June 24, 2004

The Case for the Defense: Harry Potter as Wholesome, Valuable Christian Fantasy

The Harry Potter topic has by now, of course, grown quite out of control to the point where I couldn't hope to cover it all in a simple blogpost, or even in a book of any modest length.

I mean, it's not as if I would only have to contend with the five books in the series that have been published thus far, (and the combined total is already approaching 3,000 pages of material). There is also the matter of the 15+ (and still counting) books about Harry Potter. Some of these books discuss The Issue, some attempt literary criticism and analysis, and some delve into the background and origins of the unique blend of mythoi that Rowling has drawn from to create her own world. And besides all of that, there is the legion of articles that have been published in periodicals of every size, type, and description, plus the weighing in of opinion from famous figures of all types, both major and minor, and organizations who have this to mention or that to mention (all available on the Internet) . . . The sheer quantities of ink and human thought (or the lack of it) involved in this thing are as dizzying as a Sicilian's intellect.

Well . . . I don't even want to read all of that stuff, let alone comment on it. I just have one point to make in this post (Deep breath . . . prepare for a run-on sentence) . . . It is my intent to prove, (or at the very least assert and provide compelling evidence to support my thesis), that not only is Harry Potter neither evil or satanic in nature, but on the contrary, when properly read through the critical lens of Christian interpretation (if that's your thing and you've never heard of reading for the purposes of fun and entertainment . . . you poor dear) the Harry Potter series turns out to encompass a worldview which is inherently in concordance with the ideology of any well-educated, theologically grounded, and reasonably enlightened individual who happens to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and (if you so desire) can be used as a valuable tool from which to draw worthwhile and interesting life (and even spiritual) lessons for the instruction of developing minds, both young and old.

Anyway, I'll be chunking all the pro-Harry Potter ammo I've got at you, and I'll try to be as orderly as I can in my arguments . . . But you all know how I write, and worse, how I think.

Eat your heart out . . .

When it comes to the opinions of people that I know, (and I've asked a lot of people what they think during the three or so years that I've been more or less actively engaged in investigating this question), the statistical response to the question "Is Harry Potter evil or harmful?" is overwhelming.

-100% of people that I have asked personally who have actually read the Harry Potter series have responded "No." I haven't spoken with a single, solitary reader of the series who has responded in the affirmative. Perhaps someday I will . . . It won't change my opinion any, but I will no longer be able to rely on that impressive "one" followed by its two zeroes.

-100% of people that I have asked personally who responded "Yes" had not actually read the series or seen the movies. As I say . . . maybe someday, but for now the statistics are on my side. (I should note, for the record, that there are certainly a number of people with whom I have spoken who said either "Maybe" or "I don't know." None of them had read the books either, although some had seen one or more of the movies.)

That is what I know from talking to people. It is what I knew before I ever picked up the first book, and in the two years since that happened, nothing has changed yet. So:

I shall begin by contending that the Harry Potter series is written, from both a literary and a spiritual perspective, in the classic Inklings vein (books by said authors having long been accepted without question by all but the most foolish Christians worldwide).

If asked what my favorite class has been thus far here at LeTourneau, I would have to say it was last fall's Inklings class, (with only the slightest hesitation while I consider Watson classes and Social Backgrounds). It was truly an excellent class, and it helped me to see with particular clarity how even fantasy that is not strictly allegorical can appeal to the more spiritual aspects of our nature, and can present a very Christian worldview via symbolism and the various workings of plot, characters, and dialogue which promote any number of ideals, virtues and truths.

Last semester, as I was taking that class, I started to apply some of those principles to various things, and we even briefly discussed Harry Potter a couple of times in class (once as a result of a fascinating essay of sorts that I found, which I'll be linking to shortly). Meanwhile, I was frequenting a very small discussion board that had about 12 members at the time. Besides my roommate, Bryan, I was the oldest member, and when a Harry Potter discussion got started, I dove into it fairly quickly.

The following is an excerpt from a post I made near the beginning of the Inklings class:

I attended a class last night which was truly excellent and highly relevant to this discussion. Much of it was a discussion of myth and what it is and what it means to humanity. Essentially we have two very distinct spheres in existence in our universe: that of the Human and that of Heaven. Throughout history there have been instances were the heavenly intrudes in upon the human and it is in and from these points of intersection that myths are born. Myths are the human attempt to form a window through which they may view that which is divine, and in all of them we can catch glimpses and reflections of the hereafter. The Bible of course, is a True Myth, the one composed from the other side of the spectrum rather than by humans and it gives us a true, complete picture.

