Harry Potter and the Magic of Hogwarts

Harry Potter and the Magic of Hogwarts

Harry Potter and the Magic of Hogwarts

Harry Potter has captured
imaginations everywhere; some of us have read and loved him,
others feel outraged that one small wizard could gain such a
following. At the very least, in Christian circles, the Harry
Potter series written by the new Scottish author, JK Rowling, has
encouraged a vigorous debate on the nature and function of
fantasy, and its relationship to theology and Christian
faith.

Raising questions

What is magic, and when is it - or
any other power - dangerous? Does a world have to be explicitly
Christian to be religious in a good sense? Is our attraction to
Harry Potter proof of our deception, or evidence of his goodness?
Are the Harry Potter books in the same league as the fantasies of
Tolkien and CS Lewis - a great favourite and model for JK Rowling
herself - or are they different?

If nothing else, Harry has caused
us to ask these questions. But I am convinced that Rowling has
done much more. She has conjured up a coherent world of
believable delight set amidst a bitter fight against the powers
of evil, in which destiny, calling and moral choice matter as
much for the young novice as they do for the seasoned witch or
wizard.

Four Harry Potter books have now
been published - the plan is to have seven books in the series.
Harry has made his way from a dramatic birth which is still
veiled in mystery, to his under-the-stairs eleven year stint with
abusing Muggle (non-wizard) relatives, to three years of study in
the Hogwarts boarding school.

There young witches and wizards
learn the ways of their people - separated from Muggles who
barely understand them and only dimly believe in their presence.
Nevertheless, it is the witches and wizards who participate in
the ongoing drama between good and evil, and whose magical powers
are used in the struggle between darkness and light.

At the centre of this resistance
is the unlikely and very likeable figure of the orphaned Harry
Potter. But the criticism of Harry Potter mounts with his growing
popularity and it should certainly be taken seriously.

Crossing boundaries

When I was in seminary in
Massachusetts in the mid-eighties - just up the road from Salem -
a woman showed me an old group photo in which she was posing with
others. I have no idea why, but impulsively I said, "Oh you look
like a witch". I was mortified that this had jumped out of my
mouth, but the woman was unfazed. She said: "I was", and
proceeded to tell me the story of her conversion in a church on
Halloween night.

This conversation made me think. I
never joined the ranks of those who boycott Halloween, but I was
sensitised to the enormous complexity of post modern, pluralistic
thinking in this area.

The word 'witch' resonates with
many different families of meaning. Is a witch just a nasty or a
strange old woman? Is it a term of mild abuse? Is it a metaphor
for the unseen spiritual world, or for Halloween scariness?

I use the term in classrooms most
often in reference to the holocaust of women - and a few men -
who were burned, hung or drowned as witches between 1450 and
1750, very few of them having anything serious to do with the
occult. Yet today many people are actively involved in the occult
for recreation. Some of my Liberal Arts students in the States,
for example, played with ouija boards for fun in between their
prime-time television, their internet browsing and their
Nintendo.

Post modern reality is
characterised by a blurring of categories, with sometimes
disastrous results, as evidenced by Columbine and other
shootings. The ads on our television every night exploit our
tendency to mix and match images, and to blend and blur our
realities. The very nature of being post modern is to experience
this eclecticism as a liberating or a frightening experience.
This is what worries some of those who would ban Harry and his
school for wizards and witches.

I realise therefore that just
because Harry Potter hasn't turned most of the little
rationalists I know into New Age magic seekers doesn't mean that
is not possible. There is a small population of vulnerable people
who have dabbled in the occult and for whom the metaphors of
witch and wizard are too powerful to be reinstated into a
delightful children's narrative. There are others whose intense
search for spirituality leads them easily into New Age
dabbling.

Nevertheless most of the diatribes
I have read against Harry Potter are somewhat careless, citing
sentences out of context, or quoting characters who are evil, to
make their point. But at least one such critique comes from the
pen of a woman who was once a witch. So my great enthusiasm for
Harry Potter is modified only by an acknowledgement that even a
word, at this time in history, can be an invitation to the
blurring of lines that can lead to violence or to the occult or
to madness. We live in a sea of images, very few of which we can
control.

