Harry Potter v. Lord of the Rings: The Christian Struggle With Fictional Magic

“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 [1]

“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 [2]

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’. [3]

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. [4]

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 [5] – 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 [6], 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?

Parallel Worlds

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”] [1] 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].

[2] Humphrey Carpenter (ed.), The Letters of JRR Tolkien, (London: Allen & Unwin, 1995), 355.

[3] 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.

[4] Evidently, burning plastic is not advisable – safety first, kids!

[5] 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.

[6] 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]

Greta Cornish cannot live more than an hour from the ocean – and that is a scientific fact. A former architecture and journalism student boasting a non-stop hula-hooping record of 46 minutes, her mid-twenties is being spent chipping away at her MTh and teaching pastoral theology subjects at Alphacrucis College in Sydney, Australia. When not indulging her inner mermaid/circus performer, she can be found scouring flea markets far and wide for retro Corningware and antique teacups.

25 Comments

  • Reply March 28, 2012

    vipernett2008

    First of all, Greta, I really love your writing.  Style. Content. Many hearts for it. I appreciate the point you bring up in regards to Muggle vs. Wizard and that Harry and his friends aren’t trying to gain powers but rather working to figure out what to do with the power they have.  Very important distinction.  I think you are also on to something in regards to the magic of LOTR being acceptable due to the very obvious fantasy element and the distance from the real world.
    Good stuff here, thanks for writing this.

    • Reply March 28, 2012

      Gretski

      Thanks, Viper (epic pseudonym, by the by)! Much appreciated comments.

  • Reply March 28, 2012

    Dusty Kat

    This article is magic. One of my favourites on the site. Greta you are a witty, thought-provoking, 
    enjoyable writer. 

    • Reply March 28, 2012

      Gretski

      Cheers, man! Stoked you enjoy it.
      PS: *favourites. Geez, D-Kat – use your possessive apostrophes correctly! 🙂

  • Reply March 28, 2012

    Matthew Eric Baker

    Expecto Patronum!

    • Reply March 28, 2012

      Gretski

      Wingardium leviosa!

  • Reply March 28, 2012

    Apollojetick

    Great thoughts!  Many of your points were the very issues C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. got into arguments over.

    • Reply March 28, 2012

      Gretski

      Thanks so much! I’m glad I can continue to engage in the debate started by Clive and Tolks!

  • Reply March 28, 2012

    Steve Gore

    Awesome writing. You know, I might now consider reading them myself after this…

    • Reply March 29, 2012

      Gretski

      Thanks, Mr Gore! Do it!

  • Reply March 31, 2012

    Cuppy

    Gretski, love the article. Fantastic discussion on some the hottest fantasy as of late. 
    I actually put down the Potter books during a particularly ‘godly’ period in my life. Afterwards, I realized that it wasn’t God who was pleased with me for it, but my own self-righteous ego. 
    On my honey moon last year I went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Florida. It was magical. 

    • Reply April 1, 2012

      Gretski

      Cheers, Mr Cup! You have my envy in regards to your Florida trip. I had a friend go there in mid-2010. he tagged me in random photos, knowing how excited I was about its existence. Smug jerk.

  • Reply March 31, 2012

    Stephen E. Foxworthy

    Wonderful article! I’ve been consistently amazed at most Christians’ willingness to criticize without taking the time to read or research what they tend to critique. That being said, I always thought the “LotR = good; HP = bad” dichotomy was a bit suspicious and I think your points are clear and well-stated. Kudos!

    • Reply April 1, 2012

      Gretski

      Thanks, Stephen! Appreciate the feedback.

  • Reply March 31, 2012

    Bethskier

     Enjoyable article. I love knowing people in all the generations, yet I usually disengage when the Harry Potter subject comes up since it is not my personal preference of entertainment.  This article gave me good food for my own thoughts and a perspective I can agree with.  I did watch the first Harry Potter movie when it came out, and actually enjoyed it….maybe now I will watch a few of the sequels.

    • Reply April 1, 2012

      Gretski

      Thanks so much – I find the movies get better as you go along (but of course, not as good as the books!).

  • Reply April 1, 2012

    Alexa

    My concern with the Harry Potter books is that the author in an interview said that she is writing for children at younger and younger ages so that they will believe in magic. As a Christian, I believe that magic comes from Satan and can cause our young children to try things such as a séance when they do not have a strong foundation of right and wrong spirituality yet. Some churches call it an age of accountability. This author was able to recognize that Seances are not an area to “mess around with”. What about the younger children that did not have that understanding and then did more and more exploring in the ocult. Children at a young age do not have as clear of a picture of fiction vs nonfiction/fantasy as adults or even high school students. As a teacher, I was not allowed to take Harry Potter books off of my list for book reports for my elementary classroom. This was called descrimination and I was told to allow it because the principal made me. Even though I did not want to hear about the story, I was forced to. What about my rights? What about the rights of the parents that they might not want their children exposed to this product at that age? We as Christians have to protect our children.  

