If you haven't seen it yet, this blog post will make more sense if you've read Harry Potter and Me, Part 1 first.
Continuing on—more issues anti-Potter articles often mention.
Subjects That Hogwarts Students Study
Besides magic and spells, there are a few other subjects that, on first glance, might appear to correspond to occultic practices in our world. I will discuss how J. K. Rowling treats these subjects in her books.
Yes, there is a class at Hogwarts, the wizard school Harry and his friends attend, called Divination. Professor Sybill Trelawney, a middle-aged witch who claims to have an "Inner Eye" and be able to prophesy. She tells the children to look for signs in crystal balls, the tealeaf residue left in teacups, and their dreams. Harry, Hermione, and Ron find this subject dull and completely useless, as Trelawney clearly fabricates the majority of her so-called predictions. The headmaster, Professor Dumbledore, tells Harry that Professor Trelawney predicts the death of a student at the beginning of each school year. The entire thing is obviously bogus, full of superstition and old wives' tales. Rather than being encouraged to seek out fortune tellers in our world, children would instead be taught to question their credibility. The only creatures capable of discerning the future in Harry's world are centaurs, who primarily use the movements of the stars to predict general trends or major events that will happen—but no specific details. In Harry's fifth year at school, a centaur named Firenze comes to teach them instead of Professor Trelawney, and he tells them that sometimes even centaurs can misinterpret astronomical phenomena. Furthermore, we must also consider that centaurs predict the end of the world by observing the stars and planets in The Last Battle, the seventh book of The Chronicles of Narnia.
The two exceptions about Trelawney's fortune-telling in the series (twice Professor Trelawney does actually prophesy accurately) do not originate from Sybill herself. She is unaware of having prophesied afterwards, so we must conclude that the prophesy comes from some cosmic force or something unexplained beyond the story—but again, we cannot presume that the prophesies come from an evil source if we have no textual evidence.
Some claimed that children reading Harry Potter would be encouraged to believe in astrology and horoscopes. But actually, Harry and his friends take a class called Astronomy, NOT Astrology, and it is just like the astronomy classes in the real world, from what details are mentioned in the books. And this is a class that doesn't come up much anyway.
Some people were uncomfortable about the idea that the students at Hogwarts celebrate Halloween. This is an issue that many Christians are divided on—to dress up, or not to dress up. My personal opinion is that dressing up in a costume that isn't scary or evil, as well as participating in Harvest Festivals / Noah's Ark Parties at your church, are both perfectly okay. Harry and his friends participate in Halloween in an innocent way, like young children in our world do. And in the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry's parents were murdered by Voldemort, the Dark Lord, when he was only one year old, on Halloween. Usually, in the first few novels, something important happens on Halloween to increase conflict and suspense, which is quite logical as it is the anniversary of Harry's parents' death as well as the beginning of the fall of the Dark Lord (more on that later).
The idea of Harry and his friends learning and saying spells bothered Christian parents, and for good reason. However, the spells in no way invoke spirits of any sort, and are all combinations of Latin phrases and made-up words. One spell, used by wizards who practice the Dark Arts, seems to be from Aramaic. As mentioned previously, how does that differ from children repeating "Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo" from Disney's Cinderella or even "Abracadabra"? Or "Open Sesame"? Or even when we say, "What's the magic word?" to remind children to say please?
Articles written against Harry Potter that I've read have also noted that there are ghosts in the books. This is true, but none of the characters ever conjure them up or summon them, but they do talk to the ghosts like they would to another person. One pro-Harry Potter article that I read argued that this was no different from Dickens' use of Marley or the ghost of Christmas Past in A Christmas Carol. The author said something to this effect: so should we not read A Christmas Carol because the main character consorts with ghosts and spirits? In reading Charles Dickens' story, we recognize the distinction between fiction and reality. Why should Harry Potter or other fantasy stories be any different?
The Dark Arts
This area is where Christians should be concerned if evil magic in the story was glorified in any way. Yet it is clearly not. The kids take a class every year called "Defense Against the Dark Arts" and learn how to equip themselves against the villians. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book, their Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, Professor Moody, teaches them about the three Unforgivable Curses--spells that are against wizarding law to use. They are the Imperius Curse (used for mind control, the word is Imperio), the Cruciatus Curse (used for torture, the word for it is Crucio), and the Killing Curse (the word for it is Avada Kedavra, apparently derived from Aramaic in what I uncovered in my research). Anyone who uses these curses on another human is sentenced to life in Azkaban, the wizard prison.
