“To me [the religious parallels have] always been obvious… [b]ut I never wanted to talk too openly about it because I thought it might show people who just wanted the story where we were going.”
-JK Rowling, in a 2007 MTV interview, on the Christian allusions in Harry Potter 
“I don’t feel under any obligation to make my story fit with formalized Christian theology, though I actually intended it to be consonant with Christian thought and belief.”
– JRR Tolkien, in a letter to WH Auden 
Introduction to Wizardry
I’ve got a confession to make: I follow Jesus and I still own my original copies of Harry Potter, most of which were hurriedly purchased within hours of their in-store release and devoured in a manner that can only be described as ‘embarrassingly veracious’. 
Yes, they survived the infamous ‘Potter book burnings’ that where oh-so-popular in many church circles in my teenage years. They even survived the lesser-known, but equally significant ‘sin bins’, which also invariably disposed of ill-bought Charmed DVDs and death metal CDs. 
We can laugh at such heady times in retrospect. However, for someone that was only a few years into the journey of following Jesus as King, scenes such as these were confronting. With no ‘religious’ relatives to tell me what I was ‘supposed’ to be doing in light of Harry Potter hype, it was a bit of a bewildering time. In the depths of my mind are vague recollections of being told by some (though not all) that Harry Potter was demonic due to it’s occultist focus, alongside memories of my parents reading articles on ‘fanatical Christians burning children’s books’ and muttering about lunatics. Seriously, I thought puberty was enough of a catalyst for an identity crisis. What was a girl to do? I wasn’t a lunatic – but I was no occult-endorsing heathen, either.
At some point, I’m fairly sure my pastor was forced to address the flurry of Helen Lovejoys exclaiming “won’t somebody please think of the children?”, by suggesting diplomatically that parents should use their discretion and perhaps utilise Harry Potter as a chance to engage their kids in a discussion regarding issues of spirituality. Wise man. Yet, this didn’t sideline the discussion, so much as validate all perspectives – and with non-religious parents that were quite content for me to read Harry Potter until the cows came home, the point was (somewhat thankfully) moot. I read on in quiet, yet cautious, contentedness.
Around the same time, there was a rumbling deep in the heart of New Zealand that had nothing to with earthquakes. After years of production, the opening of the most epic film trilogy of all time was impending  – and nerds everywhere were reaching for their Ventolin inhalers. Yes, The Lord of the Rings was soon to be unveiled – and I, the uninitiated Halfling from the Shire , was stuck in bed with the stomach flu. Bored, I picked up a copy of its prequel, The Hobbit – and between frequent trips to the bathroom, I realised what I had been missing out on.
My suspicions were soon more than confirmed as I made my way through the Lord of the Rings books and films over the next five or so years, in between reading the Left Behind series (dispensationalism, say what?) and fending off an increasing study load. Hobbits, elves, dwarves, wizards and orcs? The quaintness of the Shire, the fiery desolation of Mordor and the wildness of Fanghorn forest? Now that’s what I’m Tolkien about.
And so my love for Harry Potter became matched only by a mini-obsession with all things Lord of the Rings. Cue an embarrassing amount of money spent on tickets to the Syndey Opera House symphonies (Howard Shore!) and Special Extended DVDs.
Rowling In The Deep
Reflecting upon this dual fandom of mine, which has thoroughly led me to accept my status as a nerd, I am struck by the notion that while I thought long and hard on several occasions about my continued enjoyment of Harry Potter, no follower of Jesus ever condemned my reading of Tolkien. Ever. Even though Gandalf is a wizard. And the elves of Rivendell work all sorts of spellery (if that wasn’t a word before, it is now).
Reflecting further, I’m also struck by the fact that in the many sermons I’ve sat through, obligingly or otherwise, Tolkien has been used on numerous occasions to illustrate a point. But the number of extended Harry Potter references? Zero.
