Harry Potter and its Critics: A Problem of Interpretation in Fantasy

At last, the Harry Potter series has come to an end. At last Rowling’s readers can discuss the denouement of Harry’s saga, the still unexplained mysteries, and the nostalgia of having to move on to reading other books.  But if Harry Potter has come to an end, such has not the debate between those who defend Harry, and their opponents. Anybody willing to write on Rowling’s seven books will find himself (or herself) caught in the crossfire between of the wands of Harry’s literary defenders and the more conventional Muggle-like weapons of his detractors.

Of course, there has been some disagreements over the quality of Rowling’s writings, and on this issue, literary critics and the popular readership have opposed themselves radically.  On one hand, some have compared her work to that of Tolkien or Lewis while others, at the opposite side of the spectrum, have set her in opposition to them.  However, even Bloom, a strong-minded reviewer, acknowledges that the low quality of her writings “is not in itself a crucial liability.”

But whatever both sides say, in Rowling’s seventh book, Harry has come to term with his individual journey. Does the fate of the world lies on the shoulder of a seventeen years wizard-boy, or does it lie upon other more unexpected characters? Does Dumbledore prove himself to be the Hogwarts’ “Gandalf” that some think he is? Will Snape finally reveal his lifelong secrets, his real qualities, and his true loyalties? What will happen to Harry, Hermione, and Ron? And, for wizard’s sake, will Harry’s family secrets be completely unveiled? For those who have not yet read the final installment of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, all these questions have received an almost definite answer, but in different ways.

But most importantly, the final book of the Harry Potter’s good-against-evil saga still reveals the ongoing debate about the Christian reading and use of the Harry Potter series. One of the main questions has revolved around the relation between Harry’s wizardly world and the occult-world that we know exist in our world. The opinions on this question range from the dismissive ‘yes,’ to the dismissive ‘no,’ without anything like a middle ground. I will come back to this later in the following pages, but we can already say that the main categories in which the Harry Potter scholars reason are the “definitely Christian” and “proponing occultism” categories.

The first approach is typified by John Granger’s book, Finding God in Harry Potter, where he makes much use of the alchemical symbolism to demonstrate the depth of Rowling’s Christian theology.  The second approach is exemplified in Richard Abanes’ Harry Potter and the Bible.  The fact that Rowling has been appropriated by modern-day witchcraft along with her studying it is one of the grounds for his negative interpretation of the Harry Potter books. Between the two opinions, there is, it seems, not much place for reflection.

In this review I do not have the pretension to give a complete balanced and exhaustive view on the Harry Potter books or on the debate within Christianity, rather I will focus on few important questions raised by both sides and point to some necessary area of research concerning Harry Potter but also, more broadly, for further fantasy studies.

Finding God in fantasy?

One of the underlying themes of the debate, and one of the most important ones, is the question of how we will be “finding God in fantasy,” to paraphrase the titles of Christian studies on fantasy,  especially in the fantasy of a member of a Christian church. Many Christian defenders of Rowling argue that she can be situated in the broad movement of Christian fantasy whose fathers are such important figures as McDonald, Chesterton, Lewis and Tolkien. The “task” to find God in Harry Potter is thus legitimated by its belonging to a genre previously delineated as well as, in the case of Rowling, by her membership in the Church of Scotland.

Much of the defense of the Christian teaching of the Harry Potter books finds its foundation in the presence of God in the books through, more specifically, the symbolism contained in them. The appeal to the Christian faith found in Harry Potter is defended on the ground of the same Christian symbolism. Some point to the power of sacrificial love of Harry’s mother, Lilly, as symbol or example of Christ’s sacrificial love.  Others point to Harry as a figure of Arthur,  of Jews children during the Second World War, taken away from their homes to be hidden,  of Christ,  or even, of God himself.  Other symbols range from Cinderella, Little Red Hood, to Beowulf,  from the gospel of Thomas,  the Iliad, the Odyssey, to broadly Greek and Roman mythology, without forgetting the Arthurian cycle.  Symbolical interpretation of names is also taken as an argument to defend the Christian reading of the Harry Potter series, as Schafer, among others, exemplifies.  Even the basilik of The Chamber of Secrets find its place in the supposedly complex mythical references of Rowling.

Another approach, similar to a broadly symbolical interpretation, relates characters and places in the story to mythical (and sometimes biblical) themes, names or places.  Symbols are sometimes combined with a psychological interpretation focusing on the works of Freud or Bettelheim, or Jung  leading to very different and sometimes quite radically opposed, interpretations of Harry Potter. Abanes for example uses symbolism and Bettelheim to conclude to the danger of the Harry Potter series, while Schafer uses the same to argue for the positive Christian teaching of the books.

Diversity and confusion of interpretations does not, of course, automatically lead to the conclusion that none of those interpretations is more legitimate than others, on the contrary. But then, we should ask ourselves how to define a legitimate interpretation. Another question, related to the previous one, is whether or not the Christian reading of Harry Potter is legitimate on the sole basis of symbolism. Here I rejoin Neal’s appeal for consistent application of criterion in our interpretation of fantasy, but I would call Christian defenders of Harry Potter to do this very thing, including Neal and myself.

For example, Neal follows Lewis in affirming that the meaning of a story should be taken from the story itself, and not from an outside framework that would be superimposed upon the story by the interpreter:

Therefore, to superimpose outside, real-word, definitions upon the intrinsic meaning given in the story or its context is to distort the author’s meaning.

This is perfectly right. But are not the defenders of Harry Potter doing this very thing in superimposing upon the story a supposed Christian symbolism? In interpreting the Harry Potter books we should not rely on hypothetical symbolism.

As we have seen, almost anything can be considered as a symbol, so that symbolism actually does not yield any certainty as to the Christian teaching of the Harry Potter books. The first conclusion, then, is that symbolism in itself tends to be unclear.  We are left merely with a collection and collage of a wide range of symbols, from myths to fairy tales, from mystic alchemy to Christian symbolism, without any coherence of interpretation. Symbolism is not enough to warrant a Christian reading of fantasy.  The second conclusion is that there should be a way to read fantasy, and to read faith in fantasy, and not first through symbolism. Symbolism in itself is not invalid but needs a framework to make it meaningful.

The first criterion for symbolic interpretation I would propose is the internal meaning of the story. The symbolic interpretation should be consistent with the plot and meaning of the story itself. Of course it is always possible to misinterpret both the symbols and the story, but this is no excuse for an improper interpretation. Moreover, the point is that it is not the symbol itself that is most important, but the story.

This point has been made by English writer G.K. Chesterton who launched sharp attacks against critics that would dissect a story rather than read it. Fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien took a similar direction in his essay, “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics,” arguing for a respectful and careful analysis of the story itself.  If there are, of course, dissimilarities between Chesterton, Tolkien, and our own task in interpreting Rowling, there is nonetheless without doubt a common concern. This concern is a proper interpretation of her work, for the work’s sake and for Rowling’s sake, and that, once again, in order to respect the story written.

But as I said, this might not always be enough. Therefore we should make use of a second criterion, that is, the author’s intention and own interpretation of the story. I do not want to deny the reader any possibility of personal interpretation of the story, but in analyzing the meaning of a story, especially when it comes to a Christian reading of it, we should always keep in mind the intention and also the beliefs of the writer.

The task will be difficult in Rowling’s case since she always refused to make any comments regarding her Christian faith. The only basis we have is her membership in the Church of Scotland. Everything else is conjectural. Her membership in the Church of Scotland is not evidence enough to warrant a Christian interpretation of her fantasy, nor is it enough to reject it a priori.  At this point, what would be necessary is a comprehensive biography of Rowling interested, not only in the facts of her life, but also in how her life shaped her beliefs and how her beliefs, in their turn, shaped her stories.  Without such studies, the debate on the Christian interpretation of Harry Potter will not progress, and will stagnate at the level of the interpreter’s emotional involvement.

Morality is not magic

If symbolic interpretation is not conclusive, where should we search for the key to a Christian interpretation of Rowling’s fantasy? Another direction Rowling’s interpreters both friends and foes have looked in, is the morality of her books. Much of the debate concerning the Harry Potter series, especially among Evangelicals, has focused on the moral teaching found in the books, and/or on the use of magic in Rowling’s world.

Here again opinions are polarized. Some claim that Rowling presents a world in which lying, breaking the rules, defying the authority etc., is set as an example to follow, thus warranting their conclusion that the morality of the Harry Potter series is opposed to Christian morality. To this charge, her defenders point to the consistency of the morality of her created world and with Christian morality.

