Harry Potter: Magic or Magick?

by Robbie Fischer

Like any Christian who is a fan of the Harry Potter saga, I grow concerned when I hear religious critics of the series claiming that it depicts the occult. If this could be the case, we need to recognize it and respond accordingly. However, after skimming a couple of books by a very scholarly yet misguided fellow named Richard Abanes (including Harry Potter and the Bible and Fantasy and Your Family), as well as editorials posted by other concerned Christians, my conclusion is that said critics are, God bless them, out to lunch.

Recently a couple of young ladies in Alexandria, Minnesota, wrote to their editorial page stating that The Lord of the Rings promotes evil occult practices and violence. They share with Abanes the view that any spiritual powers that do not come specifically from the Holy Spirit must be from the devil. Technically, as a theologian, I regard this as correct. However, an objective reader of Tolkien, as well as Rowling, ought to know the difference between fantasy and reality, between a fairy tale and a religious writing.

Traditional storytelling, in Christian culture particularly, often takes the form of fairy tales (what bookstores now classify as “Fantasy”). Such stories, in which imaginary creatures interact with people who have imaginary powers, teach moral lessons, build character, and stimulate analytical thinking. These stories, which often include witches, wizards, fairies, and talking animals, are neither descriptions of reality nor prescriptions for black sabbaths and other occult behavior.

A more acute question regarding Tolkien, Rowling, and other writers whose fantasy includes magic, is whether or not their world of imagination is likely to lead readers to be more accepting of real-world “magick” or occult practices. I suppose the answer depends on the writer and the work, and to find that answer, anyone concerned should read the book in question with their “Critical Thinking” organ switched on. But, I believe that a disservice is done to all Christians who enjoy a good yarn, when Abanes and others overgeneralize and oversimplify. One must not arbitrarily say that any time a story depicts “magic” that it is talking about “magick.” You need to do better than that.

I have read all the Harry Potter books several times each. Ditto The Lord of the Rings. From a general standpoint, I think they depict a Christian worldview. They do depict villains who are demonically evil, but not so as to glorify them or make them dangerously appealing or a guilty pleasure for readers–but to horrify us, and to set off the goodness of the heroes who risk so much to oppose them. Certainly they are not literal, real-world testimonies of Christian belief; Christ and the Holy Spirit are not openly named in them. But, I can think of so-called “Christian fiction” that is much more harmful, insofar as it distorts the biblical truths it is supposed to be literally depicting.

Use your intelligence and you will see that a fairy tale, or fantasy story, operates on its own internal rules, the laws of the imaginary world it inhabits. It is not right to expect every piece of fiction to obey the rules of the natural world. There would be little wonder or “escape” if they did.

Abanes and others do go into more specifics, pointing out some things in the Harry Potter books that smack of the occult, or of things forbidden by the Bible. Let’s address these concerns, too.

Some of the examples I have read are just plain silly. One lady wrote to her church newsletter that the scenes in which Dobby punishes himself are a depiction of demonic possession. Another griped that the behavior of the protagonists falls short of the spotless virtue one should expect for the good guys in a fairy tale. I think these complaints, and others like them, indicate that some people are reading carelessly or with minds already made up, and their examples simply don’t make sense. Dobby’s plight is a symptom of the corruption in the wizarding world and particularly the evil of the family he is enslaved to. Harry and Ron’s occasional lapses into pettiness or lack of academic integrity are signs that they are ordinary kids, like anyone their age alive today. What makes Dobby, Harry, and Ron positively GOOD is that, nevertheless, they are loyal friends and they courageously battle against evil.

Some bits of the first five HP books could raise eyebrows for those who are on the lookout for signs of the occult. Not many, though; even considering that she doesn’t believe in magic, JKR seems to have been very careful not to explore the side of fairy-tale magic that can often seem occultish (like pentagrams, demon familiars, etc.). The most disturbing things, I’ll warrant, in the first 5 Harry Potter books, are Professor Trelawney’s prophecy in Book 3, the ritual/spell/potion that brought Voldemort back in Book 4, and some of the things in the Department of Mysteries in Book 5.