The biblical picture of the wheat
and the tares growing together well describes our situation and
the sometimes tragic nature of our moral reality. Thus I can
imagine that for some children in some contexts it is possible
that Harry Potter would encourage a searching after New Age
neo-paganism. At the same time we should note that if we are
looking only at effects, good Christian literature has turned
some children off faith, when it is not presented in a way that
draws out the high drama and the mythical cosmic importance of
the story.

The Theology of Harry Potter

The Harry Potter books are very
non-religious in one sense. They do not (so far at least) draw on
any sense of an explicitly good transcendent force, nor do they
appear to be an allegory of such. Rowling does, however, draw us
all into a world beyond this one. A world in which we sense that
reality is stranger than we think and that what we see might not
be all there is or the most important stuff. In this world good
and evil matter and we can trust the good ultimately to win over
the evil. Goodness might exist where we least expect it, or where
it is despised.

Some of this unseen world is pure
delight: like stepping onto the train for Hogwarts at platform
93/4 at Kings Cross Station in London. Entry into Hogwarts is by
faith - you just believe the platform is there and rush the
barrier, dissolving magically onto the other side.

Other parts are sheer hell. The
Dementors, for example, who guard the magic prisons, are fearful
creatures, with ambiguous loyalties. They suck the life and will
out of their captives, a surprising image of prison horror in the
midst of a young children's fantasy.

Moral not magical

The great strength of the Harry
Potter stories is in the 'world' that is created. The heroes are
believable and likeable characters of simple but steady moral
fibre. Harry's buddy, Ron, is from a family that is dirt poor,
but they are the ones who offer free and unrestricted
hospitality. It is Ron's impoverished mother who knits jerseys
for Harry every year and sends him birthday presents when his
real family has forgotten. In other words, these people
understand the paradoxical freedom gleaned in giving things
away.

The three major characters at
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are Ron, Hermione and
Harry, and they all have a heart for the underdog - Hagrid, the
despised Hogwarts dropout and half-caste giant - and the enslaved
house elves. The main characters have very dubious pedigrees: Ron
is poor, Hermione is half Muggle and Harry has been brought up by
stupid and abusing Muggle relatives. All of this is consistent
with the Christian understanding that grace is present at the
margins, and in the small and weak things of the world.

Moreover the real drama of Harry
Potter is moral rather than purely magical. Evil must be
discerned, discovered and overcome, not on the whole with some
clever magic, but with the fruits of virtue: courage, hard work,
respect and love.

If these were really books about
magic the hero, Harry, would be a master craftsman, but he is no
great magician (though he excels at the magic sport of
Quidditch). His friend Hermione does better, by strength of her
ordinary intelligence and prodigious application to study.

Only Harry's goodness gets him
through, and his own self doubt. When forced to compete in the
wizardry competition he is miserable. In one of the three tasks
he waits gallantly to make sure the other participants don't die.
In general courage is shown in these books by children, by the
poor (Ron's parents), the despised (Hermione), the deformed
(Hagrid) and the odd leader - out on the edges of power (the
headmaster Dumbledore). All of this, of course, is very
compatible with an exemplary Christian worldview.

Goodness

Literature brings with it a
certain feel, an immediate tacit comprehension of its world, and
with Harry Potter the feeling is one of goodness. I am reminded
of the way Frodo longs for home in his journey through The Lord
of the Rings. And for all our wanderlust, what marks humans out
is our capacity to make a home.

Hogwarts and the world of wizards
and witches induces in us a longing for a world that is
home-like, more comprehensible, more of a community, less
fragmented and more meaningful than the one we inhabit. This
longing is a good thing. It is the beginning of wisdom and the
understanding that there is more to life than getting rich and
being successful.

At Hogwarts, the school for
wizards and witches, secluded mysteriously and invisibly in the
English countryside, we have both community and rivalry perfectly
balanced, as are order and excitement, fun and seriousness,
respect and subversion, tradition and innovation. Nobody can get
bored in a place where the pictures talk and sport is played in
the air, but there is a sense of dependability and tradition as
well in the boarding school routine.

