Catholic World News News Feature
Harry Potter and the Paganization of Children’s Culture October 10, 2001
The realm of human imagination is a God-given gift, a faculty of the mind that is intended to expand our understanding by enabling us to visualize invisible truths. In the modern era this zone of man's interior life has moved to the forefront of his experience. With the advent of film, television, and now the near-virtual reality of special-effects videos and other electronic entertainment, the screen of the imagination is stimulated to a degree (both in quantity and in kind) more than at any other period in history. This has prompted a continuing debate over what constitutes healthy nourishment of the imagination and what degrades it.
In his essay "On Fairy Stories," J.R.R. Tolkien pointed out that because man is made in the image and likeness of God he is endowed with faculties that reflect his Creator. One of these is the gift of "sub-creation"--the human creator may give form to other worlds populated by imaginary peoples and beasts, where fabulous environments are the stage for astounding dramas. The primal desire at the heart of such imagining, he says, is the "realization of wonder." If our eyes are opened to see existence as wonder-full, then we become more capable of reverential awe before the Source of it all. "Fairy stories may invent monsters that fly the air or dwell in the deep," he wrote, "but at least they do not try to escape from heaven or the sea." However fantastic the sub-created world may be, if it is a product of the "baptized imagination" it will be faithful to the moral order of the universe. Tolkien cautions, however, that because man is fallen, the creative faculty is always at risk of veering away from its true objective. We are all quite capable of taking God-given gifts back in the direction of idolatry.
Even the most cursory glance at what is available in children's literature and entertainment today offers ample evidence that the paganization of the imagination is well underway. In the late 19th century there appeared in children’s fiction a trickle of books that began the process of redefining Christian symbols and the presentation of occult themes in a favorable light. Until then, witches and sorcerers--important elements of traditional fables and fairy tales--were consistently portrayed as evil. With the advent of the occult revival (which entered the West primarily through certain British writers involved in esoteric religion) more and more material appeared that attempted to shift the line between good and evil. The characters of the "white witch," the pet dragon, and the wise wizard became familiar figures. During the last quarter of the 20th century the trickle became a torrent, and by the final decade before the millennium it entered the mainstream of culture, powerfully augmented by the interlocking mechanisms of television, film, video, marketing techniques and spin-off industries, and applauded by a class of critics who told us that this was all a long overdue broadening of our horizons.
In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman describes how television has reshaped our society. In the past, when Western man moved from an oral culture to the print-dominated or "typographic" culture, significant changes resulted in our capacity to absorb experience and abstractions. The volume of information fed to the mind increased, while the mind's ability to sort and evaluate the influx of data did not always keep pace. With the advent of television another quantum leap occurred. Flooded with powerful stimuli that bypassed the mind's normal faculties for filtering and interpretation, both the rational and the imaginative aspects of our minds became increasingly passive. As a result, Postman warns, our ways of perceiving reality itself are becoming fundamentally distorted. We now imbibe a massive amount of impressions in small bites that demand of us neither sustained attention nor truly critical thinking, thus rendering us vulnerable to manipulation. We are dangerously close, he says, to that condition described by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World; no longer conscious of our bondage, we are soothed by endless entertainments. Postman writes:
For in the end he [Huxley] was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.
How does this warning apply to books that promote a pagan view of the world? Surely, it is argued, their popularity heralds a return to a more literate culture. Is not their success a positive sign, demonstrating that the human imagination can never be fully satisfied by electronic media? At first glance, it would seem so. But a book is not necessarily always better than a video simply because it is a book. While it is true that media technology tends to overwhelm the viewer, and books usually pay some respect to the integrity of the reader (sparking the imagination but not displacing its creative powers), much of contemporary fantasy for the young is actually closer in style to television than to literature. It overwhelms by using in print form the visceral stimuli and pace of the electronic media, flooding the imagination with sensory rewards while leaving it malnourished at the core. In a word, thrills have swept aside wonder.
If the purpose of wonder is to lead to reflection on the splendor of existence, and reflection to clear thought about its meaning, what has been lost? And why has it been lost? Postman warns that the power over our minds exercised by constantly changing images is now so deeply embedded in our consciousness that it has become invisible. We are fast losing our ability to recognize that we have lost anything at all, let alone the ability to ask why it has been lost.
