Sir Francis Bacon in his essay, Of Studies, wrote, "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested."
In The Deathly Hallows Lectures, John Granger argues that HP uses,
1. Narrative Misdirection from Miss Jane Austen
2. Literary Alchemy via Shakespeare and Charles Dickens
3. The Hero's Journey, let's say from Homer, Virgil, and Dante
4. Traditional Symbolism a la Messrs. Tolkien and Lewis
5. Postmodern Themes
Looking at number one, Narrative Misdirection, I recall Rowling saying, “The best twist ever in literature is in Jane Austen's Emma. To me she is the target of perfection at which we shoot in vain.” Rowling certainly took some good cues and put JA's genius to work. Just as I was utterly surprised when I learned the truth about Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, I would never have guessed the truth about Snape or even Dumbledore.
Mr. Weasley gave a maniacal laugh; Mrs. Weasley threw him a look, upon which he became immediately silent and assumed an expression appropriate to the sickbed of a close friend.
"Yes," said Heromine, now turning the fragile pages as if examining rotting entrails...
Ron stared around the room as if he had been bidden to memorize it.
WARNING: PLOT-SPOILER AHEAD
the science for the perfection or sanctification of the alchemist's soul. This heroic venture is all but impossible today because the way we look at reality, at "things," per se, makes the Great Work itself almost an absurdity. Unlike the medieval alchemists, we moderns and postmoderns see things with a clear subject/object distinction; that is, we believe you and I and the table are entirely different things and between them is there is no connection or relation. The knowing subject is one thing and the observed object is completely 'other.
The resurrection at story’s end each year is the culmination of that year’s cycle and transformation. The cycle then closes with congratulations and explanations from the master alchemist and a return to the Dursleys for another trip through the cycle.” And in the end, “Death is a necessary part of the alchemical work; only in the death of one thing, from the alchemical perspective, is the greater thing born. (Alchemists frequently cited John 12:24 and Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection.25) But Love, the action of contraries and their resolution, transcends death. Love brings life out of death, even eternal life and spiritual perfection. This is a direct match with Rowling’s message about how to understand death and love.
Titus Burckhardt noted,
This science (of alchemy) went into precipitous decline and corruption at the end of the Renaissance and especially at the Enlightenment, when it was eclipsed by the materialist view and priorities of modern chemistry. But it was kept alive by writers who found in its imagery and symbolism a powerful way of communicating Christian truth...Shakespeare and Jonson, among others, used alchemical imagery and themes because they understood that the work of the theater in human transformation was parallel if not identical to the work of alchemy in that same transformation. The alchemical work was claimed to be greater than an imaginative experience in the theater, but the idea of purification by identification or correspondence with an object and its transformations was the same in both.
The Hero's Journey, number 3, is a lot of fun for all of us who love the classics. Harry, like all of those great heroes of old is broken down, disillusioned, and bled until everything that he thinks he is is taken away or revealed as a falsehood.
The boundaries of his world collapse; magical enemies come to his home with the Dursleys, and Aunt Petunia knows about them. The Dursleys’ house is no longer a sanctuary, however miserable, and Hogwarts is no longer edifying or any joy to him...But the old and the new man cannot live together in the same person or world—and this is Harry’s war with his doppelganger or twin-in-spirit, Lord Voldemort... Love has overcome death in each of the books...Having completed the circle and achieved the center the seventh time, this last time by sacrificing himself without hope of gain, Harry, in effect, has executed his ego or died to himself, thereby returning to the center or transpersonal self before Voldemort kills him.
Most Favored Damnation status—as though books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn did not exist and were not classics of the English language. Proponents of such arguments seem to really think that a book in which the whole point was the purification of the hero ought to have a hero who did not need purification.
Dumbledore's great downfall was doing evil "for the Greater Good"—and that, I think, is the key. Deathly Hallows is the book in which, above all, Dumbledore gives way to Harry as the doubtful and imperfect Baptist gives way to Jesus, as the great but pagan Vergil gives way to Beatrice, as the greatest prophet gives way to the least in the kingdom of heaven.
