The Soul in Popular Fiction: Conclusion

•January 28, 2011 • Leave a Comment

It seems like every time I make a new post I’m apologizing for my long absence, but well… sorry. I certainly haven’t abandoned this blog, and I have a few posts lurking in the back of my head that I’m excited about, but I can give no promises on the timeframe.

In the meantime, here is the final piece of my senior thesis (as always, look at “Thesis” on the sidebar for the previous sections). This is my conclusion, which is by far the shortest and least interesting part of my paper, but such is the nature of conclusions I suppose. I hope you enjoyed looking at my thesis with me and, as always, feel free to give any feedback.

The Conceptualization and Ethical Implications of the Soul in Popular Fiction: Conclusion

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The soul remains elusive. Despite multiple portrayals in fiction, religion, and philosophy, there is not, and there is unlikely ever to be, a consensus on the reality or functions of the soul. This is perhaps as it should be, because much of the power ascribed to the concept of the soul is in the idea that it is somehow beyond us while still being a part of us. To pin the soul down and dissect it would be to rob the idea of its beauty—a beauty maintained in the imagination and therefore at least partially sustained by fiction.

Just as there is a lack of consensus about the soul, there is a lack of agreement about ethics. Many ethical systems are grounded in the idea that right and wrong are real things—perhaps not tangible, perhaps not objective, perhaps not even knowable, but real. We say the some action is or is not right, as if ‘right’ were an independent idea which ethical systems attempt to help us aim for and understand (and which often disagree about the best way to do so), but which exists somehow beyond those systems.

Based on my interpretation of the soul in the stories of Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, His Dark Materials, and Star Wars, in which the soul consistently functions, not only as a description of ethics, but also as a source of ethics, I would like to suggest that ethics is not a human construct, but that it is a product of humanity—of what we as humans truly are. From this postulation one might pursue arguments about the source of humanity, be it God, evolution, or something else, attempting to reach the ‘source’ of morality. My ambitions are not quite so high. I will simply say this: if fiction is worth anything in aiding our understanding of the world, then based on my reading of it, the conception of what a human being ontologically is may be one of a person’s most crucial ethical formations, because out of it springs so many others. This is perhaps the true power of the soul: that it holds within it not only what we are, but what we ought to be.

The Soul in Popular Fiction: Star Wars

•December 22, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I know I’ve been awol for the past few weeks. I have no good excuse, but hopefully I’ll be making up for it by giving you the second-to-last section of my Senior Thesis: Star Wars. This is a shorter chapter, so there’s no second half coming—all that’s left is the conclusion. As always, the previous sections to my thesis can be found by clicking “Thesis” over there ————->. Please let me know what you think.

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The Conceptualization and Ethical Implications of the Soul in Popular Fiction: Star Wars

In the Star Wars saga, created by George Lucas, the idea of the soul is never explicitly mentioned, but it is heavily implied. Based on that implication, the soul plays a significant role in the story. The soul in Star Wars appears to be based strongly in the Eastern concept of atman, and thus has some corresponding Eastern moral principles, but mixed in with these principles is a strong sense of Western dualism.

The primary evidence for the existence of the soul in the Star Wars universe comes in The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi when the audience is shown the spirits of Obi-Wan Kenobi and then later those of Yoda and Anakin, all three of whom are dead.[1] The presence of these spirits indicates that there is some aspect of a person that survives death, such as a soul. Very little information is given about these spirits, but the fact that all three were great Jedi masters in life suggests that continuing into an afterlife, and therefore the soul, is tied somehow to the idea of the Force. In fact, Obi-Wan’s comment before his death that “If you strike me down I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine,” implies that the spirit of a Jedi may actually become (or may already be) a part of the Force.[2]

The Force, as defined by Obi-Wan is “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”[3] According to Qui-Gon Jinn, the Force communicates its will by way of microscopic organisms called midi-clorians, which exist in all living beings.[4] Jedi, by “using the Force” and letting the Force guide them can gain extraordinary powers such as telekinesis, telepathy, mind control, seeing the future, and skill with a light saber. The idea that the ultimate power in the universe is connected to every living being, and that people can gain supernatural powers by realizing their connection to that power sounds remarkably similar to the idea of atman, as expressed in Hinduism and Buddhism.[5]Atman” is often translated as “self” or “soul” and represents the purest distillation of what we as humans are, but atman is only a manifestation of Brahman, the ultimate power in the universe.[6] According to such Eastern philosophies, because atman exists in every living thing (or rather, is every living thing), if we are able to remove the distractions and misconceptions of life, we can realize our connection to Brahman. By doing so, we can gain extraordinary powers, including “clairvoyance, clairaudience, thought-projection and the like.”[7] If one simply substitutes “the Force” for “atman,” the above philosophy is a fairly succinct explanation of the Jedi religion in Star Wars. Such similarities support the above suggestion that the soul and the Force are not only connected, but are actually the same thing.

The Force is further connected to Eastern philosophies in that it has a light side and a dark side, and that these two sides are ideally kept in balance. The balance of opposing forces is expressed in the Chinese idea of the yin and the yang, which George Lucas has said that he wanted to incorporate into his story, and he seems to have done so with the Force.[8] However, Star Wars has deviated from the idea of the yin/yang in that it is not generally applied to the concept of atman, and so, its application as a characteristic of the Force is somewhat forced (pun not intended). Also, the two sides of the Force are not just light and dark, but good and evil, whereas the concept of yin/yang does not recognize the moral polarization, and in fact rejects a dualist model of morality because it insists that both the yin and the yang are essential, which, if it were applied to good and evil would make evil a necessary thing.[9] Star Wars does contain the idea that the existence of evil helps the people to stay focused on the good, as in Episode I when the Jedi Council grows lax until they learn of a new Sith Lord, at which time they become more focused on the pursuit of good, but the story never praises the existence of evil in and of itself. Lucas borrows the Chinese idea of balancing opposites, but deviates from it by creating a Western dualist model of morality in which the dark side of the Force is entirely undesirable and is, in fact, condemnable. Lucas thus attempts to use an Eastern model of the soul, but the ethical model he pursues is more consistent with Western modes of thinking.

This combination of yin/yang and moral dualism creates the most dramatic philosophical tension in Star Wars. For example, the character Anakin is supposed by many of the Jedi to be the one who will fulfill a prophecy in which the evil Sith Lords are destroyed and balance is restored to the Force. These two ideas: destroying the Sith and bringing balance to the Force, are antithetical. If the battle is between the good Jedi (allied with the light side of the Force) and the evil Sith (allied with the dark side of the Force), as it is throughout the entire saga, then destroying the Sith once and for all would theoretically throw the Force out of balance, instead of having its balance restored. The only way that destroying the Sith would bring balance would be if the universe is already ridiculously tilted in favor of the dark side of the Force, which may be the case. However, the very fact that balance is seen as desirable indicates that some darkness is required. Perhaps what Lucas is trying to say is that the world is only stable (i.e. balanced) when evil is fought, and this interpretation does have some support as will be explored below, but the wording of the prophecy implies more strongly that the destruction, not the fighting of evil is what will bring the Force into balance. Ultimately, the attempted combination of Eastern and Western philosophies is awkward at best, and makes it difficult to extrapolate any solid ethical insights about the soul.

