Saturday, 13 October 2012


By the time I turned 16, I was suffering from a perplexed conscience in regard to Harry Potter. My literary palate was quite accommodated to this phantastic brew, and my heart was mixed in it, but the arguments of certain cautious Christians strongly urged discarding the potion and sifting my soul out of it.

They made some plausible arguments and appealed to some credible authorities. They also wrenched biblical prooftexts from their chapters to support their ascetic version of Christian aesthetic education, such as ‘The LORD saw … that every imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart was only evil continually’. This was my first practical lesson in Hermeneutics 101 (the theological equivalent of Defence Against the Dark Arts).

The years accomplished what my youthful self shuddered to consider. My taste has been modified, my passions less ready to drown themselves in fictional cauldrons. The question whether Harry corrupts the youth has therefore lost much of its urgency, yet it retains a passing interest.

Recently I came across a Dutch blogger, Anton de Wit, who argued that Rowling should be classed with Tolkien and Lewis, in a different category from the boring Gnostic fantasies that more frequently inundate our television screens. By contrast, the accomplished novelist Michael O’Brien sees Harry Potter as Gnostic, an agent in the ongoing paganisation of culture. Since they are both Catholic, adduce reasonable arguments, and have a healthy appreciation for the potential of imaginative literature, it may be worthwhile to summarize their arguments. Weigh, and weigh in if you please, carissime lector.

Anton de Wit offers three criteria for distinguishing between good and ‘Gnostic’ fantasy – Gnosticism being ‘something that looks like a healthy spiritual attitude but isn’t’.

Firstly, Gnostic fantasy is characterized by a strict separation of good and evil; good is the intrinsic and exclusive property of the ‘good guys’, while evil is what the ‘bad guys’ do. Good and evil are thus determined more by the group to which one belongs than by the choices one makes. In good fantasy, evil does not simply exist as an opposing force; it has a history, and its root is in the good which it rejected.

Secondly, Gnostic fantasy is characterized by a spiritual elite of the initiate, those ‘in the know’. The doctrines of the Christian faith, though not accepted by all, are still publicly preached and universally accessible. Gnosticism, on the other hand, works with conspiracies, ‘closed meetings and secret codes’, and believes that higher knowledge is reserved for those few who have been favoured by fate.

Thirdly, Gnostic fantasy is characterized by strict individualism: all knowledge and power is already present within the chosen one, and his friends can only lead him to a place where he can realise and actualise it; they constantly emphasise how helpless they are to contribute anything.

According to De Wit, Harry Potter is different from Gnostic fantasy on all three counts. Firstly, Harry and his friends sometimes make bad choices, but remain good by choosing virtue in decisive and difficult moments; evil characters can repent (Malfoy and perhaps Wormtail spring to mind) and even the greatest villain was once a gifted and agreeable student. (I would like to add that Voldemort ends up murdering the only part of him that still adheres to goodness: the part that inheres in Harry.)

Secondly, while Harry is indeed a member of a select group favoured by fate, wizards are ultimately not significantly different from Muggles; they have few spectacular powers. In many modern fantasy tales, ordinary people are entirely impotent, ‘passive observers of a cosmic game they can neither grasp nor control’. Muggles, on the other hand, have a role to play and are feared.

(While I agree that the power of magic mostly seems to be equivalent to human technology, I think the role of Muggles is overestimated here. Though Sirius Black is apprehended by Muggle police, no Death Eater is harmed by Muggles and they play no important part in the story, unless you count Harry’s bullying family. Guns do not seem to be a match for spells, and the Muggle Prime Minister is even more clueless than the Minister for Magic.)

Thirdly, Harry does not run the race on his own; Ron and Hermione ‘complement him in essential points’, and Dumbledore is an important counsellor to him. Their role is certainly not limited to telling Harry that he needs to find all the answers himself.

Thus far Anton de Wit. Michael O’Brien, as I said, is much more critical of the Harry Potter series (of which Part Four was the latest when the article was written). His article is not only a discussion of the ‘Potter phenomenon’, but also a more general reflection on the loss of discernment in our culture due to the constant stimuli with which we are bombarded. He points out (rightly, I think) the passive state in which television has left both our rational and our imaginative faculties: we find it increasingly difficult to attend to anything, whether it be an argument or an artwork. This makes us vulnerable to manipulation.

He then discusses the argument that Harry Potter promotes reading. He concedes the fact, but finds it inadequate, because a book is not always better than a movie. Much fantasy, he says, reads like a movie: overwhelming (‘fast-paced’ is an oft-used term of praise in reviews) and shallow. ‘In a word, thrills have swept aside wonder.’