Dumbledore is, like Vergil, a "great man" (in the words of Hagrid). But he himself acknowledges that Harry is the "better man." Harry can do what Dumbledore could not. That's not because Harry has mastered secret knowledge. It's because Harry is the recipient of grace. Dumbledore's death is marked by the sin that marred Dumbledore's life: He does evil "for the greater good." And the plan he hatches "for the greater good" is fruitless. The Elder Wand he aimed to give to Snape goes to Draco. But, in the mystery of grace, his failure is redeemed by Harry's response to grace.
Number 4, Traditional Symbolism, is great! Although Rowling falls short of Lewis and Tolkien, she is excellent at the “magic of story and myth” using imagery and symbols from the Christian tradition. I would also argue that HP fits into the category of mythopoeia ("myth-making"). This meaning of the word mythopoeia follows its use by J. R. R. Tolkien in the 1930s. The authors in this genre integrate traditional mythological themes and archetypes into fiction.
Understanding their superficial, moral, allegorical, and mythic or anagogical meanings requires some appreciation of English literature and symbolism...An authentic symbol is a means of passage and of grace between the shadow-world of time and space in which we live and what is real.
In DH Harry's transformation, I believe, happens acutely when he is digging the grave for hobbit-like Dobby. "I want to do it properly," were the first words of which Harry was fully conscious of speaking. "Not by magic. Have you got a spade?" (478)
“He dug with a kind of fury, relishing the manual work, glorying in the non-magic of it, for every drop of his sweat and every blister felt like a gift to the elf who had saved their lives.”
"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've said it was love..."
Number 5, Postmodern Themes, is concerned with the ideas prevalent to everyone living in this historical time period. One of those ideas being, we may even call it a 'postmodern religion', fundamentalism=bad. When Rowling speaks of fundamentalism she is meaning ignorant, prejudiced people, but misses that this definition is the same one which the Death Eaters hold in regards to Muggles.
If you want legalism, go for a Progressive society. Justice alone matters. Equality. Tolerance. Etc. But you will find no sacrifice. The sins of traditional societies are forgiven for one reason- the blood. Blood is a scandal to enlightened man. Only Christians can dare recognize the bestial element, without either shame, despair, or contradiction.
She has succeeded in smuggling in a great deal of traditional, even transcendent, material and themes into these stories—including her Christian beliefs—in answer to these questions and concerns. The “religious undertones,” as she has said, are “obvious” to anyone who hasn’t been immunized to this possibility... If there is one message that postmodern readers do not, perhaps cannot hear, it is that they will be judged in the afterlife for their thoughts, words, and deeds. Ms. Rowling in King's Cross presents this 'judgment' in such a way that it seems anything but the work of an angry God. Rather our condition in eternity will be the consequences of our choices and our capacity for love - and there will be no helping those who enter God's Glory with atrophied spirits and darkened hearts.
Philippians 4 does not say to read only Christian works. If we are honest, we must admit that some Christian works are not "excellent" or "worthy of praise" or "lovely" or "of good report." Many non-Christian writers are good to read because they unwittingly follow God's aesthetic laws of craftsmanship and because they are honest. Hemingway was no Christian, but when in "Hills Like White Elephants" he imagines a man and woman discussing whether she should get an abortion, he nails the issues—the man's attempt to manipulate and use the woman; her reluctance, her yielding to the pressure, and her guilt—in a way that corresponds to God's moral truth.
Rowling states,"The two groups of people who are constantly thanking me are wiccans (white witches) and boarding schools. And really, don't thank me. I'm not with either of them."
Magic sought power over nature; astrology proclaimed nature's power over man. Hence the magician is the ancestor of the modern practicing or 'applied' scientist, the inventor; the astrologer, of the nineteenth-century philosophical materialist. Neither figure, by the way, is specially typical of the Middle Ages. Both flourished as much, if not more, in the ancient and in the renaissance world.
The magic of Harry is, as John Granger points out, "incantational," not "invocational," exactly like the magic of Gandalf. Born with the talent for magic, Gandalf says the magic words and fire leaps forth from his staff, just as from Harry's wand. No principalities or powers are invoked in HP. Indeed, if any words are "invocational" they are the prayer to Elbereth and Gilthoniel uttered in Middle Earth. Yet nobody accuses Tolkien of promoting the worship of false gods. That's because we understand Tolkien's fictional subcreation and its rootedness in Christian thought. I suggest Christian critics try to extend Rowling the same charity.