However, the critique that Rowling’s view of moral attitude is ambiguous hints at something. Even the defenders of Rowling point to a view of morality which is more influenced by a modern / postmodern thinking than by a traditional Christian one. According to Kern, morality in Rowling is not fixed but is rather a mean to first attain a higher level of moral conduct, and then a mean to build one’s own moral framework.  Moreover, he argued that Rowling’s moral teachings are not based on any religious or spiritual commitments, choice that can be debated.

Whitehead and Grimes have argued that Rowling has a view of morality that enables one to evolve towards his own conception of what morality is and of what the goal of a moral life is. Morality, they argue, is not something build in the void, but is always a reasoning process concerning one’s acts and life. Therefore, it is logical and normal that one’s morality would evolve in the measure of one’s interactions with the world surrounding him, and in the measure of one’s consciousness about the implications of one’s interactions with the world. The authors make us of a three-step psychological approach, which would be too long to summarize here. Briefly, the conclusion is that:

[r]easoning in this stage [the last stage of moral evolution] goes beyond what one is taught into a kind of morality that one discovers, even crafts, for oneself.

Of course, one should be careful not to criticize Rowling on the basis on a hypothetical psychological interpretation. The question whether or not the authors here really have a point cannot be answered. However, when they affirm that in Rowling, morality and laws are merely agreements from which one is free is they are broken by another party can find some support and could explain how and why the breaking of rules in Harry Potter receives from time to time a light approach.

Making use of Kohlberg’s third stage of moral development, we could also try to re-read Harry Potter with this “social contract orientation” in mind. When we read again passages from Rowling in which rules are broken, we can see how the previous moral interpretation can be justified.  We could also say that this morality is goal-oriented. The goal to achieve takes precedence over the rule, even over the moral character of the action itself. The extreme conclusion is that the goal justified the mean, even if it entails breaking all the rules of Hogwarts and magic. This conclusion is not totally justified in Rowling, but the ambiguity through which she builds her moral world permits us to ask the question.

Of course this does not answer the question whether or not Rowling tries to follow the biblical teaching. Certainly she is not consciously following Kohlberg, but the similarities should lead us to ask ourselves the question of what is the relation between Rowling’s moral teaching, which would need first to be explicitly defined, and the biblical view of morality built on the revelation of God’s law.

This again demonstrates the difficulty in interpreting Rowling and the confusion, and ambiguity, which seems inherent to her writing – alongside her refusal of any personal clarification. To argue for a strict correspondence between Rowling’s moral teaching and the biblical moral teaching needs to be more supported in view of how morality actually functions in Hogwarts and what its role precisely is. Having said this, to the charges made against Rowling’s morality we can point to two sets of answers.

First, it could be said that those charges miss the point of what literary creation is. It is not because the main characters lie that lying is morally right. This means that created characters can be wrong, that they can act contrary to “morality,” and that even the heroes can act unjustly. Even those who are on the side of the “good” can act wrongly.  Moreover, there is no denying that there are some themes in Harry Potter that seem very close to the Christian teaching, like the importance of love, justice, courage, hope. To argue that Rowling’s world is not a moral world because it presents a world of death and violence, a world of disobedience and lying is nothing else but arguing against any real-setting world, and against a very biblical view of the human nature.  Moreover, it can be argued that death and violence really do exist and that to cut off the children from those realities is not necessarily to their benefit.  On the other hand, this does not mean that the morality of the Harry Potter series is explicitly a Christian one but it seems difficult to argue that the Harry Potter books are totally immoral.

The second set of answers point to Christian themes, more specifically those of sacrifice and love and the symbols contained in the books. Does the presence of those themes is reason convincing enough to conclude to a Christian-inspired world in Rowling’s works? The first thing to carefully note is that sacrifice is not in itself a specific Christian theme. It runs through many classic tales and myth and is a fundamental element of the Greek drama. Moreover, “sacrifice” has always been a religious theme, and is present, with major and insurmountable differences, in other religions than Christianity. This leads to a first conclusion, that is, the theme of sacrifice in itself is not enough to allow for a Christian reading of a story. Once again, the questions of the story’s meaning and of the author’s intent are crucial for our understanding.

In Harry Potter we find the concept of sacrifice exemplified several times, but most importantly, in Lilly Potter’s sacrifice to save her son; in Harry’s willingness to endure sufferings and hardships in order to save his friends, risking his own life; but also in his friends willingness to do the same.   It could also be seen in Dumbledore’s death in order to ensure the continuing battle against Voldemort, as we learn in the final book.

The wording and context may be rather different but the sentiment is very much that of Jesus: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down his life for one’s friends.” Jesus himself, of course, laid down his life not just for a narrowly defined group of “friends,” but for the entire world […]

Bridger, it should be noted, does not expand on the difference between Christ’s sacrificial love and sacrificial love in the Harry Potter books. As Bridger unwillingly affirms, sacrifice in the Harry Potter books is sacrifice for one’s friends.  It is a remarkable sacrifice, since it is self-sacrifice, willingly offered and consciously made, but it is cannot be qualified as being a “redemptive” sacrifice (contra Bridger).  Self-sacrifice is a virtue, as Bridger further notes, but in the Harry Potter series, we should ask on which basis this virtue is presented.  Bridger moreover argues for a parallel between Harry Potter and Narnia concerning the themes of sacrificial love and its transformative consequences for others.  But one difference is that in the Narnia series, this sacrifice and transformative effect is further followed by the impact on characters that are previously opposed, enemies, to Aslan.  In Narnia, a personal sacrifice, if I can say put it that way, is followed by forgiveness of one’s enemy.

This connection is I think lacking from Rowling’s books. It does not seem to be the case in the Harry Potter series in which sacrifice and transformation effect are mostly described between friends. Forgiveness is, for example, present in the Rowling’s books, but seems most of the time directed towards friends and innocent people, as mercy is. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, it could be pointed that Harry has mercy upon Peter Pettigrew, the traitor responsible for Voldemort’s finding Harry’s parents refuge. But if Harry “saves” him and has pity of him, it is not for his sake, but to preserve Lupin and Sirius Black from being judged and condemned as murderers. It is for their sake, not by mercy for his enemy.  The pattern followed here concludes to the presence of sacrifice, forgiveness, mercy, but it cannot be concluded that the pattern is the one set forth in the biblical teaching.  The same could be said of the theme of resurrection, since sacrifice and resurrection belong to a common aspect of religious structures, coming from a deep human aspiration, that of conquering death

As for salvation (or a salvific figure), some, like Schafer, base their defense of the its presence of upon the correlation between Harry’s birthday and events that have taken place around the same time. Those events are for example the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and the following boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, the racial riots in Miami (May 17-19, 1980), the Mount St. Helen eruption (May 18, 1980) or the dramatic situation of the American hostages in Teheran (April 24, 1980). Schafer points that the birth of Harry in the same period might well be seen as symbolical of the birth of the hope for salvation in troubled times. Schafer, might be right and Rowling might really be directing us to the hope for salvific change, even as the Harry Potter series develops in a darker atmosphere.

But the question should be asked about which kind of salvation we are talking about. Salvation from what, through what, and by whom? Those three questions cannot find an answer here but I would suggest that the answer might not be the one we would at first be tempted to give. On a personal level I think that to conclude that the form of salvation present in Harry Potter is parallel to the traditional Christian view of salvation is very much a  debatable conclusion.

When it comes to sanctification, the same general remarks can be made. To be brief, it seems that Harry learns things, quite a lot actually, but he does not really change. On one hand, he’s from the start a good boy, of course turbulent, lost, alone, but still he’s basically a good boy. His qualities, from the start, comprise selflessness, optimism, hopefulness, trustworthiness, courage, sacrifice, ability to forgive his friends and forget offenses.

All these qualities Harry still possesses at the end of the seven books. Seven years later, it’s still the same boy, only, he knows more and he’s seven years older: he is still the courageous kid that has been fighting Quirrell (and the disincarnated Voldemort) in the first book; opposing the basilik (and the young Voldemort) in the second; facing Dementors (and the servants of Voldemort) in the third; surviving his unwilling sacrifice (and the resurrected Voldemort) in the fourth book; fighting against the Ministry of Magic (and the rising Voldemort) in the fifth book; barely escaping the Death Eaters (and their “Voldemort master”) in the sixth book; and finally fighting Voldemort’s army (and killing the reigning Voldemort) in the last and seventh book.

