I just wrote a post responding to an article in the Boston Globe about fairy tales and Harry Potter. That gives me a chance to publish on this blog an essay I wrote about the relationship of the Harry Potter stories to the Christian imagination (previously published on my old website):
The Christian Imagination and Harry Potter
The following shorthand will be used for reference in text citations:
SS – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic 1998.
CS – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Scholastic 1999.
AZ – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Scholastic 1999.
GF – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Scholastic 2000.
O – Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton. Doubleday Image Books, 1959.
CC – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Puffin Books 1973.
FOTR – The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. Ballantine Books 1973.
SCG – Summa Contra Gentiles by St. Thomas Aquinas, Notre Dame 1975.
IF – The Inferno by Dante Alighieri, translated by John Ciardi, Mentor Books, 1982.
“What! You don’t let your kids read Harry Potter! Why not?”
There is no good way for me to answer this question in a couple of sentences. But I have been asked it enough times that my lack of a satisfactory answer has become a source of frustration. My solution is to write this paper, which sets out at length my misgivings. It addresses the first four books in the series (SS, CS, AZ and GF listed above). I have not read the remaining books in the series nor seen any of the movies. My initial reading of The Sorcerer’s Stone occurred by way of pre-reading it for my children. That reading convinced me is was not appropriate for anyone attempting to raise Christian children. Some Potter supporters suggested that the series gets better in the later books, so I tried the next three in the series and found no improvement. If a series can’t demonstrate in four books and 1600 pages that it is worth reading, then it isn’t worth reading.
This paper is not intended as a general criticism of the books but an explanation why I, as a parent, have censored them. In particular, it explains why I think the books will impede rather than foster the kind of education which I wish my children to receive.
After reading the Potter books myself, I read some of its critics. The critics give the general impression of focusing on the trees while missing the forest. They object to this or that aspect of the series – Potter’s disobedience, for example – but do not address the structure and meaning of the series as a whole. My own rejection of the series does not so much rest on specific objections, although I have them as well, but on general impressions. The series strikes me as imaginatively wrong. My specific objections are symptoms of what I see as the fundamentally flawed nature of the books. Potter’s disobedience, for example, I do not see as an isolated problem but as flowing from the sort of world J.K. Rowling has constructed. My criticism, therefore, will focus on delineating the imaginative structure of the books and explaining why that structure is problematic. I will begin by turning to G.K. Chesterton, the great English essayist from the last century.
The Baptism of the Imagination
In his wonderful book Orthodoxy, Chesterton describes the development of his personal philosophy, a philosophy he thought idiosyncratic but later discovered to be nothing other than orthodox Christianity as it has been taught in the West for centuries. In Chesterton's image, he was like an explorer planting his flag on a new, uncharted continent, only to discover that he had mistakenly landed on the coast of England. Far from a grand disappointment, Chesterton thought this circumstance the best of both worlds: It combined the thrill of adventurous discovery with the joy of returning home.
Chesterton did not think his accidental, personal redevelopment of Christian philosophy was, well, an accident. He attributed it to the fact that he was animaginative Christian long before he was a believing one. Although he never attended the English equivalent of Sunday school, he received an unintentionally Christian education simply by being educated in an England informed by over a thousand years of Christianity (Chesterton was born in 1874). Christianity had seeped into all aspects of the culture, including its music, art and especially literature. One could not help being formed, at least to some degree, in Christian terms. In Chesterton's case, it was the most humble form of literature, the fairy tale, that had the most influence on his imaginative development:
"My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery." (O, 49)
Chesterton understood that his early education in fairy tales provided the framework within which he came to interpret the world:
"Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticised elfland, but elfland that criticised earth. I knew the magic beanstalk before I had tasted beans; I was sure of the Man in the Moon before I was certain of the moon." (O, 49)
What did Chesterton learn from fairy tales? "Many noble and healthy principles", he writes, among them
".. the chivalrous lesson of 'Jack the Giant Killer'; that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny against pride as such. For the rebel is older than all the kingdoms, and the Jacobin has more tradition than the Jacobite. There is the lesson of 'Cinderella', which is the same as that of the Magnificat - exaltavit humiles. There is the great lesson of 'Beauty and the Beast'; that a thing must be loved before it is lovable. There is the terrible allegory of 'Sleeping Beauty,' which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep." (O, 50)
We can learn from Chesterton's experience the critical significance that imaginative development has on the development of the person. The imagination forms the terms in which an individual sees himself and the world. In Chesterton's case, because he drank deeply of classical Western literature, especially fairy tales, his imagination was cast in the Christian categories of faith, hope, charity, hospitality, patience, justice, mercy, humility and fidelity. As he matured, he mentally processed the world in these terms. And when he finally came to undertake a mature appraisal of Christianity, he came to the task with an imagination prepared to see the depth and truth of the Christian story.
Chesterton teaches us that while knowing the formal Christian doctrines is important, it is even more important to have imaginatively experienced the incarnationof those doctrines. A child raised in a secular home may have never heard of the Virgin Mary, but if he has read Cinderella, then he has imaginatively experienced the virtues of humility, charity and patience in the figure of Cinderella. His imagination has become tuned to the Christian story and will resonate to it when he finally hears it. A child who has not heard imaginatively Christian stories, or has been raised on stories that are anti-Christian in imaginative content, is less likely to respond to the Gospel. His imagination will be tuned to reject the Gospel. There are many Biblical metaphors that apply: He will have ears that do not hear, he will be the rocky path on which the seed is cast but cannot grow.
Chesterton explains that fairy tales do more than simply incarnate Christian virtue. They provide an imaginative structure in which Christian virtue makes sense. A Christian is someone who finds salvation in that which is outside or above himself. The important thing about his story is what he encounters – grace – and not so much what he finds out about himself. Thus Jack of beanstalk fame is brave and resourceful, but those virtues only manifest themselves in the context of the grace he receives from a mysterious stranger. It is the magic beans Jack receives in trade that allow him to climb to the sky and win back a golden egg laying hen and a singing harp. This story obviously retains the imaginative arc of the Christian story. Through grace, the Christian is able to win back what was lost through sin and make his way back to heaven.
