Harry Potter vs. Gandalf
An in-depth analysis of the literary use of magic in the works of J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis
A booklet-length essay by Steven D. Greydanus
In the last two months of this year, two of the most eagerly anticipted movies of 2001 will hit theaters. Both are the first in a projected series of films, adapted from the first volumes of two popular series of books written by British authors who go by their initials. Both series, and both films, deal with magic and wizardry.
The authors, of course, are J. K. Rowling and J. R. R. Tolkien; and the films are Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Fellowship of the Ring. The former, due in November, is the first of what will surely be a number of films based upon Rowling’s projected series of seven Harry Potter books; and the latter, coming Christmas, is the first of Peter Jackson’s series of three films based on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, slated for consecutive Christmas releases from 2001 to 2003.
Among many Christians, the coming of these two films is a herald of renewed debate. On the one hand, the works of Tolkien have been almost universally embraced by literate Christians, who have long recognized the richness and beauty of Tolkien’s Middle-earth as well as the profound influence of Tolkien’s Christian and Catholic faith upon the shape of his imaginary world. Christian fans of Tolkien also tend to be fans of C. S. Lewis, whose seven-volume series The Chronicles of Narnia is also a work of Christian imagination that involves magic and wizardry.
The Harry Potter books, on the other hand, have met with decidedly mixed reactions among Christian readers. In both Catholic and Protestant circles, some have enthusiastically embraced Rowling’s popular series, at times even explicitly making comparisons to Tolkien and Lewis (at least as regards the use of magic and wizardry). Others, however, have attacked the young hero of Rowling’s series as a veritable poster child for the occult.
The quality of the discussion hit its lowest point with the advent of an ever-spreading email campaign based on facetious statements in a satirical essay in the Onion.com, a humor website. That essay, complete with made-up “quotes” from Rowling and her young readers (advocating the Church of Satan and mocking the death of Christ), has been mistakenly distributed as genuine reportage by innumerable Christians, achieving urban legend status. But even relatively sober arguments on the subject have too often been superficial, relying on guilt — or innocence — by association.
There’s something about Harry
Before plunging into the moral debate over the magic of Harry Potter, it’s worth noting that, in general terms, the Harry Potter stories have real merit as literature and entertainment, and perhaps social and moral merits as well (along with some moral drawbacks). They are well-written, lively, exciting, and quite funny, with vividly imagined creations and engaging characterizations.
Moreover, although highly fantastical and imaginative, Rowling’s narratives are packed with knowledgable allusions and references to historical myths, legends, superstitions, and so forth, so seamlessly woven into the fabric of the narratives that even literate adults may not catch them all. Tie-in books with names like The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter offer readers insight into the cultural backgrounds of many elements in Rowling’s stories, potentially turning an exercise in entertainment and diversion into a genuine learning experience.
On a moral level, the Harry Potter books offer villains who are utterly odious and despicable, and protagonists who are, if not quite charitable or forbearing, at least brave and loyal. Courage and loyalty are, in fact, significant themes in the books, along with the evils of prejudice and oppression.
Best of all, there are wise and competent adult authority-figures, especially brilliant and commanding Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft, who inspires boundless confidence as being always in control of the situation, who virtually never makes a mistake, and whom no one can for long have at a disadvantage. (On the other hand, the series takes too long for my taste to get around to pointing out the problem of Harry’s repeated failures to avert potential disasters by not seeking help from Dumbledore as soon as possible.)
And what of Harry himself? He’s a decent enough and likable fellow, with nothing of the bully or troublemaker in him. He’s not one to make an enemy — though, should someone make an enemy of him, Harry will make war on that person 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; and even the more sober voices, such as that of his friend Hermione (whom Rowling has said of all her characters most resembles herself), generally caution Harry on purely prudential grounds, not moral ones.
One aspect of the Harry Potter books that has raised some moral concern is the recurring theme of rule-breaking. Like many young children, Harry and his friends break a lot of rules (“about fifty,” Hermione figures at one point, and Dumbledore elsewhere reckons their transgressions at twice that number). Sometimes Harry is legitimately driven by necessity to break a rule; other times it’s only because he feels like it. Sometimes he is caught, sometimes not; sometimes he is punished, sometimes not.
At first glance, this may seem like mere honest storytelling, depicting a typically imperfect young boy whose behavior sometimes leaves a bit to be desired. Yet closer examination reveals that Harry and his friends are only ever really punished for breaking rules when they’re caught by one of the nasty authority figures, particularly spiteful Professor Snape. When it’s one of the benevolent authority figures, such as genial Dumbledore, or even stern Professor McGonagall, there are no real consequences for breaking any number of rules, because Harry’s heart is in the right place, or because he is a boy of destiny, or something like that.
Another area of concern for some are the dark, scary, or grotesque elements in these stories: the Dementors, dreadful creatures almost as horrifying as Tolkien’s Nazgûl; a spell gone awry that leaves one of Harry’s friends coughing and choking on slugs issuing from his throat; a school washroom toilet apparently haunted by the ghost of a dead student; disembodied voices breathing murderous threats; anthropomorphic mandrake roots that look and scream like living human babies but may be transplanted or destroyed at will by teachers and students; and many others.
Taken altogether, it seems fair to say the Harry Potter stories are something of a mixed bag, with some genuinely worthwhile elements and some legitimate points of concern. Of course, for many parents who have children that love the books or who want to read them, the question may be not so much “Is this the best possible book my child could ever read?” as “Is this all right for my child to read? Or must I forbid it?”
Magic in fact and fiction
In principle, Christians on both sides of the Harry Potter debate ought to be able to agree on this much: According to Christian teaching, in the real world, it is wrong, potentially dangerous, and contrary to true religion to engage in any form of attempted magic (for example, the use of spells and charms, attempted astral projection, or the superstitious use of crystals), or to attempt to engage, summon, control, or otherwise interact with occult powers (as by consulting with mediums, astrologers, psychics, card readers, witch doctors, or any other kind of divination or fortunetelling).
Historic Christian opposition to practices such as these is categorical and decisive. This opposition has been most recently authoritatively restated by the Catechism of the Catholic Church
Christians have long recognized that these practices are not only based on mistaken concepts of reality, they also render the practitioner vulnerable to deception and harm by evil spirits. Furthermore, they nurture an unhealthy attraction to the gnostic lure of hidden, esoteric knowledge and power accessible only to special elites or adepts.
