The Moral Messages of "Harry Potter"
by Doug McManaman
gratefully used with permission
To date, I have only read the first of the Harry Potter series, entitled: The Philosopher's Stone. If the rest of the series follows the standards set in the first book, then I would encourage kids to read them. The magic that you find in Harry Potter is, I contend, as harmless as the magic that you find in Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Beauty and the Beast, yet the moral message is as profound as these Princess Classics, if not more so.
Cinderella receives a visit from her fairy godmother who appears both unexpectedly and magically. This magical stranger waves her magic wand, turning the pumpkin into a magnificent coach, thereby saving the day. "Cinderella and her animal friends stared at the magic in amazement." "Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo!" turns four mice into horses and Cinderella's rags into a beautiful new gown.
Granted Cinderella does not go off to a school of magic to learn the art for herself. I contend that such a point is moot. There is a clear distinction in these classics between good magic and bad magic (an unreal distinction, to be sure.) The distinction is just as clear in Harry Potter.
I would argue then, if such a distinction renders magic acceptable in these classics, why not in "Harry Potter?" We see the use of magic and the distinction between good and evil clearly in Sleeping Beauty, which begins: "In a magical kingdom there lived three kind and gentle fairies: Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. All three of these fairies carry magic wands. Together, they worked to bring forth beauty, happiness, and love. Only by the power of their friendship could they defeat the evil power of their rival, Maleficent."
It is the spell of Merryweather that softens the evil spell of Maleficent. Moreover, on Briar Rose's sixteenth birthday, Merryweather exclaims: "Briar Rose will be returning soon and we'll never get this right by then. Let's use our magic just this once." She then proceeds to fetch the magic wands and in no time at all the house is in order, a beautiful ball gown is created, and the perfect cake is baked and decorated. Later, after princess Aurora has fallen asleep, the fairies cast another spell, putting everyone in the castle to sleep. They also use magic to free prince Phillip from his chains and arm him with sword and shield. Though there is more magic in the later Walt Disney versions than in the original versions of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, magic is nevertheless unmistakably at hand in the original stories.
The themes in the above mentioned classics are profoundly Christian. It is these Christian themes that have helped the tales survive to earn the adjective classic. All of them recall the resurrection and the defeat of the Evil One, especially Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty. I find the moral point in Harry Potter as Christian, and perhaps even more sophisticated.
It seems to me that the occult (and its danger) is primarily a pursuit of a preternatural knowledge, one that takes place outside of the Mystical Body of Christ. And this is where the danger lies; for we have, within the Body of Christ, the seven personal gifts of the Holy Spirit, three of which are the intellectual gifts of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. To seek a more than human kind of knowledge outside of the Body of Christ is to open oneself up to the diabolical.It is to repeat the defiance of Lucifer and declare, "I will not be subject to my own nature!"
But this is not what we get in Harry Potter. The magic is as ambiguous as that of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella for it is not directed towards the acquiring of preternatural knowledge - and it is as outrageous as in the aforementioned classics, so much so that it is hard to imagine how a child could be tempted to dabble. In fact, that part of the occult that deals with fortune-telling is explicitly discredited in The Philosopher's Stone: "Harry, everyone says Dumbledore's the only one You-Know-Who was ever afraid of. With Dumbledore around, You-Know-Who won't touch you. Anyway, who says the centaurs are right? It sounds like fortune-telling to me, and Professor McGonagall says that's a very imprecise branch of magic." And yet the overarching moral theme the book is not ambiguous at all.
The great moral messages of the first book come in the climax of the story. One occurs in the conversation between Quirrell and Potter. (Quirrell is later revealed to be the villain of the story,the one cooperating with Voldemort, the defiant, power-hungry Lucifer of this imaginary world.) "He (Voldemort) is with me wherever I go," said Quirrell quietly. "I met him when I travelled around the world. A foolish young man I was then, full of ridiculous ideas about good and evil. Lord Voldemort showed me how wrong I was. There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it. . . Since then, I have served him faithfully, although I have let him down many times. He has had to be very hard on me." Quirrell shivered suddenly. "He does not forgive mistakes easily. When I failed to steal the stone from Gringotts, he was most displeased. He punished me . . . decided he would have to keep a closer watch on me. . ."
