Okay, I know that all the Harry Potter controversies flared up and died aeons ago. But I’ve long wanted to write about it, and I have the excuse that it’s vaguely back in the religious news, with ‘The Teenage Exorcists’ claiming that the Harry Potter books are satanic and teach genuine witchcraft.
So here’s my tuppence-worth on why my favourite children’s books are good and healthy Christian reading material. (Warning: contains plot spoilers.)
(NB I’m not talking about the films, which are a poor shadow of the books and which lose almost all of the spirit of the stories.)
I ♥ HP
I love the Harry Potter books. I’ve been gripped by them since I first picked up the copy of Philosopher’s Stone that my wife was reading, 15 years ago. I was devastated for days when Dumbledore died in the sixth book. We even spent our 10th wedding anniversary reading the just-released final Harry Potter book together. And I felt a deep sense of loss when I finished that book and knew that there would never be any more Harry Potter, any more Hogwarts or Diagon Alley or the whole magical world Rowling had so skilfully created.
I’ll admit to being suspicious of Harry Potter at first. Like many other Christians, I was put off by the taboo-word ‘witchcraft’ (‘Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry’). I was uncomfortable about some of the darker and scarier elements in the stories, and even more so about references to actual occult practices like Divination (palmistry, horoscopes etc). And I was uncertain about some of the Roald Dahl-esque morality in the stories, where the one-dimensional nasty characters can be treated as horribly as you please.
However, as the series progressed, I began to change my mind. By the time I’d finished the final book, I was convinced – and remain so – that these books are deeply, fundamentally Christian in character, or at least sit firmly within a broadly Christian framework and worldview.
The difficulty is that they are Christian in quite a complex and also quite a hidden (even disguised) way which is easy to overlook. Nonetheless, rather than being adverts for witchcraft under guise of harmless children’s stories as some Christians claim, I would say the very opposite. I believe they are Christian stories hidden under the guise of witchcraft.
Let’s just deal with that scare word ‘witchcraft’, guaranteed to raise alarm bells with Christians. If J.K. Rowling had just used the word ‘magic’ instead, the vast majority of Christians wouldn’t have had any problem with the books. For the ‘witchcraft’ in Harry Potter is, by and large, nothing more than plain old children’s storybook magic. It’s waving a magic wand and saying some made-up words. You get exactly the same thing in the Mr. Men series, for goodness’ sake.
There are just two elements in the stories that have any possible relation at all to genuine occult practices. Firstly there are those which are clearly depicted as dark, evil practices and not to be touched with a bargepole (and the majority of even these are clearly fictional, like Voldemort’s ‘horcruxes’). Secondly there are those which are shown up as silly and pointless, like divination and palmistry. Rowling is absolutely not advocating or promoting any of these things.
As with all good fantasy, the magic in Harry Potter symbolically represents all manner of things which cannot be expressed half so well by using ‘real’ things. Magic can variously represent power, possibility, talents, imagination, psychology, even spirituality and spiritual gifts. By using the idea of magic, Rowling can explore complex concepts in considerable depth but without being didactic or unsubtle.
Christianity in Potterworld
Rowling’s wizarding world actually reminds me strongly of the church – a micro-society of benign eccentrics and oddballs who struggle to understand those who live without ‘magic’ (or without God). When I’m trying to describe Christian gatherings like New Wine or Greenbelt to friends, I often say that they’re a bit like the Quidditch World Cup in Goblet of Fire.
And if you look a little below the surface of the books, they’re teeming with Christian references and imagery – crosses, saints, ‘saviours’, churches, prayer. Harry’s ‘Patronus’ (literally protector) is a white stag, a medieval symbol of Christ. Harry frequently ‘prays’ in moments of need. In the final book, there are even direct New Testament quotations on the gravestones of Harry’s parents and headmaster: ‘The last enemy to be destroyed is death’; ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’.
Then there are the overt Christian themes – particularly sacrifice for others, forgiveness and redemption.
Sacrifice and redemption
The theme of redemption is particularly strong in the final book, Deathly Hallows. Many of the worst and least lovable characters from the whole series experience redemption at the end – Harry’s bullying cousin Dudley Dursley; the treacherous and unpleasant house-elf Kreacher; the pompous, power-hungry Percy Weasley; the bitter and grudge-bearing Snape; Harry’s arch-enemy Draco Malfoy.
Even the Dark Lord Voldemort is offered a last-ditch chance at salvation by Harry through seeking remorse for his evil deeds, though he rejects it. And we are shown that there will be real afterlife consequences for this, for we’ve seen the self-made wreck of Voldemort’s soul that will be his reality hereafter.
