The Magic of Harry Potter
Essays Concerning Magic, Literary Devices and Moral Themes in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter
Daniel R. Mitchell
Harry Potter Mania
Every so often a device, a book, or an idea comes along that so captures people's imagination that it becomes a fad, or even a mania. It's an interesting phenomenon that is sometimes difficult to explain. It isn't necessary that the focus of the mania be something extraordinary. Sometimes an ordinary thing becomes extraordinary simply because of all the attention it gets. The Harry Potter books have certainly captured the imagination of many, many people, raising the question of why they have become a mania. Is it because the books are very good, or is this just another instance of that strange phenomena of a public mania? Perhaps, there is something truly magical about the books. (more...)
It's Just a Book
One of the statements often made about Harry Potter is that it is 'just a book.' The implication is that people shouldn't be taking it so seriously. That's a bad idea as there is no such thing as 'just a book.' Books are, after all, a kind of magic where the intent of the author is expressed through words, a kind of 'spell' or incantation. That's not to say that all books are written explicitly for the purpose of influencing the way we think. An author can have the main intent of telling an entertaining story. Nevertheless, the author has a world view and will inevitably write that world view into the book at some level. It would be extremely difficult, and require an enormous skill as a writer, for an author to consistently express a world view that is different from his own. If the author is writing satire he may create an absurd version of a contrary world view in order to mock and deride it, but for most books, the plot, characters, actions and consequences of the characters will express the world view of the author. Reading a book exposes us to the ideas of the author and if we do not read critically we may absorb those ideas without realizing it. (more...)
A Rollicking Good Tale
As previously stated, Harry Potter is a very entertaining story and that answers the first question I had 'why are these books so popular? Reading some criticism of Harry Potter you might get the idea that the books are popular because they deal in witchcraft and magic. Now that I see how entertaining the story is, I can put that idea aside as too simplistic. The books are fun to read, period. In fact, Harry Potter could have been written as a straight fiction story, with no magic at all, and be almost as entertaining. However, using magic in a story gives the author the opportunity to be inventive and to create solutions to plot problems that might be very difficult or mundane otherwise. Although the use of magic does serve a purpose in Harry Potter, it is not the main reason the books are entertaining. I will discuss the magic of Harry Potter in subsequent essays, but I want to start with some ideas on why it is such an entertaining story.
The Magic of Words
Harry Potter is not only popular, it is also controversial. One of the controversies surrounding the Harry Potter books concerns the use of magic. As a young wizard, Harry is enrolled in a school where he and his fellow students study transfiguration, charms, spells, potions and divination. They fly on brooms, travel by flying cars and a network of fireplace flues. Magic in the stories is used by both the heroes and the villains, although there are some differences in how and why magic is used by each.
The detractors claim that the use of magic in the story promotes and encourages an unhealthy interest in children towards occult practices. Some have even gone so far as to claim the books are a practical textbook for learning occult practices. Others will admit that the magic in the story is made-up, but feel that it is so intriguing to children that they will seek out real information about the occult as a result. Critics also claim that the use of the same magic by both good and evil characters implies that occult practices are not inherently evil, only evil in their use. On the other side of the debate are those that claim these are merely literary devices, purely mechanical, have nothing to do with occult practices, and are therefore harmless. Both sides of the argument quote heavily from the books to prove their respective positions. So, who is right and who is wrong?
Fantasy and Reality
A work of fiction, in one way or another, represents the realities of the historical period the author lives in. After all, an author must ultimately write about what he knows and has experienced. This is true of any historical period. We can see the ancient Greek world in Homer, Medieval Europe in Chaucer and Dante, and Victorian England in Dickens. Literature can show us the structures of everyday life such as social relationships, architecture, technology, commerce, religion, politics and even geography. In addition, literature will express the prevalent ideologies of the period in which it was written. There may be more than one ideology in competition at the time, and the author may only express one particular viewpoint. Nevertheless, when we look at any work of literature we see a reflection of the age in which it was written.
Magical Literary Devices
Harry Potter is a literary work and any one interpreting the magical elements must first see if the magic can be explained solely in literary terms. Looking at the magic in literary terms is important in understanding the overall story and how it works, while hopefully adding to the enjoyment of the books as well.
As discussed in the previous essay, we can consider the magic in Harry Potter as nothing more than a complex of literary devices that solves plot problems while adding an imaginative and entertaining element to the story. However, even considering the magic as literary device, the question still remains of whether or not the magic in the world of Harry Potter can be used in an analogy with something in the real world other than the occult. After all, we do use the term 'magic' to refer to things other than the occult.
Law, Morality and Necessity
Moral issues are rarely simple, despite our desire for them to be so. In most instances we are faced with a complex moral situation where there may not be a clear-cut choice between good and evil or right and wrong. This may appear to some to be moral ambiguity and relativism, but is more accurately described as moral complexity. (more...)
