Harry Potter and the Doctrine of the Calvinists

by Dan H

Dan refuses to just give up on the Potter articles already.
A lot of people are mortally offended by the ending of the Narnia series, because it seems to suggest that Susan's absolute rejection of all the teachings of Christ prevents her from getting into heaven. I actually like it for exactly that reason: it's got a firm grounding in a genuine religious philosophy which I find significantly more interesting than the usual messages one gets from children's literature, or popular fiction in general.

This, of course, is why it seems so crazy to the secular reader. It's based on some profound assumptions about the metaphysical reality of the world, and if you don't believe the world works like that it doesn't make any sense. Many atheists (and a fair number of Christians, for that matter) have a hard time getting their heads around the idea that you can be a perfectly decent person, but still not go to heaven.

Even more difficult for atheists like me to get our heads around are the doctrines of the Calvinists. Very roughly (from my limited understanding) the Calvinists embrace fully the idea that it is impossible for any human being to be truly worthy of God's love. God is just that great and we are just that flawed. This is actually comparatively uncontroversial - it's just a firm statement of the idea that salvation comes wholly from the Grace of God, and not from your individual virtue. The Calvinists take this idea to its logical conclusion: that since obviously not everybody can be saved, God's grace will only fall on a small proportion of the population - the Elect. Since nobody can be worthy of God, whether one is or is not part of the Elect is entirely outside of one's own control. There are just some people who are predestined towards salvation, and some who aren't.

Now it would be easy here to score cheap points and say that this is just somebody using religion as a control mechanism, pretending that the reason he's so much better off than everybody else is because God likes him better. But that's actually not massively plausible. After all, when Calivinist doctrine was first developed, the Calvinists weren't exactly ruling the roost.

Calvinism is actually a fairly logical extension of one of the more difficult points of protestant doctrine: the idea of salvation by grace. People seem to be uncomfortable with the idea that drawing closer to a supernatural being who transcends all of the concerns of physical reality might actually not be the same thing as being nice to people. Perhaps it's just overexposure to classical mythology at an impressionable age, but I don't find it that hard to understand. I somehow can't imagine a classical theologian saying "but why would the Gods be so angry about Prometheus stealing fire? Why do we worship them if they're so mean?" or a Viking saying "I'm sure that Odin will understand that you wanted to die valiantly in battle."

I think that perhaps the reason people find the ideas expressed in - say - Calvinist theology, or The Last Battle is that, since we live in a secular society, we naturally divorce these kinds of ideas from their supernatural context. For example: burning at the stake was actually supposed to be a merciful form of execution, because it allowed the accused the maximum possible amount of time to repent. If you genuinely believe in an immortal soul, this is actually very sensible. Far better to burn somebody to death slowly, giving them a chance to go to heaven, than to cut their head off and condemn them to hell. To somebody who doesn't believe in an afterlife, though, it's needless cruelty.

When you decontextualise the doctrines or practices of a religion, you invariably make them into something extremely sinister and disturbing.

Which is why Harry Potter freaks me out so much.

JK Rowling self-defines as a Christian. More specifically, she was apparently raised Church of Scotland which, the internet reliably informs me, has strong Calvinist influences. If this is true, then it seems that Rowling has allowed her faith to strongly influence her work. Unfortunately she has also allowed it to become so decontextualised as to be unrecognisable.

Let us take the principle of Election, the notion that there are a fortunate few who, by grace of God, shall be called to salvation. In the Potterverse "Election" is called "Sorting" and instead of being controlled by Almighty God it is controlled by a hat.

Now I know Rowling pays lip service to the houses all being equal, but it's nonsense. Gryffindor is the superior house, all the way. Rowling herself declares not only that she would want to be in Gryffindor if she attended Hogwarts but also that she "hopes she would be found worthy."

So basically at the age of eleven, your fate is already sealed. Either you're Gryffindor, or you're evil, or you're chattel. You can't change, you can't be redeemed (unless you've already had the good fortune to fall in love with a Gryffindor) you are either Good or you are Evil or you Just Don't Matter and none of your decisions, none of your actions, mean a damned thing. No matter how much of a bullying little shit James Potter was, we are never really asked to see him as anything but a hero. Lily treats Snape like dirt, but is still the byword for selfless love in the series. And of course Dumbledore, our epitome of goodness, is a manipulative self-serving bastard who plots world domination and raises Harry to be a sacrificial lamb. But in the end we are expected to view all of these people as heroes because they were Gryffindors and therefore virtuous by definition.

Then of course there is Snape. After nearly twenty years of loyal service to Dumbledore, risking death or worse to spy on the Dark Lord, and incidentally building up a loyal fanbase who for some reason think that being smart is cooler than owning a flying motorcycle, JK Rowling eventually grants him the ultimate accolade. "Sometimes, we sort too soon." If a member of a different house displays courage, it shows that they must really be a Gryffindor deep down.

Rowling clearly subscribes to the philosophy that a person has a fundamental nature. That deep down a person cannot change. Deep down Harry is a hero, Percy is officious, Voldemort is Evil, Snape is a bully, Dumbledore is good but tempted by power. None of these traits will change, none of them can change. Rowling seems to believe it impossible.

This is most apparent, I think, in how she writes about Harry. It is never his actions. which win him praise, but rather the spirit in which he acts. This is perhaps most apparent in the seventh book, when Harry uses the Cruciatus curse on Amycus Carrow and McGonagall responds with the statement that it is "very gallant" of him.

Now I admit I might be a little bit behind the times here, but how is torturing your enemies "gallant"? Presumably in the same way that a single minded obsession with the personal destruction of your enemies has something to do with "love".

But my objections here are based on a false assumption: on the assumption that a person's moral character (their salvation, their redemption) is in any way affected by their actions. In Rowling's world it is not, and this is a deliberate and conscious theme throughout the books. Harry performs the same actions as other characters, but because he is by nature pure, his actions are actions of goodness, not of evil.

Even further proof that Harry's goodness is nothing to do with his actions - or indeed even his personality - but is instead some kind of elemental property comes from this rather interesting quote, regarding the fact that Voldemort had hope of salvation:
"Because he had taken into his body this-- this drop of hope or love (Harry's blood). So that meant that if he could have mustered the courage to repent, he would have been okay. But, of course, he wouldn't. And that's his choice."

Now there's two interesting things here. The first is that Voldemort's hope came literally from Harry's blood. Voldemort is not a person, Harry is not a person. Harry is a vessel full of Hope and Love in distilled form. No matter how many people he tortures or brutalises, he will always have Hope and Love in his very blood. It is physical contact with Harry's blood that gave Voldemort his one chance of redemption.

The second, subtler point is this one:
"But, of course, he wouldn't. And that's his choice."

Notice that she uses the words "of course" and "his choice" in the same sentence. And this is the point I find most interesting.

If you ever try to argue that JK Rowling is a slavering determinist, people always pull out two facts. Firstly, there's the fact that Harry "chose" not to be placed in Slytherin. Secondly, there's this extremely interesting line by Dumbledore.
"It is our choices Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."

Now I hope it doesn't look like I'm being obsessive here, but I think it's extremely telling that Dumbledore uses the phrase "show what we truly are" and not " say "decide what we become." Dumbledore is telling us, quite clearly, that who we are never changes, that the decisions we make in our lives serve only to illuminate our natures, which are otherwise immutable.

So Voldemort could never have been redeemed. He was given the chance to "try for some remorse" but there was never any realistic expectation that he would be able to. Indeed we are told repeatedly throughout the series that Voldemort is not capable of love. Not that he hasn't known love, that he has never experienced love, that he is literally incapable of it.

A choice, to Rowling, is not a chance to control one's own destiny, but a chance to show your quality. The outcome of a choice is predetermined. Voldemort would never have chosen redemption, so he had no chance of redemption, no matter how much of Harry's Magic Blood he had pumping through him.

I started this article talking about Calvinist Election, and by mentioning that "atheists like me" find it a rather disturbing concept. I think a big thing that people find uncomfortable is the idea that "the Elect" get to strut around being all superior, just because some random fluke made them God's Chosen. This is of course not how it works. The whole point of Election is that no one man is more worthy of salvation than any other, that any who are saved, are saved by the grace of God, not by their own merits. Within Calvinist philosophy being "chosen" doesn't make you better than anybody else, it just gives you one extra reason to thank God.

Rowling's world, however, really does work the way atheists perceive Calvinist Election as working. Harry is arbitrarily singled out as being "special" or "chosen" and this literally does make him better than other people. Harry is as incorruptible as Voldemort is irredeemable. Harry's choices will always be the right ones, not because of his moral character but because the world itself will change to accommodate him. He can withstand the Imperius Curse, he can see into the mind of the Dark Lord, yet remain uncorrupted by it, he can unite the Deathly Hallows. Even when he actively seeks to bring pain and death to his enemies, it is somehow virtuous. Because Harry is Just That Awesome.