At the same time, many Christians on both sides of the Harry Potter debate will also be willing to acknowledge that Christians may accept and enjoy at least some fictional works that involve the depiction of magic, and even of “good” magic — magic imagined to be both real and lawful, performed by good characters specializing in good magic: good wizards, sorcerers, and the like. As noted above, many of Rowling’s sternest critics are also passionate devoteés of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. Nor are many Christians today likely to mount campaigns against Glinda the Good Witch or Cinderella’s fairy godmother.
Christian defenders of Harry Potter point to all these cases as evidence that magic in fiction, as opposed to magic in fact, can legitimately be treated as good and innocent.
Possible and impossible worlds
And, indeed, it’s hard to see, once one admits the validity of writing any sort of fiction at all (and Jesus himself created fictional scenarios in the parables), on what grounds one might consistently object to the literary depiction of magic as a safe and lawful pursuit. For to write fiction at all is to imagine at least events, usually persons, and often places that have no real being in the world as God has actually created it.
But if it’s valid to imagine the world to be other than how God has actually created it, it seems arbitrary to restrict this imaginative revision of God’s world to the invention of fictional events, persons, and places, while excluding, for example, the invention of fictional physical laws (e.g., laws allowing travel through time or faster than light) or even fictional moral laws (as, e.g., in Lewis’s Perelandra, which depicts a world whose inhabitants are morally bound not to dwell on a particular island).
Of course, our freedom to reimagine the world, or to imagine other worlds, is not without limits: We cannot, for example, imagine a world in which love should be evil and hatred good; for the supremacy of love is not a mere contingent fact about the created world, but is an eternal and immutable fact about God himself. It’s one thing to rewrite the order of creation in fiction (since God could have chosen to create the world other than how it is), but quite another to rewrite the nature of the Creator himself (since God cannot be other than who and what he is).
But it isn’t necessary to rewrite who God is in order to imagine a world, like Narnia or Middle-earth, in which the order of creation includes powerful forces, good or neutral in themselves, that some inhabitants of that world are able to engage or control by means of such paraphernalia as incantantions or wands — some using this power for good, lawfully, while others for ill, unlawfully.
And this is in fact what’s going on in Tolkien and Lewis, not to mention The Wizard of Oz, Cinderella… and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories.
In fact, some Christian readers have even argued for a slippery slope from Tolkien and Lewis to Rowling, suggesting that Christians who accept Tolkien and Lewis but object to Rowling are being inconsistent or hypocritical (cf. Wheaton College English professor Alan Jacobs’s audiotaped interview in the September/October edition of Ken Myers’s Mars Hill Journal.)
Fictional magic: wholesome and unwholesome
Yet probably few of Rowling’s Christian fans would wish to maintain that the fictional depiction of magic as good or acceptable is never cause for moral concern. While they may feel it’s unfair to label Harry Potter in particular a “poster child for the occult,” they would probably be willing to acknowledge that there are fictional characters who could fit such a description: Willow the witch on TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” for example, or the four young protagonists of the 1996 film The Craft.
The magical exploits of these characters — which include invoking and summoning ambiguously defined spirits in order to achieve magical effects — correspond too closely for comfort to real-world occult practices. In particular there’s an appreciable danger here of direct imitative behavior: that young girls, for example, will wish first of all to dress and act like the attractive young women in these entertainments, and that some of them may want to play at witchcraft, emulating the ritual spookiness they have seen.
The taste for such things, once awakened, may find titillation in play with Ouija boards, Tarot cards, or similar paraphernalia. In time some may wish to go further, turning to the Internet or their local library for readily available information on Wiccan rituals or other forms of contemporary magical practice. Not that young girls are likely to become practicing Wiccans simply by watching “Buffy” or The Craft. But such viewing habits could be one factor among many that might further incline otherwise vulnerable or at-risk children in that direction.
Moreover, even for less susceptible viewers — stable, mature viewers who could never “believe in” magic, who wouldn’t even bother with reading their horoscope, let alone dabbling in magic — exposure to the likes of “Buffy” and The Craft could still reinforce the idea of magic and the occult as harmless entertainment, frivolous to be sure, but not an activity that could warrant serious moral objections.
On “Buffy,” for example, while there’s a kind of vestigial Christian influence on the show’s mythology in the crosses and holy water that remain potent weapons against vampires and certain demons, witchcraft is practiced as openly and amorally as fornication (not to mention, for the last season or so, homosexuality). The show doesn’t so much reject or deny Christian morality on these matters as ignore it to the point of annihilation: It is simply neither here nor there.
Mature viewers, even if immune to the show’s explicit fantasy premise that magic is “real,” that it “works,” could still be influenced by the implicit moral premise that magic and witchcraft are not morally significant realities. To someone disposed to looking at things this way, a fully Christian response will inevitably strike a note of irrelevance, of incomprehensibility, making the fullness of the Christian message harder to accept.
Yet none of these concerns seems to apply to Tolkien or Lewis, or even to The Wizard of Oz or Cinderella. No one worries that exposure to Gandalf or Glinda the Good Witch may leave children vulnernable to harmful spiritual influences, or foster an unhealthy attraction to the idea of magic or of elite gnostic wisdom.
What, then, defines morally acceptable use of good magic in fiction? Where, and how, do we draw the line? How do we distinguish the truly worthwhile (Tolkien and Lewis), the basically harmless (Glinda, Cinderella’s fairy godmother), and the problematic or objectionable (“Buffy,” The Craft)? And where on this continuum does Harry Potter really fall?
Séances vs. flying broomsticks
For my part, I don’t see any one hard and fast answer: no one line in the sand, no one litmus test capable of distinguishing all acceptable uses of good magic in fiction from all unacceptable ones. In a way it’s like identifying pornography: a matter of “knowing it when you see it.”
The problem, of course, is that we don’t always agree on what we see — in this case, in Harry Potter. Fortunately, there are some objective criteria that can be helpful.
For example, one obvious and crucial difference between the magic of Tolkien and Lewis and that of “Buffy” and The Craft is that the magic of Tolkien and Lewis in its particulars bears little or no outward resemblance to actual occult practices in the real world, instead consisting of obviously imaginary and fantastic phenomena that offer no appreciable risk of direct imitative behavior.
