By now most readers in this country are aware of what has come to be called the Harry Potter phenomenon. It’s hard to be unaware. Any bookstore you might care to enter is strewn with giant stacks of the Harry Potter books—three of them now that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has finally been released in the United States. This blessed event comes after some months during which the online bookstore Amazon.co.uk—Britain’s branch of the ever expanding Amazon.com empire—devoted much of its energy to shipping copies across the Atlantic, creating in the process a miniature trade war, as lawyers on both sides of the pond tried to figure out which country a book is purchased in when it’s ordered from a British company but on a computer in America. Whatever the legal status of cyberspatial commerce, anyone visiting either Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk last summer could not but note that the bestselling books on both sites were the Harry Potter novels, which ranked a consistent one, two, and three.
Many people are also familiar with the story behind the most talked about children’s books in decades, perhaps ever: how Joanne Rowling, an out-of-work teacher and single mother living on the dole in Edinburgh, started scribbling a story in a local café as her small daughter dozed in a stroller; how an English publisher, Bloomsbury Books, took a chance on this unknown author; and how, almost wholly by word-of-mouth reports, the first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, became a bestseller not just among children but also among adults, for whom Bloomsbury designed a more mature looking cover so commuters on bus and tube would not have to be embarrassed as they eagerly followed Harry’s quest to discover what the enormous three-headed dog, Fluffy, was guarding in that off-limits corridor of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. International success, as indicated by those great piles of books at 40 percent discount and the dominance of Amazon’s bestseller lists, quickly followed.
In the twenty-odd years that I have been pretty closely following trends in American publishing, no development in the industry has been nearly so inexplicable to me, nor has any development made me so happy. For I adore the Harry Potter books. I read the first one—under its silly American title, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (the American publisher evidently judged that no book with the word “philosopher” in the title could sell)—thinking that it might be something I could read to my son. Though I decided that he wasn’t quite old enough, at six, to follow the rather complicated plot, I myself was hooked, and in my impatience ordered each of the next two novels in the series from Amazon.co.uk, thus making my own personal contribution to the perplexity of international trade law. (The remaining books in the series—Rowling plans a total of seven—will be published simultaneously in the U.S. and the U.K., thus cutting the legal Gordian knot.)
J. K. Rowling, as the books’ covers have it—the name rhymes with “bowling”—simply has that mysterious gift, so prized among storytellers and lovers of stories but so resistant to critical explication, of world-making. It is a gift that many Christian readers tend to associate with that familiar but rather amorphous group of English Christian writers, the Inklings—though the association is not quite proper, since only one of the Inklings, J. R. R. Tolkien, had this rare faculty, and few of the others even aspired to it. Tolkien, however, possessed the power in spades, and gave useful names to it as well: he spoke of the “secondary worlds” created by the writer, and of “mythopoeia” as the activity of such “sub-creation.” The sine qua non of such mythopoeia, for Tolkien, is the making of a world that resembles ours but is not ours, a world that possesses internal logic and self-consistency to the same degree that ours does—but not the same logic: it must have its own rules, rules that are peculiar to it and that generate consequences also peculiar to it.
It is important to understand that C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books, great though they may be, are not in this strict sense mythopoeic: Lewis does not want to create a self-consistent secondary world, but rather a world in which all the varieties of mythology meet and find their home. In Narnia there is no internal consistency whatever: thus Father Christmas can show up in the middle of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Bacchus and Silenus in the middle of Prince Caspian. It may well be that this mythographic promiscuity, so to speak, is key to the success of the Chronicles of Narnia, but it makes them very different books from Tolkien’s, and it is the reason why Tolkien hated the Narnia stories. They lacked the clearly demarcated wholeness which he considered the essential virtue of his own Middle Earth.
Joanne Rowling has expressed her love for the Narnia books—one of the reasons there will be, God willing, seven Harry Potter books is that there are seven volumes of Narnia stories—but as a literary artist she bears a far greater resemblance to Tolkien. One of the great pleasures for the reader of her books is the wealth of details, from large to small, that mark the Magic world as different from ours (which in the books is called the Muggle world): the tall pointed hats the students wear in their classes, in which they study such topics as Potions, Transfiguration, Defense Against the Dark Arts, and even Care and Feeding of Magical Creatures; the spells that are always in Latin (“Expelliarmus!”); or the universal addiction to Quidditch, a game that shares some characteristics with basketball, cricket, and soccer but is played in the air, on broomsticks, and with four balls. Rowling’s attention to such matters is remarkable and charming, especially when the details are small: once, when he is visiting the home of a friend from a Magical family, Harry steps over a pack of Self-Shuffling Playing Cards. It’s an item that could have been left out without any loss to the narrative, but it offers an elegant little surprise—and another piece of furniture for this thoroughly imagined universe.
I have made my enthusiasm for these books quite evident to many friends, but some of them are dubious—indeed, deeply suspicious. These are Christian people, and they feel that books which make magic so funny and charming don’t exactly support the Christian view of things. Such novels could at best encourage children to take a smilingly tolerant New Age view of witchcraft, at worst encourage the practice of witchcraft itself. Moreover, some of them note, Harry Potter is not exactly a model student: he has, as the Headmaster of Hogwarts puts it, “a certain disregard for rules,” and spends a good deal of time fervently hoping not to get caught in mid-disregard.
This second matter, I think, poses no real problem. It is true that Harry is often at odds with some of his teachers, but these particular teachers are not exactly admirable figures: they themselves are often at odds with the wise, benevolent, and powerful Headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, whom they sometimes attempt to undermine or outflank. But to Dumbledore, significantly, Harry is unswervingly faithful and obedient; indeed, the climax of the second novel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, turns on Harry’s fidelity to Dumbledore.
Moreover, Harry’s tendency to bypass or simply flout the rules is a matter of moral concern for him: he wonders and worries about the self-justifications he offers, and often doubts not just his abilities but his virtue. He is constantly aware that his great unchosen antagonist, Voldemort—the Dark Lord, the most evil of wizards and, after Dumbledore, the most powerful—offers temptations to which he cannot simply assume that he is immune. And when Dumbledore mentions Harry’s “certain disregard for rules” he does so in a way that links such disregard with the forces of evil, thus warning Harry (though his larger purpose in that scene is to encourage the troubled young wizard).
In short, Rowling’s moral compass throughout the three novels is sound—indeed, I would say, acute. But the matter of witchcraft remains, and it is not a matter to be trifled with. People today, and this includes many Christians, tend to hold two views about witches: first, that real witches don’t exist, and second, that they aren’t as bad as the evil masterminds of the Salem witch trials made them out to be. These are obviously incompatible beliefs. As C. S. Lewis has pointed out, there is no virtue in being tolerant of witches if you think that witchcraft is impossible, that is, that witches don’t really exist. But if there are such things as witches, and they do indeed invoke supernatural or unnatural forces to bring harm to good people, then it would be neither wise nor good to tolerate them. So the issue is an important one, and worthy of serious reflection.
It is tempting to say, in response to these concerns, that Harry Potter is not that kind of wizard, that he doesn’t do harm to anyone, except those who are manifestly evil and trying to do harm to him. And these are significant points. But an answer to our question must begin elsewhere.
The place to begin is to invoke one of the great achievements of twentieth-century historical scholarship: the eight volumes Lynn Thorndike published between 1929 and 1941 under the collective title A History of Magic and Experimental Science. And it is primarily the title that I wish to reflect upon here. In the thinking of most modern people, there should be two histories here: after all, are not magic and experimental science opposites? Is not magic governed by superstition, ignorance, and wishful thinking, while experimental science is rigorous, self-critical, and methodological? While it may be true that the two paths have diverged to the point that they no longer have any point of contact, for much of their existence—and this is Lynn Thorndike’s chief point—they constituted a single path with a single history. For both magic and experimental science are means of controlling and directing our natural environment (and people insofar as they are part of that environment). C. S. Lewis has made the same assertion:
[Francis Bacon’s] endeavor is no doubt contrasted in our minds with that of the magicians: but contrasted only in the light of the event, only because we know that science succeeded and magic failed. That event was then still uncertain. Stripping off our knowledge of it, we see at once that Bacon and the magicians have the closest possible affinity. . . . Nor would Bacon himself deny the affinity: he thought the aim of the magicians was “noble.”
It was not obvious in advance that science would succeed and magic fail: In fact, several centuries of dedicated scientific experiment would have to pass before it was clear to anyone that the “scientific” physician could do more to cure illness than the old woman of the village with her herbs and potions and muttered charms. In the Renaissance, alchemists were divided between those who sought to solve problems—the achievement of the philosopher’s stone, for example (or should I say the sorcerer’s stone?)—primarily through the use of what we would call mixtures of chemicals and those who relied more heavily on incantations, the drawing of mystical patterns, and the invocation of spirits.
At least, it seems to us that the alchemists can be so divided. But that’s because we know that one approach developed into chemistry, while the other became pure magic. The division may not have been nearly so evident at the time, when (to adapt Weber’s famous phrase) the world had not yet become disenchanted. As Keith Thomas has shown, it was “the triumph of the mechanical philosophy” of nature that “meant the end of the animistic conception of the universe which had constituted the basic rationale for magical thinking.” Even after powerful work of the mechanistic scientists like Gassendi the change was not easily completed: Isaac Newton, whose name is associated more than any other with physical mechanics, dabbled frequently in alchemy.
This history provides a key to understanding the role of magic in Joanne Rowling’s books, for she begins by positing a counterfactual history, a history in which magic was not a false and incompetent discipline, but rather a means of controlling the physical world at least as potent as experimental science. In Harry Potter’s world, scientists think of magic in precisely the same way they do in our world, but they are wrong. The counterfactual “secondary world” that Rowling creates is one in which magic simply works, and works as reliably, in the hands of a trained wizard, as the technology that makes airplanes fly and refrigerators chill the air—those products of applied science being, by the way, sufficiently inscrutable to the people who use them that they might as well be the products of wizardry. As Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, “Any smoothly functioning technology gives the appearance of magic.”