JK Rowling has said, in interview:
"My beliefs and my struggling with religious belief and so on I think is quite apparent in this book."

And apparent it is. The culmination of the Harry Potter series reads like the scrabbling of a Cultural Christian, trying to construct a moral framework out of fragments of doctrine she does not entirely understand or believe. Half-formed ideas about faith and destiny and redemption and death collide producing a result that is mostly simplistic, and occasionally sacrilegious.

The quasi-Christian overtones make some parts of the book genuinely incoherent. At times Harry's faith in Dumbledore is presented as almost akin to faith in God. He sets forth on his great journey, after all, knowing virtually nothing and Trusting That Dumbledore Would Provide. Indeed the Dumbledore-as-Divinity concept is a strong theme from the very start. It is very frequently Harry's Faith in Dumbledore that truly saves the day (most explicitly in Chamber of Secrets). The entire subplot with Dumbeldore's backstory is presented almost as Harry's last test of Faith.

And of course if Dumbledore is God, then this naturally casts Harry in the role of Jesus: walking amongst the unbelievers, spreading His word, facing persecution and ultimately death. A sacrifice made in perfect Love to redeem the sins of the Wizarding World.

Except that Dumbledore isn't God, he's just a guy, so having unwavering faith in him isn't laudable, it's blind fanaticism. And Harry doesn't sacrifice himself to save Hogwarts, he sacrifices himself to kill Voldemort. Hell, Rowling even admits that after book 6, if Harry looked into the Mirror of Erised he would see "Voldemort finished, dead, gone". His deepest desire is not to protect his friends, or even to live a normal life, but to kill the guy who killed his parents.

It's a mess, and the fact that it's a mess is probably the saddest thing of all. Rowling so clearly wanted to say something big about faith, about love, and about death, but all she has managed to do is communicate her own confuson.

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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 09:34 on 2007-08-17
And obviously you have the whole sacramental thing of Voldemort receiving Harry's blood, or rather refusing the salvation contained within it... euw.
Arthur B at 11:11 on 2007-08-17
I think you can also see attitudes towards predestination in her view of herself and her work. I was watching her original publisher on TV the other day talking about how he advised her to get a day job, because very very few people can actually make a living on children's books, and how she simply said she was very confident that HP would be successful. Which turned out to be right, of course, but there's no way anyone could have predicted exactly how much the HP books took off (and arguably they didn't become really massive until Prisoner of Azkaban). I know, I know, most authors probably harbour hopes that they'll be able to live off their soon-to-be-published novel and ditch the day job, it's human nature to be optimistic - but it's also human nature to harbour a deep-seated worry that your book might just flop. Rowling has never shown any evidence of the latter.
Dan H at 14:49 on 2007-08-17
This is, I think, also evidence of Ms Rowling's deeply fucked up priorities. Having faith in yourself is one thing, but she had a fucking *kid* to support. You think she'd give some thought to how the poor bastard was going to eat.

Also: Fun exercise for your spare time. Re-read the chapter entitled "Horcruxes" in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It's as fucked up as all hell. It's where Dumbledore explains that Harry Potter hating Voldemort and wanting to kill him is evidence of his deep capacity for love.
Arthur B at 16:08 on 2007-08-17
Care to summarise? I don't have the Half-Blood Prince and don't intend to read it - as far as I can tell, it's the big waterslide that dumps the reader in the sewer of Deathly Hallows.
Dan H at 16:23 on 2007-08-17
Lets see, choice quotes from that chapter include:

"If Voldemort had never murdered your father, would he have implanted in you a furious desire for revenge?"

And of course

"You have never been seduced by the Dark Arts, never, even for a second, shown the slightest desire to become one of Voldemort's followers!"
"Of course I haven't," said Harry indignantly. "He killed my mum and dad!"
"You are protected, in short, by your ability to love!" said Dumbledore loudly.


"Imagine, please just for a moment that you had never heard that prophecy! How would you feel about Voldemort now? Think!"
"I'd want him finished," said Harry quietly. "And I'd want to do it."

That's your shining beacon of love folks: an angry little man driven by pure hatred and the desire for personal vengeance.
Arthur B at 16:33 on 2007-08-17
That's hilarious. It's like Dumbledore is dozing his way through a speech and isn't actually listening to what Harry is saying.