For example, whereas in “Buffy” and The Craft one finds quasi-realistic séance-type rituals and summonings of spirits and demons, nothing of the sort happens in Tolkien and Lewis. Instead, there are such things as storybook wizards who can start a fire with a word or cast a spell of invisibility on a mythical race of creatures; enchanted pools capable of revealing distant realities or of turning submerged objects into gold; rings capable of transporting the wearer between worlds or of rendering the wearer invisible; and the like.
Thus, while the young “Buffy” fan can potentially make a go at emulating the quasi-realistic occult rituals she has seen, a young Tolkien fan who might be taken with the idea of creating fire with a word quite simply has no viable course of action — no program to follow, no books or websites to research, no late-night TV tele-psychics who can even pretend to offer help. Should he perchance go so far as to gather together sticks and command them to burst into flame, the result would only be abject failure, not the potential occult entanglement that could well result from experimenting with séances and the like.
Because of this, the danger of any slipping from a fascination with this kind of fantasy magic to an interest in the world of the occult, to charms and astral projection and horoscopes and the like, is quite limited.
And, on this fundamental point, it should be noted that Rowling’s Harry Potter books are unambiguously on the “right” side, the same side as Tolkien and Lewis. If anything, the magic in Rowling’s world is even more emphatically imaginary, even further removed from real-world practices, than that of Tolkien or Lewis; and, like theirs, presents no appreciable risk of direct imitiative behavior.
For example, the Harry Potter books utilize well-established conventions of fantasy magic, such as flying on broomsticks and waving magic wands — phenomena instantly recognizable as institutions of the fantasy world of Broom Hilda, the Wicked Witch of the West, and Wendy the good little witch (of “Casper the friendly ghost” fame) — not the real world of Wicca, neopaganism, and occult practice.
Even on those occasions when Rowling’s magic converges toward real-world practices, it hardly seems pernicious. For example, in the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry has a class in Divination that includes lessons in reading tea leaves and astrology. Yet Rowling roundly spoofs the class and the teacher, who is almost infallibly wrong about everything she says (a fact confirmed by Dumbledore — in spite of which, however, he does permit the class to continue). Anyway, even Lewis’s Narnia has an example of astrology (Dr. Cornelius in The Horse and His Boy).
The larger point, though, is that no child who puts a broom between his legs really hopes to rise up off the ground. And even if he were to do so, like the would-be firestarter, he would simply fail. There is no obvious moral danger in this kind of thing.
The gulf between real-world occult practices and clearly fantasy magic is an important factor in distinguishing more potentially hazardous fictional uses of magic from more potentially worthwhile ones. At the same time, in Tolkien and Lewis this gulf by no means the only obstacle in the path of potentially vulnernable readers who might be drawn toward an unhealthy interest in magic.
In fact, Lewis in particular took pains, as I will show, to avoid even the appearance of condoning any sort of magical study or practice in the real world. His fictional worlds have been consciously and deliberately shaped in such a way as to make quite clear that the pursuit of magic, while it might be imagined to be a safe and lawful occupation for someone like Coriakin in the fairy-land world of Narnia, is in fact dangerous and wrong for human beings in and of our world — something attempted by nasty personages like Digory’s Uncle Andrew.
Tolkien, too, created his imaginary world in such a way that the imaginative leap from the magic of Middle-earth to real-world occult practices would be difficult if not impossible for readers to make. The whole shape of his worldview as a Catholic Christian and of his imaginative life was antithetical to the “deceits of the enemy”; and the very quality of the magic of his world, as well as of the imaginary situations in which it might be lawfully pursued and exercised, was very much removed from, and opposed to, the forbidden practices of real-world occultists and practitioners of magic, and even from objectionable fantasy magic as found in the likes of “Buffy” and The Craft.
In fact, I have below outlined seven specific literary characteristics common to Tolkien’s and Lewis’s fiction — above and beyond the fantasy nature of the magic itself — that have the net effect of limiting and restricting the role of magic in their fantasy worlds, essentially acting as barricades or hedges between magic and the reader, in effect saying: “Magic is not for the likes of us.” Any reader of these books who might be at risk for developing a dangerous attraction to the idea of magic would find in these literary barricades, these hedges, a strong corrective for that temptation. Furthermore, none of these “hedges” are found in “Buffy” or The Craft — or the Harry Potter books.
I hasten to add that this fact in itself doesn’t make the Harry Potter books intrinsically evil or objectionable. That would be guilt by association. Furthermore, the fantasy nature of the magic in Harry Potter is enough to distinguish it morally from the objectionable character of the witchcraft in “Buffy” and The Craft.
But the hedges in Tolkien and Lewis, although not morally “necessary,” not the only morally acceptable way to treat magic in fiction, are not morally irrelevant either. As I hope to show, there’s a morally significant difference between a literary approach that imaginatively brings the use of magic as close as possible to the condition and world of experience of the reader or viewer, and one that throws up hedges or barriers that say “Magic is not for the likes of us.”
At the very least, then, these seven “hedges” disprove the claim of some Harry Potter fans that parents cannot consistently disapprove of the magic in Harry Potter while approving of Tolkien and Lewis. There is no slippery slope here, but a substantial differentiation. One may still choose to accept Harry Potter as well as Tolkien and Lewis — or one may choose to reject them all — but at any rate there’s no arguing that acceptance of Tolkien and Lewis is inconsistent with rejection of Harry Potter.
Here are the seven hedges in Tolkien and Lewis.
- Tolkien and Lewis confine the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to wholly imaginary realms, with place-names like Middle-earth and Narnia — worlds that cannot be located either in time or in space with reference to our own world, and which stand outside Judeo-Christian salvation history and divine revelation. By contrast, Harry Potter lives in a fictionalized version of our own world that is recognizable in time and space, in a country called England (which is at least nominally a Christian nation), in a timeframe of our own era.
- Reinforcing the above point, in Tolkien’s and Lewis’s fictional worlds where magic is practiced, the existence of magic is an openly known reality of which the inhabitants of those worlds are as aware as we are of rocket science — even if most of them might have as little chance of actually encountering magic as most of us would of riding in the space shuttle. By contrast, Harry Potter lives in a world in which magic is a secret, hidden reality acknowledged openly only among a magical elite, a world in which (as in our world) most people apparently believe there is no such thing as magic.
- Tolkien and Lewis confine 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 primarily to identify. By contrast, Harry Potter, a student of wizardry, is the title character and hero of his novels.
