what about the witchcraft in Harry Potter

This is the basic dilemma Christians have with the series. Both classical mythology and the Bible provide plenty of reasons to be concerned. The great witch of classical mythology is Medea, and it would be hard to find a less desirable character in life or myth. She devotes her life to avenging herself on Jason for abandoning her for another woman, which he did partly because she didn’t fit his plans and partly because she was, well, she was a witch, and not only literally.

What makes Medea such a fearful character is first that she is willing to go to the dark forces of Greek mythology to gain power and that she uses her enormous powers for her own ends. The latter leads, of course, to the former. You can read her disturbing story in the various accounts of Jason and the Argonauts, of which I recommend Padraic Colum’s The Golden Fleece as a fine starting point. The link above is an E-text. You can also purchase it on Amazon.com or at Barnes and Noble.

The Bible is also rather explicit about witches. The LORD had no room for them in ancient Israel at all. When Saul went to the witch of Endor the reader knows that the King has crossed the boundary to the forbidden realm; that he has lost his mind.

The Christian classical tradition has always seen witches as dark forces. The Renaissance witch craze, in which both the fascination with and the fear of witchcraft slipped out of control, remains a permanent blight on European history. It was a double over-reaction.

Prior to the Renaissance and after it, witchcraft and its kin are used consistently to represent what we might now call the “dark side of the force.” Classical mythology had a category of powers they referred to as chthonic. These were the powers that the people worshipped before the arrival of the worshippers of the Olympian deities. They are the cloaked powers, the underground deities, the gods of trees and fountains and wells. On the brighter side, they are the “nature gods” as opposed to the Olympians, who came later and were worshipped as the supernatural gods.

After the arrival of the Olympian gods, the chthonic deities are thought to have gone even further underground. They are the gods of the mystery religions and the odd rituals that permeate even the Olympian mythology.

They are not regarded as uniformly evil, but the Greeks were cautious and fearful about their relationships with them. They appeased them, but so far as I can tell, they were not encouraged to call on them.

With the coming of Christianity, these chthonic deities seem to have come to be regarded as symbolic of evil, even of demons.

Christians and Olympian worshippers both felt that access to these powers was dangerous and Christians forbade it outright. Witches came to be seen as people who were willing to access these powers. Eventually, the powers and those who accessed them came to be regarded as inherently evil.

Western fairy tales then used witches as metaphors for the evil that permeates the world. There could not be a good witch, because the powers of witches came to be seen as derived necessarily from Satan and his demons. Witches were a warning to people that there were limits to the kinds of power we ought to seek.

With the Renaissance that warning came to be increasingly ignored until, in the Newtonian Olympian age (the Enlightenment) people refused to acknowledge any limitation on their knowledge or powers. They probed rationally into the recesses of nature and the human soul, and their fascination grew.

Inevitably, the metaphor that called us to limit our quest for power had itself to be overthrown.

So far as I can tell, it was The Wizard of Oz that first introduced the notion of a good witch into children’s literature. Of course, people now laugh at the notion that people were distraught about children reading this book when it first came out. Look at those book burners and banners, those censors who dare challenge the right of a child to read a charming children’s book. After all, what harm could a children’s fairy tale possibly cause?


The Wizard of Oz fails on a number of levels, one of which is its sheer lack of nobility and chivalry (see how the lion takes back the wood at the end for the “locus classicus” of this point). But what seems to have stirred up the most hostility, again, so far as I can tell, is the notion of a good witch.

In the Christian classical worldview, there can be no good witch. To allow children to experience a good witch in a fairy tale is parallel to allowing a child to read about a good demon. Of course people brought up on that tradition would react when a semi-educated insurance salesman who didn’t know what he was doing inverted one of the symbols that children had used to understand evil for hundreds of years.

In other words, the great problem with a good witch is that witches had been symbols of evil for a long time. I hope I explained why above.

Then people went to horrible extremes until, during the infamous Salem witch trials (which was insignificant numerically compared to the European witch hunts, but which was deplorable under the circumstances because the European witch craze had ended a generation earlier), people used witchcraft as a way to destroy people they didn’t like and the superstitious minds of the age had no defense against it.

That excess produced a guilt and a shame in the western consciousness that may has driven us to carelessness.

In a modern fairy tale a witch is interchangeable with a fairy godmother. In real life, people engage in wicca and others sit on the sideline bemused.

The world has changed.

