"Harry Potter books are really, really cool. I really like them; they're just so neat." So, says, Susan Bowyer (age 44) as she sits next to me reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It's a long train ride, but she doesn't mind, because she's searching for buried treasure. As we glide along the trails towards Pittsburgh, she periodically looks up from her book to make an observation.
"Did you know that first year Hogwarts students (and only first years) cross a lake to get to the school? And, get this, they carry lighted lanterns. What do you make of that?"
What I make of that is that Jo Rowling has a wonderful talent for tapping into Biblical and literary symbolism. From the very beginning, I've believed that Hogwarts is the literary representation of the Christian Church. Towered over by stone spires, filled with living icons of great men and women from the past, Hogwarts is a place where ancient books are studied to relearn great wisdom from the past. Hogwarts was founded by four great wizards over a thousand years ago who were united in the belief that their knowledge should be passed on. Like the four evangelists in early church literature, each has its own seals and symbol and its own special focus of virtue. Many of those wonderful names, such as Godric Gryffindor, Rowling revealed in a recent interview were, taken from medieval Christian saints.
Eventually the initial unity of the four Hogwarts founders was shattered by a disagreement over whether to include people of outside lineage, and the houses remain divided up to the last chapter of the last book. The students live in different "houses," coming together as a school only for a shared meal in the great hall. While the students speak English, much of their study is devoted to learning phrases in Latin.
That's why Susan knew that I wouldn't be surprised if the ritual of entry into Hogwarts turned out to be a baptism. After all, the head of the school is the founder of the Order of the Phoenix. The phoenix, as you remember, is the mystical bird that dies in a fiery ordeal and is resurrected from the ashes.
Susan's not the only one in the treasure hunt: "Dad, what's the Hebrew word for snake? Dad, what does Ascendio mean? Dad, are unicorns symbols of anything? Dad, what does Dumbledore mean? Dad, can I borrow your Latin/English dictionary?"
"Nachash. I rise. Yes, unicorns symbolize Christ, because they're pure and they come only to the virgin. Its an Anglo-Saxon word that means bumblebee, a symbol of wisdom. Yes, it's the red hardback on the bottom shelf in the upstairs library."
Mercy's been reading and re-reading Jane Austen ever since she learned that Austen was Rowling's favorite author. Susan borrowed my copy of Christian Symbols in Art last evening. Gracie and I sit in the back of the church together and (in whispers) try to reverse translate the liturgy back into the original Latin. The whole family watches Dickens together (Rowling's other favorite author) on DVD - repeatedly.
On the other hand, Rowling, in spite of meeting thousands and thousands of children, has never had one of them thank her for introducing them to witchcraft. Many children have, however, picked up on the political and religious themes in the books.
It's perfectly evident to me that the Potter books are a 'gateway drug,' so to speak, to three millennia of great literature. Why else would Rowling have had the first book translated, at her own personal expense, into ancient Greek and Latin? Is there a lucrative market for what we used to call 'the sacred languages'? Look at the sales ranks of the books on Amazon, and you'll see that these translations are a labor of love. Love of what? Love of learning. Why else would Rowling put so much Latin into these books? Why all the myriad of literary references, from "Guinevere" Weasley (daughter of Arthur) to a tattling little cat named Mrs. Norris? (Read Austen's Mansfield Park for more.)
Rowling studied the classics at St. Michaels, a school founded almost two centuries ago by William Wilberforce (of Amazing Grace fame, link here). There, like Hermione (which is close to a word that means 'she interprets' in Greek) she read voraciously and absorbed whatever she could.
Rowling made a bet which, if it had been stated explicitly, would have been rejected by every large publisher in the Western world: She wagered her labor and reputation on the proposition that children were hungry for the good stuff. That they had eaten their fill of literary junk food, and wanted the stories, the words and phrases, the atmosphere and the 'feel' of the greatest stories every told. Happily for us, Rowling kept her mouth shut and walked her manuscript past the sleeping dragons of political correctness and 'realistic' (meaning sexual) teen lit. It worked. It's just like they say at Hogwarts, "Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus," that is, "Never tickle a sleeping dragon."