Magic and Harry Potter

I am resisting the tremendously strong urge to write an article discussing our nation’s birth and the events of the American Revolution. It is times of the year like this that make a historian almost quiver with delight and expectation. I will say that I spent a good part of Independence Day reading David McCullough’s riveting biography John Adams. I hope to post a review of it and his new book 1776 within the next week or two. I will restrain myself now from further historical discussion and descend into the murky waters of literary theory and criticism. After some thought I have decided to rework my approach to this series and instead of doing individual book reviews I’ve decided to discuss the issues mentioned in my introductory post and how they relate to all of the Harry Potter books. The last post in the series will be a review of the sixth and latest book. I will provide a link here to Sparknotes which has decent plot summaries and information for those less familiar with the story. If you would like to discuss the individual books please bring them up in our site’s forum.

The first issue to discuss is the presence of magic. Obviously magic is very important to Harry Potter. It provides the driving force of the story and allows Rowling a wide variety of literary options to aid her in spinning an interesting tale. I suppose the main issue at stake here is whether or not magic is appropriate in a work of fiction especially for young people and also those of the Christian faith.

Many people stand on both sides of the issue and as a rule tempers can flare and passions run high. Some people fully embrace the use of magic and see no problem with it. Some take the opposite extreme and say all magic is bad. There are a number of people who take a more moderate position and say that magic is okay depending on how it used and what is meant by it. The most common books and authors mentioned in this debate are Tolkien (Lord Of The Rings) and C. S. Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia). Many rightly wonder why it is okay to have wizards, demons, magicians, witches, necromancers, werewolves, and a host of other “evil” beings in these two authors’ works, but not in Harry Potter. Many would say that magic is presented differently by these two authors. The argument goes that Tolkien presents “magic” (though he did dislike the use of the word and used it for lack of something better) mainly as the superhuman abilities of the elves and angelic type beings such as Sauron and Gandalf (see the Silmarillion). Supposedly those who attempt to gain the use of similar power are corrupted and fall (such as the negative of the One Ring on all humans who use it). The same is said for Lewis and his view of magic. The Lion, the Witch, an the Wardrobe and The Magician’s Nephew both supposedly show the negative effects of magic on those who try to use it for their own personal gain or advancement.

These arguments are of course true and perfectly acceptable. What astounds me though is that the same arguments could be applied to Harry Potter. Not everyone in Rowling’s world is able to perform magic. Only certain people are born with the necessary qualities to become a witch or wizard. It cannot be given away to others, though it can affect them as it does in Narnia and Middle-Earth. Secondly, these inborn characteristics have to be cultivated and developed. In Rowling’s novels young magical folk attend special schools. In Middle-Earth the elves pass their lore to one another and spend a great deal of time studying and learning how to improve their “arts” (magic). Also, in Harry Potter those who use their powers for evil purposes are portrayed as twisted and corrupt individuals and often suffer for their wickedness. Obviously, without going further we can see that there are some similarities in between these three works. In response to those who say magic is inappropriate, well, I’ll have to save that for that for my next installment because my time is far spent.

I know I haven’t exhausted this topic by any stretch and that many people will be unsatisfied with my presentation of the material. I’ll try to cover more in my next post and hopefully I will be able to respond to any comments you leave. Have a good night!


4 thoughts on “Magic and Harry Potter

  1. I have a feeling I’m going to regret being involved in this conversation. I’ve only read the Sorcerer’s Stone, yet I’ve talked with enough people and read enough about the series to know it’s basic plot and content. There’s a key difference that I see between Lewis and Tokien’s magic Rowling’s. Lewis and Tolkien’s good characters use a different kind of magic from the evil ones. Obviously the good characters have access to “black” magic but they’re corrupted if they use it. For example, in the Return of the King, Boromir’s father uses one of the vision orbs (sorry, it’s been awhile since I’ve read it) and he is weakened by it. The orb is something that even Gandalf will not use. In Rowling’s world, the same magic is acceptable to all wizards and witches. It’s just simply a matter of how they use it. That might not be a bad thing in itself, except that Rowling’s magic seems much more realistic than that used in the worlds of Lewis and Tolkien. Rowling creates her world on a magic that is much closer to the occult than Narnia or Middle Earth magic and she gives all her characters indiscriminate access to most/all of it. That’s all I’ll say for now.

  2. Pingback: Conservative Book Talk » Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

  3. Very interesting post. It’s helped give me some perspective on the debate. I have never read Harry Potter, since my mother disapproves of the series, but I’ve heard such a variety of opinions on the subject that it can be confusing.

    In response to Aaron’s comment, the palantir, or “vision orbs”, in the Lord of the Rings were not in and of themselves evil. In fact, they were created to help a vast kingdom communicate–sort of a magical version of skype. The problem was that Sauron had hijacked one of the palantir so that anyone who looked into was forced to confront him. That’s why Gandalf wouldn’t use it; it would have entailed revealing himself to the enemy. Denenthor was weakened by using the palantir because he allowed himself to believe lies. He also, as a mortal, lacked the strength to properly use it. The magic of the Lord of the Rings is a fairly neutral thing, I think, that can be twisted for evil ends or used properly, though with caution, for good ones; sort of like technology only more mystical and cool.

    I do agree, however, that the greater ‘realism’ or closer ties to the occult should cause us to approach the series with caution. But we should be approaching everything with caution, right? 🙂

  4. Amanda,

    Assuming that you don’t have a personal problem with reading the Potter series, I’d suggest that you do just that. And assuming that you aren’t living at home still. (I wouldn’t advocate that you rebel.)

    Honestly, the books are poorly written but the plots are fairly engaging and the characters truly are fun. The writing style seems a bit like Dickens in that it can drag on for pages without the plot advancing.

    But, the primary objections from my point of view are: profanity, anger/attitudes presented as normative and acceptable, and general attempts to blur the world of fantasy with reality.

    There is a difference between the way that Potter was marketed and Star Wars. Star Wars was always set in a different place/time with the updated “Once upon a time” approach. Potter was always about the kid next door and the possibility that you could be an undiscovered wizard or witch. Big difference….

    Still, I enjoy the plots. I also tend to view magic as a plot device and view the books as non-real. Most kids are intelligent enough to understand the difference between reality and fiction.

    I’ve spoken with many parents in a previous job who were concerned that their kids not read the same materials that the parents read as children. I would always ask the parent, “Did reading that material affect you as a child?” Invariably the response was always, “No, but it could affect my child.” That’s their prerogative as a parent. I don’t agree.

    As a further validation of this point about children’s intelligence, consider this. Attempt to perform some sleight of hand for children and adults. The adults are always stumped. The kids can always determine how it was done. Clearly the children are too dumb to understand what’s going on…. 😉

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