I think it’s fair to say that few books have ever inspired as much controversy as J.K. Rowling’s hugely popular “Harry Potter” fantasy series. With more than 400 million copies sold, the books have impacted popular culture in a massive way. And, of course, they’ve attracted praise and scorn from virtually all sides, including an almost unprecedented amount of criticism from the conservative Christian community.
I’ve previously avoided discussing this issue directly for a variety of reasons. As a Christian, I don’t want to cause anyone to stumble by what I say, nor do I want to simply stir up dissent. However, considering that the franchise has almost run its course, and sentiments have cooled somewhat, I feel it’s time to take an in-depth look at some of the themes and worldview elements in this oft-disputed series.
Five years ago, I began reading the series suspiciously, expecting to encounter a barrage of subversive, anti-Christian propaganda. I’d read plenty of books about the “occultism” of the series, and heard all the anti-“Potter” arguments. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I’d been mistaken: the books were adventure stories in the style of Roald Dahl, with a layer of fairy-tale magic added on. I devoured the first six volumes, read the seventh book as soon as it came out, and moved on to other things. This past summer, I took the time to revisit the series from a more critical standpoint. The first time I read the books, I did so primarily for entertainment. The second time around, I was specifically looking for themes – and more specifically, I intended to write this commentary. This will necessarily be a fairly long discussion – after a brief summary of the series, this commentary will explore the three predominant motifs in the seven books before responding to a few of the foremost anti-“Potter” objections.
I’ll come right out with the thesis for this discussion: I do not believe the “Harry Potter” series is an apologetic for witchcraft, nor do I believe it should be shunned by Christians. While it isn’t an allegory on the level of the “Narnia” books, it contains some deeply Christian themes. Rather than being blindly condemned and censored, it should be read and analyzed thoughtfully.
(Note: In order to evaluate the complex themes of this series, the following commentary contains spoilers)
The “Harry Potter” series is the story of the eponymous hero, orphaned at birth and left in the care of the cruel Dursley family of “Muggles” (non-magical people). On his eleventh birthday, Harry receives a letter from Hogwarts, a school for young wizards and witches, and promptly enters a world of wonder and mystery. At Hogwarts, he meets his two closest friends – Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger – and begins studying magic. It soon becomes clear that the death of Harry’s parents was no accident: the evil Dark Lord Voldemort murdered them. Voldemort also attempted to kill Harry, but his attack rebounded on himself, severely crippling Voldemort’s power. The first few books of the series develop the characters and set the stage for Book 4, in which Voldemort returns to power and regains a corporeal body. Aided by his fellow evil wizards (“Death Eaters”), Voldemort begins a campaign to kill Harry Potter, the only one who may stand a chance of defeating him. The last three volumes deal with Harry’s increasingly desperate battle against Voldemort, and his fight to remain steadfast even as the world spins into chaos around him.
It’s a fairly simple story arc, but the intricate web of plots and subplots grips the reader’s attention. There’s a reason people lined up for hours to snag copies of each subsequent book – the stories are well-written and increasingly dramatic.
Throughout the course of the series, there are three fundamental concepts that drive the story: the power of love, man’s struggle against death, and the relationship between Harry and his mentor Dumbledore. Each of these deserves thorough evaluation.
1. The Power of Love
One of the most recurring themes in the “Harry Potter” series is the sacrificial love of Harry’s mother Lily, who died to protect her infant son. Voldemort’s deadliest weapon, the “Killing Curse,” rebounded when he used it against Harry, shattering the Dark Lord’s power. In the final pages of Book 1, Voldemort cannot physically touch Harry due to the power of his mother’s love in him. Later in the series (after the Dark Lord’s return to power), Voldemort attempts to “possess” Harry (yes, in the biblical sense) but cannot due to the contrast between Harry’s soul and his own. Harry’s life is founded on his love for others, while Voldemort’s life is centered around hatred. Headmaster Dumbledore observes at one point: “That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to understand. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.”
On a less complex level, love also repeatedly motivates acts of self-sacrifice on the parts of the main characters. Primary characters are willing to (and do) suffer unbelievable loss for one another, even giving up their lives in order to do the right thing. The love between family members is celebrated as beautiful and noble, never something to be mocked and sneered at.
However, the true significance of this theme does not emerge until Book 7.
Throughout the book, Harry, Ron and Hermione have successfully located and destroyed the six Horcruxes, magical objects bearing fragments of Voldemort’s essence. (While the Horcruxes exist, Voldemort cannot be truly killed.) However, it soon becomes clear that, in fact, a seventh Horcrux exists: Harry Potter himself. The curse that originally failed to kill Harry struck Voldemort instead, blasting away a piece of Voldemort’s tainted essence…which in turn bonded to Harry. While Harry lives, Voldemort cannot truly die.
