SCP JOURNAL 23:4-24:1
Harry Potter: Occult Cosmology and the
By Alison Lentini
Harry Potter, preadolescent wizard and protagonist of what Time Magazine calls "one of the most bizarre and surreal" success stories in the annals of publishing3, is an unsettling, "post-Christian" newcomer to the canon of children's fantasy literature: a form traditionally entrusted with the duty to "delight and instruct" society's youngest members. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1997), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998), and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999), the first three books of a projected seven-book series by previously unknown Scottish author J. K. Rowling, have been lauded for their eccentric wit, riveting suspense, emotional realism, and extraordinarily rich fictional world, and have swept the field of recent children's book awards in Great Britain and America.
From the obscurity of a small first printing in Great Britain in June 1997 to the current global marketing blitz in more than two dozen languages, the series has easily outsold all previous titles in the history of children's literature. The Harry Potter phenomenon has rattled the Titans of the book industry, who watched in dismay as "kiddie lit" aimed at a 7-to-13-year-old audience effortlessly unseated adult megasellers by John Grisham, Stephen King, Tom Clancy, and Danielle Steel, and placed the top three slots of the New York Times adult fiction bestseller list in a hammerlock for months. With translations underway in a host of languages, including Icelandic, Korean, Basque, and Serbo-Croatian, the Harry Potter saga has had a spellbinding effect on readers of all ages, creeds, and nationalities. Rowling's unprecedented success not only speaks to the continuing hunger for stories and fantasy in a technological society. More disturbingly, it manifests the extent to which the Christian true story has been eclipsed in the popular imagination by a morally ambiguous, Christless cosmology which substitutes occultism as the new frame of reference for its hero and an entire generation of readers. In true stories versus false stories, the "true story" in real history is obscured by the fictional story.
The Birth and Apprenticeship of a Child-Wizard
Avid young readers of fairy-stories will identify the heroic contours of Harry Potter's character even faster than scholars of myth, who will undoubtedly produce a small cottage industry of papers scrutinizing Harry's relationship to Arthurian legend, Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and Otto Rank's The Myth of the Birth of the Hero. Harry Potter, orphaned in infancy when his wizard parents are murdered by the evil Lord Voldemort, is exiled from the magical realm and left in a bundle of blankets on the doorstep of 4 Privet Drive, Whinging, Surrey to be raised by his non-magical aunt and uncle, the Dursleys.
Harry's survival of Voldemort's attack mysteriously shattered the evil wizard's power, and the inexplicable triumph of a powerless infant over the cosmic forces of darkness (a theme not unfamiliar to Christian readers) is heralded by showers of owls, downpours of shooting stars, and clandestine celebrations by witches and wizards around the world in honor of "the boy who lived!" The infant bears on his forehead a physical mark of his encounter with evil (a scar in the shape of a lightning-bolt), and arrives at the Dursley home accompanied by a prophecy: "[T]here will be books written about Harry--every child in our world will know his name."4 (Since Scholastic Press, the publisher of the Harry Potter series, owns the hugely successful Scholastic Book Club whose classroom flyers and order forms go home with most American public-school students, this prophecy seems to be sailing toward fulfillment.)
Despite such glorious beginnings, the hero is thrust into a dreadful childhood in the world of "Muggles" or non-magical folk, who maintain a repressive, "medieval attitude toward magic."5 Exiled to a dark cupboard under the stairs and to existence as a permanent scapegoat for the Dursleys, who consider Harry's magical lineage an "abnormality" and "dangerous nonsense" and hope to "squash the magic out of him" through oppressive treatment, Harry learns like any contemporary child growing up in a dysfunctional family not to ask questions and not to entertain imagination. For readers who suspect a bit of allegory, it is not too far-fetched to infer that the Church has been the most dysfunctional family and the most oppressive Muggle institution of all for society's "magical children" throughout history.