There is no more disturbing consequence of the electronic and graphic revolution than this: that the world as given to us through television seems natural, not bizarre. For the loss of the sense of the strange is a sign of adjustment, and the extent to which we have adjusted is a measure of the extent to which we have been changed. Our culture’s adjustment to the epistemology of television is by now all but complete; we have so thoroughly absorbed its definitions of truth, knowledge and reality that irrelevance seems filled with import, and incoherence seems eminently sane. And if some of our institutions seem not to fit the template of the times, why it is they, and not the template, that seem to us disordered and strange.
THE HARRY POTTER PHENOMENON
If the fragmenting and leveling of consciousness distorts how we perceive the world, it will necessarily distort our assessment of cultural material. A case in point is the publication of Joanne K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels, which during the past four years have met with a deluge of favorable reviews and an astonishing sales response. Some 76 million copies have been sold, there are translations in 42 languages, and three of the titles are concurrently on the New York Times best-sellers list as this essay is written.
Because the Harry Potter series presents the world of witchcraft and sorcery in a positive light, it has also sparked a minority reaction ranging from outright alarm to sober analysis. Some critics say the books are flawed but essentially harmless fantasy, filling a real need; others decry them as the next stage in the ongoing degeneration of culture. In either case the books invite an appraisal, for they are going to be a major influence on the thoughts and perceptions of the coming generation.
The four novels published to date are so rich in characters and ornate sub-plots that it would be impossible to describe all of them in a single article. However, at this point a sketch of the structure of the series may serve to set the context for themes I will discuss further on.
In volume one, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, we are introduced to the world of sorcery and the boy who plays the pivotal role in the struggle between good and evil as it is defined in the series. The story begins with the murder of Harry's parents, a witch and wizard who are destroyed by another wizard named Voldemort, chief of all the wizards who have gone too far into practice of the "Dark Arts"--the "evil side of sorcery." Baby Harry survives the attack for some unexplained reason, and Voldemort flees, much reduced in power. We later learn that the sacrificial love Harry's mother has for her baby son somehow deflected Voldemort's curses onto himself, with the result that Voldemort has become no more than a barely human shadow of his former self. Harry is rescued by witches and wizards who take him to a suburb of London to be raised by his aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Dursley. The Dursleys are "Muggles"--the wizard term for ordinary humans who have no magic powers. A thoroughly despicable couple, they are unrelievedly cruel to Harry, opinionated, conceited and full of malice for anything to do with magic. Harry knows nothing about his background.
On his 11th birthday, Harry begins to discover that he has some mysterious powers. He soon meets witches and wizards who harass the Dursleys with magic in order to obtain their permission for Harry to attend Hogwarts, a school of witchcraft and wizardry. There Harry meets the headmaster Professor Dumbledore who is also the unofficial chief of the "good wizards" in the world. At Hogwarts, Harry makes special friends with fellow students Ron and Hermione, and together the trio experience many adventures throughout the four novels written to date. In this first novel Harry comes to understand that the Dark Lord--Voldemort himself--seeks to recapture his old magical strength and seize power over the world. One of the Hogwarts professors, a wizard named Quirrel, is secretly loyal to Voldemort and tries to help him by stealing the Philosopher's Stone (containing the "elixir of eternal life") which is safe in Dumbledore's keeping, and by draining the life from Harry in order to restore Voldemort's own powers. If he can achieve this, Voldemort intends to kill Harry, for Harry is the only one ever to have resisted his killing curse. In the attempt, Voldemort possesses Quirrel and lures Harry into a confrontation where he tries to seize the stone and kill the boy. But the power latent in Harry is too strong for him; Voldemort flees and Harry collapses, remaining unconscious for three days before he revives.