"So, Harry, what will you do if you defeat Voldemort?" asked Dumbledore.
"I will become an Auror and turn the Ministry of Magic into a terrifying machine devoted to exterminating House Slytherin. I will use Unforgivable Curses like they were party tricks. I will break every single rule regulating magical law enforcement in my pursuit of the Slytherin menace."
"Oh Harry, you truly are a fountain of love and forgiveness!"
Dan H at 16:38 on 2007-08-17
It's even worse than that: he's paying absolute attention to what Harry's saying, but deep down he's thinking "bwahahaha, see how I have manipulated this boy into believing that his childish desire to lash out at Lord Voldemort is a noble and selfless act! Now he is certain to do exactly as I wish while I arrange his death!"
Arthur B at 16:47 on 2007-08-17
Yeah. You know how I said how Harry walking to his own death in order to be the messiah was the act of a paranoid schizophrenic? I take that back. Orchestrating your own death and the death of your protege because you firmly believe that a) this will let you defeat the greatest evil in the world and b) this is how you think the Truest Love works is the act of a paranoid schizophrenic megalomaniac.
lessofthat at 01:04 on 2007-08-28
If only it were. It sounds more to me like the act of a man with no discernible personality traits whatsoever. I wonder how the books would read if you quietly ctrl-H'ed every instance of the word 'destiny' with the word 'plot'.

Hemmens, you've skewered the woman precisely and with brio, and you deserve applause, but how in the name of fuck was all this - except the ugly suicide cult business you mention in the previous piece - not visible from the downslope of book 3?
Arthur B at 09:26 on 2007-08-28
I think people still had some faith that Rowling would pull off some brilliant plot twist and the series wouldn't go in the direction that it was obviously going, and in fact did. To be fair, for the first four books she was able to surprise me with the endings - I didn't expect Bloke With Turban to have Lord Voldemort pasted to the back of his head, I didn't expect that Tom Riddle was anything other than a horrible sneak called Tom Riddle, I hadn't guessed that the Goblet of Fire would be a teleportation trap. The third book is the best example of this, where the climactic encounter with Sirius Black you're expecting is still fifty-odd pages away happens early, before our heroes are even slightly ready.

Book 5, conversely, is pretty much devoid of surprises. In books 1-4 the titular thing - the Philosopher's Stone, the Chamber of Secrets, the Prisoner of Azkaban, the Goblet of Fire - is a mysterious object, place or person which is the key to the mystery the book covers. The Order of the Phoenix, conversely, is carefully explained early on in book 5 and isn't really especially relevant or important.
lessofthat at 10:57 on 2007-08-28
Even her critics admit that Rowling does a good plot, but her creepy ideology and incoherent philosophy - her apparent belief that moral goodness is something you're born to, like the aristocracy, or that happens to you, like celebrity - has been visible for years.
Arthur B at 11:41 on 2007-08-28
True, but until now people could always console themselves with the possibility that the whole goodness-by-selection deal was meant to be a Big Lie which was going to be exposed in the last book. In fact, the bit in Deathly Hallows where Harry struggles with the new facts he knows about Dumbledore could have been an excellent opportunity for Harry's worldview to be seriously challenged, but Rowling squandered the opportunity by having Harry's worldview be the correct one all along.

There was plenty of reason for bile and invective to be thrown in Rowling's general direction after books 5 and 6, and several decent causes for complaint after 4. I think the reason the flood has happened now, as opposed to earlier, is that with the publication of book 7 there is now no opportunity for Rowling to redeem the series.
Wardog at 15:00 on 2007-08-28
I'm not actually sure all this stuff *has* been visible; it's been *there* but that's not quite the same thing. A lot of people (self included, at least until 6) assumed it was all building up into something quite dark and interesting. And don't we feel like idiots now.
lessofthat at 16:05 on 2007-08-28
The more interesting question then is "what rendered it invisible?"

What surprises me is that everyone here dissing Rowling seems to have reached the same conclusions as I did, and articulated them rather better than I ever managed to, but inexplicably read all the way to the end before doing so. What dazzled you in the meantime? Was it just the plot, or were there promises of complexity in Harry and his gang that I overlooked?