Harry cannot remember his wizard-parents, and remains ignorant of his magical nature and origins until he receives a letter of admission from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, summoning him to enter into his true spiritual identity and destiny. On Harry's eleventh birthday, he is transported to a parallel society ordered according to the laws of magic, a realm far richer and more captivating than Muggle "Flatland." The revelation that begins Harry's life-adventure is simple and direct: "Harry --yer a wizard."6 (Compare that statement to Rowling's comment to a worldwide student audience on a video prepared by Scholastic Press: "It's important to remember that we all have magic inside us."7)
Hogwarts, founded more than a thousand years ago "by the four greatest witches and wizards of the age. when magic was feared by common people, and witches and wizards suffered much persecution,"8 is overseen by absent-minded, benevolent Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, "Grand Sorcerer and Chief Warlock," with the assistance of a faculty of well-credentialed scholars and practitioners of the occult arts, including several "Animagi": wizards who periodically transform themselves into animals. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the school culture of Hogwarts is the matter-of-fact normalcy with which it is described; not without reason has the Harry Potter series been widely compared to the genre of the British "boarding school story."9 Students go shopping for back-to-school supplies (spell-books, cauldrons and wands), pursue a demanding preparatory-school curriculum (Transfiguration, Divination, Herbology, Defense Against the Dark Arts, Arithmancy, History of Magic, Care of Magical Creatures, Potions, Flying Lessons, and Charms), care for pets (familiar spirits, including witchcraft's traditional toads, spiders, cats, and owls), play intramural sports (Quidditch, a sort of airborne football played on broomsticks), learn about history and culture (witchcraft and the esoteric tradition from Circe to Paracelsus), exchange talismans and trading cards (not of Pokemon, but of Agrippa and the Druidess Cliodna), and write compositions ("Witch Burning in the Fourteenth Century Was Completely Pointless--discuss.") Hogwarts itself is composed of a series of occultic spaces: a dungeon classroom and a divination salon, a sinister chamber of secrets, a great hall with a mutable vaulted ceiling that mirrors celestial movements and eclipses, and drafty hallways frequented by poltergeists and decapitated ghosts.
Much of the unusual power that Harry Potter exercises over children derives from a bizarre counterpoint between the most macabre and fearsome aspects of the magical realm (which Rowling describes in graphic and often horrifying detail) and the cheerful, utterly routine manner in which they are incorporated into the daily experience of young characters with whom readers can easily identify.10 Just as experimental modern fictions played havoc with the reader's "perceptual frame" through disorienting manipulations of traditional story-telling conventions, so too Rowling has accomplished a Tantric-style blurring of moral and spiritual boundaries through the dovetailing of horror and humor, the seamless interweaving of the aberrant and the mundane, and sheer sensory overload. By the time a child has traversed the first 100 pages of a Harry Potter book, he or she has been offered an initiation parallel to Harry's, wrought by subtle desensitization to traditional moral distinctions, a clever bit of historical revisionism regarding witchcraft and magic, psychologically compelling story, and the power of imagination.
"Hail, the Conquering Hero": Responses to Harry Potter
Parental protests against the classroom use of the Harry Potter books in five states garnered national media coverage in the autumn of 1999. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, the Evangelical reception of Harry Potter has been predominantly a hero's welcome, with frequent comparisons drawn to the great touchstones of 20th century Christian fantasy literature, C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. In the rush to embrace Harry as a hero capable of inducing a mass surrender of television remote controls and a return by children to the written word, one of the first casualties was the abandonment of a biblically informed caution about things magical.
The May 29, 1999 review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in conservative World magazine declared Rowling's portrayal of magic and wizardry "safe, inoffensive, and non-occult"11: a rosy characterization that begged for biblical support. (A subsequent World article entitled "More Clay Than Potter,"12 considerably more negative in tone, was followed by the withdrawal of the Harry Potter titles from the book club associated with the magazine.) Chuck Colson, Christianity Today columnist and Breakpoint radio commentator, minimized Rowling's use of witchcraft as a technicality, assuring his radio audience on November 2, 1999 that "the magic in these books is purely mechanical, as opposed to occultic. That is, Harry and his friends cast spells, read crystal balls, and turn themselves into animals--but they don't make contact with a supernatural world."13 Only in a post-animistic, scientific age which segregates nature and spirit could such a distinction be seriously entertained by Christians. As one observer has noted, even a "trivialized, apparently innocent dabbling" in communication with the spirit-realm "does not leave one untouched, as if one simply went to Sears for a shopping 'experience' and came home to dinner with good loot."1
