No Grace for James:
James Potter & the Noble Heathen: presentation at the 4th Annual World of Harry Potter Conference at Ohio State University, February 25, 2017.
I was a late bloomer when it comes to Harry Potter. I did not grow up with the series like many of my peers. Not until I was 25 years old did I finally give the series a chance. Since 2010, I have listened to the audio books a total of 15 times, only occasionally reading the actual texts. Thus, most of my knowledge comes from Stephen Fry’s reading the books, which, to some, sounds like cheating. If so, you can meet with me after and we can discuss whether it warrants taking some house points from me.
After my fifth time through the series, I found myself discontented with a number of issues that Rowling had brought up but had never fully resolved. From Harry’s use of the unforgiveable curses to Hermione’s head-scratching crusade for house-elves, the series is full of difficult issues with no clear answers. But the question that has nagged me the most is what I am supposed to think of Harry’s father.
James Potter is an enigma, who acts as an archetype at times for Harry’s heroics and at other times for his misdeeds. Contrasted with the radiant and unwavering Lily, James is something of a stain on Harry’s past that requires explanation. Harry himself seeks reassurance for the confusing mark James left on his life. Yet the poor excuses for his youthful idiocy that are given by Lupin and Sirius do not appear to have assuaged Harry’s conscience, and they gave me cause for even more mistrust of James. For many years I have been unable to reconcile the brief glimpses of James’s bad qualities and negative tendencies that J.K. Rowling shows the readers. Why, when everyone comments on Lily’s goodness, is James never given redemption? Why, when Rowling provides evidence of remorse for characters like Snape or Grindelwald, is there no grace for James Potter? Though we may never be certain of Rowling’s decision to leave James out to dry, I found some helpful answers in Lars Lönnroth’s famous article from 1969, The Noble Heathen: A Theme in Sagas. I am sure Rowling did not write her series with Old Norse saga scholarship from the 60’s propped up beside her. But, viewing James through the lens of Lars’s Noble Heathen, especially in contrast to Lily and Sirius, provides a context in which his lack of grace makes a little more sense.
I will first explain what Lönnroth means by Noble Heathen. The Icelandic sagas were written down beginning in the thirteenth century, well after the conversion to Christianity and the end of the Viking Age. This caused considerable problems for the Christian scribes in Iceland: how do they reconcile the obvious pagan tendencies of the heroes that they were writing about when they are at times at odds with the beliefs of the church? Elsewhere in Christendom the old religions were all but wiped out from history, but in Iceland, the heroic past of their pagan ancestors was not condemnable—on the contrary, it was highly venerated. Scribes utilized a few different techniques to address this issue of the pagan past and the Christian present. One way was to simply say that the heathens were tricked by demonic forces. Another popular method was euhemerism. Snorri Sturluson uses this in his introduction to the Prose Edda when he explains that Odin and Thor were great men whose deeds created enough fanfare that the ancient Scandinavians, understandably, began to think they were gods. The third method, which can be applied to James Potter, is that of the Noble Heathen: that the pagan beliefs of Iceland’s ancestors represented a kind of incomplete or imperfect Christianity that derived from their natural instincts. The Noble Heathen, according to Lönnroth, was a sort of pre-curser to Christianity, and certain virtues stretched across the two belief systems. He was sort of a compromise, a way for the writers to celebrate the ancient heroes in the stories without the risk of sounding like they were supporting pagan idols.
At first glance, the Noble Heathen does not fit into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. With the exception of Harry’s sacrifice, J.K. Rowling beautifully sidesteps any sort of religious undertones and keeps religion at bay within the series. Without distinct religious factions, the use of the Noble Heathen seems out of place. I do not suggest assigning any religious beliefs to the characters but instead applying the framework of the Noble Heathen. In order to accomplish this, the story must be split, with Lily’s sacrifice acting as the conversion. Pre-sacrifice characters, such as James, Lily, Lupin and Sirius, who represent the pagan characters in this analogy, tend to operate throughout the series according to a different set of morals than Harry, Ron and Hermoine, who represent the post-conversion Christians. It is through this framework of Lönnroth’s, that James can be seen as a kind of Noble Heathen—a virtuous “pagan” who is viewed in retrospect from the “converted” characters who inherited a new belief system after Lily’s death.
We can actually witness the two sets of values colliding when Harry tries to weigh how he feels about his father while he sits in Umbridge’s fire. In a desperate attempt to make sense of James’s behavior in the pensive, Harry reaches out to Sirius and Lupin for explanations. After feeble excuses like, “he was young,” or “he grew out of it,” Sirius admits that James never really stopped treating Snape in a negative way. Harry does not seem convinced. Rowling, too, leads us into doubt. When Harry is unsure whether or not to believe Sirius and Lupin in Prisoner of Azkaban, Rowling uses the helpful phrase, “And at long last, Harry believed them.” Likewise, in Goblet of Fire when Ron begins to apologize for abandoning Harry, Rowling lets us into Harry’s mind again, illuminating his realization that really did not need an apology. The lack of any of these helpful insights during the discussion in the fire leads me to believe that even after his talk with Sirius and Lupin, Harry still has his doubts. He, like the Christian Icelandic writers, is looking back in judgment on the ideals of his forebears, attempting to place their behavior within his worldview. But, as Lönnroth explains: some of these fit nicely while others are utterly wrong. He warns us not to fall into a trap of believing that there were clear-cut lines between pagan and Christian beliefs. In fact, there was a sliding scale with many different variations, just like there is today.
In order to show the prized virtues of a Noble Heathen, many saga writers included a less-noble character almost for scale. Lönroth points out many of these duoes, such as Þorsteinn and Jökull in Vatnsdæla saga or Þórólfr and Egill in Egils saga. The same is true in the Harry Potter series. James takes the position of the Noble Heathen—good in spirit but distant enough from the modern morality that rules Harry’s world. For contrast, Rowling uses Sirius as the less-noble heathen. Much like the blood-brothers of the sagas, Sirius and James were very close. Yet, the adjectives to describe Sirius are always slightly darker—rash, reckless, sullen. Sirius seems like a good person, but he would have gladly sent Snape to his death in his youth. James, who was no friend to Snape, shows restraint—a virtue highly valued by both pagan and Christian moral codes—and saves Snape from his demise. Though the two seem equally talented and good, this contrast elevates James slightly in the eyes of the readers.
For even more contrast, some writers balanced the Noble Heathen with the Ignoble Christian. To the medieval Icelanders, they seemed to prefer a brave and heroic pagan rather than a weak or lukewarm Christian. Lönnroth gives a great illustration of this from Njáls saga in which two brothers, Óspakr and Bróðir travel to Ireland to take part in the famous Battle of Clontarf. Óspakr is a pagan until he sees the majesty of the Irish king Brian Boru who served the one true God. Óspakr switches sides, is baptized, and emerges victorious. Bróðir, on the other hand, starts out as a Christian but reverts back to the old religion, fights against Brian Boru and eventually suffers a very greusome death. The Ignoble Christian can be seen in the character of Bartie Crouch during the first rise of Voldemort. He is a man so hellbent on doing the right thing that virtues like justice and compassion get overlooked. The worldview in the post-Lily sacrifice culture seems to value a thief like Mundungus Fletcher more than the ignoble Bartie Crouch.
Ironicaly, Lönnroth expresses explicitly that the Noble Heathen in the Icelandic sagas had to stay away from sorcery in order to maintain his status as a herald for the coming Christianity. This obviously poses some problems in this analogy, as everyone in this world practices magic; however, Rowling makes it very clear that there is good magic and dark magic. As many faults as we can find with James, he never goes near dark magic. Again, we find a contrast in Peter Pettigrew, a friend who switches sides, not unlike Bróðir at the Battle of Clontarf. With Pettigrew taking on characteristics of the Ignoble Christian, Sirius, as the less-noble heathen, looks that much more respectable.
Lönnroth says that the Noble Heathen is slow to take revenge, shows restraint, patiently tries to seek the most peaceful solution, and is careful not to break the law. When sizing James up to these, we immediately find a number of problems. James broke the law by becoming an animagus and hardly shows any restraint that the reader can see. His one act of restraint, stopping the death of Snape, does not quite add up to Lars’s ideal of a Noble Heathen. Rowling, however, shifts some of these attributes to other members of the pre-sacrifice culture: for instance to Severus Snape, who patiently waits years for his revenge of Voldemort for killing Lily, restrains himself from showing his true nature. Likewise, Lupin, though an outcast, never is seen as a law breaker.
Perhaps the most intriguing moment when the two cultures meet, however, is in The Prisoner of Azkaban when Harry saves Pettigrew’s life. Lupin and Snape, both belonging to the pre-sacrifice culture, are intent on killing Pettigrew for the betrayal of Lily and James. According to the old moral code, and to some extent even the new moral code, they would have been justified for this vengeance killing. However, Harry shows Pettigrew mercy, even though the betrayal deserved death. This wasn’t just the old pagan restraint showing up within Harry; he was introducing the option of mercy into the pre-sacrifice cultural framework. This is parallel to the sagas. According to Andrew Hamer’s book, Njáls Saga and its Christian Background, Christianity and violence did not necessarily disagree. Christian men in medieval Iceland were expected to take revenge and even take lives, depending on the wrongs that were done to them; however, the conversion to Christianity introduced new options into the legal framework: mercy and forgiveness. This can be seen all over Njn﷽﷽﷽﷽﷽﷽﷽﷽bbornness elevated Njauminatingn and London: Yale University Press, 1995.e house points from me.om Stephen Fry' to theáls saga: in Njál’s refusal to fight back while he burns inside his house, in Höskuld’s Saint Stephen-like prayer for his killers, and when Flosi and Kari reconcile at the end of the story.
Harry demonstrates the cultural change again in The Deathly Hallows during the battle with the Deatheaters when he shows mercy to Stan Shunpike. Lupin chastizes Harry for not aiming to kill his enemies. Coming from the pre-sacrifice culture, this option was preferable. And even we the reader would not have blamed Harry for tossing a killing curse towards a Deatheater in the midst of a chaotic flee for his life. Violence is still permissible and socially acceptable but not preferable over peaceful avenues. Harry, then, represents this shift, not towards a more peaceful society, but a society in which more peaceful options are introduced alongside the violent ones.
It is Harry’s innocense and goodness that makes us, the audience, second guess James. He has adopted these post-sacrifice morals that correspond all too well with the post-conversion morals. This makes James look like kind of a crummy dude. But perhaps his flaws are needed in order to create in Harry his burning passion for justice and compassion. Lönroth quotes Aristotle, saying that “a hero must have flaws in order to generate dramatic action.” Harry saw in his father many things that the Noble Heathen stood for: honor, wisdom, and loyalty. But he also saw in James a creeping sense of the “pagan” past, and fought hard to separate himself from that kind of behavior, while at the same time celebrating the virtues that could be transferred from the pre-sacrifice culture.
Perhaps the most easily identifiable Noble Heathen that mirrors James is Gunnar from Njáls Saga. Like James, Gunnar was a troublemaker who died before he experienced the post-conversion benefits. Gunnar was a skillful warrior, while James was a skillful athlete. They both displayed courage and bravery, attributes that both pagans and Christians could admire. And in both stories, these two heroes are glimpsed posthumously: James in the pensive and in Harry’s flashbacks, Gunnar singing at night in his tomb. In Njáls saga, Njál converted to Christianity and was a wise sage, someone that the other characters obviously greatly respected. Gunnar was written in contrast to his sensible and wise friend Njál, which is what made their relationship so entertaining. The authors made Gunnar a hothead who got into trouble, who went against the advice of Njál, and who ultimately paid the price for it. His arrogance and stubbornness elevated Njál’s character. Likewise, in order to build up Lily as the force of so much positive energy, James had to be given certain characteristics that contrasted her. Hot-headed and somewhat of a bully, young James displays just enough negative characteristics to set Lily apart—something for which she was remembered by admirers like Professor Slughorn and Snape. Lily needs to be a powerful figure in order for us to believe in Snape’s devotion, which ultimately brings about the second and final downfall of Lord Voldemort. Seen through this light of the Noble Heathen, James’s bad behavior can be understood as essential to Lily’s character.
Watching Harry work through his feelings about his father puts me in mind of the medieval Christian scribes questioning how to handle their pagan ancestors. As Lönnroth says, “The Noble Heathen nevertheless shows that there were certain things in the pagan tradition which embarrassed at least some of the Christian writers to the extent that they felt the need to justify the past and bring it into concordance with the values of their own time.” This is exactly what Harry is struggling with as he kneels in the fire in Umbridge’s office, asking for an explanation on the embarrassing tactics used on Snape so many years ago.
James as the noble heathen, then, accomplishes two things: First, he shows the completeness of Harry’s character. Lönnroth explains that many of the writers who used the noble heathen conclude that the pagan belief was incomplete without the Holy Spirit, but that their hearts and minds were in the right place. James died before Lily’s sacrifice and therefore did not experience the cultural shift that Harry promotes. This shift is essential to showing the power of Harry’s character, but cannot be shown without a “before” and “after.” James is the before—an incomplete hero. Secondly, as the Noble Heathen, James demonstrates the complex sliding scale of morality that Rowling provides for us. From Lily to Sirius to Bartie Crouch to Snape, our concept of what is good and what is bad is thrown into question. How could a good man like Crouch let his son be taken by the Dementors? How could Snape do something so brave and good and still be such a jerk? Rowling provides such a murky worldview that we, like Harry, are left to search for “mutual interests and overlapping ideas” that can give some sort of order to such a complex moral system. Likewise, the medieval writers probed their ancestors’ religion and found an array of beliefs, some that mirrored their own, some that contradicted it, and many others in between. A compromise was devloped with the Noble Heathen, who could successfully stay pagan but display Christian virtues, which allowed them to explore this grey area between the religions. And their probing verifies that there is no clear-cut right and wrong, either in thirteenth century Iceland, modern day Ohio, or even in the fictional world of Harry Potter.
Hamer, Andrew. Njáls saga and its Christian Background. Belgium: Peeters, 2014.
Lindow, John. Norse Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Lönnroth, Lars, “The Noble Heathen: A Theme in the Sagas,” in Scandinavian Studies,Vol. 41, No. 1 (February, 1969), pp. 1-29.
Njal’s Saga. Trans. by Robert Cook. London: Penguin Books, 2001.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Press, 2003.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Press, 1999.
 Lars Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen: A Theme in the Sagas,” in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 41, No. 1 (February, 1969), 4
 John Lindow. Norse Mythology. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001): 21-30.
 Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,” 2.
 J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (New York: Scholastic Press, 2003), 670-671
 J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (New York: Scholastic Press, 1999), 372
 Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,” 11
 Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,”21-22
 Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,” 14.
 Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,” 20
 Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,” 20-21
 Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,” 17
 Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,” 14
 Andrew Hamer. Njáls saga and its Christian Background (Belgium:Peeters, 2014), 133
 Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,”25
 Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,” 23
 Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,” 23
 Njáls saga, trans. Robert Cook. (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 129-130
 Njáls saga, 35
 Lönnroth, “The Noble Heathen,”28