Furthermore, in Harry Potter redemption comes with a cost, and in many cases the ultimate cost. Harry’s mother died shielding him, which has placed on Harry a special protection against Voldemort’s evil. Ultimately, Harry then lays down his own life for others in a direct echo of Christ.
When he does so, he finds himself at a kind of heavenly King’s Cross station (note the name – surely not a coincidence). After meeting with Dumbledore (arguably the books’ God figure), Harry is then able to return to life in a direct echo of Christ’s resurrection. By doing so he is able finally to defeat Voldemort’s evil, ushering in a new and better world.
Albus Dumbledore and God
Albus Dumbledore is for me far and away Rowling’s best character (one of the reasons I dislike the later films is that Michael Gambon gets Dumbledore so desperately wrong). Despite his unparalleled brilliance and magical power, Dumbledore is unfailingly kind, humble, humane, gentle, good-humoured, courteous and self-deprecatingly humorous.
Above all, Dumbledore is thoroughly good, completely trustworthy and deeply wise (see ‘selected wisdom of Dumbledore’ below). He is still human, but for most of the series he acts as a kind of God figure – or at least a God representative, perhaps a Moses or Elijah. He watches over Harry, supports and encourages him, occasionally corrects him (but always kindly), and sends help in times of need and trouble (‘Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it’).
In the final book things become more ambiguous and complex. Dumbledore has died and left Harry, Ron and Hermione to complete the mission to destroy Voldemort’s ‘horcruxes’ without his direct involvement or instruction. He leaves them each an apparently useless item to help in their quest – a book of children’s fairy tales, a device for putting out lights, and an old Snitch (a winged ball from the magical sport Quidditch).
For most of the book, Harry feels increasing frustration with Dumbledore. He hears rumours about Dumbledore’s past that cast grave doubt on his hero’s character and goodness and leave him feeling betrayed and confused. He feels abandoned by Dumbledore, left with an impossible mission and no help to carry it out. In short, he feels like many Christians do when God seems absent or uncaring, or when we wonder deep down if God is really good.
And at the point when Harry lays down his life it even seems that Dumbledore has betrayed him all along – that he has (in Snape’s words) been ‘raising [Harry] like a pig for slaughter’.
However, it turns out in the end that Dumbledore knew exactly what he was doing, and also that he has been watching over Harry and sending assistance (his portrait in the Headmaster’s study at Hogwarts is still effectively ‘alive’). The bewildering items that he left were in fact exactly what Harry, Ron and Hermione needed, and in Ron’s case Dumbledore’s bequest turns out to be his way back, his chance of redemption.
I’ve found this story very helpful in the frequent times when I’ve felt abandoned by God; when I feel that he’s left me in the dark without help or instruction or way-marker. It gives me hope that God knows what he’s doing, and that it will ultimately all work out for the best despite all appearances to the contrary.
So perhaps it’s not insignificant that one of Dumbledore’s apparently useless bequests was a book of nursery tales. Children’s stories and fairy tales can be a powerful source of truth and wisdom; and the Harry Potter books are no exception.
Harry Potter and interest in the occult
But what of the undeniable wave of interest in ‘real-life’ spells and magical arts that has ridden parasitically on the back of the Harry Potter phenomenon? I admit to being disturbed by this, but I don’t believe J.K. Rowling or her books are to blame.
For starters, in Harry Potter ordinary ‘Muggles’ like you and I can’t become wizards or witches and can’t practise magic, however much we might want to.
But most of all, the Harry Potter stories are, well, stories. They’re obviously and thoroughly fictional, made up out of Rowling’s fertile and witty imagination. They’re populated with mythical beasts – dragons, mermaids, giants, unicorns. There are flying cars and biting books and teleporting buses that can make lamp-posts leap out of the way. The magic is not remotely realistic and it’s not meant to be. What is realistic is the portrayal of human relationships and human emotions, and therein lies the books’ great strength.
I don’t know whether reading Harry Potter has genuinely led anyone to try out ‘real’ magic. But (mis)reading the Bible has led some to terrible acts of anti-Semitism, homophobia, enslavement, subjugation of women, etc. The books aren’t to blame; it’s our capacity to abuse the texts that’s the problem.
Appendix: selected wisdom of Dumbledore
- It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.
- As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all – the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things which are worst for them.
- Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.
- It is our choices, Harry, that make us what we truly are, far more than our abilities
- It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.
- Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realise that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!
- It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it
Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?