Rowling has accomplished a Tantric-style blurring of moral and spiritual boundaries through the dovetailing of horror and humor, the seamless interweaving of the aberrant and the mundane, and sheer sensory overload
Evangelical critics commonly minimized the occultic content of the books as a literary curiosity devoid of ideological content. In an otherwise balanced, moderately cautionary critique, Focus on the Family's culture analyst Lindy Beam downplayed Rowling's invocation of magic and wizardry as "a literary device (comparable to the use of horses and six-shooters in stories of adventure in the Old West)."15 An unsigned Christianity Today editorial proclaimed that "the literary witchcraft of the Harry Potter series has almost no resemblance to the I-am-God mumbo jumbo of Wiccan circles. . . Harry is definitely on the side of light fighting the 'dark powers'."16 The editorial further praised the series as "a 'Book of Virtues' with a preadolescent funny bone," and astonishingly concluded: "No wonder young readers want to be like these believable characters. That is a Christmas present we can be grateful for."17
Many Christian readings of Harry Potter extolled the value of the books as tools for character-building and for fostering the moral development of children through their promotion of "compassion, loyalty, courage, friendship, and even self-sacrifice."18 Such endorsements radically failed to discern the occult scaffolding concealed beneath a facade of wholesome moral instruction. According to Colson, Rowling "presents evil as evil, and good as good"19; Beam calls the Harry Potter saga "a standard tale of good vs. evil," whose hero "often triumphs because of his upright character and pure motives."20 J. K. Rowling herself describes her fictional creation as "a moral world"21, a phrase echoed by The Christian Century, which commended fantasy literature as a helpful introduction to the spiritual quest.22 Wheaton College professor of English Alan Jacobs, interviewed for the September/October 1999 Mars Hill Audio Journal, framed the question of the morality of magic as a historical oddity contingent upon the prevailing Christian worldview. Recalling the adherence to astrology by some 16th century Calvinists, and drawing a parallel between 20th century polemics about science and technology and Reformation-era debates about magic, Jacobs captured the spiritual utilitarianism that rings throughout the Evangelical defense of Harry Potter: "The big question then is to what use do you put magic?"23
Ironically, mainstream and neo-Pagan responses to the Harry Potter books struck closer to their most problematic aspects. Time's September 20, 1999 cover story, "Wild About Harry," zeroed in on Rowling's "uncanny ability to nourish the human hunger for enchantment," and revealed an acute understanding of human nature in its naming of "the desire not just to hear or read a story but to live it as well"24 (italics added). Practicing witch Wren Walker offered a thoroughly Wiccan exegesis, praising Harry for challenging "blind adherence to patterns that are unhealthy and inimical to personal expression and growth. . . . His intentions are pure and 'for the good of all' and so his actions cannot help but ultimately be the right thing to do."25 (This reading of children's moral nature is consistent with Rowling's own statement: "I see children as innately good unless they've been very damaged."26) Walker also intuitively grasped the crucial role of story in inspiring emulation and imitation: "There are always a few openings available every semester at Hogwarts. Children of all ages will probably be listening for the fluttering wings of a messenger owl and eagerly waiting for that invitation."27 The question of whether an invitation to enter the world of Harry Potter is as spiritually benign as many Evangelicals would wish requires a deeper look at occult cosmology.
Magic and Manipulation
Wren Walker, an apostle of modern witchcraft and co-founder of the world's largest Pagan/Wiccan website, answers the question, "What is Magick?", by invoking a series of primary sources spanning the history of witchcraft.28 British Satanist Aleister Crowley (to whom she refers as "ole Uncle Al") defined magic as "The Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity to Will," while S. L. Mathers, a founder of the Order of the Golden Dawn, a key force in England's late 19th century occult revival, viewed magic as "The Science of the Control of the Secret Forces of Nature." All formulations of magic throughout history have converged on one common pathway: the pursuit of occult (hidden) knowledge or gnosis through initiation, apprenticeship, and power-transactions with the elemental principles of Nature. Though nature and myth provide the raw materials for occult praxis, the principal goal of magic is not the manipulation of the realm of matter and energy, but the spiritual empowerment of the adept practitioner.