Volume two, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, chronicles Harry's second year at Hogwarts. The plot revolves around mysterious events connected to a secret chamber in Hogwarts castle. Supposedly an evil presence lurks there and has been released to roam about the school, terrorizing students and killing as it pleases. Students and some of the professors suspect that the famous Harry Potter may be the cause, and it is rumored that he has become a practitioner of the Dark Arts. After all, it is argued, even as a baby he was more powerful than the Dark Lord, the most powerful evil wizard in the world. Isolated and despised, Harry begins to doubt himself, suspecting that he might be destined to become evil. Dumbledore reassures him that this is not so. Eventually Harry discovers a secret passageway to the underground chamber, and enters it to save a little witch girl named Ginny who has become entranced by Voldemort. He does not realize that Voldemort has used her as bait. Inside the chamber Harry kills the Basilisk, a giant snake that is associated with Voldemort, then uses a fang of the snake to stab a magic dialoguing diary that was the method Voldemort used to entrance Ginny. When Harry destroys the diary, Voldemort is banished a second time.
In volume three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry is embroiled in an old conflict between his "godfather," a wizard named Sirius Black, and a wizard named Peter Pettigrew, and other magicians who are at odds with each other due to a mysterious ancient feud. Black has been thrown into the wizard prison of Azkaban on a charge of murdering Pettigrew--which he alleged did in revenge aafter Pettigrew betrayed Harry's parents to Voldemort. The truth is that Pettigrew faked his own death, framing Black for his murder, then transformed himself into a rat named Scabbers (the sleepy pet of Harry's friend Ron), in which disguise he has been hiding out for 12 years while Black remained in prison. As the story begins, Black has broken out of prison, and both the wizard world and the Muggle world (where he is believed to be a mass murderer) are trying to track him down. The wizard world thinks Black is searching for Harry in order to kill him. Into the tale comes Romulus Lupus (who is also a werewolf) the new teacher of Defense-Against-the-Dark-Arts at Hogwarts. We discover that Lupus, Black, Pettigrew, and Harry’s father had once been fellow students at Hogwarts and were a foursome of friends during their youth. Harry has a difficult time untangling the web of deception and intrigue: who betrayed whom, who can be trusted, who is telling the truth about the past? None of these characters are what they appear to be. Harry’s assumptions (and the reader's) about who is good and who is evil are constantly flipping, and only in the last chapters do we discover that Scabbers the rat is the real villain. In a final confrontation Scabbers is transformed back into his human form (as Pettigrew) by the commanding spells of Lupus and Black, who are about to administer justice by killing him. Harry asks them to be merciful and to send Pettigrew to Azkaban Prison. But Pettigrew escapes and flees in search of his old master Voldemort.
Volume four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, is about Voldemort's elaborate plan to ensnare Harry through the services of Pettigrew, to take some of the boy's blood and make a potion that will restore the Dark Lord to his former powers. Indeed, the latter hopes to obtain more power than he has ever known, for Harry's powers, though as yet undeveloped, are potentially greater than those of Voldemort himself. The plot revolves around a year-long competition in wizardry that involves the student-champions of the three great schools of sorcery. Harry is one of the champions for his school, and in feat after daring feat he overcomes terrifying obstacles (usually by putting the good of others above his own desire to win). He emerges the victor of the competition, only in the end to be tricked into Voldemort's hands. The Dark Lord takes some of Harry's blood, makes the potion and is restored to his full powers. Harry rallies, resists Voldemort's killing curse with the power of his will and magical commands, then flees to Hogwarts. The book concludes with a stirring speech from the headmaster Dumbledore, who praises Harry for his virtues, and calls the students and professors to unity in the face of the overwhelming danger that now looms over the world.
MATERIALIST MAGIC AND THE ASSIMILATED IMAGINATION
Pro-Harry commentators say that Rowling's sub-creation is witty, thought-provoking, entertaining, expands the child's imagination, and even retains a certain morality. Furthermore, she has succeeded in introducing an electronically addicted generation to the world of reading. All of this is true. The stories are packed with surprises: delights of the imagination that will enchant almost all readers. Talking chess pieces argue with the players about the advisability of move;, ingenious toys and devices abound; mythological beasts run in and out of scenes; owls deliver mail; a lovable giant hatches dragon eggs and breeds new species of creatures; elves serve dutifully; wise-cracking ghosts play tricks; and of course there is the game of Quidditch—a combination of rugby, basketball, and polo played on flying broomsticks.