Thus I find myself in a conundrum. Why is it that Christians acquiesce quite happily to the other-worldly happenings of Middle Earth, while the goings-on of Hogwarts are sidestepped with caution, when both display clear elements of sorcery? Why is it that many would gladly hug the wizard known as Gandalf the White, but yell a hearty “no deal!” in the face of Dumbledore?
Is the aversion to Harry Potter really just about magic? Or are there other factors at play?
First of all, I’d like to address the assertion that our differing levels of acceptance is linked to the intentions of each author, based on their religious adherence – that somehow, Tolkien’s Catholic beliefs legitimise magic as an allegorical tool to communicate Christian themes, whereas Rowling is just indulging in apparently frivolous occultism for the sake of apparently harmless entertainment.
To this, I echo the words of half-giant Hagrid: codswallop. Tolkien has made it clear in his correspondence to various people that while Lord of the Rings is imbued with Christian thought and belief (a perhaps unavoidable bias of the author), it was not a deliberate attempt to communicate an allegory of the Gospel, a la Clive Staples and Narnia. The major disservice we can do to this wonderful story is to view it purely through a lens of Christian symbolism that was not intended. Indeed, to do so sidelines many other thematic lenses that Christians should be equally concerned with – the critique of tyrannical power, industrialisation and modernistic progress that harms the created order.
Building on this, if we were to go down the road of religious beliefs shaping intentions, we would have to apply it fairly across the board. This means that we cannot downplay Rowling’s numerous recorded confessions to Christian adherence – though she seems to articulate a faith journey that is much more tumultuous, lay-level and perhaps progressive than that of Tolkien (she notes in the same 2007 MTV interview quoted at the beginning of this post that she has no time for religious fanatics). So: why is it that we don’t think about how magic is used in Harry Potter to allegorically wrestle with issues related to faith?
This brings me to my second point. I have a theory. Could it be that the fictional world of Tolkien is so completely removed from our own existence that we are able to make a clear distinction between fiction and reality – and so the presence of magic in Middle Earth doesn’t bother us so much? After all, Middle Earth is a completely different realm where magic seems to be part of the natural inbuilt order; and so to suggest that the presence of magic is occultist could be analogous to calling gravity heretical. There’s magic in Middle Earth? Well, big deal – it’s not a real place.
In contrast, Harry Potter is a parallel universe of sorts, where an embedded magical reality is perceived as hidden within our present existence – wizards are not in an entirely different realm, but are individuals living amongst us Muggles (non-magical folk) and happen to have innate abilities to circumnavigate what we perceive to be the natural laws that keep the created order functioning.
In other words, I think for many, it is fine for magic to exist ‘out there’ in a clearly defined fictional world where it can be explained away by allegory or seen as a natural part of that realm – but to locate it much more closely to our own actual existence blurs the lines of fiction and reality to the point of discomfort, with misguided notions that the author might actually be encouraging people to believe that fiction can become reality.
When framed in terms such as these, the age-old narrative of ‘them’ being OK to live ‘out there’ but not amongst ‘us’ perhaps shouldn’t be so surprising. It’s just that this time, we’ve transferred it to a fictional depiction of a world where individuals are born with particular abilities – individuals who can no more choose to have these abilities than one can choose to be of Middle-Eastern appearance.
Further complicating this concept of the ‘unwelcome other’ is the notion that Harry (and Hermione) were brought up to believe that they were one of ‘us’ – Muggles – when, in fact, they actually belong to ‘them’. Harry Potter, in being oriented around the transition of a group of youngsters as they discover a core part of their true identity, perhaps evokes a fear in us – that our children, less able to unblur the lines, will be snared by a more attractive reality that will cause them to question their faith.
You know, because Top 40, Jersey Shore and rampant advertising isn’t doing that already.
Characters of Virtue
Indeed, to come to my third point, this seems to be the main difference between Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings – whereas the former is initially aimed at children, the latter is comparatively a more complex read/watch. Yet, I must critique this slightly. I know many children who enjoy Tolkien – and a decade and a bit after the Potter phenomenon exploded, I know many who only first enjoyed Rowling as an adult.
