In the Harry Potter saga, spirituality is far from absent and is displayed in an original and very current way. On the occasion of a large immersive exhibition on his universe, which will take place in Paris from April 21 to October 1, 2023, and the announcement of a new television series, we take a look at the deep roots of this illuminating work.
In Harry Potter, the heroes grow. The children in the first volume are young adults at the end of their seventh year at Hogwarts. The duration of your studies is not negligible. JK Rowling likes to play with the symbolism of numbers and seven represents the completed cycle, the alliance between different poles: good and evil, masculine and feminine, God and men…
This aging of the heroes makes it possible to identify, beyond the adventures of each of them, a particular spiritual path that has to do with their deep value as living beings. This value, in a broader sense than virtue, was called areté in ancient Greece. The second epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians gives a good definition of its nature: “Therefore we do not lose heart, but even when our outer man falls apart, our inner man is renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4.16).
Canadian theologian Suzanne Rousseau has spent many years working with schools in her country on how to develop spirituality among young people in a secular environment. And she has discovered that Harry Potter is a particularly suitable medium for reflection. “Outside of a religious context, there is no spiritual guidance for young people today. Reading JK Rowling is one way to fill that void. In the fifth book, when Harry is seized with a deep anger and thinks he is evil, Sirius Black he replies that ‘”each one of us can choose between the darkness and the light that is inside us.” That fascinated me. It was then that I realized the ethical and spiritual stakes this hero was on.” The book of hers, Harry Potter sur le chemin de traverse du spiritueltries to illustrate this dynamic at different stages of the saga.
This vital trajectory unfolds in three great movements: dependency and magical thinking, the desire for an autonomous life and the exercise of freedom, together with the awareness of our relational interdependence. This search for self-realization opens to the mystery and the sacred. A sacredness that allows one to question the meaning of one’s life and what may be beyond death. “Although the words religion, God or prayer are never mentioned in the books, the question of good and evil is central. Finitude is an evil and life after death, resurrection or reincarnation, is the corresponding good. Harry comes across this all the time.”
1. Magic wand and magical thinking
Magic, an essential element of the saga, is part of an animistic way of thinking to which JK Rowling sees meaning, as she explains in a 2017 documentary, Harry Potter: The Origins of Magic: “Children believe in magic because they seek to understand and control their world. We all carry that inside. Our little personal rituals are a way of wanting to control what we know to be uncontrollable, like our lives.”
Animism, the first spiritual and religious feeling, never leaves us and is the basis of many primitive religions. “When Harry goes to choose his first wand, the merchant Ollivander tells him that it is the wand that chooses his wizard,” says Suzanne Rousseau, “suggesting the idea that this object has a soul, capable of intelligence.” . But this animism carries the risk of remaining in the infantile stage of magical thinking, the illusion that reality can be bent solely to our will. Staying in this stage blocks spiritual evolution.
Many young people (and some adults) are left with the belief that anything can happen if they want it to. “It is a narcissistic omnipotence that ignores reality,” analyzes Suzanne Rousseau. “Because it is not true that thought can do everything. Among believers, magical thinking is found in prayer: I pray and I will achieve it. Many believers stay there.” Fortunately, animism and positive thinking evolve in Harry Potter. “The heroes are becoming aware that without a clear and precise intention, what I call the faith of the spell, the wand does not work,” explains Suzanne Rousseau. In book seven, when Harry’s wand breaks, Hermione points out that it’s just a tool, assuming it’s replaceable.
2. Autonomy, but for what?
Voldemort is a prisoner of hatred, the desire for power and domination. Voldemort, a once-gifted wizard student, is self-sufficient, but a prisoner of his desire and his fear. Voldemort’s greatness is purely selfish, he wants to enslave others. Harry’s greatness is the gift of himself to others. “Voldemort rules by hate when Harry rules by love and solidarity.”
The dream of defeating death, present from the first volume with the Philosopher’s Stone, and up to the Deathly Hallows, guides this will to power throughout the entire saga. It proposes a dualistic vision of the human being, with an immortal soul and a mortal body. Voldemort’s horcruxes are thus a means of immortalizing his consciousness. A thirst for immortality linked to the fear of the unknown. “All religions have endowed themselves with a sense of life after death, a very different eschatology between the Western and Eastern worlds,” explains Suzanne Rousseau. “In Hinduism, for example, there is not the same need for continuity, for self-awareness. In today’s secularized society, everyone is looking for new ways to consider themselves immortal.”
This search continues… until we face our limitations. In the series, the death of Cedric, and then that of Sirius, allow Harry to realize his responsibility in the events, as well as his vulnerability.
3. A sacred and free life
It is when they are vulnerable that the Harry Potter characters become aware of the value of each life and thus open up to the mystery and the sacred. “Dumbledore is kind to everyone. He sees the potential good in everyone, even Voldemort.” Dumbledore is the character who has reached one of the highest stages of spiritual development. It is he who makes it clear that human beings are sacred and have great powers of love within. This unconditional acceptance of every human being, this recognition, sometimes difficult, is what allows Voldemort’s desire for power over others to be annihilated. It is one of the conditions of collective peace… and interior.
Harry confronts Voldemort knowing that he is risking his life. He is willing to sacrifice himself because he wants to save something bigger than himself: prevent his friends from dying, stop the spiral of violence. This gift of himself is not done out of duty, he is voluntary out of love for others. We can establish here a parallelism with the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John (10,18): “Nobody takes it from me [la vida]but I give it freely”.
Dumbledore does the same when he sacrifices himself by drinking a lethal liquid to find a horcrux and thus prevent the young Draco Malfoy from committing a crime, so that he retains the possibility of choosing good. This freedom is different from the autonomy extolled by personal development methods, where everything depends on us, but which is accompanied by mandates and objectives to be achieved (towards happiness, a successful life…), like so many duties, which entail, in case of failure, an increase in guilt.
Neville Londubat, initially introverted and inconsiderate, is one of the characters that will transform more strongly in the saga. He joins Dumbledore’s Army out of a desire for revenge, and he too will face death, turning his anger into a desire to save the wizarding world. He too has found a mission beyond his personal evolution that makes his true meaning of life a reality. “Freedom clarifies our intentions, as opposed to mere autonomy. And this is the pursuit of a lifetime,” says Suzanne Rousseau. “The spiritual testament of the saga is having that inner freedom, which allows one to choose their causes and pursue them, or not, without guilt.”
4. Towards disarmament
Harry’s purpose, unlike many contemporary heroes, is not to become the greatest wizard in the universe. He has been, potentially, from the beginning, just as, from the first pages of the novel, he has “survived death.” What is at stake is rather, as in a reverse search, the learning of disengagement and disarmament. He drops the resurrection stone after being reassured by the encounter with the spirit of his beloved parents. He breaks the world’s most powerful elder wand when it was finally in his power to, after the final battle, found a family, thus accepting the idea of transmission… and its finiteness.
Magic has not disappeared, but man has regained power over the object, deciding what is sacred or not. He chooses between an illusory power and the acceptance of the limits of action, of the body, of control over time and space. The final lesson of history? Perhaps understanding that the most satisfying thing is not so much conquering power as knowing how to renounce it. Whether you’re a muggle or a wizard.