Among both Catholics and Protestants, conflicting voices have called Harry Potter-the young hero of British writer J. K. Rowling’s phenomenally popular children’s series-everything from a virtuous role model to a poster boy for the occult. With the first Harry Potter movie coming in November and multiple sequels all but certain to follow, the controversy isn’t going away anytime soon.
If there are potential pitfalls of the Harry Potter books there are also rewards. As literature and entertainment, Rowling’s work has merits, and perhaps there are social and moral merits as well. Her books are well-written, lively, exciting, and funny. The villains are utterly odious, and the protagonists are, if not always charitable or forbearing, at least brave and loyal. Best of all, there are wise and competent adult authority figures such as the brilliant Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft, who inspires boundless confidence as being in control of any situation.
As for Harry himself, he’s a decent enough fellow, with nothing of the bully or troublemaker in him. He’s not one to make an enemy-though if someone makes an enemy of him, Harry will battle with every weapon at his disposal. The notion of turning the other cheek or using a soft answer to turn away wrath is completely foreign here. Even the more sober voices, such as that of Harry’s friend Hermione (whom Rowling has said of all her characters most resembles herself), generally caution Harry on prudential grounds rather than moral ones.
Both sides of the debate with Christian circles agree that, in the real world, any form of attempted magic or appeal to occult power (e.g., horoscopes, charms and spells, Tarot cards, Ouija boards, séances) is always gravely wrong (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2115-2117). At the same time, parties on both sides accept and enjoy at least some fictional works involving magic and magicians-magic presented as lawful and performed by heroic characters specializing in magic.
It seems fair to say that more than a few of Rowling’s sternest moral critics are also fans of J. R. R. Tolkien’s acclaimed three-volume fictional work, The Lord of the Rings, and C. S. Lewis’s seven-volume children’s series, the Chronicles of Narnia. Both involve wizards-Tolkien’s Gandalf, Lewis’s Coriakin (of the Island of the Dufflepuds in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)-as well as other sources of non-objectionable magic. For that matter, not many Christians are likely to mount campaigns against Glinda the Good Witch or Cinderella’s fairy godmother.
On the other hand, confronted with movies like The Craft or television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer that contain unacceptable occult elements, most Christians would also agree that fictional license to use magic doesn’t amount to carte blanche. None of us wants to see young children watching movies or reading books at all likely to incline them toward real occult practices, to make them in any way more vulnerable to harmful spiritual influences, or to foster in them an attraction to the allure of hidden wisdom or mystic power for a secret chosen few.
Tolkien and Lewis, both committed Christians, would have been appalled at the thought of any of their readers being influenced toward such a path. In fact, Lewis took pains to avoid even the appearance of advocating occult practices. He shaped his works so as to make it clear that, while the study of magic might be thought of as a safe and lawful occupation for someone like Coriakin in the fairyland of Narnia, for real people living in the real world it is always dangerous and wrong-something attempted only by evil people like Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew. Tolkien’s works, too, have a similar “shape.”
In fact, it’s possible to identify at least seven specific literary characteristics common to Tolkien’s and Lewis’s fiction that remove the fictional situations in which magic may be safely and lawfully pursued from real situations involving real people. Each of these seven literary caveats against magic in the real world is present in Tolkien and Lewis but absent from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.
1. Tolkien and Lewis relegate the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to wholly imaginary realms, with names like Middle Earth and Narnia, that cannot be located either in time or in space with reference to our own world. By contrast, Harry Potter lives in a fictionalized version of modern-day England that isrecognizable in time and space.
2. Reinforcing the above point, in Tolkien’s and Lewis’s fictional worlds, the existence of magic is an openly known reality the inhabitants of those worlds are as aware of as we are of rocket science. By contrast, Harry Potter lives in a world in which magic is a hidden reality openly acknowledged only among a magical elite, a world in which (as in our world) most people believe that there is no such thing as magic.
3. Tolkien and Lewis limit the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to characters who are numbered among the supporting cast, not the protagonists with whom the reader is to identify primarily. By contrast, Harry Potter, a student of wizardry, is the title character and hero of his novels.
4. Reinforcing the above point, Tolkien and Lewis include cautionary threads in which exposure to magical forces proves to be a corrupting influence on their protagonists: Frodo is almost consumed by the great Ring, and Lucy succumbs to temptation and uses Coriakin’s magic book to eavesdrop on a pair of classmates. By contrast, the practice of magic is Harry Potter’s salvation from his horrible relatives and from virtually every adversity he must overcome.
5. Again, Tolkien and Lewis confine the safe and lawful pursuit of magic to characters who are not human (notwithstanding the human appearance of some, like Gandalf and Coriakin, whom in fact we are told are, respectively, a semi-incarnate angel and an earthbound star). In Harry Potter’s world, by contrast, while most human beings (called Muggles) lack the capacity for magic, others (including Harry’s true parents and of course Harry himself) possess it.
