Hallows Within and Without:
Grail Relics in the Mythos of Charles Williams and J.K. Rowling
Similarities between the Deathly Hallows of the Harry Potter series and the Hallows of Grail legend have been previously explored, revealing deep structuring and layers of significance throughout J.K. Rowling’s books. Denise Roper, for instance, in The Lord of the Hallows, compares the Harry Potter series to several Medieval sources to illuminate the ways in which Rowling created a highly detailed, thoughtful retelling of the Christian narrative. Furthermore, she shows how “The final volume of Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s adventures [is] a quest novel, not unlike the Christian myths of the quest for the Holy Grail” (55).
A further comparison of the “Deathly Hallows” with Charles Williams’s version of the Grail legend, and of both to some Arthurian “sources,” is fruitful and contributes to the ongoing discussion of Harry’s Hallows. The connections among Williams, Rowling, and the standard Arthurian sources are all revelatory of deeper themes, including the ambiguity of interpretation of the Hallows; two, esoteric or occult traditions connected with Hallows; three, the power of exoteric teaching about personal sacrifice. Another way to say this is that Williams’s and Rowling’s Hallows highlight perplexity, paganism, private Christianity, and public sacrifice.
First, what are “Hallows”? In the most general sense, they are relics related to Christ: any physical items that are believed to have had contact with His physical body. More specifically, Grail Hallows relate to the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. In the Arthurian legends, these Hallows variously include “a shining lance” or spear with a bleeding point, a richly decorated serving bowl, one or two platters (Chrétien 379; de Boron 141); the paten (or dish) on which the bread was served at the Last Supper; the cloth called the corporal that covered the table, dish, or cup (de Boron 22); Veronica’s piece of linen cloth with the image of Christ’s face (de Boron 28); and the cup from which Christ drank and/or that was used to catch drops of His blood from the cross. The Grail itself appears in various versions of Arthurian legend as a bowl, a cup, a dish, or a stone (not counting The DaVinci Code, in which the Grail is Mary Magdalene’s womb!).
On a first glance, it may not be obvious why Harry Potter’s Deathly Hallows belong in a discussion of the Holy Grail at all. However, the Deathly Hallows promise power and immortality comparable to those of the Hallows in Arthurian legend. The Elder Wand, both in shape and significance, seems comparable to the Lance or Spear (Roper 55). The Resurrection Stone might match up to the Holy Grail as it appears in Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, where it is a stone rather than a cup (Roper 59). The Cloak of Invisibility might be like the cloth called the corporal, used in the Eucharist, or the shroud that wrapped Christ’s body (Chrétien 22). Denise Roper equates Harry’s cloak with “The Mantle of Arthur” from “the legend of the ‘Thirteen Treasures of Britain’ also known as the ‘Thirteen Hallows of Britain’” (61). However, I think that it is more accurate to read Rowling’s Hallows as new images, new symbolic items, for the power of immortality promised by the Grail Hallows through the ages. In any case, Rowling was clearly aware of the legends associated with the Holy Grail, and was adding her particular interpretation to the tradition—of which more later.
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