Is this the case in Harry Potter? O’Brien does not say so explicitly. In fact he almost defends the opposite, by detailing the truly imaginative charms of the wizarding world. What he does find objectionable is the mixture of these delights with repulsive things: vomiting slugs, ghosts in toilets, habitual rudeness between students, and so on. These are arguably more prevalent in Rowling’s work than in Lewis’s or Tolkien’s. But let us stick to the points we’ve used so far and try to reconstruct O’Brien’s answers to De Wit.

Firstly, good is indeed presented as stronger than evil, and repentance is possible; nonetheless, there is no clear standard of good and evil. The Harry Potter series is marked by the philosophy that the end justifies the means. Harry blackmails his uncle, lies, takes revenge on enemies, and is disobedient, for which disobedience he is rewarded by the authorities. (I could add Dumbledore’s willing Snape to murder him: an intrinsically evil act, even in his illness.) Moreover, Rowling herself sneers at the physical ugliness of the ‘bad guys’ who torment Harry.

We might argue that these things happen in real life, after all. But the point is precisely that they shouldn’t happen in real life, and that literature should make this clear. A book in which injustice is rewarded with the sympathy of the author – in other words: a book in which some of Harry’s bad choices are presented as good – does not teach the difference between good and evil. It seems, after all, that the ‘good guys’ are ‘those who agree with what Harry does’, which would invalidate De Wit’s first point.

Secondly, Harry is indeed part of a ‘gnostic cabal’, which may not be as extreme in its powers as some groups portrayed in other fantasy works, but nevertheless separates itself from society in the pursuit of power and esoteric knowledge. (They erase the memories of ordinary people who happen to stumble upon the magical world – hardly respectful of their integrity! I would say that one of the most terrible scenes in the seventh movie shows Hermione taking the decision to erase herself entirely from her parents’ lives.)

Yes, it is power, not wisdom, that is sought for in Rowling’s magic: power over oneself, over the environment, sometimes even over other people. It is upsetting that ‘supernatural powers are redefined as human faculties’; magic, which in the real world always involves contact with unclean spirits, is portrayed as a harmless gift which it is good to train. The Catechism says that magic or sorcery, the attempt ‘to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others’, is diametrically opposed to the virtue of religion.

Of course, as mentioned, magic has been redefined as ‘natural power’, like electricity or other forces we use without full understanding. The question remains whether the books are not likely to excite a desire for esoteric power in children. Magic is portrayed otherwise in Tolkien’s and Lewis’s works, where it is either sparingly wielded by divine or angelic beings (Aslan, Gandalf) to protect others’ freedom, or it is manipulative and destructive. (Lucy’s magic on the Dufflepuds is not mentioned; still that chapter also chastens our desire for magical power and knowledge.)

In the last analysis, Rowling’s story is Gnostic where Tolkien’s isn’t. ‘Harry is the reverse image of Frodo. Rowling portrays his victory over evil as the fruit of esoteric knowledge and power. This is Gnosticism. Tolkien portrays Frodo’s victory over evil as the fruit of humility, obedience and courage in a state of radical suffering. This is Christianity.’ (To which I would like to add that Tolkien really does not portray Frodo’s victory, only his defeat and salvation through mercy!)

Thirdly, while Harry is not a lone ranger, he does not consider himself bound by any external law. All rules may be broken, as long as one’s own values do not suffer; this means that obedience is not one of Harry’s values. (St. Augustine called obedience ‘the mother of all the virtues’.) Dumbledore seems to approve of Harry’s trespassing tendencies; rule-enforcers are usually dubious characters. The young reader can only conclude that he himself is most capable of distinguishing between good and evil in any concrete situation, ‘guided only by the occasional intervention of a Dumbledore or some similar guru figure’, and that the law needs to be treated with a certain degree of contempt.

(In Rowling’s defence, traditional moral theology does allow law-breaking in exceptional circumstances for which the lawgiver did not intend the law. Also, some laws are not binding in conscience and may be broken, as long as one is willing to accept the punishment when caught. Yet it seems irresponsible to acquaint children too soon with these niceties of casuistry; besides, they are bound by the commandment to honour their parents, which also extends to those in loco parentis, such as teachers.)

In short, O’Brien would be in general agreement with De Wit on what constitutes a Gnostic and unhealthy fantasy, but disagree about the application to Harry Potter. I think that his arguments at least merit consideration, that there is a real danger of youths being confirmed in an anti-authoritarian attitude (at best) or sliding into occult activity and demonic oppression (at worst), and that O’Brien has a point when he says that our cultural discernment is damaged by our frequent exposure to violence, sexual promiscuity and inverted symbolism.

(If someone would have told me five years ago that I would write this article, I would have laughed in his face!)

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