The Christian virtues of faith, hope, love, patience, hospitality and humility only make sense because the Christian is looking to receive something wonderful from outside. These virtues make the person open to the experience of grace when it is offered. Cinderella suffers the insults and oppression of her stepmother with patience and humility and therefore is open to the grace she receives from the fairy Godmother. Snow White and Rose Red show hospitality to a wandering bear and patience with an abusive dwarf. Later, their virtue is rewarded when the bear reveals himself to be a prince who was put under a curse. The miller’s son in Puss in Boots, inheriting nothing but a cat from his father, finds that his faith in the cat is rewarded when the cat makes his fortune. Like Jack and the Beanstalk, these stories follow the Christian imaginative structure in which humble individuals, through the Christian virtues, experience the grace that saves them.
Suppose there was no fairy Godmother in Cinderella, no cursed prince in Snow White and Rose Red, and no clever cat in Puss in Boots. Suppose the magic beans are duds like Jack’s mother thought they were. What would become of the virtues of faith, hope, patience and hospitality? Absent grace, these virtues simply leave the person open to abuse. In fact, without grace they are not virtues at all. Without a fairy Godmother, Cinderella’s patience is pointless and she becomes merely a doormat for her stepmother and stepsisters. Snow White and Rose Red, absent the hidden prince, are merely foolish for showing hospitality to a bear and patience with the dwarf. And Jack would be the fool his mother said he is. These stories cannot be told without the element of grace and the virtues they incarnate do not make sense without grace.
Without a fairy Godmother, what is Cinderella to do? Clearly, since she can’t hope for grace, she must rely on herself. The story would become the story of Cinderella discovering the resources within her to affect her liberation from her oppressive stepmother. If she marries the Prince at all, it will only be as a strong woman who has established her own destiny. We are left with a story that, imaginatively, has the structure of self-fulfillment and liberation rather than salvation through grace. Instead of humility, patience, faith and obedience, the virtues that would be significant for Cinderella are strength, courage and resourcefulness.
Our first clue that something is imaginatively wrong with the Harry Potter books is that these latter virtues are the ones most often cited in defense of Harry Potter. The Potter books may not be perfect, the defenders say, but they provide good examples of courage, resourcefulness and determination for children. The defenders are right that Potter shows these virtues, but they do not see that these are Potter’s most prominent virtues because they are the ones necessary in a world without grace. And a world without grace is an imaginatively unchristian world.
Instead of grace, Potter relies on magic. Cinderella, Jack and Snow White are not magical, but fairy Godmothers and beans are. Standing the fairy tale tradition on its head, the Harry Potter books make Potter more magical than anything he encounters. The dramatic arc of every Potter book involves Potter defeating cosmic evil by finding ever deeper magical resources within him, along with the virtues to use them – like courage and resourcefulness. Thus the theme of the Potter books is how Potter finds salvation within, rather than without through grace.
Potter is encouraged on his interior voyage by constant reminders of how special and wonderful he is. These start with Hagrid in The Sorcerer’s Stone, who first reveals to Harry that he is a wizard, “an a thumpin’ good’un.” (SS 51) Hagrid also teaches Harry the meaning of some mysterious events in his life:
" ' Not a wizard, eh? Never made things happen when you was scared or angry?'
Harry looked into the fire. Now he came to think about it... every odd thing that had ever made his aunt and uncle furious with him had happened when he, Harry, had been upset or angry... chased by Dudley's gang, he had somehow found himself out of their reach... dreading going to school with that ridiculous haircut, he'd managed to make it grow back... and the very last time Dudley had hit him, hadn't he got his revenge, without even realizing it? Hadn't he set a boa constrictor on him?
Harry looked back at Hagrid, smiling, and saw that Hagrid was positively beaming at him." (SS 58)
We see that Potter’s first experience of true wonder is wonder at himself and his truly magical nature. We also learn something of the meaning magic will have for Potter: Magic will be the means by which he overcomes obstacles and defeats enemies. No need for grace here. Note also the curious lack of concern over Potter’s ability to unconsciously exact revenge on enemies. One might think that Potter and Hagrid would at least be worried that Potter sometimes unleashes violence without knowing it, but Hagrid views it with all the pride of a father seeing his son ride a bicycle for the first time. What is important for Potter is that he has begun to know himself, not that he might have unknowingly caused another boy to be swallowed by a snake.
Potter’s famous (or infamous) disobedience is related to the fact that his salvation lies within rather than without. Obedience is the virtue by which we relate ourselves to that which is greater and more wonderful than us. But anytime we might start thinking that there might be more wonderful things in the world than Harry Potter, we are reminded just how special he is (SS 69, SS 95, CS 3, GF 72 among many others). What point is there in obedience for “the Harry Potter”? Potter is the most wonderful thing there is, so there is nothing greater than himself to which he could relate.
It is useful to compare Harry Potter with another famous fictional boy, Charlie Bucket of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Charlie’s story bears some resemblance to Harry Potter’s. Both are taken out of difficult family circumstances into a wonderful new world where only a select few gain entry. Both, in the end, stand out from others by having a unique vocation in that world. But the differences are significant. Charlie is entirely non-magical while Potter is the most gifted of wizards. Potter gains entry to Hogwarts by right of his magical nature. Charlie wins a tour of the magical Chocolate Factory by finding a golden ticket in a chocolate bar (we recognize the classic fairy tale moment of grace – it even happens in a chapter entitled The Miracle). By the end of Chocolate Factory, we have learned that the tour was really an opportunity for Willy Wonka to select an heir. Charlie becomes that heir, and he is selected because of his obedience:
“Someone’s got to keep it going – if only for the sake of the Oompa-Loompas. Mind you, there are thousands of clever men who would give anything for the chance to come in and take over from me, but I don’t want that sort of person. I don’t want a grown-up person at all. A grownup won’t listen to me; he won’t learn. He will try to do things his own way and not mine. So I have to have a child. I want a good sensible loving child, one to whom I can tell all my most precious candy-making secrets – while I am still alive.” (CC 157)
Wonka has the insight to understand that obedience is a fruit of love:
“ ‘How I love my chocolate factory,’ said Mr. Wonka, gazing down. Then he paused, and he turned around and looked at Charlie with a most serious expression on his face. ‘Do you love it too, Charlie?’ he asked.