The good characters never use these curses, with one exception. Once Harry, in an understandable burst of anger, attempts to use the Crucio curse in a battle against a woman who just killed someone very dear to him, but she only stumbles, and tells Harry that he has to really mean it when he uses an Unforgivable Curse (the implication being that he is too innocent to actually want to torture another human being). In the last book, Harry continues to use the Expelliarmus spell to disarm his opponents, even though Professor Lupin tells him he must be prepared to kill if he needs to in order to defend himself. But he never, ever uses the Killing Curse against anyone. Voldemort uses Avada Kedavra continually—but Harry practices only self-defense, which is intriguing considering the context of this series.
Expecto Patronum is one of the defensive spells Harry learns. He has to say the words while concentrating an intensely happy moment for the spell to work. It is used to repel dementors—evil, black-robed, soulless creatures that drain the happiness from a person and cause despair. Dementors also guard Azkaban prison. Riddikulus is another spell, used to combat boggarts, a creature that assumes the form of your deepest, darkest fear and lives in dark places like wardrobes and cupboards. It's best to face the boggart with someone else, to confuse it so it won't know what form to assume, and then the spell makes it assume something silly that makes you laugh, so the fear loses its power over you. Finally, Legilimency is used to read minds to an extent, or, more accurately, memories, and is practiced by Lord Voldemort and his followers, the Death Eaters. Harry attemps to learn Occlumency so that he can close his mind to Legilimency and protect it against evil influences. To guard his mind, he has to control his emotions.
Voldemort's return to a corporeal body, one of the more intense passages in the series, takes place at the conclusion of the fourth book. It is creepy, and rightfully so, because it could mirror actual occultic rituals, but again, these are the bad guys, not the admirable characters. The Dark Lord's servant makes a potion from the "bone of the [Voldemort's] father," the "flesh of the servant," and "the blood of the enemy" (he draws some of Harry Potter's blood) to come back to his full power.
Magic in our World
Other opponents of the series have been bothered by the fact that magic in Harry Potter is not just used in the wizarding world and at his school, Hogwarts, but that it also occurs in our world as well. (There is a connection between the wizard fantasy world and our world—Harry travels between the two through a brick wall at Platform 9 and 3/4 in a London train station). The magic is not just a long, long time ago in a land far, far away. Yet since Harry and all the other young wizards are not allowed to use their magical abilities outside of school until they are adults unless there are life-threatening circumstances (and in the rare instances that this does occur), it is again only magic of the fairy tale variety that has already been discussed.
Now, having covered most of the fantasy elements that most arguments against the Harry Potter series utilize as evidence, I can now discuss why I find the books worth reading. As a Christian, I would never make the argument that a set of novel encouraging particiption in the occult, which also happened to be adventure stories with moral lessons, would be wholesome reading for anyone, let alone children. My friend Kathleen told me that some of her fellow online students in a college literature class argued, in a discussion where Harry Potter came up: "But the books teach children morality." In the words of one of my fellow English literature majors and good friend Cynthia, "that would be like mixing candy and poison." Yet because I have made the case that the magical elements in this series are not of the occult, now I will proceed to discuss what value I think the books have.
As I started reading the opening lines of the first book, I sensed something was afoot. It is the evening upon which the entire wizard world is rejoicing and exultant that a baby boy has caused the temporary defeat of the Dark Lord, Voldemort. They all look to him now as the cause of their joy and peace, the one who brought them deliverance. ...Like the shepherds and angels in Bethlehem? Honestly. What else does this sound like? I realized that Harry had a clear potential for developing into a Messiah figure. But I knew I'd have to keep reading to find out if J.K. Rowling kept this up.
Throughout the series, each book entails a struggle against evil, and every school year, Harry meets the challenge. Harry matures as the Dark Lord grows stronger yet again.
Finally, the seventh and final book culminates with Harry sacrificing himself to save the world, realizing that only his death will bring about the ultimate and final defeat of Voldemort. Sound familiar? As he willingly walked through the forest to face the Death Eaters and his followers, reminding me of Aslan heading through the woods toward the White Witch and her crew at the Stone Table, we as readers hear his final thoughts, and the spirits of his mother and father and other dear friends who died in the struggles walk with him. At this point, I was completely crying my eyes out. The series had met my expectations at the beginning and exceeded them. And yes, his willing sacrifice enables him to come back and ultimately defeat the Dark Lord (who is, interestingly enough, completely loaded with symbolism involving snakes).