On the other hand, Harry hardly goes through any sanctifying process, still finding himself estranged form his friends from a certain period of time, forgiving them, or receiving their forgiveness, and finally overcoming (external and sometimes internal) evil in order to triumph from the adepts of dark magic.

This pattern, if simplistic, can be followed closely from the very first book, and the tumultuous beginning of Harry’s friendship with Hermione and Ron, until the seventh and last book. This pattern is so fixed that it is almost the underlying structure of each book. In The Deathly Hallows, for example, we see Harry’s estrangement from Ron following their disagreement over Dumbledore’s mission (chapter fifteen); Harry’s reconciliation with Ron (chapter nineteen); and the final defeat of Voldemort (chapter thirty-six).

The morality of the Harry Potter series does exist indeed, but the question iswhether it is based on a Christian conception; or one might better ask, on which conception of Christianity is the Harry Potter’s morality based? This is crucial to the Harry Potter debate. Is it based on a traditional, orthodox, tradition of Christianity, or is it based on a more “postmodern” reading of the Christian tradition? This should be investigated before diving into a much-troubled debate. Once one knows which tradition he follows in interpreting Rowling’s books, and clearly states it, then it will be easier to understand, interact, and evaluate with his conclusions.  Contrarily to what Kern sarcastically asserts, the attacks on Rowling’s morality might hit the mark.  The criticism might not always be balanced and fair, but they certainly point to an ambiguity that defenders of Rowling are not willing to acknowledge. On the other hand, many of those charges are pushed far beyond what we can find in her writings.

To close this part, I would call the Christian interpreters of fantasy to elaborate a more consistent methodology and framework for answering the following questions: first, what makes a religious theme a Christian one? Second, how is morality evaluated, and on which criterion? Third, how are we to make the distinction between self-growth and sanctification; human and divine salvation etc.? And finally, which interpretation / tradition of Christianity are we using to interpret Harry Potter?

Magic… is not magic

After having looked at two ways interpreters of Rowling have approached their task, I turn now to the question of magic in fantasy books. As I have said previously the second main opposition to the Harry Potter books focuses on the role of magic. The main criticism is that by describing a world close to ours, parallel to ours, in which the use of magic is allowed and elevated at a high place (while at the same time existing in a dark form), Rowling entertains an ambiguous relationship regarding magic. At best she confuses the use of magic in the imagined world and its use in the real-world; at worst she teaches and encourages modern-day witchcraft practices.  To give an extensive and comprehensive treatment of this question would take us much further than a mere review, so I will just mention two points here.

The first is the answer given by the defenders of Rowling and Harry Potter. Trying to engage is a more thoughtful approach to Rowling’s books, they point to the relation between Rowling and her Christian “fantasists” forbearers, especially J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. They rightly argue that among the despisers of Harry Potter, there is an obvious lack of consistency in applying criterion for judgment. If one criticizes Rowling for the mere use of magic, without any consideration for how magic is used, from where it comes, and for which purposes, then the mere presence of magic in Narnia and Middle Earth should lead to the same criticism of both Lewis and Tolkien. But it is obviously not the case. Few, if none, of the critics of Harry Potter would raise the same criticism against Tolkien and Lewis’s work of fantasy, quite on the contrary. What should we conclude then? Connie Neal, in her well-written and (both literarily and theologically) engaging book takes such an approach, and rightly so.

What can we make of this fair and well-directed charge? I would suggest that actually those who take such an approach are totally correct in their answer. There is clearly a problem about the consistent use of criterion in evaluating Rowling, Lewis, and Tolkien. I would also go further in asking what actually are the criterions used, for if they are not followed consistently, they often are not even clearly stated. This leads me to my second point here, which is the place, use, and origin of magic. This latter point is especially of important matter. The approach taken by the commentators of Harry Potter is diverse at this point. Most do not even raise the question about the origin of magic. Other appear to be seemingly, vaguely aware of this question but merely assume that magic in Rowling is similar in its content, approach, and methodological use, as it is in Tolkien and Lewis.  Others consider magic as not being a real problem since there is a clear difference between good magic and bad magic.

Granger offers another example of how to distinguish different kinds of magic and how to determine a legitimate literary use of magic. He appeals to the difference between invocational and incantational magic. By the former he means “calling in demonic principalities and powers for personal power and advantage.”  By the latter he assumes that:

[i]ncantational means literally ‘to sing along with’ or ‘to harmonize’ […] Christianity – and all revealed traditions – believes creation comes into being by God’s creative Word, or his song. As creatures made in the image of God, we can harmonize with God’s Word and his will, and in doing so, experience the power of God.

According to Granger it is possible then to point to a clear distinction between two kinds of magic, one that is intrinsically connected to evil spirits while the other is not. The first kind would be illegitimate, but fortunately it is never used even for “bad” characters, while the second fits perfectly both in Christian and fantasy traditions.  Of course Granger completely overlooks the fact that in the “scriptural admonitions,” even forms of incantational magic are forbidden, as he overstresses the difference between incantational and invocational magic in “literary tradition.” Such a clear distinction between two kinds of magic in the literary tradition is still to be defended.

However, the goal of the argument is obviously to clear Rowling from the charge of illegitimate use of magic, but does not sound a consistent one. We could well imagine cases in which incantational magic is directed towards evil spirits, or that dark magic is not limited to invocational magic. Moreover Granger’s appeal to “good fantasy fiction” breaks apart when one considers Tolkien’s view on this question.

For Tolkien there was a difference between two kinds of “magic” which he called magia and goeteia.  The former term is well known, and from it comes the English word “magic.”  As for the second it comes form the Greek gohte…a, meaning “witchcraft or magic performed by the invocation and employment of evil spirits; necromancy.”  It seems, then, that Tolkien’s difference between magia and goeteia is parallel to Granger’s incantational and invocational magic. The question is therefore whether Tolkien entertains the same notion as Granger, viz., that invocational/goetic magic is never used in “good fantasy.” Actually when one reads the rest of the letter just quoted, such is not the case in Tolkien’s view. For him, and in the context of an imagined world, both magia and goeteia can be used, and are used in Middle Earth: “[b]oth sides use both, but with different motives.”  Moreover, there is a “good” use of goetic magic according to Tolkien, but with qualification of motive and nature. Goetic magic found on the side of Elves is actually ars, not like in the Enemy’s case, deceit. An indication of this is also given in the first part of The Lord of the Rings when Elrond explain what would happen to the three Elven rings if the One ring is destroyed:

“Some hope that the Three Rings, which Sauron has never touched, would then become free, and their rulers might heal the hurts of the world that he has wrought. But maybe the when the One has gone, the Three will fail, and many fair things will fade and be forgotten. That is my belief.”

The main difference is not then on the kind of magic, but first on the intention and use of magic, and, again, on its nature and origin. Moreover, Tolkien, at the very end of this letter, argues for a different understanding of the origin of magic in his mythology: “Anyway, a difference in the use of ‘magic’ in this story is that it is not to be come by ‘lore’ or spells; but it is in an inherent power not to be possessed or attainable by Men a such.”  If we pass over Tolkien’s rejection of the use of “spells,” we see that the important point here is that magic as an inherent character, and is not present, in itself, in nature. It is not to be acquired, but it is implanted by the creator, Eru-Ilúvatar. The difference for Tolkien seems closer to a distinction between acquired and implanted magic, rather than between invocational and incantational magic.

Granger’s argument is based on exclusive division between two kinds of magic, invocational/bad and incantational/good, without reference whatsoever to the origin of magic, which is one of Tolkien’s main points.  In all the discourses about magic, its genre, diversity, and use, what is dramatically missing is both an ethical and a theological foundation for the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate use of magic in and through literary creation.

This is, if not an easy one, at least a simple response to conceive, which does not imply that it is not a valid one. Opponents could ask what makes the difference between good and bad magic in Harry Potter; to which the most reported answer is that the mere use of magic by “good” people makes it “good magic” and the use of magic by “bad” people makes it “bad magic.” This kind of answer seems to be present a conception of magic according to which magic is in itself neutral, being neither good nor bad. Moral judgment of magic should be subjected to its use. Bridger points to Tolkien, and especially Lewis and the neutrality of magic in their work. I think that at this point, there is an ambiguity and a problem of interpretation. To argue that the use of magic in Lewis is neutral is to overlook the broader framework of Lewis’s Narnia, which is a world created by the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea (through Aslan’s voice).