‘Oh, yes,’ cried Charlie, ‘I think it is the most wonderful place in the whole world!’ (CC 156)
Of course Wonka already knows the answer to his question. Charlie’s humble submission to the rules of the Chocolate Factory has revealed his wonder at the factory and his love for it. Charlie obeys the rules because he recognizes that the factory is something greater and more wonderful than he is. He knows that the factory has a structure and life beyond his understanding, and therefore his experience of the factory will involve following rules the purpose of which he does not yet see. Charlie has no problem with this. The Chocolate Factory is more wonderful than anything he could imagine - who could complain of a couple of rules? Chesterton captures this attitude wonderfully in Orthodoxy:
“Remember, however, that to be breakable is not the same as to be perishable. Strike a glass, and it will not endure an instant; simply do not strike it, and it will endure a thousand years. Such, it seemed, was the joy of man, either in elfland or on earth; that happiness depended on not doing something which you could at any moment do and which, very often, it was not obvious why you should not do. Now, the point here is that to me this did not seem unjust. If the miller’s third son said to the fairy, ‘Explain why I must not stand on my head in the fairy palace,’ the other might fairly reply, ‘Well, if it comes to that, explain the fairy palace.’ If Cinderella says, ‘How is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?’ her godmother might answer, ‘How is it that you are going there till twelve?’ If I leave a man in my will ten talking elephants and a hundred winged horses, he cannot complain if the conditions partake of the slight eccentricity of the gift… I did not feel disposed to resist any rule merely because it was mysterious.” (O 57)
The other children on the tour, lacking Charlie’s wonder, see the factory as merely an opportunity to satisfy their appetites. The rules for them are mere obstacles in the path of self-gratification. So they disobey the rules and suffer the just punishment of all those who try to exploit that which is greater than themselves: Not only do they not get what they want but they are ejected from the factory altogether. Charlie perseveres in his obedience and is rewarded in the end with the Chocolate Factory itself - “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” (Luke 18:17)
Harry Potter disobeys the rules of Hogwarts but, unlike Veruca Salt and Mike TeeVee, he is not ejected from the fairy palace. This is because the real fairy palace is Potter himself, not Hogwarts. Wonder calls for obedience, and since Potter himself is the focus of wonder, it follows that Potter must obey his own nature rather than others. In today’s parlance, he must be “true to himself.” Hogwarts is merely the occasion for Potter to discover himself, not the thing to be discovered as the Chocolate Factory is for Charlie Bucket.
No one understands this better than Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts and a figure often compared to Gandalf of The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf, however, is a semi-angelic figure sent by a higher power to provide assistance to Middle Earth. His assistance sometimes takes the form of wise counsel, occasionally includes magical intervention, and other times comes as authoritative commands that demand obedience. Gandalf is not interested in assisting individuals in exploring their inner selves but in saving Middle Earth from domination by evil. Dumbledore, however, understands that the most wonderful thing in his world is Harry Potter and that the important thing going on at Hogwarts is Potter’s discovery of himself. Therefore obedience to the school rules, and even obedience to Dumbledore himself, is secondary to Potter doing what he needs to do to discover his destiny:
“ ‘I seem to remember telling you both that I would have to expel you if you broke any more school rules,’ said Dumbledore.
Ron opened his mouth in horror.
‘ Which goes to show that the best of us must sometimes eat our words,’ Dumbledore went on, smiling. ‘ You will both receive Special Awards for Services to the School…’” (CS 331)
Dumbledore patiently ratifies Harry’s disobedience at the end of every book, but the obtuse Hogwarts teachers never seem to get the point and they continue to harass Harry about minor rules violations in the next book, even after Harry repeatedly saves Hogwarts from domination by the evil Lord Voldemort.
Lord Voldemort is the Sauron character in the Potter series, but as Dumbledore isn’t really Gandalf, Voldemort isn’t really Sauron. Sauron’s objective is domination of Middle Earth through recovery of the One Ring into which he has cast his power. Sauron normally ignores the non-magical Hobbits as creatures unworthy of his attention. He becomes interested in them only because he has learned that the Hobbits might possess the Ring. The thematic irony of The Lord of the Rings is that the great and powerful Sauron is brought low by the humble Hobbits, and by the very virtue of their humility. It is the same irony found inJack and the Beanstalk, Puss in Boots and the Gospel of Luke, but it is not found in Sorcerer’s Stone or the other Potter books. Voldemort’s primary objective is always Harry Potter himself because Potter is the most extraordinary of wizards. The Jacks, Charlie Buckets, Frodos and miller’s sons of traditional stories are undistinguished in their ordinariness, but Potter has a lightning scar on his forehead that marks him as unique even among wizards. He is “the Harry Potter.” No one ever said this about Charlie Bucket. It is Potter’s superlative magical power that Voldemort wants, and the plot of each book is a variation on Voldemort’s attempts to tap into it, literally in the case of The Goblet of Fire.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” (Matt. 13:45-46) Charlie Bucket understands the meaning of this passage, as he spends his last pennies on the chocolate bar in which he finds the golden ticket. Children who have read Chocolate Factory will have an imaginative understanding of it as well. But in the Potter books, it is Harry himself who is the “pearl of great price.” It is important not to underestimate the depth of this imaginative revolution. Harry’s disobedience is not a quirk of character. Harry is disobedient because he lives in the kind of world where obedience makes no sense, especially for him. What could Harry hope to obtain through obedience that he doesn’t have already? More to the point, how will a child respond to Matt. 13:45-46 when his imagination has been shaped by the Potter books?
