A Look at the Orphan Boy with Wizard Powers

By James Bjornstad

It would be unusual these days for one not to have heard of Harry Potter. The release of the latest Harry Potter book has been heralded on television news programs and in national magazines. Children stood in lines for hours on end on the day of the book's release.

Booksellers battled to cash in on Potter mania. Displays of Potter books are in bookstores everywhere. Praise from readers has appeared in news reports. And there are still more books to come. Harry Potter "presence" is almost ubiquitous as children with purple thunderbolts on their foreheads are seen everywhere.

Warner Bros., the motion picture company, already has cast and selected an 11-year-old boy from Britain for the lead role in the movie version of the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone (film title: "Harry Potter: Magic Will Happen"). While the film is not scheduled for release until November 2001, Hollywood is already claiming a stake of Potter mania. So, if not already, the name Harry Potter is well on its way to becoming a household word.

However, despite all the hoopla, some still may not be familiar with Harry. For those who have missed the hype, Harry is the central character in the extremely popular and best-selling series of books - more than 40 million copies in print - written by British teacher turned novelist Joanne Kathleen Rowling.

Rowling, who is known to her readers as J. K. Rowling, started working on the series when she was a single mother, jobless and on welfare. Following a brief marriage, she divorced her husband, a Portuguese television journalist, in 1993 and moved with her 3-month-old daughter to her native Britain. The concept for Harry Potter had come to her a few years earlier. Back in Britain and struggling to get Harry Potter onto paper and into print, she solicited a grant from the Scottish Arts Council. They responded to her request with 8,000 pounds (more than $11,000). It was an investment that would show remarkable dividends. According to business writer Paul Katzeff:

"...she believed she knew how to write, and she was determined to give it her all. Rowling settled into an apartment in Edinburgh, Scotland, near her sister Di. On winter days she fled her unheated flat. She'd walk until [her daughter] Jessica fell asleep in her pram and then rush[ed] them both into a warm café. While Jessica napped, she'd write on napkins from the café. In these two-hour snippets, she composed a novel that became the first one of the most successful children's series ever."
Seven books in all have been planned, one for each year that young Harry is at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Thus far, four have been released: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The newest volume weighs in at an astounding 752 pages - quite a reading feat for children, the audience for which it is written. In all, the Potter series has been translated into 35 languages, according to The New York Times. Readers of all ages are already eagerly looking forward to the next installment.

These books are creatively written, easily read, and delightfully entertaining. The plot gradually unfolds, drawing the reader into the story, and builds to the climax.

More About Harry

Depicted as a skinny boy having knobby knees, Harry has a thin face, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wears round glasses that are held together with tape. He has an unusual lightning-bolt shaped scar on his forehead, the result of his encounter with Dark Lord Voldemort at age one. His picture appears on the cover of each book.

Harry's parents, James and Lily Potter, were killed by Voldemort when he was a year old. Harry inherited his magical abilities from his father who was a wizard. His mother, however, was muggle-born. A Muggle, in the Potter novels, is a term used to identify any person who does not possess magical powers or is an ordinary person and not a witch.

The family of his mother's sister, the Dursleys, is raising Harry. Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and a spoiled brat Cousin Dudley are his only living relatives. He does have a godfather, Sirius, who has become his confidant. Because of his involvement in magic, which the Dursleys hate, "Harry was as welcome in their home as dry rot." To their credit, they did provide a home or a room for him, but it is very obvious that they are more concerned about themselves than Harry.

Harry Potter is an underage wizard who attends Hogwarts, a very special school. There he is learning about sorcery, developing magical abilities, and working his way through the levels of wizardry. Following his first year at Hogwarts, Harry is just counting the days until he can return. As Harry leaves for school, the story moves into the extraordinary world of magic and sorcery, where the excitement is and the climax occurs.

In the latest offering, Harry is now 14 years old and has just completed his fourth year at the school. He has learned much, used his wand successfully, and attempted many spells. Next year he will take his O.W.L. (Ordinary Wizarding Level) exam.

Uncle Vernon loves to explain Harry's long absence by telling everyone that Harry was at St. Brutus's Secure Center for Incurable Criminal Boys, indicating something of his contempt for both Harry and Hogwarts. When the school year ends, Harry returns home to the Dursleys and back to the ordinary world.

The major conflict is between Harry and Voldemort, his archenemy. After the initial class between the two, when Harry's parents were killed, Voldemort turned his wand on Harry and performed a curse that has killed many a wizard, but it did not work on Harry. The curse rebounded on Voldemort, greatly diminishing his power. Voldemort is regaining his power and the conflict is becoming more intense with each book. Voldemort is intent on destroying Harry.

Despite being bitter enemies, Harry and Voldemort are similar in several ways. They are both "half-bloods" who were orphaned and raised by Muggles. In addition, Harry and Voldemort are both Parselmouths; they have the ability to speak to snakes. But throughout, Harry is presented as a good wizard or sorcerer and Voldemort, as the most powerful dark wizard. Witches and wizards fear Voldemort, and abstain for mentioning his name. Instead, they refer to him as "You-know-who."

As those who have read any of the Harry Potter books can attest, there is just something about Harry that draws people to him. Perhaps it is that he is presented in some fashion as a geek who is misunderstood and bullied, or that he is an underdog who, with help from his friends and from magic and sorcery, is able to triumph over his situation. Whatever the reason, readers definitely consider Harry to be cool.

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

On his eleventh birthday, Harry is told, "yer a wizaed." He also learns that he has been "accepted" to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a school which "was founded over a thousand years ago - the precise date is uncertain - by the four greatest witches and wizards of the age. The four school Houses are named after them: Godric Gryffinder, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Salazar Slytherin." A sorting hat is used to decide which of these Houses an incoming student goes into. For Harry, the hat chose Gryffinder. When Harry arrives at Hogwarts, he is truly amazed that so many in the sorcery world know his name.

Hogwarts is a vocational institution of learning that trains junior and senior high school-age students to become sorcerers. It exists in the ordinary world, but it is magically camouflaged ("bewitched") so ordinary people are not aware of it. Perhaps it is best understood as a magical world-within-the-world. Hermione explains this concept by saying that Muggles do not see Hogwarts as it is. Instead, what they see is a "moldering old ruin with a sign over the entrance saying 'DANGER, DO NOT ENTER, UNSAFE.'"

Then there is also the gigantic World Cup Stadium, with its immense gold walls surrounding the field. At times it is filled with 100,000 witches and wizards from all over the world who are there for the championship Quidditch games. It is also best understood as a magical world-within-the-world. Instead of camouflage, like that used at Hogwarts, the stadium is protected in a different way. Hermione explains that Muggles know nothing about the stadium or the games nor could they see it because it is protected by "Muggle repelling charms." "Every time Muggles have got anywhere near here all year, they've suddenly remembered urgent appointments and had to dash away again," Harry is told.

The curriculum at Hogwarts specializes in aspects related to the occult. It includes such courses as the History of Magic, Divination, Spells, Charms, Care of Magical Creatures, and Defense Against Dark Arts. But Hogwarts is to be differentiated from other institutions of witchcraft and wizardry. It aligns itself on the side of good sorcery or white witchcraft, a benevolent kind of magic through which good ends can be achieved and evil spells undone. At Hogwarts, students are told not to use the dark arts or black magic. Rather, they are taught how to defend against it when it is used on them.

Some Observations

First of all, behind all the interest in the Harry Potter series may lie a yearning in our age for something beyond this world, a fascination with the mysterious that our daily experience does not satisfy. Education in the everyday "Muggle" world seems to be so "anti" anything beyond the natural world that many may be realizing the insufficiency of such a worldview. They may have come to the conclusion that not everything is explainable in terms of matter and the natural world nor by reason.

These books may provide for many a welcomed alternative in their way of perceiving things to naturalism and humanism. Our prayers should be that those who begin perceiving something beyond the natural will not stop there but continue beyond the paranormal to the supernatural, where they can discover the mystery and majesty of God and experience the forgiveness of sins that comes only through a personal relationship with His Son, Jesus Christ.

Occult Paradigm

Second, from all reports, there seems to be a growing interest in the occult and witchcraft these days, particularly among the younger generation. The worldview expressed in these books is compatible with their interests and with the paradigm presented by the occult and witchcraft today. Witchcraft is not perceived as supernatural but as a super-science in which power exists that can be tapped into. This power is taken to be neutral and can be used for good or evil.

Students at Hogwarts understand this to be true. Power for wizards and witches is gained through inheritance and also through learning. Harry, whose father was a wizard, is learning to be a good wizard, using this power in a good way. Voldemort, on the other hand, whose mother was a witch, has gone over to the dark side. He uses power in a bad way, for evil purposes.

As such, the worldview espoused in the Harry Potter series is at odds with the Christian worldview because it ignores the existence of an all-powerful God. He is the Creator and is sovereign over creation. He is also a moral God, having created man as a moral being and giving him the Bible by which he can know right from wrong. The Bible claims that the power itself in magic and sorcery is evil. Involvement in magic and sorcery are consistently forbidden.