The philosopher's stone which appears in the first Harry Potter title (released in Great Britain as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and in America as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) illustrates the dual focus of occult practice. Medieval alchemists--a secretive class of "materialist-magicians" whose beliefs regarding spirit and matter closely mirrored Gnostic and Neoplatonic doctrines--found in the pursuit of the philosopher's stone an elusive, esoteric "Holy Grail." The alchemist's self-purification and devotion to his magical art were believed to bring about a parallel perfecting and spiritualization of matter, a sort of occultic Transubstantiation: the materialization of a stone containing "the divine spark" itself, capable of transmuting base matter into gold and imparting eternal life to its human creator.29 If the traditional Christian understanding of "sacrament" in the life of the church has been the physical enactment and symbolic expression of God's effectual grace to humanity, then the magical manipulation of natural forces or unseen spiritual realms represents a perverse type of "anti-sacramentalism" which hallows and celebrates man's autonomy from and rebellion against God. That most hackneyed magical incantation, "hocus-pocus," is in fact believed to represent a corruption of the Eucharistic liturgy of the Latin Mass: Hoc est corpus [meum] ("This is my body.").30
Magic in all ages has always represented a deep, unholy distortion of the divinely ordained relationships between creature, Creation, and Creator. Thus, we see the Holy One of Israel's "zero-tolerance" policy regarding magical practices, explicitly addressed in the giving of the law (Lev. 19:31; 20:27), in God's instructions to the children of Israel as they took possession of a land surrounded by pagan nations (Deut. 18:9-12), and in the testimonies of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Harry Potter and other stories that glorify spiritual technologies as old as sin, or find heroism in the subversive attempt to reengineer reality in the image of humanity's fallen desires, are especially dangerous to children, who feel famously disempowered in an adult-led world. Rowling's own allusion to this level of her story is illuminating: "The idea that we could have a child who escapes from the confines of the adult world and goes somewhere where he has power, both literally and metaphorically, really appealed to me."31 For those who seek conformity with the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, "safe magic" is wishful thinking, intellectual dishonesty, and an invitation to the spiritual deviations that the Hebrew prophets bluntly referred to as "harlotry," and the New Testament apostles forbade.32 As such, the "safe magic" of Harry Potter offers a message that is as morally confusing to a generation of children as the current ideology of "safe sex."
Deep Magic and Deeper Magic
What, then, is one to make of C. S. Lewis's use of magic and mythology in the Chronicles of Narnia, often invoked in Christian defenses of Harry Potter (e.g., "If it was good enough for Jack . . .")? This line of reasoning is not sustainable before a simple truth well-known to children of all ages who have visited Narnia: There are two distinct varieties of magic in Narnia. The first type--the manipulation of matter or persons for the purpose of amassing power or bypassing the will of Aslan (akin to the previous definitions of "magick")--is seen in Uncle Andrew's experiment with the rings in The Magician's Nephew, in the Green Witch's enthrallment of Prince Rilian in The Silver Chair, and in the "Deep Magic" with which Queen Jadis maintains Narnia in a state of perpetual winter in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It is also present in Lucy's flirtation with spell-casting in the magician's house in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which the Lion rebukes before offering her the true alternative to magic: Himself. This first type of magic is always abominable and derives its energy from the denial of the existence or character of the sovereign God.
The second type, which Lewis names the "Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time,"33 belongs exclusively to the Great Lion Aslan, though he deigns to share portions of it with his obedient subjects in ways that resemble the theological concepts of sacrament and charism, or spiritual gifting. The banquet table miraculously replenished with food and drink in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which evokes heated debate among the travelers who cannot conceive of any other origin for it than evil magic, is in fact a rich gift of physical and spiritual refreshment from Aslan Himself. Peter's sword, Susan's ivory horn, and Lucy's healing cordial in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are all gifts for the accomplishment of specific redemptive tasks foreseen by Aslan in his will for Narnia. This second kind of magic is none other than the creative, redemptive power of Aslan flowing into his creation for the aid and delight of his creatures.
Perhaps the definitive example of Lewis's ability to submit his lively enthusiasm for the mythology of classical humanism to his orthodox Christian faith is found in the luminous account of the creation of Narnia, when the wild, deep voice of the Lion summons into being all manner of mythical creature--"Fauns and Satyrs and Dwarfs. the river god with his Naiad daughters"--and all reply: "Hail, Aslan. We hear and obey."34 The freedom with which Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, George MacDonald, and G. K. Chesterton baptized myth and magic in works of Christ-centered, "sanctified imagination" may appear unwise and even shocking to Christian readers in today's syncretistic climate. Nonetheless, that freedom was directly proportional to the strength of their commitment to an orthodox Christian worldview and their passion for the preeminence of Christ, the Everlasting Man who was God's answer to both demons and philosophers.35 Without such a severely limiting framework, "the old religion" of natural magic follows a predictable expansion and devolution into darker and more unnatural forms........
The full story appears in the SCP Journal on Witchcraft just printed and featured on the main SCP web page.
About the Author
Alison Lentini, a Berkeley native and regular contributor to the SCP Journal since 1985, was involved in Wicca and neo-paganism before coming to know Christ. She earned her B.A (summa cum laude) and M.A. in Romance languages and literatures at Princeton University, and is now an educator, scholar, health care professional, and mother of three. She describes herself as a passionate Anabaptist committed to equipping the church to "read" popular culture through the lens of theological discernment.