- 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; Lucy and Digory succumb to temptation and use magic in ways they shouldn’t. By contrast, the practice of magic is Harry Potter’s salvation from his horrible relatives and from virtually every adversity he must overcome.
- Tolkien and Lewis confine the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to characters who are not in fact human beings (for although Gandalf and Coriakin are human in appearance, we are in fact told that they are, respectively, a semi-incarnate angelic being and an earthbound star.) In Harry Potter’s world, by contrast, while some human beings (called “Muggles”) lack the capacity for magic, others (including Harry’s true parents and of course Harry himself) do not.
- Reinforcing the above point, Tolkien and Lewis emphasize the pursuit of magic as the safe and lawful occupation of 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 a wizard-in-training who is in many crucial respects the peer of many of his avid young readers, a boy with the same problems and interests that they have.
- Finally, Tolkien and Lewis devote no narrative space to the process by which their magical specialists acquire their magical prowess. Although study may be assumed as part of the back story, the wizard appears as a finished product with powers in place, and the reader is not in the least encouraged to think about or dwell on the process of acquiring prowess in magic. In the Harry Potter books, by contrast, Harry’s acquisition of mastery over magical forces at the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft is a central organizing principle in the story-arc of the series as a whole.
J. K. Rowling has repeatedly said that, like most people nowadays, she doesn’t believe in magic (see the end of this CNN interview). Yet also like most people, Rowling doesn’t share Tolkien’s and Lewis’ moral caution about attempted magic in the real world. As far as she’s concerned, the only caveat about magic in the real world is that it doesn’t work.
For her, therefore, wizardry and witchcraft are wholly imaginary constructs offering boundless opportunities for imaginative storytelling with no more potential risk to the reader than fantasies about travelling at warp speed like in Star Trek, or developing arachnoid super-powers like
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
Is there, then, equally no danger of any young Harry Potter fans — particularly at-risk children whose spiritual development is not being properly cultivated by adequate parental guidance — developing an unhealthy infatuation with the idea of magic, and in particular with the idea of studying and learning magic, of mastering magical forces?
Might there not be a tendency for some to indulge in fantasies about the idea of hidden or esoteric knowledge, of belonging to a secret elite, to some covert world of power beyond their peers? Might not these stories even be one factor, at some later date, in the absence of adequate parental formation, influencing a child to respond more positively or with greater tolerance toward everyday occult phenomena?
What about children who go on to read Harry Potter
Why are bookstores and libraries putting genuine occult works near the Harry Potter books?
Not that Rowling herself, or her books, can be blamed for what bookstores or other writers do or say. But the issue here isn’t criticism or blame, but what is prudent. Christian parents should have a reasonable level of concern about the dangers of magical experimentation and the occult; and they should be aware that Rowling, unlike Tolkien or Lewis, doesn’t share their beliefs on this subject. 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.
At the same time, I’m not saying that the absence of these literary safeguards in Rowling automatically makes her work inherently unacceptable, harmful, or even necessarily morally inferior (though I do in fact think on other grounds that it is somewhat morally inferior).
What I am saying is that Christian readers, and particularly Christian parents, should be aware, first, of the potential pitfalls that may always attend the use of magic in fiction, and second, that Rowling has not given them the safeguards present in Tolkien and Lewis; and that if their children do read the Harry Potter books, parents may want to provide extra guidance in avoiding these pitfalls, which would not be necessary in the case of The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia.
Hedges 1 & 2
Consider the first two of Tolkien and Lewis’s seven “hedges” against magic: that the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation is confined to (1) wholly imaginary worlds (2) where the existence of magic is common knowledge. Rather than introduce lawful magic into a fictionalized version of our world — which would in principle entail rewriting Christian tradition in that world to what it has always condemned in fact — they simply imagined the pursuit of magic existing in autonomous realms where no law of Moses had ever been given, no Christian tradition ever handed down, no Catholic catechism ever written.
In The Chronicles of Narnia, in particular, the pursuit of magic in “our” world is the exclusive domain of evil personages like Uncle Andrew (and his fairy godmother, named le Fay after the evil enchantress in the Arthurian tradition). In fact, it is only through villainous Uncle Andrew’s illicitly created magical rings that “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve” are introduced in the first place to realms in which magic is not illicit.
As for Tolkien, of course, the distance between our world and his Middle-earth is unbridgeable even by magic rings (which are of course very much in evidence in other connections!). The buffer between Tolkien’s Middle-earth and the world of Christian revelation and tradition is no accident: Tolkien felt strongly that explicit entanglement with Christianity was seriously problematic for myth and fairy stories; for example, the Arthurian legends, he felt, were somehow flawed or compromised for being set in Catholic Britain. Tolkien’s Gandalf might be very like the Arthurian Merlin; but to Tolkien it was vital that his wizard at any rate not coexist with the Christian religion.
Interestingly, Lewis himself took this very bull by the horns in another work, That Hideous Strength, the third of his Space Trilogy, which features Merlin himself — not in the distant past nor in some fairy-land like Narnia, but in twentieth-century Christian-era Britain. In this work more than any other, Lewis goes to great lengths to make clear just how dangerous and wrong, how incompatible with Christianity, is any form of attempted magic in our world.
Lewis is driven of necessity to these lengths, for in this particular work less clarity almost certainly would have led to misunderstanding. In fact, in spite of all his efforts, at least one thoughtful Christian critic sympathetic to Lewis did completely and totally miss Lewis’s point: Michael O’Brien, in his generally helpful A Landscape With Dragons, criticized That Hideous Strength for what he misread as a tolerant treatment of occult activity.
What Lewis actually does is this. First, he explains Merlin’s sixth-century magic as a matter of Merlin having trafficked with a certain class of spiritual beings that Lewis imagines to have been in the earth in those days: beings who were apparently neither angels nor demons, but merely “pursuing their own business.” Merlin’s intercourse with these beings, Lewis tells us, was at that time not unambiguously condemned by Christian moral teaching, but since that time has been clearly revealed as “utterly unlawful.”
In fact, according to Ransom, the central authority figure in the book, it “was never very lawful,” even in Merlin’s own day. Lewis imagines that, as perhaps with Old-Testament polygamy (my analogy, not Lewis’), God (in this fictional version of our world) once tolerated something that was never truly good and has now been revealed to be totally unacceptable.