Young Harry seems to make magic and occultism so benign, yet in Deuteronomy 18:9-14, practically all the types of magic prevalent at that time and presently in the Harry Potter books are forbidden. This would include divination, spells and charms, witchcraft and wizardry, and all forms of spiritism. In Isaiah 47:13 and Jeremiah 10:2, studying the movements of the planets to apply to one's life the findings is forbidden. Simply put, the occult begins with a rejection of God and then offers some poor substitutes, a variety of magical practices, in His place.

Dangerous Sources

Third, the author has considerable knowledge of the occult in order to bring factual and folklore elements from it together with fiction as she does so well in these books. Rowling uses ideas from folklore such as witches riding broomsticks, terms such as divination to gain extra-natural knowledge or knowledge about the future, and concepts such as scrying or crystallomancy to find lost objects, and she portrays them accurately in her books.

She also has knowledge of some of the famous occultists of the past. An example of this is her reference in her first book to Nicolas Flamel as the partner of Albus Dumbledore, the greatest headmaster of Hogwarts ever. Dumbledore is fictional, but Flamel is not. Not everything in Harry Potter is from the imagination of Rowling. She has had to research or most certainly has been exposed to occultic writings and practices.

As the story develops, Harry and his friends research Flamel in the library. They discover that he was the only known maker of the Sorcerer's Stone. The Elixir of Life, which gives immortality, is associated with the Stone. Flamel, now 665 years old, appears to have gained immortality, but only as long as the Stone exists. When Dumbledore destroys the Stone, Flamel and his wife Perenelle die.

Flamel actually was a 14th century alchemist. It is said that he was able to turn mercury into gold and that he did discover the Elixir of Life.

Glaring Dissimilarities

Fourth, at first glance, the thought that the author draws upon the legacy of fellow British writer, C. S. Lewis, and his popular children's books about the land of Narnia seems plausible. Like Lewis, Rowling has created a fantasy world involving young British children who encounter magical creatures. There are good characters and evil villains in both series. As Lewis wrote seven books in his series, so Rowling has planned for seven books in her series. But that is about as far as the Lewis-Rowling similarities go.

The Harry Potter series is simply not Christian allegory, and the fantasy world in it is very different from Narnia. In Narnia, Jesus is presented in the character of Aslan the great lion. He is the creator and sovereign ruler of the land. No comparable character exists in the Harry Potter books (even though some see Harry's mother as Christ-like in that she gave her life for her son, and a few have predicted that Harry may yet be "messianic"). Regarding power, in Narnia, good power comes from Aslan [Jesus] and is used in accordance with his will. Evil power is that which is seized or conjured up.

In the Harry Potter books, power simply exists and is used for good and for evil purposes. Apart from pragmatism, there appears to be no basis for good and evil in any absolute sense.

Unwelcome Motifs

Finally, given the impressionable nature of so many young readers, there are some recurring themes in these books that are bothersome. One is the low view of "Muggles," those who do not use magic. They are portrayed negatively and considered to be ignorant. They rely on electricity and batteries, and on computers and radar, instead of magic. In contrast, sorcery is presented positively and exalted. By extension, could Christians committed to a biblical worldview be seen as "Muggles" or at least negatively as uninformed and not with it?

Another is the focus on the use of magic to get back at someone or to overcome difficult challenges. A good example of the first would be that time when Harry caused every part of Uncle Vernon's sister Marge's body to inflate. His comment is "She deserves it." An example of the latter can be seen in Goblet of Fire when Harry employs his magical arts as he takes on the three tasks in the Triwizard Tournament.

What Should One Do?

Many Christians and Christian organizations have taken a strong stand against the Harry Potter series because of its occult worldview and content. Some flatly state that it is pagan and not Christian and should not be read. They fear that readers might realize the reality of sorcery and desire it, thereby using the books as a springboard into actual practice.

Yet, others hail from the opposite end of the spectrum, asserting the works are just plain fiction and fantasy. As such, it is claimed, very little, if any, caution should be raised.

An alternative response might be to read one of the Harry Potter books with a child (or adult) to help him develop his ability to use the Bible to discern right from wrong. As you read it together, explain to him how its worldview and specific content are contrary to Scripture. Then let him try to note what he can and explain it to you. Teaching discernment to any Christian, and especially to those in the younger generation, is definitely a goal worth pursuing.

As the apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians centuries ago, so may we do today. "Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil" (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).