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

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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