Harry Potter & the Eucharist of Empathy

This is the extended version of my recent guest post at Transpositions, the St Andrews’ Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts student blog. You can read that original post here.

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‘Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.’ – C.S. Lewis, ‘On Three Ways of Writing for Children’

I just finished listening to J.K. Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement speech, which a friend sent me via e-mail: ‘The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination’ (full text and full video at link).

The part I want to address is in the second half [ETA: This is a different version of the video; the previous video was removed]:

In the second half of her commencement speech, Rowling gives two definitions of imagination. The first, and more basic, is imagination as ‘the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not.’ The second, and more to the purpose, is imagination as ‘the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.’

This second definition is very similar to C.S. Lewis’s statement in An Experiment in Criticism that ‘the specific value or good of literature considered as Logos [is that] it admits us to experiences other than our own.’ As I am arguing in my thesis, one of the values of art, especially literary art, that Lewis emphasizes is its power to increase our empathy. We are able to see through others’ eyes, and enter worlds we would never enter on our own. The author offers his world to the reader, and enables him to enter it. (This is why Lewis took issue with unneeded obscurity in his commentary on Charles Williams’s Arthurian poetry, and also why he says in his essay ‘Good Work and Good Works’ that an artist must view ‘the existing taste, interests, and capacity of his audience’ as ‘part of his raw material; to be used, tamed, sublimated, not ignored or defied.’ It is cruel at worst, and shoddy work at best, to tempt one’s audience with the enticement of a new world to be entered, and then refuse him the magic words needed to gain entry.)

Rowling follows up her definition of imagination as a power which creates empathy by sharing stories of her time working at Amnesty International in her early 20’s. She worked with and for torture survivors and political exiles. One story she told hit me particularly hard:

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just had to give him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

I remember when I first saw the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I had read the book beforehand, so I knew what happened, but there was one moment that started me silently sobbing in my seat. It was the moment (spoilers ahead in this post) that Harry came back to the tournament pitch clutching the Triwizard Cup and the body of the dead Cedric Diggory. He was in agony, but everyone else was cheering, not yet realizing what had happened. At one point, the camera cuts to Hermione, and her eyes grow wide as she realizes that Cedric isn’t moving, Harry is crying, and everything has gone very wrong. It’s at that moment that she, and the other professors and students, begin to realize that they’re looking at a dead child, and that their world is no longer the same.

I was immediately racked with sobs, because, experiencing the shock of the characters, I thought, ‘That’s us. That’s my country after 9/11.’

I grew up as a child safe and secure in the knowledge that wars only happened in other parts of the world, or at other times, and that my country had been at peace for a long time and would be at peace for a long time yet. Our history teacher even told us in 9th grade that no one could ever attack the U.S., because we were too well defended. I remember, the day after 9/11, driving to school in a world that had changed, in which people working in their peaceful American offices could be blown up without any warning. I was shocked to discover that war had been brought to us, and that there were people in this world who wanted me dead. I was no longer living in a paradise of peaceful isolation. I was living in a world where a very real evil could get me and my family.

I don’t want to sensationalize my response to 9/11, because I realize I still have a much greater chance of dying old in my bed than of being killed by terrorists, but it was a watershed event in my sense of safety, and made me realize that we all have to be prepared to face evil in our lives, even if we live in the world’s greatest superpower. Each and every one of us must be prepared to be heroes, or martyrs.

The reality of evil, and especially the petty, smug banality of it, is something I think Rowling gets across extraordinarily well in the Harry Potter books. Most of it will never meet a Voldemort (though some will – evil tyranny still exists), but many of us will meet a Dolores Umbridge – a personification of evil possibly even more dangerous for her scheming, self-righteous insidiousness. Tom Riddle had grand aspirations, but Dolores Umbridge simply took delight in hurting, in little, petty, soul-eating ways.

It seems to me that J.K. Rowling herself has an enormous ability to empathize. She was not only deeply affected by her work with torture victims, entering their worlds through their writings and personal contact – she talks about experiencing increasing nightmares as a result of her work – but she also enables the readers of Harry Potter to enter into the world of children losing their families, friends, and parts of themselves to war, political oppression, and everyday, bullying hurt. Not only that, but she enables her readers to see with her own eyes, to enter into the world of a person with a keen sense of empathy, and to feel what it’s like to suffer because someone you care for is suffering.

In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis writes, ‘The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison.’ In her Harvard address, Rowling says:

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

Fiction like Rowling’s is unafraid to show us the darkness in the world, and make it real for us. Yet at the same time, it shows us heroism, bravery, and most of all, love. Harry, Hermione, Ron, Neville, Luna, and the other adult and child members of Dumbledore’s Army and the Order of the Phoenix have very real life-and-death responsibilities. Yet they don’t complain about their burden being unfair. They see their tasks in life, and they take them up bravely, even when their fellow witches and wizards insist that evil is a thing of the past and not something which they have to face in their own time. Even though they’re children, Harry and his friends have the most mature view of the world. They are willing to suffer anything out of love for their friends and families, and even for the actively hostile wizarding world.

In the Harry Potter series, Rowling gives us both passion – ‘suffering’ – and compassion – ‘suffering with’. Hers is true Christian literature. It teaches us the way of the Cross. The spell that Rowling casts gives us new experiences of suffering, and new experiences of ‘suffering with.’ Finally, it teaches us the experience of ‘suffering for,’ of laying down one’s life for another – the greatest form of love. And, with the mark of the true fairy-tale, it ends with the painful joy of the eucatastrophe – the evangelion of Resurrection. I wonder if I might even go so far as to say that reading Harry Potter, and similar stories, is similar to the sacramental experience of the Eucharistic liturgy. Having experienced the Passion and Resurrection, and taken the story into ourselves, being enlarged by it, we now go out into the world to enact the story with and for others. ‘Ite, missa est.’ Go, this story is ended; be sent out to live the Gospel story in your world.

3 thoughts on “Harry Potter & the Eucharist of Empathy

  1. Well said. It is most likely this empathy that is so expertly infused into her characters that makes them so real. I don’t just care about the characters (although that is an accomplishment many authors fail at), but I care about what they care about. They were so real to me when I was reading them that one time something funny happened to me that I knew Ron would find funny and I thought “I should tell Ron… wait… he’s not really real.”

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