For the world, we are told, has changed since Merlin’s day; the beings with which Merlin trafficked have either withdrawn from us or else revealed themselves finally not to be so neutral after all. In any case, Merlin must work his earth-magic no more, and Ransom repeatedly and sternly forbids Merlin to attempt or even suggest it.
Beyond this, it is further revealed that Merlin’s activities, even if not clearly unlawful in his day, were even then dangerous and harmful, and have in fact taken a terrible toll on him. One character observes that there is “something deadly” about Merlin and his dreadful stillness, like a tree that appears strong but is rotten from within (Lewis’s metaphor, not mine). He has lost a kind of metaphysical “virginity” (Lewis’s word), and has in the end become a fit instrument for certain terrible works of God that would be inappropriate for a purer vessel.
Then, if all this weren’t enough, Ransom even suggests that Merlin’s ill-advised involvement with occult forces may actually have jeopardized his very soul, and that his return in the present day may have been ordained by God as much for his salvation as for his ultimate mission against a great evil.
Finally, when Merlin finally does come in power against the Hideous Strength, it is not with his old earth-spirit magic (this is one of the things O’Brien apparently misses), but with a purer power given to him from on high by the great solar oyeresu (an angelic class of being) who govern the spheres of the field of Arbol (the planets of the solar system). Here Merlin is no longer a mere magician working dangerous and unlawful earth-magic, but has become in effect a wonder-working prophet like Elijah.
Why did Lewis go to such great lengths to hedge in Merlin’s magic with all manner of caveats and warnings and condemnations? Because he wished to avoid any appearance of suggesting that magic, in our world, can ever be regarded as safe or permissible. It’s a concern that Christian readers should appreciate; and one not shared by J. K. Rowling.
In the Narnia books, Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew dabbles in the same kind of now “utterly unlawful” activities that Merlin once practiced in ignorance, and suffers the consequences: In the end he has lost his very reason. But what about Digory and Polly, who make use of Uncle Andrew’s magic rings in our world, first when Digory goes after Polly to bring her back to our world, and secondly when Digory and Polly together go after Jadis in London? Does this perhaps represent a “safe and lawful pursuit of magic” in our world?
No. For one thing, the rings themselves are neither safe nor lawful, but represent the evil magic of Uncle Andrew. Digory and Polly might have made defensible use of them, but the rings themselves are evil, and it would have been better for them never to have been made. Not only so, but once made, it would have been better had they never been used, for their use occasions one evil after another (the stranding of Polly in another world; the awakening of Jadis; the loosing of Jadis into our world and the ensuing chaos; the corruption of Narnia).
Moreover, even Digory and Polly’s defensible use of the rings is limited to trying to undo the damage already done by the selfsame rings; there is no larger “good” to be accomplished by using the rings (though of course Aslan ultimately brings good out of it, as he does with everything).
But the most crucial point is that Digory and Polly’s use of the ring doesn’t amount, as does Uncle Andrew’s creation of them, to “the pursuit of magic.” Uncle Andrew is a magician; Digory is only “the magician’s nephew,” not a magician in his own right, even if he used the magic rings (just as Dorothy wasn’t “a good witch or a bad witch,” even if she wore and used the ruby slippers). Unlike Harry Potter, neither Digory nor Polly takes up the study of magic or sorcery; they don’t learn to cast spells or work enchantments.
Wizard secret society in England
Harry Potter, of course, is a wizard-in-training, a practicioner of magic just like (in that respect) Gandalf and Coriakin, but one who, like the Narnia books’ young human protagonists — and Uncle Andrew — lives in a fictionalized England. Nor is he an exceptional case; in Harry Potter’s England there are whole communities and schools devoted to a benign magical lifestyle.
Now, Harry’s world is certainly not identical to our world. Besides the sheer existence of practical magic — as well as a riot of magical creatures from griffins and unicorns to three-headed dogs and Hippogrifs — there are also institutional imaginative incursions into reality, such as the invention of a British “Ministry of Magic” in Her Majesty’s Government.
It’s possible to imagine, therefore, that despite the use of real place-names and cultural milieu, Rowling’s world differs from ours morally as well as physically: that the use of spells and the like is not morally wrong there as it is here. It’s even possible to imagine that magic in her world was never condemned by Christian tradition or divine revelation; that Deuteronomy 18:9-14 and related passages were never written; that St. Thomas never spoke against magic in the Summa, that Rome never opposed it in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
It’s possible — but does Rowling give the reader any encouragement to suppose any of this? Is there any hint that in this world Christian morality is to be imagined to be otherwise than how it is in fact? Or do her books, as I wrote above of Buffy, simply “ignore Christian morality to the point of oblivion”?
Or is it indeed more problematic still? Is there actually a suggestion that the content of Christian morality on this point is not to be reimagined, but is simply understood as mistaken and unenlightened?
Book 3 in the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, opens with Harry writing a paper for a class at Hogwarts on the “pointlessness of witch burning in 14th century.” (“Real” witches, we learn, could easily deliver themselves from the flames and transport to safety; in fact, the sensation of attempted burning could actually be enjoyable to a real witch.)
Plainly this is intended as a satirical reinvention of historical events connected with anti-witchcraft belief on the part of Christians. And this implies that in Rowling’s world Christianity and its anti-witchcraft stipulations do exist, but that they are misguided and unenlightened. Although in this episode Rowling makes no explicit mention of Christianity or the Church, it would be the height of absurdity to stipulate, without any indication from Rowling, that in her universe there were non-Christians running around in the 14th century trying to burn witches for reasons that had nothing to do with Christian doctrine.
Admittedly, this is only a throwaway bit and not a dramatically important moment or a recurring theme, but it’s prominently placed, in the very beginning of chapter 1 of The Prisoner of Azkaban.
It’s also worth noting that Rowling’s world, although fictionalized from our own, in principle might as well be our world as far as the “Muggles” who live there are generally concerned. That’s because the fictionalizations are essentially covert: General awareness of magic is restricted to a secret elite, mostly wizards and witches.
In fact, in a way Rowling has partially incorporated a Narnian-style “other-world” dynamic, in which there are special magical “zones” with names like Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft and Diagon Alley that cannot be accessed by conventional means, but must be entered, so to speak, “wardrobe-fashion,” through magical pubs and phantom train platforms. And outside these magical zones, in the Muggle world, Harry is not allowed to use his magic, and gets in trouble when he does so.
