Saturday, July 30, 2011

On Harry Potter, Part 1: Natural Magic

I have just watched 'The Deathly Hallows 2'. I have thus completed the long, long cursus Potterensis: seven books, eight films, each seemingly longer than the last. I was given the first books to read when I was ill; they were indeed quite good to read with flu.

The Potter phenomenon has created a vast amount of controversy among Catholics and others. The Ossovotore Romano has come out in favour, but they have played this card - of endorsing bits of popular culture - so often recently that it has lost its significance. I would like to address two issues which are fundamental to a moral assessment of the series. In this post, the issue of magic; in the next, the issue of the plot.

Before I start I should say, to those who haven't read the books, don't believe the people who say J.K. Rowling is some kind of literary giant. It is constantly repeated that the books are well written. They aren't. They are badly written. She is incapable of holding together a novel of more than 200 pages, and as the books expand, they collapse. There are hundreds of pages of mooching about while the primary plot is at a standstill. The style is not particularly good. The dialogue tends towards the banal. Character development is either hamfisted or nonexistent. The teenage angst which dominates Potter himself for a several books is painfully tedious.

Rowling is good at certain, specific, things. She has a good vocabulary, creates interesting (if mostly one-dimenstional) characters, and she has good ideas. By the last, I don't mean the magical school, which I understand is from another author, and is pretty obvious anyway. Rather, there are a number of very creative things she does at the intersection of magic and psychology, and the intersection is itself very interesting. In her world magic requires great self-control, the control of the imagination, passions, and memory, and this not only makes for some interest in the story but is a valuable contribution to popular culture which emphasises the free play of the passions and imagination.

And so magic. Many opponents of the Harry Potter series maintain that the problem is simply the use of magic. Potter defeats his enemies with magic, so Potter is bad, since magic is evil. This view would also, of course, rule out not just C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, but Shakespeare, Chaucer, the Arthurial romances, and the whole folk tradition of Europe, which is ultimately the basis of the imaginative world of these authors. (The same goes naturally for the folk traditions of every other continent). If this argument is right, then we more or less have to give up on the Catholic literary tradition.

The argument, of course, is absurd. In reading a book which uses fantasy, you have to accept the fantastic premises of the book. One premise used by Rowling is the same as that of all the other authors just mentioned, which is that of natural magic. Natural, that is, as opposed to demonic.

In the real world we know that evil spirits are able to bring about effects which cannot be brought about by any other created causes, and this preternatural activity could, if called upon, explain all that needs to be explained in the phenomena of the occult, spiritism and the like which is left unexplained by fraud. The discussion of magic in the Bible certainly suggests that the real-world necromancers, magicians, and mediums encountered in its pages are dependent upon evil spirits for whatever effective powers they may possess. (Here is a picture of the Witch of Endor from 1 Samuel 28.) What we cannot do, however, is assume that the fantasy world based on the western folk tradition works like this, and that, regardless of the author's intentions, Merlin and Gandalf are satanists and the figure of Zeus, who appears in Shakespeare's Cymbeline, is an evil spirit. That supposition knocks the stilts out from under the entire basis of literature, which is that authors are able to create characters and situations as they see fit. If you won't accept that, then you will never understand a work of fiction.

What the folk tradition and the other authors are supposing, in their fictional worlds, is that there is such a thing as a kind of causality which goes beyond what we normally experience but does not depend on the direct intervention of God or the angels or on evil spirits. We may call this 'natural magic', since the idea is that it simply uses the powers of nature, albeit in a spectacular fashion. In this respect it is no different from technology, and indeed science fiction can be seen as a development of the same literary tradition as Tolkein and the rest. Science fiction simply substitutes the flummery of fictionalised science for the flummery of magic to justify its results.

So when Harry Potter resorts to magic to defend himself and his friends, or indeed to do his packing or the washing up, is he breaking the First Commandment by invoking evil spirits? No: there is no invocation of evil spirits in the Potter books because that is not what they are supposed to be doing - not even the bad characters. They are simply making use of natural powers which they, the select magical few, posses, which the general population does not.

The next question is: are books promoting a Christian worldview by presenting us with tales of the defeat of evil by good, self sacrifice, virtue and friendship? That is for the next post. There I will set out a moral problem in the series which I haven't seen discussed elsewhere.


  1. Jacobitess8:33 pm

    I think this explanation of the magic is spot on! Actually I always thought the powers were presented in a mundane way and not nearly as mystical or intriguing as what we see in Catholic literature. What I have a problem with in the books is the racism.

    As much as Rowling tries to disguise it (with the major evil characteristic of her villains being a desire to dominate non-wizard beings) her books mark non-magical persons as inferior, and your argument about magic stemming from natural abilities only confirms it. Lewis, Tolkien, and other forms of literature all have a good reason for a person being set apart for this innate ability. With Rowling, it's more humdrum, rather like gymnastic skills or hair colour. So if it is such a common, natural talent, that implies that 'muggles' are handicapped in some way. And indeed, the word muggle sounds more like a slur than mudblood. In fact, Rowling did not invent the word. It comes from the 1920's and it means '<span><span>a</span> <span>common</span> <span>person,</span> <span>esp.</span> <span>one</span> <span>who</span> <span>is</span> <span>ignorant</span> <span>or</span> <span>has</span> <span>no</span> <span>skills.' Also, aside from Hermione's neurotic parents whom we hardly ever see, I cannot remember one, single sympathetic muggle in the book.

    I'll be intrigued to what comes up in your next post on the plot! Too many good Catholics get too excited one way or another over this series, and a level-headed approach is sorely needed. :)

  2. Joseph Shaw10:08 pm

    A very interesting point about racism. Certainly the baddies are clearly supposed to be like Nazis in their attitude to muggles but in the world of the books the difference between muggles and wizards is all too real.
    I suppose Rowling would say that while the Deatheaters try to make the magical / non-magical difference a racial thing, a matter of descent, the good characters see it in a more meritocratic way - non-magical parents can have magical children. Though that doesn't wholly work, given how separate the two societies are.