This, then, is what gives so many of us our love of fantasy, etc. It is a subject that C. S. Lewis was always talking about: That of the longing we all feel for something more beyond the material world that we see, and fantasy, (because of what it is, what it means, and where it comes from), partially satisfies that longing. Harry Potter is one example of a modern-day myth, and as such it contains any number of connections to the supernatural which are fascinating to observe. A large part of the structure of the thing is a crude model of the two spheres I described above, although here it is the wizard world that is intrusive upon the human.

That specific element is what a lot of kids love about it . . . This idea of another world out there, one which is grander, more exciting, more colorful than our own. And, more importantly, one which is accessible only to a select few. Sound familiar? It should . . . Especially if we have any die-hard Calvinists out there.

Even aside from this, the series raises some very serious questions about the nature of good and evil, and the implications of a struggle between the two. What is right? What is wrong? How can you decide between them? It's deep stuff (as you will find that all good children's literature is).

I'm not quite sure why I thought it would be a good idea to drop Calvinists into the mix . . . so nevermind that. No one knew what I was talking about anyway, I'm afraid. Anyway, the following excerpt is from a post I made once the class was over, after a few people had expressed confusion regarding my earlier post.

While it is certainly true that fantasy is appealing because it provides an escape from the humdrum of everyday life, I was trying to get at something beyond even that. Think of two circles, side by side, but separate. One is the natural, one is the supernatural. At one time, those two circles were one, and then the Fall happened. Now we are separated from God and the supernatural in everyday life because of sin . . . But we still catch glimpses of the beyond.

There are still intrusions of the supernatural on the natural, the circles still have a slight overlap. We see it through miracles, God working in people's lives, etc. And this what true fantasy is all about: A window into worlds and situations where those circles are still very much a part of each other.

The next part isn't the easiest to get across. If you're a big fantasy fan, you'll know what I'm talking about. There is a certain indefinable something to the genre, I have learned to refer to it as an "otherness" simply because it is not anything that we can truly know, or understand, or experience in this life except in fleeting glimpses. In both The Last Battle, and the movie version of Return of the King, I think it is explained a bit.

The last chapter of The Last Battle concerns the "Shadowlands," (the world we live in), which is a dim reflection of what lies beyond, "further up and further in," waiting for us after death. In the movie, Gandalf says something to Pippin concerning death that really struck me, something to the effect of: "The gray rain curtain of this world rolls back, and all changes to silver glass, and then you see it . . . White shores, and beyond . . . a far green country under a swift sunrise."

So it's right there: This other world. But our eyes are closed to it until after we die . . . and then the dull, grungy curtain is pulled away and we realize that even the most beautiful things we know in this life are but dim reflections of something greater and more beautiful and more wonderful by far than anything we have or could have experienced while we lived on earth, and in the midst of that is God, defying description. And to me, this is what fantasy provides a glimpse of. This is what it's all about. It's even there a good bit in Harry Potter . . . the otherness, the something more.

I think a lot of times, Christians (and especially adults) have a hard time separating reality from would-be fantasy. They don't quite understand the concept of fiction that contains truth . . . it may sound like an oxymoron, but it isn't. And they especially don't understand that in fiction, the rules can be different without changing the fundamentals.

I cannot use what we mere mortals think of as genuine "magic," apart from demonic activity, in this world. But fantasy is not set in the world that we know . . . that's why it's fantasy. In the same way that Peter Pan can fly by thinking happy thoughts, (a physical impossibility in our world), Harry Potter can cast spells with a magic wand and not be a Satanist, (a spiritual impossibility in our world).

As far as measurable effects of this perceived danger, I would guess that roughly the same number of children have jumped out of windows with huge smiles on their faces after reading Peter Pan as have made contact with demons via spells they learned from Harry Potter.

Anyway, my point is that fantasy, far from being Satan's foothold in your life, is actually a window into a world of spritual truth and light. You just have to know what you're looking for . . .

That's basically what I got out of Inklings, in a nutshell. I mean . . . there was a lot of really cool stuff, but this new (to me) concept of fantasy and myth was my favorite bit, probably because I was sick of fighting this battle without any really compelling arguments to rely on, and equally sick of being vaguely uncertain from time to time that I was on the right side. So much for that.