But that’s not because it’s wrong to use magic in the Muggle world, but merely because Hogwarts policy forbids students to do it. Grown-up wizards, such as Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts, can and do make judicious use of magic in the “real” world, not just in magical zones. (There’s also a plotline in which Ron Weasley’s father gets in trouble with the Ministry of Magic for using magic in the Muggle world — but the problem in that case was that he laid an enchantment upon a Muggle artifact, a violation of wizard civil law. In Rowling there is no moral barrier to wizardry and witchcraft in the ordinary “Muggle” world; which is to say, Rowling’s moral world breaks with real-world Christian morality, without so much as a nod or word about it.)
Beyond this, the Narnian “other-world” dynamic isn’t really at work in Rowling’s stories. Lewis used the idea of another world to create a fictional space in which a lawful pursuit of magic might coexist side by side with the proscriptions against magic in our own world.
In Rowling, by contrast, the other-world dynamic serves the opposite function — not to distance her magic from our own world, but to bring it as close as possible to the world of our experience without blatantly falsifying that world. Simply put, if in Rowling’s world it were widely recognized that magic exists and if griffins and wizards commonly cavorted openly in the streets, that would obviously be a world that could not be even imagined to be our world. (The same is formally true in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Despite recurring and blatant incursions of infernal and supernatural powers into the lives of ordinary residents of Buffy’s town, the residents have a seemingly boundless capacity to overlook, rationalize, and forget what they have seen.)
In developing this dynamic, Rowling has created a situation entirely unlike anything in the stories of Middle-Earth or Narnia: a mythology of a secret, mystic elite who possess hidden lore and power unknown to the rest of the world. This is an idea that the human race has always found strangely compelling and attractive; it’s the root appeal of every mystery religion, gnostic sect, and sacret society that has set itself up against the public teaching of the Christian faith, the gospel proclaimed openly to all. It’s not a taste to be indulged or gratified, even in imagination.
Of course, once you actually get into Rowling’s mystic elite, it turns out to be only a fancifully transformed version of ordinary society. For example, Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft, despite the exotic curriculum and all manner of magical goings-on, is really just a traditional British boarding school. Still, especially in the early chapters of each volume, in which Harry puts in time in the Muggle world before a year of study at Hogwarts, Rowling’s stories do cater to the perennial human attraction to the idea of a secret world of knowledge and power enjoyed by a small elite while forever excluding the unknowing majority.
Again, this doesn’t by itself mean that Christian readers and parents should consign the Harry Potter books to the fireplace. It does means that that they should be aware of these potentially problematic themes — themes not present in Tolkien or Lewis — and that greater care is required with these books than is necessary in the case of the tales of Middle-earth and Narnia.
Rowling may be unaware that the imaginary situations she proposes involve a partial suspension, not only of real-world physics, but also of real-world morality, and that at least one element of the potential appeal of her books may tap into an impulse that ought to be resisted as a temptation, not indulged as a fantasy. Christian parents should see to it that their children, at least, know what she doesn’t.
Hedges 3 & 4
The third and fourth hedges — that the pursuit of magic is (3) a safe and lawful enterprise only for certain supporting characters, but (4) a danger or source of temptation to the protagonists — are traditional features in many types of fairy-story. The wizard or magician tends often to be a supporting character, not a hero. 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.
A glaring modern example to the contrary, of course, is the Star Wars saga, in which the wizard-mentor
Tolkien, however, follows the traditional pattern: Gandalf appears as a typical wizard-mentor whose role is largely concerned with guiding the heroes and overcoming certain magical obstacles to allow the real protagonist, Frodo (and, in The Hobbit, Bilbo), to do his own proper work in his own proper way. Frodo and Bilbo work no magic at all, nor do the majority of the supporting cast. (In fact, as we will soon see, Tolkien was emphatic that both Hobbits and Men lack the very capacity for magic.)
It is true that both Bilbo and Frodo are bearers of the great Ring whose properties include the power to render the wearer invisible. However, in the first place, as with Digory and Polly, merely carrying or even using a magic ring isn’t the same as “the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation.” Neither Bilbo nor Frodo takes up sorcery or studies enchantments and spells.
Secondly, and far more crucially, although Bilbo uses the Ring intermittently throughout The Hobbit, from the outset of The Lord of the Rings we learn that the Ring is evil and must be destroyed; that Frodo must bear it but must never use it, for to do so, even once, 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, although there is good and neutral magic, none of the protagonists (almost invariably children from our world) are shown engaging in its study or pursuit, even in Narnian precincts. In fact, good or neutral magic in Narnia generally subsists more in objects and situations than in characters. A table, a doorway, or a pool of water might exhibit magical properties; but good characters, major or minor, almost to a man do not go about casting spells. Those who pursue magical arts in the Narnia stories, even among the supporting characters, usually turn out to be villains (the White Witch; the Queen of the Underland; Uncle Andrew).
In all seven Narnia books there is one good figure who is a true wizard-type: the magician Coriakin in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, an earthbound star who is being punished for unnamed offenses. (Although Lewis gives us no grounds for associating his unknown offense with his magical pursuits, it is interesting that Lewis goes even further than Tolkien in never giving us, in any work, on any world, an unambiguously positive wizard-figure akin to Gandalf.)
There’s also Doctor Cornelius from Prince Caspian, an ancient, diminutive, corpulent figure who isn’t really a wizard, but engages in what he calls “astronomy” but we would call astrology. (Here Lewis’s fantasy world converges briefly with a real-world divination practice — yet Lewis is plainly drawing upon the gospel story of the Magi in St. Matthew’s infancy narrative.)
The chapters in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that give us Narnia’s lone good wizard also noteworthy because they contain the only scene in which any of Lewis’ protagonists is seen (rightly) casting a spell (although not in our world): Lucy uses Coriakin’s book of spells to make the Dufflepuds visible.
It must be noted that Lewis balances this exceptional scene with a cautionary note, having Lucy succumb to temptation by using the selfsame book to eavesdrop on two of her peers from our world. By this Lewis suggests that the sort of power represented by Coriakin’s book, while it may be appropriate for him, isn’t for weak vessels such as ourselves. The same might be said for Digory’s ill-advised ringing of the bell in Charn; he may have used Uncle Andrew’s magic rings rightly, but he too succumbed to temptation and was seduced by magic.