    • Reply April 1, 2012

      Gretski

      Hi Alexa,
      Which article is this? I would be really interested to read it. I concur that occultic stuff is Satanic – mainly because it seeks to usurp God as ruler over all through promoting the gaining of powers that seek to manipulate the created order set in place. At it’s core, magic is a really selfish thing (and we are created, as Stanley Grenz once put it, for community). However, it is not the only thing that I would label directly Satanic – poverty, violence, seeking advantage and power over others at their harmful disadvantage, the destruction of the created order and aspects of our lifestyle (e.g. rampant consumerism that encourages a focus on image) are equally Satanic, because they destroy God’s image (i.e. us!) and his world.
      That said, I agree that parents should have the choice to screen what their kids read and watch – but not to completely shield and censor. I think, given the internet and how easily accessible information is, at some point or another, kids will be exposed to stuff – and I think it’s best for parents to prepare their kids for that in an appropriate manner (I know way too many Christian kids who were shielded completely from ‘worldly’ things that hit college and all of a sudden had a faith crisis, because their parents didn’t engage a healthy level of exposure coupled with discussion on why certain things were healthy/unhealthy for their faith journey). That means occasionally exposing their kids to age appropriate material with concepts they don’t agree with in order to then engage healthy discussion.
      However, in no way should this be done haphazardly. I would never let my 10 year old child read the entire Harry Potter series – no more than I would let them read Stephen King. I have read somewhere (and for the life of me can’t track down the article) that Rowling wrote Harry Potter to grow up with her audience, i.e. the first book, when Harry is 11, is aimed at 11 year olds, the second book to 12 year olds, etc. That means the last book has material perhaps ideal for an older teen audience. As such, like all books and films, I think parents need to have discretion about if and when they allow their kids to read these books. There are some 14 year olds who would be mature enough to deal with the themes present in the books and to have a healthy discussion – but there would be others who are not and would find them problematic in terms of their spiritual development. The point being, I think the onus should be on parents to know their kids and what they are capable of dealing with. As such, I understand your frustration about being forced to get kids to read certain books – but I would couple this with an ultimate responsibility on any parents’ behalf. If your kid is reading anything, whether it be the Left Behind series (which to be honest, I find equally dangerous due to what I judge to be incorrect theology) or Harry Potter, parents need to be aware of the content and themes – and be prepared to engage in meaningful discussion that engages issues of faith and how they relate to the world.

      Blessings,
      Greta

      • April 1, 2012

        Todd Korpi

        What???  The Left Behind series isn’t theologically sound?!  So I can’t receive the mark of God AND the mark of the beast and be a double agent for the kingdom during the tribulation!?  hahahahahahaa

      • April 1, 2012

        Gretski

        Todd Korpi… man, am I sorry to burst your bubble. I was also looking forward to fleeing to Petra towards the end of tribulation – I always wanted to sleep in the treasury. Haha!

  • Reply April 5, 2012

    Tyler

    Uhh are these Christians who hate Harry Potter worried people are gonna go out and “do magic” because Harry Potter magic is made up.  Are they offended that these wizards appear to have powers only God should have.  Yet again a fictional book nobody thinks is real, you would have to be like a toddler not to grasp that and most kids got to be at least 9-10 to be able to read the Harry Potter books.  Also the magic in the Harry Potter is basically just an alternative version technology, us Muggles can basically do anything they can with some kind of machine, so the powers they have aren’t anything that should really scare Christians too much.  I’m sorry If this offends but every Christian offended by Harry Potter is a complete idiot.

    • Reply April 6, 2012

      Gretski

      Hi Tyler,
      You bring up a really interesting point there in regards to the seemingly little difference between humanity utilising technology versus magical powers to get to a particular end – an issue I wanted to look at, but didn’t quite fit into the post. As an example, someone gets cancer. In HP, one would use a variety of potions and spells to manipulate this person back to health. In reality, we use complex medicine to manipulate someone’s body back to health. Is there really a difference, as we are essentially procuring skills that are not inherently natural (i.e. chemo requires us to manipulate various chemicals etc.)? I think then it becomes an issue of at what point we are overstepping the boundary in our use of technology – an ethical debate that of course rages on with things like stem cell research, etc.

      Blessings,
      Greta

  • Reply December 19, 2012

    waterlylies84

    I’ll be honest, I just scanned this article, but I am going to put my two-cents in anyway. I just have one thing to say to people who cannot handle HP; “Mary Poppins” is a witch, “It’s a Wonderful Life” has nothing to do with Christianity, especially since humans do not become angels, and there is no “Wizard of Oz”.

    I will admit I was one of the parents who wasn’t happy about HP, but that was before I read the books and before I met with a literature professor, who is both a scholar and a Christian. We talked long and hard about the various fantasy stories, including HP. Now I am one of Rowling’s fans. I am hoping that she can give us some more fabulous fantasy books. Perhaps a prequel to HP?

    In the meantime, let’s get to know our authors before we ban their books. Better yet, let’s not ban any books, but endeavor to understand the author’s intentions. And please dear fellow believers, quit burning books. That grieves my spirit so deeply.

  • Reply January 24, 2014

    Stephanie

    working to further understand this discussion. The Harry Potter series got me back into reading and so excited about a book to be published. We are Christian homeschoolers and in this conviction laden environment people feel the need to bring to light a huge chasm of difference between the Hobbit (totally Christian) and Harry Potter (very unChristian). I don’t see it – I have read the Hobbit and The Harry Potter series and see such parallels between the two stories, yet when I talk with people that feel differently, but can’t discuss because they have not read the Harry Potter series, but they know who bad it is and want to speak glowingly of their children that would NEVER read the series. I appreciate conviction – I have some of my own, I just don’t understand this chasm they see.

  • Reply November 1, 2016

    Ashleigh

    Excellent article!! You nailed all of the fears perfectly. I personally, being a Christian since a child, find more truth in Harry Potter than any other books/movies in the same genre. The movies truly can give a visual of what Gods word does to a demon/ dementor through a Petronus! The friendship and loyalty shown through the characters alongside the evil shown is more true to life than LOTR!
    Thank you for writing this article. I have also been truly puzzled as to why LOTR gets the thumbs up and harry gets rejected by Christians. For me, just like what I want from a sermon, I want something I can walk away with and actually apply to my life in the real world! Not wish that I lived in some
    Middle earth setting that in no way relates to my everyday life.

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