So long as I've made a passing mention of Harry Potter being specifically targeted when other books are left alone, let me go a bit deeper into that. I found this piece from the Censorship News during my online wanderings and, while I realize that Christians taking a hardline will dismiss this as irrelevant, coming from a non-Christian as it does, I think it raises some important points. It was written by Judy Blume (another author whose books have often been banned), and this is the quote I'd like to focus on:

I knew this was coming. The only surprise is that it took so long -- as long as it took for the zealots who claim they're protecting children from evil (and evil can be found lurking everywhere these days) to discover that children actually like these books. If children are excited about a book, it must be suspect.

I'm not exactly unfamiliar with this line of thinking, having had various books of mine banned from schools over the last 20 years. In my books, it's reality that's seen as corrupting. With Harry Potter, the perceived danger is fantasy. After all, Harry and his classmates attend the celebrated Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. According to certain adults, these stories teach witchcraft, sorcery and satanism. But hey, if it's not one "ism," it's another. I mean Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" has been targeted by censors for promoting New Ageism, and Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" for promoting racism. Gee, where does that leave the kids?

The question is not whether these books, or any books for that matter, are potentially harmful to children. Heck, eating out at fast food restaurants and driving your kids to school through heavy traffic are potentially harmful . . . The question is whether or not you can and will teach them to think critically about whatever it is that they are choosing to read rather than snatching away every book they seem to be enjoying a little too much and force-feeding them the latest dumbed-down Christian alternative.

In other words, there are two basic choices:

1) You can bulldoze stumbling blocks (real or perceived) out of their way as they grow up, until they leave the nest and not only can you no longer remove said blocks, but the kids don't see them because they don't know what blocks look like.

2) You can teach your children what stumbling blocks look like and show them how to step over said blocks.

Don't misunderstand me, I don't believe that the Harry Potter series actually is a stumbling block . . . but it is certainly something that children who know how to evaluate and analyze and think critically about what they are reading will be able to appreciate more. The uses of said skills clearly extend beyond the realm of stumbling block recognition and avoidance.

From this article (which I was quite pleased to find) we see an excellent explanation of where Harry Potter fantasy-magic diverges completely from Satanic "magic" and witchcraft (to the point where the two genuinely have absolutely nothing to do with each other). As such, and for other interesting bits of information and further discussion of Rowling's resemblance to the Inklings (and Tolkien specifically), I highly recommend that you read it in its entirety. It is excellent. The selection that I would like to highlight, however, is one that draws attention to one of the sterling "life lessons" that I mentioned earlier:

The clarity with which Rowling sees the need to choose between good and evil is admirable, but still more admirable, to my mind, is her refusal to allow a simple division of parties into the Good and the Evil. 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. When first–year students arrive at Hogwarts, they come to an assembly of the entire school, students and faculty. Each of them sits on a stool in the midst of the assembly and puts on a large, battered, old hat—the Sorting Hat, which decides which of the four houses the student will enter. After unusually long reflection, the Sorting Hat, to Harry’s great relief, puts him in Gryffindor, but not before telling him that he could achieve real greatness in Slytherin. This comment haunts Harry: he often wonders if Slytherin is where he truly belongs, among the pragmatists, the careerists, the manipulators and deceivers, the power–hungry, and the just plain nasty. Near the end of the second book, after a terrifying encounter with Voldemort . . . he confesses his doubts to Dumbledore.

"So I should be in Slytherin," Harry said, looking desperately into Dumbledore’s face. "The Sorting Hat could see Slytherin’s power in me, and it—"

"Put you in Gryffindor," said Dumbledore calmly. "Listen to me, Harry. You happen to have many qualities Salazar Slytherin prized in his hand–picked students. Resourcefulness . . . determination . . . a certain disregard for rules," he added, his moustache quivering again. "Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was. Think."

"It only put me in Gryffindor," said Harry in a defeated voice, "Because I asked not to go in Slytherin. . . ."

"Exactly," said Dumbledore, beaming once more. "Which makes you very different from [Voldemort]. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." Harry sat motionless in his chair, stunned.

Harry is stunned because he realizes for the first time that his confusion has been wrongheaded from the start: he has been asking the question "Who am I at heart?" when he needed to be asking the question "What must I do in order to become what I should be?" His character is not a fixed preexistent thing, but something that he has the responsibility for making: that’s why the Greeks called it character, "that which is engraved." It’s also what the Germans mean when they speak of Bildung, and the Harry Potter books are of course a multivolume Bildungsroman—a story of "education," that is to say, of character formation.

