ST. PAUL, Minnesota, MARCH 16, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Monsignor Peter Fleetwood made headlines around the world when he appeared to give the Vatican’s official blessing to the Harry Potter series.
At a news conference Feb. 3 on a Vatican document on New Age, he was asked about the fictional adolescent wizard. Monsignor Fleetwood, who helped draft the New Age document when he was a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture, responded: “Harry Potter does not represent a problem.”
That seemed to cap — or reignite — the long debate among Christians over the appropriateness of the Potter series for children. Some have condemned its author J.K. Rowling for promoting relativism and sorcery.
Catherine and David Deavel see things differently. Professors at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, they have written and spoken on the merits of the series and are contributors to a forthcoming book on “philosophy and Harry Potter” to be released by Open Court Publishing. They recently shared their views, in writing, with ZENIT.
Q: Father Fleetwood noted that J.K. Rowling was Christian in her manner of writing. What do you think he was describing?
A: The books are Christian in at least two senses. First, the books place love and truth as the objective goods at the heart of what it means to be a human, magical or otherwise.
The initial premise of the series is that the infant Harry has survived the attack of the evil wizard Voldemort through his parents’ sacrificial love. And Albus Dumbledore, the wise headmaster of Hogwarts, cautions Harry repeatedly to always prize truth. Give things their proper names, is Dumbledore’s advice. In other words, don’t be afraid to name evil for what it is.
Second, the books are coming-of-age stories that follow the development of Harry Potter and his friends, particularly their moral development. It’s important to note that nowhere in the books published thus far does Harry or any of his friends defeat the forces of evil through their own magical skills.
Instead, the characters always find victory through universal virtues such as courage in the service of honesty or friendship. Self-sacrifice, the willingness to put oneself in danger for another’s sake, is one of the constant threads running through the series.
Q: How should readers understand the use of magic and witchcraft in the books?
A: One almost wants to say that it’s simply a whimsical plot device that helps transport readers to the wonderful place Chesterton called “Elfland” in his book “Orthodoxy.” But magic also raises the stakes of the moral tale.
Magic really is a talent, something like mathematical ability or perfect pitch, but with a much greater possibility for good or evil use. Rowling certainly uses details from the history of the occult, for example, names, figures of speech and certain paraphernalia, but it is not the case that Rowling is promoting “real-life magic.”
Most of her spells have no real-world parallels; and perhaps the only one that does, divination, is represented by a figure — professor Sibyl Trelawney — who has only made a couple of accurate predictions in her life, and is generally treated with skepticism by students and faculty alike.
Rowling even has Dumbledore tell us that prediction of the future is most difficult because of the diversity and complexity of the consequences of any of our actions. Not only is divination mocked, but knowledge of how to use the dark arts is considered too dangerous for the curriculum, even if learned only for self-defense.
Q: Is the interest in the books endemic of the growth in New Age spirituality the Vatican recently condemned?
A: Undoubtedly some children (and adults) are going to be interested in the books because of their magical quality. Again, to cite Chesterton, what is so intriguing about fairy tales is that they assume, roughly, the same rules of logic and morality, but don’t assume that the world of physics or biology or chemistry have to be the way they are in our world. This is the basic story of these books.
They could be thought of as a world in which magic simply proved to be like the natural sciences, another way of manipulating the world around us. But to say that these books promote or even encourage New Age spirituality seems laughable.
As we pointed out, divination and fortunetelling are pretty much dismissed out of hand — and for what seems to be a sound philosophical observation about the complexity of free will.
The spirituality of the books, if such a thing can be found, is concentrated almost wholly on good old-fashioned virtues and vices, which are developed in the normal human way.
Q: What are the particular virtues of the Harry Potter series? Are they good literature?
A: J. Bottum had a wonderful comment in the Weekly Standard about how Rowling’s books are like the classics in that she has a wonderful way of putting together clichés. This is a good way of thinking about it.
Her plots are simple — in fact, the first two books have almost identical plots, formally speaking — yet have delightful twists and turns in them. She gives names in a way that one can only label Dickensian.
The wording of the spells is done in a sort of mock-Latin and the spells and magical items are a nice mix of the practical and the ridiculous. The characters themselves remind one of so many characters of classic literature — we have several times said or written “Gandalf,” from “The Lord of the Rings,” when we meant to refer to Dumbledore — and yet, through it all, the books are charmingly unique.
The simple plots really do work — in part because the books build upon each other — and the dialogue, particularly that of the children, is both funny and realistic.
Rowling juxtaposes the mundane and the epic. The children alternate their efforts between studying for their courses and defending against Voldemort’s return. Finally, the books teach the lesson that people cannot be judged by first impressions.
Q: The books have been often criticized for allegedly promoting relativism and teaching children to subvert authority. Why do you think the books promote freedom in the service of truth and the good?
A: We really haven’t been convinced by those who have said the books promote relativism. As we noted earlier, the books clearly assume that goods such as love and truth are objective.
But generally the complaints about the Potter books focus not on any real evil deeds, but on infractions such as breaking the school curfew; and these cases of rule-breaking are overwhelmingly attempts to block some great harm.
Even if Harry did get away with real moral mischief — which his detractors have not convincingly shown — the point of literature, even literature that has explicitly moral themes, is not to show that in every case crime, or perhaps sin, doesn’t pay. Sometimes it does in the short run, but it never does in the long run.
The way one portrays moral development in literature is to make it like moral development in real life. People make choices for good or ill. Sometimes they learn lessons immediately and sometimes they don’t. Mostly they grow morally in fits and starts as they reflect on long chains of events in the light of good advice. And even the good advice is not always comprehended immediately.
But with the advice that has already been given by Dumbledore regarding the duty to always seek and tell the truth, and always use one’s freedom to serve that truth, we can see that the lessons Harry can and will gain are significant.
For example, Harry refrains from an act of vengeful killing at the end of the third book. The person in question set up his parents’ murder and the murder of numerous others, yet Harry refuses to take this revenge himself.
He cannot articulate why, but he concludes, from reflecting on his parents’ self-
sacrificial lives, that such acts of vengeance are wrong. This type of moral learning is profoundly Catholic in that one watches virtuous lives and learns to do as they do, while the intellect catches up with the habit.