Judging Harry Potter

I didn’t intend to write a piece on Harry Potter. I thought it would have added more fuel onto the Potter hype machine.

I felt the urge to write this article, though, after reading Kathleen Donovan’s letter to the editor “The Devil and Harry Potter” (Aug. 19-25).

Mrs. Donovan was an avid reader of the Register until she found that Steven Greydanus’ critique of the fifth Potter movie Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix implied “that the Pope and the Vatican officials have not come down upon the witchcraft and occult themes in the books and films by Rowling.”

Mrs. Donovan quotes Father Gabriele Amorth, president of the International Association of Exorcists, as declaring: “Behind Harry Potter hides the signature of the king of darkness, the devil.”

Many good Christian thinkers share similar opinions. Among them we find Michael O’Brien, Susan Moore, Berit Kjos, Vivian Dudro, Gabriele Kuby, and Richard Abanes, author of Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick.

Other good Christian writers offer, instead, a Christian interpretation of the Potter saga, as you may read in the essays by Catherine and David Deavel, Robert Trexler, Alan Jacobs, Serge Tisseron, Pietro Citati and Massimo Introvigne, to name a few.

What to think about such a clash of opinions? Many Catholics, like Mrs. Donovan, are rightly concerned about children’s faith and formation. Is the devil somehow hiding in this best-selling story?

I read the whole Potter series, watched the first four films, and made a few comments on Rowling’s narrative in three Register articles (April and May 2003). I now intend to offer a few clarifications and distinctions that might help the reader form a better criterion for judging the Potter phenomenon and its predictable consequences.

Let us tackle four questions about the Potter books and films: (1) Is there any Vatican endorsement or disapproval of them? (2) Do we find in them some subtle Satanic presence? (3) Are the contents of the books compatible with our Christian faith? (4) Is it advisable to let children read and watch Harry Potter?

Any Vatican Position?

Headlines such as “Pope Approves Potter” (Toronto Star) littered the mainstream media after Msgr. Peter Fleetwood commented on the Harry Potter books at a Vatican press conference on the New Age in 2003.

But the Holy See takes no official position on fictional literature.

Offhand comments by Msgr. Fleetwood and members of the Roman Curia about Harry Potter are merely personal opinions.

In this category of personal opinions we should include Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s March 7, 2003, letter to Gabriele Kuby in response to her German book Harry Potter: Good or Evil?: “It is good that you enlighten people about Harry Potter,” he wrote, “because those are subtle seductions, which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly.”

Such an opinion is worth respect and consideration, but doesn’t bind Catholics to think in exactly the same way. Note how Cardinal Ratzinger presented his view in a private letter and not in a formal statement as a prefect of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Devil’s Work?

For an accurate answer to the question, let’s make a double distinction. Let us first distinguish between the nature of Rowling’s works and their possible consequences.

Does the phenomenon bear a Satanic imprint?

Other exorcists do not see it in the way Father Amorth did.

“The books in themselves are not bad,” well-known exorcist Father José Antonio Fortea has been quoted saying. “They are merely literary fantasies in the manner of stories that have existed in Europe since the Middle Ages. I am neither in favor of condemning nor prohibiting them. To me, they are just unobjectionable stories.”

Most of the handful of exorcists who have aired their opinions in the media, including Father Fortea, show concern about the possible outcome rather than the nature of the fictional works. They warn the faithful about their potential to lead people into the occult and perhaps even to Satanism.

And here comes our second distinction.

It would be unfair to judge Rowling’s works exclusively on the basis of their references to witchcraft and the occult without taking literary symbolism into account. Exorcists are the most trustworthy experts we have on the occult — but not necessarily on literature. Harry Potter is a story, not a boy to be exorcised.

Some good Christian literary critics read Rowling’s esoteric references as a way to decry, not to promote, the occult.

“The Potter series is not about the occult or witchcraft but actually just the opposite,” explained Nancy Brown, author of the recent novel The Mystery of Harry Potter.       

In his books The Hidden Key to Harry Potter and Looking for God in Harry Potter, John Granger tries to show that Rowling’s “themes, imagery, and engaging stories echo the Great Story” — the story of God who became man.

In The Gospel According to Harry Potter, Connie Neal presents counterarguments to the idea that the Potter books are about witchcraft. She also finds a lot of connections to Bible passages. John Killinger develops similar points in God, the Devil and Harry Potter.

Although I personally disagree with these authors’ main theses, they make a good point: References to the occult and the Satanic do not necessarily imply an attempt to lure people into the forbidden world, because the texts can be interpreted in different ways.

From the fact that millions of Potter readers and movie-watchers give no thought to Wicca, we may infer that Harry Potter is not, by nature, a devilish work and that it doesn’t necessarily lead people into the wrong practices.

Prudence should lead us to take various opinions, from exorcists and literary critics, into consideration.

Christian or Anti-Christian?

Our third question deals with the contents of the novels and movies. Let me propose a crucial distinction that I never find in the Potter debate — a distinction between values and philosophy in fiction.

By values, we may understand the virtues and moral teachings presented in a story.

Great values shine throughout the Potter saga and reach their climax in the seventh installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Let me mention some of them.

Harry’s mother’s love for her son and self-sacrifice saved the future hero from being killed by Lord Voldemort. In a like manner, Harry would later give himself up to save his friends. His heroic generosity plays the key role in the victory of good over evil.

Harry, Hermione and Ron are characterized by their perseverance in the fulfillment of their mission in the midst of overwhelming difficulties. They are also concerned about the lives of their enemies with no desire for revenge. Remorse is presented as a way of self-redemption. The unsound quest to master death is discouraged. High ideals are encouraged. Good family life is appealing.