In addition to the many virtues demonstrated over and over again by the characters (great stuff like loyalty, friendship, tolerance, compassion, wisdom, courage, generosity, tenacity, trust, perseverance, humility . . . and I could go on . . .), the series repeatedly and reliably addresses the larger issues and questions of right and wrong, good and evil, life and death, appearance and reality, and coming of age.

But my original assertion hangs on more than a simple illustration of the possible teaching opportunities available in the Harry Potter series. This is the piece that I found while I was in the Inklings class. It is an excerpt from the book "The Hidden Key to Harry Potter: Understanding the Meaning, Genius, and Popularity of Joanne Rowling's Harry Potter Novels" which I found to be quite a fascinating read (I am currently trying to acquire the book in its entirety on inter-library loan). Again, the entire bit is quite a good read (although I don't necessarily think he's 100% correct . . . the important thing is that he can draw those conclusions), but there is a particular portion that I would like to quote:

Chamber as Morality Play

Christian morality plays were the first theater in Western Europe. They were almost without exception either portrayals of Bible stories or 'Everyman' allegories of the soul's journey to salvation through thick and thin. Imagine medieval street dramas at public markets and fairs by itinerant players putting on variations of Pilgrim's Progress and the Passion Play. The finish to Chamber of Secrets, as morality play, is the clearest Christian allegory of salvation history since Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Let's look at it in detail.

Harry, our 'Every Man', enters the Chamber of Secrets to find and rescue Ginny Weasley. He finds her but she is unconscious and Harry cannot revive her. He meets Tom Riddle. He had thought Riddle was a friend and asks for his help in restoring Ginny. No deal.

He learns then that Riddle is anything but his friend; Tom Riddle is the young Lord Voldemort, Satan's 'stand in' in the Harry Potter books, the Dark Lord or Evil One. Far from helping him revive Ginny, Riddle has been the cause of her near death. Harry boldly confesses his loyalty to Albus Dumbledore and his belief that Dumbledore's power is greater than Voldemort's.

The Chamber is filled with Phoenix song at this point, heralding the arrival of Fawkes, Dumbledore's Phoenix, who brings Harry the Sorting Hat of Godric Gryffyndor. The Dark Lord laughs at "what Dumbledore sends his defender" (page 316) and offers to teach Harry a "little lesson". "Let's match the powers of Lord Voldemort, Heir of Salazar Slytherin, against famous Harry Potter, and the best weapons Dumbledore can give him"(page 317). He releases the giant Basilisk from his reservoir and the battle is joined.

The look of the Basilisk is death so Harry, eyes closed, runs from it. The Phoenix attacks the charging Basilisk and punctures its deadly eyes. Harry cries for help to "someone - anyone -" (page 319) as the Phoenix and blind Basilisk continue to battle; he is given the Sorting Hat- by a sweep of the Basilisk's tail. The Harry throws himself to the ground, rams the hat over his head, and begs for help again. A "gleaming silver sword" comes through the hat (page 320).

The Evil One directs the blind Basilisk to leave the Phoenix and attack the boy. It does. Harry drives the sword "to the hilt into the roof of the serpent's mouth" when it lunges for him - but one poisonous fang enters Harry's arm as the Basilisk falls to its death. Harry, mortally wounded, falls beside it. Phoenix weeps into Harry's wound as Riddle laughs at Harry's death.

Too late, Riddle remembers the healing powers of Phoenix tears and chases away the Phoenix. He then confronts the prostrate Harry and raises Harry's wand to murder him. The Phoenix gives Harry the diary and Harry drives the splintered Basilisk fang into it. Riddle dies and disappears as ink pours from the diary. Ginny revives and they escape. Holding the tail feathers of the Phoenix, they fly from the cavern "miles beneath Hogwarts" to safety and freedom above. Harry celebrates with Dumbledore.

Now let's translate this Morality Play. First, the cast of characters, the dramatis personae:

Harry is 'Every Man'

Ginny is 'Virgin Innocence, Purity'

Riddle/Voldemort is 'Satan, the Deceiver'

The Basilisk is 'Sin'

Dumbledore is 'God the Father'

Fawkes the Phoenix is 'Christ'

Phoenix Song is 'Holy Spirit'

Gryffyndor's Sword is 'the Sword of Faith/Spirit' (Ephesians 6:17)

The Chamber is 'the World' and

Hogwarts is 'Heaven'

The action of the drama, then, goes like this: man, alone and afraid in the World, loses his innocence. He tries to regain it but is prevented by Satan, who feeds on his fallen, lost innocence. Man confesses and calls on God the Father before Satan and is graced immediately by the Holy Spirit and the protective presence of Christ.

