Harry Potter


Harry Potter vs the Muggles
Myth, Magic & Joy

by Mike Hertenstein

"All this mythological business belongs to the poetical part of men. It seems strangely forgotten nowadays that a myth is a work of imagination and therefore a work of art. It needs a poet to make it. It needs a poet to criticize it. There are more poets than non-poets in the world, as is proved by the popular origins of such legends. But for some reason I have never heard explained, it is only the minority of unpoetical people who are allowed to write critical studies of these popular poems."

-- G. K. Chesterton

In his essay "Meditation In a Toolshed," C. S. Lewis offers this parable for two ways of seeing. Standing in his dark shed, he noticed a beam of light shooting through a crack. If he looked at the beam, all he saw was the light. If he looked along the beam, he saw through the light to the garden outside. Lewis compared these twin perspectives to our capacity for objective analysis and subjective experience. Human beings view phenomena from either outside or inside, but not both simultaneously. In his era, Lewis said, those who looked at things dominated. The analytical Modern viewpoint, in other words (those of the poet Wordsworth) "murdered" experience in order to "dissect" it.

Our own time has seen violent overthrow of the Modern worldview. Those who still view the world through that lens, however, continue to look at, not along, art, understanding poetry and myth primarily as vehicles of doctrine, which they presume to sift out and graph as one-to-one correspondances, i.e. the Star Wars' Force = Eastern religion, or, to raise our present subject, the magic of Harry Potter connects precisely with dark supernatural powers.

If you don't know who Harry Potter is, your modem must be really slow. A teen wizard, going to wizard school, Harry has hocus-pocused a world of kids into readers and so made fans of teachers, librarians, publishers and parents, too. But not everybody loves Harry. Some people think author J.K. Rowling's brand of magic is based on the occult and is therefore evil. The Potter novels (four and counting) have been removed from libraries and kids from classes where Harry is being assigned and/or read. Some religious believers send out emails warning of spiritual dangers in this seemingly-innocent pop culture craze. Others have defended Harry, seeing in the series a moral cosmos compatable with the values of their faith.

In the series, ordinary mortals blind to the enchanted world under their noses are called "muggles". One of critic of the Potter books defines the term this way: a "narrow-minded and callous group of persons unable to grasp the glory of magic". But as anyone who looks along these books can tell you, the practical magic to which the critic refers is merely a vehicle for a different kind of magic to which he seems oblivious. Muggles are unfailingly literal, deaf to metaphor, blind to the central reality of what Chesterton calls "the poetical side of man" -- that behind the ordinary facade of atoms and death lurks an enchanted world indeed. The literal-minded critic has no choice but to defend Muggles, since to do otherwise would be to raise the possibility of a world beyond the reliable borders of a strictly literal interpretation of human existence.

Convention-going fans of Star Trek have been known to refer to non-fans of that series as "Mundanes", which is "Muggles" by another name, suggesting that for all the techno-rationalist trappings, science fiction is often just a cloak for "the same ancient impulse" -- to use Lewis's words - of myth: the thirst for the EXTRA-ordinary and the non-literal.

Among other things, this should prove for us the vital connection between the hocus pocus of wizards and the techno-wizardry of science fiction, one that would be facinating to explore. For our purposes it's enough to argue the similarity of these unexplainable powers is a clue that people are going to different kinds of stories for the same exact experience -- and if it makes a moral difference to you whether the carpet is powered by pixie dust or by dilithium crystal, I would suggest you're missing the point.

A Defense of Mythopoesy

J. K. Rowling has lately become associated in the public mind with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien: all are British fantasists, appeal to a similar readership, and use initials for names. Some judge their works of comparable literary quality. Our first concern is that all three, in their stories, depict magic and marvels. Some people just don't like this sort of thing, and, indeed, a few go so far as to suggest fantasy is morally inferior to realism. For those who deem Harry Potter unacceptable, the easiest course is to condemn fantasy literature in toto. But many religious critics of Harry Potter look upon Lewis and Tolkien, both admitted Christians, with too much family pride to be able do so.

Stated plainly then, such a critic's problem is to make the case that Rowling should be condemned for her use of magic, marvels and pagan references in a way that not also render illegitimate the use of same by their favorite Christian authors. Generally, one finds the critics' instincts (for disliking Harry Potter) outrun their abilities to explain.

Here's a common argument: magical powers in Lewis's Narnia series are depicted as submitted to the rule of Aslan (the God figure), and therefore acceptable, while in the Potter books magic is a trade that must be learned, ergo, "there is no source that defines morality, only instinct and personal preference." Talk about personal preference! This argument only proves that the person making it prefers allegory, with its straight-forward correspondences (Aslan = God) to myth. The fact that J. K Rowling doesn't have a God figure in her stories doesn't make her stories godless; it makes them non-allegorical. I don't recall any historic controversy over the source that defines morality for Cinderella's Fairy Godmother! Indeed, if a ruling supernatural personality is unnecessary for the magic in Potter, that only proves magic in that world is a mechanical, not an organic, metaphor, functioning much closer to technology than to religion. The learning of magical spells in Harry Potter is the fantasy equivalent of space fiction's scientific or pseudo-scientific technique: on par with Star Trek's making the bad guy disappear with a systematic recalibrating of the whatzit deflector scrims.

Another strategy against Harry involves similar technobabble. In the book Harry Potter and the Bible, Richard Abanes takes a term popularized by Tolkien and Lewis - "mythopoeic" - and defines it to include the latter but exclude Rowling. According to Abanes, a "mythopoeic" story is one set entirely in a make-believe world, thus presenting little risk that a reader might confuse fantasy with reality. Again, we see personal preference disguised as a universal literary stricture. Basing the validly of a work on the likelihood of some reader confusing fact with fiction is hardly a mainstream critical approach, and will certainly disqualify more books than Harry Potter.

Such an approach also demonstrates a lack of fluency with Lewis and Tolkien's works, with their ideas about myth, and a failure to understand that they didn't always agree with each other about these. Tolkien drew very strictly the borders of Fairyland, in a manner that would have excluded both Rowling AND Lewis. These borders hardly constitute a "Biblical" view of literature and they were certainly never treated as orthodoxy by Lewis, whose fantasies and science fiction nearly always involved interpentration of the "real world" by an alternative dimension. For Lewis, "Mythopoeic", was a much more ecumenical if elusive category, a name for those stories which work an irresistable pull on us deep within, something which DID have to do with other worlds -- but they could be remote in space, time, or simply remote from the ordinary. Lewis was content to experience that special pull of Otherness reading science fiction and fantasy, tales of "gods, ghosts, ghouls, demons, fairies, monsters" or pagan mythology.

The critics, meanwhile, freely condemn Rowling's use of mythological characters and references, but apparently without realizing that this was Lewis's and Tolkien's very modus operandi. One points out that Celtic mythology is the brand of choice for contemporary practitioners of witchcraft, but doesn't mention that it was also favored by that impish Irishman, C. S. Lewis. Anyone presuming to pit Lewis against Rowling is going to have to demonstrate a more comprehensive understanding of Lewis's life and ideas about myth: that he believed pagan myths function as "gleams of divine truth"; that pagan mythology played a central role in Lewis's own path to faith; that Lewis not only wove mythic motifs and references into his stories, but he continued to read and enjoy pagan mythology his entire life, even after his conversion to Christianity.

There is also a persistent failure among critics of Harry Potter to distinguish between aesthetic and moral criticism; they seem unaware that they are two different things. Most of the Potter criticism exhibits a reckless equation of badly made with bad, an approach that, if applied to most recent Christian fiction, could bring down an entire industry. The attempt to prove moral culpability by alleged poor literary quality, is unliterary, unethical, and illogical: it reduces to the argument "Harry Potter books are evil, and not only that, but they're also badly written, which proves they're evil."

Furthermore, contrasting Rowling's abilities against those of Lewis as writer (unfair in itself) runs afoul of Lewis as critic. For literary quality, Lewis maintained, was actually irrelevant to the experience of the "mythopoeic". Lewis argued in his Experiment in Criticism that a kid reading pulp fiction under a blanket by flashlight might well experience the mythopoeic and should not be dismissed. Lewis was also a fan of books he admitted were literarily "abominable," but worthy vehicles of mythopoeic experience.

The "crucial question" in determining what is acceptable, says one critic, is "How is it presented?" Lewis, on the other hand, gives at least equal importance to the question "What is the effect?" For example, Lewis has pointed out that a work deemed art by one person might be used as pornography by another. The key word here is "use." Good readers, said Lewis, may be divided from bad ones in this way: the former "receive" a work of art, and the latter "use" a work for their own ends. The same work of pulp fiction that provides a mythopoeic experience for one reader may be only a vicarious murder or romance for another. And doubtless parents should bear in mind the effect on their young reader not just of Harry Potter, but The Babysitter Club.

However, warns Lewis, we must never jump to conclusions how a story will effect a given reader. In the case of the Harry Potter stories, there will no doubt be bad readers who stay on the surface of the plot, projecting themselves into the action merely to experience the vicarious thrill of hexing the teacher. But for good readers, as Lewis says, the plot will be less important than an experience for which the plot is mere excuse; these will plunge below the surface to experience that awakened sense of longing which Tolkien named the most important mark of a successful fairy story, and which Lewis named "Joy" -- whose scent he followed until it led him to Christian faith.

Ultimately, a comparison of the fantasy works of Lewis, Tolkien and Rowling proves only that these authors have devised different fictional worlds, each with its own rules. This, as Tolkien says, is the perogative of world-makers. Alleged "rules" about mythopoeic stories, despite lately implied claims of Biblical authority, govern a world devised by the would-be critic. In the process, critics who have devised such rules in hopes of condemning Rowling while making exceptions for Lewis break Tolkien's prime directive of world-making: consistency. Harry Potter may or may not be evil or may or may not turn kids into occultists; but if we throw out Rowling's work for using mythological references or magic we must throw out Lewis and Tolkien as well. Indeed, the same broom must also cleanly sweep out Glenda the Good Witch with the least particle of pixie dust.

Further Meditations in Lewis's Toolshed

Of course, we can laugh at Reefer Madness and still take seriously the dangers of reefer. So the question is raised: could someone with better arguments, a calmer tone, and a greater sensitivity to the aesthetic issues still have concerns about Harry Potter? Some religious critics are right to note that many who dismiss concerns about occultism in Harry Potter aren't believers in the supernatural anyway.

C. S. Lewis famously observes in his Screwtape Letters opposite errors: either disbelieving in, or obsessing over, the devil. In his autobiography, Lewis tells of his own youthful flirtation with the occult, spurred by a proto-New Ager at prep school -- something which Lewis as an adult narrator admits has given him "plenty of trouble since". He describes this interest as a "ravenous lust" selfish, addictive, destructive, and ultimately unsatisfying. While Lewis shook it off to become a committed materialist, the temptation returned later after exposure to poets of decidedly non-materialist bent.

If we keep Lewis as our guide, we see he will not lead us to reject the general consensus of human judgment that in some non-material dimension lurk powers of a dark and dangerous sort.

Rowling, on the other hand, while acknowledging the literary influence of Lewis, has never claimed to share his faith. Moreover, certain correspondances between the cartoonish sorcery as described by Rowling to similar beliefs and practices in ancient alchemy and contemporary witchcraft (Wicca) might be made. Religious readers of Harry Potter have noticed with some concern that some educators and some Wiccans make the same connections, and fear that introducing children to a fantasy world with such well-marked paths to a non-fiction occult world is asking for trouble. Rowling, for her part, has always denied being a true believer in the sort of magic she depicts in her stories, but more than a few of the Potter critics regard these denials with suspicion, citing favorable comments about Harry Potter made by real Wiccans as the final evidence against him.

This seems to me the only truly reasonable place for a discussion about possible dangers to young readers of Harry Potter. I think, however, we can only keep the discussion reasonable if we avoid the tactic of guilt-by-association -- and without that tactic, most of the case against Harry Potter falls apart.

True, the risk that some might take metaphors literally remains a practical concern, but it can never be reason to outlaw the metaphors. When Conan Doyle and Yeats proclaimed faith in actual fairies, Chesterton and Lewis didn't warn of the dangers of fairy stories: on the contrary. Likewise, some people actually believe in ghosts or UFOs or vampires: yet how impoverished our language, literature and cinema would be without such metaphorical otherness. The Heaven's Gate group viewed Star Trek as literal truth, to a sad end. Abusus non tollit usum, says Tolkien, citing a Catholic teaching which insists abuse or misuse does not negate right use.

A similar debate once raged over whether Christians could eat food that had been originally offered to pagan idols. They most certainly can, insisted the Apostle Paul, provided they can eat with a clear conscience and be mindful of those "weaker brothers" who cannot. But Paul never suggested that weaker brothers must set the limits for everyone. Indeed, Tolkien notes, people make idols of anything, including money, science, nations and ideas. There's no escape from idols in a culture built on the bodies of fallen gods: from the names of the days of the week to traditions like Christmas trees. There will always be those who want to dig up a dead god to worship it, and there will always be those who feel compelled to pull up and examine evil roots -- for example, that "rock-n-roll" was once a euphemism for you-know-what, or, in the case of Freudians, that you-know-what is at the root of everything, including fairy stories. Common sense reacts to this brand of sophistry like the Pilgrim in Lewis's allegorical Regress when he realizes he's been tricked into thinking milk and dung were the same thing just because they both came from a cow.

