Harry Potter and the Cardinal Virtues

First things first: I really enjoy the Harry Potter novels and think J.K. Rowling a genuinely inventive and creative genius. I blasted through all three novels (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) last Christmas and was delighted down to my toes with them all. My deepest sorrow upon finishing them was simply the fact that Rowling's plans to write seven are not yet ripe.

Harry is a young boy (he's eleven when the series begins) who discovers that he is not only a wizard with various magical powers, but that there is an entire hidden society of wizards whose existence overlaps (somewhat) with the world of us non-magical "Muggles". Harry has lived among Muggles since he was orphaned as an infant, but comes to discover that he is not only rich but incredibly famous in the wizard community that is his true home. The reason he is famous is a mystery that envelops all the books: namely, he survived an attack by the evil wizard Voldemort that killed his parents and, in surviving, somehow managed to destroy most (but not all) of Voldemort's powers. Now he is a student at Hogwarts, the Academy where all good little magical girls and boys go to study and perfect their magical powers.

Rowling's gifts are everywhere in evidence in the books. If you are trying to place Rowling's style and imaginative powers, think of her as the long-lost daughter of Roald Dahl, whose spirit hovers like a genie somewhere over Rowling's pen. Like Dahl, she is brilliant at creating truly grotesque comic characters (most especially the repugnant Dursleys, Harry's Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and their brat Dudley) as splendid foils for Harry. Like Dickens, Rowling knows that one great secret to a good read is to create a character with which the audience likes to identify (like the kindly and long-suffering Harry) and then visit exquisite and unbearable cruelties on him. This makes us root for Harry all the more of course, but the Dursley's cruelties are always merely the prelude to the main story, which takes place when Harry departs the company of Muggles and encounters adventure at Hogwarts and other magical locales such as Diagon Alley in London (a street located just a little to the left of reality which no Muggle notices or sees).

Rowling posits a sort of alternative world running parallel to ours in which magic, rather than technology, is the machinery by which we control our environment (at least for those who happen to be born with magical powers). Some Christian parents are justifiably edgy about all this magic in an age when occultism is routinely thrust at our children. But I don't think there is a problem in these books. Indeed, Rowling's notion provides a deeper insight than perhaps Rowling herself knows, since magic was, in fact, the twin brother of science and technology. Both arts had identical goals: power and control of nature. The reason magic died is that it didn't work and technology does. Rowling simply has fun with the idea of a world in which (for some of us at least) magic does work. And so her canvas is populated with everything from Nimbus 2000 flying brooms (used by students to play their favorite game: Quidditch [which is something like aerial soccer]) to Every Flavor Beans (which range in flavor from steak to chocolate to ear wax) to zillions of other little throwaway ideas.

If there is anything that Christian parents should pay attention to, it is the curious way in which Harry's universe manages to be magical while never attaining to the truly supernatural as Christians understand the term. This is not bad, but neither is it quite good enough.

What I mean is this: all the Harry Potter novels confront Harry with real choices between good and evil and Harry, like all good protagonists, always manages to struggle through to choosing good in the end. But Harry seems to be aware only of what Catholic theology would call the "natural virtues" of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. These things are real virtues and Catholic parents should get down on their knees and thank God that a series of books which takes these virtues seriously are currently inspiring children to shut off the boob tube and wolf down these tales as starving kids eat bread. But it is also vital for Catholic parents to recognize that these virtues are only natural virtues and that a fully formed human person cannot live on bread alone. Therefore, we must finish the job Harry Potter begins by introducing our children to a truly supernatural world, not of magic, but of grace and, in particular, the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. Harry's universe simply knows nothing of these things, nor do religious questions or the reality of God ever enter into the picture, with the unfortunate consequence that Harry is likeable, but not a light whose brightness is equal to the magnetically frightening black hole of Voldemort's evil. A secular universe-even one filled with magic-cannot summon the human spirit to its full potential. So after Harry, don't forget to introduce your children to other writers such as Tolkien and Lewis who can take your child "further up and further in." And above all, don't forget to point them to the truly supernatural person of Christ who is not only a greater source of wonder than Harry Potter, but real.

Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea