Harry Potter and the Occult
by Erin Hogan
Summary: This is a research paper defending Harry Potter from the people who think it leads to the Occult.
After having been rejected by eight publishing companies, author J.K. Rowling never expected that the Harry Potter series would become a multi-billion dollar franchise. Enthralling readers of all ages for the past fifteen years, Harry Potter has made a huge cultural impact. The series has received much praise but also much criticism, especially among Christian communities. Although many people hold that Harry Potter is morally corrupt, their accusations do not hold much substantial weight. In fact, contrary to their point of view, the Harry Potter series can be beneficial for the reader. Its Christian themes and portrayal of the battle between good and evil are a breath of fresh air in a modern society inundated with moral relativism.
Many Christians who object to the Harry Potter books maintain that the magic used in the series is the same as occult magic. Webster’s dictionary defines the occult as “matters regarded as involving the action or influence of supernatural or supernormal powers or some secret knowledge of them.” John Andrew Murray, the dean of students at Whitefield Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, asserts that the magic in Harry Potter is of this nature, “By disassociating magic and supernatural evil, it becomes possible to portray occult practices as ‘good’ and ‘healthy,’ contrary to the scriptural declaration that such practices are detestable to the Lord.” Contrary to this point of view, some religious leaders such as Charles Colson, an Evangelical Christian leader, argue that the magic in Harry Potter is very different from occult magic. He states, “It may relieve you to know that the magic in these books is purely mechanical, as opposed to occultic. That is, Harry and his friends cast spells, read crystal balls, and turn themselves into animals – but they don’t make contact with the supernatural world.” Similar to the fairy godmother in Cinderella singing “Bippity-Boppity-Boo,” the characters in Harry Potter simply incant the spells. In fact, most of the spells in the books come from Latin words. Accio , deriving from the Latin accipio, meaning “to receive,” is the Summoning Spell. And the incantation of the Bird-Conjuring Spell, Avis, is Latin for “bird.” Frances Donovan, the hostess of the About guide to Pagan/Wiccan religion, says, “I have read one of the Harry Potter books and found it good fun, but it has almost nothing to do with what witches actually do. Pagans do not possess any ‘special powers.’ We certainly don’t enchant flying cars or travel through our fireplaces.” Throughout the series, it is evident that the magic used is fairy tale magic, not occult magic.
Other critics claim that Harry Potter leads children to the occult. They assert that even if the magic in Harry Potter books is not the same as occult magic, children will still be drawn to the occult because of the positive way magic is portrayed in the series. Murray says, “This [magic] opens the doors for kids to become fascinated with the supernatural while tragically failing to seek or recognize the one true source of good – namely God.” But youth-culture analyst Lindy Beam contends, “Children who read about Harry will probably discover little to nothing about the true world of the occult. We know God hates the practice of witchcraft. But we have committed a fault of logic in saying that reading about witches and wizards necessarily translates into these occult practices.”
In fact, the author of the series herself, J.K. Rowling, denounces the idea that her series promotes the occult. In an interview with CNN, she said, “I absolutely did not start writing these books to encourage any child into witchcraft. I’m laughing slightly because the idea is absurd. I have met thousands of children, and not even one time has a child come up to me and said, ‘Ms. Rowling, I’m so glad I read these books because now I want to be a witch.'” As with any book, the reader must be old enough to realize the difference between fantasy and reality and therefore be able to comprehend that magic in Harry Potter is a natural part of that fictional world, as it is a part of C.S. Lewis’s world of Narnia , as it is part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth. And most children understand this difference between an imaginary world and the real world. J.K. Rowling continues, “People underestimate children so hugely. They know it’s fiction. When people are arguing from that point of view, I don’t think reason works tremendously well.”
In truth, there is always the danger that stories dealing with magical elements can be misunderstood. People can misinterpret the story, which could lead them to the real-world occult, which is always demonic. But they could misinterpret The Wizard of Oz, Sleeping Beauty , or The Tempest just as easily as Harry Potter . It is not the fault of the book that some people choose to wrongly interpret it. The contention of this paper is that although magic is a part of the world of Harry Potter , the story in no way advocates magic in our world. J.K. Rowling creates an imaginary world where magic is not disordered and evil but rather natural to certain characters. In an article for the National Catholic Register, Fr. Alfonso Aguilar says, “In the end, parents are the best-equipped judges to discern how suitable Rowling’s works might be for their children.”
