“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The “Resurrection Bird”: Phoenix Imagery in Harry Potter

Many of the magical creatures in Harry Potter may be symbols of Christ, or at least share literary and historical roots with creatures that took on significance as Christ symbols. For more on this, John Granger’s Finding God in Harry Potter has a chapter worth reading. Most beautiful, though, is what we see in Dumbledore’s phoenix, Fawkes. The phoenix, or “resurrection bird” goes through cycles of death and rebirth. These majestic crimson birds, with golden tails, beaks, and talons,1 “burst into flame when it is time for them to die, and are reborn from the ashes…They can carry immensely heavy loads, their tears have healing powers, and they make highly faithful pets” (CS264).2

There is a beautiful piece of imagery in Dumbledore’s duel with Voldemort in The Order of the Phoenix. Voldemort casts the killing curse, Avada Kedavra, towards Dumbledore, who sends Fawkes the phoenix into the curse in his place. The phoenix bursts into flame and dies, but, because of its nature as the “resurrection bird,” is born again from death. What a beautiful image of Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection – in exactly the same way he saved us by bearing the death curse of sin directed towards us, and returned from death!3

Another instance of phoenix imagery gives us a hint of the resurrection theme. As Harry looks at Dumbledore’s white, marble tomb, he notices “bright, white flames…Harry thought, for one heart-stopping moment, that he saw a phoenix fly joyfully into the blue” (645). The resurrection bird flying from a tomb…perhaps Rowling is suggesting life after death, as she did more explicitly through Luna’s observation of the voices beyond the veil.

At the end of The Goblet of Fire, we encounter the strongest phoenix imagery – crimson and gold, beautiful song and brilliant light, hope welling up from within. As Harry’s wand clashes with Voldemort’s and priori incantatem takes place, the green and red spells connect to form a “bright, deep gold…cage of light.” Phoenix song surrounds Harry: “It was the sound of hope to Harry…the most beautiful and welcome thing he had ever heard in his life…He felt as though the song were inside him instead of just around him…It was the sound he connected with Dumbledore” (GoF 664).

The phoenix imagery is virtually always connected with Dumbledore (who is the founder and secret keeper of the Order of the Phoenix, and whose Patronus is a phoenix), and, as we have seen numerous times, it is always from Dumbledore that Harry learns of death and resurrection and the power and value of sacrificial love. It is Dumbledore who prepares Harry and teaches him what he needs to know in order to accept death as the necessary path. And it is Dumbledore who has Bible verses written on the graves of his mother and sister, and of Harry’s parents. While Harry is the symbol that encompasses the beautiful Christian themes, Dumbledore is the Teacher of all these things – to Harry, and to the reader.

1 Cf. CS ch. 17, “a long, sharp golden beak and a beady black eye.”
2 The healing power of phoenix tears is perhaps related to its ability to be reborn from death. Just as life is born from death, joy and healing is the fruit of sorrow, pain, and brokenness.
3 Cf. Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.”

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