C.S. Lewis and the Potter Debate

by Emily Griesinger, Ph.D.

Three years ago, I was approached by James Hedges, the chair of Azusa Pacific University’s Department of English, to teach a section of Children’s Literature in the Adult and Professional Studies Program. The course went smoothly until I decided to substitute Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis as an example of children’s fantasy. Why would a Christian professor teaching at a Christian university ask her students to read a book about witchcraft and wizardry?

Thinking about that question consumed an entire summer and resulted in two articles and three conference papers. Those interested may want to read the complete articles, one in Christianity and Literature and the other forthcoming in Christian Scholar’s Review. Space permits me to share only the highlights here. I began my research by reading everything I could find that had been written or said about Harry Potter, including many articles students brought to class. Some of these were insightful; most were not. For example, who could take seriously the “Harry Potter Books Spark Rise in Satanism Among Children” article that appeared in a satirical newspaper called The Onion? Many of my students did. I even received an email copy of this article from my own father, a committed Southern Baptist who got it from a concerned lady in his Sunday school. Among other things, this article claims that applications to the first church of Satan in Salem, Massachusetts have gone up from 100,000 to 14 million because children are reading Harry Potter! The London Times, allegedly cited in The Onion story, had to apologize for confusion to readers who did not grasp the material for what it was – a joke. Reactions to The Onion hoax suggest, albeit in exaggerated form, the real concerns of parents, teachers, and even professors of children’s literature about the most problematic feature of the series, which is its positive portrayal of witchcraft and wizardry. Although author Rowling has stated that she does not believe in magic the way it is portrayed in her novels and has claimed to be a Christian, the use of witchcraft and wizardry in Harry Potter is still problematic. Prohibitions against witchcraft in the Old Testament, especially Deuteronomy 18, along with New Testament warnings about not causing our brothers and sisters, and especially our children, to stumble (Matthew 18:3-7, Luke 17:1-2, Mark 9:42) cannot be taken lightly by a Christian professor of children’s literature. Yet I cannot agree that reading about witches and wizards in a work of literature is the same thing as dabbling in and/or encouraging others to dabble in the occult. A more sensible and perhaps more biblical approach is that of Connie Neal’s What’s a Christian to Do with Harry Potter? “If we want to have a positive influence and enter into meaningful discussions with kids who love Harry Potter, we’ll do well not to show signs of ignorance about what’s really in the books while seriously questioning or condemning them.” Moreover, since sincere, Bible-believing Christians seemingly led by the same Holy Spirit arrive at opposing conclusions, as Neal puts it, we need not expect consensus. Even Christians reading Christianly may disagree about Harry Potter. Since the representative fantasy text on my syllabus had originally been The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and since Lewis gave serious attention to children’s literature, and fantasy in particular, it seemed appropriate to ask how Lewis might approach the Harry Potter debate. I studied Lewis. All literary criticism worth reading, says Lewis in “Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism,” begins with the critical question, “Why, and how, should we read this?” In A Preface to Paradise Lost, he states, “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is – what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used.” I have no doubt Lewis would have read Harry Potter as a narrative fantasy or fairy tale because that is what it is. To do otherwise would be to risk, as he says in another place, “miss[ing] what is there and think[ing] we see what is not.” Lewis would have accepted Harry Potter as a work of fantasy. He would have read it “lightly” for entertainment and pleasure. As an apologist for the faith, however, he would certainly have engaged the issues raised in the current debate. For Christians, the most disturbing issue is Rowling’s positive portrayal of magic and witchcraft. Interestingly, Lewis’ Narnia stories were and still are criticized for the same reason. Based on Lewis’ comments here, I imagine that unlike some conservative Christians, Lewis would give Rowling the benefit of the doubt and assume that however much research into the history of magic and witchcraft she may or may not have done in writing