For further insight into the ending of the series:
J. K. Rowling in an interview with a Spanish newspaper in February 2008: "Since he was young until Chapter 34 of the seventh book, Harry is required to be a better man in that he is obligated to accept the inevitability of his own death. The plan of the books was that he should have contact with death and with the experience of death. And it was always Harry alone who had to have that experience. It all came down to conscience, because the hero had to live these things, do things, see things on his count. It’s part of that isolation and sadness that comes with being a hero. For me, that chapter is the key of all the books. Everything, everything I have written, was thought of for that precise moment when Harry goes into the forest. That is the chapter that I had planned for 17 years. That moment is the heart of all of the books. And for me it is the last truth of the story. Even though Harry survives, of that there was no doubt, he reaches that unique and very rare state which is to accept his own death. How many people have the possibility of accepting their death before they die?"
"And he [Harry] set off. The dementors’ chill did not overcome him; he passed through it with his companions, and they acted like Patronuses to him, and together they marched through the old trees that grew closely together, their branches tangled, their roots gnarled and twisted underfoot. Harry clutched the [Invisibility] Cloak tightly around him in the darkness, traveling deeper and deeper into the forest, with no idea where exactly Voldemort was, but sure that he would find him. Beside him, making scarcely a sound, walked James, Sirius, Lupin, and Lily, and their presence was his courage, and the reason he was able to keep putting one foot in front of the other." — Chapter 34, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Dialogue from Harry's final battle with the Dark Lord:
"You won't be killing anyone else tonight," said Harry as they circled, and stared into each other's eyes, green into red. "You won't be able to kill any of them ever again. Don't you get it? I was ready to die to stop you from hurting these people—"
"But you did not!"
"—I meant to, and that's what did it. I've done what my mother did. They're protected from you. Haven't you noticed how none of the spells you put on them are binding? You can't torture them. You can't touch them. You don't learn from your mistakes, Riddle, do you?"
1.) There is some brief language and violence in the Harry Potter series, so children probably shouldn't read them when they are very young. Parents should decide what content their children are capable of handling.
2.) Don't make the mistake of not reading an author's work purely because of their lifestyle / biography. Some argued that children should not read Harry Potter because J.K. Rowling is not a Christian. On that note, we can't actually make that judgement call on whether she is or not—though I would argue her books potentially reveal much about her belief system—and there are many classic children's books and other works written by authors with lifestyles and worldviews we would likely not agree with, but we still enjoy reading them. (Examples: The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, The Cricket in Times Square, the Frog and Toad series, and The Importance of Being Earnest.)
From the author herself:
"To me, [the religious parallels have] always been obvious,” Rowling said. “But I never wanted to talk too openly about it because I thought it might show people who just wanted the story where we were going.”
When asked if her books promote the occult, she said: "I think that’s utter garbage. I absolutely do not believe in the occult, practice the occult. I’ve never... I’ve met literally thousands of children now. Not one of them has said to me, 'You’ve really turned me on to the occult,' not one of them." (in an interview with Katie Couric on Dateline NBC, June 20, 2003)
"I did not set out to convert anyone to Christianity. I wasn't trying to do what C.S. Lewis did. It is perfectly possible to live a very moral life without a belief in God, and I think it's perfectly possible to live a life peppered with ill-doing and believe in God."
Upon being asked if she was a Christian, she replied, "Yes, I am, which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God. Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that [her Christianity], I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what's coming in the books.
"The truth is that, like Graham Greene, my faith is sometimes that my faith will return. It's something I struggle with a lot. On any given moment if you asked me [if] I believe in life after death, I think if you polled me regularly through the week, I think I would come down on the side of yes—that I do believe in life after death. [But] it's something that I wrestle with a lot. It preoccupies me a lot, and I think that's very obvious within the books."
3.) Ultimately, do not begin the series with your mind already made up about it. Honestly evaluate it for what it is.
Thank you for reading and and thinking along with me. Comments and counterarguments are welcome!
Christianity Today: Redeeming Harry Potter
Christianity Today: Harry Potter Is Here to Stay