Another objection critics level against Harry Potter is that the characters’ power comes from themselves and not some higher power. Murray contends, “When we read Rowling’s series, we find that she effectively divorces power from authority. There is no sovereign person or principle governing the use of power…It is not granted by a Higher Authority because there is no Higher Authority.” J.K. Rowling never specifies in the series whether the characters’ magic comes from God or not. But since her witches and wizards are born with magic powers, we can infer that they are given to them by God, much like a talent. The characters do not harness their magic from some outside source; instead, they are born with it. Just as an individual may be granted supreme intelligence or a beautiful singing voice, these characters are given magic. The young witches and wizards in the Harry Potter series must attend school to learn how to use their abilities just as we must attend school to learn how to use our intellect or an athlete must practice vigorously to improve his athletic skills. Talents, however, can be used for good or evil. Just as Hitler chose to use his intelligence for evil, the villain in the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort, chooses to use his magic for evil.
Some skeptics of Harry Potter assert that J.K. Rowling portrays the characters who are witches and wizards as superior to non-magic people. Richard Abanes, a journalist who specializes in the occult, argues, “Muggles (non-magic people) are consistently portrayed by Rowling as a narrow-minded and callous group of persons unable to grasp the glory of magic.” But in actuality, one of the themes that permeates the series is that all people are equal and that having magical abilities does not make one a superior person. The characters who think that their powers place them above regular people are clearly portrayed as being in the wrong. For example, Harry’s arch-nemesis at school believes that all Muggles are inferior to him, but his point of view is consistently depicted as pompous and untrue. Similarly, when the villains corrupt the government in the last book, their motto is “Magic is might,” but they, too, are characterized as wrong and evil. The noble characters in the series, in fact, fight for non-magic people and risk their lives to protect the innocent Muggles from the villains. Professor Dumbledore, the Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, declares, “You place too much importance, and you always have done, on the so-called purity of blood! You fail to recognize that it matters not what someone is born but what they grow up to be!”
The last main objection raised against Harry Potter is that there is no clear distinction between good and evil in the series. Richard Abanes claims, “We also have moral relativism in her books, meaning if it feels good do it, as opposed to a Biblical kind of morality that is throughout the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings.” On the other hand, Fr. Peter Fleetwood, a member of the Vatican’s council for culture, counters, “If I have understood well the intentions of Harry Potter‘s author, they help children to see the difference between good and evil. And she is very clear on this.” In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the villain says, “There is no good and evil, only power and those too weak to seek it.” Thus, J.K. Rowling is placing in the voice of the evil Voldemort the very moral relativism that Richard Abanes claims is rampant throughout Harry Potter. In fact, it is Harry Potter himself who refutes Voldemort’s satanic worldview, a worldview described by High Priestess and Dianic Witch Marion Weinstein: “The Witch philosophy of Light and Dark: No duality exists between good and evil. The One Power over all is neither good or bad; it transcends qualitative thought.” Harry Potter’s moral battle against the amoral Voldemort, absolutely central to the entire series, clearly refutes Richard Abanes’s objection.
Further, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire , Professor Dumbledore makes a speech in which he impresses upon the students the importance of choosing goodness in the face of adversaries. “Remember…there should come a time when you must choose between what is right and what is easy.” This clearly indicates that a person is called to distinguish between moral right or wrong and to choose between fighting for the good or taking the easy way out. Later in the series this same character exhorts, “It is important to fight and fight again and keep on fighting, for only then can evil be kept at bay, though never quite eradicated.” This quote from one of the story’s patriarchic characters illustrates the importance for an individual to constantly battle against evil in the modern world.
J.K. Rowling also draws a clear distinction between her good characters and her bad characters. Her honorable characters display nobility, bravery, loyalty, love, and selflessness. Of course they have shortcomings and flaws, but that makes them more interesting as literary characters because the reader can relate to them. No good author creates perfect characters because they would not be believable. Alan Jacobs, a professor at Wheaton College, states, “Harry Potter is unquestionably a good boy, but as I have suggested, a key component of his virtue arises from his recognition that he is not inevitably good.” Throughout the series Harry struggles to chose the right thing. He has to sacrifice the woman he loves to protect her. In the end he is even willing to sacrifice his own life to save those he loves. In contrast to Rowling’s honorable characters, her villains are depicted as greedy, selfish, power-seeking, cruel, and merciless. The chief villain of the saga, Lord Voldemort, routinely slaughters innocent people to gain power and ultimately put himself in power above all others. J.K. Rowling’s characters are not morally ambiguous, leaving the reader to wonder what actions are good or evil. Instead, she clearly distinguishes good characters from bad ones.
