Examination of C. S. Lewis’, Chronicles of Narnia, and J. K. Rowling’s, Harry Potter
Death is one of the few things in life of which we can be absolutely certain. But how we think about death as humans, as rational agents, as mortal beings, changes over time and circumstance. Once a distant consideration, it becomes vital and all consuming after a dismal diagnosis or the passage of a few decades. Many characters, plots, and themes throughout literature explore the means by which human beings come to understand and accept (or refuse to accept) the inevitability of death through our development. This developing understanding is perhaps best encapsulated in coming-of-age stories, more specifically, in the journey of the adolescent hero. In an examination of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, we are able to witness through the characters and their quests the grappling of the adolescent mind with the concept of mortality.
Psychologically, metaphorically, and thematically, the adolescent heroes in these series are forced to confront and ultimately conquer death. Themes of renewal and redemption in both religious and secular contexts pattern both works, and the fantasy settings of both the wizarding world and the world of Narnia provide conditions for discussing and defining mortality that would not be available in a contemporary bildungsroman. Thus, the adolescent fantasy provides a uniquely interesting perspective on the developing understanding of mortality in the adolescent mind. Moreover, the confrontations with death that appear throughout these works seemingly aim to provide comfort and enlightenment to the young adolescent audience through themes of resilience, renewal, and hope.
The monomyth of the hero’s journey, first outlined by Joseph Campbell, has been redefined and variably applied over the past few decades. In our discussion of the journeys in Narnia and Harry Potter, we will focus on what is classically called “ the approach to the innermost cave” and “the ordeal.” In scholar of comparative literature David Leeming’s account, The Voyage of the Hero, he defines this more explicitly as the decent into the underworld. “In the descent into the underworld the hero finds himself an explorer in the province of death itself. The hero, as man’s agent, faces in depth what man himself so fears. The hero is our hope of overcoming death and understanding its meaning” . This “decent” arguably occurs in each volume of each of these series, but here we will focus on the ordeals of the final works of each series, as the descents that occur there thematically encompass those that occur earlier in the series.
In Lewis’s The Last Battle, the young human heroes (in this instance, Eustace and Jill) confront death both literally and metaphorically in the episode of the stable. Like the wardrobe in Lewis’s first published novel, the stable in The Last Battle acts as a portal into another, larger world—but unlike the wardrobe, the stable is not so much an initial threshold as a very final one. “The Stable Door becomes a metaphor for death,” explains author and theologian Paul Ford, “on this side of the door death is terrifying, black, unknown; but on the other side lies the glory of Aslan’s country” . Indeed, it is discovered upon the heroes’ passage into Aslan’s land that they did in fact die in a railway accident in the “real” world. However, before the heroes reach this understanding, they are forced to face the fear of death and of the unknown in the final, futile battle with the Calormenes.
The theological threads in Lewis’ preceding works make facing this unknown easier for the adolescent heroes; they are already familiar with the concept of other worlds, and of the value of faith. The description of their final battle is nearly lighthearted, almost comforting: “In a way it wasn’t quite so bad as you might think. When you are using every muscle to the full…you haven’t much time to feel either frightened or sad” (The Last Battle 148). Jill and Eustace’s confrontation with death is painted more as a departure to another adventure, rather than a terrifying finality. “All their life in this world and all their adventures had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read” (The Last Battle 211).
A similar, though less theological, theme appears in the Harry Potter books. Our hero Harry often receives direct wisdom on matters of inescapable mortality, usually from Albus Dumbledore. Aside from serving as a guide to Harry, Dumbledore plays a special role in shaping Harry’s developing understanding and ultimate acceptance of death. Just as Aslan prepares the Narnian heroes for their ultimate encounter with death, Dumbledore carefully and almost systematically prepares Harry throughout the series. In the very first novel, he tells Harry: “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure” (The Sorcerer’s Stone 240). Dumbledore again reappears in Harry’s most crucial encounter with death in the last installment of the series, The Deathly Hallows. Equivalent to the Narnians’ encounter with the stable, Harry also experiences a kind of otherworldly afterlife in the chapter entitled “King’s Cross,” in which he arrives in a heaven-like version of King’s Cross station after Voldemort casts the killing curse on him. As in the metaphor of the stable door, the fear of death in Harry’s case again proves more problematic than its results.
Dumbledore foreshadows the ordeal Harry faces in his final confrontation with death in the penultimate novel with some more words of wisdom: “It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more” (The Half-Blood Prince 566). When Harry discovers that he must sacrifice himself to overcome Voldemort, he is nothing short of terrified—but when he arrives in the otherworldly King’s Cross, where it is “warm and light and peaceful” (The Deathly Hallows 609), his fears concerning death are assuaged, and he develops a greater concern for the trials of living. “Adolescent fantasy, thus, to an extent, seems to negotiate with the power of death as the ultimate authority,” Vandana Saxena argues in her novel The Subversive Harry Potter. “The success lies in accepting continuity, in seeing death as the ‘next great adventure’ in the series of events” .
Besides being structured as heroes’ journeys with clear descents into the “underworld,” these adolescent novels are further facilitated to explore mortality through their fantasy contexts. Both the wizarding world and the world of Narnia have the ability to play with time and physical existence in ways that make death seem potentially impermanent and/or reversible. In Narnia, the Pevensies live multiple lifetimes by traveling to Narnia and then back to “our world.” In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Hermione uses the time turner to nearly double the length of each school day. In The Silver Chair, Jill and Eustace witness Aslan bring King Caspian X back to life and throughout the Harry Potter series “the narrative seems to defy death, for instance by the means of moving photographs, portraits in which a person continues to live or the choice to become a ghost” (Saxena 67).
This capacity of the world of fantasy to subvert adult notions of death in many mays mirrors the child and adolescent’s “discovery” of death as a concept. As children, humans see death as something much more like sleep, something that is reversible. As we age, however, we come to understand death as more permanent and menacing. Child psychologist Helen Sylvia Antony explains: “Intellectual maturity brings humility; the child finds that he, like all other living beings, has no magical power against death or to procure it” . The heroes of Narnia and in Harry Potter must also learn that, despite the enhanced possibilities and mysticism of their worlds, death is still inescapable for them. However, the fact that their otherworldly adventures and imaginative realities provide a sort of comfort and hope in the face of the terror of mortality and fear of the unknown. In this way, fantasy elements exceptionally complement a coming-of-age story, and fit most seamlessly with young adolescent protagonists. “Young adult fantasy becomes an embodiment of the experience of adolescence – its angst, its rebellion and also its journey of personal maturation. The subgenre of adolescent fantasy can be characterized as a mix of illusion, escape, entertainment, formula and also instruction and guidance” (Saxena 5).
Through the adventures of Jill, Eustace, the Pevensies, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, adolescent readers are invited to confront their own thoughts and fears about death and mortality. The exploration by these heroes of other worlds and their ultimate confrontations with death make what “is seen as typically a sorrow-bringing thing and a fear-bringing thing” (Anthony 86) into merely a portal into the next great adventure. They teach “that all worlds draw to an end and that noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy” (The Last Battle 103). They teach not to pity the dead, but to “pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love” (The Deathly Hallows 609). With less moralizing and more genuine confrontation, these works make a profound and edifying exploration of mortality and the adolescent mind.
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