The situation may be summarized thusly: Harry, a bearer of evil that is not his own, must suffer death at Voldemort’s hands.
The symbolism is almost explicit. While Harry is certainly not Christ himself, he is the books’ “Christ figure”, willingly enduring a sacrificial death in order to save others from evil. He chooses to lay down his own life to end the evil caused by another. Harry even observes: “I don’t want anyone else to try to help. It’s got to be like this. It’s got to be me.” While this motif is certainly common even in non-Christian literature, it gains special significance when viewed in light of another prevailing theme (to be discussed later).
This theme of sacrificial love applies on another level as well, through the character of Severus Snape. The often-irritable Potions teacher at Hogwarts, Snape frequently appears to be antagonistic towards Harry throughout the series (although, interestingly, he often intervenes to protect Harry during the darkest moments). In the closing pages of Book 6, Snape appears to be allied with Voldemort, lending credence to Harry’s longtime suspicions.
However, Book 7 finally provides the full story. Snape, a longtime admirer of Lily (Harry’s mother), was forced to watch as she married a man Snape deemed reckless and immature. To make matters worse, Lily asked Snape to watch over their newborn son in the event of her death. Since that point, Snape’s relationship with Harry has been a constant source of pain…yet Snape chooses to sacrifice his own feelings and defend a child he believes should have been his. This subplot is one of the most moving elements of the entire series.
2. Man’s Struggle Against Death
The “Harry Potter” series is, in many ways, a parable about the danger of desiring immortality. Voldemort is obsessed with the concept of living forever, no matter what the cost. This dark desire leads him down the path of villainy, transforming him from a disturbed orphan boy into the living incarnation of evil. He attains a sort of pseudo-immortality by constructing the aforementioned Horcruxes – but in order to do so, he must take a human life for every Horcrux he creates. Dumbledore sharply critiques this empty attitude towards life: “As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all – the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.”
In contrast, Harry and his friends are unafraid of their own mortality. When Harry confronts Voldemort and suffers death at the Dark Lord’s hands, he awakens to find himself in a limbo-like state between life and death. There, he sees the mutilated soul of Lord Voldemort – an affirmation that souls are ultimately held accountable for their actions, and that the material world is but the precursor to something more. Death is seen not as an end, but rather as a beginning. As Dumbledore puts it: “It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more.”
But for Harry, death isn’t the end. To complete the Christ metaphor, Harry is resurrected from the dead, defeats Voldemort once and for all, and saves the magical world. His death leads to the salvation of countless others.
3. Harry’s Relationship with Dumbledore
(Note: I am not going to explore the hot-button issue of whether Dumbledore is or is not homosexual. The issue was never raised or alluded to in the novels themselves; thus, for the purposes of this commentary, this will not be under consideration.)
I must confess that I missed the significance of this theme the first time I read the series. However, this is perhaps the most interesting and uniquely symbolic element of the entire seven-book saga. To offer some background, Professor Albus Dumbledore is the headmaster of Hogwarts School, and fulfills the role of a father to Harry. He helps Harry wage his battle against Voldemort, providing counseling and insight throughout the series. Their relationship can be analyzed on two distinct levels: as a metaphor for the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, and as a metaphor for the relationship between God and His people.
Throughout the course of Book 7, Harry struggles with the quest that Dumbledore has left him: finding and destroying Voldemort’s Horcruxes. In the same way that Jesus pleaded with God the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane to “take this cup from [Him]”, Harry struggles to understand the “cup” that Dumbledore has left him to bear. During his journey to face Voldemort and die at the Dark Lord’s hands (a sequence clearly inspired by the Garden of Gethsemane), Harry never questions Dumbledore’s authority or his command, but sincerely wrestles with issues of grief and loss. It isn’t a perfect analogy – for instance, it’s not as strong as the Aslan/Emperor-over-the-Sea allegory found in the “Narnia” books. However, the way in which Harry fulfills the task left him by Dumbledore is, to an extent, analogous to the way in which Jesus obeyed His Father’s will.
On another level, Book 7 also serves as a metaphor for the relationship between God and His people. After Dumbledore’s untimely “death” in Book 6, a series of rumors begin to fly regarding Dumbledore, questioning his authority and his wisdom. These rumors are strikingly similar to arguments leveled by those antagonistic toward Christianity. Harry must decide whom he trusts: Dumbledore, who is no longer directly there with him, or those who criticize him.