In truth, there are some objectionable elements in Harry Potter . For example, one of the characters is dying, so he asks another character to kill him so that an innocent boy will not have to. This action is morally wrong because it amounts to assisted suicide. The Catholic Church states its position against assisted suicide very clearly, and every good Catholic should know that such an act is intrinsically evil. As long as one is able to recognize the occasional morally objectionable occurrence for what it is, however, one can still read Harry Potter because of the many great truths that the series conveys. Parents must decide whether or not their child is able to recognize immorality and whether he should or should not read the book.
Aside from occasional moral ambiguity, Harry Potter can actually be beneficial for the reader because throughout the entire series, there are many Christian themes. Some critics deny this, though. For example, Richard Abanes says, “And what is interesting is that these people who are saying that the Harry Potter books are Christian are interpreting all these symbols in a Christian way but in the exact opposite way that J.K. Rowling has herself explained. So they are contradicting the author herself, which is sort of silly.” But in an interview, J.K. Rowling herself claimed, “To me (the religious parallels) have always been obvious, but I never wanted to talk too openly about it because I thought it might show the people who just wanted the story where we were going.” J.K. Rowling’s writing is obviously influenced by her Christianity. Father Fleetwood says that, J.K. Rowling is “Christian by conviction, is Christian in her mode of living, even in her way of writing.”
The central, recurring theme in the whole series is the power of love, especially that of self-sacrificial love, a prominent theme in the Bible and most especially, Christianity. “So faith, hope, and love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”(1 Cor 13:13) In the very first chapter of the series, the reader discovers that Harry’s parents have been murdered by the evil Lord Voldemort, but for some reason Voldemort had not been able to kill their infant son Harry. Later in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone , it is revealed that Harry’s mother was killed because she would not stand aside and let Voldemort murder Harry. Professor Dumbledore explains how this sacrifice protected him: “Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign … to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. (…) It was agony (for Voldemort) to touch a person marked by something so good.”
In addition, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows , Harry is willing to sacrifice his own life to save those he loves. The Bible says, “No one has a greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13) Later, when Harry is given the choice between peace and happiness for himself and returning to the battle against Voldemort, Harry chooses to fight. “By returning you may ensure that fewer souls are maimed, fewer families torn apart.” Both Harry’s mother and Harry himself, by their willingness to sacrifice their very lives for others, follow the example set by Christ in dying on the cross for us.
Another Christian theme reiterated in the series is that there is nothing to fear from death. For example, Professor Dumbledore says, “It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death or darkness, nothing more.” At another time he also affirms, “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” These quotes are so important because as a Christian, the reader knows that there is a life after death and an even more glorious one than one can begin to imagine, if one has lived virtuously. This character reminds the reader that man only fears death because it is unknown, but one must remember that there is something more.
Finally, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows , Harry tells the villain that the only way he may be saved is through remorse for his deeds. He says, “Before you try to kill me, I’d advise you think about what you’ve done…Think and try for some remorse.” Christians know that the only way anyone can be saved is through repentance for his sins. The fact that Harry gives the villain a chance to repent is a Christian principle.
Although the morals in Harry Potter may not be as blatant as those in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, for example, the Harry Potter series, with its less obvious Christian themes, may inspire readers to Christian virtues who might otherwise reject Christianity. Because Rowling cleverly weaves these themes into a wonderfully crafted story, readers are given a dose of truth and goodness in a non-confrontational way. They may let down their guard and get lost in the magical world that Rowling created and therefore be more open to the Christian messages about good and evil that are found within.
The Harry Potter series is a breath of fresh air in the relativistic modern world. Even though there are many critics who object to Harry Potter , upon further inspection, it is clear that their objections are not very substantial. Its Christian themes and clear distinction between right and wrong make Harry Potter a beneficial series for people to read. J.K. Rowling herself says, “I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book.” As evidenced by the hoards of readers who have been drawn to the series over the past decade, Harry Potter is one of those “good books” that can transport its reader to a magical place where one can discover truth hidden within the pages.
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