Meandering Reflections on and Questions about the Harry Potter Series

David Russell Mosley

The Harry Potter Series: British Editions

The Harry Potter Series: British Editions

Lent
9 March 2015
The Edge of Elfland
City, State/County

Dear Friends and Family,

Yesterday I finished, yet again, the Harry Potter Series. I love returning to these stories at least once a year. They aren’t perfect, but nevertheless, I still love them. Below are some unorganised thoughts and reflections on the Harry Potter Series. Perhaps some day I’ll organise them or write more fully on some of them, but for now take these little digests for what they: meanderings.

Body and Soul

Perhaps the most problematic part of the Harry Potter Series for me is Rowling’s understandings of body, mind, and soul. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, we get introduced to Dementors, fear sucking creatures that somehow also possess the ability to suck out one’s soul if given the opportunity to kiss you. First, of course, we might question this association of fear and happiness (the thing that drives away Dementors when formed into a Patronus) and the soul. Why are these two emotions the ones connected with the soul? Sirius, for instance, is able to mentally combat them by thinking first about his innocence (justice) and then his revenge (vengeance). What’s more bothersome, however, is Rowling’s relatively Cartesian understanding of the human person. Hermione tells Ron and Harry that your body can exist (live) without your soul. It serves, apparently, as the source of personality and consciousness, but not motion. It is the ghost driving the machine. So much so, that Rowling invents the Horcrux. Voldemort is able to split his soul putting pieces of it into both inanimate and animate objects. The inanimate objects are able to manifest themselves as Voldemort the person, but not, initially anyway, Voldemort the body. However, Rowling confuses this both when she creates a mind/soul dichotomy in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when we learn the Voldemort put a part of his soul in Harry (by accident) causing a confusion of mind and soul, thus requiring Harry to learn occlumency. But this causes me to ask, if the soul and mind are not the same, what is the soul and what purpose does it serve? Hermione tells us we should care about our souls, but Rowling provides no real reason as to why, since there seems confusion over the difference between soul and mind.

The Invisibility Cloak

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows we learn that Harry’s cloak is one of those hallows, a true cloak of invisibility that is supposed to be spell-proof as regards being seen through. However, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire we learn that Moody’s magical eye is capable of seeing through it. This just doesn’t jive.

Muggle-borns

It seems to me that Rowling undermines everything she sets up about muggle-born wizards in The Tales of Beedle the Bard. In the story of ‘Babbity Rabbity and Her Cackling Stump’ there is a footnote from Dumbledore informing us that while one must be born magical, but that this can come about from muggle parentage, that most research suggests that there is wizarding blood somewhere in that person’s ancestry. This takes away, somewhat, both from my Calvinist/Predestinarian reading of wizardkind, but also takes away from the importance of muggle-wizard relations. One could easily make the argument that if all muggle-borns do in fact have wizard ancestry then they are no longer muggle-borns, they’re just the one person in their family to be born with the wizard genes activated. This would mean that standing up for muggle-borns is no longer related to standing up for muggles qua muggles.

The Importance of Christmas

Christmas plays a really fascinating role in the Harry Potter Series. In each book it seems to serve as a means of furthering the plot (Harry and Co. learn something that helps move them to the climax and its resolution) and/or as a means of giving Harry a family. Some examples will suffice: In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone its on Christmas that Harry receives his father’s invisibility cloak, giving him his first real connection to his family. That night, Harry finds the Mirror of Erised and sees his parents, and extended family, for the very first time. The cloak also serves as a major plot point throughout the series, being given its ultimate significance as the greatest of the Hallows. In Chamber of Secrets, Christmas is when Harry, Ron, and Hermione take polyjuice potion and the first two question Malfoy and learn more about the Chamber’s more recent history. In Deathly Hallows the period from Christmas Eve to St Stephen’s Day is the period over which Harry and Hermione go to his hometown, his parent’s grave, and his destroyed home; are attacked by Nagini; find the sword of Gryffindor; Ron returns; and Ron destroys a horcrux. Christmas thus serves a profoundly important place in Rowling’s work, which I think may suggest an even greater connection between Harry and Christ.

What Happened to Ron the Strategist?

In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone we are introduced to wizard’s chess, which is just normal chess with animated, semi-sentient chess pieces. Ron, we learn, is a proficient. Not only does Ron trounce Harry, but he also beats McGongall’s life-size wizard’s chess set. Chess is a highly complex game, requiring proficients to think rapidly and to think and plan ahead. Where is this Ron when it comes to doing homework, or searching for horcruxes (alright, she does emphasise his leadership after he returns and the group learn about the Deathly Hallows), or really any other time planning is involved? It seems to me Ron would be right useful in planning battle strategies, which would have been great in the battle of Hogwarts. His chess skills seemed so important, like Hermione’s logic or Harry’s leadership and broom-flying abilities which all show up with greater importance throughout the series. Instead, Ron seems to get a little dumber.

Aberforth and Goats

Seriously, what’s the deal?

Hagrid’s mum and dad?

How did that work, and why was his dad sad when she left?

Firenze

What role did he play in the battle of Hogwarts? Also, why didn’t he see anything worth saying about the death of Dumbledore?

Voldemort: Love potion baby

I can’t corroborate this, but I have read somewhere that Rowling has said the reason Voldemort cannot love is because he was conceived under the effects of a love potion. This seems to literally make him irredeemable which Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince seemed not to indicate. Harry, upon meeting boy Voldemort sees what could have been himself. Even in Order of the Phoenix we learn that the difference between Harry and Voldemort, the ability to love, is often based in Harry’s choices: Harry chose Gryffindor over Slytherin; He chose to befriend Ron and not Draco. If Voldemort lacked the ability to make these choices due to his mother’s unintended wickedness, then Voldemort had no choice and cannot rightly be condemned for his actions because he could not have chosen otherwise, because his mother chose for him.

Anyway, these are just some of my thoughts and reflections. Let me know if you have answers or solutions to some of the problems I’ve noted, or if you simply disagree, or if you have reflections of your own.

Sincerely yours,
David

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What I’m Reading II: Mary, Aquinas, the Devil, Snape, and the Birth of Narnia

David Russell Mosley

Lent
St Polycarp
23 February 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Well, as often happens, the books I read have changed since the last time I updated you on what I’m reading. Here’s the new list.

Handmaid of the Lord by Adrienne von Speyr

Speyr is a new author for me. I’ve read so much about her in the works of Stratford Caldecott. She’s a Catholic Convert and a mystic whose confessor was Hans Urs von Balthasar, another person whose had a profound impact on me. This book is a series of reflections on the Virgin Mary. I’m not very far in since I’m just reading a chapter a day for Lent. Already there is some real beauty in the way she expresses herself and describes the Mother of our Lord, but there are some parts I struggle with. I love Mary, and covet her prayers, but I am not settled on some of the titles ascribed to her, like Mediatrix. This will be a profound and provocative read for me, challenging both my Protestant presuppositions, and my Catholic leanings.

The Prayers and Hymns of St Thomas Aquinas by Thomas Aquinas 

I started looking for something like this when I first came across the prayer for Scholars by Thomas Aquinas. So I was quite pleased when I found a Latin and English edition of some of the prayers and songs of the angelic doctor. This book is fairly simple, each prayer is in Latin on one page and English on the adjacent. The prayers themselves are beautiful and the editors have laid them out like poetry. I’ve also been using this text in my Lenten devotions. I have decided to say one prayer a day for each day in Lent, first in English and then again in Latin.

On the Fall of the Devil by Anselm

I’ve been enjoying my reading of Anselm. It was great to read the Monologion and the Proslogion together, something I’d never done before. I haven’t started reading this one yet, but it comes in a little semi-related trilogy with On Truth and On the Free Will. Anselm’s dialogs are masterful and I look forward to reading this one as well.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling

How many times have I read this book? Multiple times a year since it came out; so some might say too many. Still, I love the Harry Potter series. It has its flaws, Rowling is not the theologian that say Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, Chesterton, or O’Connor are. Even in presenting a world that is meant, in some ways, to be Faërie, yet it is plagued with all the same problems our world is. Nevertheless, this story of hope and salvation is one that I am constantly drawn to. Half-Blood Prince is in weird place for me. Order of the Phoenix is somewhat of transitional book. In the previous four it’s all about keeping Voldemort from coming back or fighting against his effects (Tom Riddle from the diary, Peter Pettigrew, or Death Eater at Hogwarts). Then, once he returns at the end of Goblet of Fire each book is about defeating him outright, but Order of the Phoenix is only the beginning of that story and is the beginning of the darkness. Therefore, Half-Blood Prince sees the real preparation of Harry by Dumbledore for ultimately defeating Voldemort. This can make it feel like its simply build-up for book 7. The first three are absolutely stand-alones, most of book 4 is as well. This book cannot stand on its own. It is pure preparation for the final battle.

The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis

I’ve decided to read Lewis’s books in the order he wrote them, roughly. This means I’m finishing with The Magician’s Nephew. It’s a really interesting experience. In The Last Battle, we see the end of Narnia, or the shadowlands Narnia anyway. Now, however, after Narnia’s death, I get to visit Narnia one last time. I get to visit it at the very beginning. In a way, it feels like reading Genesis after reading Revelation. Doing that would change how one reads Genesis, for the better, I think. However, at least as regards Narnia, I think you can or should only do this after you’ve read the books once before. Getting them in intended order first allows for one to then read them in a new order and see how that changes one’s perspective from the original reading.

Anyway, this is what I’m reading now. What are you reading?

Sincerely yours,
David

The Sacramental Imagination of Harry Potter

David Russell Mosley

The Harry Potter Series: British Editions

The Harry Potter Series: British Editions

Ordinary Time
Pope St Leo the Great
10 11 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

The Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling, are the last books from my childhood that I will be examining in this Sacramental Imagination series. I hope to turn my attention to a few books I read after my childhood, but which are still children’s books, like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Smith of Wooton Major; George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie, as well as some of his fairy tales; and perhaps others you might recommend.

I have written about the Christian nature of Rowling’s Potter books before, but today I want to spend a little time discussing how they might help children form a sacramental imagination. There are, however, some problems with Ms Rowling’s works that I would like to lay out at the forefront. First is something I have noted before, the almost Calvinistic system of how one becomes a witch or wizard. Following along relatively covenantal reformed lines, one primarily becomes a witch or wizard by being born from parents where at least one of them is a witch or wizard. This is a major plot point for the books commencing with earnest in book 6. However, whether one has wizard parents or not one still must be born a witch or wizard. It is not something one can claim for oneself. Muggles cannot learn magic, nor can squibs. This, therefore, suggests that the preferred way of living presented in the books, as a witch or wizard, is entirely outside of one’s control just as one’s salvation is outside of one’s control in a stringently Calvinist system. There are even those born of wizard ancestry who cannot do magic, who are not part of the community in the same way as everyone else, namely, squibs. This is, for me, a non-Calvinist, fairly problematic, though Rowling does back pedal a little in her The Tales of Beedle the Bard. In a footnote by Albus Dumbledore it is noted that research in the Department of Mysteries up to that point (likely somewhere around the mid-90s in the story’s chronology) that even those with Muggle parents who themselves can do magic likely have a witch or wizard somewhere in their ancestry.

The second problem I have is Rowling’s more or less Cartesian understanding of the human person. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, we learn that Dementors can suck out your soul. Your body would continue to function with your soul gone, but the person would no longer be there. Rowling’s books are based in an essentially Christian cosmos, but it is, in many ways, still a modernistic one, subject to post-Enlightenment thinking.

That being said, there is much that can be gained for children in Rowling’s Potter books. Perhaps the primary thing is how Rowling’s magical world gives us back our own world made strange. Wizards and witches do many of the same things we do: they shop, cook, throw parties, go to school, communicate with one another, and more, but each is rendered strange as we experience the magical world through Harry’s equally unaccustomed eyes. Harry’s first encounter with a magical being is Hagrid, a man too large to be allowed. As we later find out, not only is Hagrid big and a wizard, he’s even half-giant! Harry’s first shopping experience involves an apothecary, a wand shop, getting fitted for late-medieval/Renaissance style robes, and buying a pet owl.

What I find most interesting is how, even with magic, much of what the witches and wizards do would seem to us, slower. They don’t email one another or communicate by telephone, they write letters and send them by owls. It is almost astonishing how ultimately non-magical this is. The letters themselves, in fact nearly all the writing they do, with the exceptions of the newspaper, more recent books, and posters/cards, is done by hand, with a dip pen in the form of a quill. They actually dip a quill in a pot of ink and write, with their hands, on paper. The only magical element is when they send letters, the carriers are owls, but this is almost accidental to the whole process. They might just as well be carried by people. I think this is important. Rowling gives us a world with little technology and even less machining. Magic often takes the place of machines, but in the writing of letters or homework, neither magic nor sophisticated technology is used. Rather, the quill is a tool serving merely as an extension of the person holding it in order to effect a change in the world around them by the generation of something new, namely written words. It is interesting that wands serve the same basic function. They are tools, possessed of little magic themselves. Again, in the same footnote in The Tales of Beedle the Bard (footnote 4 in the notes after ‘Babbity Rabbity and the Cackling Stump), Dumbledore notes that a muggle picking up a magic wand might be able to do a random bit of magic, but only because there is a residual magic left in the wand by its owner. However, in the hand of a witch or wizard, it serves as a conduit for performing magic, magic which comes not from the wand nor any other external source, but from the wielder. Rowling, I think, is teaching children something about words, both that there is something magical, we might even say, sacramental about writing and the use of words (hence the magic spell). There is a relationship between the sign, the word or words, and the thing signified. In writing, the relationship is between the words and their author, with the quill/person as the conduit or sacrament and the letter the effect. In performing magic it is the word or words and their relationship to the change affected in the real world, with the wand/wizard as the sacrament and the magic performed the effect.