It’s also important to note that Lucy, like Digory and Polly, doesn’t go on to study magic or become a sorceress. While she goes further than they in actually casting a spell, it’s an isolated event in her life (and her concommitant misstep perhaps suggests what would have happened to her had she gone further in that direction). Neither Tolkien or Lewis ever gives us, even in their magical realms, a protagonist who engages in the pursuit of magic; which is of course precisely what J. K. Rowling has given us in Harry Potter.
There are many instances in both Tolkien and Lewis in which protagonists are given or lawfully wield magical artifacts: Lucy’s healing cordial and Frodo’s Elven phial, for example. The “hedges” in Tolkien and Lewis are not so high or absolute as to prevent this level of involvement in magic on the part of protagonists in other worlds. (They’re only hedges — not prison walls, or mine fields.)
But this is still far removed from the Harry Potter books, in which virtually all of the important characters are engaged in the full-blown study of wizardry and witchcraft. (I discount Harry’s Muggle relations, the Dursleys, who appear only in the framing sequences, not in the central action.) In Tolkien and Lewis, this level of involvement with magical forces — the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful enterprise, the study of and pursuit of mastery over magical forces, the learning of spells and enchantments — is restricted to characters who inhabit the periphery, not the center stage. The drama is not about them or their endeavors in the way that it is about those of the main characters.
In following this pattern, Tolkien and Lewis limit the dramatic significance of the pursuit of magic as a point of interest in their works — and, thereby, diminish the likelihood of the pursuit of magic coming to occupy an undue place in the imaginations of readers. It’s a limitation not found in Harry Potter.
Hedges 5 & 6
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 give us Wizards who (5) are not in fact human, and (6) look and act and relate to other characters in archetypal wizard-fashion — not like us, or our peers.
On the former point, Tolkien in particular explicitly affirmed as a matter of principle that Men, like Dwarves, Hobbits, and other mortal races, lack entirely the capacity for magic. Elves have it, as do the Valar and Maiar (angelic beings), of which the Istari (wizards, including Gandalf) are a special semi-incarnate class. (Likewise, Lewis’s Coriakin, as we have seen, is not a man but a star in human form, very much the same sort of thing as Gandalf in fact.)
It is true, as Tolkien himself admitted, that his principle about Men lacking the capacity for magic was weakened by the apparent exception of Aragorn, a Man of Westernesse who seems to possess a healing touch. Commenting on this apparent exception in a letter, Tolkien noted that (a) in the first place, Aragorn isn’t entirely human, having Elvish descent on his mother’s side; and (b) furthermore, Aragorn’s healings may or may not be a genuine instance of magic properly so-called; he might also be using non-magical healing techniques combined with a kind of suggestion.
Still, to the casual reader of The Lord of the Rings, it will certainly appear that Aragorn at least exhibits magical powers. Here, as earlier, the “hedge” is not as uniform and unmistakeable as it could have been. Even so, Tolkien’s guiding principle that magic is not for the mortal races is an important component in the overall shape of The Lord of the Rings, and readers will absorb something of Tolkien’s intention here, even if the particulars will escape them. They may not apprehend the possible distinction Tolkien draws between magic proper and what Aragorn does, but they will readily perceive that Aragorn is not remotely a true Wizard like Gandalf. And, while they may not be conversant with the details of Aragorn’s ancestry, they will probably feel on some level that he is a unique character, not quite a “normative” Man like other Men (Boromir and Faramir, Barliman Butterbur, etc.).
Yet it must also be admitted that even Gandalf himself (and Coriakin, for that matter), though non-human in fact, are to all appearances Men, as much so as the truly human characters (some readers may not even know Gandalf is not human). Therefore, it may be argued that the “non-human”
Yet this brings us to the specific appearance of these characters, and how this affects the way we relate to them. In particular, 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 Gimli and Legolas, or Lucy and Caspian and Reepicheep. (The same principle also applies to other characters in Tolkien, such as Galadriel, who do not fit the wizard profile but who work magic: Galadriel is no more the reader’s peer than is Gandalf.)
This is obviously quite different from Harry Potter, who is not only human, but is in nearly every important way the peer of his young readers — readers whose own studies aren’t nearly as interesting as Harry’s but who in many respects can relate to where he is and where he has been. 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 could Harry, exactly, before his adventures began. Their condition is, in fact, very much like Harry’s at the beginning of the first book.
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, by contrast, the “hero’s journey” is the sorcerer’s apprenticeship. The Harry Potter books, to summarize the seven hedges, tell 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 eduction in mystic, hidden knowledge and power; whose adventures and apprenticeship in magic are the focus of the story arc of the entire series.
The net effect of all this is that the Harry Potter books bring the practice of magic imaginatively far closer to the personal condition and experience of the young reader than other stories of magic and fantasy, including The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. To a far greater degree, they encourage and exploit a personal identification between the reader and the wizard.
And, while the magic itself in its particulars is as fantastical and divergent from occult practice as any fictional magic, if not more so, nevertheless this magic is imagined to exist in a world ostensibly equivalent to our own in the minds of most of its inhabitants; a world in which we are never explicitly told that Christian moral beliefs regarding magic have been imaginatively suspended — indeed, in which it’s suggested on at least one occasion that Christian moral objections to magic do exist but are misguided — a world in which the society of wizards and witches constitutes a secret elite with a hidden teaching of power and wisdom that the plurality of men remain largely unaware of and absolutely unable to penetrate.
For many young children reading of the magical discoveries and exploits of a young boy so much like themselves, there will inevitably be the irresistible fantasy of discovering themselves to be one of the secret adept… of leaving behind their mundane studies for an education in hidden lore… boldly going where their benighted Muggle peers can’t hope to follow… Heady stuff, that.
Such fantasies may ultimately prove no more than harmless daydreaming, or they may become more problematic; but certainly they are very different from the kinds of fantasies likely to come of 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.
Moreover, if the reader is at all attuned to the real magic of Tolkien’s work, his imagination will be less preoccupied with such things as the wizardry of Gandalf than with, for example, the elusive grace and poetry of the Elves; the earthy austerity and hardiness of the Dwarves; the ineffable stateliness, the sheer antiquity of the Ents; the battle-hardened majesty of Aragorn; the playful, fathomless mystery of Tom Bombadil; and, perhaps most of all, the Hobbits themselves, with their quiet and humble ways, their unassuming, humorous, gregarious, homebody, pipe-smoking, meal-loving, comfort-seeking, Shire-dwelling hearts, and, hidden just beneath the surface, their unguessed depths and disreputable capacity for heroism. Here is the true center of gravity in Tolkien’s Middle-earth: not the world of magic, but the magic of the world.