Another interesting aspect to the light/dark polarity present in the Force is that those allied with the dark side are fully aware that it is dark. Although Anakin allies himself with the dark side out of originally pure motives (to save his wife), and thus he is able to justify his actions, he never deludes himself into thinking that his actions are morally good. When he tells Luke, “It is too late for me,” he implies that there is something that he should be saved from, were it not too late, indicating that he is fully aware that his actions have been wrong.[10] On the other hand, Yoda and the other Jedi, although they are associated with the light side of the Force, are able to be deceived and manipulated, as when they fail to see the Darth Sidious’ infiltration of the Senate and when they are used to start the Clone War.[11] Thus the evil characters are often far less deceived, and often less self-deceived, than the good ones.[12] It would seem that Yoda’s repeated comments that the dark side clouds one’s vision refers only to the vision of those working against the dark side.

The concept of balance being found in the Force is shown to be much more consistent when it comes to individual morality than it does on a grand scale. The idea of a cosmological balance between good and evil or light and dark is quite different from finding balance within oneself, as Luke learns from his training sessions with Yoda. One of his training exercises involves him maintaining physical balance while upside-down. Such balance is a result of his internal neutrality and harmony which require that he remove disruptive voices from his mind. This training sequence was deliberately designed by the filmmakers to echo Zen meditation “and the Zen master teaching a pupil how to transcend physical prowess into some kind of mental prowess.”[13] During Luke’s training, Yoda counsels him that anger, fear, and aggression all lead to the dark side, which reveals the importance of internal balance in the Star Wars universe. Anger, fear, and aggression are all emotions or attributes that either create or are the result of disproportionate vision: seeing another as more powerful than oneself causes fear, seeing oneself as more powerful than another causes aggression, and these two unbalanced perceptions both create injustice, which leads to anger. Ultimately, Luke’s final victory over his own dark side is not when he has removed his anger, but when he has brought his anger under control, showing that the danger of anger is not inherent, but in that anger tends to lead to emotional instability and impulsive action. Controlling fear, anger, and aggression allows one to not be ruled by emotions or circumstances, but rather by the Force. This perspective makes it appear as if “bringing balance to the Force” may not be a matter of balancing good and evil, light and dark, but of bringing the light side of the Force to the fore, which is itself a thing which is not dominated by any one emotional drive: it is a thing of balance.

If this is so, then the war between the Empire and the rebels (who desire a Republic) makes much more sense. After all, in the original trilogy, until Emperor Palpatine tortures Luke at the end of The Return of the Jedi, he is not guilty of any major transgression which had not also been committed by the story’s heroes (unless having a creepy voice and scary theme music count as evil deeds), and yet there was no question that he was the ultimate villain of the story. The unforgivable crime that the Emperor commits is simply that he is a dominating emperor, and thus the Empire has an extreme imbalance of power. Admittedly, the Empire does commit some atrocious acts, such as destroying an entire planet, but these acts are more proofs of their villainy than conditions for it. The Republic, on the other hand, favors shared and balanced use of power, and it is this balance, more than any individual acts of heroism (or peppy theme music), that makes their cause worthy.

If we are correct in our assumption that the soul in Star Wars is a form of the Force, modeled on the concept of atman, then the idea of midi-clorians may at first seem very strange, because they make one’s connection to the Force fundamentally an issue of biology. Although every living thing has some midi-clorians, certain beings have more than others, and the more midi-clorians one has, the stronger their connection to the Force. Training may enhance this connection, but it does not seem to be completely necessary, seeing as Luke was able to use the Force long before he ever had any training in it. Because the soul is such a valuable commodity, the fact that some characters are biologically more connected to the Force, and thus to their own soul, makes it easy to make the leap that some people are biologically better than others. The veneration that the public holds for Jedi because of their ability to use the Force, as well as Qui-Gon’s veneration of Anakin because of his high midi-clorian count seem to support such value judgments. However, this admiration is misplaced, as demonstrated in Yoda’s counsel to Qui-Gon that Anakin’s ability to use the Force does not make it wise to work with him.[14] Gaining an ability to use the Force may be seen as a “good” thing, but goodness is not inherent in the Force (it does have a dark side, after all). One does not need an affinity with the Force to be a good person, as Han, Padme, and many others demonstrate, and the strength of one’s connection to the Force has no bearing on their personal or ethical worth.

But where does one’s ethical worth come from, if not from the Force? The clearest ethical teachings in the series come from Yoda’s training sessions with Luke which, as already explored, emphasize the crucial importance of internal neutrality and claim that fear, anger, and aggression all lead to the dark side. What, then, are we make of Han Solo, one of the story’s main heroes who has immense amounts of fear, anger, and aggression, and who appears to be far less internally balanced than any of the Sith? The simple answer seems to be that Han is not training to be a Jedi, so Yoda’s warnings are not applicable; if he were training to be a Jedi, then we would have cause to worry, but as it stands, Han’s courage and his efforts for the light side of the Force make him merely an uncouth but ultimately admirable man. Thus, it would appear that the values inherent in the Force—inner harmony which rejects fear, anger, and aggression—are not universal, or are at least not the only moral ideas at play. Where exactly the idea comes from that Han and others like him are morally good people, despite the fact that they are the antithesis of the characteristics of light side of the Force, is not clear, and certainly cannot be extrapolated from the information given about the soul in the Star Wars universe, so I will leave that discussion for another researcher, but the fact that the Force appears to be only one of several ethical meta-narratives is worth keeping in mind.

However, even if characters with a small affinity with the Force can be morally good people, it does not change the fact that they have less of a connection to their own souls, and, assuming my above arguments are correct, are unlikely to achieve the existence after death exemplified by Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin. Thus, admittance into a potentially eternal afterlife is at least partially dependent upon the biological feature of a midi-cloran count, which is, from a bioethical perspective, completely absurd. It is true that there is much we are not told about the afterlife in the Star Wars universe, so there could be any number of ways around this problem. Perhaps the Eastern idea of reincarnation is used to give characters infinite chances to become great Jedi; perhaps all dead characters exist in an afterlife, but only those with a strong affinity to the Force are able to manifest; perhaps Luke was hallucinating, and this entire paper makes a moot point. Nevertheless, no such explanations are given within the story, which could be seen as a philosophical weakness.

There is one great Jedi notably missing from the lineup of spirits at the end of The Return of the Jedi: Emperor Palpatine, also known as Darth Sidious. Despite his moral shortcomings, Palpatine was a great and powerful Jedi, and if a connection to the Force is all that is needed to continue to live after death, then one would expect him to have achieved this. Again, the fact that his spirit does not appear after his death could have any number of explanations—it would make little sense for him to visit Luke, even if he did survive his death in some form—but it is strongly implied that he did not survive. If this is true, then admittance to an afterlife depends not only upon the strength of one’s connection to the Force, but also upon where one situates oneself upon the light/dark divide. It is not inappropriate to extrapolate from this that the afterlife is a kind of heaven where only good people are allowed to go, but Palpatine’s conversation with Anakin suggests that there may be other factors to consider, as will be explored below.

In Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Palpatine tells Anakin that the dark side of the Force can give a Jedi access to powers not available to the light side, including the power to prevent death.[15] The audience never sees such a death-defying power in action, so it is possible that Palpatine was lying in order to seduce Anakin, but let us assume for a moment that he was telling the truth. This may be the reason that no Sith are seen in an afterlife: because both the light side and the dark side of the Force have the potential to lead to everlasting life, but they do so in different ways. The light side leads to some sort of spiritual existence after death and the dark side avoids death altogether. Avoiding death has a very negative connotation in this light, reinforced by the fact that both Obi-Wan and Yoda accepted their deaths without protest.[16] Although the idea that ‘death is not the end’ certainly exists in Star Wars, the vagueness of the afterlife coupled with the negativity attached to Palpatine’s goal of living forever implies that the truth that death is not a bad thing is more important than the existence of an afterlife. Death is still portrayed as a tragedy within the series, but it is a tragedy for those left behind, not for the person who is dying. This idea may be the greatest uncontested value judgment in the series; we have already explored how the lessons taught by Yoda fail to apply to Han Solo, but this principle maintains its integrity throughout. The redemption of Darth Vader may have come from his rescue of Luke and his rejection of the dark side, but it is confirmed or crystallized only when he accepts his own death.[17]

What of those beings who have no life to give up and no connection to the Force at all, such as droids? The status and abilities of droids is inconsistent and varied throughout the series, with some droids being expendable and without any sort of personality, and others being treated as full-blown characters. The value placed upon droids seems to correspond to their autonomy: R2-D2 and C3PO are both capable of independent value judgments and decision-making, and as a result, are treated with relative respect; R2-D2 is even formally thanked by Queen Amidala at one point for his brave actions.[18] The battle-droids of the Trade Federation, on the other hand, seem incapable of any action which they are not directly programmed for. Note, for example, one droid’s response to Qui-Gon: “That doesn’t compute…err… you’re under arrest.”[19] Such lack of autonomy is what makes the slaughter of battle droids acceptable, whereas the damaging of R2-D2 is a matter of concern.[20] The value of autonomy again goes back to Eastern philosophies such as Hinduism, which is deeply concerned with finding the “I” (the atman) which is not controlled by any outside forces. Of course, droids will always be programmed, so no matter how autonomous they become they could never truly achieve the Hindu goal. Yet they are also not alive, so they could never have a connection to the Force or, by extension, a soul. However, the fact that freedom from controlling influences is valued in the Star Wars universe shows that the idea of atman is not merely a model for the Force, but also has some influence on the stories’ system of values.

It may seem to be a bit of a stretch to say that the translucent image of dead Obi-Wan implies a particular system of values which emphasizes internal balance and the acceptance of death, but that is what his image does. Since his “ghost” is connected to the Force, and the Force is connected to atman, a great deal can be extrapolated. Star Wars is somewhat inconsistent in its portrayal of the Force, and this inconsistency disrupts the cohesion of its implied ethics, mostly in its attempt to marry Eastern philosophies to a Western dualist model of morality. However, in its very inconsistency Star Wars demonstrates that the way we view ourselves- what makes up our soul or essential core- is crucial to our understanding of how we ought to behave.


[1] The audience had already been introduced to the idea that Obi-Wan may have survived his death when Luke hears his voice giving instructions in A New Hope, but this could easily have been explained away as Luke remembering what his mentor might have said.

[2] Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Directed by George Lucas, 20th Century Fox, 1977.

[3] Episode IV: A New Hope.

[4] Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Directed by George Lucas, 20th Century Fox, 1999.

[5] Many fans and commentators hold that the Force is more closely modeled on the idea of the Tao, and while I accept that there are some similarities, I am more struck by their differences. The Tao is not an energy field; it has no moral polarization; it is beyond being ‘used.’ The similarities that the Tao shares with the Force are the same ones that it shares with atman and Brahmin, which I believe to be a much closer match, although, admittedly, still not a perfect one.

[6] It should be noted that although both Hinduism and Buddhism recognize the idea of atman, Hinduism includes the idea of the soul, while Buddhism does not (Thich Thien-An, Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice (Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1975), 170.).

[7]Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice, 94.

[8] Walter Robinson, “The Far East of Star Wars” in Star Wars and Philosophy, ed. Kevin S. Decker and Jason T. Eberl (Chicago: Open Court, 2005), 31.

[9] J.C. Cooper, Taoism: The Way of the Mystic, (Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, The Aquarian press: 1972), 34.

[10] Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi, Directed by Richard Marquand, 20th Century Fox, 1983.

[11] See Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Directed by George Lucas, 20th Century Fox, 2002.

[12] They are also often far more honest. See “’A Certain Point of View’: Lying Jedi, Honest Sith, and the Viewers Who Love Them” by Shanti Fader in Star Wars and Philosophy p. 192-204.

[13] Laurenk Bouzerau, Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays (New York: Ballantine, 1997), p. 180 as quoted by Walter Robinson, “The Far East of Star Wars” in Star Wars and Philosophy, p. 31.

[14] Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

[15] Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Directed by George Lucas, 20th Century Fox, 2005.

[16] See Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi.

[17] It is important to note that this acceptance of death does not have the connotation of self-sacrifice. Even Obi-Wan, who allows himself to be killed, does so in order that he may gain power, not so that someone else might be spared (Admittedly, the power he gains is used to help others be spared, but that is more of a benefit than a motivation).

[18] Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

[19] Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

[20] See Episode IV: A New Hope.

The Soul in Popular Fiction: His Dark Materials Part 2

•December 3, 2010 • 2 Comments

Only 2 more sections to go! Here’s the section part of my Thesis discussion on His Hark Materials (part 1 and all previous Thesis entries can be found by clicking “Thesis” on the sidebar). This part looks at the ethical implications of the soul portrayal in the His Dark Materials books. Let me know what you think.

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The Conceptualization and Ethical Implications of the Soul in Popular Fiction: His Dark Materials Part 2

Based solely on the above interpretations, one might be tempted to view daemons as a negative thing: linked to materiality, sin, and an animal nature. However, Pullman consistently portrays daemons as a positive, even glorious aspect of humanity. This is nowhere more apparent than in his treatment of those humans who have no daemons. In The Golden Compass, an organization called the Gobblers takes children and puts them in a device which severs the bond between the child and their daemon without killing either. Lyra later encounters one such child separated from his daemon, and reacts by thinking that “A human being with no daemon was like someone without a face… something unnatural and uncanny that belonged to the world of night- ghasts, not the waking world of sense.”[1] There are also reports of daemonless men, called “zombis,” who “have no fear and no imagination and no free will and they’ll fight till they’re torn apart.”[2] To be free of a daemon is to be free of desires, and thus of the will to see those desires carried out and the pleasure of seeing those desires fulfilled. To try to separate oneself from one’s animal nature is portrayed as not only dangerous, but “unnatural” and disgusting. The necessity and value of material instincts, as symbolized by the daemon, is a further echo of Judaic doctrines in which the body is greatly valued:

Sin is caused by the evil inclination (yezer ha-ra), the force in man which drives him to gratify his instincts and ambitions. Although called the ‘evil inclination’ because it can easily lead man to wrongdoing, it is essential to life in that it provides life with its driving power.[3]

Despite the fact that, according to Lord Asriel, daemon settling is a result of sin, daemons are still a valued and necessary aspect of humanity because without them humans would cease to be vibrant, active creatures and would be zombies instead: they may as well be dead.