But the charming details are mixed with the repulsive at every turn. Ron seeks to cast a spell that rebounds on himself, making him vomit slimy slugs; the ghost of a little girl lives in a toilet; excremental references are not uncommon; urination is no longer an off-limits subject; rudeness between students is routine behavior. In volume four especially these trends are much in evidence, along with the added spice of sexuality inferred in references to "private parts" and students pairing off and "going into the bushes."
Student witches and wizards are taught at Hogwarts to use their wands to cast hexes and spells to alter their environments, punish small foes, and defend themselves against more sinister enemies. Transfiguration lessons show them how to change objects and people into other kinds of creatures--often against their will. In Potions class they make brews that can be used to control others. In Herbology they grow plants that are used in the potions; the roots of the mandrake plant, for example, are small living babies who scream when they are uprooted for transplanting, and are grown for the purpose of being cut into pieces and boiled in a magical potion.
The wizard world is about the pursuit of power and esoteric knowledge, and in this sense it is a modern representation of a branch of ancient Gnosticism, the cult that came close to undermining Christianity at its birth. The so-called "Christian Gnostics" of the 2nd century were in no way Christian, for they attempted to neutralize the meaning of the Incarnation and to distort the concept of salvation along traditional Gnostic lines: man saves himself, they believed, by obtaining secret knowledge and power. The figure of Christ was just one of many "myths" which the Gnostics attempted to graft onto their world view. At Hogwarts, similarly, holidays such as Christmas and Easter are stripped of Christ, rendered down to no more than social customs and absorbed into the "broader" context of the occult cosmology. Halloween is the great feast of the year. Rowling's wizard world, gnostic in essence and practice, neutralizes the sacred and displaces it by normalizing what is profoundly abnormal and destructive in the real world.
The objection is sometimes raised: surely this is permissible because it is a sub-creation, and so its author has free rein to establish its own laws, its interior coherence and consistency. This objection overlooks the fact that Rowling's wizard world interacts with the real world and violates the moral order in both. The story takes place in contemporary London and the English countryside. The witches and wizards are the gnostic cabal whose secret knowledge must be hidden from ordinary people and revealed only to initiates. The wizard world coexists with the world of the Muggles, but it is so enchanted that ordinary humans are blinded to its existence. When occasionally the lines are crossed through the "misuse of magic," the Ministry of Magic steps in to cover it up and to erase the memories of Muggles who happen to discover the great secret. The students and professors of Hogwarts are like personalities one would meet in any British boarding school; their difference is only in their extraordinary powers and bizarre activities. Some, like Harry, are likable; others are snobs and bullies. This is our world, but one in which supernatural powers are redefined as human faculties, needing only the proper learning in order to be used rightly.
While Rowling posits the "good" use of occult powers against their misuse, thus imparting to her sub-creation an apparent aura of morality, the cumulative effect is to shift our understanding of the battle lines between good and evil. The border is never defined. Of course, the archetype of "misuse" is Voldemort, whose savage cruelty and will to power is blatantly evil. Ye the reader is lulled into minimizing or forgetting altogether that Harry himself, and many other of the "good" characters, frequently use the same powers on a lesser scale, supposedly for good ends. The false notion that "the end justifies the means" is the subtext throughout. The author's characterization and plot continually reinforce the message that if a person is "nice," if he means well, if he is brave and loyal to his friends, he can pretty much do as he sees fit to combat horrific evil--magic powers being the ideal weapon.
This is consistent with the author's confused notions of authority. In reality, magic is an attempt to bypass the limitations of human nature and the authority of God, in order to obtain power over material creation and the will of others through manipulation of the supernatural. Magic is about taking control. It is a fundamental rejection of the divine order in creation. In the first book of Samuel (15:23) divination is equated with the spirit of rebellion. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls divination and magic forms of idolatry.