The imaginative revolution at the heart of the Potter books affects the meaning of everything in his world. Magic, for instance, has a very different meaning in the Potter books than it has in the classic tales. “Good magic” in the classic tales is really a metaphor for grace. Jack is graced by the mysterious stranger with magic beans, Cinderella is graced by the fairy Godmother with a chance to go to the ball. The reader’s first encounter with magic in The Lord of the Ringsestablishes that it too will follow the classical imaginative structure. This happens at Bilbo Baggins’s eleventy-first birthday party. Gandalf the wizard is in attendance and graces the hobbits with some magical fireworks:
“The fireworks were by Gandalf: they were not only brought by him, but designed and made by him; and the special effects, set pieces, and flights of rockets were let off by him. But there was also a generous distribution of squibs, crackers, backarappers, sparklers, torches, dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers and thunder-claps. They were all superb. The art of Gandalf improved with age.” (FOTR 51)
Gandalf’s fireworks are an excellent example of the imaginative similarity between classical tales and the Gospel. Bilbo’s party bears a striking resemblance to the Wedding at Cana in John 2:1-11. In both, “magic” (grace) occurs in the context of a feast and for the purpose of facilitating joy. It is performed by supernatural (or semi-supernatural) beings in service to the humble (or non-magical). The magic complements rather than dominates or destroys the natural aspects of the feast - in the traditional phrase, “grace fulfills nature.” Magic unites wizards and Hobbits, man and the Son of Man. And in both cases, magic has a deeper meaning than most of those in attendance realize, but one in harmony with the surface meaning. In Gandalf’s case, he has traveled to Hobbiton not merely to enliven the party, but to use his power, including magic power, to assist the Hobbits in defending the Shire and Middle Earth from the threat of Sauron. In the case of Christ, He has become incarnate on Earth not merely to restore conviviality to a party, but to save man from sin and the Devil (or, we might say, restore conviviality between man and God). In both cases, magic reveals that the wizard has come to serve, not to be served, and to defend the humble from evils they cannot begin to understand.
While “good magic” in classical tales is a metaphor for grace, “bad magic” is an instrument of self-will and domination. The evil Queen attempts to destroy Snow White with magic combs and poisoned apples in service to her vanity. In Snow White and Rose Red, a dwarf puts a curse on a Prince that changes him into a bear so that he can steal the Prince’s gold. In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron controls the will of others through crystal balls. He and Saruman create orcs and Uruk-hai by magically twisting and torturing the nature of elves.
From a classical perspective, all magic in the Potter series is “bad magic.” This is true whether the wizards who use it are putatively “good” or “bad”. Potter magic is always fundamentally violent in its nature and an expression of domination rather than service. The difference between the good and the bad wizards is that the good wizards use magical violence for allegedly “good” ends, while the bad wizards use it for “bad” ends. But the means are the same in either case. In the case noted earlier, the good wizards Harry Potter and Hagrid are proud and happy that Harry was able to unconsciously unleash a boa constrictor on Harry’s childhood enemy Dudley Dursley. This is OK because Dudley is a bad guy. One can’t imagine a fairy Godmother, Gandalf (or Christ!) being filled with joy about such an event. That same scene continues with Hagrid, cast as the jolly, gentle giant in the series, assaulting 11-year old Dudley in a fit of rage:
" 'I AM NOT PAYING FOR SOME CRACKPOT OLD FOOL TO TEACH HIM MAGIC TRICKS!' yelled Uncle Vernon.
But he had finally gone too far. Hagrid seized his umbrella and whirled it over his head. "NEVER --" he thundered, "-- INSULT --- ALBUS -- DUMBLEDORE -- IN -- FRONT -- OF -- ME!"
He brought the umbrella swishing down through the air to point at Dudley -- there was a flash of violet light, a sound like a firecracker, a sharp squeal, and the next second, Dudley was dancing on the spot with his hands clasped over his fat bottom, howling in pain. When he turned his back on them, Harry saw a curly pig's tail poking through a hole in his trousers.
Uncle Vernon roared. Pulling Aunt Petunia and Dudley into the other room, he cast one last terrified look at Hagrid and slammed the door behind them.
Hagrid looked down at his umbrella and stroked his beard.
"Shouldn'ta lost me temper," he said ruefully, "but it didn't work anyway. Meant ter turn him into a pig, but I suppose he was so much like a pig anyway there wasn't much left ter do." (SS 59).
And this is how the good guys use magic! Magically maiming a boy is something only evil characters like witches and Saruman might do in classical tales. Forget imaginative content, what Hagrid has done is an assault on a minor that should put him in the state penitentiary for years. But it is an indication of the degree to which our imaginations have fallen that many Potter defenders do not see the horror of this scene. I have heard them defend Hagrid’s assault on the basis that Dudley is a bad kid and deserves what he gets. This is the same rationalization Mafiosi use for murdering other wiseguys. And like a wiseguy, Harry takes joy in the humiliation of his enemies. The Sorcerer’s Stone ends with Harry relishing the terror he will inflict on Dudley with magic:
“ ‘Oh , I will, said Harry, and they were surprised at the grin that was spreading over his face. ‘They don’t know we’re not allowed to use magic at home. I’m going to have a lot of fun with Dudley this summer….’”
In case the reader thinks that magical violence in the Potter series isn’t real violence (“cartoon violence”), the text makes clear that magical attacks hurt just as much as conventional ones. Three years and three books later, Dudley is still traumatized by Hagrid’s attack. The author points this out while inviting us to chuckle at his misfortune:
"Dudley had emerged from his last encounter with a fully-grown wizard with a curly pig's tail poking out of the seat of his trousers, and Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had had to pay for its removal at a private hospital in London. It wasn't altogether surprising, therefore, that Dudley kept running his hand nervously over his backside, and walking sideways from room to room, so as not to present the same target to the enemy." (GF 40).
