Harry Potter: Muddled Mythology for a Postmodern World


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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 harmless entertainment).

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 college campuses.

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 of evil.

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.