This magic, the “Deeper Magic Before the Dawn of Time” is far from neutral, as I think clear from chapter fifteen of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Aslan explains to Lucy and Susan that the Witch was ignorant of this “deeper magic” and that:

[If] she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.

Here it seems clear enough that Lewis is implying that the “creation” of the “deeper magic” was executed by the Emperor himself. To argue that magic is neutral is to disconnect the land of Narnia from the action of both Aslan and the Emperor-beyond-the Sea.

In the same manner, and even more strikingly, Tolkien’s approach cannot be more opposed to a neutral conception of the use of magic. Magic in Middle Earth has its root in the creative act of the One god, Eru-Ilúvatar, giving magical power to some of his creatures, among whom the Elves.  Some creatures will turn evil, and as a consequence their magic is put in evil use. Magic in itself is not evil, (with Killinger and Neal) but it certainly is not neutral (contra Kern and Granger).  This is, therefore, one of the questions I would personally raise concerning magic in Rowling’s world, that is, the one of its origin and inherent goodness. This points further to the presence of the supernatural in the created, fantasy world.

On this question I think that Rowling is far less clear than Tolkien or Lewis, and this conclusion is reinforced by Rowling’s constant refusal to clarify her spiritual, Christian, beliefs. One other related question that I cannot pursue here is that of the relation between the writer’s personal beliefs and the embodiment of his (her) beliefs in his (her) works. Should the relation be one of exact correspondence? To this question the Christian need to answer both literarily and theologically. Here again my call is a call for clarity, theological argument, thoughtful reasoning and understanding.  On the question of magic, other have appealed to the similarity of language, as Alan Jacobs did in pointing that, after all, Gandalf is a wizard too.

However, one should not forget to look at the definition of what, precisely, a wizard is for Tolkien. From his letters, it is clear that a wizard is a messenger, a guide, closer to the Greek ¢ggeloj and the English “wise,” than to the contemporary meaning of the word.  On the question of magic, and of its reading and interpretation, we are again confronted with a superficial examination of its nature, use, and origin. I would here rather point to the difficulty than attempt an answer of my own since a review such as this paper is, can hardly be a suited place to discuss such a problem.

Theories for further research

To conclude this review, let me summarize several important points and propose some theories of my own in order to further studies on both Rowling and Christian fantasy.

Fantasy hermeneutics. First, building on theological principles of interpretation, I would suggest that our understanding of how we interpret fantasy should be guided by two complementary principles. The first can be called the “internal principle of understanding” and the second the “external principle of understanding.”  The former can be considered as interpretation based on the text itself, and the latter as a principle of interpretation based on the writer’s beliefs and intentions. Applied to the Harry Potter series, I would argue that the Christian interpretation of the books is ambiguous and only partly legitimate because the intention of the author, notably the embodiment of her personal beliefs, is – voluntarily or not – not clear, because her own (public) beliefs are voluntarily unclear. However, it is my hope that a better explanation about how these two principles might work would help us interpret fantasy and benefit from fantasy’s imaginative power.

How much is enough? In the previous pages I have attempted to show the reader that most of the tools used in interpreting Harry Potter are not clear enough. Such is symbolical interpretation, the allegorical reading of Rowling, but also the psychological interpretations. Even the reading of Christian “themes” in Harry Potter does not seem enough to conclude to embodiment of the Christian faith in the books. The Harry Potter series rightly point to the human’s nature need for redemption, sacrifice, and the universal appeal to love, justice, and forgiveness. Certainly, in this respect, there is much use of Rowling’s books for the Christians. But one could argue that the presence of a form of redemption or love, or even forgiveness is not conclusive. These themes are broader than the Christian faith only. What is more, it is still arguable whether or not Rowling herself effectively answers to the needs she is aware of. The presence of Christian themes is a first step to take, but the Christian content of those themes is also necessary. In this matter, the connection with the principles of fantasy hermeneutics is important. Only through a proper hermeneutics will we be able to read the content of those themes in the Harry Potter books. The conclusions are first that it takes more than a Christian symbolical or allegorical interpretation to make a “Christian” story, and second that it takes more than religious themes to make a “Christian” story.
A question of land. Lastly the problem of “magic” points to the ambiguity of the relationship between the world created by the fantasy writer and the world created by God; between the subcreated and the created worlds. The problem could be stated this way: if there is a connection between he two worlds, then there is a connection between the ethics of the subcreated and of the created worlds. In the same manner, if there is a point of contact between the two worlds there should be a point of contact between divine revelation and command in the subcreated and created worlds. The way we will answer this problem will of course influence the way we look at Rowling’s use of magic in Harry Potter. Moreover, to define more precisely the relation between the two worlds could enable us to determine the legitimacy of magic and also to embody more effectively the Christian faith in our stories.

I would propose that this relation between subcreated and created worlds has been worked out in three different ways. The first is what I call the “supernatural intervention” theory. The best example is Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia,” in which the children are always “caught up” in Narnia, quite unexpectedly. This implies the intervention of another agent deciding the “who,” the “how,” and the “when” of one’s going and leaving Narnia.  This can be qualified as “supernatural” intervention because the control of the “who, how, and when” legitimately imply the necessity of a supernatural agent controlling the access to the subcreated world.

The second theory is typified by Tolkien’s mythological corpus, and can be labelled “mythical-historical.” Tolkien is significant because he qualified his world as a pre-Christian one,  but also because the major element is that for Tolkien his whole corpus was seen as a mythology, mythology being for Tolkien a splintered light. Light indeed, but broken by sin. The connection between the created and the subcreated world in Tolkien’s corpus are then governed by his view of mythology. If the question is asked whether or not there is truth in his corpus, the answer is ‘yes,’ but if the question is whether or not the two worlds are coextensive of one another, the answer is clearly ‘no.’ This bears methodological implication on how to read Tolkien’s mythology, and how to think of the relation between the created and the subcreated world.

The third « way » is one seen in Rowling’s ambiguous use of an “open door” between the two worlds. In those books, it is arguable that the relation between the two worlds is comparable to a door, easily opened by the one who knows the way in and out of the subcreated world. The crucial point here, and it can distinguish Rowling’s works from other fantasies, is knowledge. For in Harry Potter, even if one is willing to go to the other world, it still requires the knowledge of how to get there, and this knowledge is restricted to a group of elects, here the “wizards” – over the Muggles. Since it requires knowledge, one might ask if it can still be qualified as “open door.” I think it still can, for nothing prevents one from entering the world as long as he knows the way in. Moreover, I chose to call it “open door” because of the ambiguity present in the very existence of the two worlds. The question, here, is whether or not this world and the world of Hogwarts are really two different worlds.

At first, it seems so, but nothing really supports it, except that we naturally tend to conceive a world with dragons, and other fantastic creatures as “another” world, quite different from this present world. Schafer has for example stated, rather than argued, that Hogwarts is a parallel world.  Others, however, have pointed that Rowling actually went against a common feature of fantasy, that of the disconnection between the created world and the actual world. Amanda Cockrell, in her article “Harry Potter and the Secret Password: Finding our Way in the Magical Genre,” takes such an approach:

To begin with, she has departed from the imaginary into the real. She has abandoned the realm of high fantasy and laid her story in contemporary England, rather than in the imaginary and medievally flavored otherworlds of Middle Earth or Earthsea, or even the world of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service where the magic is a remnant, a revenant, of ancient and powerful myth.

Whether or not Hogwarts actually is a parallel world, it seems that the story itself does not require such a distinction, on the contrary. It requires that the two worlds be coextensive of one another. The Wizard world is included on this world.  The difference between the two worlds then, is not a difference of nature, but a difference of form.  This has consequences on the relation of the two “worlds.” Because they are not really different, there is no necessity for a “secret” door, a special way to access the other world.

“The Ethics of Elfland.” The last point I want to mention in this conclusion is the place of morality and moral laws in fantasy. Considering what has been said of the supposed relation between the laws of the created world and the laws of the subcreated world, this theory leads to only two possible choices.

The first is to have the same laws in the subcreated world as the ones in the created world. If, from an apologetic perspective, this solution is quite acceptable, we can wonder if it will be effective as a fantasy. It can be feared that the work will loose all its attractiveness as a fantasy, and it can even be asked if it will retains the main characteristics of a fantasy if it is to retain the same moral laws as in the created world.

The second choice is to build the subcreated world according to other laws, which from a fantasy perspective is quite acceptable. But, from an apologetic perspective, this leads to an uneasy relation between the two worlds. To retain the possibility of a subcreated ethics and moral compatible and submissive to the created one, it is possible to make use of an analogical reasoning according to which the “laws of fantasy” will be analogical to those of the created world.