The violent nature of magic in the Potter series provides a case study in how bad literature shapes, or rather, warps, the imaginative understanding of good and evil. The great danger for the Christian is not that evil will come to dominate the world. Although still able to create havoc, the Devil cannot defeat God and God’s victory has already been assured through the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The danger for the Christian is that he might separate himself from God and His Victory through sin. The Devil cannot win, but he can drag men down with him in his defeat by tempting them to sin. Therefore, although the Christian has a duty to battle the objective forces of evil in the world, his primary battle is with the sin in his own heart. Someone once wrote that “the line between heaven and hell runs through the heart of every man.” Attempting to defeat external evil with evil means is self-defeating, since even if he wins, man will discover that his sin has turned him into the very evil he was fighting. As usual, Tolkien has imagined this truth in an enlightening way in The Lord of the Rings. Sauron is the external enemy, and the One Ring is his primary weapon. The good peoples of Middle Earth, including Hobbits, Dwarves, Men and Elves, gain possession of the Ring and are sorely tempted to use it against Sauron. Gandalf warns them that any such use will be self-defeating as it will corrupt their wills. The Ring is, in a word, sin. Gandalf himself refuses to touch the Ring for fear that he will be unable to resist the temptation to become his own Sauron (“lead us not into temptation.”) Hobbits, because of their humility, are the only ones who can be safely trusted with the Ring. Only when the subjective struggle with sin has been won can the external battle be joined with hope of victory. This is the reason that, for Christians, the end can never justify the means.
In the Potter series there is no subjective side to evil. There is no sin. How could there be when the premise of the series is that Potter’s salvation lies within him? Potter is in no danger of separating himself from God since there is no God or God-figure from which he might be separated. The danger for Potter is entirely external in the form of Voldemort and his followers. It follows that, for Potter, the end justifies the means in defeating Voldemort. This is another reason that Dumbledore always justifies Potter’s actions in retrospect. Potter is never in any danger of corrupting his own nature through sin, but is always in danger of being destroyed by Voldemort. The defeat of Voldemort is therefore itself sufficient justification for whatever Potter has to do to achieve it.
Thus follows the violent and ruthless use of magic by the “good” wizards. In their struggle against Voldemort, Potter and his friends do things like magically light a teacher’s robes on fire (SS 191) and paralyze their own friend (SS 273). Borrowing a tactic from the evil Queen of Snow White, they feed other students poisoned treats to render them unconscious (CS 213). Even Dumbledore has no qualms about using magic in Gestapo-like fashion. In The Goblet of Fire, he forces a confession from a suspect with the use of truth serum (GF 683), a technique that would have warmed the heart of Heinrich Himmler. The imaginative lie told by the series is that good people can resort to such tactics while maintaining the purity of their hearts. Tolkien knew better.
The reality of sin is also what makes the pleasure of revenge dangerous for Christians. “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt 8:14-15) To enter heaven we must become like God, and God is merciful. If we are merciless we make our natures contrary to God’s nature and we will not be able to stand His presence. But Potter doesn’t need God because he has magic. Therefore revenge isn’t a danger for him and he indulges in it with relish. The prospect of revenge on which Sorcerer’s Stone ends has already been noted. The Goblet of Fire ends with Potter and friends enjoying revenge on some minor enemies. In this instance, they literally kick their opponents when they are down:
“Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle were all lying unconscious in the doorway…
‘Thought we’d see what those three were up to,’ said Fred matter-of-factly, stepping onto Goyle into the apartment. He had his wand out, and so did George, who was careful to tread on Malfoy as he followed Fred inside….
Ron, Harry, and George kicked, rolled, and pushed the unconscious Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle … out into the corridor.” (GF 730)
Like Sorcerer’s Stone, Prisoner of Azkaban ends with Potter looking forward to some “fun” with the Dursleys:
“ ‘ Godfather?’ sputtered Uncle Vernon. ‘ You haven’t got a godfather!’
‘ Yes, I have,’ said Harry brightly. ‘He was my mum and dad’s best friend. He’s a convicted murderer, but he’s broken out of wizard prison and he’s on the run. He likes to keep in touch with me, though… keep up with my news… check if I’m happy….’
And, grinning broadly at the look of horror on Uncle Vernon’s face, Harry set off toward the station exit, Hedwig rattling along in front of him, for what looked like a much brighter summer than last.’”
Note also the twisting of the traditional Catholic figure of the godfather. Harry’s “godfather” is in the corrupt tradition of Vito Corleone, someone you call on to intimidate enemies rather than guide your development in the faith. I will not go into depth on this topic here, but Christian elements occur regularly throughout the series – Christmas and Easter are prominent holidays, for example – but are always either distorted or evacuated of meaning.
The Created World
“Created things are made like unto God by the fact that they attain to divine goodness. If then, all things tend toward God as an ultimate end, so that they may attain His goodness, it follows that the ultimate end of things is to become like God.” (SCG III ch. 19, p. 1)
If the world is as the Catholic Church says it is, then it was created by a good and intelligent God for the purpose of reflecting His Glory. St. Thomas tells us that everything seeks God as an ultimate end and seeks to become like God. Things accomplish this in a variety of ways and with varying levels of perfection. Brute matter imitates God by simply existing, since God is existence itself. Living things imitate God more perfectly since they are not only acted on like brute matter, but are a source of their own actions as well, as God is the ultimate source of all action. And among living things, intelligent creatures like men and angels imitate God in a special way because they have a rational intellect and will, just as God is the supreme Intellect and Will.
This is the sacramental understanding of nature. Nature is not merely a thing in its own right, but a sign indicating the nature of God Himself. We can know something about God through nature the way an artist can be known through his work. St. Thomas tells us that among the things we can learn about God through nature is His Wisdom:
“…meditation on His works enables us in some measure to admire and reflect upon His wisdom. For things made by art are representative of that art itself, being made in likeness to the art. Now, God brought things into being by His wisdom; wherefore the Psalm (103:24) declares ‘Thou hast made all things in wisdom.’ Hence, from refection upon God’s works we are able to infer His wisdom, since, by a certain communication of His likeness, it is spread abroad in the things He has made.” (SCG II Ch. 2 p. 2).