I'd particularly like to know because I might then be able to reverse-engineer some kind of cure and inject it into the friend who told me last week '[book 7] is a fucking triumph and we're lucky to have her'. Or at least understand what the hell's going on with that.
Arthur B at 16:24 on 2007-08-28
For my part, I was assuming (until book 5) that Rowling was going to pull the same start with the overarching plot of the series that she did with books 1-4 - specifically, try her hardest to trick the reader into thinking that a particular thing was going to happen, and then pull the rug out from under them. Sure, it was pretty obvious that we were going to have a ludicrous final battle in Hogwarts between Harry and Voldemort, and that Harry would prove to be the Chosen One by virtue of his amazing feat of surviving to his first birthday, but in the early Potter books whenever something's that obvious it usually isn't true.

Rowling's a one-trick pony, but she's pretty good at the narrative misdirection trick. It's why you had fans suggesting with a straight face that Dumbledore was actually Ron from the future; people realise that Rowling often throws out sudden plot twists, especially when the plot seems to be fairly straightforward, and the fans had plenty of fun coming up with convoluted ideas of what would happen at the conclusion.

Rowling's biggest misdirection was tricking people into thinking that the things which were obviously going to transpire in the HP series would not, in fact, come to pass.
empink at 03:32 on 2007-08-29
I think that sometimes, you just don't *see* the bad points of a book for whatever reason. Everyone I know can speak to hating or at least disliking a book that they loved a while ago- it's the same sort of thing at work, or at least the same set of forces. For some reason, you may just want to enjoy a book so badly that you ignore its rough corners. Or you aren't yet adept at recognising those rough corners yet, so they pass you by. Or you weren't really paying much attention, and everything seems all right to your friends, and everything seems all right in (faulty) hindsight, so you jump at the next chance to read more from the same author.

All of that is far, far more pronounced when there is a lot of strong emotion sloshing around about a book or story or creative endeavour. You're either caught up in the hype to some extent, invest in it and suddenly realise it matters to you because your investment in it feels a lot sillier if it doesn't matter to you, or you're not and you wonder why the hell everyone's losing their heads over the whole thing.
Wardog at 21:17 on 2007-08-29
Agreed, empink.

The first three books, at least, have advantages to balance their disadvantages. They're not great literature (but then, what is?) but they're reasonably well-written, tautly plotted, genuinely amusing and occasionally, as Arthur points out above, quite surprising. I remember being quite startled that Snape wasn't, in fact, the bad guy of book 1 and I was quite impressed at the rather morally complex position he occupied in what was obviously a children's a book: at that stage in the game, he's good but not nice which is interesting for a children's book.

Also, as empink observes, the problems aren't really pronounced enough to add up to anything coherently problematic. Dan could never have written this article based off the first few books. I remember Harry seemed rather bland but nobody cared - he was a hero and heroes are meant to Save The World not be interesting and they were plenty of nice secondary characters to shine well when set against Harry's lack of personality. And the fact that Snape *wasn't* the bad guy seemed to suggest that Slytherin - despite the bad press - weren't basically evil, again suggesting a potentially morally layered universe. As the books progresses the houses, for example, become more and more simplified. I always thought well of the potrayal of Cedric Diggory (from book VI). I mean, he's a Hufflepuff, but he's clever AND brave AND abmitious. I always thought that might be trying to say something worthwhile.

Of course it wasn't.

Also the later books are all about shutting down avenues of interpretation - the early books are a glorious free-for-all. Because they're not sprawling information dumps, the glimpses of the world they offer are subtle and intriguing - perhaps it's just evidence of how lame we are but we used to spend hours discussing Harry Potter in the pub, wondering what this and that meant, and what was going to happen, and who such and such a character was.
Arthur B at 22:11 on 2007-08-29
Slytherin is a particularly good example, actually. From the very beginning, Rowling has been adamant that the Slytherins aren't all evil. The internal evidence of the books seems to correspond with that, right up until the end when whoosh! Basically every Slytherin student and teacher turns Quisling and helps the Death Eaters stomp all over Hogwarts. The one exception is Snape, and it's notable that at the very end Harry names his kid after Snape because of Snape's courage - the Griffindor virtue, not traditionally anything to do with Slytherin.
lessofthat at 10:23 on 2007-08-30
Fair enough. Looking back, I can remember that sense that though the first three were flawed, there was something a bit different about them; the Slytherins had that aristocracy-of-hell feel that old guard Tories like Heseltine do (they may be scum, but they're engaging scum and you know where you are with them); Snape was, as Kyra says, not bad but not nice. I remember even being faintly impressed that Rowling knew what colour a philosopher's stone would be, but that she didn't feel the need to regurgitate all the matching alchemical background. It suggested she'd bothered to do the research but wore it lightly.

