical exams students take in reality. If Rowling wanted to make references to religion, she does not use these opportunities to do so. Therefore the reader can conclude that the author has chosen to avoid explicit references to religion in her novel. One reason for this may be the historical oppression of those considered ‘witches’ by believers in God and the Devil. Particularly in Christianity, in countries like Britain and America, the idea of witches having a pact with ‘the devil’ has been indoctrinated into believers since the fifteenth century. Since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s stone is set in Britain, Rowling makes reference to the ‘witch trials’ as one of the reasons for keeping the wizarding world and muggle world separate. Although this is an explicit reference to pre-1600 Christian beliefs, due to the target audience of the novel and their young age, Rowling focuses instead on the hassle the wizarding world would face if it was revealed. For example, Hagrid says something along the lines of, ‘everyone would be wanting magical solutions to their problems’ to Harry, showing once again how Rowling averts the theme of explicit religious references from the novel ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.’
However, in ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,’ there are several instances of religious symbolism that can be interpreted from the text. For example, when Voldemort comes to Godric’s Hollow to kill Harry, Lilly demands that Voldemort takes her life instead of Harry’s, knowing her husband is already dead. This act of loving sacrifice can be compared to the sacrifice that Christ made, in the Christian religion. This could be interpreted as a direct parallel to the sacrifice Jesus makes, by giving up his life to give protection to the followers of his faith, and redeem the sins of humans. In Mark 10:45, it is written that ‘For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ The ‘ransom’ Lilly Potter pays is returned by some divine power - in the novel, this is attributed to magic, but could equally be interpreted as a higher force like the one ‘God’ of Christianity - and Harry is protected from Voldemort by the ‘power of love’. This expresses the idea of self-sacrifice for a greater good, and the importance of humility and love, which is a large theme of the Bible and Jesus’s teaching. However, in addition to the references to Christianity, Rowling also makes a reference to the pagan Hellenic religion of the Ancient Greeks. ‘Fluffy’, the three-headed dog that guards the Sorcerer’s Stone, is identical to Cerberus, the three-headed guardian of the Greek underworld. This dog guarded the gates of the Underworld, preventing the dead from leaving and ensuring any travellers would be unable to leave once they’d stepped into this new world. This could be further interpreted as Harry, Ron and Hermione entering a new ‘realm’ when they bypass the various safeguards protecting the Sorcerer’s Stone, as Voldemort is waiting for them at the end.
In the novel, Rowling associates Voldemort and his host, Quirrell, with death, destruction and evil, which coincides with Greek depictions of their afterlife. Another element of the plot of ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ that could have religious connotations is the idea of immortality, which is granted by Nicholas Flamel’s ‘Sorcerer’s Stone’. Various characters, such as Dumbledore and Hermione, mention that the stone’s creator is over six hundred years old, and so the reader can assume the stone grants true immortality to not only the soul, but the body too. The importance of the soul is heavily referenced in the novel. In both Christianity and Judaism, there is the shared belief that at death the soul is separated from the body and exists in a conscious or unconscious, disembodied state. This implies that the soul is a separate entity from the body with its own qualities, including the capacity for morality. However, in Christianity there is also the belief that on the ‘Day of Judgement’, souls will return to a body, whether the old or a new, and will live in heaven. Flamel, with the power of the stone, has not only an immortal soul, like all the characters (if the reader prescribes to a religion with this viewpoint) but also an immortal body. Rowling shows that the soul is immortal further through the ghosts present in the novel. Not only are there the Hogwarts ghosts, such as Nearly Headless Nick, Harry is also able to communicate in a limited fashion with his parents through the Mirror of Erised. They act lovingly towards him, but cannot physically touch him. Rowling shows the fundamental barrier between death and life, and the separation and pain it can cause. Blending the two, and encroaching on this boundary, only causes Harry emotional pain, and overall the mirror only tortures the main characters with notions of the future that may never be possible. The ghosts are essentially souls in the Christian sense, as they retain their memories and personalities. This is a contrast with religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, where souls do not retain a definite personality as such, and are reincarnated in new forms as different beings, rather than haunting this plane or moving on into an ‘afterlife’. Rowling suggests the only way to see the afterlife is either by seeing the ghosts of those wrongfully killed, or murdered (who then have a reason to remain on Earth), or by seeing into a void where spirits seem to live. This ambiguity around the afterlife may be an effort from Rowling not to alienate her audience, which naturally has different religions and beliefs.
Rowling links the idea of the soul with ideas of good and evil. For example, Voldemort is presented as an utterly corrupt character, to the extent he is willing to fracture his soul to gain invulnerability. Rowling presents the soul as a pure thing and interfering with the natural way of afterlife and souls has negative consequences (with the exception of Flamel, possibly because Flamel has no hubris or ambition, and instead gives up the stone and his immortality when he feels his time has come). Voldemort’s evil actions, and splitting his soul, causes Harry to also become a ‘horcrux’ by absorbing one of the seven pieces of his nemesis’s soul. Rowling therefore shows how evil affects even the most good characters - however, Harry is not tainted by this piece of evil in him, and so proves just how pure he is, as well as being under the protection of ‘love’, another fundamentally good quality. This is most clearly shown in the final fight of the novel. Harry touches Professor Quirrell, a man possessed by the dark lord Voldemort, and this contact causes Quirrell’s skin to physically burn. This is a visceral portrayal of the fundamental triumph of good over evil, simply because good is preferable and more powerful than evil. This is a sentiment echoed by almost every major religion, and in those religions ‘good’ is often associated with the divine. The power of good can be linked to a divine power drawn upon by the earthly champions of this quality. To quote Professor Dumbledore, from page 298, ‘Quirrell, full of hatred, greed and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.’ Here, Rowling extends her definition of ‘evil’ qualities, to encompass not only violence and inherent corruption, but a weak character like Quirrell with flaws similar to the seven deadly sins. Rowling condemns pride, greed and wrath, all of which the unfortunate professor embodies, and pays the price of death for. Such a harsh punishment can be linked to themes of religious punishment and divine retribution, with either the ideas of ‘karma’ in Buddhism and Hinduism, or punishment in the afterlife in Christianity. ‘Karma’ is the spiritual principle of cause and effect where the intent and subsequent actions of an individual directly affect the individual.
Throughout the novel, Rowling intertwines the idea of karma with ideas of good and evil through references to a magical idea of fate, where Harry’s ‘fate’ begins with the first prophecy. The prophecy states that he will be the ‘Chosen one’ to defeat Voldemort. This could be interpreted to a link in any religion, where the chosen person, like Jesus, Moses or Muhammad, has been placed deliberately on the earth by a higher power to defeat an evil common to all mankind at the time. The only difference is that religious chosen ones have the duty of defeating an eternal, more abstract evil than the one of the returning Voldemort in ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone,’ which further proves it is unlikely the novel is a direct religious allegory, but instead has themes common to religion, literature and morality, like the triumph of good over evil, the power of friendship and love, and the dangers of interfering with death or embracing the seven deadly sins.
In conclusion, Rowling neither denies nor confirms interpretations of her works from a religious view, but admits she allows Christian themes to influence her work, even using direct Bible quotes in later novels. Her use of universal themes that are easily understandable by young people of all backgrounds and beliefs contributes to the success of her books and allows her to get her messages about good and evil, and more, across to her readers with subtlety.