Divination is, of course, a “dark art” from the biblical point of view. God does not allow his people to sneak peaks into the future, unless he gives them the peak through his specially-sent prophets. Necromancy and fortune-telling are specifically condemned. However, these forbidden arts rely on consulting spiritual agencies, including the souls of the dead. The only form of divination in the HP stories that even remotely looks like a “spiritual agency” is at work, is the trance in which Trelawney seems to speak in a different person’s voice. But, no one even wonders who the owner of this voice is; no one in the stories seems concerned that a spiritual agency is at work. As far as the inner workings of JKR’s world are concerned, it would seem this is simply part of the special magical gift of divination that Trelawney has so little of (and most of what human wizards consider “divination” is pure humbug, as Firenze tells us in the fifth book).

Like all the other magical arts in the HP books, divination–if there is anything to it at all–is simply a gift or innate ability that certain imaginary people (wizards or witches) may have to some degree, and Professor Trelawney’s trance is the form her gift takes. There is no suggestion that this is a “spiritual gift,” either of a holy or an unholy spirit; there simply is no spiritual dimension to the world of witchcraft and wizardry that JKR’s imagination has created.

Nevertheless, the ritualistic spell-cum-potion that revives Voldemort at the end ofGoblet of Fire is very scary and disturbing. And so it should be. Voldemort is truly evil, a monster to be feared. Such darkness should be expected of someone so awful that most wizards refuse to utter his name. But nothing about Voldemort is attractive, even in a subversive way. Lest anyone find him magnetic or dangerously appealing in any way, he has been made somewhat pathetic and ridiculous, in addition to being frighteningly powerful and bad. JKR has done quite a literary dance to make it so. I don’t think it likely that anyone will be drawn to Voldemort as an antihero. He is just plain vile.

So the “bone of the father/flesh of the servant/blood of the enemy” bit has a vaguely Black-Sabbathy ring to it. I think JKR purposely wrote it that way to make chills run down your spine. But remember, folks, this is the evil that, sooner or later, everyone good is going to have to fight against. And, sadly but truly, the bad guy doesn’t lose every battle or get thwarted at every stage of his plans. In fact, even allowing for not getting the prophecy and retreating from his duel with Dumbldore in the Department of Mysteries, Voldemort has not really suffered a defeat since Chamber of Secrets. In Books 3 and 4 Harry escaped from what at least seemed to be Voldemort’s plot against him, but in each case the Dark Lord’s real agenda went forward. Throughout Book 5, Voldemort and his Death Eaters had a whole year to do what they wished without most of the wizarding world knowing or offering opposition. And even in the end, with the prophecy shattered and Voldemort exposed, the side of good suffered a deeper loss than he did.

The moral, then, is not, “Let’s all draw a pentagram on the basement floor and burn some black candles, won’t that be fun!” but rather, “The servants of good may not get the better of the Enemy in every battle, but, hazarding all, they keep fighting through every heartbreak, failure, and betrayal. They do not like to fight and kill, but they accept that they may have to do so, to save all that is beautiful and worthwhile from being perverted and destroyed.” Harry, Ron, and Hermione may not be perfect, infallible, or even completely grown up–they may even be tempted by the very evil they confront! And yet this is precisely what keeps us turning the pages. We dread the dangers they must face, and we hope for the victories they must win, to prevent the world from being swallowed by darkness.

If there is a devil at all, in the Harry Potter fairy tale, it may be Voldemort–or it may even be that Voldemort is deceived! But he is certainly nobody’s buddy, and the possibility that he may triumph threatens both the world of magic and the world of muggles that populate JK Rowling’s fertile imagination. It would only be an evil world of imagination if it ended with Voldemort’s victory–and I doubt that it will. I even pray that it doesn’t! And I say, Christian readers, feel free to visit that world and enjoy a fantasy in which people with imaginary powers, and imaginary creatures, share a bit of the same moral burdens that we bear, and may inspire us to bear them better.

Robbie Fischer, Arizona USA (clergyman, 30 years old)