All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others...are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. (2117; see also 2110–2116 and 2138)
In Rowling's wizard world, children are taught to manipulate undefined forces, and to submit themselves to no higher law than the wizard authorities who will help them exercise their powers "wisely." However, the authorities themselves are divided, imparting to the impressionable reader the certainty that the best person to decide what is or is not a "proper use of magic" is the young witch or magician himself, guided only by the occasional intervention of a Dumbledore or some similar guru figure. The Ministry of Magic attempts to regulate the use of magic, but it is as bumbling and riddled with compromise as ordinary human governments.
The author repeatedly sets up the straw man of legalism and knocks it down with unsubtle blows. The Dursleys are a parody of staid conservatism, "touchy about anything even slightly out of the ordinary." Ron’s brother Percy, the most unattractive member of his family, is a caricature of the fastidious clerk, "fussy about rule-breaking." In Hogwarts, although it is organized along a system of rules pretty much like an ordinary boarding school, Harry's disobedience is frequently overlooked and even rewarded by the school authorities. After all, he is a special boy: gifted, hated by evil incarnate, and destined for greatness. Moreover, his daring and resourcefulness (combined with a sense of fair play toward "good" fellow students) are always pitted against "bad" characters.
But is Harry really all that good? He blackmails his uncle, uses trickery and deception, and "breaks a hundred rules" (to quote the mildly censorious but ultimately approving Dumbledore). He frequently tells lies to get himself out of trouble, and lets himself be provoked into revenge against his student enemies. He "hates" his enemies. The reader soon finds himself forgiving Harry for this because the boy's tormentors are vindictive and mocking. In a consistent display of authorial overkill Rowling depicts such "bad" characters as ugly in appearance. She does a good deal of sneering at the Dursleys for being fat, and ridicules the oafish bodies of the students who oppress Harry. In these details and a plethora of others throughout the series, the child reader is encouraged in his baser instincts while lip service is paid to morality. In fact, nowhere in the series is there any reference to a system of moral absolutes against which actions can be measured. In a word, this is materialist magic, magic as a naturalized human power.
When the meaning of the human person is reduced to a strictly natural definition, evil will be considered no more than erroneous abstractions or problems in the dynamics of the psyche. In his book, An Exorcist Tells His Story, Father Gabriele Amorth, the chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome, warns that modern men are losing their sense of the reality of supernatural evil. As a result, he says, many have made themselves more vulnerable to the influence of evil spirits who seek to corrupt and destroy souls.
I can state that the number of those who are affected by the evil one has greatly increased. The first factor that influences the increase of evil influences is Western consumerism. The majority of people have lost their faith due to a materialistic and hedonistic lifestyle...it is a well-known fact that where religion regresses, superstition progresses. We can see the proliferation, especially among the young, of spiritism, witchcraft, and the occult.
Father Amorth does not hesitate to say that cultural influences such as film, television, music, and books play no small part in the lowering of spiritual vigilance. "I was able personally to verify how great is the influence of these tools of Satan on the young," he writes. "It is unbelievable how widespread are witchcraft and spiritism, in all their forms, in middle and high school. This evil is everywhere, even in small towns."
Speaking of the growing phenomenon of diabolical possession and other forms of bondage to evil, Amorth points to sorcery as the most frequent cause. He warns that ultimately there is no real difference between "white" and "black" magic. Every form of magic is practiced with recourse to Satan, he says. So either knowingly or unknowingly, the practitioner of magic exposes himself to diabolic influence. He points out:
Scripture warns us that witchcraft is one of the most common means used by the devil to bind men to himself and to dehumanize them. Directly or indirectly, witchcraft is a cult of Satan.
The spread of occult activity, and the resulting increase in the number of exorcisms performed by Catholic priests, has been noted by secular commentators as well. Articles on the subject have recently appeared in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. An article in the November 28, 2000, edition of the New York Times reported a ten-fold increase in the number of official exorcists in the United States during the past decade. These, however, are still few in number, and a majority of dioceses have yet to implement the directives of a 1999 Vatican document that instructed every ordinary in the world to appoint an exorcist for his diocese. Father Amorth laments that many bishops still do not realize the scope of the problem. If he is right, it is no wonder that many lay people also consider the danger to be so remote that it has no bearing on their lives.