Harry Potter and the Legends of Saints

By Hennequin, M. Wendy | Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Harry Potter and the Legends of Saints


Hennequin, M. Wendy, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture


Anne Hiebert Alton (2003), noting the elements of many diverse genres in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, calls the works a "generic mosaic" (159), and others have made similar observations. For instance, June Cummins (2008) notes that the Gothic components in the texts "are so natural to its setting that they are almost invisible or at least so normalized that it appears as if they do not merit attention" (177-78). Cummins's statement can be equally applied to the other genres that inform the Harry Potter series: the conventions become so subsumed into, and so seamlessly interwoven with, the plot, characters, atmosphere, and elements of the other genres in Rowling's books that they become almost unnoticeable. Despite their neat integration, several recent studies of Rowling's Harry Potter series have explored the texts' relationships with medieval romances, folk and fairy tales, pulp fiction, the school days' novel, and Gothic fiction. (1)

Scholars have, however, neglected one ingredient of the "generic mosaic": medieval hagiography. Certain objects, abilities, tropes, and even plot structures in the Harry Potter series clearly derive from medieval saints' lives and the cult of saints. Rowling presents the possessions of the Four Founders almost as saints' relics, revered because of their original owners. Indeed, the Sorting Hat and the sword of Gryffindor almost function as relics, for they retain some of Godric Gryffindor's power. Voldemort's Horcruxes, on the other hand, clearly function as anti-relics, literally containing remnants of a powerful soul but conveying Voldemort's corruption instead of holiness. Some of the magical powers exhibited by the Harry Potter characters also originate in medieval hagiography. Critics generally associate Parseltongue with Lord Voldemort and evil (Chevalier 2005, 399; Orgelfinger 2009, 143; McVeigh 2002, 201), as do the characters (Rowling 1999a, 199), but several saints, notably Patrick, exhibit this ability, (2) and Harry uses the power not as Voldemort does but as a saint does. (3) The sacrificial death of Lily Potter and Harry's symbolic death at the end of the series recall the deaths of martyred saints and even of Christ, and the protections that result from these deaths (Rowling 1997, 299; 2007, 738) echo the divine favours which some martyrs, such as George and Catherine, earn for their adherents through their martyrdoms (Voragine 1993, 1:242, 2:339). (4) Finally, certain episodes within the novels share the plot structures of saints' lives, though in some cases these might be mistaken for medieval romance plots, as these genres borrowed freely from each other (Salih 2006, 15; Bell 2008; Thompson 2003,87-88).

All of these medieval hagiographical conventions function importantly within the Harry Potter series. This article, however, will concentrate on the last element, hagiographical plots and plot structures. Three episodes in the Harry Potter series exhibit plot structures seen in saints' lives. The battle between Tom Riddle, the basilisk, and Harry in the Chamber of Secrets recalls the legend of St. George and the dragon. The confrontation between Voldemort and Harry at the end of The Goblet ofFire is constructed as a passio, or martyrdom story. Rowling combines and echoes these two episodes in the seventh novel when Voldemort confronts and tortures Neville Longbottom in another passio-like episode. These hagiographical plot structures serve the same purposes in Harry Potter as they do in saints' lives: they identify the heroes and villains, emphasize the virtues of the saint and the vices of the villain, underscore the values of the text, and, ultimately, reassure the audience that goodness will defeat evil in the end.

Let us begin with the battle between Tom Riddle, Harry Potter, and the basilisk in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, in which Harry journeys to the underground Chamber of Secrets, where he confronts the fragmented soul of the teenaged Tom Riddle (later Lord Voldemort) and his basilisk in order to rescue Ginny Weasley. …

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