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The Young Wizard Potter
The flavor and drift of these Potter volumes is pagan, while the moral tone is low and uninspiring.
By Edward O’Brien
Homiletic & Pastoral Review – March 2002
The Harry Potter books are by now an impressive publishing phenomenon in terms of world-wide circulation and money earned. The first four volumes in J. K. Rowling’s series of novels have been translated into 42 languages, with 76 million copies sold and movies on the way. The many captivated readers are the young.
Undertaking to comment upon the Potter books risks a certain danger. If the critic labels them as evil and spiritually harmful, he might be called a silly old fool who is taking too seriously what is really a fun-filled and innocent series of adventures for children.
There may be some truth contained in this approach to Potter and his friends. Admittedly, I’ve read many stories dealing with black magic, witches and wizards, but I never took them literally; they were enjoyable to read and it’s hard to see how they harmed me. Some great classical literature, starting with Homer whose beautiful witch, Circe, remains a chilling depiction of supernatural evil, and stretching through Dante all the way down to the fantasy novels of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, provides a venerable tradition of the darkling weird tale, enjoyed by adults and bookish adolescents. One can even make a case that no fiction without the admixture of evil, or at least an ominous threat of it, has a chance of being interesting.
But then the Potter volumes of J. K. Rowling—especially in the way they deal with magic and sorcery—are not at all similar to the work of the authors just named. Rowling is no traditionalist, but a very modern person of the late 20th century. Her approach to the occult must be examined; yet, rather than writing like a member of the Boston Watch and Ward Society of Victorian times, and calling for suppression, it is better to point out what I think is the flavor and tone, the gist and drift, of the Potter volumes, and let the reader decide about their value and the advisability of reading them. We will take a look at what seems significant, striking, or thematic in the halls of Hogwarts.
Harry Potter is a boy of about thirteen who lives with his uncle and aunt and their son (the Dursleys) in summer vacation, but who attends during the school year the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, located somewhere in north Britain. There he takes courses in magic and related occult subjects; for example, Divination, Ancient Runes, Potions, and Transfiguration. All the teachers and students at Hogwarts are robe-wearing magicians. Everyone carries a wand like cowboys carried guns in the Wild West. Magic of some kind is going on nearly all the time, in or out of class. Some of the magic is just for fun, some is for good, while much of it is done for evil purposes. No modern conveniences, like electricity, disturb the medieval ambiance of Hogwarts. Mail is delivered by perky owls. No profanity, nudity, sex, or scatology mar the pages of the first three books, though Potter never seems to bathe. There is some suggestion of Political Correctness and diversity by having a few characters bear Asiatic names. Other names are British; some names are peculiar, put in for humor; for example, Madame Hooch, Sir Nicholas De Mimsy-Porpington, Miranda Goshawk.
In the fourth volume, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where student rudeness is increasing, the author brings in references to excrement and the students pair off in bushes for sexual dalliance. This seems careless and odd for a child’s book, though in keeping with Elizabeth Wittman’s point that “much of the children’s literature written since the 1960s has been written from a pagan worldview” (“Occult Trends in Children’s Literature,” Elizabeth A. Wittman, Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Oct. 2000). Mrs. Wittman claims that the Potter books are “weak in values” since Harry tells lies and continually breaks rules, which are rewarded by the authorities. At Hogwarts, a recurrent theme is “the end justifies the means”; if something is useful (like lying), then do it.
Within the bizarre twilight zone of Hogwarts castle, three “normal” students are the central characters: Harry, Ron, and the girl Hermione. She is brilliant at scholarship, but it’s Harry, the young genius of magic, who does most of the great deeds at Hogwarts. A menacing shadowy figure is always out to get him in every volume, yet bespectacled Harry invariably triumphs in the end. Some of the professors at Hogwarts are sneakingly sinister (Prof. Severus Snape, for example), or trembling on the verge of lunacy, like Prof. Sybill Trelawney who teaches divination, but is considered a fraud by Harry and his friends. Moralistic and strict Professor McGonagall comes closest to normality, though she is, of course, a witch who’s given to shape-shifting. Headmaster Albus Dumbledore is responsible, realistic, and on the side of goodness and common sense, though naturally he’s a sorcerer. What a faculty! Also, weird entities, better left undisturbed, roam the dusky and dangerous halls of Hogwarts; it’s a kind of madhouse.
