Essay / Literature

The Chamber of Victory: Harry Potter and the Atonement, Part II

The Chamber of Secrets picks up where The Sorcerer’s Stone left off, continuing its provocative and creative exploration of salvation. There are angry demands for punishment (144; and the dismissal thereof (330)), an “heir” which will purge the school of unclean Mudblood filth (151, 224), freedom for “the lowly, the enslaved” Dobby (177, 337-8), the beacon of hope for those who thought the dark days would never end (178), valiant risking of life for the sake of friends (179, 247), scapegoating of the innocent (261), reconciliation (268), the deadly beast (278), the exposure of false saviors (294)…The themes are varied, rich and constant.

Of Jews, Gentiles and Mudbloods

One of the fascinating themes throughout the Potter series is the presence of a neutral distinction between the wizards and the Muggles—a difference which can lie dormant, become mutually beneficial, or burst into tension and horror. This is a vital tension, for the conflict between good and evil is not a context-less conflict, but one that takes place and shape within a definite context, among peoples and races. We can, of course, tell the Gospel story as one that concerns the individual and his or her relation to God, but this is to impoverish a far richer and more nuanced account, in which God’s saving purposes take place within his concerns for a relationship with a people, his chosen people, the Jews. And this is precisely what is at stake in Harry Potter—the question of the Muggles, whether they will be allowed to live, and even more so, the Mudbloods—the fruit of wizard and Muggle unions.

Weapons of Weakness

This emphasis on the Muggles (thus the Jew / Gentile questions in the Gospel) naturally manifests itself in a preference for a certain kind of weapon: weapons of weakness. Just as with the preference for the second-born throughout the Pentateuch, with creating a people where there had been none to overthrow the great powers, with using shepherds and the weak to lead the nation… so the Potter series shows the same preference: for a raggedy old bird (a Phoenix) apparently on its last legs, for a patched up talking hat, for a rag-tag gaggle of sentiments (such as friendship and loyalty), and for tears.

But as it turns out, these signs and tokens of weakness, these weapons of peace, have immense power. The hat brings Harry the sword (318-19). The bird distracts the Basilisk, and the tears of Faux—the phoenix—prove to be healing. Because these powers are the powers of weakness, they do not register on Tom Riddle’s scale of relevant powers, and he pays them no heed. For weapons of darkness are other than the powers of goodness, the power of God. So other, in fact, that Tom could not even remember them when it counted, to the demise of his schemes so carefully laid. “’Phoenix tears…’ said Riddle quietly, staring at Harry’s arm. ‘Of course… healing powers… I forgot…’” (321).

Christus Victor and the Logic of Sacrifice

All these theme coalesce in what turns out to be a remarkable unfolding of what is known as the Christus victor theory of the atonement—an account in which God uses the powers of weakness to make himself vulnerable, so as to overthrow the power of Satan. The fight, after all, is with a Basilisk (281, 290), a snake (recall the snake in the Garden of Eden). And the weapons are the powers of weakness—combined with a new element.

The narrative remains unchanged, for the conflict with Satan takes place in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus—and Harry defeats Tom Riddle only through his own near-death experience, and the resurrecting (or healing) powers of the Phoenix—a traditional symbol of the resurrection (320-1). But the narrative is not all that matters in this particular story.

For crucial to this theory is the fact that the powers of weakness are such as to use and turn upon themselves the powers of evil. God overthrows Satan not by means of his own power, but by means of turning the schemes and wiles of Satan upon themselves. This is precisely what we see in Harry Potter, who uses the source of Riddle’s strength, the diary and the tooth of the Basilisk, to overthrow Tom:

“Then, without thinking, without considering, as though he had meant to do it all along, Harry seized the basilisk fang on the floor next to him and plunged it straight into the book.

There was a long, dreadful, piercing scream. Ink spurted out of the diary in torrents, streaming over Harry’s hands, flooding the floor. Riddle was writhing and twisting, screaming and flailing and then—

He had gone.” (322)

Overthrown by his own powers, wielded by the weak, Christ triumphs over the darkness, and Harry emerges victorious, freeing Hogwarts once more from the oppression under which it lay, and most importantly, using the weak to rescue the muggles and the Mudbloods.

Conclusion and a Development

The penultimate chapter, The Heir of Slytherin, introduces the Christus victor component into the Potter series, but continues to build the rich line of thought begun in the Sorcerer’s Stone—for questions of identity and the transfer of powers continue to resound through the book. The story as a whole unfolds because Voldemort bound his identity, his life and soul, to his diary, and was able to continue his work through that medium. Beyond this, we learn that just as Harry’s mother had bequeathed him with the shielding influence of her love, so also Tom Riddle had filled him with part of himself: “Unless I’m much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he gave you that scar. Not something he intended to do, I’m sure” (333). In and of itself, this is interesting, but Harry takes it a step further: “Voldemort put a bit of himself in me?” Dumbledore’s response: “It certainly seems so.”

In this particular telling of the work of Christ, Satan is defeated not merely in direct combat, not in a court of law or a test of powers—he is defeated by physical means, in that his own weapon of power (the venomous tooth of the basilisk) was plunged into his diary—a diary into which he had poured a portion of himself, a part of his identity. With the “killing” of the diary, a portion of Voldemort himself was killed, and Harry found himself alone, with Faux, in the Chamber of Secrets. Why was Satan defeated in this way? Because Rowling is consistently working with an ontology in which beings are not separate and distinct, but in which they can and connect to and identity with each other, so that one can extend one’s being to another creature.

NB: This post originally appeared on Dr. Johnson’s website. 

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