The fundamental moral framework of the Harry Potter books, then, is a familiar one to all of us: it is the problem of technology. (As Jacques Ellul wrote, “Magic may even be the origin of techniques.”) Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is in the business of teaching people how to harness and employ certain powers—that they are powers unrecognized by science is really beside the point—but cannot insure that people will use those powers wisely, responsibly, and for the common good. It is a choice, as the thinkers of the Renaissance would have put it, between magia and goetia: “high magic” (like the wisdom possessed by the magi in Christian legend) and “dark magic.”
Hogwarts was founded by four wizards, one of whom, Salazar Slytherin, at least dabbled and perhaps reveled in the Dark Arts, that is, the use of his powers for questionable if not downright evil purposes, and for centuries many of the young wizards who reside in Slytherin House have exhibited the same tendency. The educational quandary for Albus Dumbledore, then—though it is never described so overtly—is how to train students not just in the “technology” of magic but also in the moral discernment necessary to avoid the continual reproduction of the few great Dark Lords like Voldemort and their multitudinous followers. The problem is exacerbated by the presence of faculty members who are not wholly unsympathetic with Voldemort’s aims.
The clarity with which Rowling sees the need to choose between good and evil is admirable, but still more admirable, to my mind, is her refusal to allow a simple division of parties into the Good and the Evil. Harry Potter is unquestionably a good boy, but, as I have suggested, a key component of his virtue arises from his recognition that he is not inevitably good. When first-year students arrive at Hogwarts, they come to an assembly of the entire school, students and faculty. Each of them sits on a stool in the midst of the assembly and puts on a large, battered, old hat—the Sorting Hat, which decides which of the four houses the student will enter. After unusually long reflection, the Sorting Hat, to Harry’s great relief, puts him in Gryffindor, but not before telling him that he could achieve real greatness in Slytherin. This comment haunts Harry: he often wonders if Slytherin is where he truly belongs, among the pragmatists, the careerists, the manipulators and deceivers, the power-hungry, and the just plain nasty. Near the end of the second book, after a terrifying encounter with Voldemort—his third, since Voldemort had tried to kill Harry, and succeeded in killing his parents, when Harry was a baby, and had confronted Harry again in the first book—he confesses his doubts to Dumbledore.
“So I should be in Slytherin,” Harry said, looking desperately into Dumbledore’s face. “The Sorting Hat could see Slytherin’s power in me, and it—”
“Put you in Gryffindor,” said Dumbledore calmly. “Listen to me, Harry. You happen to have many qualities Salazar Slytherin prized in his hand-picked students. Resourcefulness. . . determination. . . a certain disregard for rules,” he added, his moustache quivering again. “Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was. Think.”
“It only put me in Gryffindor,” said Harry in a defeated voice, “Because I asked not to go in Slytherin. . . .”
“Exactly,” said Dumbledore, beaming once more. “Which makes you very different from [Voldemort]. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Harry sat motionless in his chair, stunned.
Harry is stunned because he realizes for the first time that his confusion has been wrongheaded from the start: he has been asking the question “Who am I at heart?” when he needed to be asking the question “What must I do in order to become what I should be?” His character is not a fixed preexistent thing, but something that he has the responsibility for making: that’s why the Greeks called it character, “that which is engraved.” It’s also what the Germans mean when they speak of Bildung, and the Harry Potter books are of course a multivolume Bildungsroman—a story of “education,” that is to say, of character formation.
In this sense the strong tendency of magic to become a dream of power—on the importance of this point Lynn Thorndike, Keith Thomas, and C. S. Lewis all agree—makes it a wonderful means by which to focus the theme of Bildung, of the choices that gradually but inexorably shape us into certain distinct kinds of persons. Christians are perhaps right to be wary of an overly positive portrayal of magic, but the Harry Potter books don’t do that: in them magic is often fun, often surprising and exciting, but also always potentially dangerous.
And so, it should be said, is the technology that has resulted from the victory of experimental science. Perhaps the most important question I could ask my Christian friends who mistrust the Harry Potter books is this: is your concern about the portrayal of this imaginary magical technology matched by a concern for the effects of the technology that in our world displaced magic? The technocrats of this world hold in their hands powers almost infinitely greater than those of Albus Dumbledore and Voldemort: how worried are we about them, and their influence over our children? Not worried enough, I would say. As Ellul suggests, the task for us is “the measuring of technique by other criteria than those of technique itself,” which measuring he also calls “the search for justice before God.” Joanne Rowling’s books are more helpful than most in prompting such measurement. They are also—and let’s not forget the importance of this point—a great deal of fun.
Alan Jacobs is Professor of English at Wheaton College.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things onTwitter.