More precisely I would propose that the laws of fantasy be patterned according to the distinction ceremonial, judicial, and moral laws of the Old Testament, and their relation to the New Testament. Analogical to the ceremonial, judicial, and moral laws we would find the physical, metaphysical and moral laws in fantasy. The differences between the laws in created and subcreated world would also be analogical to the differences between Old and New Testaments. This form of analogy would lead us to conclude that the ceremonial laws, as the physical ones, can completely be changed.

The moral laws, on another hand, remain the same in any possible world, even the subcreated one. G.K. Chesterton as well expressed this view in saying through the voice of his priest-detective, Father Brown:

Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves brilliants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don’t fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, ‘thou shalt not steal’.

All those proposals for explaining what the relation between the two worlds could be like have barely reached the stage of hypothesis and will need more support through further research. However, there is for every Christ scholar of fantasy a need for developing a theory for relating the two worlds. This need is an urgent one, as the interpretations of fantasy will become more and more vague.


This review of Rowling’s Harry Potter series has tried to show the difficulty in interpreting fantasy form a Christian point of view. I have tried to point to some positive aspects of Rowling’s work (as her stress of Christian themes) as well as some defects of the way she embodied the content of those concepts. I also tried to propose some ways our study of Christian fantasy could be furthered.

Of course, the seven Harry Potter books can serve as an example, because the previous conclusions can obviously be applied to a good number of other Christian books. It is my hope that more attention to Rowling’s own work, life, and background could help us understand better the task of fantasy; and that some principles of fantasy reading and writing be developed through “fantasy hermeneutics” and the “laws of fantasy.”



[1] Reviewer and author Stephen King, writing for Entertainment Weekly, thusly expresses his feelings: “When it comes to Harry, part of me — a fairly large part, actually — can hardly bear to say goodbye. I’d guess that J.K. Rowling feels the same, although I’d also guess those feelings are mingled with the relief of knowing that the work is finally done, for better or worse.” Stephen King, “Goodbye, Harry.” Available online at http://www.ew.com
[2] The antagonism between literary critics and popular readership is again palpable here. See for example the “battle of words” between critic Harold Bloom and reviewer Charles Taylor. The former wrote in his review of the first Harry Potter book: “And yet I feel a discomfort with the Harry Potter mania, and I hope that my discontent is not merely a highbrow snobbery, or a nostalgia for a more literate fantasy to beguile (shall we say) intelligent children of all ages. Can more than 35 million book buyers, and their offspring, be wrong? yes, they have been, and will continue to be for as long as they persevere with Potter.” Harold Bloom, “Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes.” 7-11-2000, available online http://wrt-brooke.syr.edu/courses/205.03/bloom.html. Taylor responded in his review “The masses aren’t asses”: “[…] Harold Bloom, has, in his attacks on Rowling, provided us with fine examples of another reason for the Potter books’ popularity: the insularity of a literary culture that willfully ignores what it is that makes people readers in the first place.” Charles Taylor, “The masses aren’t asses. Harry Potter is a true literary success – no matter what some critics say.” Available online at http://www.latimes.com accessed July 29,
[3] Critic Harold Bloom has been vividly criticized for his negative stand on this question. In his first review he unambiguously said that: “Her prose style, heavy on cliché, makes no demands upon her readers. In an arbitrarily chosen single page – page 4 – of the first Harry Potter book, I count seven clichés, all of the « stretch his legs » variety. Idem. Catherine Bennett as for her part criticized the monotonous framework of Rowling’s writing: “All the familiar Harry scenes have gone missing, from the inaugural, always comforting comedy inside No 4 Privet Drive and the annual bullying bout on the Hogwarts Express, to Mrs Weasley’s Christmas jumpers and – more mercifully – Hagrid’s inevitable adoption of some tiresome magical creature whose assistance will later prove critical. There was a time when you could set your clock by it. […] the books have got so long and Rowling’s style has remained unsophisticated, with an irrepressible tendency to show and tell. You feel that simply by cutting intra-paragraph repetition and the number of times she describes an angry Harry saying something angry angrily, Rowling and her editors might have saved 10,000 trees.” Catherine Bennett, “A send-off fit for a wizard” The Guardian, available online at http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews. Saturday July 28, 2007
[4] Idem.
[5] John Granger, Looking for God in Harry Potter (Wheaton: Saltriver, 2004).
[6] Richard Abanes, Harry Potter and the Bible: the Menace Behind the Magick (Camp Hill: Horizon Books, 2001).
[7] One should note the (almost) exception of Connie Neal’s book What’s a Christian to Do with Harry Potter? (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2001).
[8] See Kurt D Bruner and Jim Ware, Finding God in The Lord of the Rings (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 2001), Kurt D Bruner and Jim Ware, Finding God in the Land of Narnia (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 2004), Jim Ware, Finding God in the Hobbit (Carol Stream: Saltriver, 2006), Greg Garrett, “Speaking Out: Looking for God in The Matrix” (available online at http://ctlibrary.com/16943), Roy M. Anker, Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) and John Granger’s Finding God in Harry Potter.
[9] Alice Fordham for example writes in her review: “There will also be, for those who are looking for it, a religious undertone. In the climax of a storyline that began when Harry’s mother produced strong magic by sacrificing her life for him, acceptance of death leads, in one case, to a new form of life. People will interpret this as they choose.” Alice Fordham, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” accessed online on July 21, 2007, available at http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/ But while Fordham implies that the reading of the love Harry’s mother is clear enough, it must be asked whether this love, even if sacrificial, resound with the religious tone that is incarnated in God’s love in Christ. To this question we will briefly have to turn again to in the following pages.
[10] Shafer, 43.
[11] Schafer, 178.
[12] Kern said for example that it “requires little effort” to see Harry as a Christ figure, The Wisdom of Harry Potter, 216.
[13] John Killinger argues for example that the name Harry can well be a “symbol” of God since his lightning mark recalls the meaning of the tetragrammon, hvhy, “flash of lightning”: “And the thing that makes Rowling’s choice of the lightning bolt for Harry’s special mark from the encounter with Voldemort is that some Hebrew scholars believe the name YHWH originally meant a flash of lightning!” John Killinger, God, the Devil, and Harry Potter: a Christian Minister’s Defense of the Beloved Novels ()New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), 18. This argument sounds highly speculative for it is based first, on the selective choice of “flash of lightning” as a meaning for YHWH without any mentioned support. It is also based upon the assumption that Rowling is actually aware of debates among Hebrew scholars regarding the meaning of YHWH. Killinger also points later on, page 169, that the initials of Harry Potter are the same as the initials of huios pater, providing him with more support for a Christian reading of Harry Potter.
[14] See Elizabeth D. Schafer, Exploring Harry Potter, 9.
[15] In John Killinger, God, the Devil, and Harry Potter: a Christian Minister’s Defense if the Beloved Novels (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), 22.
[16] See Schafer, 139-142.
[17] One example is her discussion about the meaning of the name Hermione which she takes to be a possible  combination of “hormone” and “harmony” thus suggesting a feminine warrior tendency, making of Hermione a Joan-of-Arc-figure (53). However, we can try to trace back the name Hermione to the Greek stem Ερμιόνη meaning well-born. But if any interpretation had to be made on the exclusive basis on the meaning of the name it would probably refer to the irony that a “mudblood” is called “well born” thus reinforcing Rowling’s treatment of such themes as identity and “racism.” John Killinger argues that the first name of the Gryffindor House founder, Godric, refers to “God-rich.” (53) The meaning of the word is actually closer to “the one who rules with God,” maybe, as a consequence, reinforcing the opposition of the Slytherin and Gryffindor Houses. Here it seems that Killnger does not give Rowling enough credit.
Edmund M. Kern argues for a categorization according to which belonging to the Slytherin House reflects an attraction for the Dark Arts. He even argues on page 50 that only members of the Slytherin House were attracted to the Dark Arts. For someone who pretends to be a Harry Potter expert, dismissing without any reasons the critics of Rowling, Kern easily forgets that Peter Pettigrew also was attracted to the Dark Arts, willingly, and that he was a member of the Gryffindor House. Belonging does not signify and imply moral quality. Rowling seems much more aware of the complexities of the world. Moreover, we simply do not know all the wizard that have been attracted to Lord Voldemort’s side and it is thus impossible, based on the story, to support Kern’s assertion.
[18] Schafer again, asserts that the basilik might be reminiscent of Beowulf’s Grendel, 151.
[19] For example Shafer has likened the Quidditch cup to the Holy Grail, the Chamber of Secrets to the Garden of Eden (making of Harry and Ginny the Adam and Eve of the story), and Dumbledore’s office to the Ark of the Covenant: “Dumbledore’s office protects precious artifacts, the magical equivalent of the Ark of the Covenant encasing the Ten Commandments.” (168)
[20] This approach is used by Richard Abanes (con), Elizabeth Schafer (pro) and Katharine Grimes (pro), endorsed by Kern (197 f.) for example. Grimes, however, is a typical example of misdirected, oversimplistic Freudian psychological interpretation mixing up every possible categories of fairy tale, and allegorical interpretation. M. Katharine Grimes, “Harry Potter: Fairy Tale Prince, Real Boy, and Archetypal Hero.” in Lana A. Whited (ed) The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomena (Columbia, London: University of Missouri Press, 2002) 89-122.
[21] Abanes argues based on Bettleheim’s theory that the danger of the Harry Potter books resides in the fact that Rowling does not realize that children do not reason like adults do and might not be able to make the distinction between themselves and the character of the story. Abanes thus quotes Bettelheim: “The question for the child is not ‘Do I want to be good?’ but ‘Who do I want to be like?’.” Abanes, 253 f. For the opposite view, Schafer, 156.
[22] Neal, 55. She quotes Lewis: “Within a given story any object, person, or place is neither more nor less nor other than what that story effectively shows it to be.” C.S. Lewis “The Genesis of a Medieval Book” in Walter Hooper, ed., C.S. Lewis: a Companion and Guide (1996), 430.
[23] The most striking example of failed symbolical interpretation is the one based on “color” symbolism attempted by Schafer. She points to the Gryffindor’s colors, red and gold referring to royalty, while the traditional color used for royalty in heraldry is purple, not red. While she mentions that green, one of the colors of Slytherin House is symbolical of a cunning mind, she forgets that red is also used to express renewal and hope, qualities that is arguable not associated with Slytherin. Moreover while pointing that the color “black” suggests the use and practice of black magic, she does not explain what is the implication of this assertion for the use of black as the color of the teachers’ and students’ wizard robes. When taken as meaningful by themselves, colors, even more than any other symbolic approach, lead to the precedence of confusion over meaning.
[24] The “problem” of symbolical and of allegorical interpretation has been pointed out by Lewis in his literary work English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drana, that one of the main characteristics of the humanist’s reading of literature, which remains in the present, is that “They brought to their reading of the ancients certain damaging preconceptions; and, as we shall see in a moment, they retained the worst of all medieval literary habits, that of allegorical interpretation.” C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drana, Oxford History of English Literature, volume 3, F.P. Wilson and B. Dobrée eds. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), 26. This is significant as some Tolkien and Lewis scholars have qualified them as “medieval” men “lost” in the twentieth century. This, I think, gives a peculiar taste of otherness to their writing and in comparing their work to that of Rowling it should be kept in mind that on this particular point, Tolkien along with Lewis, do not belong to the same ear as Rowling, both in their literary theory, their view of the world, and in their traditional faith.
[25] J.R.R. Tolkien, “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics” in The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays (Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1997):5-48.
[26] I here assume that, in a way, the writer always transmits part of his/her beliefs in the story just created.
[27] To qualify her stories as Christian does not, actually, say much about which view of Christianity is embodied in her fantasy. Remember that Christianity is much more diverse than most of us would first think. Moreover, few interpreters do not see Christianity as the main theological / philosophical background to the stories. Kern, for example, considers Harry Potter to be in essence, Stoic, 33.
[28] Most of the biographies available do not meet this need. See Marc Shapiro, J.K. Rowling: the Wizard behind Harry Potter (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000), Connie A. Kirk, J.K. Rowling a Biography (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2003), Lisa A. Chippendale, Triumph of the imagination: the Story of Writer J.K. Rowling (Philadelphia : Chelsea House Publishers, 2002), Bradley Steffens, J.K. Rowling (San Diego: Lucent Books ; Detroit: Thomson/Gale, 2002), and Charles Shields, Mythmaker: the Story of J.K. Rowling (Philadelphia : Chelsea House Publishers, 2002).
