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?

Indeed.

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.

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The Power of Harry Potter and the Necessity for Romance

I just finished The Deathly Hallows again, this time taking the time to read more closely than during my first rush through it. Some initial reflections:

Harry Potter continues a tradition that goes back to ancient mythology through medieval legends and early modern fairy tales and 20th century fantasy that will last as long as humans sit around campfires or university campuses and tell stories to each other. The tradition includes ghost stories, but goes far beyond that. It contains magical stories, stories about beings with supernatural powers, heroes who lay down their lives to save others from evil, creatures who bridge the space between the human soul and nature. Perhaps the best title for it is the romance.

Humans cannot be understood without this tradition because it speaks of and sings for the deepest longings in the human soul: honor, meaning, civility, purpose, the hope that something matters and is worth living and dying for.

To prevent children from participating in this tradition is to undercut the healthy development of their souls. That is one reason Tolkien and Lewis were so shockingly successful in the hyper-rational modernist landscape.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about why I’ve always cherished this sort of writing and why lately I’ve come to see it as morally indispensable. Why is it so important?

Simply, because it arouses within us a desire for what matters a great deal more than any materialist worldview can offer us.

Some Christians fear Harry Potter and I understand that fear. The Bible is not obscure about witchcraft and some feel that Rowling celebrates witchcraft in this series. I think she was probably naive at a certain level, but it matters a great deal less today than it did when, say, Baum suggested the possibility of a good witch in the Wizard of Oz. Baum was semi-educated and didn’t know what he was doing, but the age absorbed it. I don’t believe a witch should be treated as a metaphor of something positive and on this count I think Rowling erred. That merits more attention elsewhere.

But this series is of enormous literary, which is to say psychological, social, philosophical, historical importance. Harold Bloom seems to despise it, but I don’t know if he’s read the last three volumes. Even so, any literary critic who scoffs at this set needs to get beyond the cliches and occasional empty adverbs. The critic needs to ask why this series has sold so well without hiding behind the solution that it was so well marketed.

It was, that’s why The Sorcerer’s Stone is the ninth best selling book in the history of the human race. But it’s only one reason. After all, it’d be hard to argue that Stephen King, Dan Brown, or Danielle Steele are poorly marketed. You can market hamburgers to death, but without service at the counter and something more than edible cardboard, fast food burgers would not have taken over the nation’s arteries.

Why has it succeeded so magnificently. Again, I believe the primary reason is that it arouses desires in our souls that our “culture” simply leaves desperately unsatisfied. Information about life after death is one of the more obvious, but Rowling takes it a step further. She never gives the jejeune cliche answer to these questions. She makes you think. She drops hints. She takes you further in. She doesn’t just suggest what might happen when we die, she makes us want to die well.

By arousing these “primal”, which is to say, deeply human, desires, she arouses the questions that flow from them. She drives her reader to Pascal (though arrival might occur 15 years later), she points you to Aristotle’s Categories, she makes you want to know how to be virtuous and courageous. She makes you want to know how to be human by presenting portraits of people who struggle with their desires every moment of their lives and yet do something that matters.

It’s not  a new charm. That’s why it works.

That’s also why, when you read a book like Harry Potter or a Fairy Tale to children, you shouldn’t engage in analysis. Let the child’s soul interact with the images in the book. Living ideas in living books make living children.

How to Teach Harry Potter

Of course, a lot of people would ask, “Why to teach Harry Potter?” and they’re right to ask. The reason is because kids are reading it. That doesn’t mean you should make kids read it who otherwise wouldn’t (it isn’t THAT good), but for those who are, it would make for good discussion.

There are two big issues with Harry Potter: One, whether it expresses a sound “worldview” and two, whether it is well-written.

Sticking with the chiastic motif, let me reflect on the second question first. It is very unevenly written. Rowling uses tons of cliches, describes things as “oddly” or “strangely” something or other too often, and occasionally becomes too cute. Many people have suggested that she gets better as she proceeds. I agree. The first and second volumes don’t offer much. The third steps up.

The fourth almost does, but she seems to make the same mistake as an author that her readers did as readers. She’s too absorbed in the world she’s created. The story should have been half as long, but she lingers too much on the details of Christmas presents and the way things are mailed. The fourth volume is the most disappointing. A person who hadn’t read the first three and fallen under her spell would be much less likely to find it interesting or compelling as a starting point. You can’t say that about, for example, any of the Narnia Chronicles.

Also, I can’t get past the feeling that the magic is childish in its use. In daily activities or on special occasions, the magicians can do whatever they want. Some of it is explained as the stories develop, like when the house-elves are revealed as providing the food. But it’s too easy, too light, too pleasant. With all the magic, they should never have an inconvenience. I need to reflect more on this point, because it’s important and I’m not ready to draw a conclusion yet, but I know I don’t find the magic so prevelant in my fairy world. Again, it seems childish – a shallow form of wishful thinking.

In the sixth and seventh she’s back to developing a good plot again.