Daemon corporeality, animal form, and their link to carnal desires all indicate that they are intensely material beings. Yet they do have a mystical quality to them via their changeability and mysterious link to their human. Perhaps by portraying such a traditionally spiritual concept like the soul in very solid terms, Pullman is saying “that such ‘spiritual’ qualities are manifested only through material, incarnate existence,” or even perhaps that the material existence trumps the spiritual one.[4]

The sheer amount of emphasis placed upon daemons in His Dark Materials speaks to the story’s ethics. Of course, much of the story revolves around interactions between Lyra and Panatalaimon, but Pullman often goes to great lengths to emphasize the daemons of minor characters, or to reinforce the notion that all humans have daemons, even if they are not visible. For example, in the first chapter, nearly every time a character is mentioned, even if they are never mentioned again, Pullman also tells of the form and activities of their daemon. In the final chapter, Mary Malone has a lengthy discussion about her own invisible daemon, even though said daemon never contributes anything to the plot.[5] If I am correct in my hypothesis that the daemon represents the desires of the flesh, the focus on daemons reinforces the importance of having such desires; that they are part of what makes us human, and that even if they are not apparent to all, they are still a vital part of who we are.

The emphasis on daemons as a part of one’s nature is not merely a statement that desires are good, but also that failing to adhere to one’s animal nature is wrong. For example, according to Iorek Byrnison, bears have no daemons, but instead their soul is in their armor.[6] It is unclear what exactly he means by this, as bears’ armor does not function in the same way as daemons do, and the bears are able to live without their armor, but it is clear that bears have no need for daemons in the same way that humans do. However, the usurper king of the ice bears, Iofur Raknison, wants a daemon. When Iorek challenges Iofur to mortal combat, his accusation is not about usurping the throne but about being un-bear-like: “Iron is bear metal. Gold is not. Iofur Raknison has polluted Svalbard. I have come to cleanse it.”[7] Iofur’s unnatural behavior proves to be his undoing: “You could not trick a bear, but, as Lyra had shown him, Iofur did not want to be a bear, he wanted to be a man; and Iorek was tricking him.”[8] Iofur and the rest of the bears, with the exception of Iorek, had played a minimal role in the story prior to this moment, and Iorek’s victory is incidental to the plot, so this moment means very little on a personal or plot level. It would appear that the momentousness lies primarily in the symbolism of a return to natural or normal living, without the artificial “ideal” getting in the way. This symbolism could be interpreted a number of different ways. One possibility is a criticism of the body images portrayed in the media (a glorification of what is artificial), but the theme is repeated in the idea of the Oblation Board, and that storyline has a much clearer message.

The General Oblation Board, or the Gobblers, is an organization being led by Ms. Coulter with the approval of the Magisterium which takes children to a secret compound where they are put in a machine which severs the link between child and daemon. This is an attempt to stop the child from developing evil tendencies before their daemon settles: “Dust is something bad, something wrong, something evil and wicked. Grownups and their daemons are infected with Dust so deeply that it’s too late for them. They can’t be helped. But a quick operation on children means they’re safe from it.”[9] This attempt to remove sexual desires is an attempt to escape from the results of original sin, which introduced carnal desires into the world. Thus, the Gobblers have a typically Catholic stance in that they view original sin, and the effects that such sin has on the flesh, as a bad thing. The process horrifies Lyra specifically because it is a human intercession: as previously noted, when she first meets a child who has been severed from his daemon, she recoils from the unnaturalness of it.[10] When she voices her objection to Mrs. Coulter, her appeal is to biological nature, saying that if adults normally mature and have Dust (which is later defined as “original sin.”[11]) settle upon their matured bodies, then it cannot be a bad thing.[12] Lyra does not know at this point what Dust is or how it works, but for her, anything which normally happens and is generally accepted cannot be evil.

The fact that Gobblers are run by the Church or the Magisterium and the fact that their aim is to stop children from expressing original sin acts as a direct criticism of organized religion, and Lyra’s objection vocalizes it: the Magisterium’s attempts to keep people, and especially children, from physical desire goes against nature— against what is both biological and common to all creatures — and is therefore wrong. Lord Asriel connects the practice to castration, suggesting that removing a daemon in the hopes of removing sin is both a physical and a sexual violation.[13] This objection is that what the Church has defined as sin is a part of who we are, and that by attempting to remove people from their natural desires, organized religion does more harm than good.

By vilifying the Church’s attempts to remove the effects of original sin, Pullman underscores Lyra’s role as the new Eve, as she is prophesied to be.[14] She is portrayed as a sort of counter-Christ (not to be confused with anti-Christ): an alternate answer to sin, or to Dust, as the case may be, and is said to have made a decision which will affect the world in a manner similar to Eve’s decision. There are two decisions that Lyra makes which might qualify as an echo of Eve’s pivotal choice: her idea to cut a hole through the land of the dead to allow the ghosts to leave and then disintegrate, and her declaration of love to the character Will. The first act undermines the Authority, the story’s stand-in for God, and introduces death in the form of non-existence. Both versions of Eve allowed death to enter the world, but with different outcomes. The second act involves a “serpent” figure in the form of Mary Malone, undermines the Magisterium’s restrictions, and somehow causes Dust, or the effects of original sin, to stay in the world.[15]

Both acts relate to daemons. By allowing the ghosts to enter the land of the living and subsequently disintegrate, Lyra is opening up the possibility for people to end their existence in the same manner that their daemons do.[16] By causing Dust to remain in each world, Lyra preserves the possibility of Dust (which represents carnal desires) settling on a person, allowing their daemon to choose a permanent shape. In both instances, the connection and identification between a person and her daemon is strengthened, or at least prevented from weakening. By linking Eve’s act of altering humanity’s relationship with God to Lyra’s acts that strengthened the connection between persons and their animal nature, Pullman appears to be simultaneously rejecting the importance of a human’s relationship with God and further valuing the animal nature.[17] However, one should be careful in applying this conclusion beyond the story because Pullman’s version of God, the Authority― despite the similarity of religious structures surrounding him― is not the same as the Christian God. The Authority is a usurper, not omnipotent and not eternal, and thus while Pullman may be using the Authority to comment on the God of Christianity, the rejection within the story of the importance of a relationship with a deity applies only to the Authority.

