The Grace of Difference

Disability in the Harry Potter series


This work began as a series of notes about names and classical references that I scribbled while recovering from back surgery. Shortly thereafter, it grew in response to a request for a guide that could be used for church classes to study the Harry Potter books. At the same time, I was teaching Latin, and some students, both in and outside of classes, took an interest in pursuing some of my thoughts, as well as contributing some of their own. A proposed class never took place, but in 2008, I was asked about the treatment of disability in the series. Thus I have extracted and reworked the parts of the original (which is available on request) to cover the present topic.

Contributions, discussions, etc., are welcome. It is presumed that they are submitted for use in this work unless stated otherwise. Appropriate acknowledgment, credit, etc. will be given.

Disclaimer: this is an independent work. It is not authorized by anyone connected with the official publication of Harry Potter material.

I acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Madeline Hoffman with modern literature; Jim Kobrinetz with science fiction and Orthodox theology; Matt Spivey, who always asked questions about Latin, mythology and the unusual; Marie-Josephine Vermande, who speaks French as first language; and Bobbie Kerr and all her kids for general brilliance.


BDB: Francis Brown, S. Driver, Charles. Briggs, A Hebrew-English Lexicon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, [1951].
HP, followed by numeral: J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the ...

    1: Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, 1997.
    2: Chamber of Secrets, 1999.
    3: Prisoner of Azkaban, 1999.
    4: Goblet of Fire, 2000.
    5: Order of the Phoenix, 2003.
    6: Half-Blood Prince, 2005.
    7: Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic Press, 2007.
LSJM: Henry Liddell, Robert Scott, Henry Jones, and Roderick McKenzie, A Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
LSLD: Lewis, Charlton and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1879.
LT: C. S. Lewis, "Space Trilogy," with letters added for each book: O, Out of the Silent Planet; P, Perelandra; H, That Hideous Strength. 1938, 1944, 1945, reprint 3 volumes in one, New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1997.
OED: Oxford English Dictionary


And there appeared the holy city, Jerusalem,
coming down out of heaven from God,
having been made ready, like a bride for her husband
(Revelation 21.2, author's translation)

The Harry Potter series is an epic allegorical tale, using classical and medieval forms to tell a tale of healing. Although this healing focuses on the world which Harry inhabits, the allegorical tale is one we are expected to interpret and apply to our own lives.

The structure of this tale is provided by alchemy. The proper title of the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, indicates the alchemical symbolism used in the series (see Robert Scholes, "Harry Potter and whose stone?", Brown University News Service, November 2001). The philosophi lapis, or philosopher's stone, is a symbol of the quest for purification of the soul that leads to eternal life. We first meet Harry's mentor, Albus Dumbledore, as an alchemist, partnered with Nicholas Flamel, who was a real person. Flamel (c. 1330-1417) and his wife Perenelle, residents of Paris, were regarded as the best of the alchemists, and the only ones who claimed to have created the Stone (HP 1:219).

The primary physical action in alchemy is changing a base metal, such as lead, into gold. This is accomplished by dividing lead into its constituent parts and then combining those parts anew. Flamel's Summary of Philosophy provides an outline of the process. The first step is to understand the matter from which metals such as lead and gold are generated. With this information, one separate their natures. Then the elements are rejoined. If done properly, with perfectly pure and equal components, the lead becomes gold, and the Philosopher's Stone is created (Nicholas Clulee, "The Monas Hieroglyphica and the Alchemical Thread of John Dee's Career" Ambix 52 (3, 2005): 205).

However, to the alchemist, there is a deeper meaning to this physical separation and reunion, for the process, understood as allegory, leads one to grasp the inner reality of things (Maureen Roberts, "'Ethereal Chemicals': Alchemy and the Romantic Imagination" 5 (1997): 1-4, 7, 10). Understanding the matter from which lead and gold are generated are symbolic of beginning a path of self-discovery. Having come to understand one's past and formation, the practitioner is ready to purge and then purify the soul so as to find unity and gain spiritual riches (Robertson Davies, Happy Alchemy: On the Pleasures of Music and the Theatre (New York: Viking Penguin, 1998), 3-4.). The reunion with God brings eternal life, which is symbolized in the creation of the Stone.

When alchemy is understood as a metaphor of the search for spiritual perfection, one can begin to grasp the deeper meaning of the series. It pits those who cannot perceive the unseen but real things of the world against those with the vision to reach beyond the physical. It is also a reminder of the artificial divide which modern thought introduces into the world, thereby removing wonder: "the dichotomy of an occult alchemy and a scientific chemistry derives from the rhetoric of the enlightenment, where alchemy was relegated to the realm of superstition and the irrational . . . ." (Clulee, 210). It is no surprise then, that a consistent theme in the books is the inability of "Muggles," the people of the "outside" world, to notice things (HP 3:36).