And when it comes to developing a plot, Rowling is brilliant. By book five, she has created a compelling world, developed characters of great variety (some simple caracatures, like the Dursleys, some complex like Harry, some subtle like Dumbledore), and raised enough questions that the reader is swept into Harry’s and Dumbledore’s quest. Harry is not always likable, an important element of his likability. But we want him to grow and to win. He does both, at tremendous cost.

That tremendous cost justifies the whole series. Rowling has wooed an entire generation away from sentimentalism and has added to the call for a more heroic age in which friendship, self-control, and courage replace the cynicism and sentimentality (fraternal twins) of the 20th century.

Which brings up the next issue.

The worldview question is much more complicated. Apparently, Rowling is a practicing Christian in the Church of Scotland, so it’s interesting to speculate on whether she intended to express or even attend to the Christian worldview in her writings. Nobody can do so perfectly, of course, so it would be easy to find areas where she falls short. It would also be valuable to find areas where she represents it well.

But the Christian worldview insists that things be regarded and judged according to what they are (the kind of thing they are), not by whether a given artifact agrees with a series of statements somebody has determined are dogma. So the first worldview question has to be whether Potter succeeds as literature.

Here are some questions I would ask a class to prepare them for a read of Potter (before they know it’s what we’re going to read):

  1. (see the earlier post) If you were writing a fantasy/fairy tale, would you give magical power to humans? Why?
  2. What is the difference between a man and a boy?
  3. Can you write a Christian story without talking about God?

However, if you read the book continually asking whether or not it is “written from a Christian worldview” you won’t be able to answer the question because you won’t be reading the book. First you need to read the story. Of course, if there are immoral actions or vile values exalted, such things stick out pretty quickly, though a really good book could create the appearance of such exaltation and then undercut it. The point is, you have to read the books before you can judge them.

That doesn’t mean, and this is a critical point, that we are somehow bound to read every book and watch every movie before we can make a judgment. For the most part, we aren’t supposed to be spending so much time on empty entertainment (i.e. as watching movies usually is) anyway. So as a practical matter, we need the help of others to decide where to spend our time.

This is just common sense, but I’ve wandered from my point, so I’ll hang up now.

How to Teach the Iliad as a Living Text with Living Ideas

You want to start by getting students involved in THE QUESTION that drives the text or as close as you are able to do so. The Iliad puts it right on the first line: Why is Achilles so angry? I convert the question to a judicial issue: Should Achilles have been so angry?

Before starting the Iliad, prepare your students for the theme by asking them about the last time they’ve seen a fight, the last fight they had, whether they’ve ever been dishonored, why they get angry, etc. etc. I find that the very act of asking this question and genuinely listening leads students to open up quite surprisingly (but never force a child into a therapy session in the classroom!).

You could also ask them what they already know about the story, especially the first book (this is where background sticks up its head – but you are asking them what they already know, not telling them something they may or may not care about). Ask them if they have ever heard of the Greek gods, which they know, whether they’ve heard of the Trojan war, why it was fought, etc. etc.

Then ask them to read the first book. When they come to the next discussion, ask: Who should get Briseis? Or, Is Achilles over-reacting? Or, Is Agamemnon over-reacting? Then let them have at it. They should have their books in front of them. If one person says yes and another says no, the class has just come alive.

In this context, you can begin to intoduce plot lines, character development, use of imagery and symbols, key words, even settings.

For example, say one student has argued that Achilles is in the right. Another contents that point. You are the referee! Say to them, “OK, let’s examine this together.” Be very, very respectful and don’t let either of them attack the other or lose face. And don’t ask them to side with you. That would be fatal. Also, don’t ask them to do more than they are able to do. They’re new to this.

Instead, ask a question like this: “Where did this argument take place?” Some will say, in the camp, before Troy, in front of the men, etc. etc. Let the whole class participate. Then, after the discussion has dug out a bunch of information, say, “Given where the argument occurred, does that argue for or against Achilles?” Then let them have at it again.

You could also ask, straightforwardly and repeatedly, “Why is Achilles so angry?” Another way to phrase that would be, “What did Agamemnon take from him? Why does that matter so much?” And bingo, now you can talk about kleos, and time, and athanatos (glory, honor, and immortality) – though I’d suggest doing it one at a time and reminding them that this is all about them. “Which of you would like to receive glory?” Or “Which of you likes to be humiliated?” Better would be, “Have any of you ever had this happen to you?” I’ve even asked, “Have I ever done this to any of you?”

Do you see how they are BOTH taking a close look at the text AND relating it to their own situations and experiences and that they are able to do so with no loss to either? This is THE WHOLE POINT OF LITERATURE!!!!!

And do you see how the word Kleos is not given to them in an abstract, empty form, but as something they now are beginning to realize is the very core of the soul of the heart of their spirits? In other words, kleos isn’t background to the Iliad, it’s the idea that drives it!

Praying this is helpful!

NB This is an excerpt from a post in the CiRCE forum, to which allow me this opportunity to invite you! Please come and participate in any of our forum discussions, by clicking here. See you there!