The Revelatory Structure of Harry Potter

In his book The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, Northrop Frye outlines seven steps, stages, or sections of revelatory art. (The title of the book comes from William Blake – who called the Bible “the Great Code of Art.”) Frye’s “seven steps of revelation” are outlined as follows:

    1. Genesis or Creation
    2. Revolution or Exodus
    3. Law
    4. Wisdom
    5. Prophecy
    6. Gospel
    7. Apocalypse or Revelation

When I read this, being the Harry Potter nerd I am, I was struck with a fascinating parallel between these steps and the seven Harry Potter novels and the themes in each:

    1. Philosopher’s Stone
    2. Chamber of Secrets
    3. Prisoner of Azkaban
    4. Goblet of Fire
    5. Order of the Phoenix
    6. Half-Blood Prince
    7. Deathly Hallows

Of course, some of the parallels are obvious just by the names – particularly obvious are “wisdom” fitting with the themes and trials of Goblet of Fire (concerned much with Harry learning and using spells outside of the classroom) and “prophecy” with Order of the Phoenix (concerned with – gasp! – the prophecy) – and some of the others aren’t so obvious. One of the biggest reasons I see these parallels is the deliberately Christian themes in the last book of the series and the likeness of Harry Potter to Christ. A paragraph on each book should do well to establish at least a dim connection between the structures of these two tomes.

The first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, is, by necessity, about the genesis of Harry Potter as we know him: his birth, his legend, and his induction into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Admittedly, this parallel is necessary (how else would we get to know him?) but, given the parallels of the rest of the series and the seven steps of revelation, I drew the connection between the structure of the Bible and the structure of HP.

Chamber of Secrets focuses on a few important events: the creature lying beneath Hogwarts for years – the Slytherin legacy, Harry dealing with his likeness to Voldemort, and Voldemort’s control over Ginny Weasley. We are also introduced to Fawkes in this book – whose name comes from a radical revolutionary named Guy Fawkes who planned the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (executed in 1606), an effigy of whom is burned on “Guy Fawkes Night” (Etymology note: Guy Fawkes is where the American English word “guy” comes from – it once meant a poorly dressed person after Fawkes). Fawkes the Phoenix, like Guy, bursts into flame and is reborn again from the ashes upon Harry’s first meeting with him, and he comes to revive Harry after he rescues Ginny and defeats the basilisk (a revolution or exodus from the rule of Voldemort), effectively creating a revolution or exodus theme for this book.

The parallels between Prisoner of Azkaban and “law” are not as obvious. We are introduced to the notion of “law” in a few ways in this book: Harry blowing up his aunt, Sirius Black’s escape from Azkaban, and Buckbeak’s trial and execution. It should be noted that Rowling intentionally presents the notion of “law” very flimsily: Fudge and the Ministry do not punish Harry for breaking the law against underage magic, Sirius Black escapes from Azkaban, and the Ministry’s plans to kill Buckbeak are foiled (by a couple of thirteen year olds no less). Additionally, Cornelius Fudge personally escorts Harry from the Knight Bus into the Leaky Cauldron. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Rowling establishes that lawgivers are not to be trusted and that sometimes matters delegated to the law – the Ministry – must be taken into your own hands.

Goblet of Fire represents a large turning point in the series (as, I think, it does in the Bible as well), in which magical “options” are presented to Harry for the first time. Based on the three tasks for the Triwizard tournament, Harry must learn spells in order to complete them. That is, he must procure wisdom based on the tasks before him. Of course, the “wisdom” for each task comes through Hagrid, Pseudo-Moody, Dobby, Cedric, and others, but Harry is presented with tasks and gathers wisdom (even becoming Hermione-like the night before the second task) nonetheless. Also, the Sphinx – traditionally a symbol of wisdom, truth, and mystery – and her riddle make this book scream “wisdom” to me.

Prophecy and Order of the Phoenix go hand-in-hand, of course, but I promised a paragraph for each, so here it goes. Voldemort seeks a prophecy contained in a glass sphere – “The Prophecy.” It is the prophecy that Sybil Trelawney made to Dumbledore just before Harry was born, and Voldemort, believing it, secured its reality by attacking Harry and his parents. Harry procures the sphere, but he and his friends are ambushed. The Dumbledore denouement of Order of the Phoenix reveals much to Harry and Rowling’s readers (in a chapter entitled “The Lost Prophecy”) with regard to the prophecy, which foretells Harry’s and Voldemort’s death in the last book of the series.

Admittedly, the connection between Half-Blood Prince and “gospel” is the stretchiest of stretches in this post. (This stretchiness is mostly due to space constraints and my fear of boring my readers. I’ll do my best, however.) In the book The Deathly Hallows Lectures, John Granger makes a very compelling connection between Snape and one of Rowling’s biggest – though I would argue littlest-known – influences: Dante, the Italian poet and author of the Divine Comedy. Granger, among other convincing evidence, connects Harry’s and his mother’s eyes with Beatrice, Dante’s muse. In short, Paradise of the Divine Comedy takes its readers through nine spheres of the Empyrean, or heaven: the spheres of Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim, and Seraphim. Without going too far into the details, suffice it to say that in the esoteric alchemical tradition, the poet or artist traverses seven of these spheres to gain what some call “crystal vision” – vision of the Holy Trinity.  That is, Snape becomes the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and, if Snape is a Dante figure, Dante is in turn the teacher to Harry (a placeholder for Rowling, or her soul or some such thing) in this book. Snape’s book on potions, with hundreds of corrections and annotations to traditional potion-making (read: poetry- or novel-making) is Harry’s gospel, a symbol for Dante’s influence on her. This marks the “gospel” step of the seven steps of revelation. (Yeah, I know… weak. I wish I could go more into this one, and someday I probably will.)

Finally, we come to revelation or apocalypse and Deathly Hallows. Apocalypse comes from Greek, and it means “uncover, disclose, reveal”:

late 14c., “revelation, disclosure,” from Church Latin apocalypsis “revelation,” from Greek apokalyptein “uncover, disclose, reveal,” from apo- “from” (see apo-) + kalyptein “to cover, conceal” (see Calypso). The Christian end-of-the-world story is part of the revelation in John of Patmos’ book “Apokalypsis” (a title rendered into English as “Apocalypse” c.1230 and “Revelations” by Wyclif c.1380). (Etymonline.com)

That is, the “apocalypse” (in the Bible and in Harry Potter) is an event very unlike the one we see in contemporary biblical exegesis (i.e. primarily eschatological). It is not a revelation for St. John only. It is a revelation or disclosure of information, an uncovering and symbolic rending of a veil, merely symbolized by death and cataclysm in St. John’s book. Indeed, in Deathly Hallows and in St. John’s Revelation, we are faced with death galore. The most remarkable death in Rowling’s series, of course, in an echo of Christ’s death on the cross, is Harry’s death in the forest. During his “death,” he travels to King’s Cross, and after he comes back, Voldemort uses crucio (“cross,” based on Latin crux, its genitive being crucis) on what Voldemort believes is Harry’s lifeless corpse. This is the point at which in the symbolist tradition the poet receives crystal vision, and at which Rubeus Hagrid is forced to carry Harry’s corpse (the transformed soul) back to Hogwarts.

I hope from this that the relation between – and indeed the revelation of – the Bible and Harry Potter have been highlighted as I intended. Thanks for reading.