The Magic of Life and Death as the Magic of the Holy Grail
The Harry Potter Series is about death. It is also about the struggle for immortality and the eventual acceptance of mortality even among the magically endowed. In the seventh books of the series, the particular legend of the Holy Grail is paralleled within the tale of the Deathly Hallows.
The Sorcerer’s Stone or The Philosopher’s Stone appears to be the only book that really sticks to the narrow perimeters of the witchcraft and magical world, although a closer look would prove otherwise. The stone that will grant eternal life, which Voldemort so desperately seeks, is a stone from the world of alchemy. The other symbol of immortality and purity is the Unicorn. The Unicorn was mentioned by name in the bible and, in later years, came to represent the purity of Christ.
In The Chamber of Secrets Rowling shifts her focus to a slightly more politically charged atmosphere while she explores the ideas of pure bloods, half bloods and mud bloods. The element of the Phoenix is first introduced here as a symbol of resurrection and rebirth. It is not a Christian metaphor, but an ancient Egyptian one. She also adds in the element of the snake, a symbol of the danger of knowledge. After all, the serpent tempted Adam and Eve and led to them being cast out of the Garden of Eden. The serpent tempted them to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, suggesting that the Serpent was not particularly evil, but a symbol of knowledge. The basilisk is monster that is controlled by the sly and power hungry founder of Hogwarts, Slytherin. It is later controlled by Tom Riddle, the future Lord Voldemort.
The Prisoner of Azkaban takes a slightly different turn as it explores the territory of depression. The Dementors are symbols of the horror of depression. The book gives more back-story and then proceeds to play with the idea of time and fate. Rowling introduces us to the subject of divinity and prophecy, which plays a crucial role in subsequent books.
The Goblet of Fire is the first book in which the Holy Grail makes an appearance. The Grail is often represented as a large cup from which Jesus Christ drank from at the last supper and the cup that later caught his blood as he died on the cross. In the Goblet of Fire the Goblet represents first a magical cup in which students place their names. The cup itself decides who is worthy to compete in the TriWizard Tournament. This tournament echoes the sort of tournaments that the Knights of the Round Table faced in the legends of King Arthur and Camelot. Later the cup turns into a port key that transports Harry and Cedric right into Lord Voldemort’s clutches. Voldemort uses the key to summon Harry for his rebirth. Harry’s blood is the final ingredient that is needed to bring Lord Voldemort back to life. His fetus looking body is tossed into a boiling cauldron. The Grail was also described as a sort of magic cauldron, particularly by the legends passed down the Celts. The death of Cedric follows the Grail legends, as the cup of Christ is as much a curse as it is a blessing. The Grail King was cursed with a barren land while he held an immortal life, showing that eternal life came at a steep price.
The Order of the Phoenix follows the rise of Voldemort and explores the idea of political corruption in more depth. The presence of Dolores Umbridge echoes the idea of the Grail Dolores Spear. At the end of the novel, it is revealed that Lord Voldemort heard of a prophecy and by his own ignorance made it come true. Prophecies play a large part in the Christian bible, particularly the prophecy made about the coming Messiah. The Old Testament references the coming Messiah no less than thirty-eight times. Everyone feared the end of the world was coming soon and that they would be wiped out for their sins as they had been before. Although Rowling does not preach about the sins of the world, it is clear that Lord Voldemort is the embodiment of fear and darkness in the world. It is Harry’s love, like Christ’s love, that will save everyone. He is less of savior in the traditional sense then he is an ordinary hero. He is more of a Gnostic hero in that he does what anyone else could and possibly would do in his place. He is not a military leader or fearsome leader, but he is brave and compassionate. He is a Christ figure in that he possesses, as we all do, a sort of Christ-consciousness or Bodhisattva mind-set.
In The Half-Blood Prince, we gain yet more back-story and insight into the characters, particularly Tom Riddle and Severus Snape. In this book the idea of the Horcrux’s are introduced. Voldemort tears his soul each time he commits a murder and discovers how to store these pieces of soul that he might remain immortal. Harry both gains insight into how to destroy the seemingly indestructible dark lord and gains compassion as well. Dumbledore, weakened by his desire for power, succumbs to death. He leaves Harry to carry on his quest to destroy each of the seven parts of Voldemort’s torn soul. Seven is a holy number, being the day that God rested when he created the world and the colors of the rainbow.
The opening of The Deathly Hallows gives us some much-needed insight into the life of Dumbledore and how his secrets affect Harry and the outcome of the war. After his death, Dumbledore bequeaths the book to Hermione Granger called The Tales of Beedle the Bard. One story is particularly relevant and that is The Tale of Three Brothers. It tells the legend of how the elder wand, the invisibility cloak and the resurrection stone came to be. Death had given three objects to three brothers, who had succeeded in subverting him when crossing a river. Dumbledore believed the objects to have been created by three Peverell brothers – Antioch, Cadmus, and Ignotus Peverell.
Lancelot first came to the Grail Castle. King Pellam’s daughter enchanted him just as Merope Gaunt enchanted Tom Riddle Sr. Lancelot was presented with a ring from Geneviere as Marvolo Gaunt ended up with the powerful resurrection stone.
Balin and Balan were brave knights and brothers, but officially of the Round Table of Camelot. Balin processed a magical sword similar to the sword of Gryffindor. Balin kills his best friend and brother in a duel much as Dumbledore killed his friend Grindelwald.
The Knight Percival was related by blood to the Grail King known as Pellam. Percival, who was the King’s nephew, was naive and foolish….
The theme of life and death ultimately becomes embodied in the quest for a modern holy grail. Harry Potter’s quest echoes the ancient tale, which combines pagan and Christian influences. It is a perfect parallel for JK Rowling’s modern classic and I think it is a parallel that deserves further study.