I wasn't that impressed though. I also remember reading a quote by some publishing type on the back of the first book way back in like '98, to the effect that future generations of children will talk about Diagon Alley the way past ones talked about the Hundred Acre Wood or, I don't know, Byker Grove or something. I thought that was ridiculous hyperbole. I suppose that's why he's a publishing type and I'm not, because how wrong was I.

@empink. The hype and social enthusiasm bypassed me, largely for reasons of grumpiness I suppose. So that's a powerful inoculating factor too.

Again, I guess that Harry's abject blandness was less apparent in his pre-teenage years. I don't really understand children, so absence of personality in them is less troublesome. I imagine that's true of other people too.

"the problems aren't really pronounced enough to add up to anything coherently problematic." I still disagree - I think the Choosing Hat alone is a particularly repellent embodiment of the English class system - but I think I have a better idea of why bright, sane people were distracted enough not to be bothered.
Arthur B at 13:16 on 2007-08-30
On Harry's personality: half the reason book 5 lost me was that Harry became a repugnant, grumpy teenager. He was a well-observed repugnant teen, and I can just about barely remember what it was like being one myself, but there's a reason most people don't want to hang out with such oiks once they get over puberty, and that's because they're completely awful to be around.

In the earlier books his main personality trait was utter confusion and occasional amazement and wonder when regarding the world he'd been thrust into, which worked nicely with his role as the character we see the world through. It's a good device for the first three-or-so books, but it couldn't have been maintained for the entire series - nobody would have bought it if Rowling had tried to have Harry still be completely bowled over by the awesomeness of the wizarding world when he's lived in it for over half a decade - but it's a crying shame she didn't have anything particularly good to replace it with.

Re: the Sorting Hat - in the early books, I could accept the Sorting Hat as being a nice pastiche of the apparently arbitrary nature kids get assigned to classes and houses in secondary school. I could convince myself that the Hat essentially took a quick look at the students' personalities and flung them into whichever House seemed to have the most suitable internal culture for them, and the different characters of the Houses were a result of a self-perpetuating internal culture that the Hat just reinforced. It eventually became brutally apparent that the Hat is essentially a living filter for the Elect, and that being chosen as Gryffindor by the Hat is essentially an absolute vote of confidence in your moral integrity, but it took a while; again, it wasn't until book 5 that I realised that we'd never seen one single person who didn't fit in perfectly in their House, and come on: just because you're hard-working or brave or ambitious at 11 doesn't mean that's still going to be the case when you're 15.
empink at 13:19 on 2007-08-30
@lessofthat I don't really understand children, so absence of personality in them is less troublesome. I imagine that's true of other people too.

I still disagree - I think the Choosing Hat alone is a particularly repellent embodiment of the English class system
That's what I would have said after reading it. I can't remember how many times I wanted to point at JKR's treatment of the women in her book (married, had babies, or wanted to, or died, or died regardless, or were ugly, unsexy and old) and ask people what they thought was up with THAT. Then again, I remember how much less that would have pinged me a year or two ago, when I was still supposedly not a feminist. Snape's "I see no difference" feels particularly apt in this case. Until you *do* see the difference, or have it pointed out to you in a way you can't bring yourself to ignore, you...don't. And to others who do, you either look like a huge, defensive jackass, or like Stupid of the century. And to others who don't, you are Sane McGrateful for the author's bounty. And even that's simplifying the whole thing, but really, that's how it seems to have worked in my corner so far.
Dan H at 00:40 on 2007-09-07
Sorry I haven't commented: No internet.

In short, the reason that it took me a while to realise that Rowling was espousing a repulsive moral philosophy is that the series went through a massive genre shift between (roughly) books four and five, and assumptions which are perfectly acceptable in a boarding school romp have no place in a serious story about love and death and choices.