[29] Kern for example recognizes that “In the earlier stories, readers already encounter Harry and his friends lying, disobeying authorities, and violating the rules, but not to the extent that they do so in this third tale.” Kern, 71. More symptomatic than this statement is Kern choice of the title of his chapter, “A Law unto Himself,” thus denoting a clear direction in his positive evaluation of Rowling’s construal of moral conduct.
[30] “In answer to these questions, J.K. Rowling offers a vision of personal morality that is not dependent upon either political or religious commitments.” Kern, 135. Here Kern grants Abanes’ point that there is no religious commitment in Rowling, 159. Kern also points to superficial similarities between characters in Harry Potter and in, for example, The Hobbit in which Bilbo lies, deceives, and steals from the Dwarves, 170 f.
[31] Lana A. Whited and M. Katharine Grimes, “What Would Harry Do? J.K. Rowling and Lawrence Kohlberg’s Theories of Moral Development.” In The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter, 182-208. Quotation from page 195. This theory of moral development can be summarize by the three-step evolution from the preconventional (doing what is said), to the conventional and finally to the postconventional (doing what one’s learns for oneself) kind of morality. For references on Kohlberg see: Lawrence Kohlberg, Essays on Moral Development, vol. I: The Philosophy of Moral Development (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981); Lawrence Kohlberg, Charles Levine, and Alexandra Hewer, Moral Stages: a Current Formulation and a Response to Critics (Basel, N.Y.: Karger, 1983).
[32] Critics of Rowling have pointed that there are several instances in each of the books where the breaking of the rules seems both warranted and rewarded. See for example during the “troll” episode in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in which Harry and Ron are each awarded five points for their courageous action. Some therefore conclude that breaking of the rule is acceptable. Of course they forget to mention that Hermione had five points taken off from Gryffindor in the first place. Secondly they forget to note that Harry is conscious that they were faulty and that the reward was, in a way, not “just” since Ron and himself shared their part of responsibility: “She [Hermione] might not have been saving if we hadn’t locked the thing with her.” J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, (New York: Scholastic, 1997), 222. The goal, saving Hermione, justified the breaking of some of Hogwarts rules. But the critics pointing to this justification of rule-breaking should be aware that the same kind of criticisms were directed towards Jesus’ attitude regarding the tradition. See for example the Pharisees’ criticisms of the disciples plucking heads of grain in Mark 2.23-28. I do not pretend that the two examples are strictly parallel. Jesus made clear that he did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it; fulfillment does not mean annulment. I used this comparison to point that the significance of obedience/disobedience regarding rules and laws are conditioned by their origin and by their purposes. To answer the challenge raised by Rowling’s opponents, her defenders need to answer clearly these two questions.
[33] One could also argue that Rowling’s conception of morality is a rather neutral one, allowing for a safe breaking of moral rules for the benefit of a highest goal – maybe a ‘highest morality.’ More precisely – and if one grants that Whitehead, Grimes and Kern, have a point – how then could a morality that one builds for oneself be connected to an eternal revelation of God’s will for humankind’s moral conduct? This is actually one of the “problems” of Christian fantasy: how to relate fantasy ethics and Christian ethics?
[34] There are several examples of this in The Lord of the Rings: Samwise acting unjustly towards Gollum; Frodo who, at the end, is overwhelmed by the evil he caries; or in another measure, Treebeard’s mistake in believing that the Dark Lord created, “made,” Orcs and Trolls. When a correspondent of Tolkien, and manager of a Catholic bookshop, suggested that in this matter Tolkien went beyond traditional Catholic theology, which denies the possibility of evil to create, Tolkien answered that: “Treebeard is a character in my story, not me; and though he has a great memory and some earthly wisdom, he is not one of the Wise, and there is quite a lot he does not know or understand.” Humphrey Carpenter, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 190.
[35] Abanes for example attacks Rowling’s morality based on her description of Quirrell/Voldemort drinking Unicorn’s blood, or her reference to the ghost Nearly-Headless Nick, 40. Other authors do unsurprisingly, not take these charges seriously.
[36] Lewis argued the same way saying that children like (need/) scary stories where the villain is at the end punished, thus teaching children a deep sense of justice and goodness. Lewis also argues that those who dismiss fantasy because of a supposed danger of frightening the child are actually those who are trying to provide the child with a perverted form of escapism in presenting him with a view of the world which does not exist: “The second [view, that is, to “keep out of the child’s mind the knowledge that he is born in a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism, and cowardice, good and evil] would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense.” C.S. Lewis, On Stories and Other Essays on Literature (San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 2002), 39. Connie Neal also takes a similar approach pointing to the inconsistent use of criterion for interpretation among the detractors of Rowling. Neal rightly argues that to criticize Rowling on the sole basis of her use of magic, spells, and violence should lead to the equal dismissal of both Tolkien and Lewis, which few, if any, of the opponents of Rowling are willing to do. Commenting on the acceptation of Lewis and Tolkien and the rejection of  Rowling, she reports that :“The most common answer is that the fantasy of Lewis and Tolkien is good because the authors were Christians writing within a Christian framework. Indeed they do. I fact, the Narnia series is often lauded by Harry Potter opponents as more suitable reading material. However if objections to the books concern the following elements, the same complaints should apply to any book, regardless of the author’s spiritual orientation: violent content, terminology representative of occult practices (spells, using a crystal ball, references to astrology, etc.) […]” Neal, 119. As for those who find deranging that the main theme of the last of the Harry Potter book take as its main theme death, and thus conclude that Rowling is disturbingly attracted by Death, it should be answered that she is not the first to do so. The Lord of the Rings, according to Tolkien, is mainly concerned with death and immortality: “But I might say that if the tale is ‘about’ anything (other than itself), it is not as seems widely supposed about ‘power’. Power-seeking is only the motive-power that sets events going, and is relatively unimportant, I think. It is mainly concerned with Death, and Immortality; and the ‘escapes’: serial longevity, and hoarding memory.” Letters, 284. If there is any difference between Tolkien and Rowling, it is not just on what the theme is, but how and what is presented with reference to the Christian faith. Here, further study is needed to attain a better understanding of how to read death and immortality in fantasy (and to be fair with Rowling).
[37] See, for example, Tolkien’s discussion of Gandalf’s nature, mission, and return. Editor Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien write in note of letter 131 that: “Nowhere is he place or nature of ‘the Wizards’ made fully explicit. Their name, as related to Wise, is an Englishing of their Elvish name, and is used as thoroughly as utterly distinct from Sorcerer or Magician. It appears finally that they were as one might say the near equivalent in the mode of these tales of Angels, guarding Angels.” Letters, 159. This is perfectly consistent with Tolkien’s explicit explanation: “But G. [Gandalf] is not, of course, a human being (Man or Hobbit). There are naturally no precise modern terms to say what he was. I wd. [would] venture to say that he was an incarnate ‘angel’ – strictly an ¢ggeloj […] and so that they should do what they were primarily sent for: train, advise, instruct, arouse the hearts and minds of those threatened by Sauron to resistance with their own strengths; and not just do the job for them.” Letters, 202.
[38] See for example Ron’s “real-size” wizard chess-game in the first of the Harry Potter books.
[39] Francis Bridger, A Charmed Life: the Spirituality of Potterworld (New York: ImageBooks, 2001), 95.
[40] Sometimes the identity of those for whom sacrifice is made is ambiguous as in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when Ron sacrifice himself in the chess game. “’That’s chess!’ snapped Ron. ‘You’ve got to make some sacrifices! I take one step forward and she’ll take me – that leaves you free to checkmate the king, Harry!’” The Sorcerer’s Stone, 352. Sacrifice is motivated by the necessity of stopping Voldemort, but is sacrifice here directed at saving all of Hogwarts’ students? In the end, it is, since in saving Hogwarts, all its students, including Slytherin, are saved. But is the motivation of sacrifice so broad, and by what is sacrifice ultimately motivated. Such questions do not receive answers here.
[41] Bridger, 99. There is a question whether or not Harry’s sacrifice in the last book is a willing and conscious one. What is the relation between Harry and Dumbledore. Some have pointed to the symbolic relation between Harry, the son, and Dumbledore, the father-figure.
[42] Bridger, 97.
[43] Bridger, 98-102.
[44] Cf. Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
[45] This has been pointed out by Lana A. Whited and M. Katharine Grimes in their essay, “What Would Harry Do? J.K. Rowling and Lawrence Kohlberg’s Theories of Moral Development.” in Lana A. Whited, ed. The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon (Columbia, London: University of Missouri Press, 2002):182-208, quote from page 199. One could draw attention on Harry saving Malfoy’s life twice in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This could support the claim that forgiveness is an essential part of the world of Harry Potter. This could well be the case, however, the character’s attitude towards Malfoy is not changed. After Harry saved Malfoy for the second time, Ron still act resentfully towards him, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, hardback American edition (New York: Scholastic, 2007), 645.
[46] Here I would like to draw attention to a comment that could tone down my assertion that Harry forgives only friends or innocent people. Meredith Vieira’s interview of Rowling points out that Harry forgives Snape: “Was he [Snape] capable of love?  Very definitely.  So he’s – he’s a very – he was a flawed human being, like all of us. Harry forgives him – as we know, from the epilogue, Harry – Harry really sees the good in Snape ultimately. I wanted there to be redemption and I wanted there to be forgiveness.  And Harry forgives, even knowing that until the end Snape loathed him unjustifiably. it’s totally, totally unfair that he loathes him so much but anyway.” Meredith Vieira, “Harry Potter, the Final Chapter” available online at http://today.msnbc.msn.com However, because I am not still convinced that this invalidate my previous conclusion, I decided to maintain both the implication of this previous interview and my initial conclusion until I reach a better and clearer view.
[47] Which is by the way a major theme in the Harry Potter series in which we see that conquering death does not come by the way we though: power.
[48] An interesting fact is that Rowling, in the previously mentioned interview with Meredith Vieira, stated that even Voldemort is actually not beyond redemption: “So that meant that if he [Voldemort] could have mastered the courage to repent, he would have been okay.  But, of course, he wouldn’t.  And that’s his choice.  But the people around him, that’s what’s more interesting in a way. The people who were drawn to him for protection, for power, sadism.  But people who do have a choice, did make a choice, like the Malfoys of this world.  And I think that’s always worth examining why people choose to make those decisions.” Even though Rowling stated in her previous answer that Voldemort “[…] is what he is and he’s beyond redemption,” we can still rejoin her on her latter assertion of Voldemort’s possible redemption. However, the definition of the “what,” and the “how” of redemption is till unclear. That Voldemort was not beyond reach can be accepted, but that has would have been saved by an external mean, force, or person is, as for now, hardly arguable, unless we try to highlight the significance of Voldemort having a drop of Harry’s blood.