As the foundation for understanding the Potter series, alchemy is also the path of understanding and healing, leading to the reunion of the disparate portions of life through divine love. Thus the books are a theological tale: Harry grows as he better understands divine love manifest in grace, leading to self-sacrifice and redemption.


The result was that a thorn was placed in my flesh . . .
(2 Corinthians 12.7, author's translation)

In this study, we will take a wide view of the nature of disability, following the lead of the modern field of disability studies. In this field, which originated in the mid-1980's, bodily or mental differences are a starting point, but an investigation of cultural norms about these differences, and their implications, are crucial for full understanding of disability (Nancy Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 22).

The definition of disability begins with a medical condition that results in a limitation of either bodily or mental activity. It then extends to social effects, where disability becomes a social category, along with race, class, and gender. As such, the meaning attached to the condition, especially the ways in which it is contrasted with "normality," tell about social values (Catherine J. Kudlick, "Disability History: Why We Need Another 'Other'" The American Historical Review 108 (June 2003): 764-765). Therefore, our definition of disability can include the perception of another as being disabled (Paul Abberly, "The Concept of Oppression and the Development of a Social Theory of Disability" Disability, Handicap & Society 2 (1987): 14).

As a social definition, the patterns in which people with disabling conditions receive differentiated treatment mirror the experiences of women and various ethnic and racial groups. Observations of these similarities in theory and practice have been the primary source for the analytical constructions used in the field of disability studies. Another question addressed by the modern field is why some physical or psychological differences are considered a handicap and disabling, while others are not, and we will also keep this in mind as we proceed (Abberly, 5-9, 16-17).


Who has appointed him on account of this path,
and who is to say, you have done wrong?
(Job 36.23, author's translation)

The breadth of socially-understood disability in the Potter series is extremely wide, and we meet this breadth immediately. The first book opens by telling us that "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley . . . were perfectly normal, thank you very much" (HP 1:1). As the series progresses, we come to understand that this description sets the stage for the development of many of the tensions to follow through the series, as the idea of "normal" is explored in a variety of ways.

We soon learn that we are following the life of a young man who became an orphan due to violence. The death of the infant Harry's parents was the result of their refusal to join the side of a power-hungry Lord Voldemort, who later becomes Harry's own nemesis, and whom Harry conquers through the process of alchemical separation, trial, restoration and reunion. In the meantime, Voldemort, who has a deep disability of being unable to understand what life is about, effectively pursues his own downfall after refusing the gift of grace.

As a result of being orphaned, Harry became an outcast. He is being raised by an uncle and aunt, Vernon and Petunia Dursley. The Dursleys have a son, Dudley. As a sign of the tension between "normal" and "not normal," we soon find that the intensely-normal Dudley is spoiled. But Harry, excluded from normalcy, is open to learning—only in the end does Dudley show any sign that others matter in his life.

Into the midst of this situation, an invitation to attend Hogwarts School appears. It is the perfect example of divine grace: it appears from nowhere, and despite efforts to destroy it, the successive invitations become increasingly difficult for the Dursleys to ignore, despite Vernon's increasingly desperate measures to distance himself from them.

In the end, divine persistence wins, and Harry is on the way to Hogwarts. As we find out through the series, this is the place where Harry truly belongs; he repeatedly expresses his feeling that Hogwarts is home, and we see it as a place where love grows to fruition—even though it is hardly "normal."

But at first, even here, where he belongs, Harry is still an outsider. Before he arrives at the school, his first friend on the train is Ron Weasley. Shortly after the train arrives at Hogwarts, we find that the Weasleys are not popular with all of the students. Harry has an early exchange with Draco Malfoy, who behaves much like Dudley—right down to barely understanding, at the end, that he lives in interaction with others (HP 1:77, 108). Meanwhile, Harry shows immediate signs of being open to a response to the gift of grace: he is overjoyed to share what little he has, for it is something he had not been able to do before (HP 1:102).

From this point, Harry's involvement with the Weasleys increases. As this occurs, Rowling takes the opportunity to portray the outsider's feeling of those who bear social stigma. As the story progresses, remnants of this linger, in a way that only the excluded can understand. Its peak comes when, speaking to Ginny Weasley, he observes that she has been "like something out of someone else's life" (HP 6:644, 646).


