Thursday, August 04, 2005

Thoughts on Harry Potter, Part I

In this space, I will be posting some thoughts on the Harry Potter phenomenon, a little at a time. I have recently finished reading the sixth and latest installment in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and I am currently reading John Granger’s book, Looking for God in Harry Potter. I have also been reading sundry other writings on Harry, pro (Granger) and con (Michael O’Brien).
Thoughts on Harry Potter, Part I
Magical Distinctions

I must begin this effort with a caveat: I think that sweeping conclusions on the meaning of the Potter books both hasty and unwise, until the final book has been published. This is because J.K. Rowling, author of the series, is all about surprises, and we may find that the seventh volume is the left hand that takes away what the right hand has given. This will almost certainly be true in some ways (just whose side is Snape on, anyway?), and may be true in bigger ways than we can now guess, though one hopes the final book won’t yank all available rugs as, say, the final film in The Matrix did (reportedly: I have not seen it, having lost interest in the series during the second film). Because of this, I will be cautious about big conclusions, offering instead what I hope to be food for thought, interaction on the Potter books and the controversy swirling around them.
That said, on to our subject. Granger’s above-mentioned book is valuable for many reasons, largely because he deals with the series as a Christian, homes-schooling father who is concerned about what his children watch and read (indeed, he only read the first Potter book in order to let his kids know “why we don’t read this stuff”). But he is convinced the books are great, classic literature that will stand the test of time, and that, further, the books are actually Christian fiction, in the tradition of the Inklings, as well as older Christian writers (Shakespeare, Donne, Eliot). In addition, he answers the concerns of Christians who see in these books a glorification of the occult. It is this magical element of Harry Potter that I wish to briefly address today.
Granger distinguishes, helpfully, between two kinds of magic: invocational and incantational (wow, my spell-checker really hates those words). Invocational magic involves calling on demons to provide magical power. Incantational magic is more of an inherent ability to do wonders, and which Granger says is the literary equivalent of a belief in the supernatural existence and power of God. Put another way, the presence of incantational magic in a story is an oblique assault on the modern philosophy of naturalism, which asserts that the material universe is all there is or can be (thus denying the reality of God, angels, miracles, etc.). Incantational magic is the ability to do miracles with a word or a touch, just like the Prophets, the Apostles, and Christ Himself. Elisha touches the river with Elijah’s cloak and the waters part. Jesus speaks to the storm and it calms. “Arise and walk,” Peter says to a lame man, and he does so. Such wonders are the historical archetypes for the incantational magic of Christian literature. Invocational magic, however, is what C.S. Lewis illustrated in Prince Caspian, when Caspian fights the dwarf Nikabrik (his former ally) over his plan to engage in “Black sorcery and the calling up of an accursed ghost.” Granger notes that, in Harry Potter, absolutely no invocational magic is used. All is incantational, and no different from the magic of Tolkien’s elves.
There is some truth in this, perhaps a lot, but I still wonder if something else is being missed, here. Surely the distinction itself is a valid one, but there is another magical distinction, this one found in the writings of Tolkien himself, that narrows the field a bit further. Tolkien once said of his wizard characters that they are “utterly distinct from sorcerer or magician.” So far, this falls in line with Granger’s incantational/invocational distinction But Tolkien, in another place, made a further division between kinds of magic: the magic of Faerie (which is certainly of the incantational variety) on the one hand, and what he called “the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician,” on the other. Here, I think, is where Rowling’s magic differs from that of Tolkien or Lewis. Surely the cauldron-brewing, potion-mixing, wand-waving, fortune-telling magic of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is more akin to “the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician,” than to the “Elf Magic” that Frodo and Sam found in Lothlorien (the thing that amazed Sam was that, in Lothlorien, no one seemed to be doing any magic):

'It’s wonderfully quiet here. Nothing seems to be going on, and nobody seems to want it to. If there’s any magic about, it’s right down deep, where I can’t lay my hands on it, in a manner of speaking.'
‘You can see and feel it everywhere,’ said Frodo.
‘Well,’ said Sam, ‘you can’t see nobody working it…I would dearly love to see some Elf-magic, Mr. Frodo!'

Magic, for Tolkien, was actually Art, without the normal human limitations. It was anything but sorcery or witchcraft. While Granger seems to be right in his assertion that Potter magic is not sorcery, I can’t help but think that Tolkien would not have cared for the more scientific magic we find at Hogwarts. Still, as I said, the seventh book is not yet written, and Rowling now seems to be hinting that there is something greater than this laborious, scientific approach to magic. In Half-Blood Prince, Harry and his friends are beginning to learn non-verbal spells, which is perhaps a little closer to the unseen magic of Lothlorien. And Dumbledore suggests that all the accoutrements and paraphernalia of magic are only for the wizarding novices, not for those who have truly mastered their gifts at incantational power. I truly hope there are further developments like this in the final book.
The image of witches is interesting, too. In Narnia, witches are always evil, and have to be defeated. In Tolkien, the Lord of the Nazgul, chief of the servants of the Dark Lord, Sauron, is also called the Witch King of Angmar. Rowling has adapted the more fanciful, fun elements of traditional witch-images (flying on brooms, for example) and turned them into something new and different. The witches and wizards of Harry Potter are completely different from, say, Faustus or the witches in Macbeth. Certainly it would be unfair to equate Hermione with the White Witch, for example, though I can’t help but wonder about the wisdom of using witches as symbols of good, even if they are the exact opposite of the mediums of Scripture or the hags and evil queens of Narnia. I am not willing to condemn the books on these grounds, but I do wonder if maybe this was a misstep. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund questions Peter’s wisdom in trusting a Robin. Peter responds that Robins are on the right side in all the stories. Such a statement assumes the reality of what Tolkien called “the True Tradition” of fairy tales, in which certain kinds of characters function as symbols of good or evil. I can’t help but think that, the more these symbols are subverted in newer books, the less power the traditional stories will have to move our children to love the good, the true, and the beautiful.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Chad, I just now read this article for the first time, and found it very interesting and informative. What are your thoughts, now that the final book is out? How did the last installment add up to your expectations as expressed in this article?