Ever since the fourth Harry Potter movie, Goblet of Fire, hit the silver screen, I have (at times) discussed the books and movies. One question that seems to “pop up” all the time is: Can Christians read a book about a wizard?

In this post, I will deal with two questions (not separately, I will “bake them into” the text): (i) is the magic of Harry Potter evil or good? (ii) What literary purpose does the magic have?

Invocations and incantations. There is two types of magic, one that works (according to the Christian faith), the calling of spirits (which never works the way it is intended), and one that does not work, as it is a fairy tale magic. The first I will call “sorcery,” invocational magic, the second “wizardry,” incantational magic. John Granger explains the difference:

Invocational means literally “to call in.” Magic of this sort is usually referred to as sorcery. Scripture warns that “calling in” demonic principalities and powers for personal power and advantage is dangerously stupid. History books, revealed tradition, and fantasy fiction (think Dr. Faustus) that touch on sorcery do so in order to show us that the unbridled pursuit of power and advantage via black magic promises a tragic end. But there is no invocational sorcery in the Harry Potter books. Even the most evil wizards do their nasty magic with spells; not one character in any of the five books ever calls in evil spirits. Not once.

The magic by spells and wands in Harry Potter is known as incantational wizardry. Incantational means literally “to sing along with” or “to harmonize.” To understand how this works, we have to step outside our culture’s materialist creed (that everything in existence is quantitative mass or energy) and look at the world upside down, which is to say, God-first. (Granger 2006, s. 4-5)

You never find “sorcery” in the Harry Potter books, only “wizardry.” To make things clearer, the American Heritage Dictionary defines sorcery as “[the use] of supernatural power over others through the assistance of spirits.”

I believe that the magic in Harry Potter is more of a “natural resource,” something which is part of the world (of Harry Potter). We can compare it to the powers of Superman, Spiderman and X-Men. The last is in fact very much similar to Harry Potter. Both feature a bunch of kids with special powers going to a school to learn how to control them. And both feature a “wise old man.” The key word, I believe, is science.(1)

Magic and technology. In Tim Burton’s 2001 reinterpretation (not merely a remake) of The Planet of the Apes, Leo Davidson, the main character, uses a technological device, and one of the apes calls it “sorcery.” Davidsen retorts; “No, science.” But the ape was not far from the truth. Magic and technology are not far from one another, as C.S. Lewis points out in The Abolition of Man:

There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse… There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique. (Lewis 1946, p. 52)

The magic of the Harry Potter books is a science, it is a craft that the witches and wizards must do in a logical and reasonable way. And it is never about performing demonic rituals — it is about using a natural resource.(2)

The point then, is not the magic in itself, but the use of it. Once can either use it by “[conforming] the soul to reality,” or by “[subduing] reality to [your own ] wishes.” It is a question about ethics. Alen Jacobs writes that

The educational quandary for Albus Dumbledore… is how to train students not just in the “technology” of magic but also in the moral discernment necessary to avoid the continual reproduction of the few great Dark Lords like Voldemort and their multitudinous followers. (Jacobs 2000)

Harry and Voldemort is good examples. Harry performs magic with a great moral backbone. He is knowledgeable, intuitive, self-disciplined and virtuous. Voldemort, on the other hand is evil and thinks only about himself. His technology — as we see in his Horcruxes — is naturalistic, a subduing of reality. John Granger writes:

Voldemort, fearing death, pursues personal immortality through his horrible Horcruxes. He creates reservoirs in material objects for the splinters of his soul that have separated from the whole in the act of murder. The Dark Lord is merely a cartoon of fallen man; he asserts and seeks his advantage before others (a shadow of murder) and invests himself in temporal things and ideas (modern idolatry and materialism) to flee death and imagine himself immortal. Such a self-focused, unloving existenceironically separates him from the love of others and ultimately from Love himself, who is our life and hope of genuine immortality. Fleeing a human death, Voldemort becomes its nonliving, inhuman incarnation. (Granger 2006, p. 70)

This can further be explained by taking a look at Aristotle’s theory of knowledge. Accordingto him, there are three reasons to seek knowledge, and he attaches one intellectual virtue to each. First there is truth, and its virtue is “knowledge” (gr. episteme). Then we have moral action, and it virtue is “practical wisdom” (gr. phronesis). And then we have power and techology, and its virtue is “craft” or “art” (gr. techne). According to Aristotle, our technical insight is dependent upon a good moral insight, which is dependent upon insight into truth. If our technical insight makes us good at making bombs, we must also have a moral backbone or our world will go under.

And this is what these books are all about. They are, as Jacobs points out, “a multivolume Bildungsroman—a story of “education,” that is to say, of character formation.” (Jacobs 2000) And their core is found in these words from the mouth of Albus Dumbledore: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” (Chamber of Secrets, HP2)

Notes:

1. Science like it was in the “good ‘ol days,” before modernism and “man’s conquest of nature.”

2. Read more here.

Cited works:

Jacobs, Alan (2000). “Harry Potter’s Magic.” First Things 99, pp. 35-38. January 2000. June 12th 2006. http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=2502

Lewis, C.S. (1946). The Abolition of Man (Riddell Memorial Lectures, Fifteenth Series). London: G. Bles

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