Pullman’s reinterpretation of the Fall may also be reflected in his portrayal of grace, which is linked to daemons. Once Pantalaimon settles, Lyra loses her unique ability to easily read the truth-telling device, the alethiometer, which others have to study in order to read. No specific explanation is given beyond that Lyra is growing up, and growing up causes her to view the world differently, but the angel Xaphania gives this insight: “You read it by grace…and you can regain it by work… But your reading will be even better then, after a lifetime of thought and effort, because it will come from a conscious understanding. Grace attained like that is deeper and fuller than grace that comes freely, and furthermore, once you’ve gained it, it will never leave you.”[18] To what extent Pullman is drawing on the theological definitions of grace is unclear, but because the theological connection between sin and grace is so close, the possibility should be considered. According to Lutheran and Calvinist views, all grace is freely given, and if a reward is given for hard work, it does not qualify as grace. However, Xaphania’s explanation makes it seem that, if by working one achieves the same effects previously gained through grace, then those rewards also qualify as grace. This usage of grace is very curious. It may be that Pullman is conflating theological terms with the more vernacular use of “grace” to describe something with fluid and beautiful movement: grace becomes something added and undeserved but humanly achievable. At any rate, under Pullman’s definition, since grace can be attained, and since attained grace is apparently better than given grace, there is no need for an outside redeemer: no need for Christ. This fits with the portrayal of Dust as something positive and life-giving, as opposed to something we need to be saved from. In Pullman’s world, human effort and accomplishments creates their own grace: their own redemption, and in doing so, they are better off because they do so with their own knowledge.

It should be noted that Pullman’s glorification and focus on the animal nature is not without its qualifications. There are many characters who indulge in their desires who are portrayed as evil or corrupt, perhaps most notably Mrs. Coulter. Mrs. Coulter is very much accustomed to getting what she wants, and is also very much aware of the power that her sexuality has over others: she has turned her own animal nature into a way of life and an art. And although her character does receive redemption (of sorts), that redemption comes in spite of, not because of her focus on desire. At one point she confesses, in the very act of using her desires to manipulate the desires of others, that there is nothing good inside of her.[19] However, the animal nature itself is never condemned by Pullman, but rather it is the way in which Mrs. Coulter’s desires are used that makes her contemptible. She never pursues her desires openly and for their own sake, but rather manipulates others in her pursuit of her desires and uses others desires against them. What is contemptible in Mrs. Coulter is not her unbridled pursuit of what she wants, but rather her dishonesty in doing so. Thus, the fact that Mrs. Coulter has an animal nature or a daemon is a good thing. However, her daemon happens to have a particularly malicious character; this goodness can be misused.

Thus far, the role that daemons play in shaping the ethics of His Dark Materials has centered on creating a value system: daemons are important and they represent desires, thus desires are important. Yet, there have been few situations calling for a moral response to which the daemons provide an answer. However, there is one scene which is presented as a major ethical dilemma regarding Lyra and her daemon. When Lyra gets on the boat which will take her to the land of the dead, she is told that she must leave Pantalaimon behind.[20] This dilemma is very distressing to both Lyra and Pantalaimon, but she is determined to continue, and ultimately she does leave him on the shore, feeling “raw anguish.”[21] Her decision is so momentous that it was apparently prophesied. Yet, despite causing Lyra immense sadness and making Pantalaimon resentful, it is not clear what exactly the significance of this moment is.[22] According to the boatman, it is of no consequence that Lyra is still alive, and according to the witches she was also not the first to leave her daemon in another world.[23] The most significant upshot of Lyra’s time in the land of the dead is for her to convince Will to cut a way out of it, thus freeing the dead. Yet that decision came almost as a whim; the more difficult (and prophesied!) decision has little ultimate significance, whereas the decision that changed the very way that people die came as just a good spontaneous idea.[24] Her decision to leave Pan behind is further confused by the fact that Lyra’s motivations for going to the land of the dead in the first place are very weak: she wanted to apologize to her friend Roger and had promised him in a dream that she would.[25] For a character practically defined by her dishonesty to be so bound by a promise in a dream that she leaves behind her soul– most likely never to see him again– is an extreme and uncharacteristic act, and yet one that Lyra feels she must do. What, other than plot reasons or the need to complete the Hero’s Journey, causes Lyra to make this decision, especially as it is the only major dilemma that she faces in the series? I am honestly perplexed by this, and until I come across a good explanation I will consider it a weakness in the series. However, the very fact that Lyra’s first significant moral decision is a personal matter between her and her daemon simply further underscores the value system of the series which places extreme emphasis on one’s animal or physical nature.

His Dark Materials does not use daemons to present a systematic ethical system, but the role of daemons does help define what is valuable in this particular fictional universe: having human desires expressed honestly and justly. If these desires are pursued in the correct manner, then according to Pullman’s story, there is no need for an external savior or an afterlife. This assertion challenges certain Christian notions of sexuality and agrees instead with the Jewish view of the sexual nature as something good—even holy—and not unclean.[26] It is perhaps ironic that Pullman promotes such a secular, earth-bound philosophy using the concept of the traditionally spiritual soul, but in doing so, he appears to be suggesting that there is something special and wondrous about the terra firma.


[1] Pullman, Golden Compass, 214.

[2] Pullman, Subtle Knife, 176.

[3] Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed., s.v. “Sin”.

[4] King, “Exegesis, Allegory, and Reading The Golden Compass”, 116.

[5] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 505-506.

[6] Pullman, Golden Compass, 196.

[7] Pullman, Golden Compass, 349.

[8] Pullman, Golden Compass, 353.

[9] Pullman, Golden Compass, 282-3.

[10] Pullman, Golden Compass, 214.

[11] Pullman, Golden Compass, 375. Pullman’s use of Dust as original sin is problematic if the sin is original at birth. It may make more sense to think of the sin as being original at puberty instead.

[12] Pullman, Golden Compass, 283.

[13] Pullman, Golden Compass, 374.

[14] Pullman, The Subtle Knife, 278.

[15] How exactly Lyra’s love for Will accomplishes all of this is incredibly vague in the text. Suffice it to say that Pullman draws a direct line between Lyra and Will’s declaration of love, as inspired by Mary Malone, to the shift in Dust’s flow.

[16] One potential objection to Lyra’s act of allowing the possibility of a complete erasure of existence after death is that doing so is not natural in the way that the story seems to prize. The function of ghosts is, at least partially, to exist after death. By changing the naturally occurring order of existence, Lyra could be accused of committing crimes just as heinous as the Gobblers, although, of course, Lyra is not forcing any ghost to leave the land of the dead whereas the Gobblers severed daemons by force.

[17] It should be noted that in his portrayal of the Fall as a redemptive and not a condemning act, as well as in the positive portrayal of his Eve-figure, Pullman allies himself with many feminist theologians (see Pat Pinsent, “Unexpected Allies? Pullman and the Feminist Theologians” in His Dark Materials Illuminated, ed. Millicent Lenz with Carole Scott (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), 199-211.). In this light, it may be argued that Pullman is not attempting to undermine humanity’s relationship with God as much as to reframe it from a feminine perspective. This is a valid interpretation as regards the Fall and Lyra, but based on other portrayals of the Authority, I am hesitant to embrace it.

[18] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 491.

[19] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 398.

[20] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 281.

[21] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 286.

[22] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 285.

[23] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 287, 472.

