To me [the religious parallels have] always been obvious… [b]ut I never wanted to talk too openly about it because I thought it might show people who just wanted the story where we were going.”
-JK Rowling, in a 2007 MTV interview, on the Christian allusions in Harry Potter
“I don’t feel under any obligation to make my story fit with formalized Christian theology, though I actually intended it to be consonant with Christian thought and belief.”
– JRR Tolkien, in a letter to WH Auden
Author Note: an earlier version of this article was published on Theomag, a collaborative blog project exploring connections between Christianity and everyday life.
Introduction to Wizardry
I’ve got a confession to make: I follow Jesus and I still own my original copies of Harry Potter, most of which were hurriedly purchased within hours of their in-store release and devoured in a manner that can only be described as ‘embarrassingly veracious’.
Yes, they survived the infamous ‘Potter book burnings’ that where oh-so-popular in many church circles in my teenage years. They even survived the lesser-known, but equally significant ‘sin bins’, which also invariably disposed of ill-bought Charmed DVDs and death metal CDs.
We can cringe at such heady times in retrospect. However, for someone that was only a few years into the journey of following Jesus as King, scenes like these were confronting. With no ‘religious’ relatives to tell me what I was ‘supposed’ to be doing with Harry Potter, it was a semi-bewildering time. I have vague recollections of being told by some that Harry Potter was demonic, alongside memories of my parents muttering about lunatics burning children’s books. Seriously, I thought puberty was enough of a catalyst for an identity crisis. What was a girl to do? I wasn’t a lunatic – but I was no occultist, either.
At some point, I’m fairly sure my pastor was forced to address the flurry of Helen Lovejoys exclaiming “won’t somebody please think of the children?”, by wisely telling parents to use discretion and treat Harry Potter as an opportunity to discuss issues of spirituality. Yet, this didn’t solve the issue, so much as validate all perspectives – and with parents that had no issue, the point was somewhat moot. I read on in quiet, yet cautious, contentedness.
Around the same time, there was a rumbling deep in the heart of New Zealand. After years of production, the opening of the most epic film trilogy of all time was impending – and nerds everywhere were reaching for their Ventolin inhalers. Yes, The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) was soon to be unveiled – and I, the uninitiated Halfling from the Shire, was stuck in bed with the stomach flu. Bored, I picked up a copy of its prequel, The Hobbit – and between frequent trips to the bathroom, I realised what I had been missing out on.
I fell more in love as I made my way through the LOTR books and films over the next five or so years. Hobbits, elves, dwarves, wizards and orcs? The quaintness of the Shire, the fiery desolation of Mordor and the wildness of Fanghorn forest? Now that’s what I’m Tolkien about. My love for Harry Potter became matched only by a mini-obsession with all things LOTR. Cue an embarrassing amount of money spent on tickets to Sydney Opera House symphonies (Howard Shore!) and Special Extended DVDs.
Rowling In The Deep
Reflecting upon this dual fandom of mine, an interesting dynamic strikes me: while I was occasionally questioned on my enjoyment of Harry Potter, no follower of Jesus ever condemned my reading of Tolkien. Ever. Even though Gandalf is a wizard. And the elves of Rivendell work all sorts of spellery (if that’s even a word).
Reflecting further, I’m also struck that in the many sermons I’ve sat through, obligingly or otherwise, Tolkien has been used repeatedly to illustrate a point. But the number of extended Harry Potter illustrations? Zero.
Thus, a conundrum appears. Why is it that many Christians acquiesce quite happily to the other-worldly happenings of Middle Earth, but reject Hogwarts – when both display clear elements of sorcery? Why is it that many would gladly hug the wizard known as Gandalf the White, but yell a hearty “no deal!” in the face of Dumbledore?
Is the aversion to Harry Potter really just about magic? Or are there other factors at play?
Firstly, I’d like to address the idea that our reactions are linked to the intentions of each author, based on their religious adherence – that somehow, Tolkien’s Catholic beliefs legitimise magic as an allegorical tool to communicate Christian themes, whereas Rowling indulges frivolously in occultism for the sake of entertainment.
To this, I echo the words of half-giant Hagrid: codswallop. Tolkien has made it clear in his correspondence to various people that while LOTR is imbued with Christian thought and belief (an unavoidable bias of the author), it was not a deliberate allegory of the Gospel, a la Clive Staples and Narnia. The major disservice we can do to this wonderful story is to view it purely through a lens of Christian symbolism that was not intended. To do so sidelines many other themes in LOTR that Christians should be equally concerned with – the critique of tyrannical power, industrialisation, and modernistic progress that harms the created order.
Building on this, if we were to go down the road of religious beliefs shaping intentions, we would have to apply it fairly across the board. This means that we cannot downplay Rowling’s numerous recorded confessions to Christian adherence – even if she articulates a faith journey that is much more tumultuous, lay-level and progressive than that of Tolkien.
So: why is it really that we don’t think about how magic is used in Harry Potter to allegorically wrestle with issues related to faith?
