Harry Potter and the Magic of Hogwarts
by Nicola Hoggard Creegan
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.
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.
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 postmodern, 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.
Postmodern 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 postmodern 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.
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.
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 feminist/evangelical theology.