A Note on Harry Potter

I know. What more is there to be said about Harry Potter? Since its explosive entrance into the public marketplace, Christians have debated ad nauseam the relative merits and demerits of J.K. Rowling's seven-part masterpiece. Everything that can be said about the legitimacy of Christian enjoyment of Rowling's world filled with "witchcraft and wizardry" has been said, many, many times. Or has it?

I've done my share of reading these debates, and, believe it or not, I think there is more to be said. This is fresh on my mind because of a fine evening I enjoyed last night on my back porch talking it over with my sister. And we agree that there is one crucial, and yet obvious, aspect of all this that has not been noticed by any of the participants of the debate.

Let me just say this first: I believe that Christians are absolutely right to view (at least initially) the series with suspicion and skepticism. That is because on the very surface of it, Rowling uses the categories of, well, "witchcraft and wizardry." These are loaded terms, and the Bible is very clear that these types of occult practices are deadly, dangerous, and forbidden. I don't hold in contempt anyone who in good conscience avoids this literature on that basis alone. I am somewhat more skeptical, however, of the many Christians who deplore Rowling but just L-O-V-E Tolkien and Lewis. A bit of consistency would be nice.

One recent author has a whole chapter in a book devoted to showing how the "magic" of Lewis and Tolkien is good, but the "magic" in Rowling is bad. Now, that's not a bad thing to set out to show. But avoiding being a complete embarrassment in the process would be helpful. He baldly claims that in Rowling's books, witches and wizards are viewed as the "good guys," and the "Muggles," people without magical powers, are viewed as the "bad guys." No, I am not making this up. Clearly, for anybody who has read the books, it is obvious that this gentleman has never even come close to reading the books. (Hint: the only people in the books who hold that view are the bad guys. The good guys are dedicated to rejecting that view!)

Having read the books through twice, and the Deathly Hallows three times, I think all efforts to paint Rowling's magical world as "bad," while retaining Lewis's and Tolkien's worlds as "good" is a doomed enterprise. And here's why:

There is a fundamental feature of Rowling's world that forms the backbone of the story and which Christian critics have not appreciated:

Non-magical people (Muggles) cannot--CANNOT--attain magical powers.

I'll say that again:

Non-magical people (Muggles) cannot--CANNOT--attain magical powers.

This means that the "magic" in Rowling's world is NOT "occult" magic. Occultism is the idea that there is a "power" that can be "tapped into," and people are overcome by the lust for this power, seeking to gain control of it and to manipulate it for their own ends. This is what causes the concern in Christian circles: that Rowling's books will tempt young people to experiment in the occult. But any good reader of the books knows that if you are a Muggle, as all readers are, this realm is simply unavailable to you. In the nature of the case, in Rowling's world, Muggles simply have no access to magical powers. By definition. There is nothing to "tap into." You are either born subject to the magical world or you are not. There is no transfer from one realm to the next.

This should lead us to consider how "unspiritual" the magic is in Rowling's world. Magical power is subject to laws. There are rules, as Hermione Granger is constantly reminding her friends. You cannot conjure something out of nothing, for example. This is why young witches and wizards go to school. The books center, after all, around Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Young ones must become educated as to the laws that govern the unique world to which they belong.

In a word: the "magic" in Rowling's books is another, separate, natural law.

Harry Potter's world is divided between two realms of natural law: the ordinary and the magical. And here's the most important part: both realms are subject to a higher moral realm, with love of others being the highest law. This is not occultism. Young witches and wizards in the books are simply subject to the magical realm in which they find themselves, and they must learn and obey the "rules" of magic, and submit themselves to the ethics of love.

Oh, but somebody might say, there IS "dark magic" in the books. Well, of course, Tom Riddle becomes an expert in "dark magic." This is magic that is the antithesis to the ethics of love and self-sacrifice, magic done for pure, autonomous, murderous ends. So, magical natural law can be abused for "dark" ends. This proves that this is "occultism," right?

Well, not so fast. Let's come back to reality for a moment. We believe in natural law. The world is ordered by natural (e.g., biological, physical) principles. We believe in "science," not "magic." If what I am saying about Rowling's magical world being one of "natural law" is right (and I believe it is), then it would follow that there would have to be, even theoretically, something like "dark science," right? That would be how the analogy would have to work. Surely such an idea is ludicrous, right?

But there is such a thing as "dark science." It is called cloning human embryos for experimentation that might allow us to, like Voldemort, live forever. It is called manipulating ("enriching") uranium to kill hundreds of thousands of people. It is called manipulating diseases for use in biological weapons. And so on. There are plenty of Tom Riddles in our own world. No, they don't wear black wizarding robes. They wear white lab coats.

To summarize: Rowling's wizarding world is an analogue of the natural world. Just as there is "good" magic, magic that operates as designed and subject to the highest ethical law of love, there is also "good" science, science that operates as designed and subject to the highest ethical law of love. Just as there is "dark" magic, magic that resists the ethic of love, so there is "dark" science, science that resists the ethic of love.

The way Rowling has set this up makes it, in my estimation, decidedly not "occult." The magical world is not a free-for-all of demonic powers to be manipulated, but a realm of rules and laws and ethical imperatives. And it is not a realm that can be "tapped" into in any way.

One might not like the Harry Potter saga for other reasons (though I cannot imagine what they might be.) But I don't think you can get rid of Hogwarts on the basis of "magic" and get to keep Narnia and Middle Earth at the same time. As a matter of fact, I think Rowling's magical world is arguably MORE in line with a Christian worldview than Tolkien's, if only because it is much more thoroughly defined.

All that said, I think I should close by noting (warning) that the countless "spin-off" works, those juvenile fiction authors seeking to cash in on Rowling's success, very probably do not have a "magical" world this well-defined. In my own admittedly casual perusal of juvenile fiction shelves, there is an awful lot of clearly and truly "occult" books for young people to read.

It is just that J.K. Rowling's are not among them.

P.S. I love the fact that the students of Hogwarts celebrate two holidays: Christmas and Easter. Not Winter and Summer Solstice, mind you! A very significant clue...

Brian Mattson