You shall practice loving acceptance of the wanderer,
for you were also wanderers in the country of Egypt
(Deuteronomy 10.19, author's translation)

This pattern of exclusion is repeated throughout the series. Harry comes to have many friends, but they are generally those who are shunned by society, often for various perceptions of disability. Rowling's inclusion of these characters, who become the foundation of a new order, is striking for its breadth, giving visions of a new society.

Harry's first personal contact with the wizard world comes with Rubeus Hagrid. Hagrid is a half-giant. Despite his rough outward appearance, he is extremely tender and sensitive, especially toward animals. He can be understood not only as a symbol of judgment based on externals, but also of the disability status often accorded to those of mixed races. As the series progresses, we also find that Hagrid has been unjustly convicted, just like Jesus. Other characters live with similar disabilities that result in exclusion. Neville Longbottom is unconfident, inept and unpopular—but is the one whose actions make it possible in the end for Harry to conquer the forces of evil. Alastor Moody has a wooden leg and an artificial eye. The house-elf Dobby lives under slavery.

Remus Lupin is of particular interest because of Rowling's social portrayal. He was bitten by a werewolf at a young age. Rowling portrays Lupin as a person with a chronic disease that is controlled, but who remains an object of fear due to that disease. When Lupin tries to explain why he refused the courtship of Tonks, Harry states "you are normal! You've just got a — a problem!" (HP 6:335). We learn that as a student at Hogwarts, Lupin had a circle of good friends who helped him out when his illness flared up. In the end, he finds love, which also restores the vitality of his suitor (HP6:624. 641). With the wide portrayal of characters with disabilities as being cut off from love, let alone any other social role, Rowling has tapped into a frequent theme of disability concerns (H-Disability,, July 31, 2003; also see Stephen Pearl Andrews, Stirpiculture, Scientific Propagation: Improvement of the Breeds of Men, and "The Cardinal Woman's Rights Doctrine" WCW 1 (17 September 1870): 9; Mary Austin, Kate Bixby's Queerness, 1905; Mary Augusta Ward, Marcella, 1894).

One of Lupin's evasions is that "Tonks deserves somebody young and whole." Arthur Weasely, acting like his namesake king, wisely relies, "young and whole men do not necessarily remain so" (HP6:624). [The chances of becoming disabled through accident or injury are now close to 50%].

This is the case with another portrayal of disability, that of Bill Weasley. Fleur fell in love with Bill before he became disabled, but stayed with him afterward, stating that the injury is a sign of bravery. This statement acknowledges the difference of life with a disability, but also avoids the "overcoming" accolade that many media outlets frequently portray—and all the while is realistic about what Bill faced and faces. Fleur's steadfast love, expressed with a little humor, such as "I am good-looking enough for both of us" creates rapprochement in a previously-divided family (HP6:622-623).

Another of Harry's friends is Luna ("Loony") Lovegood, who is considered extremely odd because of her unusual style and inclination to believe in unlikely things. Harry is not merely acquainted with her and other outcasts; they are truly his friends. When Romilda Vane offered Harry a seat in her train compartment so that he would not have to sit with Neville and Luna, Harry coldly responded "They're friends of mine." Luna's response is one example of the problem with the term "disability": she is not incapable, she has a different ability. In her case, it is insight, as she responds to Harry, "People expect you to have cooler friends than us." (HP 6:151).

We may note other disabilities in the series: squibs are people from wizard families who do not have wizard abilities, such as Filch. The response to this condition is an attempt to hush it up—reminiscent of the days when people with disabilities were removed from their families and place in institutions.

Disability equality is about social subversion, and Rowling engages in many forms of this. Harry is disheveled and unkempt; his Muggle neighbors think he should therefore be arrested for hooliganism, while it is the "proper" Dudley who is a bully. In his own world, Harry is a figure of respect, if not sometimes hero-worship; both are based on merit and not appearance, thereby again calling traditions into question.

Race-like factors are also introduced as a disability. Throughout the books, "mudbloods" and others who are less than "pure" wizard blood are ostracized and denigrated. As the final book winds it way on, a Nazi Germany-like parallel emerges: the Muggle-Born Registration Commission. This is an institution that enforces separation regulations. There's also irony in this: Hitler was not completely pure (his birth name was Schnickelgruber, and he changed it in part because he didn't like what it meant); so Voldemort likewise changes his name to make him appear pure blood.

Rowling repeatedly seeks to dispel prejudice, in whatever form it takes. We do Draco Malfoy an injustice to limit denigration to the most obvious parallel of race. Hermione's organization "SPEW" made it clear that equal treatment applies to all of creation. One response to complaints about her frequent emphasis on this subject makes this clear: "if you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals" (HP 4:525).

Another indication of the social construction of disability is that abilities are sometimes disabling as well. Harry's abilities include glossolalia (a sign of spiritual empowerment). His particular ability to speak to snakes, however, is regarded as troublesome (HP2:196).

Rowling's interest in diversity and equality comes to a head at Dumbledore's funeral, where "an extraordinary assortment of people" from all economic and cultural groups, including Squibs, the flashy Fred and George, Dolores Umbridge, Olympia Maxime (HP6:634, who also finds herself back with Hagrid), popular musicians, servants), and centaurs (who don't like humans) gather in tribute (6:641-644). This is, perhaps, Dumbledore's final victory, for he has warned several times of the dangers of discord. Although his death is clearly tragic, it is, like that of Jesus, not the end of his presence or of faith.


The Harrying of Hell

One of the biblical signs of coming of new age is end of disability, or at least the mitigation of its consequence. This is an outward sign of the end of disharmony in general, as symbolized in the resolution of opposites that produces the Philosopher's Stone.

As the foundation of the Potter series, alchemy points to a wider goal: the restoration of the original unity of fellowship between humanity and the divine. Thus, the series is intertwined with theological messages. Further, as a way of heightening the allegorical nature, a variety of images from classical literature are introduced. The series also incorporates a good bit of imagery based on Plato's parable of the cave, which serves as a backdrop: Muggles do not understand that they see only the shadows of reality, and the "wizards" who have been to the real world are regarded as daft, just as Plato tells us would be the case (Plato, Republic, 7.1 [514]).

Central to the resolution of disability is Harry's greatest: biblical illiteracy. Writers such as Stephen Prothero have shown us that this is common today and leads to serious misunderstandings. This is the case with Harry, who, at the Potter grave (HP 7:326-328), misunderstood the eschatological message in 1 Corinthians 15.26. Instead of the triumph of Christ, who will destroy evil (and not necessarily enemies, which turns out to foretell Harry's final actions) Harry mistook it for something evil.

One of the strongest theological lessons of the series is that of learning to be guided by faith. Harry and his friends are often in positions where they must make choices that seem to go against what they perceive to be possible. In doing this, they must draw on their trust of another's word. Ron distrusts Snape. As the matter of Snape's trustworthiness becomes a greater matter, he suggests that private lessons had hurt Harry (HP5:452, 553-555; 6:79). Dumbledore also agreed that the lessons were a "fiasco." Hermione, however, always the voice of reason, displays how faith and reason work together with the reply that "Dumbledore trusts him . . . and if we can't trust Dumbledore, we can't trust anyone."

In the final book, however, Hermione struggles with faith and reason. It had always been easy for her to say that she trusted Dumbledore, but as she struggles to understand the reality of the Hallows, to allow a world of faith to intrude into her structured world of rationality, she comes to understand the triumph of genuine love (HP 7:426). And, while a disappointment to some fans, that is how the series closes: with a portrayal of love through the years.


The Messianic Banquet: Prometheus Redux
The day will come when, after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation,
we shall harness for God the energies of love.
And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world,
man will have discovered fire.
(Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, trans. René Hague, Toward the Future (1975), 86-87)

The person who makes all the wrong choices, is, of course, Voldemort, who is unable to love. He fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the world, concluding that if his mother had been a real wizard, she would not have died (HP 6:275). From that incident, he developed an idolatrous fixation on immortality. With his horcruxes, he rejected the alchemical path of purification and love and sought to save his life at the expense of others. Voldemort repeatedly stated that he had never found any reason to believe in love, or that it was more powerful than "any kind of magic" In the end, rejecting remorse, Voldemort effectively killed himself (HP 6:444).

Love (or the lack of it) is often portrayed as a disability. Harry's great distinction from Voldemort is that he can love, an ability which Voldemort does not have. Throughout the series, Harry must strengthen his ability to love, befriend, and forgive. Through it all, the ultimate disability is the inability to live and thus to forgive. In the Triwizard Tournament, Harry was delayed at the second task because he refused to leave other hostages in a dangerous situation, and, in addition to his own rescue, helped Gabriele Delacour when her sister became unable to do so. Although most of the judges felt that Harry's behavior "shows moral fiber and merits full marks," not all did, knocking him out of first place — but he did not complain (HP 4:507).

The triumph of love is another eschatological symbol in Judeo-Christian culture. It is foreshadowed at the end of the penultimate book, where Mrs. Weasley states that the now-deceased Dumbledore " would have been happier than anybody to think that there was a little more love in the world" (HP 6:624).


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28 March 2011