Even Gandalf himself, for that matter, will probably be remembered by most readers more for his wisdom, insight, and guidance than for any particular spells he devised. In fact, the biggest advantage to having Gandalf about is not so much that he may turn one thing into another or foretell some future event, as that we know he will guide us well, that he understands what’s going on better than anyone else, that he puts things in proper perspective, speaks words of wisdom, and so forth.
I don’t wish to press this last point too far. Certainly I’m very far from suggesting that Gandalf’s powers are incidental to his character. Doubtless, when it comes to creating a fire on a cold, wet night, or stripping Saruman the White of his rank, it’s handy to have a Wizard around. I wouldn’t even say that Gandalf’s magic is valuable purely as a literary means to an end. A Wizard is a character unlike any other, and valuable to the effect of the whole book. Were every fire conventionally built, every villain dealt with by point and edge, the spirit of the epic would suffer. In fantasy we enjoy magic not only for what it can do but for what it is.
At the same time, it doesn’t do, I think, to be too preoccupied with the subject. It may be good to have a wizard around, but we shouldn’t wish our own fate too closely intertwined with his craft. Though he be on the side of the angels, yet when supping with a wizard, as with the very devil, it’s advisable to have a long spoon: and magic itself, while it makes an excellent garnish, may be a doubtful main course, and an even more doubtful daily staple. If a particular writer comes closer to making a main course out of magic than other, more prudent authors have done… perhaps we will want to consider restricting the former author’s writings to something less than a staple in our child’s overall literary diet.
And what is the main course, the center of gravity, in Rowling’s works, as compared with Tolkien? What is remembered from them? A few things that have nothing to do with magic: the insufferable Dursleys; the immensity and breezy geniality of Hagrid; Harry’s fast friendships with Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, and his bitter feud with Draco Malfoy.
But Rowling’s most vivid creations are firmly entrenched in magic and sorcery. Above all, Quidditch, that astonishing, complicated field game played on flying broomsticks. Invisibility cloaks. The grotesque effects of spells gone bad: the slugs pouring from Ron Weasley’s throat; Hermione’s teeth growing past her chin. Hats and books and maps with minds of their own (“Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain,” Rowling helpfully warns). Mr. Weasley’s flying car. Not the magic of the world, but the world of magic.
And yet I don’t think that any of this makes the Harry Potter books genuinely “bad.” There’s nothing wrong with Quidditch — I would not wish that Rowling had not invented Quidditch, and in fact I for one am looking forward to seeing a Quidditch match on the silver screen in November.
But the overwhelming emphasis on magic and sorcery in Rowling’s books, in a context so close to the condition and experience of her young readers, may for at least some children ultimately prove a temptation and a hazard — one which has not been hedged off or safeguarded as has the use of magic in Tolkien and Lewis.
By now it should be clear that I am neither an enthusiastic pro-Harry cheerleader nor a vehemently anti-Harry polemicist. I embrace neither the view that parents must ban the Harry Potter books from their houses, nor the view these books ought to be welcomed and read — though I have no quarrel with parents who follow either course of action.
What I do object to is the claim that it is inconsistent or hypocritical to allow Tolkien and Lewis, but to object to Rowling. The Rowling books are significantly different from the Tolkien and Lewis books, and there is good reason to make a distinction between them, perhaps even to draw a line between them separating the allowed from the disallowed.
I also object to the portrait of Harry Potter as a poster child for the occult, and the claim that parents who permit reading Harry Potter are necessarily exposing their children to harmful influences. The absence in Rowling of the hedges I’ve been discussing doesn’t make her books automatically harmful or even dangerous for all children, though it may make them harmful for some.
For whether a book or movie or any other form of narrative is harmful to its audience depends as much upon the audience as upon the narrative. 150 years ago, The Three Musketeers was a potentially dangerous and immoral influence in a world in which duels to the death were real-life occurrences. Today, duels are no longer a viable social threat, and consequently we can read and enjoy the swashbuckling exploits of D’Artagnan and his companions without fear that anyone will be influenced to draw swords to kill another.
The lure of magic remains a viable threat today, of course — though the fantasy broomstick-and-wand magic of Harry Potter, for most balanced readers, will remain quite distinct in their imaginations from the world of the occult. To the right reader, Harry Potter can be as harmless as Glinda the Good Witch or Cinderella’s fairy godmother. For another young reader, he could be a stumbling block.
No one is better equipped to judge which is the case for any particular child than the child’s parents. Parents of vulnerable or at-risk children — children who may not have demonstrated a particularly strong commitment to their faith, or have proven susceptible to peer pressure and tend to hang around with dubious company, who have a tendency to live in their imaginations or particularly to obsess over favorite books or movies, and most especially who have already demonstrated an obssessive overinterest in Harry Potter — may have to intervene to turn their children’s interests in healthier directions.
The key, in my judgment, is balance and context. For some children, reading Harry Potter could be part of a troubling pattern of general interest in magic, dark or grotesque imagery, and other problematic themes. This pattern might involve, or lead to, other potentially problematic or objectionable material or activities, from other books such as Goosebumps series and the anti-God fiction of Philip Pullman, to comic books such as Ghost Rider and Dr. Strange, to TV shows and movies like Buffy and The Craft, to party games involving forms of divination, to teen-themed books on witchcraft and the occult, and so on.
Yet reading Harry Potter by itself — or rather, reading Harry Potter as part of a well-rounded reading program including well-chosen books that might include the works of Tolkien and Lewis, the adventure stories of Howard Pyle, the fantasy of Lloyd Alexander, the frontier stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the apocalyptic fiction of Michael O’Brien, the fairy-stories of George MacDonald, or the detective tales of Encyclopedia Brown (and, later, Sherlock Holmes) — a child whose reading has this kind of breadth and depth is unlikely to be negatively influenced by having read the Harry Potter books.
Indeed, for such a child — not to mention his or her parents — the redemptive themes in Harry Potter of good vs. evil, of loyalty and courage, of the evils of bigotry and oppression, and of course the wildly imaginative effects of Rowling’s magical world may be fondly remembered for years to come.