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The Harry Potter Controversy - Sounding the Alarm or Tilting at Windmills?

I've written this short page for people who have an interest in Harry Potter and the possible spiritual dangers of children's fiction involving wizardry.

A Google search on "Harry Potter" will reveal that there are almost as many Christian anti-Potter sites as ordinary reviews. Here, is a very moderate example. Amongst the ranting on both sides there is the occasional voice of sanity. Here is is an intelligent discussion of fantasy magic, which everyone should read before condemning, or approving of, Harry Potter.

Harry Potter

I was introduced to Harry Potter through being informed that J. K. Rowling had created an instruction manual for casting evil spells on people you don't like, which sounds like a good idea is definitely a no-no.

Polyjuice potion

I couldn't find out how to curse anyone but I did find some detailed recipes for other spells. Drink some of this, for example, and you will turn (outwardly) into someone else for an hour. Be careful to take your shoes off if your feet are smaller than your subject's or it will be very painful! And don't try turning into an animal as the spell won't revert after the hour is up and you will have to spend time in hospital having your tail surgically removed. Note: you may have to order the boomslang skin from Harrods.

  • fluxweed
  • knotgrass
  • leeches
  • lacewings
  • bicorn horn
  • boomslang skin
  • plus a bit of the subject

Directions: Pick the fluxweed during a full moon, boil the herbs, add the leeches to the cauldron, add the lacewings and stew for 21 days. Then add the finely ground bicorn horn and shredded boomslang skin, and finally the bit of the person, a hair will do.

Sigh!

Frankly, anyone who thinks that that is a real witch's potion must be living on another planet. Everyone knows that the only way it's safe to mix leeches with bicorn horn is if you stabilize it with fermented seahorse brain. How anyone can call Ms Rowling's books "well-researched" is beyond me...

I should say at this point that it is my considered opinion that such potions do not work! Nevertheless, a Google search revealed a site (whose URL now eludes me) supposedly debunking the anti-Potter hysteria by providing details of more complex but equally absurd spells which are alleged to work. These purport to be genuine mediaeval mystical rituals. Such spells are to be undertaken reverently and with great care: the site warns kids "do not try this at home"... I was initially inclined to think it was just a joke but on reflection maybe the author is a sad soul who thinks he can make "real magic" work and is offended by J. K. Rowling's slapstick parody. But even he says that no kid is going to discover real magic through Harry Potter and, if they stumble across Wicca looking for magic spells, they will rapidly get bored.

Real witchcraft

I have read all the Harry Potter books and seen the films. I think they are excellent. I felt nothing in the least bit spooky or diabolical about them and I am normally pretty quick to notice even a slight smattering of New Aginess about anything, let alone the occult. But Christians agree that The Bible is vehemently opposed to witchcraft. We do not need to be fundamentalists to appreciate that God has forbidden all kinds of magic (under any name) for several reasons. The most important question is whether J. K. Rowling's world really is "magic". Is it anything like that of real-life witches?

Well, of course, it isn't. These are children's books, full of stereotyped witches and wizards having adventures. We need to get things in perspective. No witch in history has ever been able to fly through the air on a broomstick, neither has any wizard ever conjured up a tableful of food. And it's highly questionable whether so-called "gothic witchcraft" [sinister cackling off-stage] was ever really practiced or whether it was all the product of prurient imagination in the Witch-hunters. Either way, it doesn't feature in the Harry Potter books, except in passing in the background history of the evil side.

As for modern-day "witchcraft" or Wicca, it's a synthetic pagan religion concocted less than 100 years ago. From a social point of view it's no better or worse than a lot of other curious things people believe. Of course, it's incompatible with Christianity and poses its own spiritual dangers. I do not intend to explore either kind of witchcraft here, nor other "magickal" practices which supposedly alter reality in defiance of the laws of nature. Indeed I am not qualified to do so. However, the Harry Potter books are not about them, they are fun fantasies, having no more to do with the occult than good science fiction - and without the slight New Age overtones of Star Wars. I do tend to believe some of the reports of children getting fascinated by "the subject" after reading about it. But what "subject" are we talking about? Kids play games. Worried parents may want to discourage their children from playing at "Witches", but it's still just a game and kids know it. I think most of the alarmist reports about children getting interested in the occult through these books are probably just them playing Harry Potter games, not actually selling their souls to the devil. Obviously, if you are worried about children drifting into real occultism through playing Let's-Pretend then you must do as you see fit - and maybe at least encourage them to talk about their interests. But it would be foolish to sow curiosity about real witchcraft by stressing how naughty it is if it hasn't occurred to them to look into it already. A most interesting anti-occult but pro-HP article can be found here. The author uses the books to teach true Christianity to her children.