There is much more that could be said, particularly about human/animal relationships with the magical animals (like owls), and cosmic/terrestrial relationships (astrology as taught by Firenze the centaur). However, I have waffled on long enough. In the end, despite the flaws, Rowling’s Potter stories can help children see something magical in words, something sacramental in the relationship between words and what they represent, something that isn’t simply accidental. This makes her books immensely helpful in growing a sacramental imagination in children.

Sincerely yours,
David

In Defence of Harry Potter, Or Harry Potter and the Magic of Christianity

Dear Friends and Family,

The Harry Potter Series: British Editions

The Harry Potter Series: British Editions

I’m on what is something like my umpteenth reading of the Harry Potter series. This series, along with Tolkien’s Legendarium, and Lewis’s Narnian Chronicles and Space Trilogy, are books I return to every year. Sometimes I read them all multiple times a year. While I could easily make this a defence of the Fantasy genre, I rather wish to defend the Harry Potter series explicitly. It’s been my experience that this series more than any other has earned the ire of many well-meaning Christians (One could argue that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Series, or any of Dan Brown’s books receive more ire and condemnation, but neither author would probably care much for Christian approbation. Pullman’s writing is actively anti-Christian and thus is different, as we shall see, from Rowling’s books).

I once knew someone who, when I told them I was rereading the Harry Potter series, said that they did not as a matter of conscience. Also, when I was an undergraduate I took the Non-Western Religions Class. The teacher was a native Kenyan and very intelligent on all matters sociological. She had a guest speaker come in for an extra-credit lecture. I was unable to attend, but was informed afterward that speaker claimed that Harry Potter was too reminiscent of the witchcraft practiced in their native country, but that Lewis and Tolkien were ok, because magic was different in their writings.

Herein lies the major Christian rejection of Harry Potter: magic. When we normally think of magic, we normally relate it to people who call upon either the spirits of the dead or the spirits of nature to work through the individual as a vessel in order to reach a desired end. Sometimes it’s simply an incantation, other times it’s a witches brew with words spoke over it. The key here, however, is the channeling of spirits. This is not what magic is in Harry Potter.

Magic in Harry Potter has a simultaneously genetic and Calvinistic feel to it. Those who have read the books know that one must be born a witch or a wizard. If you or I existed in the world of Harry Potter, we would be Muggles, that is, incapable of performing magic. A wand would do nothing in our hands for it is a channel for the innate power within the witch or wizard. So, magic is primarily genetic in Harry Potter, those born of wizarding families are usually born with the ability to do magic. However, there is a kind of Calvinistic election about it as well. One can be born of a non-magical family and yet have the ability to do magic, and, sometimes, there are those born of magical families who cannot do magic. Thus even magical ancestry, not unlike coming from a Christian family, is not a 100% guarantee that you would be able to do magic.

Even once we start looking at how magic is done in Harry Potter, we find that the incantations are merely simple Latin phrases or sentences that merely describe what the witch or wizard is attempting to do. Never do witches or wizards in Harry Potter call upon something purely external to them to work through them in order to accomplish magic.

When I read Harry Potter, I often think of those with the ability to do magic as elves or faeries, in both the Tolkien and Medieval traditions. They are like humans, they are even genetically related to humans, but they are different. They have a different relationship with the world than ordinary humans do, they live incredibly long lives, and the best of them serve as great inspiration for us all. If Rowling’s faeries fall flat at all it is that they are too human.

You might be wondering why this matters. Why have I written what is quite possibly my longest post about a series of children’s books? Well, I’ll hopefully do another post later to show the various Christian themes in Harry Potter. For now, however, I simply want to inform those well-meaning Christians who have, up to now, despised Harry Potter for a presumed Satanism through witchcraft, to look again at these stories for they are not evil. In fact, they bring to prominence the greatest of the theological virtues: love.

We as Christians have been failing somewhat in the imagination department. We should not descend to despising what is essentially Christian literature merely because it uses language that in other contexts may indeed be demonic. We must remember that pure evil does not exist, for all evil is a perversion of the Good. We must remember that there is nothing that cannot be redeemed, for our God is greater.

Yours,

David