The actual plots of the Potter books are unbelievable and irrational in a way that the great fantasy stories are not. The plots seem to glorify the irrational. A nearly chaotic series of events runs through these four volumes, especially the quite long third volume—Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a story which defies lucid analysis. Rowling’s endings are particularly over-complex, frenetic, hard-to-follow. The result can be tedium for the reader. One misses the light of reason and the Christian presence.
Many incidents along the way are just plain silly—though maybe not for children—as in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, when Harry and his friend Ron miss the special train for Hogwarts at the beginning of their second year. They simply fly a car by magic out to the college; when they land, a willow tree attacks them. This humor is obvious and over-done. The reader is supposed to laugh at so much farce that one wonders if, to the author, some of the events are a spoof. The classic fantasy stories of the past were not written only for children, though children who were good readers always loved those stories. The Potter series is written only for children. No poetic prose ennobles these books, no classic sublimity is present; rather we see the zany, the farcical, the childish, and the pedestrian, despite all the magic going on.
Some of the incidents and strands of the plots are repulsive. In the Chamber of Secrets, the spirit of a girl lives in one of the toilets of the girls’ bathroom. In this same volume, the business of the mandrake roots comes up. An evil person has turned some people to stone. The “good” magicians need a potion to restore the petrified victims, but this potion requires mandrake roots. So, the school gets the roots, which must be transplanted into pots and then grown until mature. During the potting of the mandrakes, the students discover that, instead of the usual forked root of the mandrake, each plant has “instead of roots, a small, muddy, and extremely ugly baby” which are described as nasty, vicious things. Much later in the story, when the mandrakes finally mature, these babies are cut up for the potion. It passes belief that such a horror should be found in a children’s book. Laura Berquist, writing in Latin Mass (Spring, 2001), says, “In a culture that valued babies, it would never be acceptable for the root to have the form of a baby and then be cut up into a potion.” The whole business is so stupid and unnecessary: any pre-modern author would simply have used the ordinary roots of the mandrake, without bringing in infanticide.
Reading the peculiar fare of the Potter books is not at all like reading the high fantasy of the past. These volumes under discussion trail far behind, and in no way rival, the powerful splendor of The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia series, and other sophisticated fantasy like The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Two very different worlds are on view in Rowling’s work: the world of the magicians is contrasted sharply with that of the “Muggles.” The Muggles are the ordinary, non-magical people, of limited intelligence and sensitivity; they whine and complain, overeat, and watch dumb TV shows in London. They are chiefly represented by the Dursley family, Harry’s relations. The Dursleys, unbelievably stupid, trivial, and dull, are cruel to Harry. They also yell and sneer at him quite a bit. No one would wish to spend five minutes with the doltish Dursleys, for they are completely lacking in imagination, insight, and compassion.
On the other hand, we see the clever, learned, and interesting magicians at Hogwarts and the whole exciting and exotic realm of sorcery. Hogwarts—the adventuresome place of wonders like magic mirrors and a Giant Squid in the lake—is a bizarre and surprising castle of gnostic secrets and here lies the reason, of course, for the immense popularity of Harry Potter. Children are taken to a romantic region of the occult. Joanne Rowling makes that occult domain enormously appealing to young minds; she makes sorcery seem normal and yet glamorous, to judge by the great success of her writing. The sober Scriptures, however, solemnly condemn all such consulting with wizards, and uttering Latin spells of enchantment, which occur routinely at Hogwarts.
The element of Gnosticism seeps through Rowling’s four books. Only the adepts of Hogwarts possess the esoteric knowledge essential for the practice of advanced sorcery; the poor Muggles know nothing of magic. In fact, the Muggles don’t even know that Hogwarts and its magical community exist. It is a serious matter for expulsion if any student practices magic in front of a Muggle; for example, on summer vacation, a rule which Harry breaks, of course. It is sometimes necessary for the super-magicians, when Muggles accidentally stumble upon a magical event, to erase through subtle arts the memory of that event in Muggle minds in order to preserve the precious secrecy of magic’s very existence. Such manipulation of human minds doesn’t trouble the lax morality of the magicians.
The nature of magic at Hogwarts castle must be examined. The author has a horizontal and pragmatic view toward magic: it works yet it bears no connection to the supernatural, nor any link to evil powers in high places. Indeed, the reader can assume that the supernatural does not even exist: the Potter realm remains a secular humanist stronghold. Apparently, author Rowling wants no messy, embarrassing presence of religion in her work. That might offend her adult readers.