In total, these are the three themes that struck me most upon a rereading of the series. Careful readers may note that I’ve frequently referred to the seventh volume of the series in exploring these issues; however, these ideas are developed throughout the series as a whole. Book 7 successfully unites all these elements into a dramatic, triumphant finale. This isn’t to say that there aren’t other themes in the books. There are countless other elements worthy of analysis – race and class discrimination, civil disobedience, and the corrupting effect of power, just to name a few – but these three are perhaps the standouts from a Christian worldview standpoint.
Of course, there have been plenty of criticisms of the “Harry Potter” series as well. Some of the particularly prevalent arguments deserve honest and respectful consideration.
Perhaps the most well-known argument runs something along the lines of “Harry Potter promotes real-world occult practices.” Unfortunately, this issue has turned into a media circus, thanks to unfortunate publications like this one: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/f/fd/Nervous_Witch_20.png. While certainly well-intended, claims like this are factually inaccurate and completely misrepresent the books. For starters, the only “real-world” occult practice employed by “good characters” is divination (reading tea leaves and crystal balls in an attempt to predict the future). However, Rowling neatly sidesteps genuine controversy by satirizing the concept of divination altogether, portraying the teacher as a dreamy hippie whose predictions are notoriously inaccurate.
The magic employed in “Harry Potter” is purely instrumental. There’s no conjuring up of spirits, no altars to pagan gods, no communion with demons – Potter-magic functions along the lines of “point wand, say word.” The spells aren’t cribbed from pagan rituals – for the most part, they’re pseudo-Latinized phrases (“Expelliarmus” blasts an opponent’s wand out of his/her hand, “Incendio” summons fire, “Reparo” fixes broken objects).
I can appreciate the concerns of individuals who point to the Bible’s condemnation of witchcraft as sin. However, “Harry Potter” is set in a fantastical world where magic is not linked to demonic forces. “Harry Potter” magic is similar to a genetic mutation – some possess it, others do not. It operates according to certain rules, just like gravity, and there are both good and bad ways to employ it. (Interestingly, magic operates in a way that could theoretically be tested according to the scientific method!) There is honestly no moral difference between the magic in “Harry Potter” and the powers possessed by Superman or Spider-Man.
Valid concerns have also been raised regarding the darkness and violence of the series, especially the later books. These are certainly legitimate: the books get progressively scarier and as the series goes on, although the ending is ultimately redemptive. In all honesty, advertisers erred in marketing this series to a preteen demographic: although the early volumes are filled with childish innocence, the story matures along with its protagonist. There are certainly moments in the “Harry Potter” series disturbing enough to put the books off-limits for sensitive readers.
Unfortunately, legitimate disagreements with the content of “Harry Potter” have often been obscured by a deluge of inaccurate information. Well-intentioned individuals like Laura Mallory (who has engaged in an anti-“Harry Potter” crusade for years, despite not actually having read the books) do not further the cause of Christianity by their protests. What’s more, disputes over the “Harry Potter” series have led to other, more subversive material being overlooked. Notably, Philip Pullman’s atheistic fantasy series, “His Dark Materials (which directly attacks Christianity) was published alongside “Harry Potter”, and went largely unnoticed by Christian critics.
Clearly, the question of “Harry Potter” is a complicated one. I will make an open request to all individuals who are still concerned about “Harry Potter” after reading this review: please do not argue that “Harry Potter” is evil/Wiccan/Satanic, unless you have actually read the books for yourself. There is nothing in the series that will corrupt a mature Christian, and it borders on slander to make harsh accusations without knowing the facts. Criticizing something one knows little or nothing about is unwise.
The book of Acts tells the story of Paul using the Athenians’ altar to an “Unknown God” as a means of proclaiming the truth of the Gospel. As a Christian, I choose to recognize that the “Harry Potter” series may be a modern “altar to an unknown God” – a means by which we can share our faith with the world. As the film series nears its completion, there will likely be many questions about the themes in the final installment. By recognizing the Christian themes woven into the plot, the “Harry Potter” series can become a tool for cultural evangelism.
I am not going to make a blanket statement that “everyone should read these books.” However, I will recommend that mature Christian fantasy readers (generally over the age of ten or eleven) will find the series powerful, exciting, moving, and spiritually resonant. I envision reading the books aloud to my children someday – once they’re old enough to understand them, and mature enough to handle them.
OVERALL VERDICT: 9.5/10
A young-adult series for the ages. Will likely be remembered alongside “Narnia” and “Lord of the Rings.”