[24] Of course, travelling to the land of the dead also has important symbolic significance: it is a major step in the Hero’s Journey, involves Lyra literally dying to her desires, and makes her something of a Christ figure since she comes back. However, none of this symbolism explains the extreme focus placed on Lyra’s decision to leave Pantalaimon behind.

[25] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 165-166.

[26] Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai, (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1990), 190.

Deathly Hallows Review

•November 20, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I just got back from seeing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, and I wanted to write down my thoughts while they’re still fresh. I might write up something more in-depth later, but here’s my off-the-cuff reaction. (Spoiler alert!)

harry_potter_and_the_deathly_hallows_part_one

I loved it. It was by far the most faithful to the book, both in content and in tone, but it does so in a way that works cinematically. I was also pleasantly surprised at how many things that I assumed would be cut weren’t (like Charity Burbage) and how well they handled the Ministry scene, the Tale of the Three Brothers, and Dobby’s death. I don’t know what I would have thought of it if I hadn’t read the book first, but –dare I say it?—I think it does the book justice, and as a massive fan of the book, that’s really the make-or-break point for me.

The cinematography was great, the acting was great, the music complemented the action (I can’t say much about the quality of the music because I wasn’t paying attention to that), and it was well edited.

Some minor quibbles:

  • They didn’t explore Dumbledore’s backstory or Harry’s doubts in Dumbledore nearly enough. Grindelwald sort-of pops up out of nowhere, and we’re left wondering who the heck he is, why Bathilda has a picture of him, and why he’s in a book about Dumbledore. Maybe they’ll explain this in part 2, but, well… it should have been explained in part 1.
  • I felt like a lot of the scenes that were really weighty in the book didn’t have enough time spent on them—like Godric’s Hollow and the Silver Doe—but I don’t know if they could have pulled that off without it dragging on. This isn’t so much a complaint as a “I’ll have to see what I think the second time around” comment.
  • They never explain the Taboo, which wouldn’t be a big deal if they hadn’t used it at Xenophelius’ house
  • Xenophelius wasn’t crazy enough
  • We needed some more Ginny and/or more distress at leaving Ginny behind. Also, the back of her head a kiss does not make…
  • they never explain where the mirror came from (but you can’t really blame them I guess)
  • I’m not sure what i think about the house elves being used for comic relief.
  • Wormtail didn’t kill himself
  • Too many post-apparition shots panning up from the ground.

So, yeah, I think it’s probably my favorite HP film so far, but we’ll see what I think after the buzz has worn off a bit. I hope to see it again sometime soon, but I don’t know exactly when.

What did you think?

The Soul in Popular Fiction: His Dark Materials Part 1

•November 16, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I’m back with the next big piece of my senior thesis (click “Thesis” on the sidebar for previous entries). What follows is the first half of my discussion of the His Dark Materials series, which focuses on the way the idea of the soul is conceptualized, with another entry on the implications of that portrayal soon to come. Let me know what you think.

daemon-animals-in-the-golden-compass1

The Conceptualization and Ethical Implications of the Soul in Popular Fiction: His Dark Materials, Part 1

The His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman contains within it a very intriguing and unique portrayal of the human soul, but that uniqueness carries with it a heavy dose of confusion. Although the souls in His Dark Materials are very well defined, it is nevertheless unclear what exactly their function is, or even if the label “soul” really applies to them. Similarities between Pullman’s souls and the souls of several ancient religions can provide insight into His Dark Materials, especially the religion of ancient Israel. It is this connection with Judaic doctrines that underscores Pullman’s criticism of the pseudo-Christian society in which his stories take place.

Human souls in His Dark Materials are called “daemons” and are portrayed as external, corporeal animals, capable of speech and connected to their human by an invisible bond. All humans have daemons, although the daemons may not always be visible, depending on what world the human is from. It is possible to grow be able to see one’s daemon, either by forcing it out of the body, as Will does; by learning how to look for them, as Dr. Malone does; or by entering a world where daemons are normally visible, as John Parry does.[1] The daemons of children have the ability to shift from animal to animal depending on the child’s mood or on what animal abilities the daemon wants to have, but when the children reach puberty, their daemon will “settle” into a fixed animal form. The fixed form of a daemon is reflective of its human’s character or personality. For example, the daemons of servants are usually dogs: loyal and eager to please.[2] It is important to note that the form of the daemon is portrayed consistently as being reflective of the human’s character, as opposed to creating it.

The connection between daemon and human goes beyond its form and characteristics, however. Daemons can only go a certain distance away from their humans without both human and daemon suffering extreme discomfort.[3] Humans also share a physical and mental connection with their daemon: if one hurts a daemon physically, the human will also hurt. Although daemons and humans usually communicate through speech, they can also communicate telepathically. For example, at one point, the mood of the protagonist Lyra is substantially altered due to a very specific word of advice “thought” to her by her daemon Pantalaimon. The fact that Lyra and Pantalaimon were thinking and feeling separate things at that moment indicates that humans and daemons are independent emotionally and mentally, and yet Pantalaimon’s mental message shows that there is an open line of communication between the two.[4] It is more common, however, for the two to be feeling and thinking similar things, if only because they are good friends. The most crucial connection, however, is that of life: if either a daemon or a human dies, their counterpart will die also, with the daemon disintegrating, and the human being led by their death[5] into the afterlife.

Although the detailed conceptualization of the soul in His Dark Materials is fascinating and unique, it is nevertheless difficult to see what exactly the purpose of a daemon is. After all, a daemon can have an entirely different personality, conscience, and opinion than its human, and arguments between a human and their daemon are not at all uncommon. In what sense is a daemon a part of its human? Although a human and her daemon are undeniably connected, they resemble best friends more than a single being with two parts.

Lyra herself brings up the role of her daemon (as opposed to the rest of her) when she comments, “I can think about my body and I can think about my daemon– so there must be another part, to do the thinking,” and speculates that this third part is what goes to the land of the dead.[6] Her intuition is confirmed later, when Mrs. Coulter expresses every part of her being in terms of “body and ghost and daemon together.”[7] This trinity is very curious, seeing as the soul is conventionally thought of as either the “I”: the most central part of a human capable of self-awareness, or as the part of the human that survives death. In His Dark Materials both of these conventional conceptions are collapsed into the human’s ghost, which is distinct from the daemon.

One way of explaining the tension between daemons and what one would expect from a soul is to say that the humans in His Dark Materials have more than one soul, each performing a different function. The concept of multiple souls has roots in many ancient religions, notably including Egyptian beliefs, which Pullman may have had in mind when he named his class of river people “Gyptians.” The Egyptian concept that most closely parallels Pullman’s “ghost” is the ba, a “concrete entity, invisible during life,” which “dwelt in the body during life, but departed from it at death,” at which time it goes to another world not unlike our own.[8] Significantly, the ba was often portrayed in animal form. However, Egyptians also had the concept of the ka, which was “a man’s double…a corporeal comrade…He accompanied a man through life, as a sort of guardian genius.”[9] Although the ka did not posses an animal form, the similarities between the ka and daemons are striking. Based on the Egyptian model, it is possible that Pullman is employing the use of two different kinds of souls: one which guides and accompanies the body though life (the daemon), and one which indwells the body and upon death continues on to the land of the dead (the ghost). If this is the case, then the emphasis on the daemon as the soul rather than the ghost suggests that the current life is valued in the story more than the afterlife.