These and many other values one may find in the series refresh the soul in the current suffocating environment of anti-values that are often exhibited in products of the entertainment industry. Such values can inspire people in their life.

Values are not to be confused with philosophy. By philosophy we mean the concept of God, man and the universe underlying a story plot fully developed as a worldview.

Children’s stories, such as Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, do not presume to portray ideas about our world and the realm of transcendence. They are short and simple stories with moral lessons. Harry Potter, instead, encompasses an implicit but integrated philosophical view of reality.

Let’s take a brief look at it.

In Potter’s world, the divine is, in my opinion, pantheistic. The only transcendent reality that exists is (white) magic. A fictional story, of course, does not have to present the Christian truths nor the Christian God. The question is whether or not there is room for a Christian God in the story. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, God does not show up, yet he may fit in the background as the one who gave Gandalf certain powers and a new life. Gandalf did not get them by himself.

Not so with Harry Potter.

Once the magic reigns as the ultimate level of reality, a personal God cannot fit in. Magical powers form the highest aspiration.

A certain monistic dualism, characteristic of Gnostic thought, looms over the plot, too.

Lord Voldemort’s and Death Eaters’ dark arts derive from the corruption of white magic, very much as the “dark side of the force” came from the bad use of “the force” in the Star Wars series.

Consider now the concept of man implicit in J.K. Rowling’s narrative. Humans, called “muggles,” are divided into three categories: ordinary “muggles” with no magical power who disdain the magic world (the despicable Dursley family); “muggles” who fancy the magic world but cannot reach it (Hermione Granger’s parents); and the witches and wizards.

The ideal is, no doubt, to become a good witch or wizard. What’s the way? Train yourself to look into yourself to find the magical powers within you.

Good training requires masters who help make you aware of the magical (“divine”) forces in your spirit. These are the professors at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Albus Dumbledore, the school headmaster, is the main spiritual guide.

Year after year, through training and exercise, Harry Potter becomes ever more aware of his inner powers and can, thus, use more sophisticated spells and jinxes.

In the fourth installment, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, we read: “Harry had soon mastered the Impediment Curse, a spell to slow down and obstruct attackers; the Reductor Curse, which would enable him to blast solid objects out of his way; and the Four-Point Spell, a useful discovery of Hermione’s that would make his wand point due north, therefore enabling him to check whether he was going in the right direction within the maze.”

The Star Wars films follow a similar pattern.

There are humans and creatures who do not enjoy the use of “the force.” Only the Jedi, such as Luke Skywalker, who was trained by masters Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, obtain a full control over “the force.”

In both cases, the role of the human body is downplayed, as if it were not an essential part of one’s own personhood. The spirit, where the realm of the magic or of “the force” dwells, is the inner true self. This view of man sounds Gnostic to me.

We come, finally, to the concept of the world. Harry Potter’s physical universe is not explicitly viewed as a prison for mankind created by evil demons, as it appears in classical Gnostic ideologies.

Yet it is portrayed as less “real” than the wizard world — the fantastic realm of powers whose gate can only be opened by the key of esoteric knowledge. Doesn’t the reader feel more “at home” at Hogwarts than in the boring material world of muggles?

To me, the fact that only witches and wizards are able to see the Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at King’s Cross station is meaningful. Those whose spirits are in the magic world can see “more” than ordinary people or muggles. They live in a spiritual (magical) dimension that frees them from the laws of the material world.

Is Potter Good for Kids?

Suppose that my interpretation of the Potter worldview is right. One should then appreciate and learn from Rowling’s values and leave aside her philosophy. Values can be uprooted from the soil they are grounded in and become inspiring lessons. You may enjoy the look and the fragrance of flowers even as you take them from the dirt in which they blossomed.

But whether a book or a movie is harmful to its audience depends as much upon the audience as upon the narrative.

“To the right reader, Harry Potter can be as harmless as Glinda the Good Witch or Cinderella’s fairy godmother,” says Steven Greydanus in his excellent essay Harry Potter vs. Gandalf. “For another young reader, he could be a stumbling block.”

Who are the “right” Potter readers?

I believe we will find them among well-formed Christians, those who do not feel the lure of the magic, and those who can distinguish — by themselves or by with help of their tutors — the Potter values from the Potter philosophy.

Who are the “wrong” readers?

Vulnerable or at-risk children may be those who do not have a particularly strong commitment to their faith, or show a troubling pattern of general interest in magic or in dark or grotesque imagery.

We have, in short, right and wrong audiences. While many kids will get inspired for the good with no negative effect, others may be affected for worse.

That’s why we should bear in mind the warnings of exorcists and other thinkers about children’s contact with the magic.

“Just like violence and pornography, kids are desensitized by exposure,” said Matthew Arnold, producer of the three-tape set The Trouble With Harry.

In the end, parents are the best-equipped judges to discern how suitable Rowling’s works might be for their children. They may also be their best guides to let them distinguish the wheat from the chaff.

In conclusion, I suggest considering the following four criteria as common ground for reasonable discussions.

First, the reading of Harry Potter is a debatable issue, not a matter of faith.

Second, nothing proves that Rowling’s fiction is a work of the devil or a path that necessarily leads to evil practices.

Third, a distinction can be made between the narrative’s values and philosophy. Consequently, we may be able to draw the good lessons from the story while remaining untouched by whatever may be wrong in it.

Fourth, decisions about the appropriateness of the Potter novels and movies for children can only be made on a case-by-case basis.

If we keep these criteria in mind, we may leave behind some bitter clashes and gain some profit from the Potter debate.

Legionary Father Alfonso Aguilar teaches philosophy at Regina Apostolorum University in Rome.