Relativism

The problem, however, is that there most definitely is a Harry Potter industry and there also is a huge social openness to all things occult. No doubt the publishers are glad of this help in selling Potter books. Whether Harry Potter can be blamed for the rise in interest in the occult is another matter. Christians who furiously oppose HP should spend a lot more effort opposing the fundamental problems with contemporary "worldly" thinking. It is known by various names: in philosophy and literature it's called "postmodernism"; in pop culture it's called "New Age". Perhaps the simplest term is "relativism". It came about through the big paradigm shift of the 60's. This wasn't the slogan "Make love, not war" issuing from the immoral subversive mouths of dirty hippies :) It was a general abandonment of the very idea of truth - what is "true for you" may not be "true for me". It is, of course, an attitude that is fatal to science or indeed, anything that assumes there is a reality "out there" which is the same for all of us. Relativism cannot conceive of a set of rules - common sense or logic - by which we can think straight and get the right answer. To a relativist, there is no one right answer, it depends on the person. Alternative medicine is plagued by it - quack cures that obviously don't work but which mysteriously "work for you" - whatever that may mean. (A true postmodernist will solemnly inform you that it means different things to different people.) Naturally, any kind of moral absolutes are out of the question. This is not just a matter of rejecting authority, it is a denial that there could ever be an authority at all. Not even God. In such a culture it's hard to talk about right and wrong, and woe betide anyone who quotes a Holy Book. It is deemed intolerant, or even racist, to suggest that one may actually be right about something! If you're right then you're saying (note the slippery logic) someone else is wrong - and you mustn't do that according to the rules (which gain additional clout through Political Correctness, but that's another matter.) As a result, nonsense may be peddled as either religion or science. Potentially harmful activity, such as the occult, is tolerated on the basis that "it may be harmful for you but who are you to dictate what others do?". Relativism can be viciously intolerant.

Here is an interesting take on the subject - as it applies to Harry Potter - from David Brown. Brown rightly opposes the fashionable denial of absolutes but goes on to accuse Rowling of promoting it, in this case in the guise of amoral dualism.

Another clear promotion of dualism is a statement by Professor Quirrell, the stuttering professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts. In The Sorcerer's Stone on page 291 Professor Quirrell said, "He is with me wherever I go. I met him when I traveled around the world. A foolish young man I was then, full of ridiculous ideas about good and evil. Lord Voldemort showed me how wrong I was. There is no good and evil, there is only power..."

Brown seems to think that this is an effective advertisement for a non-moral philosophy. If anything, Rowling is making a very conventional moral statement: abandon your ideas of good and evil and you will end up possessed by evil, tormented in mind and body until, at last, it has no more use for you and you are discarded. Yes, as Brown says, "This is dualism!" It's dualism in the mouth of a complete loser. That's not promoting anything, it's a very effective warning against abandoning values.

The Onion article

The "sermon" denouncing J. K. Rowling as an agent of the devil started life as an e-mail warning Christians everywhere about these books that are luring children into Satan worship. The e-mail is now recognized as a "hoax", a category which includes all sorts of nuisance chain letters whether started maliciously or merely foolishly. The warning purported to be well-researched. Indeed, it cited an article published in The Onion. Now, The Onion is an on-line magazine which specifically states "The Onion is a satirical newspaper published by Onion, Inc..."

Here's an excerpt: "'Harry is an absolute godsend to our cause,' said High Priest Egan of the First Church Of Satan..." Surely nobody could read that and not grin? Yet the e-mail went round and frightened people took it seriously.

It must be said that some Christian writers see this spoof as an attempt to discredit Christian opposition to Harry Potter. A good example can be found here. Of course it could equally well be routine Christian-bashing, which is nothing new. But it's just satire, poking fun for the hell of it. I doubt whether the author intended it to be believed. A good satirist will mock what he sees as absurd. Folk who mistake the parody for a real news report do more harm to their cause than any amount of sly humour. Perhaps the article does make a point - perhaps the reaction against HP is over the top.

Let's look at one or two concerns that anti-Potter campaigners see in Rowling's books and alleged activities.

The Rosicrucian connection

The argument here is that a lot of Rowling's ideas seem to have been drawn from authentic "occult" documents. This isn't quite fair on Rowling, as she has stated clearly in interviews that most of her "magic" is simply "made up", though some of it is drawn from "real" folk magic - and is adapted for the story, losing any occult significance in the process. The rant in question cites the moving pictures as being taken directly from The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosendreutz, an allegedly obscure Rosicrucian manuscript which only someone heavily into the occult could possibly know about - and which is Luciferan (by which they mean Satanic) in nature. It took all of a few minutes searching at Google to discover that the Rosicrucians are certainly not Christian in any useful sense of the word, but they do not worship the devil either, they are mystics. Their religion rests on three documents, the last of which (The Chemical Wedding) is an allegory of inner transformation, parallel to the physical transformations imparted by the Philosopher's Stone. It is also worth noting that some authorities, notably in the Catholic Church, believe they were originally written as spoofs to mock the absurdities of mystical heresies, but the joke backfired and the author eventually had to publish a correction. Clearly the Onion phenomenon is not new.