This brings me to my second point. I have a theory. Could it be that the fictional world of Tolkien is so completely removed from our own existence that we are able to make a clear distinction between fiction and reality – and so the presence of magic in Middle Earth doesn’t bother us so much? After all, magic seems to be part of the natural inbuilt order of Middle Earth; and so to suggest that the presence of magic is occultist is a bit like calling gravity heretical.
In contrast, Harry Potter is a parallel universe of sorts, where an embedded magical reality is perceived as hidden within our world. Wizards are not in an entirely different realm – but are individuals living amongst us Muggles (non-magical folk) and happen to have innate abilities to circumvent the natural laws that keep our world functioning.
In other words, we think it is fine for magic to exist ‘out there’ in a clearly defined fictional world where it can be explained away by allegory or seen as a natural part of that realm – but to locate it much more closely to our own actual existence blurs the lines of fiction and reality to the point of discomfort, with misguided notions that the author might actually be encouraging people to believe that fiction can become reality.
When framed in terms such as these, the age-old narrative of ‘them’ being OK to live ‘out there’ but not amongst ‘us’ perhaps shouldn’t be so surprising. It’s just that this time, we’ve transferred it to a fictional depiction of a world where individuals are born with particular abilities – individuals who can no more choose to have these abilities than one can choose to be of Middle-Eastern appearance.
Further complicating this concept of the ‘unwelcome other’ is the notion that Harry (and Hermione) were brought up to believe that they were one of ‘us’ – Muggles – when, in fact, they actually belong to ‘them’. Harry Potter is oriented around the transition of a group of youngsters as they discover a core part of their true identity – and this perhaps evokes a fear that our children, who are less able to unblur the lines, will be snared by something that will cause them to question their faith.
You know, because Top 40, Jersey Shore and rampant advertising isn’t doing that already, is it?
Characters of Virtue
Indeed, to come to my third point, this seems to be the main difference between Harry Potter and LOTR – whereas the former was initially aimed at children, the latter is comparatively a more complex read/watch. Yet, it’s not that simple. I know many children who enjoy Tolkien – and a decade and a bit after the Potter phenomenon exploded, I know many who only first enjoyed Rowling as an adult.
Yet, still, those minors in the Hobbit-loving category very rarely get warned about engaging with material that contains elements of witchcraft. After all – magic belongs in Middle Earth, because Middle Earth is not a threatening reality. The parallel universe of Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, which intrudes upon our own, is.
It seems then that the issue Christians need to deal with – and we should already know this from our often woeful interpretations of the Bible – is learning how to decipher narratives beyond a surface-level reading.
If we were to take a moment to put down our pitchforks and see magic as merely a tool of the narrative, we would realise that LOTR and Harry Potter deal with similar themes. Both teach us about the bonds of loyalty and friendship, about the dangers of manipulation for self-gain, about the power of forgiveness, about the necessity for everyone to play a part in overcoming evil, and ultimately, about sacrificial love overcoming all destructive powers.
Neither narrative glosses over the atrocities of life – some unfairly die, some experience ungodly cruelty and injustice. There are quarrels, broken relationships and deceitfulness exhibited in both stories. Yet, in both, there is a sense of redemption to be found – and although the redemption may not be textbook Christological, it is still something worth noting, exploring and perhaps even celebrating.
This is not to downplay the reality of occultism, of course. In real life, the use of magic is a form of idolatry that usurps God’s power for self-interest. Yet, a knee-jerk offence over Harry Potter merely as a response to the use of the “w” word shows a level of immaturity that I think is unbefitting a thinking Christian. After all, the characters in Harry Potter don’t choose to be magical – and if we were to look carefully, Rowling seems much more interested in exploring what one does with the power they naturally possess. In an age where it is much, much easier to verbally critique and burn children’s literature than to deal with the dire issues of power and manipulation in our own lives, perhaps what we need most is to spend more time reflecting on what we do with what we have been given.
This is why I love both Harry Potter and LOTR. They remind me that those who have been given much also have a daily responsibility to others. They remind me of the subversive message of the Gospel, reflected in Jesus: to give out of love, rather than to manipulate for self-interest. In a Biblically illiterate society, suspicious of Christendom, we desperately need stories that creatively re-tell these Gospel themes.
And if a boy with a lightening bolt scar or a hobbit (or a talking lion, for that matter!) can help with this, then I have the responsibility to pay attention.
 Shawn Adler, “‘Harry Potter’ Author JK Rowling Opens Up About Books’ Christian Imagery,” MTV News, (Oct 17, 2007), http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1572107/jk-rowling-talks-about-christian-imagery.jhtml [accessed March 2012].  Humphrey Carpenter (ed.), The Letters of JRR Tolkien, (London: Allen & Unwin, 1995), 355.  The night before my 7am operation to remove my wisdom teeth, I stayed up until 3am veraciously devouring book number five. When the last book came out, I was completing my journalism internship at Vogue Living magazine and had the legit choice between attending a staff planning meeting and reading HP7. I chose the latter and thus, my career of writing about cushions and furnishings never took off.  Nolan’s Batman trilogy comes a close second for me.  Seriously – I grew up in an area of Sydney known as ‘The Shire’, which in some ways is just as mono-cultural and insular as Tolkien’s Shire.