Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

Who’s Afraid of Harry Potter (Jan-Feb 2002)

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by Darryl Tippens
January – February, 2002

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, reputedly the most popular children’s book of all time, is now an even more popular movie. J. K. Rowling’s fantastic tale of a orphaned youth called to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is delighting millions of viewers for good reason: it is an almost perfect marriage of Hollywood and that most classic of genres, the fairy tale. Harry Potter is a comic delight for young and old, but not everyone is pleased.

Among some Christians and other “Muggles” (those lacking magical powers), Harry Potter generates anxiety. Harry is, after all, a wizard who attends a school of sorcery. Hogwarts is populated by trolls, elves, witches, and various practitioners of the magical arts. Can this be good? For some, this is not rollicking fun, but a cunning effort to seduce our children into the occult.

Perhaps so. But before we pronounce anathemas, we might consider the insights of children’s fantasy writers who have thought deeply about this very matter. Long before J. K. Rowling conjured up Albus Dumbledore or Harry Potter, Christian authors have employed magic in their masterpieces of fantasy. These writers justified the dark themes, not merely on artistic grounds, but on psychological and theological grounds as well.

C. S. Lewis was particularly emphatic about the value of the dark elements in fairy tales, which he believed were for adults as much as for children. Lewis was impatient with adults who wanted to protect children from the terrors of the classic works of fantasy, saying, “About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale.” So what’s the defense?

Lewis argued that stories about evil and violence do not necessarily make children afraid. They’re afraid already, for the world as we know it is a pretty scary place. (Lewis cites the fact of the atomic bomb; we might cite the tragedy of September 11.) Fantasy is a heuristic tool for exposing the darkness that permeates our world and giving us resources to cope with it.

Forces of good and evil appear in fairy tales as various symbolic figures, human and otherwise. Characters like Voldemort, Draco Malfoy, Albus Dumbledore, and Harry Potter, then, are “hieroglyphics,” Lewis would argue, standing for the contradictory qualities of human nature. Banish them from fiction or film if you like. They remain elements of the human heart, all the same. Thus, an encounter with a dark force in Harry Potter is an encounter with one’s self — and one’s own complicated and contradictory motives.

Lewis criticizes those who want to conceal from the child the fact that “he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil.” He argues, “Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise, you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.” Fantasy introduces the child incrementally to the realities of a fallen world. Portrayals of the contest between good and evil empower one to recognize evil and resist it.

Stories like Harry Potter not only cultivate discernment. They may also cultivate faith. It is interesting that some of the greatest fantasy writers of the last 150 years have been Christians. (George MacDonald, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Madeleine L’Engle come to mind). This is hardly accidental. These writers recognize the necessary connection between imagination and faith. Imagination, one might argue, prepares the way for faith; perhaps imagination is a type of faith.

Fantasy exercises one’s capacity to see the unseen. Fairy tale plots often reveal the danger of trusting only in the visible world. They counsel one to be alert to what lies beyond one’s vision and reach. Thus, Lewis offers the fairy tale as a powerful tool for preparing children for belief. He believed this point strongly, for this is how Lewis, the atheist, came to faith. George MacDonald’s Phantastes “baptized” his youthful imagination, preparing him for his conversion many years later.

Will Harry Potter serve as a latter-day Phantastes for some youthful C. S. Lewis yet to be discovered? It is too soon to say; but given the millions of Potter fans, surely many of them will make their way from Rowling’s books and movies to her own sources of inspiration. If these Rowling followers do, they will happily discover Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles and the works of MacDonald and Tolkien as well.

One could do worse than have Harry Potter for one’s inspiration. The protagonist models admirable moral growth. When the fable opens, Harry is a naive and discouraged little boy with no sense of his central place in a great battle between good and evil. By story’s end, he is much wiser, educated in the virtues of courage, loyalty, and self-sacrificing love. Not only does he know that real evil lurks in the shadows, but before the Magic Mirror he discovers the dangers of his own unchecked desires. Only by transcending his fierce longing for home and his deceased parents can he grow up to fulfill his mission.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is an attempt to present figuratively the world we inhabit. Trolls, witches, ogres, and dragons are simply artful pictures of the authentic spiritual challenges we face daily. Censor or repress these fictions, and the monsters pop up in our unconscious and conscious minds. This is why literature of the “Perilous Realm” endures through the centuries in all cultures, despite the complaints against it.

Yet the risk remains. Not everyone can be comfortable with a narrative dealing with the occult, even if the approach is comic make-believe. The fairy tale diet is not for every palate. If certain foods cannot be ingested with a pure conscience, then one should abstain. But the Apostle Paul warns against judging others who can partake with a clear conscience: “To the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15; Col. 2:16). Those who find sinister traps in every scene may be telling us more about themselves than the movie.

Interestingly, the current dispute over what to do with Harry Potter mirrors ancient debates among Christians concerning pagan literature and mythology. Some Christians of the past rejected pagan mythology outright, while the majority held that this literature contained seeds of truth that could be appropriated by and enjoyed by Christians. (The latter judgment was, of course, the opinion of the great artists and writers of the Renaissance. It was also the view of Tolkien and Lewis.)

The dispute continues. Now that Harry Potter has become an unavoidable figure on the cultural landscape, we must choose – either to deal with it and put it to some good use, or to attack it. For a sympathetic view of Harry Potter, see Connie Neal’s What’s a Christian to Do with Harry Potter? For arguments against Potter, see Richard Abanes’s Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick.

Approached in the right way, Harry Potter need not be dangerous. Christians have managed to withstand the magic of the classics (of Ovid, Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Hawthorne, for example). Most children have not been corrupted by Peter Pan, Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, or the Chronicles of Narnia. Most children, I predict, will survive and thrive in the imaginary world of Harry Potter.New Wineskins

Darryl Tippens

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