Few who have read the Harry Potter
books will deny that they are well written and hard to put
down. But are they in the same class as the works of earlier
twentieth century mythologists C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien,
… or do the Potter stories reflect some of the flaws
of our present age? John Grabowski has some fascinating insights—from
a muggle point of view, of course—on the ideas implied
in these stories.
For the past few years I ignored the Harry Potter
craze sweeping through popular culture. Though my curiosity
was pricked by remarks made by others concerning the quality
of the work or criticisms of the books’ use of magic
and witchcraft, I told myself I had more important things
to do. Even after it invaded my home, and the books were voraciously
devoured by my children, I turned a deaf ear to it (having
been assured by my wife and others that the books were fairly
Finally, however, this summer I succumbed. While on vacation,
I picked up one of the books and found myself unable to put
it down. Nor could I stop with one. I immediately had to read
the other three in succession.
Without a doubt, J.K. Rowling is a skilled author who has
woven a fascinating tale of coming of age, friendship, adventure,
and the struggle between good and evil. Such has been the
stuff of great tales from time immemorial. Her literary training
is evidenced in everything from the page-turning storytelling
to the fascinating names of places and characters that she
devises. It is little wonder that the series is a phenomenon
not only among the grade school kids at whom it is aimed,
but among college students as well. A recent edition of The
Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the Potter
volumes represent four of the five top books being read on
However, I am not ready to declare Harry Potter to
be one for the ages. In fact, it bears many of the marks of
our own very impoverished age. Rowling claims to have been
influenced by C.S. Lewis, among others. One could only wish
that this influence had gone deeper. For unlike Lewis or his
Catholic Inkling counterpart J.R.R. Tolkien, her mythology
is decidedly one-dimensional. In Lewis’and Tolkien’s
mythological worlds, every creature has its own distinctive
power simply by virtue of being who they are—human beings,
animals, elves, dwarves, ents, or hobbits. In Rowling’s
world the only creatures that have power are those that have
(or can develop because of blood pedigree) magical abilities.
Non-magical human beings are simply muggles—obstinate,
thick-headed, and ultimately powerless beings typified by
the narrow-minded and cruel Dursleys with whom Harry lives
when away from his wizard training at Hogwarts.
For the Inklings, things are powerful when they fulfill the
purpose for which their Creator made them. For Rowling, they
are powerful when they learn techniques to control fate and
the world around them. The first embodies the Christian idea
of a vocation. The second represents the notion of success
for a pre- and post-Christian world.
This points to a second very profound shortcoming of these
books. For Christian mythologists such as Lewis and Tolkien,
the universe and the good and evil within it exist in reference
to the One who made it. In Rowling’s cosmology there
is no reference to God to anchor her presentation of the struggle
between good and evil. For Rowling, these things are embodied
in very finite characters—Harry and Dumbledore on the
side of good, and Voldemort serving as the latest embodiment
The lack of reference to God accords well with the understanding
of good and evil that has flourished in our postmodern time.
As our age has shown all too well, if God is not the final
referent of these concepts, their meaning quickly becomes
amorphous—taking on the hue and contours of the subject’s
own understanding and able to shift accordingly. The
clash between good and evil that Rowling depicts lacks the
foundation of any ultimate referent.
On many levels Harry Potter
is undoubtedly a well-written tale.
If it encourages grade school children to become better readers, it
has accomplished much that is good. It should not be rejected because
it features wizardry—Christian mythology has done as much since
Merlin and Arthur. However, if magic is the only way to exercise power
and there is no ultimate anchor for good and evil, then it has drunk
far too deeply at the well of this present age and failed to imbibe
of the age to come.
Copyright 2000 John S. Grabowski.