Satan confronts man with the greatness of his sins but Christ battles on Man's side for Man's salvation from his sins. God sends Man the Sword of Faith which he 'works' to slay his Christ-weakened enemy. His sins are absolved but the weight of them still mean Man's death. Satan rejoices.

But, wait, the voluntary suffering of Christ heals Man! Man rises from the dead, and, with Christ's help, Man destroys Satan. Man's innocence is restored and he leaves the World for Heaven by means of the Ascension of Christ. Man, risen with Christ, lives with God the Father in joyful thanksgiving.

If I look closely, I can imagine where different types of Christians might disagree with this thumbnail sketch of Everyman's salvation drama in emphasis and specific doctrines. It would be a very odd Christian indeed, though, who could not understand what the story was about and would not admire the artistry of the allegory. Using only traditional symbols, from the 'Ancient of Days' figure as God the Father to the satanic serpent and Christ-like phoenix ('the Resurrection Bird'), the drama takes us from the fall to eternal life without a hitch. Nothing philosophical or esoteric here (can you say 'no alchemy'?).

Rowling illustrates here that her books are Christian and in bold opposition to the spiritually dangerous books our children are often given. Chamber of Secrets is an example in the genre of an engaging, enlightening, and edifying reading experience for children - and a powerful rebuke and wake-up call to her Christian critics.

What is Chamber of Secrets about? Rowling, perhaps in response to the absence of intelligent discussion of Stone's meaning, in her second book clearly reveals to the discerning reader that she is writing Inkling fiction, i.e., stories that will prepare children for Christian spiritual life and combat with evil. Talk about baptizing the imagination with Christian symbols and doctrine!

I really don't know whether you can actually contend that Rowling did that on purpose, but it is undeniably there to be found. And this isn't an isolated incident within the series, either. Consider the first book for a moment. Again we have Harry himself as the "Every Man" character. Think of the entire opening portion as a metaphor for a spiritual journey.

Harry spends the first part of his life in darkness, surrounded by people who are blind to the truth around them. It is not until his 11th birthday that he discovers he is not of this world at all, and a whole new world opens up right before his eyes, where a wholly new and different life awaits him. And in this new world, he is the focal point of a battle between good and evil. Although he had received the mark of Voldemort at a very young age, and Voldemort still makes every effort to get at him, he is safe so long as he stays near Dumbledore (the only wizard that Voldemort fears).

And, at the climax, even when Dumbledore seems to have disappeared, leaving Harry to try and take care of things himself, we discover that there is more protecting him than we knew about all along.

"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 . . . will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed, and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good."
-Dumbledore, (page 299)

I'm sure that someone like Granger could explain it more neatly . . . I probably could as well, but I don't think I need to spend anymore time on it as it should be very clear. Things like this don't just sneak in by accident, and the Harry Potter series is literally riddled with similair allegorical/symbolical scenarios, just waiting to be discovered.

Before I bring this post to a close, let's review the facts one last time:

1) The Harry Potter books fall directly into the classic classification of fantasy/myth/faerie as outlined by Tolkien and Lewis. As such, they serve as symbols of spiritual truth on the deepest, most subconscious level that can appeal to the human psyche and clearly identify Rowling as a mythopoeic subcreator of the highest caliber.

2) The Harry Potter books are perfect for teaching children valuable skills related to discernment, critical thinking, and literary analysis and evaluation . . . not to mention the pure enjoyment of reading and healthy dose of cultural literacy that can be acquired.

3) The Harry Potter books are a veritable gold mine of excellent lessons just waiting to be taught and pressing issues just waiting to be discussed concerning any number of subjects, virtues, and important questions.

4) The Harry Potter books are crammed to the very rafters with imagery that is blatantly Christian and obvious symbolism which is easily linked to many, if not most, (if not all) important Christian ideals and doctrines. This makes them excellent witnessing tools as they have already come crashing into mainstream culture in a big way that we would be remiss to ignore or denounce.

5) The Harry Potter books are a genuinely good read.

The Defense rests . . .

Posted by Jared at June 24, 2004 11:59 PM | TrackBack