We not only learn something of God’s wisdom through creation, but also his power:
“Secondly, this consideration [of God’s works] leads to admiration of God’s sublime power, and consequently inspires in men’s hearts reverence for God. For the power of the worker is necessarily understood to transcend the things made. And so it is said: ‘If they,’ namely the philosophers, ‘admired their power and effects,’ namely of the heavens, stars, and elements of the world, ‘let them understand that He that made them is mightier than they’ (Wisd. 13:4)” (SCG II Ch. 2, p. 3)
Finally, and most importantly for my purposes, creation fires the heart of man to love God:
“Thirdly, this consideration incites the souls of men to the love of God’s goodness. For whatever goodness and perfection is distributed to the various creatures, in partial or particular measure, is united together in Him universally, as in the source of all goodness… If therefore, the goodness, beauty, and delightfulness of creatures are so alluring to the minds of men, the fountainhead of God’s own goodness, compared with the rivulets of goodness found in creatures, will draw the enkindled minds wholly to itself.” (SCG II, ch. 2, para 4)
If we are to have truly Catholic minds, we must not only assent intellectually to the sacramental character of nature, but we must see it sacramentally as well. This is what it means to be an imaginative Catholic and not merely an intellectual one. Have you noticed that some people like to collect items signed by famous celebrities? A jersey signed by a famous athlete or anything signed by a Hollywood star are popular. What does a signature do to a jersey that makes people willing to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars for one? The signature makes the jersey a link to the fabulous life of the athlete, as though we share in or have a stake in the athlete’s life because of it. Yet everything in creation has been signed by God as its author. They are all links to His Life. If we start to see ordinary things the way a collector sees a signed jersey, then our imaginations are becoming sacramental.
Traditional fantasy stories develop such imaginations by infusing ordinary items with extraordinary meaning. Jack’s beans are junk to his mother but turn into a ladder that leads him to fabulous fortune. A wardrobe becomes a door to the magical world of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Charlie’s Chocolate bar becomes a ticket to the wonderful Chocolate Factory. Will we ever look at beans and chocolate bars the same way again? No more than we will look at wine the same way after Cana. Something of the magic of the “signed jersey” has passed into all of them through the stories.
Superficially, the Harry Potter series may seem to be written with a sacramental imagination. But the Potter stories are really anti-sacramental in character. Magical items in Potter’s world are not ordinary things manifesting extraordinary power, but purely magical things that replace ordinary things entirely. Magical items are routinely contrasted with their “feeble” Muggle (non-magical) alternatives. Most wizards have become so unfamiliar with ordinary items and so dependent on magic that they no longer know how to work even simple mechanical devices like televisions. Nearly all are utterly uninterested in mundane Muggle reality. One of the few exceptions, Arthur Weasley, is considered an eccentric for his interest in learning about things like Muggle “eckeltricity” (GF 46).
The point of magic beans and golden tickets is that they might lead anyone to discover a fabulous magical world. We are all in danger of stepping into Narnia simply by stepping into our closets. The next handful of beans we pick up might be magic beans. But the Muggles in Harry’s world need not worry about discovering Hogwarts because the only way to get there is by a secret train carefully concealed by the wizards. Even if they do accidentally become aware of magic, the Ministry of Magic is ready to swoop in and involuntarily erase the memories of any inconvenient Muggles. The Potter books put the magical world in stark opposition to the ordinary world. They not only do not infuse ordinary things with extraordinary meaning, they drain ordinary things of any dignity at all.
Although wizards uniformly prefer magical to ordinary reality, the magical world of Hogwarts has a curious nature that is consistently ugly, distorted and violent. In a typical classroom exercise in Prof. Sprout’s Herbology class, for instance, the students repot Mandrake plants. The plants themselves are “tufty little plants, purplish green in color.” (CS 92) But when pulled out of the pots, the magical nature of the plants reveals itself:
“Instead of roots, a small, muddy, and extremely ugly baby popped out of the earth. The leaves were growing right out of his head. He had pale green, mottled skin, and was clearly bawling at the top of his longs.” (CS 93)
It turns out that the cry of these babies is not only loud but somehow dangerous, even fatal to one who hears it. The students wear hearing protection and the Professor quickly stuffs the baby into the earth of another pot. Mandrake plants are a “powerful restorative”, says Hermione, so presumably these plants will be ground up one day and turned into potions. Babies, traditionally icons of innocence and hope, become in the Potter stories repulsive, dangerous things that must be stuffed into the earth and later ground into powder. I wonder how anyone reading this passage could want their children to read The Chamber of Secrets. And the disgusting babies are only one item in an endless procession of repulsive magical creatures. Prof. Lupin’s class uses a water demon, “a sickly green creature with sharp little horns” that spends its time “pulling faces and flexing its long spindly fingers.” (AZ 154) As if the ugly babies weren’t bad enough, Prof. Sprout’s class gets worse two years later in The Goblet of Fire. Potter and friends must work with bobotubers,
“… the ugliest plants Harry had ever seen. Indeed, they looked less like plants than thick, black, giant slugs, protruding vertically out of the soil. Each was squirming slightly and had a number of large, shiny swellings upon it, which appeared to be full of liquid.” (GF 194)
Like contestants on the television show Fear Factor, the students are required to squeeze the bobotubers:
“Squeezing the bobotubers was disgusting, but oddly satisfying. As each swelling was popped, a large amount of thick yellowish-green liquid burst forth, which smelled strongly of petrol.” (GF 195)
We are a long way from Wonka’s factory with its chocolate waterfalls and candy grass. We are even further from Tolkien’s elvish realms of Rivendell and Lorien, lands of surpassing beauty:
“The others cast themselves down upon the fragrant grass, but Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely,
but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lorien there was no stain.” (FOTR 454)
Why is Potter’s world so thoroughly ugly? The anti-sacramental character of magic in Potter’s world explains its ugliness. Beauty is sacramental. It is a manifestation of order, and order always has an author. The chocolate waterfalls and candy grass of Wonka’s factory are not only wonderful in themselves but say something about the character of Wonka himself. Ugliness points to nothing but itself. Ugliness is a sign of disorder and disorder has no author. What sort of creator would create bobotubers? It might be objected that there are things just as ugly in the real created world. But from the Catholic perspective, whatever ugliness and disorder is in creation is a defect that results from the original sin of Man, a “stain” on the Earth in Tolkien’s words. The ugliness of Hogwarts is not a stain on an otherwise beautiful world, but the world itself. There is nothing beautiful at Hogwarts – even the name itself is ugly. Hogwart’s ugliness is a sign that it has no creator.