[49] On the question of what kind of “sanctifying process” Harry Potter typifies, Kern has argued that its pattern is one of self-growth, which is arguably quite different from the biblical pattern of sanctification, 218 ff. This conclusion would need more support however, and would also need to be read based on Kern’s theory that Harry Potter is in essence more Stoic than Christian. Is his theory that Harry Potter reflects Stoicism rather than Christianity really warranted; and if it is not, what about the validity of his thesis that self-growth rather than Christian sanctification is the real pattern of moral development in Rowling’s books? Maybe there is a another way we can follow. It is possible to argue that Harry Potter is not philosophically Stoic, but neither does it follow the traditional Christian concept of sanctification. We can grant the possibility that Rowling’s stories reflect her Christian beliefs, but it does not mean that her Christian beliefs follow the traditional teaching of Christianity. Here again the question of the Christian tradition followed by Rowling is important and I think it is legitimate to place her in a modern / postmodern tradition of Christianity, with, among other things, an emphasis on the individual construction of truth and morality.
[50] By way of mention, the same is applicable to Rowling herself. The tensions of the debate are partly due to her reticence to affirm what she does believe to be her Christian faith. It is no surprise therefore that some simply assume she is an (Evangelical) Christian, others, as  myself, a nominal Christian, and others, that she is actually not Christian at all. On this point the interpreters alone can hardly be find guilty.
[51] Kern’s judgment is that “[f]ortunately, attacks on the morality of the Potter series are misplaced, so readers need not worry much at all.” (18) Kern surprisingly does not give any reason for such a rapid dismissal of the moral charges made against Rowling.
[52] A study on the cultural and philosophical background of Rowling might be beneficial to distinguish her concern and writing from Lewis and Tolkien’s own, and it might also provide us with a mean for achieving a better understanding of their differences. That Rowling has a postmodern background while Lewis and Tolkien had a much more modern, or even “medieval” background, should help us to understand Rowling and to understand the relation between her work and the Christian faith.
[53] The book by Richard Abanes can at times be considered as representative of the first approach even though his conclusions are very negative. The second, moral radical and extreme point of view can be found especially in articles published on the web. Most of them are not worth mentioning.
[54] Neal for example charges opponents of Rowling with poor argument and faulty quotation of Rowling’s books: “Some may assume that because Lewis and Tolkien were Christians, their faith curbed that which critics of Harry Potter object to today. However, this is not the case. Some opponents extract tightly edited quotes from Rowling’s books to prove their point. The same faulty tactics would likewise discredit Narnia and other works of fantasy by Christians.” 120.
[55] This might be true, but the point is that this is to be argued, not merely assumed. See Bridger, A Charmed Life: the Spirituality of Potterworld, John Killinger, God, the Devil, and Harry Potter: a Christian Minister’s Defense of the Beloved Novels.
[56] Bridger argues that the relation of Rowling to magic is parallel to that of Tolkien in whose books: “It is not just that good people use magic to do good and evil people use it to do evil;; there is in the Lord of the Rings a recognition that magic is a form of power […] When power is used wisely, everyone benefits; when it is used unwisely, all but a few suffer […] One way of interpreting magic in Tolkien (and also in Rowling) is therefore to see it as symbolic.” 26.
[57] Granger, 4.
[58] Idem, 5.
[59] Here a precision is necessary. Granger relies heavily, if not exclusively, on the difference between incantational and invocational magic. I have tried to hint that there is no such clear cut difference in Tolkien’s view. I would like to add here that the English language itself does not warrant such a distinction. The definitions given in the Oxford English Dictionary are significant in this respect. The entry for incantation explains that this kind of magic is “The use of a formula of words, spoken or chanted to produce a magical effect; the utterance of a spell or charm; more widely, the use of magical ceremonies or arts; magic, sorcery, enchantment.” J.A. Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary, vol. VII (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 781. As for invocation, it is “[t]he action or an act of invoking or calling upon (God, a deity, etc.) in prayer or attestation; supplication, or an act or form of supplication for aid or protection.” The Oxford English Dictionary, vol. VII, 54. There is no hint here that the difference between incantation and invocation is a difference between legitimate and illegitimate magic. Both kinds are a form of magic and both, following Tolkien, can be put at evil use.
[60] “But I suppose that, for the purposes of the tale, some would say that there is a latent distinction such as once was called the distinction between magia and goeteia.” Letters, 199.
[61] The standard definition for magic (from the Latin magica) is the “pretended art of influencing the course of events, and of producing marvelous physical phenomena by process supposed to owe their efficacy to their power of compelling the inervention of spiritual beings, or of bringing into operation some occult controlling principle of nature; sorcery, witchcraft.” The Oxford English Dictionary, vol.  IX, 185.
[62] The Oxford English Dictionary, vol. VI, 648. The English word ordinarily used in English is “goetic” from the medieval Latin goetia. Tolkien seemed to have used an older form of the Latin word, goeteia.
[63] Letters, 199-200.
[64] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings (London: HarperCollins, 1997), 262.
Tolkien rejoins the view of his character in one of his letters, explaining the events which led to the first loss of the Ring, before the events of The Lord of the Rings: “The rings is lost, forever it is hoped; and the Three Rings if the elves, wielded by secrets guardians, are operative in preserving the memory of the beauty of old, maintaining enchanted enclaves of peace where Times seems to stand still and decay s restrained, a semblance of the bliss of the True West.” Letters, 157. It is clear here that when the One Ring was lost, it enabled the power of the Three Rings to be fully used, power more comparable to a form of art, ars, than a purely “magical” power.
[65] Idem.
[66] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York: Scholastic, 1995), 156-166.
[67] Idem, 163.
[68] The Elves are the only “earthly” creatures to be endowed with “magical” abilities. The “angels” also have some kind of spiritual and magical power but this is related to their status of angels. As for the Elves, Tolkien was very reluctant to use the word “magic” which had been used for too casually according to him (see Letters, 199). Moreover, the “magic” of the Elves is not really magic but is merely the expression of their doom: which “[…] is to be immortal, to love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full flower with their gifts of delicacy and perfection[…]” Letters, 147. Magic here seems more “natural” than we usually take it to be. Elvish magic is merely a perfected form of, one could say, natural laws, neither set over nor against it.
[69] One could counter-argue that Tolkien himself had entertained a view according to which magic itself is neutral and depends solely upon its use: “But it [the question of magic] is a v. [very] large question, and difficult; and a story which, as you rightly say, is largely about motives (choice, temptations etc.) and the intentions for using whatever is found in the world, could hardly be burdened with a pseudo-philosophic disquisition!”  Letters, 199. Here it seems that Tolkien relates magic to a motive-oriented ethics. Magic would be justified by its use. However this is a rather incomplete picture. Intentions are very important for Tolkien since they can make the difference between final redemption and perdition as we can see with the contrast Frodo/Gollum. On the another hand, it cannot be denied that there is two other fundamental, even more fundamental, elements to take into account to explain Tolkien’s view of magic. The first is the origin of magic and the second its nature, as I have already said. Both the origin (Eru-Ilúvatar) and the nature (both magia and goeteia) point to the necessity of reading Tolkien’s “magic” within the context of his theology of creation (and subcreation) and from his theology of God. Only when we understand Tolkien’s basic metaphysical conception of creation and God can we understand where magic comes from and what is its nature (and how can it be turned to evil).
[70] Let me here acknowledge the weaknesses of my own evaluations of Rowling. This is to be a brief review and not an extended study of Rowling’s seven books. I might, therefore, not have been able to clearly
demonstrate the use of the principles I pointed to. It is my which that I will be able to do so.
[71] Quoted in Abanes, 236.
[72] Concerning the meaning “messenger” see previous quote, page 7. For the connection with the English ‘wise’: “The istari are translated ‘wizards’ because of the connexion of ‘wizard’ with wise and so with ‘witting’ and knowing.” Letters, 207. Bridger argues for a modified use of wizard by Rowling: “By choosing ‘wizard’ Rowling creates a more fanciful, frivolous tone than she would have done if she had opted for warlock.’ ‘Wizard,’ a medieval word derives from ‘wise,’ is linked to centuries of folklore and storytelling rather than modern witchcraft.” (19) On this point, Bridger is most probably correct.
[73] One could argue that the last volume, The Magician’s Nephew, is a counter example since the children use magical rings to enter Narnia.
[74] See Letters, 220.
[75] Schafer, 75. Others have seen in Hogwarts just a hidden part of our world: “But in Rowling’s books, alongside this world (the world of our experience), and in a close, symbiotic relationship with it, a world of magic persists. Far from being obliterated or absorbed, the practice of magic simply went underground, concealed from the Muggle world.” Benjamin J. Bruxvoort Lipscomb and W. Christopher Stewart, “Magic, Science, and the Ethics of Technology.” in David Baggett and Shawn E. Klein, eds., Harry Potter and Philosophy. If Aristotle Rand Hogwarts (Chicago, La Salle: Open Court, 2005).
[76] Amanda Cockrell, “Harry Potter and the Secret Password: Finding our Way in the Magical Genre” in Lana A. Whited, ed. The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon (Columbia, London: University of Missouri Press, 2002), 15-26.
[77] Granger argues in his book that this is precisely what Rowling has done, following in that Tolkien: “That the magical world exists inside Muggledom (nonmagical people are called “Muggles” by the witches and wizards in Harry Potter), however, besides being consistent with the best traditions in epic myth and fantasy, parallel the life of Christians in the world.” Granger, 7. He also argues that while the opponents of Rowling maintain that there is no overlap between the two worlds in Tolkien or Lewis, such is not the case: The Lord of the Rings’ Middle Earth is our earth in a imaginary “third age,” and Narnia overlaps with our world in every opening chapter. However, this doe not answer the problem. That an overlap exists does not explain which kind of overlap we are talking about. I would maintain here that we can see is three kind of overlap, which I have mentioned.
[78] Of course, it can also be argued that they are really two different worlds, and that they are but spatially different world, physically similar enough to the eye.
[79] This title is taken from an article by G.K. Chesterton which appeared as a chapter in his Orthodoxy. See G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy” in The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, vol. 1 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 249-268.
[80] The ceremonial laws can possibly be changed since “abolished” by being fulfilled in and by the coming Christ.
[81] Gilbert Keith Chesterton, The Father Brown Stories, “The Blue Cross,” 36.