Harry Potter, she is not attempting to seduce children into the real world of the occult. What is meant lightly, we must take lightly or run the risk of missing what is there and thinking we see what is not. Lewis was drawn to fantasy for other reasons as well. All fantasy truly written, even when it is not Christian in intent, can “baptize the imagination,” says Lewis in Miracles, and impart a “real though unfocused gleam of divine truth.” We glimpse Kingdom principles and values – bravery, loyalty, honesty, faith, hope, love – in the truest fairy tales. In some tales, we even glimpse the King or at least His goodness and moral wisdom. Fairy tales and fantasy literature do not simply meet children’s psychological needs, then, as Bruno Bettelheim and other child psychologists suppose. Though they may do that, they also evoke, and to some degree satisfy, spiritual longings. As such, they have a role to play in bringing us to Christ. What about Harry Potter? Is it a true fantasy of the kind Lewis is talking about? I believe it is. Bravery, loyalty, and honesty are important values at Hogwarts, as Harry learns in the Sorting Hat ritual. Honest Gryffindors or conniving Slitherins – who will his role models be? Harry chooses Gryffindor and must continue to choose Gryffindor throughout the series. Interestingly, the Christian virtues of selflessness and love are not mentioned by the Sorting Hat as characteristic of any of the Hogwarts schools. But there are plenty of examples in the four novels published thus far to suggest that selflessness and love, as well as forgiveness, mercy, and grace, are virtues in Rowling’s fantasy world. In interviews, Rowling has said she read and loved the Narnia tales as a child. There she would surely have encountered “deeper magic,” which is Lewis’ metaphor for divine selflessness, mercy, grace, forgiveness, and love. According to Lewis, only when we realize we have broken the law of “deep magic” and deserve to pay the penalty, only then can the deeper magic of Christian atonement bring us to the point of conversion. Rowling does not go this far. “Deep magic” is implied, however, in the lessons Harry learns from Professor Dumbledore and the choices he has to make to become a wise wizard. Rowling actually uses the term “deep magic” in The Prisoner of Azkaban to describe the power that overcomes evil. Thus far in the series, this is not the “deeper magic” of Aslan in Narnia, or not exactly. Rowling’s “deep magic” lacks the incarnational element of Lewis’ Christology, the idea of a Master Magician intentionally laying aside His magical powers in order to defeat Evil once and for all, opening the way for Good to rule and reign. Perhaps we will see this before the series ends. Things may become so desperate that Dumbledore will have to give his life for Harry, or perhaps Harry will die for Dumbledore. In the end, I agree with Lewis; there are only two questions to ask about a work of literature: “Is it interesting and enjoyable?” and “Will this enjoyment help or hinder us towards all the other things we would like to enjoy or do or be?” Harry Potter is interesting and enjoyable. If Christian parents and teachers take it for what it is, a work of literary fantasy, it should not hinder and could even help children embrace and receive the true magic of the Gospel. With spiritual preparation, Harry Potter could at least call children’s attention to the battle between good and evil going on all around them, not in fantasy or fairy tales, but in the real world. If nothing else, Harry’s journey towards maturity as a wizard suggests that in the battle between good and evil, our choices are costly, to ourselves and others, and regardless of size, age, appearance, or ability, our choices matter. Finally, the magic in Harry Potter enlarges our being, as Lewis would say, to include the possibility of other worlds and the implicit promise that every one of us, the strong, the weak, the beautiful, the funny looking, the athlete, the geek, the nerd, can experience the “deepest magic” of all, which is to know we are accepted and special and deeply loved. In this, Rowling sets the stage for the Christian Gospel and provides her reader a “real though unfocused gleam of divine truth.”

Emily Griesinger, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of English. Portions of this article are taken from “Why Read Harry Potter? J. K. Rowling and the Christian Debate,” forthcoming in Christian Scholar’s Review. A more fully developed literary analysis of the “deeper magic” argument appears in “Harry Potter and the Deeper Magic: Narrating Hope in Children’s Literature,” Christianity and Literature, 51iii (Spring 2002): 455-80. [email protected]

For additional perspectives on this topic, consult the following links:

  • Parents Push for Wizard-free Reading
  • The Perils of Harry Potter