This is a very counter-cultural message, unusual and exciting to find in popular fiction. Moral relativism (which states that there is no good and evil) is cast unambiguously in a negative light. More, Nietzsche's special brand of nihilism (holding that there is no good and evil, only power) is similarily discredited. When later, Voldemort says: "Don't be a fool, . . . Better save your own life and join me . . . or you'll meet the same end as your parents . . ." we clearly recall Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, and hear the contrast with Christ's own, "Anyone who wishes to save his life will lose it, but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it." In this case, Harry's parents died to save Harry when he was an infant.
This message sets the stage for the next great moral theme, the acceptance of death. Nicolas Flamel and his wife decide to destroy the Philosopher's Stone (the critical ingredient in the Elixir of Life, which prolongs life indefinitely) to prevent it falling into the wrong hands. They agree that this is "all for the best," even though this also means their own deaths. Harry is surprised by their unselfishness. Headmaster Dumbledore explains to him, "After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure. You know, the Stone was really not such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all - the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things which are worst for them."
This last line is very important; for it lays the mind of the child right on the doorstep of Catholicism, and it does so by recalling a very important Truth of our Faith. We do indeed have a knack of choosing those things which are the worst for us. We have an inclination to sin, that is, an inclination to selfishness. We have neither the wisdom nor the inclination to choose what is best for us; for dulling of the mind and concupiscence are effects of Original Sin, the doctrine of which alone enables us to understand the Incarnation of the Son of God and his Redemption. Hence the need for divine grace.
There are also a number of subtle messages throughout, such as the contrast between Dumbledore's "I shall not lie, of course," and Harry's childish temptation and tendency to lie in difficult situations. Dumbledore also says, that, "The truth is a beautiful and terrible thing and should be treated with great caution." For it to be a beautiful and terrible thing, it must first exist. In other words, the author is clearly stating there such a thing as Truth.
But the most profound message of the book, in my opinion, are J.K. Rowling's understanding and statements about Love. In the epilogue of the story, when the danger has been vanquished (for now) Dumbledore explains why Harry's skin burned Quirrell's hands as he was trying to choke Harry in the final battle: "Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is Love. He didn't realise that love as powerful as your mother's for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign . . . to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good."
This is a marvellous piece of wisdom, and I cannot do complete justice to it. But we are called to love, and this is our purpose in life: to love, and to learn to be loved, in particular, to learn to be loved by God, who is Love, and who loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son so that all who believe in Him might not perish but might have eternal life (Jn 3, 16).
The effect that one who truly loves has on others is simply incalculable; for that love lives in the beloved, even if the beloved is unaware of it. Most of us are unaware of the love that dwells within us, and which sustains us and strengthens us, especially during difficult times in our lives, that is, a love that is in our skin. But some of us discover it, and when we do, we begin to realize that life is really about love, and little else. And we discover that genuine love is stronger than death and that our love for others, if it is self-effacing, will give them some protection forever.
The ambitious cannot understand this, for they cannot understand love, and they are ultimately defeated by this love, which is sacrificial. A love that is stronger than death, that is, a love that continues to live in, strengthen and protect the beloved long after the lover has died, is a love that can be recognized in the crucified and resurrected Lord.Doug McManaman is an OAC Philosophy teacher at Chaminade Catholic High School in Toronto, Ontario, with several articles about teaching moral issues to young people on our site. To read more of his work visit his Philosophy web page
For another favourable review of Harry Potter see Alan Jacobs' article in First Things, Harry Potter's Magic
For an argument against the Harry Potter stories, please read Michael O'Brien's Some Thoughts on Harry Potter.