Harry Potter supplement

Internet Monk, a high school English teacher, among other things, posted this just after I posted on Potter below:

"our students read Shakespeare in all four high school grades. This includes the witches and murderers in Macbeth, the ghosts in Julius Caesar and Hamlet, and the violence and mature themes in all of Shakespeare’s plays. If Shakespeare were to be confiscated for these elements, I would have to consider whether OBI [his school]could maintain its reputation as a “real” school with a curriculum comparable to other private schools.

"Yet Harry Potter is sometimes confiscated for the same elements, even though any reader of both will tell you that Rowling is far more clearly, teachably, “moral” in her story-telling than Shakespeare is in his plays.

"Why is the wizard Gandalf in Lord of the Rings legal, but the wizardry in Harry Potter illegal? Why is the “magic” in the Narnia stories legal, but the magic in Potter illegal? The same question could be asked of Merlin the Magician or even of the Witch at Endor in the Bible."

Again, don't take this as blanket endorsement of Potter, on my behalf. I've only read part of the first book and wasn't very impressed. I may give them a second chance in the future. I'm just trying to get us past knee-jerk negative reactions to the portrayal of the supernatural in pop culture stories...


  1. I think the difference between the use of Magic in Narnia and in Harry Potter is quite significant. In the Narnia series, when men use magic, bad things happen. And in fact, it is this very thing (the use of magic by humans) that leads to the corruption of Narnia. On the other hand, in Harry Potter, we are presented with a false proposition; specifically, that magic can be used for either good or evil by humans. As for LOTR, this is a little more enigmatic. There is a similar theme in that it is the sin of men using magic to gain power that leads to so much harm in middle earth. But what about Gandalf? Isn’t he called and presented as a “good” wizard (i.e. a human magician)? Well, yes and no. The truth is, that if one is familiar with the background material for Middle Earth, you know that Gandalf is not a man. He is a Valor (in essence an angelic creature). But this is not clearly portrayed so it gets a little murky.

  2. I agree with you, generally, Mark.

    While agreeing with Internet Monk that both uses of magic might be okay, I do see a very different use of magic as you do. Its use in Narnia and LOTR is redempive; in Potter it's morally neutral, at best.

    But perhaps not immoral.

    Here are some slightly different emphases I have, though.

    Narnia: while magic is forbidden for humans to mess with, there IS a creational, good "magic" basic to Narnia and essential to the plot line. Lewis uses this word to describe non-material, but real things like natural law. Or the supernatural.

    Potter: you say that Potter presents a false proposition. But what exactly are these stories asserting? A moral worldview of choosing between forces of good or evil; or that magic is okay? Two points: 1)One can write a story USING sinful elements to write a redemptive plot. 2) Novels involve suspension of disbelief. Reading a novel, you are entering a world you know is not real. Some points to apply to the real world will obviously be made, but not necessarily everything in the imagined world is a "point."

    LOTR: good point on Gandalf - I hadn't known that before, though it is implied in part of the plot. (My favorite scene in the movie is where Gandalf comes back; Legolas and Gimli kneel, but Aragorn doesn't. He is higher than the angels, a la Hebrews 1.) Yet, the moral non-use of the ring doesn't apply to magic generally, necessarily. Besides elves, men and hobbits using the aid of magical Gandalf, the hobbits also use the supernatural, magical gifts from the elves.

    I don't think this needs to concern us, as long as we understand that magic is a metaphor for the supernatural. I also don't see much of an issue with our witness to the world (the argument goes, if we don't protest this, they'll think we're okay with magic). Why not? Because they take the moral legitimacy of magic in Potter much less seriously than we do. They assume it doesn't exist and write it off as fiction. So little is lost. Only with Narnia's plot, where magic and demi-gods like Bacchus and Father Christmas (!) are essential to its plot, is the demand to take magic part of the book's point, and used redemptively.

  3. I've been trying to get people past knee-jerk negative reactions to the portrayal of the supernatural for most of my adolescent and adult life. But part of that is having to convince people that things like magic don't have to be portrayed as redemptive or evil to be acceptable in a literary work.

    Just think about the elves in LotR. Yes, I know Gandalf is one of the Istari - an order of angelic creatures. But the elves aren't. They're creatures. And they use magic for everything. Their creaturely manipulation of magic never hints at anything inherently evil or good/redemptive. It simply is. They're even able to use the magic rings given to them by Sauron. He wasn't able to corrupt them, as he did the nine Numenorean kings.

    Magic in Lotr is acceptable to people, but it's basically neutral in its portrayal. It's not "evil except for the angelic beings". In fact, the source of evil in Lotr is an angelic being. And it's not Sauron, either. Sauron was the chief assistant to the original bad-guy - Melkor. Melkor was the chief "angel" in the service of Eru (the "God" of Middle-earth mythology).

    Anyway, the problem is that people see LotR as "capital L" literature, just like Shakespeare is "capital L" literature. But Harry Potter isn't, and so people feel free to condemn Rowlings' portrayal of something that everyone thoroughly enjoys in other more acceptable works of fiction.

    It's the same way that Republicans get a pass from evangelicals on their outrageous behavior, when a Democrat would be condemned in a New York City second.

  4. Heh, heh. Good one about Christians on Republicans and Democrats, Conrad. I like that. I think we agree on this magic stuff. You're basically saying it doesn't have to be redeemed or left in hell to be legit, right? Just being there is fine? That might be a *little* further than I'd go, but it's also not that big a deal to me...


  5. That may be a *little* further than I would go, also. No, it doesn't have to be redeemed or left in hell to be legit, but just being there isn't necessarily fine, either. (huh?)

    In some cases, the portrayal needs to be condemned because of the way it's performed, or what it accomplishes. Sometimes the author can attempt to portray magic as neutral, but while using an immoral process or outcome. Try thinking of LotR exactly as written only Galadriel uses an animal sacrifice to make the seeing pool "work". Suddenly, what was seen as normal and acceptable becomes evil. And if it's still portrayed as normal and acceptable, then there's a problem.

    It's this "calling good what is evil" that needs to be condemned. Unfortunately, many (most) Christians say the very subject is evil and condemn anything that hints at the supernatural.

    What we need to do is examine the scriptures to see what it is that God condemns, and then do the same thing ourselves. Nothing more, and nothing less.

  6. I don't know what the fuss is about using the magical or fantastical in literature - the visual arts have been doing it for centuries to speak of supernatural and even earthly events. The Rennaissance was chocked full of mythological and fantasy-type images to speak of the commonplace or communicate an idea/philosophy. This continued on in the Baroque period where even architecture started looking ultra-fanciful. I would love to see a revival of the understanding of magic and the other-worldly in contemporary art (beyond all the silly little faeries you see everywhere). It's too quickly written off as childish or not serious enough to "speak with the big boys."

    Potter is seen as "little L" literature simply because it has not stood the test of time yet. Give it 100 years. A lot like Kinkade's paintings today - nice for above your sofa, but not enduring.