I always saw the Sorting Hat as being a metaphor for the cliques you get at school. The Slytherins are the privileged popular kids, the Ravenclaw are the swots, Hufflepuff are everybody else. Gryffindor - in the early books - was essentially just "the hero and his mates". There's comparatively little evidence that Gryffindors are *objectively* superior in the early books - there's just Harry's natural tendency to side with his friends. Indeed in the early books there's a fair number of dodgy Gryffindors (like Peter Pettigrew) and admirable non-Gryffindors (like Cedric Diggory and, arguably, Snape). In book five we even discover that James Potter was a bullying little shit. By the start of book six, things actually looked reasonably complex, and rather grown up. The last two books, though, took all of that apart. The Slytherins all leave in the final battle, James Potter wasn't a bully at all, he was just mad at Snape because he called Lily Potter a bad name, and we are asked to take Harry's desire for vengeance as evidence of his moral superiority.

Essentially I didn't find the early books morally repulsive, because I didn't think they were trying to make any kind of moral statement beyond "it is good to stick by your friends" and possibly "believe in yourself". The whole business with Sorting and predestination was just a convenient plot device to give the hero a set of allies and enemies. Early Potter doesn't advocate predeterminism any more than the Lord of the Rings advocates genocide.
Aw come on Hemmens, don't you think getting that level of publicity could have turned your head like it did JKR's? I don't blame her for over reaching herself and her abilities given the phenomenal publicity she received. I shudder to think what it would have done to my mind!
Robinson L at 00:30 on 2009-08-11
I don't blame her for over reaching herself and her abilities given the phenomenal publicity she received. I shudder to think what it would have done to my mind!
Sure it's understandable for fame to go to her head. Doesn't make the results any less execrable.
http://lunabell14.myopenid.com/ at 22:42 on 2010-07-27
Actually, in Order of the Phoenix, during the sorting hat song, it sings this line (credit from Mugglenet):

For instance, Slytherin
Took only pure-blood wizards
Of great cunning, just like him

So basically, Rowling admits even earlier that Slytherins are all racist, and therefore the bad guys. I remember this kind of bugged me when I read it, since there is definitely no relationship between being cunning and being pure-blood. And you would think since Voldemort and Snape could by-pass the pure-blood rule, they would get rid of that criteria.

But honestly, I don't see how she can get credit for complex characterization when there such sweeping generalizations about Gryffindors and Slyterins. Especially when some of the good guys show what I consider some very questionable morality (such as Harry crucio-ing the Death Eater over nothing, Dumbledore being a manipulative dick, etc.)
http://prue84.livejournal.com/ at 23:06 on 2011-02-20
I've avidly read this articol and how hell, how you are right!
I admit I'm never been Harry fan (I'm a "Slytherin" person because I feel I fell in that house - not a fan because they're the evil!), but this articole make me even less fan of Harry.
I'd also like to point out what I feel about Draco/Malfoys and Ron/Weasleys: they are basically the same, as both the families are racist but, when Draco say something nasty about Ron (usually something about being poor), he is labelled as "evil" while when Ron says something nasty about Draco (and Slytherins in general), he is still the good guy (or the Chosen One's biggest friend). What always bugged me is that Slytherin's House has some qualities (if I remember right, the Sorting Hat explain them in the first book), and yet "all in Slytherin are bad". What, why? Why there can't be bad or asses in the other houses? Why there is no Death Eater's son in Rawenclaw? Why Slytherins' students are all "Death Eater's wannabes?": couldn't be that many of them have pressures? Couldn't be that many of these families are simply acting like nobles families had done during the centuries, acting in a way while they wanted nothing more than be free to hug, kiss and reward?
I'm going totally off-topic here, but...

Thanxs for this articole! I have read the one regarding Abused Woman in the media and I'll slowly made my way in this site: too many interesting analysis. :)
http://shrek2be.livejournal.com/ at 14:05 on 2011-12-30
I am not too intelligent to say that I understand what you have writtenabove in your post Daniel.I'll try to interpret DH and essentially HP in my own little simplistic way.

The problem for me is Rowling tries to keep Harry as Jesus and then convert him back to a human . Dumbledore ideally should be the Merlin/Gandalf figure (or like GOD with Harry being the son of GOD) but due to poor writing comes across as a bad human being. who shouldn't be preaching philosophy as he still believed in the greater good with the way he treated Harry.
I haven't read LOTR but have watched the movies and even Tolkien understands Frodo has changed irrevocably because he is no longer normal that he has to go to Valinor which I guess is the term for heaven. Rowling doesn't get this part at all. The epilogue validates how naive Rowling is terms of understanding religion. Harry's ideal character growth for me would be accepting that he has never been normal.
JK Rowling self-defines as a Christian. More specifically, she was apparently raised Church of Scotland which, the internet reliably informs me, has strong Calvinist influences. If this is true, then it seems that Rowling has allowed her faith to strongly influence her work.