Besides being beautiful, a created world is one that has been made in terms of an intelligible order according to a transcendent wisdom. Such a world is governed by providence, even down to the most apparently trivial of chance events. St. Thomas Aquinas explains:
“Furthermore, created things are subject to divine providence inasmuch as they are ordered by it to their ultimate end, which is divine goodness. Therefore, the participation of the divine goodness by created things is accomplished by divine providence. But even contingent singulars participate in divine goodness. So, divine providence must extend even to them.
“Hence it is said: ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will’ (Matt. 10:29).” (SCG III, Ch. 75, para. 14-15)
The existence of the Creator makes the world a far different place for a Christian than it was, say, for an ancient Greek. The Greek did not think that there was a fundamental order to the world. The powers of the world, personified in the gods, were not in harmony with each other and were often willful and capricious. They normally took no notice of the mortal Greek, and when they did, it was usually because the mortal found himself unwittingly involved in their disputes. The tragedy for the Greek was that his destiny often hung on the outcome of petty divine disputes over which he had no control and may not have even understood.
For the Christian, there are no divine disputes, only a wise Creator and his creation, ordered according to a profound wisdom which nothing can escape. The Christian’s destiny hangs on how he comes to terms with God and his order. Dante shows that even in Hell there is no escaping the order God has imposed. Hell is not a chaos but every element is strictly ordered by the wisdom and justice of God. This order gives Hell what dignity it has. Dante’s gate to Hell reads:
“I AM THE WAY INTO THE CITY OF WOE.
I AM THE WAY TO A FORSAKEN PEOPLE.
I AM THE WAY TO ETERNAL SORROW.
SACRED JUSTICE MOVED MY ARCHITECT.
I WAS RAISED HERE BY DIVINE OMNIPOTENCE,
PRIMORDIAL LOVE AND ULTIMATE INTELLECT.
ONLY THOSE ELEMENTS TIME CANNOT WEAR
WERE MADE BEFORE ME, AND BEYOND TIME I STAND.
ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.” (IF, Canto III)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a created world that is, if it may be put this way, Dantesque in its imaginative structure. But instead of a tour of Hell, Wonka gives a tour of his chocolate Eden. Willy Wonka is clearly the creator of the factory and the agent of its providence. Nothing, not the chocolate river, the candy buttercups, or a single blade of sugary grass escapes his purview. Like Eden, there are delights to be seen and eaten that the children never imagined, more than they could ever want. But woe to those who would defy its established order. Like Adam and Eve when they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the children on Wonka’s tour are each ejected in turn from the chocolate Eden when they eat what has not been given to them.
Now let us examine an apparently innocuous, typical classroom exercise at Hogwarts, found in Ch. 8 of The Sorcerer's Stone. Potter is sitting in his first “transfigurations” class, taught by Prof. McGonagall (SS 134). (The class is really about transformations, not transfigurations. Transfiguration is the visible shining forth of the inner nature of a thing. What Potter learns in this class is how to change one thing into another.) After stating that transformations are complex and dangerous, she demonstrates a transformation by magically changing her desk into a pig and back again. The students then practice magically changing matches into pins. This seems like a technical exercise in magic of no great significance. But on reflection a series of questions come to mind: Why did McGonagall change the desk into a pig and not something else? Is there any wisdom underlying her action? Is there some reason wizards like to turn things into pigs? (Remember that Hagrid earlier attempted to turn Dudley into a pig.) What about that unfortunate pig that briefly flames into existence, in utter bewilderment, then abruptly flashes out of existence? The natural creation of a pig occurs in the context of a pig family and maybe a pig farm. The new pig has its proper place in the scheme of things, a place that anticipates the pig's coming into existence and accounts for its departure. I mean nothing especially deep by this point. Just that a normal pig's life is an organic development in its world and is an expression of that world's history and its future. The pig is part and parcel of the created order into which it is born. McGonagall’s pig, on the other hand, gives a new and terrible meaning to the word orphan. Her pig springs from nowhere, belongs nowhere, and vanishes into nowhere. It is unnatural in the deepest sense, a product of artifice alien to all others of its kind, created in a manner indifferent to any transcendent creative order. If this pig is like a sparrow that does not “fall to the ground without your Father’s will”, McGonagall shows no indication she has any concern about what that will might be.
Is this what she meant by saying that transformations are dangerous - because they introduce novel, radical and alien elements into the fabric of creation? Clearly it is not. Her meaning is the obvious and trivial one that a transformation may overtly backfire on a wizard, say if he intended to transform something into a pig but instead turned it into a fire-breathing dragon. The fact that the arbitrary creation, destruction and transformation of things, including living beings, is perfectly licit in Potter’s world is an indication that it is a world without a created order (or, at least, without a created order that need be respected.)
The most important lesson taught by McGonagall in that first class is unspoken and unintentional. It has nothing to do with the mechanics of transformations. It pertains to the meaning of magic in Potter’s world. There seems to be no particular reason why McGonagall changed a desk into a pig and not something else. We might go so far as to say that McGonagall changed a desk into a pig because they have nothing to do with each other. McGonagall’s magic is unconstrained by the nature of the objects on which it acts or any order of which they might be a part. It is a pure expression of her will. The meaning of magic in Potter’s world is this: Magic is a supernatural power of the will to effect itself; in other words, it is a pure power of domination. The glory of the wizard is his supernatural ability to impose his will on the world.
Compare Hogwarts magic with the magic of the Elves in The Lord of the Rings. Elves are truly supernatural creatures, meaning that they are more than natural, not less than it. They mirror the goodness, truth, beauty and wisdom of the Creator more than do ordinary creatures. This gives them a depth of “naturalness” that seems magical to Hobbits and Men. They harmonize with the created order in ways that astonish the Hobbits. The forest homes of the Elves are such a seamless part of the woods that they are almost indistinguishable from it. They can communicate with nature and sense the mood of the environment. Their deep creative wisdom allows them to make things with a power that seems supernatural to Hobbits. It does not appear so to the Elves:
“’ Are these magic cloaks?’ asked Pippin, looking at them with wonder.