Magic, then, is simply a never-explained, mechanical technique that works if the student takes courses at Hogwarts college and learns the rules. No source is given for who set up these rules in the first place, except older magicians. Beyond mentioning certain evil magicians of past or present, the source or ultimate cause of the power of black magic is not brought up. Satan, naturally, is not named or alluded to. J. K. Rowling hasn’t the slightest interest in first, or last, things. She wants to write books that sell, and lacks a traditional view of harmful magic which would link it to diabolic powers of darkness. The author appears to have no interest in theology.
The novelist Michael D. O’Brien, writing in the April 2001 Catholic World Report (“Harry Potter and the Paganization of Children’s Culture”), thinks that in real life, magic is always associated with the diabolic. He adds that the innocent readers of Harry Potter are kept from realizing this truth because in these books magic is always conveniently dissociated from the diabolic. O’Brien is right; no devils are invoked at Hogwarts, with the result that magic is made innocent and attractive for young readers, who can associate sorcery with the daring and brilliant Harry and his likable friends.
A recurrent, but unstated, assumption in Harry Potter’s world is that “white” magic is morally good, and distinct from black magic. This is an old delusion from ages past. Both white and black magicians do forbidden things; both bypass God’s commands (clearly set forth in the Old and New Testaments) and boldly seek esoteric knowledge and power. In effect, both say to God, “I’m going over to this dark smelly nook and do what you have forbidden.” Witchcraft and wizardry raise rebellion against the divine order; therefore they defile the practitioner of the dark arts, bringing harm to self and others. The usual, and only, defense of so-called white magic is to say that it does good; it has good consequences. But this utilitarian argument is proclaiming that the end justifies the means. It doesn’t; no good end justifies evil means, because we may never do evil, and the means are evil if they are magical.
An utter lack of transcendence and religion, a total absence of the sacred, prevails in these pages. God is never mentioned; no one prays, no chapel is seen, despite the fact that there are a lot of people at the college, professors, students, various others. At the “Christmas Party,” no reference to Christianity is made. Evergreen trees decorate the hall: just plain trees. You might think, at such a place, there would be a “Yuletide” celebration, but there isn’t. Not even Wiccan religion finds a place here, which gives a telling expression of the end-of-century secular zeitgeist. Harry and Hermione cannot believe that Harry’s father survived death, but will the child reader even notice this?
The verbal and stylistic shortcomings of the Potter books are numerous and annoying. Much of the writing is excessive and over-stated. Characters yell, scream, “howl,” and “roar” a great deal. Rowling likes to make every letter of such sentences a capital letter, which jump off the page. Frankly, there are better ways to achieve this effect. It is frequently an embarrassing ordeal for an adult to wade through all the blather and ranting. One longs for the artistic control of C. S. Lewis, the serenity and beauty of Tolkien, the lyrical brilliance of Dunsany.
Consider, too, the following instances of careless writing. Hagrid, the friendly giant, grows pumpkins the size of “garden sheds”; a “plump, kind-faced woman” looks “like a saber-toothed tiger.” Really? Here’s another windfall: “Harry stopped dead, his heart banging against his ribs.” Banging; poor Harry. Twice on the same page, a student “constantly” tells others to remember a certain finesse of scoring in the game of Quidittch (a kind of aerial rugby played in the sky on broomsticks). Earlier, in describing the most advanced of these broomsticks, the author writes, “...the Firebolt incidentally, has a built-in auto-brake….” Since the broomstick is controlled by enchantment, how could it need, or even use, a mechanical brake, as if it were a machine? Where were the editors when they examined Rowling’s manuscripts; did they think that anything goes because these are children’s books?
The flavor and drift of these volumes is pagan, while the moral tone is low, uninspiring. The gist is: magic is liberating and fun, but don’t bother with religion—that’s something Muggles might do. The Potter books offer nothing to children but vulgar entertainment. There is no vision here, nor wisdom.
Mr. Edward O’Brien, Jr. is an assistant professor of philosophy and literature at Delaware Valley College, Doylestown, Pa. He has also taught for Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y. and Rider College in Trenton, N.J. Mr. O’Brien has written articles for Crisis, Fidelity, New Oxford Review and The Wanderer.