Defending Harry

Some friends of mine and I were commenting on a Harry Potter related article by Fr. Alfonso Aguilar (over at the National Catholic Register), so I thought I would post those same comments here — by way of adding my two cents. If you want to read Fr. Aguilar’s take on Rowling’s series, take a whack at this link. If you are fascinated by Ben Caldwell’s cartoon of Ginny, Colin Creevy, Oliver Wood and Lupin visit Caldwell’s awesome site. As for my two cents, here you go:

I appreciate the levelheaded approach Fr. Aguilar has attempted. I especially appreciate his actually having read each and every book in the series! However, his logic falls apart when he insists the series is essentially pantheistic and that Harry’s progress as a wizarding student depends on his grasp on some inner illumination — so that one finds a sort of gnosticism behind the magic.

For example, Fr. Aguilar writes:

“Consider now the concept of man implicit in J.K. Rowling’s narrative. Humans, called ‘muggles,’ are divided into three categories: ordinary ‘muggles’ with no magical power who disdain the magic world (the despicable Dursley family); ‘muggles’ who fancy the magic world but cannot reach it (Hermione Granger’s parents); and the witches and wizards.

“The ideal is, no doubt, to become a good witch or wizard. What’s the way? Train yourself to look into yourself to find the magical powers within you.

“Good training requires masters who help make you aware of the magical (‘divine’) forces in your spirit. These are the professors at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Albus Dumbledore, the school headmaster, is the main spiritual guide.”

That’s just silly. The magical forces in question are not presented as in some sense “divine” and Albus Dumbledore is hardly a spiritual guide. He helps Harry to deal with moral challenges, true. But so far as knowledge of magic is concerned, his assistance is actually rather minimal. As for the other instructors at Hogwarts, they seem to provide the same matter-of-fact prosaic recitation of facts that one might find in a muggle classroom during Social Studies. My point is: magic is interesting, exciting, and fun in the Potter books. It is also hilariously mundane. Hermione is not a superior student because she has a greater intuitive grasp of some mystical inner light. She’s a better student because she actually reads the textbooks! She pursues subjects beyond the bare minimum reading requirements. She would rather read “Hogwarts: A History” than watch Quidditch.

As in the real world, Hermoine’s intelligence is shown in her ability to integrate this knowledge, to make connections between the various subjects. The pattern here is that of a liberal education, not an initiation into some mystical path thru the self. In fact, that’s one of the jokes built into the series — that something like magic, which one might assume would be crammed to the gills with mysticism, is no different from Geography or Social Studies. That’s why it’s funny when Ron and Harry cram for a test or when Professor Trelawny tries to force matters into a floridly mystical mold.

I can imagine the sort of look you might get if you told Professor McGonnigle she was a “spiritual guide”!

Of course, there are such things as intuition, passion and emotion. Hermione is surpassed by Harry at times when these factors come into play. Hermione, for example, has trouble casting a compelling patronus spell. Harry possesses a better integration of head and heart. But that is hardly Gnosticism.

I think that while Fr. Aguilar veers off-course a comment made by my wife, Susan, begins to look all the more on target: one is either born a wizard or not and this very basic ingredient in the series removes the element of esotericism one might normally associate with magic. Fr. Aguilar makes it sound as though anyone can be a wizard if they are shown how to tap into their inner light. This simply is not true. Lily’s sister, Petunia, simply cannot be a wizard no matter how much she might wish it. That’s part of her bitterness toward Harry. Likewise, Crabbe and Goyle ARE wizards – and it ain’t due to their sensitivity to inner illumination or to hidden knowledge attained thru arcane, mysterious rites. We’re talking Crabbe and Goyle here, people.

The wizarding world is hidden, but for practical reasons: witch hunts and heresy trials and the sort of tragedy that befell Dumbledore’s sister.

Also, Fr. Aguilar says this:

“In Potter’s world, the divine is, in my opinion, pantheistic. The only transcendent reality that exists is (white) magic. A fictional story, of course, does not have to present the Christian truths nor the Christian God. The question is whether or not there is room for a Christian God in the story. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, God does not show up, yet he may fit in the background as the one who gave Gandalf certain powers and a new life. Gandalf did not get them by himself.

“Not so with Harry Potter.

“Once the magic reigns as the ultimate level of reality, a personal God cannot fit in. Magical powers form the highest aspiration.”

That is simply ridiculous. The existence of an afterlife is very plain in the Potter books. That is (quite literally) a trancendent reality and it pertains to muggles and wizards alike. Magic is not “the ultimate level of reality”. Voldemort’s ultimate condition makes it very clear that magic is subordinate to something far greater.

In fact, magic is in no way presented as a kind of transcendent reality or even as a “summum bonum”. For wizards, magic is simply a part of mundane reality on a par with muggles and technology. Magical powers do not “form the highest aspiration” — people don’t “aspire” toward magical powers in the Potter books. You’ve either got it or you don’t. And even if it were possible for a character to “aspire” in such a way — does this mean one cannot desire magic powers and simultaneously desire the beatific vision? Both hopes could exist in a story without cancelling each other out. At any rate, the existence of magic in the Potter series does not supercede or rule out the existence of a personal God. That doesn’t even make sense. This guy teaches philosophy?

Granted, character details which might provide a glimpse into, say, Hermione’s faith would be nice — Hermione saying her prayers, Hermione lugging a “Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance” around along with that copy of “Hogwarts: A History”, Hermione giving Ron and Harry a stern reprimand with quotes from her Extreme Teen Challenge Bible, Hermione leaving Keith Green tracts in the Gryffindor common room. But I don’t find myself disappointed with the Three Investigators mysteries because we never see Jupiter Jones take on the role of C.S. Lewis style apologist or impatient with Nancy Drew because she doesn’t seem to have a Quiet Time.


~ by christianhalloweenfan on September 1, 2007.

One Response to “Defending Harry”

  1. Well done, Lint! And Susan hit it right on the head – it’s not a matter of the Gnostic “enlightenment” at all, but rather of being born a different sort of person, with a different sort of life trajectory to face.

    I’ve loved all the movies (more and more as they get darker); I confess I haven’t actually read the books yet, but I look forward to doing so when I can get to that part of my feet-high stack…

    Peace, Kathleen

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