“Something Understood”: Sacramental Imagination and the Communion of Saints in the Fantasy of Chesterton, Lewis, and Rowling

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All paths seemingly lead to despair as Harry Potter and his two closest friends sit in the drab tent they have been living in for several weeks, continually on the run from servants of the evil Lord Voldemort.  Harry’s primary mission-to destroy Voldemort and his power over the wizarding world-seems impossible as he, Ron, and Hermione feel more alone than ever.  Suddenly, they hear familiar voices on the radio, voices that belong to “those friends of Harry Potter’s who are suffering for their allegiance” (Deathly Hallows 441; ch. 22).  Harry’s former teacher announces that they are “all with [Harry] in spirit” (441), while two of Harry’s old school chums weave humor into their reports on the wizarding world’s resistance to Voldemort’s evil regime.  Finally, the voices of these newly-recovered friends on the radio sign off with “Keep each other safe.  Keep faith” (444).  Harry and his two companions are elated.  Nothing could have boosted morale so much as learning that they are not alone in their fight, that others are with them, encouraging them even from afar.  This community of the faithful[1] is essential for Harry to complete his mission of saving the wizarding world in the final installment of the series, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows (2007).

Participation in just such a communion of saints is part of a sacramental understanding of the world.  Although a sacramental approach to literature can be somewhat elusive to define, for this essay it means paying attention to sacramental images and themes found in the story, such as those related to baptism and to the bread and cup of the Eucharist, as well as to the community of faith participating in these sacraments, for the “Other,” my neighbor, “in Christianity becomes a sacrament of God” (Caldecott 339).  Or, as C. S. Lewis explains it, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses,” particularly if he is a Christian and thereby possesses the glory of Christ (“Weight” 9). In her article on the sacramental imagination in George MacDonald, Heather Ward concludes that “we can regard Christian fantasy-writing as the outcome of an imagination that works in sacramental terms, seeing the material world as participant in, and mediator of, the divine” (26).  However, a sacramental vision need not reduce imagery to allegory.  Instead, it sees opportunities for lessons, for seeing “the divine” in things, while at the same time valuing elements of a story as part of that story.  We simply see sacred imagery in a vaguely recognizable but largely unfamiliar context, causing us to absorb that imagery more readily than if, as Lewis explains, it were part of a Sunday School lesson (“Sometimes Fairy Stories” 37).

As we might expect, such a sacramental experience can be found in the literary works of the so-called “Oxford Christians” (Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams) and of those included within the extended borders of this group, such as Dorothy Sayers, G. K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald.[2] As many have already demonstrated,[3] J. K. Rowling is writing in this English tradition.  More specifically, some have situated Rowling, along with the Inklings and Chesterton before her, within a Christian literary tradition rooted in “a sacramental view of the universe” that comes from High Church theology and practice, particularly within the Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions (McVeigh 200).

We may therefore see glimpses of sacramental truths in these authors.  One such glimpse reveals imagery and themes related to the communion of saints in Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, Lewis’s The Silver Chair, and Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  In particular, the main characters in these stories discover that they are surrounded by communities of the faithful who boost their morale, offer spiritual encouragement through levity, provide accountability, and shoulder their burdens.  Read sacramentally, the representations of communion in these fantasy works are signs pointing us, the readers, to the Thing Itself,[4] to what The Book of Common Prayer calls “the blessed company of all faithful people,” that is, the Church Universal (339).


“Two are better than one. . . : If one falls down, his friend can help him up.  But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10)[5]

“Will you join me?  Will you take the risk?” (Syme to the Professor in The Man Who Was Thursday 63; ch. 8)

To begin with, being part of a communion boosts an individual’s morale simply through the knowledge that he or she is not alone.  In Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), he demonstrates the “horror” of isolation (65; ch. 8).  Gabriel Syme, who is Chesterton’s protagonist in this fantastical and allegorical work, faces off against an entire council of anarchists led by the imposing man known as Sunday.  Gradually, however, Syme discovers that each one of his supposed enemies is actually a friend in the fight against evil.