This is not literature that
explores the complexities of adult emotion and betrayal, but nor
is it simplistic childish stuff. Ron's brother is good at heart,
but also proud, and is defending and working for a man of dubious
character. Part of the narrative tension arises from this moral
complexity and perplexity. We cannot know for sure how some of
these liminal characters will turn out, nor can we be sure of
their past and whether they were on the side of good or of
evil.

At the heart of the story is
Harry's survival from an encounter with the evil and legendary
master wizard Voldemort at the time of his birth. We don't know
how this was possible, but the suggestion (so far) is that his
mother's self sacrificing love released a power which evil could
not overcome. How? Why? There are no answers given, but similar
questions are the creative centre of Christian theology.

Part of the deep attraction of the
Harry Potter books, I suspect, is that they deal with these
profound questions of sacrificial love and its hidden and
surprisingly subversive power.

Other idolatries

It is important, too, to note that
the magic done at Hogwarts is quite explicitly the alternative to
'technique and technology'. Muggles might need aeroplanes, cars
and buses, but wizards and witches can travel with floo powder,
or by apparation. But the magic isn't a calling on higher powers,
or the harnessing of such powers. These are not easy internal
strengths. The witches and wizards have to go to school, and
learn with great difficulty and study.

The arts of magic are learned much
as we learn maths and English and cooking and music. The basic
internal wizardry is there, to be sure, much as a musical ear is
a necessary foundation for any musical study.

The Harry Potter books force us to
re-examine our own idolatries, not just technology, but money.
How often are we tempted to think that money making money is good
Christian business sense. Yet to a third world person our 'cargo'
and our money-making abilities may well seem like magic. And
usury, like magic, is forbidden in the Old Testament. Usury,
unlike magic, is easy to define. But then it is the heart of our
economic system so we ignore those bits of ancient wisdom.

In all good fantasy, the Harry
Potter stories included, there is the sense that magical powers
are in some way dangerous, and should be very carefully
controlled lest they begin to control us. The irony in all of
this is that we fail to understand the same thing about Muggle
magic (technology and money) which we use with such
abandonment.

Harry Potter books also allude to
the constant tendency we have to stereotype people and persecute
the 'other'. In the Harry Potter series extremist bands of
wizards and witches torture Muggles and half caste wizard/Muggles
are a despised minority in wizardry circles. But there is also
more than one allusion to the burning of witches by Muggles in
olden times. To complicate the issue of magic and wizardry
further, JK Rowling says she doesn't agree with the kind of magic
in her books - when it is used in real life.

Rowling's stories are often
compared to the Narnia books and Tolkien's fiction. Is there a
similarity, people wonder? It is as though CS Lewis and Tolkien
are 'safe' and the standard for a whole genre of literature. And
yet CS Lewis and Tolkien both loved the pagan Celtic and Nordic
myths.

Lewis also loved Plato, and
cheerfully synthesised his faith with Platonic images. He
testifies that for him paganism was the gateway to Christian
faith - seeing Christ as the myth lived out in history. Rowling's
novels are in fact less pagan and more fantasy than the two old
standards, but like them, the Harry Potter books draw us into a
world greater than the one we see.

At one level, then, these books
are sheer delight. At another they delve deeply into important
moral and spiritual dynamics in a non-allegorical manner. You can
read them to your children, discuss their allusions and moral
dynamics, or just enjoy them. And in a world of Pokemon and
Digimon, Harry Potter may be the only fantasy character you can
easily share with your children.


New Zealander Nicola
Hoggard Creegan has recently come home after 15 years of studying
and teaching in the USA. After completing undergraduate work at
Victoria University in pure and applied mathematics she did a
Masters degree at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in
Massachusetts and a PhD in theology at Drew University in New
Jersey. Nicola was appointed lecturer in theology at the Bible
College of New Zealand in July and is actively involved in
research in science/religion/healing, and in eminist/evangelical
theology.