Yet, still, those minors in the Hobbit-loving category very rarely get warned about engaging with material that contains elements of occultism. After all – magic belongs in Middle Earth, because Middle Earth is not a threatening reality. The parallel universe of Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, which intrudes upon our own, is.
It seems then that the issue Christians need to deal with – and we should already know this from our often woeful interpretations of the Bible – is learning how to decipher narrative beyond a surface reading – and how to use narrative to engage fruitful discussions with our children on issues regarding and related to Christian living.
If we were to take a moment to put down our pitchforks and engage beyond magic as a tool of the narrative, we would realise that Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter deal with similar themes. Both teach us about the bonds of loyalty and friendship, about looking beyond the exterior appearance of things, about the power of forgiveness, about the necessity for everyone to play a part in overcoming evil and ultimately, about sacrificial love overcoming all destructive powers.
Neither narrative glosses over the atrocities of life – some unfairly die, some experience ungodly cruelty and injustice. There are quarrels, broken relationships and deceitfulness exhibited in both stories. Yet, in both, there is a sense of redemption to be found – and although the redemption may not be textbook Christological, it is still something worth noting, exploring and perhaps even celebrating.
This is not to downplay the reality of occultism, of course – a ‘before Christ’ experience at a séance in the sixth grade convinced me that there are some things we really shouldn’t tamper with. Yet, our theological offence over witchcraft often focuses upon some ethereal super-spiritual plane, where Harry Potter might turn our children into ‘walking demonic flypaper’ bound for Hell as it were – and I really think we need to engage much more maturely than that.
Thinking over the issue – and viewing occultist practices in the context of the Biblical narrative – it seems to me that the real offence of the usage of witchcraft is that it is a form of idolatry, promoting a kind of amplified self-reliance that seeks to bypass and/or manipulate that which is set in place by God for the sake of unfair advantage. It is seeking, gaining and then exercising power that is not intended for humanity and thereby dethroning God as Lord over all. The result is uneven power relationships, a harmed creation and all around brokenness.
Yet, as noted in Harry Potter, the individual witches and wizards do not seek to gain their powers, as would occur in our actual reality in regards to occultist practices – and I think that makes all the difference in how we should view the narrative.
In Harry Potter, one is born either magical or a Muggle – the choice is not given to the characters. Indeed, the focus of the text in regards to magic is not upon how to become magical, but what choice one should make in developing and harnessing the abilities they were born with – do they use their inherent power for the benefit of others, or to manipulate others and gain ill-fitting advantage?
Indeed, in an age where it is much, much easier to verbally critique and burn children’s literature than to deal with other issues of power and manipulation in our lives, there is much that we can consider from those questions.
Thus, if it’s OK with you, I’m going to keep Rowling (!) with Harry Potter. I don’t mind if you think that I’m an occultist-loving heathen, waiting to ‘Avada Kadavra’ Christian morals. I promise you, I’m not – I just think they’re really good stories that can teach us a thing or two if we would let them.[toggle title=”Endnotes”]  Shawn Adler, “‘Harry Potter’ Author JK Rowling Opens Up About Books’ Christian Imagery,” MTV News, (Oct 17, 2007), http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1572107/jk-rowling-talks-about-christian-imagery.jhtml [accessed March 2012].  Humphrey Carpenter (ed.), The Letters of JRR Tolkien, (London: Allen & Unwin, 1995), 355.  The night before my 7am operation to remove my wisdom teeth, I stayed up until 3am veraciously devouring book number five. When the last book came out, I was completing my journalism internship at Vogue Living magazine and had the legit choice between attending a staff planning meeting and reading HP7. I chose the latter and thus, my career of writing about cushions and furnishings never took off.  Evidently, burning plastic is not advisable – safety first, kids!  No, I’m not referring to Nolan’s Batman trilogy – though, whom am I kidding? I almost wet myself in excitement when I saw the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises.  Seriously – I grew up in an area of Sydney known as ‘The Shire’, which in many ways is just as monocultural and insular as Tolkien’s Shire. [/toggle]