I am no expert on wicca and I certainly do not believe that everybody involved in wicca is evil, any more than I believe that Christians are generally good. Wicca, so far as I can tell, is regarded by its practioners as a return to ancient pagan practices. If so, it seems to me that it is a return to the chthonic forms of that ancient practice.

Olympian paganism has become an amusing and profoundly insightful set of stories. Chthonic paganism draws its practioners into a world of mystery that we ought not to play with. I can easily understand why people would want to enter that world. I would simply urge you not to. There is a deeper magic from before the dawn of time and it meets a deeper need in your soul.

But, what about Harry Potter?

I’m out of time so I’ll have to pick this up later. But I’ll say this much: while I think Rowling erred using witchcraft as she does, I don’t think it has the same signficance it did when Baum did it some 75 years ago. The road in is also the road out. The historical circumstances in which she wrote influence the propriety of what she wrote.

More on teaching great books

We’ll be sending out a CiRCE Paper (our E-magazine) tomorrow with an article about how to teach The Iliad when you haven’t read it. As with any hopefully useful article, not everything I wrote made it. So here are some deletions (by the way, if you don’t receive The CiRCE Papers and would like to, click here and you can sign up for free and you’ll receive our free E-book too):

When you read a great book, you are standing beside the ocean. You could learn a lot by getting a bucket, filling it with water, and studying the drops in that bucket for the rest of your life. But you’d learn more about the ocean itself if you stood there and just looked, just taking in all you can see and feel and smell for a little while (and by the way, nobody has ever seen the whole thing). Maybe then you could swim in it, get in a boat and sail, even go fishing. You should experience it during different times and seasons as well.


So it with Homer. Don’t focus all your energy on studying the drops of water you can get in your bucket just because they’re more easily measurable. Focus on the big ideas. Every great book expresses one or two great ideas. In the Iliad, it could be justice. In the Odyssey, wisdom.


Ask your students, in language they can relate to, is Agamemnon fair? Is Achilles? Do Neptune and Kalypso treat Odyesseus justly? Is Odysseus wise? Were the Phaeacians wise to host Odysseus? Was Agamemnon a wise leader?


These are questions that can be asked about almost any book worth reading. And they can lead to incredibly profitable discussions!

Make these commitments:

Commitment 1: I will listen to the book

Instead of letting a curriculum guide you, let Homer guide you

Commitment 2: I will teach my students how to read and think

Instead of introducing them to yet another book, teach them the skills of active reading

Read by asking questions

Read purposefully


Too often the questions we ask are rooted, not in our interest in the text, but in our distrust of the students. We ask them if they know so and so because if they don’t they didn’t read carefully.
In my opinion, that is not a fair assumption and it leads to a hunted feeling among students.


Here’s something to be careful about: when you are teaching, an outline can be very helpful. So can a few notes on key ideas developed in the text.
However, they will be a lot more helpful for you than they will be for the student. We teachers can easily fall into what I call the analytic fallacy. That’s the idea that because you and I want to understand the text in an adult way, therefore our students do too.
It ain’t so.
First, just let them read the story. Don’t insist they like it. Then raise some very basic questions. That’s the key right there. If the students are asking questions, these tools that you have found helpful can be helpful for them too.

But don’t give them outlines until they help answer a question. And don’t give a lecture about a key idea until it will help your students answer a question.

By the way, that should be a question they are actively asking. If the discussion is driven by questions, you’ll be amazed how much you can teach your students about reading and thinking just by reading and thinking about what they are reading.


The great benefit of teaching through a great question is that it causes you to focus on the right things.
Instead of focusing on details, focus on the big ideas.


Shakespeare’s Language and the Evolution of Human Intelligence

I was watching a bit of Brannagh’s Hamlet tonight and luxuriating in the language (some of which I understood) when my dear wife asked me for my opinion. “Do you think the groundlings actually understood what was going on in those plays?”

To which I answered yes, but the reasons are probably another blog post.

Then she asked for another opionion. Why do you think people today can’t understand it?

I must warn you, I’m about to say something that will sound caustic. You probably want to cover your children’s ears while you read this.

The reason we can’t understand Shakespeare or read the King James Version of the Bible or grapple with Milton or almost any poetry is because we systematically school children in our culture to become increasingly stupid. Charlotte Mason uses the term “stultify” to describe what we do.

 I understand that sounds very harsh, so I need to defend the position.