Sneaking Around, Looking for Answers
There is a lot of sneaking around in Harry Potter. Again and again, Harry and his friends sneak out of their rooms in violation of the regulations of Hogwarts leading . As Dumbledore says, they seem to have a certain 'disdain for the rules.' But all of this sneaking around serves an important plot purpose. Since Harry is the detective who must solve the riddle, he is the one who needs to discover the important clues. Sometimes the information obtained by sneaking around turns out to be incorrect and helps setup plot twists, but for the most part these scenes provide important clues to Harry and the reader. By comparison, this is much like a stakeout by a detective in a traditional mystery novel. It says nothing about whether or not you should spy on someone to get information; it is simply used as an effective way to get the information in front of the reader. In short, Harry and friends have to sneak around in order for the story to be told. Although there are other literary devices that could have been used, all that sneaking around is much more exciting to read. The threat of getting caught adds suspense to the story.
Pride and Prejudice
Of all the many themes in Harry Potter there is one theme that stands out directly, with no equivocation at all, and runs as a constant from beginning to end of the story. The world of Harry Potter is filled with prejudice on all sides. Out of prejudice a variety of evils emerge.
Nurture vs. Nature and Personal Choice
Following on and building upon the question of prejudice, Harry Potter examines the question of innate ability and personal choice. A long standing debate over our human condition centers on the question of nurture vs. nature. Are we good or evil because of something inherent? Do we become good or evil because of the influences on us during our life? Or, is good and evil a matter of personal choice?
Accepting the Consequences
Another important moral principle to consider is that we must be willing to accept the consequences of our mistakes. We will all eventually make poor moral choices, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally, sometimes with the best of motives and sometimes not. A major difference between a moral and immoral person is not that one never makes a poor choice and the other does, but that the moral person will always accept the consequences of his actions, even when he considers the actions justifiable.
History and Tradition
Hogwarts is a school with a rich history and tradition. Along with books in the library, much of that history is either hanging on the walls in the form of portraits or wandering the halls as ghosts. Unlike portraits in the Muggle world, these portraits can move around and talk. The people in the portraits can observe and comment on current events as well as describe historical events. The portraits, like the ghosts, are an interesting and inventive literary device. The portraits can provide clues to the heroes in the form of historical facts and in some cases can carry messages from one place to another. They also work as a metaphor of the importance of history and tradition.
The Riddle of Voldemort
The Dark Wizard Voldemort is the chief villain and opponent of Harry and the overall dramatic arc of the entire Harry Potter series is built on the conflict between them. The first book starts, and the final book concludes, with Voldemort's attempts to kill Harry. Throughout the whole saga we are faced with this riddle: why is Voldemort trying to kill Harry? Voldemort's very name symbolizes the riddle, and his character gives us understanding of the answer to the riddle.
The Undying Power of Love
Set against the self-serving cruelty of Voldemort is the self-denying love of those that oppose him, acts that from the beginning of the story to the end will thwart Voldemort's attempts at complete mastery of his destiny. In the first episode, Voldemort's attempt to kill Harry as a boy was blocked by Lily Potter's intervention. Voldemort had sought to get Lily to step aside, a very out-of-character act that is only explained near the end of the saga, but Lily voluntarily stood in front of Harry while Voldemort killed her. There is no indication that she even tried to fight back. That act of self-sacrifice born out of love gave Harry protection against Voldemort's death curse and it was Voldemort, not Harry, who was harmed by the curse. (more...)
There are many themes in Harry Potter, but all the themes are woven together like a tapestry. The threads intertwine and crisscross each other such that if you follow any one of them it will eventually intersect with the main thread. That one thread that runs from beginning to end in Harry Potter concerns conquering death. Throughout the story the question of death is central and different views on conquering death compete with each other, offering the reader a variety of answers. At the beginning and again at the end, Harry finds there is only one true answer. He also finds that the answer is wrapped up in a paradox. (more...)
The Postmodern Christian?
Reading through Harry Potter I was stunned at the complexity and scope of the saga. If there is any negative criticism I have of the books it is that they are maybe too big, too complex. When I was studying music composition the professors would lecture us on 'economy of means' and 'thematic development.' When artists speak of 'economy of means' they mean that you should attempt to get the greatest impact with the smallest amount of material. Choose one theme, in other words, and fully explore that theme, eliminating any extraneous material that does not either express the theme or support it in some way. In part, that means to choose one form, one subject, one technique, and stick with it from beginning to end. Likewise, the artist is expected to be concise so that the theme comes through clearly, not buried among many other elements. That's what any teacher of the arts will tell the students, and what art critics are usually looking for. Economy of means applies equally to music, painting, sculpture, photography, dance, architecture, and literature. (more...)
The seven books of the Harry Potter saga are as follows:
All seven books are written by J. K. Rowling, Copyright by the author, and are published by or an imprint of Scholastic Press. Sorcerer's Stone was originally published in Great Britain as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Quotations are incorporated under 'fair use' doctrines of United States copyright law.
Bible quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from The NET Bible' Copyright © 2005 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. www.netbible.com. Used by permission.