Several months ago a journal requested a brief article from me in response to novelist Michael D. O’Brien’s arguments against the Harry Potter books. I wrote the piece, which was effectively turned down, but am posting it here for anyone who might be interested. It follows the general lines of my Touchstone and Mere Comments writing on the subject, for which it may serve as a synopsis of something upon which I doubt I will say much more.
Michael D. O’Brien believes the Harry Potter books will paganize Christian children; I believe they are more likely to Christianize pagan ones–and can be read profitably, meaningfully, and harmlessly through young Christian eyes. This judgment is based in part on the probability that far more non-Christians, or Christians who are practically ignorant of their professed religion, will read these books (translated now into about 70 languages, including simplified Chinese) than knowledgeable Christians, in places where Harry is likely to do more in service to the gospel than against it.
In Touchstone articles I have elaborated on Harry as a Christ-figure, given them to love where Christianity is dimmed, and in whom by grace it is possible to see and love the unknown Christ–one of those evangelical “pictures” of which Lewis spoke in Pilgrim’s Regress, smuggled by God into places where active evil has made a more explicit evangel unavailable or unintelligible. Harry is the elect prince, born in hostile obscurity, about whom gathers an awkward and unlikely group of friends and allies, and who, in the willing sacrifice of his native powers and finally his life, delivers his world from one who would rule it by evil power.
This, however, I say without much prejudice to Mr. O’Brien’s argument. I cannot deny the Potter tales can be very dangerous indeed, and very likely to do to some exactly what he fears they will. There are many raised as Christians who, beginning as children, attempt to find their way out of that particular fix, and in Harry Potter–or faulty parenting, or atheist professors, or traditionalist patriarchalism, or the imperial demands of the flesh, or some diverting whimsy–they will find reasoned opportunity for blame in abetting their departures. Harry, after all, attractively encourages a thoroughly pagan view of the world, endorsing witchcraft, the private judgment of children over obedience to legitimate authority, transgressive behavior, materialist magic, and a gnostic pursuit of power and esoteric knowledge that attracts the mind by its inventiveness, charm, and indeed, its form of morality, furnishing an alternate reality to the imagination in which there is no place and no need for the only faith that can save.
Where this is how the Harry Potter books are taken, that is what they are, and those who understand them in that way find justification for their point of view. I am reminded of the elderly monk Ubertino lecturing the young Adso in Eco’s Name of the Rose before a beautiful image of our Lord’s mother on what was, for him, the spiritual discipline of viewing it as to incite to virtue and not lust.
Harry is not as innocent as Ubertino’s Virgin: Rowling’s treatment of the mandrakes, for example, as O’Brien notes, is horrible, and I think the least excusable thing in these books–less, even, than the murder/suicide pact. But considered together with the rest they do not demand rejection, first because of their proevangelical quality among their largest probable audience, but then, as regards their use by Christians, because of the powers of spirit active–and to be encouraged in–Christians and their children, who should be robustly critical enough to take their good without being seduced by whatever in them isn’t. In considering the Christian imagination we are responsible to keep not only its susceptibilities but its powers in view–in this case, the power to sanctify Harry Potter.
These are powers we must have to live in the world as members of the church militant, which cannot shrink from everything that might do harm, but engage, transform, and take what can be taken for the Kingdom’s sake–and for the health and strength of our own souls. Not only do I believe that Harry Potter may be taken as a redemptive tale that reflects the story of the New Testament and the Church, but that it places us in communication (as others have also observed) with the millions who have read these books but do not yet comprehend the gospel of Christ, to which we may now point as their truest ground and meaning.
In this power the witchcraft is transformed from a portal to the occult to fairy-tale magic, the transgressive behavior discussable as normal human sin, or perhaps, at least in certain instances, as comparable to that of which our Lord and disciples were constantly accused. Most important, the attractive, and pagan, alternative imaginations are disclosed as alternative for an actual something that was, is, and shall be in a way beyond imagining, and to which one may apply without leaping the bar which all sane men–and children, at least children who are old enough to read Harry Potter–know lies between fantasy and reality.
I would wish to look closely at judgments on the Potter books based on “what constitutes healthy nourishment of the imagination and what degrades it,” for while I (disagreeing with Oscar Wilde on the point) agree that there are things such as bad books, books intended and designed to degrade the imagination–often on the pretense of illuminating it–in the end the effect of a book depends entirely on what is sympathetically assimilated from it, what is “taken to heart.”
A good analogy to the imagination exists in the body which continually takes into itself substances and organisms that will cause disease and death if they are allowed to proliferate by weak internal defenses. While it is imprudent to eat food one knows to be spoiled, or negligently expose oneself to toxins, normal, wholesome food, and good, breathable air contain certain amounts of conditionally dangerous material–which the body, however, is made to “handle,” and even assimilate to healthy use. That some have weaknesses which make even negligible amounts harmful to them is no reason to place what may be harmful to some under general interdict–which seems to me an all too common operation among Christian Potter critics. Discretion and good sense are always required of their guardians, but spiritually healthy children of normal sensibilities need take no harm from these books.
As it is with the body, so it is, or should be, be with the imagination. By the time a Christian child can read Harry Potter, its immunities, supplied and developed by his parents and church, should be sufficient to handle whatever challenges are posed by the books, and he should be more than able to claim from them his own measure of Egyptian gold. Thus engaged, he will be free and able to see and enjoy the series as the postevangelical myth that it is, a myth whose ground is in his catechism, and which demonstrates the inescapability of the Story Upon Which All Stories Worth Hearing are based. As his thought life matures, his synthetic and critical faculties should become even stronger, for his soul, like his body, is made to live inquisitively and with military fortitude in a world full of the Dark Lord’s literary servants, whom it is not meant flee, but overcome.