Happy Birthday, J.K. Rowling!

compositeIn honor of J.K. Rowling’s birthday, I’m posting the text of a talk I gave at a pop culture conference a few years ago. I hope you enjoy it even 1% as much as you enjoyed reading Harry Potter!

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. roperDenise 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.

16First, 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!).

symbolOn 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.

Charles Williams writing—–

[The rest of this post has been removed]

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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10 Responses to Happy Birthday, J.K. Rowling!

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you! This is very interesting – what a lot you’ve not only thought about, but given us to think about!

    To toss out a few questions:

    What might Robert de Boron’s “secret” Grail things have to do with the ‘sacrosancta mysteria’ of the Early Church, when even catechumens were sent away after the Scripture Lessons and before the Eucharistic Celebration began? Or, how might – or do – they differ?

    This is related to the questions of how the Grail, seen as Cup of the Last Supper, differs from the Chalices of Holy Communion which Williams sometimes calls “grails”, and what is special about the Achievement of the Grail by Galahad, Percevale, and Bors (the only one of the three who returns to Logres). How is their Achievement and the Grail Mass in Sarras related to Pope Deodatus’s Christmas Mass in “Divites Dimisit” and “The Prayers of the Pope” and to Lancelot’s Mass in the ‘Advent of Galahad’ and Taliessin through Logres, in particular?

    How do the Duke, Kenneth, and the Archdeacon giving up the Graal in War in Heaven compare with Harry’s giving up the Deathly Hallows? And how similar, or different, are Harry and the Archdeacon in facing magical abuse and death?

    Is Williams’s Merlin intended as “a clearly pagan figure”? The later Christian Taliessin similarly “practices magical rituals” (not that this is unproblematical, but it is, as it were, presented as something not forbidden even as Harry’s use of cloak, wand, spells, etc. are presented as not demonic or forbidden)?

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  2. My wife and I were the first people in recent times to use the term Hallows with reference to the Grail sagas. Our book ‘Hallowquest’ must, we think, have been read by Ms Rowling.

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  3. Thank you so much for this. It may not be an academic journal paper but I gained a lot from it. I am deeply impressed that J.K Rowling’s character of Dumbledore is a flawed human being, tempted by the enticing possibilities of the esoteric and offering Harry the possibility of making that journey. In his human frailty he becomes a greater person as far as I am concerned. By making that offer Harry becomes much more than an animal being fattened for slaughter but a free man with a free moral choice.

    My own journey has been influenced by a growing respect for the wonder of human life. As a minister I get to listen to many stories and the courage that is shown in the ordinary business of living impresses me more and more as the years pass. That does not mean that I have some rose tinted view of the people I meet. Some people make a terrible mess of life but that tragedy has its own greatness. The temptation of the esoteric seems to me to be related to the fear that the ordinary means a form of insignificance and even annihilation.Voldemort is crippled emotionally and morally by such fear and the end of his spiritual journey is inevitably the death that he fears. Harry overcomes this fear with his rejection of the Hallows and so gains victory.

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    • That’s a great point–that the esoteric offers a chance of being special. I wonder if that, along with the desire for power, was part of what drove CW. Thanks for this comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am so glad that Lewis welcomed CW into the Inklings. What would have happened to him if he had been rejected? If Voldemort had been given a post at Hogwarts would his story have been different or was Dumbledore right to see that he had already crossed a line from which he was unlikely to return? CW clearly had not crossed that line and his later work has a spiritual integrity and power that is an influence for great good today. I am so glad that you are making it more widely known.

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        • If only little Adolf Hitler had gotten into art school! 😉

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          On the other hand, all the creepy stuff the late Lois Lang-Sims chronicled was from the Oxford period, and Mrs. Hadfield’s 1983 revelation of the “ceremonial sword”, etc., ritual (Exploration, p. 106) includes the detail that the particular one of his “young women students” whom he submitted to this in the 1930s in his office at Amen House (!) was later summoned from London to Oxford for it, on one occasion, when he wrote her, “I’m stuck in the poem”.

          C.W. was clearly (might one say, most impudently?) leading some kind of ‘double-life’ in Oxford, as it were under the noses – and unseeing eyes – of his fellow Inklings. It is interesting to speculate how differently things might have gone with him, if the ‘Inklings half’ (or whatever proportion) of that ‘double-life’ had not been there…

          I suspect we are going to learn a lot more about it in – what is it, now, 86 days? – though how vexingly enigmatic it will all continue to be, also remains to be seen.

          None of which is to say that there isn’t good in his works which has been and can continue to be, or be even more of, a good influence – but what a winnowing they are called to!

          (Incidentally, the “ceremonial sword” details need clarifying – as the F.R.C. Ceremony of Reception into the Grade of Neophyte states with inescapable clarity, “The is no Sword in a Temple of the Rosy Cross.” Thomas Willard, however, curiously acts as if there is some kind of Rosicrucian sword – without explanation. Mrs. Hadfield, oddly, speaks of the sword as “remaining probably from Golden Dawn days.” The G.D. did use a sword: did C.W. indeed have formal G.D. as well as F.R.C. days?! Or did he leave the F.R.C. to become ‘magical’ on a free-lance basis but in a more G.D.-like way? Or what? Perhaps Grevel Lindop will clarify a lot of this for us, as well!)

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Humphrey Carpenter interestingly quoted Williams to his wife about “How different the Magdalen feeling is from anywhere else in Oxford”, observing, “He had no illusions about academic life, and in many ways he hated what he called Oxford’s ‘pseudo-culture’; but, as he said the Inklings avoided all that” (The Inklings, pp. 197, 275).

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  4. Pingback: On Ambigous Villains: RIP Alan Rickman | The Oddest Inkling

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