Reviewing Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
A version of this note was originally published in the Sewanee Theological Review: it remains the copyright 2003 © of the author and The University of the South
The publication of the fifth of J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books is perhaps a suitable moment for a glance at them in the Sewanee Theological Review, since they have, as a series, caused a degree of fluttering in some theological dovecotes.
In case there is anyone left in the western world who does not know who Harry Potter is, let me begin by saying that he is a boy who discovers that he has magical powers, and who is therefore able to attend Hogwarts, a school for boys and girls who, like himself, have magical powers. The five books so far published describe the life and adventures of Potter and his friends and enemies at the school.
As my students know, in considering any text, I like to start with questions about its genre, so – what kind of books are these? They are classic English school stories, as anyone familiar with that genre will know. To observe therefore (as has one prominent critic), that they portray a world that never existed except in the minds of those who read and write English school stories, is quite beside the point, since that is one of the chief reasons why school stories exist in the first place, and why they are enjoyable. One might as well criticize Jane Austen for portraying human folly. As it happens, however, and as anyone who ever attended a real English school will also know, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (Headmaster: Albus Dumbledore) is actually rather more realistic than the schools in most English school stories. Division into houses, the importance of winning or losing house points, the mingled awe and irritation with which one regarded prefects, the sports captain who was obsessed the winning “the cup”, “detentions”, the teacher who began his first lesson to the first-years by informing us that there would be no “foolishness” in his class and that few of us, if any, would ever come really to appreciate or understand the deep mysteries he was about to reveal, and then, in one’s senior years, mounting anxiety over public examinations – perhaps these are no longer features of English school life. I do not know. But they were certainly features of my school life. (We even had a master whose name was “Snape” – generally corrupted, I fear, to “Snapper.”) Rowling is not, and does not claim to be, an alternative to R. F. Delderfield (whose To Serve Them All My Days is surely one of the finest evocations of English school life ever written) but in these and other respects she certainly rings bells with me.
The question of realism aside, as school stories go, I would say that Rowling’s are in any case pretty good: not, perhaps, so good as inevitably to have raised her from poverty to being among the world’s richest people – for that, I think, we must allow for a vast degree of luck, and the fact that she happened to write what a lot of people wanted to read at just the time when they wanted to read it. Rowling herself, when interviewed, seems to retain a rather endearing degree of astonishment at her success. But still, these are good stories. They are well paced, they are exciting, they have variety, the characters do not always act as one expects them to, and (perhaps most important) the characters change and develop, something that has not always been true of English school stories. I remember, at quite an early age, beginning to be irritated with Richmal Crompton’s William Brown because he never seemed to learn anything from what happened to him
As for Rowling’s written style, it is not elegant, but it is brisk and effective, and she knows how English schoolchildren talk. In fact, she knows how people talk generally. An obvious sign of this, which anyone may observe, is the way in which, as with Jane Austen, when the books are filmed, the actors and scriptwriters are able to use whole sections of the dialogue unaltered, and it works very well. (I suspect, incidentally, that Rowling admires Jane Austen. If not, then it is an extraordinary coincidence that the animal who is the worst toady and sneak in the series has the same name as Austen’s worst toady and sneak, Mrs. Norris.)
The magical element in Harry Potter is, of course, an element additional to the normal school story, but there is plenty of precedent for it. Fictional English schoolchildren (and some American, incidentally) have been having magical adventures for decades, from E. Nesbit to C. S. Lewis. And, again, Rowling does it well. Like Nesbit and Lewis, she has the gift of being able to create an alternative universe that is consistent, and about which, therefore, we can comfortably suspend our disbelief for the duration of our reading.
So why the theological fuss? The conservative Christian right has declared the Harry Potter books dangerous and anti-Christian, and I am aware of children in Tennessee being told by their friends at school that they risk hellfire if they read them or go to see the movies. Why? Rowling’s books certainly do not have the problems of sexual morality that some have claimed to discern in Madeleine L’Engle’s work. In that respect, so far as I can see, Harry Potter and his friends are (thus far) exemplary by the most traditional standards. Again, it cannot be the presence of magic and wizardry in the books that causes the difficulty: Lewis has plenty of magic and wizardry, and he is an icon of the Christian right. So what is the problem with Rowling? One problem may be semantic. Rowling, from the third chapter of the first Harry Potter book onward, uses the word “witch” in a positive sense. That, I believe, has pressed the wrong buttons for some. The King James Version of the Bible (the version of choice for most of the Christian right – ironically enough, in view of the KJV’s unimpeachably Anglican origins) regularly uses “witch” and “witchcraft” to translate Hebrew kashah, keshahim, and qesem (for example, Exod. 22.18, Lev. 22.18, Deut. 13.10, 1 Sam. 15.23, 2 Kings 9.22): words designating a category of ritual specialist whose functions and position in Israelite society are now obscure to us, but which seems to have involved necromancy, which was perceived as a threat to the purity of Israel’s religion and its distinction from the religious practices of the gentiles, and was therefore regarded as a deliberate rebellion against God. All this, quite evidently, has extraordinarily little to do with Hogwarts School and Hermione Granger saying “Win-gar-dium Levi-o-sa!”, as anyone with a scrap of literary critical intelligence can see. But surely the word “witch” has caused part of the trouble. If Rowling had stuck to “wizard,” perhaps no one in the Christian right would have noticed her books, let alone launched a crusade against them.