Call me naive, but it seems eminently plausible that Rowling, having decided to write a book in which immortality is greedily sought by an evil wizard, should research the Elixir of Life and discover these three "obscure" documents - which are actually published on the Web so are not quite so obscure after all. Rowling, by the way, did not study Occult Arts. She did a degree in French at Exeter University.

Exeter

Studying hard at Exeter

Where there's smoke

Rowling says she used to enjoy playing at Witches when she was little. She also says she does not believe in magic. And, horror of horrors, some Wiccans are said to have complimented her on her research. However the majority are irritated that their serious beliefs are being confused with the antics of humorous figures with pointy hats and striped wands. Clearly, she doesn't portray Wicca, what she does is use authentic-sounding names and details taken from unrelated supernatural "folk culture" in order to amuse educated readers. Which is what she says she does.

That isn't to say it's all fun at Hogwarts. There are some nasty characters in the books, people who you might categorize as "Satanic" in real life. Once again, though, they are not portrayed as good or even neutral, they are the classic baddies. In one macabre incident, the evil being, Voldemort, drinks the blood of a dead unicorn. Unpleasant? Yes. Suitable for kids? Your call. Encouraging interest in blood sacrifices - hardly - it's the villains who get up to the nasty stuff, and they're not the sort of characters one would wish to identify with.

Of course, Wind of Death is a creepy name - befitting such a creature - but the fact that it's French is hardly sinister considering that Rowling studied French at University. Yet its meaning is evidence, to some folk, of Rowling's evil intentions. So, no, I cannot prove Rowling isn't a secret follower of Satan; there again I can't prove that Billy Graham isn't either. Maybe they both are as Billy Graham's organization has made some very approving noises about Harry Potter! (That was written a few years back, things may have changed there now.)

An interesting (if arguably over-enthusiastic) view on Rowling's use of Christian symbolism is to be found here. It should be noted that although Harry is usually associated with creatures that symbolize good, he also has to experience contamination with evil, symbolized by a snake - and it is not depicted as at all pleasant.

Potter ethics

"The Harry Potter books are good clean fun with a strong moral tone..." So they say. But are they? Rowling has been criticized for not making Harry a paragon of virtue. He and his friends occasionally lie their way out of trouble and even steal. What is even worse is that when such escapades are discovered they don't always get punished. The critics ignore the fact that in every case bar one, the kids are actually just about to save someone's life and mustn't be hindered by slow-witted, or even malicious, adult authority. However, there is one case where they break the School Rules and sneak off for fun and get caught. In this case, they are most severely reprimanded, and, very true to life, Harry feels dreadful about it.

But Harry's "rule breaking", they say, is a bad role model. And, as for them getting away with it, surely this can only send bad signals to children? This is an argument which I find less than compelling. Any theory of ethics which depends on punishment is morally bankrupt: we should do right because it is right, not because someone will punish us if we don't. Let's be realistic - these are children's books, if they were morally corrupting, there would be an outcry from the secular world which, by-and-large, still wants to produce decent citizens from its offspring. I very much doubt whether Potteresque situational ethics would be an issue if the bogeyman of witchcraft had not already got people panicking. However, if you only want your kids to read stories that moralize along a conservative Christian line, you'll want to keep them away from Harry Potter and, indeed, 99% of all other good books as well.

That, of course, is your choice, but it has nothing to do with whether Rowling is a witch and her books entice kids into the occult. As for the latter, the Western world has been rife with the occult since the 60's. If anything, Rowling has created a fantasy world in which there is real good and real evil, not relative values. And in many ways she pokes fun at the occult rather than promoting it. The teacher of Divination is a twit and a fraud, the Headmaster is astounded when she makes a true prediction and facetiously suggests she should have a pay rise. Of course, there's a parasitic industry hanging on the success of the books, some of which may very well cross the line and encourage dabbling in magic. But the problem isn't HP, it's the spirit of the age.

Harry's character

Harry is sympathetic character, not least because he was orphaned by an evil wizard when very young. The scar on his forehead is just a token of the inconsolable longing he has in his heart for the parents he can hardly remember. Yet, when Harry sees vengeance about to be executed against the person who betrayed his parents to their death, he steps between the traitor and the would-be assassins. His motive in preventing the killing is not forgiveness but that he doesn't want his father's dear friends to become murderers like the traitor.

I found that quite touching. It made me think!

Derek "Harry" Potter

Yes, I am actually a "Harry" Potter! No doubt the fact has clouded my judgment...