On Religion: What sort of end will Harry Potter meet?

By Terry Mattingly, Scripps Howard News Service | Naples News

Father Jonathan Tobias knows exactly what he will do when J. K. Rowling releases the final volume of the Harry Potter series.

The family tradition is that he reads the entire book out loud to his wife and two daughters. Then, when the final page has been turned, they start debating what will happen next.

Things will be different this time. Still, the Eastern Orthodox priest knows how he hopes the last act plays out. Unlike many other ministers, Tobias doesn’t want Potter to renounce magic or to lose his adolescent flaws. It would be awkward, he said, for the young wizard to “fall to his knees and make the sign of the cross.” His suggestion is simpler than that.

Rowling should let Potter die, he said, because that is what tragic heroes do.

“There is little decent tragedy around” in modern culture, said Tobias, at his “Second Terrace” Web blog. “There is a lot of irony, where a non-heroic central character is pitched into the abyss of ambiguity. There is a lot of farce, where burlesque mummers traipse around in varying degrees of moral undress.

“But tragedy? No. … We do not see the sense of the pollution of evil, and its uncleanness. We have no immediate feeling of the necessity to fix or to cleanse. And we haven’t seen much of a fable where the story demanded, clearly, the surmounting and cleansing of evil — even at the cost of real, hard sacrifice.”

Tobias is one voice in a global digital chorus debating this issue at myriad Web sites with names like SwordOfGryffindor.com and The-Leaky-Cauldron.org. Potter fans have, after all, purchased more than 300 million copies of the six novels.

The faithful have been sweating ever since Jim Dale, the voice behind the U.S. audio-book editions, claimed that the author had told him Harry would die. Then Rowling stunned British television viewers by revealing that she had tweaked the finale (the last word is “scar”) so that “one character got a reprieve, but two die that I didn’t intend to die.” And Harry Potter?

She answered, “I can completely understand the mentality of an author who thinks, ‘I’m going to kill him off because after I’m dead and gone they won’t be able to bring back the character.’ ” Podcasting guru Emerson Spartz of MuggleNet.com spoke for millions when he said he couldn’t believe that Rowling would build her series around a “kid whose life sucks and then he dies.”

Nevertheless, Tobias is convinced that Potter combines many characteristics seen in heroes through the ages. He was born to greatness, but suffered the tragic loss of loved ones. He has special gifts, glaring weaknesses and carries the burden of a haunting prophecy that hints at tragedy, triumph or both. Supernatural trials? Potter has seen it all.

“A hero is not perfect. In fact, his flaws are part of what make him great,” said Tobias, pastor of St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church outside Pittsburgh. “By the end of a story like this one, the hero has simply become too big to remain in this world. This kind of hero is born for a purpose and he dies for a purpose.”

Thus, it’s significant that Rowling — in an early interview with a Canadian newspaper — noted that she is, in fact, a Christian. “Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said, ‘yes,’ because I do. But no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that and, I have to say that does suit me. … 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.”

Also, Rowling has acknowledged the influence of beloved Christian works like the seven-volume “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis and “The Lord of the Rings” cycle by J.R.R. Tolkien. Both of these fantasy classics, noted Tobias, feature endings that combine death and rebirth, along with the bittersweet passing of a magical age.

“Part of being a hero is to have a great love and to be willing to make a great sacrifice for that love,” he said. “It seems to me that Harry Potter has been walking down that same road. … It’s just hard to see him going home and settling down. He’s been through too much.”

Terry Mattingly (www.tmatt.net) directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities.