Friendship is one of my favorite literary themes, but it’s difficult to find these days. When it does show up in contemporary literature, it usually surfaces in what we oddly call Young Adult Fiction.
Classically, friendship is one of the most powerful of the four loves — affection, friendship, romance, charity — but in modern American culture, friendship gets the short shrift. We have eyes only for eros. From chick flicks to shoot-em-up blockbusters, from Taylor Swift to Cee Lo Green, from the Disney Channel to the History Channel, romance rules the day. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of romantic love; I’m for it. But when friendship gets cheated, so does romance.
Friendship receives very little serious treatment in our cultural avenues because we over-sexualize everything. Intimate friendship is suspect in our culture. We’ve lost friendship, and we desperately need to rediscover it. We were designed for deep human connection.
Harry Potter, one of my favorite stories, takes friendship seriously. Its characters teach us a lot about what it means to be someone’s friend. We discover friendship as a form of hospitality and a means of learning forgiveness, as a kiln for cultivating character and a journey toward learning both true self-sacrifice and a true sense of self.
Here are the highlights:
“Bad company corrupts good character.”
Right at the start of Harry’s life as a wizard, The Boy Who Lived has the opportunity to ditch the red-headed boy he befriended on the train and become friends with the cool, rich, powerful Draco Malfoy. Referring to Ron and his hand-me-down robes, Draco informs Harry, “You’ll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort” (The Philosopher’s Stone). Harry doesn’t need to know Latin to understand Draco Malfoy is a character of the wrong sort, a character of ‘bad faith’ (mal-foy). Harry rejects Malfoy’s offer of an alliance — of power rather than of friendship — establishing our hero’s trajectory of choosing and pursuing love over power.
“A cord of three strands is not easily broken.”
Harry and Ron, however, are incomplete without Hermione. It is when these three become friends that things really start rolling. Hermione becomes trapped in the girls’ toilets by a troll because she’d been crying in there after she’d overheard Ron saying, “No wonder she hasn’t got any friends” (Stone).
Owning their responsibility and their need to make it right, Ron and Harry go to find Hermione, and the three work together to defeat the troll. Grateful, Hermione, the rule-follower and sometimes annoying or at least inconvenient truth-teller, lies (to a teacher no less!) and takes the full blame for the situation so Ron and Harry don’t get expelled. After all, “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.”
This marks the beginning of the trio’s great friendship, and I can’t think of a more apropos signpost. Throughout the rest of the series, they will face hardship, heartbreak, betrayal, and various forms of evil, both in the world and in their hearts, but they will face them together. Without saying it directly, Rowling shows us the essential nature of friendship, that it derives from shared experiences, and that those that are difficult and painful, those that expose our vulnerable humanity, those experiences create the strongest bonds.
“Make every effort.”
It’s important that Harry, Ron, and Hermione learn this lesson early. When Voldemort returns to power in The Goblet of Fire (Book 4), Dumbledore makes clear the necessity of friendship in the cosmic (and everyday) fight for love and truth and beauty against corrupt power and malicious deception: “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided. Lord Voldemort’s gift for spreading discord and enmity is very great. We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust.”
Would that the Church grasped this truth. Rowling seems to be channeling the apostle Paul here, who writes, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all!” (Eph. 4:3-6).
Dumbledore’s statement of faith in the power and vitality of friendship comes at the end of Goblet of Fire, nearly the precise middle — or crux — of the whole series.
“Carry one another’s burdens.”
In The Order of the Phoenix (Book 5) Harry wrestles with the part of himself he shares with The Dark Lord (it’s not a perfect analogy, but think, sin nature). It is a connection that causes Harry deep distress; he begins to doubt who he is and whether he is worthy of friendship at all.
And after trying all year to shut out his friends and shut off his love for them in an attempt to save them from his burden and numb himself from his emotional turmoil, after all this, Harry finally gives in to his friends’ persistent love. Hermione and Ron refuse to forsake him to his own good-intentioned but distorted understanding of love and self sacrifice. Honor culture teaches us to carry our own burdens to spare others. Love teaches us the opposite: “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
Embracing this truth enables Harry to come out on the other side of his harrowing darkness and see that light is stronger. This epiphany tenders pity (compassion/love) for his enemy and puts him on the path toward true selflessness and his true self. Voldemort views love and friendship, and the vulnerability required by them, as weakness, and therefore ever underestimates their power. “You’re the one who is weak.” Harry declares to Voldemort toward the end of Book 5. “You will never know love or friendship. And I feel sorry for you.”
“No greater love.”
In the end (of Book 7), The Chosen One actualizes the full power of love by sacrificing himself for his friends. But even this he does not achieve without his friends. Harry finds courage to walk into the depths of the Forbidden Forest accompanied by a host of witnesses, friends and family who love him and speak truth over him: “‘You’ll stay with me?'” Harry asks. “‘Until the very end.'”
As Harry “stumbled and slipped toward… Voldemort” and death, it’s the Gospels Rowling echos now: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” And Harry’s sacrifice covers them. When he and Voldemort return to fight the final fight, the Dark Lord’s curses fail to bind: “‘I was ready to die to stop you hurting these people… They’re protected from you. Haven’t you noticed how none of the spells you put on them are binding? You can’t torture them. You can’t touch them.'” This is indeed what Christ’s sacrifice does for us. When we put our selfishness to death by serving others, we are that Gospel’s hands and feet. Breaking human chains and binding human hearts (on Earth as it will be in Heaven — Mt 18:18).
Harry is a fierce friend; reading his story challenges me to be a better friend. He isn’t perfect, but he is exceedingly loyal. He makes mistakes, but he makes it right. He is a friend to those on the margins (“the least of these”), he shows compassion to his enemies, and he willingly lays down his life for his friends.
Harry has the capacity to be a good friend in part because he has good friends. They accept him for who he is, the light and the dark, and in them he has a home like he never had at number four Privet Drive.
If we can learn to be half the friends these fictional teenagers are, we just might come to “live a life worthy of the calling [we] have received” (Eph. 4:1).