I'm fairly sure Rowling didn't start attending the Church of Scotland until she was in her late twenties* -- at the absolute earliest-- but I can see why you wouldn't want facts to get in the way of your rant.

* According to wikipedia, she was born and raised in Gloucestershire, quite far from Scotland.
Jamie Johnston at 17:27 on 2012-07-13
Greetings, unnecessarily sarcastic commenter! I don't know when (or whether) Rowling joined the Church of Scotland, but it's possible for her to have done so without living in Scotland. There is, for example, a Church of Scotland church near where I work in central London.
Shim at 20:39 on 2012-07-13
A quick googling shows this article from the Telegraph which says she was raised as an Anglican. When she joined the Church of Scotland, I have no idea, and the Anglican church is very varied, so it's not that enlightening.
Dan H at 21:09 on 2012-07-13
I'm fairly sure Rowling didn't start attending the Church of Scotland until she was in her late twenties* -- at the absolute earliest-- but I can see why you wouldn't want facts to get in the way of your rant.

Thanks for the clarification. To be honest, though, I'm not convinced that there is much difference between "was raised" and "was influenced by in her twenties" and I'm not sure whether that particular detail actually has much to do with my central argument, which is that the Harry Potter books present a world in which some people are predestined towards salvation and others not.

What Rowling herself believes, or why she believes it, or when she started believing it is distinctly secondary.
I think people are tripping up on the idea that Rowling's terrible writing is due to her being a deranged Calvinist, rather than just a terrible writer. I don't think this article really pushes that connection very hard, but I can see why people who want to nitpick for the sake of nitpicking would jump on that.
Dan H at 10:34 on 2012-07-14
I think that's probably the case. Ironically I think the article actually argues fairly strongly that Rowling *isn't* a deranged Calvinist, and that if she was her writing would probably be somewhat improved.

The problem I have with the attitude to Salvation in the Potter books is that it superficially resembles Calvinist Election without any of the theological underpinnings.
Cammalot at 11:38 on 2012-07-14
The problem I have with the attitude to Salvation in the Potter books is that it superficially resembles Calvinist Election without any of the theological underpinnings.

Yes, and I'd speculate that seems like that *would* be a product of a later-in-life association with the church, rather than early internalization of the doctrine.
Ibmiller at 11:38 on 2012-07-14
Rather hilariously, I love this article, and I am a Calvinist (who some call deranged...) Completely agree that Rowling's world would improve from theological underpinnings other than "some people who are pretty are nice and some people who don't have noses are racist."

Hmmm...the Harry Potter series rewritten by a deranged Calvinist...if I were any kind of writer, I might want to take that up as a challenge...
I think this specifically is what's getting people.
If [Rowling belongs to the Church of Scotland] is true, then it seems that Rowling has allowed her faith to strongly influence her work.

That implies a more direct connection than the one I got: that Potter and Calvinism both espouse a similar salvation-of-the-elect worldview, the difference being that Calvinists have put a bit more thought and indeed humanity and decency into their version. Their conclusions about how life works aren't the inadvertent result of an overlong fantasy series spinning out of an inexperienced writer's control. Potter would likely have ended up the same way if Rowling had never heard of Calvinism.
I am a Calvinist (who some call deranged...)
I actually don't think Calvinists are any more deranged than any other religious group. What would make Rowling's worldview deranged would be a conscious attempt to decontextualize Calvinist or most other religious beliefs into something secular, which I think everyone agrees probably did not happen.
Ashimbabbar at 14:27 on 2014-04-25
• It's an extremely interesting and deep analysis ( not that everybody hadn't noticed, but now I have too )

• The "but of course Voldemort wouldn't repent" makes an interesting contrast with LOTR [ Tolkien being a Catholic ]. Here Saruman could really have repented ( after the Ents smashed Isengard ), it is not his 'nature' that prevents him too, only his choice ( I think LOTR would have been much better if he had but never mind that ). Gollum too could have if it hadn't been for Sam's hostility and his own reaction to it… they were really offered the choice.

• This "Rowlingian Calvinism", for want of a better term, sounds like a very good belief for the bad guys in a Fantasy novel…
Daniel F at 15:46 on 2014-04-25
it is not his 'nature' that prevents him too, only his choice ( I think LOTR would have been much better if he had but never mind that ).

I'm morbidly curious now...
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