Whatever the origins of a myth, says Lewis, they're far less important than the effect. In this, he's in complete agreement with his old friend. For Tolkien concludes that after we've tracked down the old tales to their sources, good and bad, "there remains still a point too often forgotten: that is the effect produced now by these old things in the stories as they are."

Most kids aren't going to be aware of some dark origin or an evil connection between Harry Potter and life: not unless some misguided adult suggests such things (an act which works as a definition for 'robbing a child's innocence'). Even then, the information won't really compute for most kids, though a certain kind will probably rejoice in having secret knowledge and feel a sense of power in exposing the "truth" about Harry Potter to his or her friends. Most of those friends, however, already know the truth about Harry Potter: that he has revealed to them the magic of life, that his story has been a medium of mythopoeic joy.

Some worry about confusing children with symbols once associated with evil now associated in Harry Potter with good. Let them worry instead about associating mythopoeic experience with evil. I suspect the second will cause more problems in the long run. Kids who have felt the stir of wonder are liable to conclude their disapproving parents (and their parents' religious faith) have nothing to do with the magic of life.

For not only do kids find fantasy and reality less confusing than many adults think, or actually confuse the two less than many adults, they're also smarter than some adults seem to believe. Kids will see through the bad arguments of Reefer Madness style attacks on Harry Potter in a heartbeat -- and be forced to conclude either their parents are dim-witted or their parents believe they are. Worse, they'll conclude their parents are willing to use dishonest means for the sake of what they tell them are Christian ends. In any case, Christianity will become Muggle-anity in the child's mind, and "Christian ethics" will come to mean a contradiction in terms.

Meanwhile, if adults drum into kids' the idea that what they go to Harry Potter for is what they'll also find in the occult, we shouldn't be surprised if an interest is sparked in Wicca. Of course, the real occult will prove a disappointment on a number of levels: people tend to find as much success getting real life spells to work as they would if they tried playing real life Quiddich -- a game on broomsticks Harry Potter and his friends play up in the air. (Indeed, contrary to those worried that the Potter books make the world of magic seem real; I'd say the books lower the world of the "occult" to the level of three-headed dogs and flying brooms.)

Lewis believed he was protected from becoming a serious occultist by three things: a lack of opportunity, fear, and -- most important -- by his previous experiences of "Joy"; his dabbling in the dark side demonstrated to Lewis that occult power was qualitatively different than what he found in mythopoeic stories. Deals with the devil always backfire; and so the dark side offers merely a deeper, more permanent Muggledom. Given Lewis's example, it seems possible that the experience of Joy kids are encountering in Harry Potter may actually innoculate them against the real occult in the same way.

In children's book sections today, the works of J. K. Rowling are displayed with new editions of the works of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. The taste for something more than the Muggle world has to offer is habit-forming, and booksellers are reporting that the amazing success of the Potter books has boosted sales of the Narnia tales as well as the Lord of the Rings. Kids who continue to follow the trail of "Joy" will quickly see that the Christian vision is not necessarily one that shuns the enchanted world. Perhaps, as did Lewis, they'll ponder over these phenomena, and wonder why the best stories seem to be written by Christians.

And here's a real cause for hope: the figure who has become the de facto patron saint of Evangelicals was not only the greatest and most fiercely logical Christian apologist of 20th century, C. S. Lewis was a professor of literature -- he wrote fairy stories. Lewis's way of seeing, full of logic and joy, both At and Along, has been influential in leading some fans to one, some to the other. May Evangelicals' inability to dispense with Lewis lead them out of a wilderness of Muggle-headedness and Mushy-heartedness.

One more possibility: that the generation now reading Harry Potter may because of it produce less Muggles. As Lewis points out, one of the reasons bad readers are bad is because they are so literal-minded: they are dependent upon "realism" to project themselves more seamlessly into the action. Non-realistic fiction forces readers to go beyond projection, and so thereby become better readers: in having to let go of literalness (i.e. "use the Force, Luke!"), they are able to surrender to metaphor and experience those elements of art which do not lend themselves to vicarious satisfaction or dogmatic formulation. Without giving up the capacity to look AT, they learn to also look ALONG. Perhaps having so acquired a grasp on metaphor and myth, these readers will actually see more clearly the difference between fantasy and reality, perhaps develop a sensitivity to the real magic of the ordinary world, and, God help us, learn to make their Christianity both a theoretical AND an experiential faith.