First let me say that this problem is systemic and cannot be blamed on any particular teacher or parent. Those who govern American education at the highest level are highly irresponsible, do not understand the effect of systems on education, and bear primary responsibility for this folly. In addition, text book publishers have profited immeasurably from poor theory, so they bear high responsibility as well.

What then is the problem?

It’s the way we teach reading. I can and will approach this from many angles over the next little while, but today I want to express one simple point. When we teach reading, we treat the child like she is a mechanism learning a process. We do not teach it like she is a person interacting with ideas.

The notion of a child as a mechanism learning a process arises from Dewey’s theory of instrumentalism or pragmatism, which I haven’t the time to develop right now but there are scads of resources explaining it on the internet. In short, it reduces humans to mechanisms, knowledge to a process, and learning to a technique. The person is displaced.

But to read is not simply to decode symbols (i.e. sound out letters or translate pictures into words). To read is to be a person interacting with ideas (usually embodied in metaphors, sometimes, for older people, expressed as abstractions). That’s what pre-school children do when you read a fairy tale to them while they sit on your lap.

The pre-school child handles complex syntax with little trouble. He cuts through it to the tensions and questions and actions of the main actors. It’s a human instinct to do so. Then we get them to school and we only let them read what they can sound out. In fact, and this is the FATAL mistake: even the books we read TO them have to be at what we call “their level” by which we mean what they can sound out.

This is silly. Children can understand and interpret texts far beyond anything they can sound out. But Victorian cuteness and sentimentality have overtaken the classroom, and the child’s mind and moral development suffer for it.

As a result, we undercut the development of the child’s mind by interfering with it. In kindergarten we limit our oral reading to texts with a syntax no moron would need by the time he is three. See Dick Run! Why? Why would I want to see Dick run when I can listen to something like this:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and movement how express and admirable; in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.

When my child is 12, what good will it have done him to have had to read something as inane, as jejune, as ridiculous, as empty, as stultifying, as stupidifying, as “see Dick run”? On the other hand, the passage above will feed the child’s soul to the day he dies. It will help him know who he is, his place in the cosmos, his likeness to God, his obligations. It will provide comfort in dark hours.

When he begins to learn formal writing skills, it will sing in his mind as an ideal to be sought for. It will provide examples of schemes and tropes. It will provide a sequence of perfect word choices.

In short, those two lines from Hamlet will feed his soul from the day he first has them read to him through his later encounter with the play in high school through the trials and tests of adulthood (for which, after all, an education is meant to prepare a child – unless we look to Professor Umbridge as our model), to the day he lies on his bed or goes into battle ready to meet his maker.

See Dick run. I’d rather not.

The consequence of our folly is that we habituate students to read and write at absurdly low levels. Then to top it off, we sentimentalize what they read, fearing that they can’t deal with monsters and werewolves.

In all these ways we truly dis-educate our children by teaching them.

What should we do if we want to cultivate our children’s intelligence and moral development (and yes, they go hand in hand)?

We should read to them works that they cannot understand. We should read rich metaphorical works, like fairy tales, folk tales, fables, mythology, legends, Bible stories. We should not ask them to analyze them.

We should just read them. We can discuss them in personal ways, but to transfer this personal activity into an intellectual exercise before 2nd or 3rd grade is counter-productive.

We should teach children to decode phonograms, but we should not convince ourselves that this is reading. It’s a very different intellectual exercise that prepares children for reading. But they do more reading with their ears than with their eyes when they are learning to decode.

Most of all, we should never forget that we are teaching persons, not mechanisms that need to master a process for efficient operations.

How not to read a fairy tale

After today’s earlier post I was browsing the web for some more Grimm news, when I came across this site. This is what happens when professionals get involved in teaching literature to children. Truly, I think the temptation is irreistable. Please don’t teach this way. Maybe, if you have to feel grown up while you teach, do it in fourth grade. But why you’d want to I’m not sure.

Here’s one that should be tried only by those who have mature judgment and don’t think little kids can handle complicated moral debates. To debate whether a fairy tale character should have done something generally questionable is different from debating whether the child ever should. In other words, the discussion should stay in the realm of the particular: whether this character should have done this act; not wander into the realm of the abstract: whether it is ethical to sometimes deceive.

I think she’s a little naive about children’s moral capacity and the effects of premature abstraction, but am subject to correction. What do you think?