Not only is the daemon not the part that survives death, it may be the only part that does not survive: the body’s physical death is not a necessary requirement for entering the land of the dead with the mind (or the ghost), but daemons are not allowed in.[10] Upon death, the daemon does not go on to any afterlife, but its atoms scatter, becoming “part of everything.”[11] The very physical description of what happens to a daemon’s atoms signifies that the role of the daemon may be more material than spiritual. Such an interpretation is reinforced by the fact that daemons are repeatedly linked to a human’s sexual nature. For example, commentator Maude Hines notes that Lyra’s descriptions of what it feels like to have another person touch her daemon are quite similar to descriptions of rape, and the time at which a daemon’s shape settles is directly linked to arrival at sexual maturity.[12] The daemons themselves never display carnal or material tendencies any more than their humans do, but the daemons appear to be necessary in order for such tendencies to exist; they are quite literally a human’s animal nature. [13]

Viewing the daemons in terms of physical desires connects them to another ancient conception of the soul: from ancient Israel. The Hebrew word for soul, nephesh, is translated in many different ways, but one understanding of it is as “the center of longings and the source of desires,” or even as “the stomach.”[1] According to this view, the soul is merely the life of the body, not at all opposed to the flesh, and with no existence after death.[2] Although rare, there are also references in Hebrew literature to the soul existing outside of the body.[3] Pullman’s conception does have more of a sense of individuality than does the Hebrew vision of the soul- Pantalaimon most definitely belongs to Lyra and Lyra alone, which is not necessarily the case with the Israelite soul. Nevertheless, both conceptions stress the role of the bodily desires in making a person who they are.

Daemons are further and more directly linked to Hebrew literature in The Golden Compass when Lord Asriel[4] tells Lyra the story of the Fall, taken almost verbatim from the book of Genesis chapter 3 but for the inclusion of daemons.[5] In this version of the Fall, Adam and Eve’s shame at their nakedness is coupled with them realizing the true shape of their daemons. As Asriel puts it, “that is how sin came into the world… sin and shame and death. It came the moment their daemons become fixed.”[6] This connection between daemons and sin ties in nicely with the previous assertion that daemons represent bodily desires, but it adds the caveat that only a settled daemon represents those desires having been fulfilled; an unsettled daemon is more representative of a lack of experience than a lack of age. Thus, the settling of a daemon functions as a kind of coming of age or a signifier that the child now has a deeper understanding of the world, as underscored by the fact that Eve’s sin involved gaining knowledge of good and evil. The fact that daemons cannot change shape after they have settled, and that the settled form is representative of character, indicates that the fulfillment of physical desires is a defining moment for a person’s character: it shapes who they and everyone else understand themselves to be and there is no turning back.


[1] Daniel Lys, “The Israelite Soul According to the LXX” Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 16, Fasc. 2 (Apr.

1966), 204, 220.

[2] Lys, 182, 183, 199.

[3] Lys, 183.

[4] The name Asriel is also linked to the Hebrew idea of the soul: Azrael is the name of the angel in the Hebrew rabbinical tradition who separates the soul from the body at death. (Shelley King, “’Without Lyra we would understand neither the New nor the Old Testament’: Exegesis, Allegory, and Reading The Golden Compass” in His Dark Materials Illuminated, ed. Millicent Lenz with Carole Scott (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), 111.)

[5] Pullman, Golden Compass, 371-372.

[6] Pullman, Golden Compass, 372.


[1] Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass, (New York: Knoph, Borzoi Books, 2000), 506, 282, 417; Philip

Pullman, The Subtle Knife, (New York: Ballantine Del Rey, 1997), 189.

[2] Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass (New York: Knoph, Borzoi Books, 1995), 5.

[3] There are ways around this, which will be discussed later.

[4] Pullman, Golden Compass, 281.

[5] Each human has a personified death which follows them around until they are ready to die, although the human may not be aware of their presence (Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 260).

[6] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 166.

[7] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 398.

[8] Encyclopaedia of religion and ethics. (New York: Scribner’s, 1955), s.v. “Soul (Semitic and Egyptian)”.

[9] Encyclopaedia of religion and ethics. s.v. “Soul (Semitic and Egyptian)”.

[10] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 282.

[11]Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 319.

[12] Maude Hines, “Second Nature: Daemons and Ideology in The Golden Compass” in His Dark Materials

Illuminated, ed. Millicent Lenz with Carole Scott (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), 42; Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 498.

[13] Before continuing, I would like to distinguish the various threads of religion that Pullman is utilizing, for they can easily bleed into one another, causing confusion. Lyra’s world is ruled over by an organization called the Magesterium which is clearly modeled on the Catholic Church: the priestly orders and structure of authority as well as scriptural and historical references make this clear. However, the Magisterium has a great deal more authority and influence than the present day Church, including authority over scientific research, called “experimental theology.” Additionally, the Magisterium centers around worship of the Authority who, from what we can tell from the books (which is not much) seems to have the same commandments as the God of Christianity, but actually has a very different history and different capabilities. Thus, although the Magisterium and the Authority may or may not be acting as a critique on the Church and on God, it is important to realize that they are distinct; criticisms from the books on the Magisterium may be extended to criticize the Church, but those criticisms must be modified to accommodate the differences between the two first. Additionally, Pullman is utilizing a very Jewish ethic, as will be explored below. Because Christianity and Judaism share a common scripture, Pullman’s references to those scriptures may have conflated meanings; he may reference a Christian theological term in order to make a Jewish point.

T-minus 7 days

•November 12, 2010 • Leave a Comment

There are now only 7 days left until the release of the 7th Harry Potter film, a series in which 7’s feature prominently. In honor of this number, I’d like to share a little theory that I came up with (borrowing heavily from others) prior to the release of Deathly Hallows. It wasn’t proved right by DH, but it wasn’t proved wrong either, and I’m still rather fond of it.

The basic premise is this: all the collections of seven throughout the books are connected to each other and/or connected to other significant groups of seven such as the seven deadly sins, the seven astrological planets, seven chakras, etc. There were other theories floating around connecting Harry Potter to the groups of seven, but as far as I know, I’m the first to connect them to each other.

First, a list of sevens:

  • seven books
  • seven years at Hogwarts
  • seven floors at Hogwarts
  • seven Weasley children
  • seven Horcruxes (and accompanying victims and destroyers)
  • seven rooms in the Department of Mysteries
  • seven obstacles guarding the Sorcerer’s Stone
  • seven Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers
  • seven basilisk victims
  • seven magic subjects that Harry takes at Hogwarts
  • Harry is born in the seventh month
  • seven is called the most powerfully magical number

Now, it could be that the abundance of sevens could merely be because seven is, traditionally, an important or lucky number and that number is important to the plot, but I think that the fact that there are groups of sevens even when they have little to do with the plot and are not pointed out in the text (DoM rooms, subjects Harry takes, etc.) suggests that the number holds a significance beyond the text. hence, my theory. Here are the connections that I have made:

Book Obstacle DoM Room Weasley Sin of DADA Virtue Harry Learns
SS Fluffy love Ron greed prudence
CS devil’s snare thought Ginny sloth fortitude
PA keys time George pride charity
GF chess space Charlie envy hope
OP troll prophecy Fred lust temperance
HBP potions knowledge Bill gluttony justice
DH mirror death Percy wrath faith

So, this chart shows the obstacles guarding the Sorcerer’s Stone, the rooms in the Dept. of Mysteries, the Weasleys, and the DADA teachers are all symbolically connected to each book.  Just as example of how I’m thinking, I’ll explain the “Obstacle” column. In PS, Harry’s quest to obtain the Stone is largely about dodging obstacles, much like dodging a three-headed dog; in CoS, the diary acts as a “devil’s snare;” in PoA we get “keys” to freeing the prisoner; GoF’s conspiracy is in many ways a large-scale chess match between Voldemort and Dumbledore (and of course the Champions); OotP features the “troll” Umbridge; DH has a lot of mirror symbolism and is in many ways about Harry choosing things to have but not to use, thus revealing his heart. I admit that this is all rather speculative and arguable. Some things don’t quite fit—connecting “thought” to Chamber of Secrets, for example—but the other 6 in that column fit so well, there’s nowhere else for “thought” to go. Nevertheless, I think the pattern holds well enough that it can’t really be disregarded.

Next chart Smile:

Horcrux Chakra Horcrux Affects Horcrux Victim Sin of Horcrux Victim
Harry Brow (mind/insight) Harry James Potter pride
diary Root (family, life, acceptance of body) Ginny Myrtle lust
locket Heart (compassion, love) Ron tramp envy
cup Solar-Plexus (ego, logic, opinion) Hermione Hepzibah Smith greed
Nagini Crown (trust in higher self, soul) Neville Bertha Jorkins gluttony
diadem Throat (communication, responsibility, humanity) Draco/Crabbe Albanian peasant sloth
ring Sacral (sense of others, emopwerment) Dumbledore Tom Riddle Sr. wrath

This chart is really just a combination of Hilde Polis’ and Wagga Wagga Werewolf’s essays over at Scribbulus. Hilde Polis which argues that each of Voldemort’s Horcruxes represents one of the seven Chakras of Hinduism. Thus, as Voldemort chops off more and more of his soul, he becomes a less complete person on several levels. The Chakras are linked to each Horcrux largely on the basis of the qualities of the person that the horcrux most directly affects, but it is interesting that some of these also correspond to the location of each Chakra (Harry being the brow—where his scar is, the locket being the heart—over which the locket hangs, etc). Wagga Wagga Werewolf argues that each death used to create a Horcrux is connected to one of the seven deadly sins. I find it interesting that most of the sins are roughly either a lack of or an excess of their corresponding Chakra.

Basilisk Victim Sin Virtue
Myrtle (or possibly Ginny) greed faith
Justin sloth fortitude
Hermione pride prudence
Nick envy hope
Penelope lust temperance
Colin gluttony charity
Mrs. Norris wrath justice

I think this last chart is fairly self-explanatory. I’m not completely happy with it (connecting Justin to sloth and Myrtle to greed doesn’t seem to quite fit), but it works well enough.

I haven’t been able to make connections with the Horcrux destroyers or the classes Harry takes. I also haven’t been able to work in the astrological planets, but I’m fairly sure there have been a few essays written about that by others (I just haven’t read them yet).

Well, I’m sure you all find this endlessly fascinating, but what’s the point? Why does it matter? Just a few thoughts off the cuff: Seven is the symbol of perfection. Thus as Harry slowly conquers the seven deadly sins, as he learns the seven virtues, and as he moves through various obstacles he is slowly moving toward symbolic perfection. Voldemort, on the other hand, is moving to perfect evil.

Perhaps I’ll turn this all into a full-blown essay one day, but for now I’ll just give it up for your thoughts and wish you a happy countdown to the 19th.

All Hallows’ Eve (T-minus 19 days)

•November 1, 2010 • Leave a Comment

It’s Halloween today, and I find the name of the holiday oddly appropriate. It is All Hallows’ Eve: a day for mocking Death and celebrating witches (fictional ones, just to be clear), and it sits just a few days before the release of the Deathly Hallows, the final chapter of a story that began, of course, on Halloween.

lily-potter

On October 31, 1981 James and Lily Potter were murdered by one Tom Riddle, known as Voldemort, in attempts to protect their 15-month-old son Harry. Lily’s sacrificial death triggered an ancient magic which protected her son, thereby causing the death curse cast upon him to rebound and destroy his attacker, leaving him unharmed but for a small cut on his forehead.

Lily’s death, I think, makes her one of the most obvious and powerful Christ-figures in English literature. She took the curse meant for her son, and that love protected him from death not once, but three times. Her love, which lives in her blood, defeated death and ultimately becomes the key to the defeat of the evil one—the “Flight of Death.”

None of this is breaking news to a Harry Potter fan. Fans have acknowledged and explored this symbolism/allegory for years. However, I have never seen any discussion of the fact that this Good Friday-esque moment –which is arguably the single most important scene in the series– occurs on Halloween. I’d like to take a crack at it.

I’m not very familiar with the various traditions of Halloween. I know that it is a pagan/harvest festival turned Christian turned media-crazy (similar to Christmas), but beyond that all I know is that it is concerned with mocking evil and death. It is both a time to be scared and to say that the things that scare us have no real power. Which is in many ways the same message of Good Friday. Good Friday broke the power of death through a death, which, while not exactly mocking the concept of death, was a bit “in your face” towards the concept. Thus Lily, as a Halloween Christ-figure, is doubly emphasizing that death is powerless, or rather that there are things more powerful than it.

So why not have the Godric’s Hollow murders occur on Easter? There’s no real reason as far as the timeline goes for the Potters being murdered in the Fall. I can think of 2 reasons: One is that thematically Harry Potter is much more about death than it is about resurrection or redemption, and thus having the cornerstone event take place near Easter might confuse the issue: putting the scene on Halloween leaves no question about the central theme. The second reason is simply that Halloween is scarier. The scene in Godric’s Hollow isn’t merely about Lily’s sacrifice and Voldemort’s defeat: it’s also about Voldemort’s murder of James and Lily, which is a tragic murder without a resurrection and particularly suited to Halloween. We see in Deathly Hallows that Voldemort took particular glee in attacking the Potters on Halloween because he was a real Halloween monster—almost as if he was mocking the Muggle’s mocking of death and fear.

Other possible reasons include some kind of symbolism in Harry being exactly 15-months old (though I have no idea what that might be), a deliberate parallel with the Deathly Hallows (though I doubt it), or pure irony in the idea that Halloween is the day we think the most about witches and magic.

Thus are my thoughts. I’ll leave you with a Halloween HP fanfiction and say, “To Harry Potter: The Boy Who Lived.”