So we come finally to the question, “Are the Harry Potter books Christian?” The answer depends to a large extent, of course, on what you mean by the question. If you mean, “Do they use Christian symbols or intend to be ‘Christian’?” the answer is evidently, “No.” But the use of Christian symbols, or even the intent to be Christian, is no guarantee that a book is in any serious sense Christian, or that it is an aid to the Christian life – if it were, then The Exorcist and the Left Behind books would count as such, and in my view, neither do.[i] But if you mean, “Are the Potter books compatible with a Christian worldview? Are they suitable for Christian children to read?” Then I would answer, “Yes, perfectly compatible. And perfectly suitable.” Why? The key question is – do they present a universe that is in principal in need of redemption and redeemable? Yes, they do. Harry Potter and his friends and teachers often do wrong things, and they are sorry for them. Then they do wrong things again, and they are sorry again. In this respect, they are very like us. Moreover the values to which they aspire in judging whether things are right or wrong are, on the whole, to do with truth, love, and justice – in Saint Paul’s phrase, “things noble in the sight of all” (Rom. 13:17); they are not, therefore, to be despised by any. A fictional world with such values, and such a world in need of and capable of redemption, is compatible with Christian faith. The fact that it is a magical world is neither here nor there.
A friend suggests to me, however, a somewhat different area of concern. The Potter books make him uncomfortable, because of “the similarity between incantation and power, and prayer and power.” Let it be said at once: the issue is important. No Christian (and come to that, no Jew and no Muslim) is permitted to pray to any supernatural power other than the God of Abraham. That is not negotiable. Nevertheless, I think that in this case the concern is unnecessary. In the Harry Potter universe (unlike ours) magical powers are for some people—witches and wizards—a natural gift. Therefore for those who have this gift, such as Harry Potter and his friends, the spells are not incantations of a divinity or divinities other than God in order to obtain unnatural powers (as they would be in our universe): they are simply techniques, that is, ways to train and control a natural gift, as singing scales and learning breath control are (in our universe) for someone gifted with a beautiful voice. The way in which Rowling describes classes in which spells are studied makes this, I think, quite clear. No one who read the “Wingardium Leviosa” scene without preconceptions about what the word “spell” means could possibly imagine that Harry and Hermione and Ron think they are saying prayers or invoking a god!
What then have the Potter books to say about the divine, about God and the life of the spirit? So far as I can see, not much, although in the last volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there are hints of a beginning concern with these issues, possibly signified by the fact that this the only volume in the series that contains a direct quotation from the New Testament. Still, in this respect the Potter books are infinitely less profound than, say, C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, or Charles Williams’s fiction, which constantly deal with issues of God and the spiritual life, if not always using those terms. But then, Lewis and Williams were persons with a deep and consciously articulated theology. Rowling is not such a person (at least at present) and does not pretend to be. And that is her right. Neither were Hugh Lofting and E. Nesbit, yet they both wrote great children’s books. We do not reasonably criticize authors for what they do not attempt, but for what they do attempt, and whether they do it well or ill.
It has been urged that the moral questions and challenges faced by Rowling’s characters are too simple: they are always faced with easy choices between obvious good and obvious evil. To a certain extent, of course, that is true. These are, after all, stories for children. But it is not true all the time. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Hermione Granger has to decide whether or not she will risk Harry’s disapproval by insisting that those qualified to do so check his new Quidditch broom, which may be jinxed, and therefore dangerous for him to use. If you have not read the books, you will not know what a Quidditch broom is, but that does not matter. The moral issue is clear. Does Hermione care for her friend enough to risk his anger? Apparently, she does: but anyone who imagines that for an eleven-year-old (or, indeed, for anyone) such a choice would be easy, does not show moral insight, merely a totally inadequate knowledge of human nature.
So much is fundamental. We may, however, go further. The later Harry Potter books seem – even if only tentatively – to be exploring questions about power and the proper exercise of power, questions that perhaps the author herself did not initially expect to face.[ii] But however tentative her approaches to these questions may be, the values upon which she bases those approaches – the values already named of truth, love, and justice – are sound. What is more, the fact that the presenting problems in the stories involve magical power does not alter the main point, which is that no one is likely, on the basis of what happens or is said in these narratives, to think that because one has the power to do so, it is all right to oppress the poor or exploit the weak. Hence Dumbledore’s words to Harry at the end of Book Two, when Harry fears he should have been put in Slytherin House, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Rowling makes clear that wisdom is needed— ascetical wisdom—if we are to be at all effective in our struggle against the “dark arts.” Alistor Moody’s watchword, “Constant Vigilance!” could come right out of the desert fathers–or the New Testament (1 Peter 5:8 cf. Mark 13:33-37).
In connection with moral issues, I would also note that a consistent theme throughout the Harry Potter books is that the nastier wizards are always eager to preserve racial purity. They hate people of “mixed blood” (not descended from wizards on both sides) and people who are “Mudbloods” (people who have the ability to be wizards, but are not descended from wizards on either side). The implied criticism of all forms of racism is obvious.
So my advice is – if you or your children enjoy the Harry Potter books, then do so with a clear conscience. They are honest mirth. And honest mirth, as Thomas pointed out, is good for the human soul. There are many things and many people in the world of books and film that are apt and ready to corrupt a Christian. Harry Potter and J. K. Rowling are not, in my view, among them.