Notes on Teaching Literature

When you are done the corpse must be alive. Lit provides models/types of the virtues in three ways: characters, writers, and texts. The protagonist will almost always model a virtue. The writer might be virtuous in his lifestyle or writing disciplines. The text itself is virtuous if its form and content fulfill the law of propriety.

1. Select the best models
2. Encounter these models directly and whole. Don’t moralize.
3. Identify the core question in a text. For example, my son Andrew wanted to know why the Scarlet Pimpernel was rescuing French aristocrats if they were so bad. Great question and one worth a lot of discussion and reading.
4. Explore everything in light of the core question.

Beware of murdering a text in order to dissect it.

Harry Potter

Or rather, JK Rowling. Let me state this horribly controversial point to begin with: The Harry Potter series is very good, but not perfect.

So what’s my problem today? Mostly I’m jealous, but I’ve sublimated my jealousy into an idea to justify it. It boils down to this. I think she’s a chicken. The thing is, I’ve been writing a Romance Adventure myself lately, and I keep finding it wants me to deal with all these deep and controversial issues (not issues that were controversial 450 years ago. By the way, contra Rowling (Harry III, 1, 2), persecuting witches was a Renaissance hangup, not a medieval one. It was intimately associated with the rather extreme steps Ren Folk (and the En Folk who followed them) were willing to explore every licit or illicit means of gaining power) because it is about human nature, how we learn, how we should relate to each other, power, death, babes, all that stuff.

Well, I’m open to correction, but I haven’t found anything in Rowling that could be in any way controversial. When she comes close, it seems to me, she generalizes to irrelevence. But for the most part, she just doesn’t raise hard questions. What about pre-marital sex? Nothing, just some innocent dancing and normal jealousy. What about divorce? Never comes up, so far as I can recall. What about abortion? Unless there’s something hidden in that very cleverly mysterious baby at the end of Harry VII (which would go to my first point), nothing. What about home schooling? Certainly not recommended for muggles, but she never quite touches the issue. The welfare state? War in Iraq? France? Nothing remotely taking sides on any of these issues.

Ok, genocide. She opposes that. But even here, I doubt that her presentation will open people’s eyes and consciences to the many forms of genocide that are taking place today – even outside Darfur. And once you’ve committed genocide, then what? And how do you anticipate it?

Does she lay out any principles that might touch on any of these matters?

H I-VII are supposed to be inspiration to the adolescents of today. I’m afraid they might not get anything out of them but escape. Of course, they won’t only get that, and there’s a lot more to them than that. I was particularly moved by Dudley’s show of affection to Harry in Harry VII, though Harry’s response was not exemplary. Harry’s forgiving and recognizing Snape was also quite impressive. And it’s hard to deny his courage and the justice of the motivation behind it, though I don’t know how much value it will have for children who don’t get the thrill of confronting evil wizards and can’t fall back on their own magical solutions. I understand the metaphorical value and all that. Indeed, I push that in my own teaching and practice. But these books are for adolescents. They need to engage a little more directly.

It’s like the word muggle. Very cute. Very Victorian. But not really adequate. Too easily dismissed. She misses on that one, though only slightly. A lot of her names are ingenious (Voldemort, Harry Potter, Hermione (truly an inspired selection – and no I’m not being sarcastic or even ironic) Ron Weasley. I’m not sure about Dumbledore, though. Again, too cute. Gandalf would have been better, but I suppose that’s been used already. Snape was a great name! Malfoy! Perfect. Hagrid. Fine name, excessively cute character.

The point is, she drifts into a cuteness that doesn’t match the later volumes but that she was stuck with from the earlier ones. But that’s how she seems to deal with issues too. Cute. Not Thomas Kincade; I would never reduce her to that level. She’s no hack. But too cute.

Each volume is increasingly well written and I found the last two gripping. But nothing controversial. I think she was driven by the market. It did her a lot of good, I’m sure. I think she could have done her readers more good if she was willing to focus on the noblest of them.

Which all leaves me bitterly jealous of her genius, but pleased that she has provided me with plenty of excuses for my own impending and inevitable literary failure.

By the way, I will now take the bull of controversy by the hands or the horns or whatever and offer my opinion: magnificent tales. Read the first two as quickly as you can so you can have them out of the way and be ready for the rest, but by the time you get to the last two she’s really got it figured out. The lady can weave a romance.

 Gotta go, I need to go hang out with Sirius Black a little more!