‘I do not know what you mean by that,’ answered the leader of the Elves. ‘They are fair garments, and the web is good, for it was made in this land. They are elvish robes certainly, if that is what you mean. Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lorien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make.’” (FOTR 479)
Elvish magic follows the principle that grace fulfills nature. Where the primary focus of Hogwarts magic is on the will of the wizard, the focus of Elvish magic is on finding a deep harmony with its object. Its effect is to bring things to a supernatural fruitfulness. Lembas bread is a cousin to ordinary bread but is extraordinarily nourishing. The light of Earendil will “be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.” We may be reminded of the New Testament, where Christ similarly acts to bring things to supernatural fruitfulness: A few loaves and fish feed five thousand, water becomes wine and fishing nets empty all night suddenly become full to overflowing. It might be put it this way: Christ and the Elves go the same way nature is going, but they rev nature up to ninety miles per hour instead of its normal thirty miles per hour.
I am sure the Elves of Middle Earth would find the idea of arbitrarily changing a desk into a pig repellant, even downright unholy. It violates nature rather than fulfills it. Magic as the expression of a dominating will is the corrupt form it takes in villains like Saruman and Sauron. In fact, this is the very thing that makes them evil. I am sure Prof. McGonagall would be shocked to find herself classed with the likes of Saruman. But Saruman himself was once a good wizard who corrupted himself by using magic, not in fulfillment of the created order, but to do what he thought was “good” according to his own lights. He would have done fine at Hogwarts. It was his misfortune to have been born instead into the imaginative world of Middle Earth.
The stories we tell reveal the kind of world we think we live in. The ancient Greeks thought the world contained power, beauty, goodness and wisdom but also evil and viciousness. They did not see any fundamental order among these powers. Life seemed to them to contain just enough joy and beauty to get their hopes up, only to have it crushed by capricious fate. The stories they told were therefore about beautiful and powerful Gods whom men might admire, but who also squabble amongst themselves with unfortunate consequences for man.
The Christian knows he lives in a world created and ordered by a wise and powerful God. He also knows this God loves him a peculiarly profound way, so much so that he intervened in creation, became Incarnate, and died for man’s sake. His stories imaginatively illustrate this relationship between God and Man. Fairy Godmothers and mysterious strangers intervene in man’s most desperate hour of need. Common boys “luckily” find tickets that grant them a tour of magical chocolate factories, then discover themselves to be heirs to the factory. Prosaic Hobbits, with the help of wizards and elves, become the heroes of Middle Earth.
Chesterton’s insight is that the imaginative street goes both ways. Our stories are not only an expression of our understanding of the world, but form that understanding as well. Born into a secular family, Chesterton was put on the road to the Catholic faith because of the imaginative character of his youthful reading. What road are the readers of Harry Potter going down?
It is easy to see some imaginative resemblance between Hogwarts and the Olympian stories of ancient Greece. There seems to be no fundamental order to either world. No one is really in charge. The hero is an individual of some considerable virtue (Harry Potter or Odysseus) who is confounded by mischievous spirits. But the Potter books finally reflect the post-Christian sensibility of contemporary culture, not the pre-Christian imagination of ancient Greece.
Culturally speaking, the beautiful, powerful but fickle Olympian gods were dethroned by the One Almighty God of Christianity. The Christian God was dethroned in the last century by Friedrich Nietzsche – “God is dead”. Man himself replaced God as the greatest thing in the universe. As God, he is wiser, more powerful and more wonderful than anything he encounters. We recognize “the Harry Potter” in this description. Man no longer bows to Olympian gods or even God Himself. Certainly Potter does not bow to any spirits at Hogwarts, who are not Olympian gods but ugly, spiteful, foolish beings not as powerful as himself. Nor does he bow to the icon of wisdom in the series, Headmaster Dumbledore. Potter’s task is the one described by Nietzsche for man living in a world without God. In the old theistic world, it was man’s task to recognize the created order and find his place within it. In the new atheistic world, there is no order until mancreates it himself, which is his task. This includes not only physical order, but moral order as well since it was God who gave meaning to good and evil.
This task is the plot of every Potter book. Hogwarts, and the wizard world in general, is a chaos of competing powers, good, bad and indifferent. There is no order. The evil Voldemort hatches a plot to impose order – his order - on wizards. The plot involves obtaining a decisive advantage in magic power through the likes of the Sorcerer’s Stone or perhaps by capturing Potter’s own magic power itself. Potter becomes aware of the plot and also recognizes that the good forces are themselves disordered, both physically and morally. The crucial break the Potter stories make with tradition is that there is no transcendent order within which Potter’s task occurs. It is up to Potter himself to create his own order in opposition to Voldemort’s. Therefore Potter obeys no authority but himself and his own vision of good and evil. Potter eventually prevails. Dumbledore “salutes” Potter after the fact and recognizes that Potter’s victory has revealed his virtuous nature. Or, more deeply, Potter’s victory has shown that he is the creator of the moral order and therefore Potter’s nature defines what it means to be virtuous. Dumbledore has enough Nietzschean insight to recognize this and he therefore ratifies in retrospect all of Potter’s actions, including his disobedience to Dumbledore himself.
My point, of course, is not that kids who read J.K. Rowling will soon be spouting Nietzsche’s atheistic philosophy. It is that reading books like Harry Potter educates children into the post-Christian imagination of contemporary culture. In the terms of that culture the Catholic faith is not only foolish but oppressive and counter-productive. The Potter books are just “another brick in the wall” that must be overcome if children are to be taught to respond imaginatively to the Christian faith.
A friend once relayed to me how thrilled she was that her daughter was passionately reading the Harry Potter books. Recently I learned that the daughter, now a teenager, had just finished The Da Vinci Code. More recently still, my friend said that her daughter refused to take the Sacrament of Confirmation.
And that is why my kids don’t read Harry Potter.