The Trouble with Harry Potter

This week has been strange. Not for any particular reason—although some odd things have happened—but because of the general spirit. Suddenly I feel unbelievably creative. I want to get married and have a hundred kids (that way I can have a hundred friends). . .

Partly I think it’s because I started watching Arrested Development: supposedly “the greatest television comedy of all time.” I don’t know if it’s as good as The Simpsons, but it’s close. What a gloriously convoluted mess of a show! There are callbacks, flashbacks, Chekhov’s gags, ironic reversals by the dozens, and so many parallels between characters (even within a single episode) that they need to be diagrammed, and the most intricate relational dynamics this side of The Office. It employs a non-chronological narrative and rapidly cuts back and forth between seven or eight different people. It’s not just a show, it’s literature. It reminded me of Catch-22 but, even more than that, it reminded me of my own journaling in college. It is gratifying to see a television show—a television show!—that employs all my beloved techniques. I found myself thinking, “This is exactly how I think. This is how my brain works. If they can do it, then I can do it.”

So that was ridiculously affirming. Then I read this article by Steven Greydanus explaining what’s wrong, from a Catholic perspective, with the fantasy magic in Harry Potter. And that article gave me some organizing principles for writing my own story—a surprising number of which I had already intuited—and ever since I established those organizing principles, my imagination has just taken off. I finally bought a notebook so I could start jotting down ideas as soon as they come, and I’ll share some of those in a moment. There are a lot!

Steven Greydanus basically says that the magic in Harry Potter is dangerous because people could read it and be inspired to start their own cults. I’m not joking! Look:

            Rowling has created a situation entirely unlike anything in the stories of Middle-Earth or Narnia: a mythology of a secret, mystic elite who possess hidden lore and power unknown to the rest of the world. This is an idea that the human race has always found strangely compelling and attractive; it’s the root appeal of every mystery religion, gnostic sect, and sacret [sic] society that has set itself up against the public teaching of the Christian faith, the gospel proclaimed openly to all. It’s not a taste to be indulged or gratified, even in imagination.

Does this perchance remind you of anything??

            I don’t mean to suggest that these novels are inherently bad (in fact, I bought the sixth one just a couple of weeks ago). To his credit, neither does Greydanus. He just thinks they “cater to the perennial human attraction to the idea of a secret world of knowledge and power enjoyed by a small elite while forever excluding the unknowing majority.” Which is, of course, exactly what they do. . .

Greydanus presents a list of “seven hedges” that Lewis and Tolkien employed in their writing to prevent their stories from becoming dangerous in the ways that shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayercan be dangerous. This is so good, it’s worth quoting in full:

  1. Tolkien and Lewis confine the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to wholly imaginary realms, with place-names like Middle-earth and Narnia — worlds that cannot be located either in time or in space with reference to our own world, and which stand outside Judeo-Christian salvation history and divine revelation. By contrast, Harry Potter lives in a fictionalized version of our own world that is recognizable in time and space, in a country called England (which is at least nominally a Christian nation), in a timeframe of our own era.
  1. Reinforcing the above point, in Tolkien’s and Lewis’s fictional worlds where magic is practiced, the existence of magic is an openly known reality of which the inhabitants of those worlds are as aware as we are of rocket science — even if most of them might have as little chance of actually encountering magic as most of us would of riding in the space shuttle. By contrast, Harry Potter lives in a world in which magic is a secret, hidden reality acknowledged openly only among a magical elite, a world in which (as in our world) most people apparently believe there is no such thing as magic.
  1. Tolkien and Lewis confine the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to characters who are numbered among the supporting cast, not the protagonists with whom the reader is primarily to identify. By contrast, Harry Potter, a student of wizardry, is the title character and hero of his novels.
  1. Reinforcing the above point, Tolkien and Lewis include cautionary threads in which exposure to magical forces proves to be a corrupting influence on their protagonists: Frodo is almost consumed by the great Ring; Lucy and Digory succumb to temptation and use magic in ways they shouldn’t. By contrast, the practice of magic is Harry Potter’s salvation from his horrible relatives and from virtually every adversity he must overcome.
  1. Tolkien and Lewis confine the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to characters who are not in fact human beings (for although Gandalf and Coriakin are human in appearance, we are in fact told that they are, respectively, a semi-incarnate angelic being and an earthbound star.) In Harry Potter’s world, by contrast, while some human beings (called “Muggles”) lack the capacity for magic, others (including Harry’s true parents and of course Harry himself) do not.
  1. Reinforcing the above point, Tolkien and Lewis emphasize the pursuit of magic as the safe and lawful occupation of characters who, in appearance, stature, behavior, and role, embody a certain wizard archetype — white-haired old men with beards and robes and staffs, mysterious, remote, unapproachable, who serve to guide and mentor the heroes. Harry Potter, by contrast, is a wizard-in-training who is in many crucial respects the peer of many of his avid young readers, a boy with the same problems and interests that they have.
  1. Finally, Tolkien and Lewis devote no narrative space to the process by which their magical specialists acquire their magical prowess. Although study may be assumed as part of the back story, the wizard appears as a finished product with powers in place, and the reader is not in the least encouraged to think about or dwell on the process of acquiring prowess in magic. In the Harry Potter books, by contrast, Harry’s acquisition of mastery over magical forces at the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft is a central organizing principle in the story-arc of the series as a whole.

So how’s my novel doing? The great thing about reading this essay is that it helped me to see what I’ve been trying to do. The more deeply I developed the premise of my story, the more… puzzling it became that almost none of my principal characters ever did magic. (Remember, I briefly contemplated not having any magic at all in the first novel, which would certainly be a puzzling choice for the first novel in a fantasy series about magic). Now I can see why, though. It’s because my fundamental ethos, as a person, has shifted towards true Christianity . . . As a consequence, my stories are fundamentally Christian in ways that I’m not even aware of, and can’t really control.

Magic will become an openly-known reality in the world of my story by the end of the first novel; practiced by many, exploited by a few, regulated by an ancient institution with tremendous authority and power, policed and investigated (though not generally practiced) by the four lead children and the adults who are training them. But in my first novel… in my first novel, it’s different. Magic is not yet widely known about, or practiced. Duncan and Jules are given an apparently unprecedented opportunity to be part of an elite magical community. In some respects it will deliberately parallel Harry’s introduction to Hogwarts, only it will be much more realistic, because Duncan and Jules are essentially joining a cult, which is what would actually happen in the real world if a boy discovered that he belonged to a clandestine community of people with extraordinary powers. So even when my story appears to be violating the “seven hedges” by reconstructing the spirit of the first Harry Potter novel—as in The Magicians—it will only be doing so to deconstruct it.

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3 thoughts on “The Trouble with Harry Potter

  1. This is really good. I, too, have kept magic away from my story, and I never could figure out why. I’ve always instinctively known that magic is dangerous to play with too much – even in a story setting. (And magic is, even in my story, evil because it is seeking power that isn’t supposed to be ours).
    I did enjoy the Harry Potter series, but I also see how it could be harmful to young children who don’t have strong discernment.

  2. I wholeheartedly concur. I enjoy the Harry Potter series immensely – it has tremendous emotional and spiritual resonance – but am all too aware of the dangers they could pose for someone who would be tempted to emulate the stories in a non-fantasy setting. Ironically, I think the books could be more dangerous for Christians with a strongly supernatural mindset, than for someone who reads them with a deep awareness of the difference between fantasy and reality.

    One thing that I have not written about enough, with respect to my friends, is our love for these books.

  3. Pingback: Satan Wants to Deceive Christians | thetalkingllama

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