J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is arguably the most critically and commercially successful children’s series of all time. Over the course of the next month or so, leading up to the release of the cinematic conclusion, we’ll be taking a look at seven elements—some pivotal, some relatively marginal—of particular theological significance within the series. Accio posto!
“Inside, just visible, was a baby boy, fast asleep. Under a tuft of jet-black hair over his forehead they could see a curiously shaped cut, like a bolt of lightning.”
It has become the brand. The focal, jagged-tail P that now crosses the screen of X-Box games and finds itself imprinted on bathmats and amusement park merchandise, will swell to life once again in the opening credits for the last installation of films on July 15. Harry’s lightning-bolt scar has become his Superman “S”, yet intriguingly so, as it represents the mark of a hero through an event of devastation and loss. Within the Potter chronicles, though, this seems to fit: it is only through the experience and confrontation of being wounded that one can truly live.
The origin is well known by now. When Harry Potter was only a year old, the villainous Voldemort’s powers were peaking, and Harry’s parents stood as vocal opposition to the Dark Side. Voldemort mercilessly smote them with two Killing Curses, leaving Harry defenseless. As fate would have it, though, the third and least resisted Killing Curse backfires—something that had never happened to one of the Dark Lord’s targets before—dissolving Voldemort into a vacuous, soulless non-being, and consequently lifting the unlikely infant Harry to unmerited (and unknown, for now) celebrity. What remained was the wound, a symbolic convergence of an insuperable force of evil with the miraculous counterforce of his mother’s self-giving love. Later that terrible night, the powerful and benevolent wizard-headmaster Dumbledore delivered Harry to his Muggle (non-magic) aunt’s and uncle’s, who would serve as his caretakers until he is recovered to the magical world and sent to Hogwarts School. Upon reaching the school, Professor McGonagall notices the scar and asks Dumbledore why it hadn’t been removed:
‘Is that where–?” whispered Professor McGonagall.
‘Yes,’ said Dumbledore. ‘He’ll have that scar forever.’
‘Couldn’t you do something about it, Dumbledore?’
‘Even if I could, I wouldn’t. Scars can come in handy. I have one myself above my left knee that is a perfect map of the London Underground.’
Here in the first chapter of the first novel, Dumbledore indicates a thread that will be carried completely through to the seventh book: not only does scarring mark an initial attack or offense where damage was suffered, a scar also acts an avenue through which something useful may surface. Harry grows to find that his scar is much more than the mark of the “Boy Who Lived,” but a living fusion to Voldemort. Harry is, despite himself, in a living communion of pain with his darkest foe, inseparably linked to him. As Harry grows older, and Voldemort’s powers grow again, his scar-bound link intensifies:
“Bathroom,” he muttered, and he left the room as fast as he could without running. He barely made it: Bolting the door behind him with trembling hands, he grasped his pounding head and fell to the floor, then in an explosion of agony, he felt the rage that did not belong to him possess his soul, saw a long room lit only by firelight, and the great blond Death Eater on the floor, screaming and writhing, and a slighter figure standing over him, wand outstretched, while Harry spoke in a high, cold, merciless voice.
Rowling portrays this wound as Harry’s cross to bear, the life inside of him that is not his own, the force of which is nearly impossible to deter. Harry finds the link to be useful, in that he can see what Voldemort sees, but the burden of proximity to such a force is costly. The pain of this connection is tempered only by the very thing that also saved Harry as a child: love. In the first book, Dumbledore explains to Harry the power that dwells in his skin, because of the love of his mother. To Dumbledore, Harry’s scar is most importantly subject to the power of imputative love:
“Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign…to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by such good.”
Part One of the Deathly Hallows film ends with the sacrificial death of the house elf Dobby, and Voldemort’s acquisition of the Elder Wand, or Deathstick. This moment, like the night that produced Harry’s scar, is marked by both the ineffable power of death and the unlikely power of love. Harry finds that his mark of imputed love stands victorious, even here.
“[Voldemort’s] rage was dreadful and yet Harry’s grief for Dobby seemed to diminish it, so that it became a distant storm that reached Harry from across a vast, silent ocean…His scar burned, but he was master of the pain; he felt it, yet was apart of it. He had learned to control at last, learned to shut his mind to Voldemort, the very thing Dumbledore had wanted him to learn from Snape. Just as Voldemort had not been able to possess Harry while Harry was consumed with grief for Sirius, so his thoughts could not penetrate Harry now, while he mourned Dobby. Grief, it seemed, drove Voldemort out…though Dumbledore, of course, would have said it was love…”
To continue to Part 2: The Mirror of Erised, click here.