6. Tolkien and Lewis relegate the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to characters who, in appearance, stature, behavior, and role, embody a certain wizard archetype-white-haired old men with beards and robes and staffs, mysterious, remote, unapproachable, who serve to guide and mentor the heroes. Harry Potter, by contrast, is in many respects the peer of many of his avid young readers, a boy with the same problems and interests that they have.
7. Finally, Tolkien and Lewis devote no narrative space to the process by which their archetypal wizards acquire their magical prowess. By contrast, Harry Potter’s acquisition of mastery over magical forces as he attends school at Hogwarts is a central organizing principle in the story-arc of the series as a whole.
Like most people, J. K. Rowling says she doesn’t believe in magic. Yet also like most people, Rowling doesn’t share Tolkien’s and Lewis’s moral caution about attempted magic in the real world. As far as she’s concerned, the only caveat about magic is that it doesn’t work. For her, wizardry and witchcraft are imaginary constructs offering opportunities for storytelling with no more potential risk to the reader than fantasies about traveling at warp speed like in Star Trek, or developing super-powers from the bite of a radioactive arachnid like Spiderman. Rowling, therefore, has not seen fit to hedge about her use of magic as have Tolkien and Lewis.
But Tolkien and Lewis, though they wouldn’t have been familiar with either of the above examples, would have appreciated the fact that there is (a) little enough likelihood of young devotees of Star Trek or Spiderman ever attempting actually to develop warp technology or spider powers; and, more importantly, (b) no obvious danger even in the event that any of them should actually seek to do so.
But is there equally no danger of any young Harry Potter fans-particularly children whose spiritual development is not being properly cultivated-developing an unhealthy infatuation with the idea of magic? Might they tend to indulge in fantasies about the idea of hidden or esoteric knowledge, about belonging to an elite, covert world of power beyond one’s peers?
Might these stories even be one factor, at some later date, influencing a child to respond more positively or with greater tolerance toward everyday occult phenomena? Might they be one factor influencing a child to respond one day with greater interest or tolerance to Wicca or the Kabbalah?
These seem to me reasonable concerns; and Christian parents should be aware that Rowling, unlike Tolkien or Lewis, doesn’t share them. Consequently, greater parental guidance is required to avoid the pitfalls of the use of magic in the Harry Potter books than in The Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia.
Consider the first two of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s “hedges” against magic: restriction of the safe and lawful pursuit of magic to wholly imaginary worlds where the existence of magic is common knowledge. Like the young human protagonists of the Narnia books, Harry Potter lives in a fictionalized England. But while in the England of the Narnia books only someone like villainous Uncle Andrew would be found dabbling in magic, in Harry Potter’s England there are whole communities and schools devoted to a benign magical lifestyle.
While Harry’s world is not identical to our world, as far as the Muggles (non-magical humans) who live there are concerned it might as well be our world. That’s because the fictionalizations are covert: In the books, general awareness of magic is restricted to a secret elite, mostly wizards and witches. It’s likely no accident that Tolkien and Lewis, believers in the Christian gospel of salvation proclaimed to all, didn’t create stories that encourage readers to imaginatively inhabit secret mystic elites with hidden teachings of power. That Rowling has is a valid point of concern for Christian readers and parents.
The third and fourth hedges, which restrict the safe and lawful pursuit of magic to the supporting cast and not the protagonists, are traditional elements in many types of fairy-story. Magic is the proper pursuit of Merlin, not of Arthur or Lancelot; of Glinda, not of Dorothy; of the fairy godmother, not of Cinderella; of Dallben, not of Taran (in Lloyd Alexander’s excellent Prydain Chronicles).
In such stories, it is the hero’s journey, not the wizard’s, with which the narrative is mainly concerned. A hero may have a wizard-mentor, but the wizard’s role is usually not to initiate the hero (or the reader) into the secrets of his power. Rather it is to support the hero in his own proper heroic endeavor with which the reader is primarily to identify.
Tolkien follows the traditional pattern. Gandalf appears as a typical wizard-mentor whose role is to guide the heroes and help overcome certain magical obstacles in order for the real protagonist, Frodo (and his uncle Bilbo in the trilogy’s “prologue” book, The Hobbit), to do his own proper work in his own proper way. Frodo and Bilbo work no magic at all, nor does the vast majority of the supporting cast.
To be sure, both Bilbo and Frodo are bearers of the great Ring that renders the wearer invisible. However, this isn’t the same as the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation. There’s a crucial difference between carrying a magic ring and engaging in the study or pursuit of magical arts. It’s significant that neither Bilbo’s nor Frodo’s vocations include taking up sorcery or studying enchantments and spells. Also, though Bilbo uses the Ring intermittently throughout The Hobbit, from the outset of The Lord of the Rings we are told that the Ring is evil and must be destroyed. Frodo must bear it but must never use it, for to do so compromises the user and gives advantage to the enemy.
This brings us to the fourth hedge: Already we see that the Ring has begun to have a deleterious effect on Bilbo; we learn with horror that Gollum’s wretched condition is the Ring’s handiwork; and even Frodo is almost consumed by its power. This is very far from magic as a safe and lawful occupation as pursued by Harry Potter.
Likewise in Lewis’s Narnia stories, none of the protagonists engage in the study or pursuit of magic. Aside from villains like Uncle Andrew, the White Witch, and the Queen of the Underworld, magic as an occupation is taken up only by the Magician Coriakin of the Island of the Dufflepuds, an earthbound, anthropomorphic star who is being punished for unnamed offenses. (Although Lewis gives us no grounds for associating his unknown offense with his magical pursuits, it’s interesting that Lewis goes even further than Tolkien in never giving us, in any work, on any world, an unambiguously positive wizard-figure like Gandalf.)
The scene with Coriakin is also noteworthy because it’s the only scene in which any of Lewis’s protagonists is seen (rightly) casting a spell. Lucy uses Coriakin’s book to make the Dufflepuds visible. But Lewis balances this with a cautionary note: Lucy succumb to temptation by eavesdropping on two of her peers from our world and hears things she’d rather not have known, suggesting that this sort of power isn’t to be played with by mortals.
More importantly, this is an isolated event. Lucy doesn’t go on to study magic or become a sorceress. Neither Tolkien or Lewis ever gives us, even in their magical realms, a protagonist who engages in the pursuit of magic. This is precisely what J. K. Rowling has given us in Harry Potter.
The next two hedges are closely related the previous two: Not only do Tolkien and Lewis exclude the lawful pursuit of magic from the main characters, they also exclude it from any character we identify with on grounds of either common humanity or social role. Only characters who are both non-human and who embody a specific archetype are found studying and pursuing magic.
On the first point, Tolkien was emphatic that Men, like Dwarves and Hobbits, lack the capacity for magic. Elves have it, as do angelic beings of which wizards such as Gandalf are a special semi-incarnate class. As for Narnia, as we have seen, Coriakin is not a man but a star in human form.
Now, since Coriakin and Gandalf appear to be human, it may be argued that their non-human nature is a technicality that has little effect on how the reader relates to them as characters. But let’s consider the specific appearance of these characters and how it shapes the way we relate to them.
Gandalf and Coriakin have the appearance of white-haired, long-bearded, berobed, staff-wielding, elderly men. They appear, that is, as representatives of a well-established class of characters with a well-established role associated with certain story functions, and we relate to them as such. Everyone knows from the outset that these mysterious, formidable figures are not the reader’s peers or role models, nor will we ever get to know them the way we know Frodo and Sam and Pippin, or Lucy and .aspian.
Harry Potter is not only human but is in nearly every important way the peer of his young readers. They know what it’s like to face bullying or pestering peers and relatives. They may not be able to do magic; but then, neither at first could Harry. Their condition is very much like Harry’s at the beginning of the first book.
For many such readers, there will be a powerful appeal to the idea of learning oneself to be one of the secret adept . . . of leaving behind one’s mundane studies for an education in hidden lore . . . of boldly going where one’s benighted Muggle peers cannot hope to follow. Such fantasies may prove no more than harmless daydreaming, or they may become more problematic; but certainly they are very different from the kinds of fantasies that are likely to follow from reading The Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia.
To be sure, the young reader of The Hobbit is at first likely to be much taken with the idea of finding a magic ring that renders the wearer invisible-but we’ve already seen how Tolkien defuses that issue. And, if the reader is at all attuned to the real magic of Tolkien’s work, his imagination will be less preoccupied with the wizardry of Gandalf than with, for example, the elusive grace and poetry of the Elves, the earthy austerity and hardiness of the Dwarves, and-perhaps most of all-with the Hobbits themselves, with their quiet and humble ways, their humorous, gregarious, pipe-smoking, meal-loving, comfort-seeking hearts, and, hidden just beneath the surface, their unguessed depths and disreputable capacity for heroism.
Finally, the seventh and last hedge: Tolkien and Lewis devote no narrative space to the process by which their wizards acquired their magical prowess. The wizard figure appears as a finished product, with his skills already in place, and there is no literary interest in the means by which one gains mastery over magical forces. Not only do the stories focus on the heroes’ journeys, they omit entirely the sorcerers’ apprenticeships. In Rowling’s works, the hero’s journey is the sorcerer’s apprenticeship.
The Harry Potter books, to summarize the above points, are concerned with the story of a hero who is also a wizard in the making; a boy of about the same age as many of his fans; inhabiting what is in many ways the same world they inhabit; with many of the same interests and difficulties that they have; who at one time believed himself to be an ordinary boy like themselves, yet has discovered to his joy and theirs that he is much more; who is now embarked on a secret education in mystic, hidden knowledge and power; and whose adventures and apprenticeship are the focus of the story arc of the entire series.
Despite these shortcomings, the books do have virtues that commend them. In my opinion, a reading list for young Christian children could include Harry Potter if it is balanced with other worthy books and the thoughtful and open participation of parents who read and discuss books with their children.
At the same time, though, these are important issues, and Christian parents should be aware of them. At the very least, some guidance for young readers on these points is called for; and certainly a well-balanced reading list should include plenty of other books in the Lewis/Tolkien mold to make up what is lacking in Rowling’s books.