What is Missing with Mr. Potter?

The Harry Potter series has been attacked by some fundamentalists for introducing our children to magic and witchcraft. But I believe his problem is somewhat different: It is not too much magic that plagues Potter, but too little. Or rather, it is a magic that looks too much like technology. At one point, before the computer, the cell-phone, and other instances of electronic magic, technology was something we felt we could understand, at least in principle. Many of us could, for example, do major repairs on our cars, or fix the appliances around our house. But no more. The computer is as mysterious as it is ubiquitous, and no one "expert" comprehends the whole thing. The applications expert defers to the operating system guru, who defers to the hardware specialist, who gives way to the electrical engineer, who relies on the micro-code specialist, who (in order to actually use the computer) relies on the applications expert. From the standpoint of any one person, however much he knows about his piece of the system, the whole thing is magic.

But what kind of magic? It is, I believe, a magic that has no other end but itself. It is true that Harry and friends struggle, in their efforts to grow to manhood and womanhood, with the "evil" Malfoi's and such-like. But the evil of the Malfoi's seems to consist mainly in snobbery and bad manners. Potter and friends, on the other hand, seem to represent an amorphous liberalism, an "equal rights for muggles" polity. Beyond that, he is just nicer and more attractive and Drako and companions. But perhaps what Harry really is, is just what we can never seem to find these days, a true master of the technology of the magic that routinely surrounds us. It is a technology much like ours: taught in vast institutes by teams of specialists, managed bureaucratically by the ministry of magic, and sold commercially in shops, shops that will tailor the magic wand to the personality of the wizard, much as Dell computer claims to do in their ads. Harry is the master of the potions, incantations, wands, and broomsticks that are the reigning technology of his world. But is there something missing from that world?

J. K. Rowling has literary forebears in J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, who also wrote magical tales, but it was a magic that arose from their deeply-held religious convictions. Their magic was a connection to a wider world of ultimate values. But Harry strikes as merely a very charming technologist. Hence it comes as no surprise that one of the best commentaries I have seen on Mr. Potter comes not from a literary critic or a theologian, but from a technologist, Lev Grossman, who writes a technology column for Time magazine and its blog. Mr. Grossman comments:

"If you want to know who dies in Harry Potter, the answer is easy: God.

Harry Potter lives in a world free of any religion or spirituality of any kind. He lives surrounded by ghosts but has no one to pray to, even if he were so inclined, which he isn't. Rowling has more in common with celebrity atheists like Christopher Hitchens than she has with Tolkien and Lewis.

What does Harry have instead of God? Rowling's answer, at once glib and profound, is that Harry's power comes from love. This charming notion represents a cultural sea change. In the new millennium, magic comes not from God or nature or anything grander or more mystical than a mere human emotion. In choosing Rowling as the reigning dreamer of our era, we have chosen a writer who dreams of a secular, bureaucratized, all-too-human sorcery, in which psychology and technology have superseded the sacred."

I would not disparage the stories on the level at which they are written: charming tales of children confronting the world, a world that has, much like ours, enough real monsters--and enough real monstrosities--to challenge anyone, child or adult. But still we can ask, "In a world that lacks real transcendence, is their any real reason to prefer Harry to Drako?"


gordsellar Friday, July 27, 2007 at 1:17:00 AM CDT  

It's troubling when people insist everything has to explicitly be about their religion. If you want religious wizard books like Harry Potter, go bloody write some yourself.

As a creative write, I'm going to say, nobody has the right to dictate to another writer (such as Rowling) that she or he has a duty to pander to one's particular religion or religious beliefs. Rowling wrote the books she wanted to. To criticize them for romanticizing England in a certain way, okay; to criticize the dominance of male characters, okay; to criticize the romanticization of private school in a Britain that sorely needs more investment and hope in public schools, yes; but to whine and complain because she didn't underpin her story with your own particular theology? That's just plain infantile and narcissistic.

Besides, there's more than enough Christian-themed Young Adult fantasy -- C.S. Lewis, for example -- out there if someone really wants to mushroom his kids into thinking the only thing to talk about is God-God-God. Of course, he'll be surprised to discover their severe problems in talking to anyone outside your church group later on, but it's up to him, I suppose.

By the way, I'm not a fan either, but get it right. It's Draco, not Drako. And there's tons of reason to prefer Harry, but the biggest one is, he's a middle class underdog with his heart in the right place, fighting a big bad bad guy. while Draco is a rude, nasty boy born to priviledge who's only obsessed with what's good for Draco. (That, at least, is evident in the first few films and books, which is as far as I've gotten.) Are you suggesting that if Harry was a Christian and Draco not, it would give us more a reason to prefer Harry? Do we really need more of a reason? One must be really blinded by one's bigotry against non-Christians not to see what's wrong with lumping them all together that way... let alone automatically naturally favoring someone because they happen to pray to the same god as you.

John Médaille Sunday, July 29, 2007 at 12:54:00 PM CDT  

Thank you for the spelling corrections. I do not recall insisting that Harry Potter practice my religion.

Many have claimed that the last book especially brings in themes of self-sacrifice that indeed religious. I haven't read it so I won't comment. However, that still doesn't negate the fact that magic in the series is a mere technology, and not (as far as I can tell) connected with any deeper reality.

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