Harry Potter and the disappearing student

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Dec 2001

English public schools always breaks up for Christmas – and Hogwarts is no exception. Strange, really, since Hogwarts is an academy for wizards and witches, and therefore (according to Christian fundamentalists and even some toy store chains), a global focus of neo-pagan demonic power and a corruptor of childhood innocence.

Hogwarts is, of course as fictional as its most renowned pupil, Harry Potter. Each of the seven years that Harry spends there is to be recorded in a novel for children – boys especially – by J.K. Rowling. Four have already been written.

At Hogwarts one finds the familiar cast of the typical English boarding school yarn – the wise and indulgent Head whose gift for moral discernment has nodded strangely in the appointment of a sinister teacher or two; the sadistic, sneering student bully and his henchmen; their victims – and the heroic Harry and his mates who stand in the way. But instead of Latin, Maths and French, Harry and his coevals take Sorcery, Magical Animals and Divinisation classes. And where Harry’s predecessors had to deal with German or Russian spies or drug runners, Harry has to match wands at the denouement with the sinister Lord Voldemort, an arch wizard bent upon global thraldom. It is essentially youthful joie de vivre against the controlling mind of the overbearing adult, white magic against black, good against evil – and guess who wins in the end.

The young (and the wannabe young) tend to love these stories partly because the school is indeed, after the family, the power structure within which their own life drama begins – a challenging microcosm of the adult world within which some kind of glory is sought and all kinds of humiliation skirted. They love them also for the rich Halloween detail and humour which make lessons riotous – apart from the inevitable one or two in which the teacher burbles on endlessly on, say, astrological charts, as her predecessors would have done on Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Rowling takes her other world scholarship on everything from dragons and unicorns to leprechauns and giants with almost Tolkien-like gravity – but also improvises joyously.

Should we worry about all of this? Yes indeed. Rowling’s imagination does seem strangely bare of biblical reference, and Harry’s Christmas is a matter of mere digestive excess, in the tradition of Enid Blyton. If the rich historical significance of Christmas and Easter in the defeat of the powers of darkness can find not even an allegorical echo in the most popular child fiction of the moment, there is indeed something wrong. Christianity, one gathers from the minimal reference in these books – and from the po-faced fundamentalist campaign against them – is a portentous and tedious feature of the Muggle world – something to escape from in the tradition of Huckleberry Finn, who headed down river in spiritual revolt against soap and psalms as well as fear of an abusive parent.

Muggles, for the uninitiated, are those who can never get to Hogwarts, because they are simply unendowed with magical powers. Following the murder of his parents by Voldemort, Harry was raised by his Muggle Aunt and Uncle, suburban tyrants who gave him the cupboard under the stairs to sleep in. They spoil their only son, Dudley, who bullies Harry until he finds himself transmuted into a variety of animal forms, and humiliated in various other ways.

Oddly enough, it is in the humiliation of Dudley that Rowling comes a little unstuck. Magic is after all an extension of human power and when it is used to humiliate, laughter cannot be entirely unalloyed. Dudley’s obesity is precisely the kind of vulnerability that bullies exploit in the Muggle world – so his likely destiny as the archetypal spoiled suburban child is eventually itself oddly affecting. Perhaps Rowling will find some way of redeeming this particular Muggle in the end.

The straightened circumstances of the Weasleys – the wizarding family that provides Harry with an occasional holiday refuge from his Muggle cousin’s – is also a little difficult to fathom, as the ability to transmute anything into anything else should surely be commercially exploitable without breaching wizarding rules. However, Ron Weasley’s penurious decency is a necessary foil to Harry’s exceptional talent and destiny, preventing him from getting above himself.

The Weasleys are derided for their penury by the school cad, Draco Malfoy – scion of a wealthy and ambitious family inclined towards Voldemort – so Harry’s friendship with Ron makes him a defender of the weak and the poor against the power-hungry. This is in the best traditions of children’s fiction, entirely compatible with Christian principles, and one marvels again at the obtuseness of those who condemn these books as a threat to these. They sometimes wonder why the Narnia stories of C.S. Lewis have no current equivalent in children’s fiction – without realising that their own lack of humour goes a long way towards explaining why.

Lewis’s medievalism led him to allow his child characters to play in a rather priggish way at Kings and Queens in Narnia, learning chivalry from Aslan the wise lion. Aslan’s self-sacrificial death to save the most selfish of the child characters was Lewis’s rather awkward attempt at explaining Christian redemption to children. Lewis could never see that the idea of kingship – the ultimate elevation of the individual in the ancient and medieval worlds – has always itself been associated with the problem of victimisation – as the Bible itself reveals, for example in the story of David. In this sense Rowling’s imaginative world marks an advance on that of Lewis – for Rowling identifies ambition and the desire for power as in themselves morally dubious.

The suggestion that these stories may draw children towards the occult seems fatuous: children playing at magic will quickly find (as I did) that the books don’t provide enough straight wizarding instruction to conjure up a packet of liquorice allsorts. Although demons do turn up rather frequently, Hogwarts is no den of iniquity: it springs straight from the magical underworld of King Arthur’s mentor, Merlin, and its sense of humour is very similar to that of T.H. White’s ‘The Sword in the Stone’, a joyous retelling of the boyhood of Arthur.

The success of Harry Potter reveals clearly once again what Mark Twain so beautifully demonstrated in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: that children have an entirely healthy desire to turn the world upside down. Christian educators should wonder why it is that this same desire cannot yet be identified in children’s fiction with the purpose of the Gospels. When Harry rejects the option of power and success on his induction into Hogwarts, and at important crises thereafter, why can none of the fundies find an echo here of Jesus’ option to join the sinners in the Jordan (the occasion of his first recognition by the Father in John’s gospel), followed immediately by his rejection of both political and religious power in the desert, and his rejection of the option of force (i.e. worldly power) at Gethsemane. Jesus himself said that his kingdom was not of this world – but that children would be at home in it. As children feel entirely at home in Hogwarts it is reasonable to suppose that Christian educators would carefully study that world before banning it from their own library shelves.

Every child wants not only to turn the world upside down, but to save it – and that is why children identify with Harry, with Merlin, with Arthur, with Robin Hood, with Huck Finn in his saving of the slave, Jim, and with George Lucas’s creation, Luke Skywalker.

Luke’s recognition as destroyer of the awesome spherical Battle Station in the final scene of the first of the ‘Star Wars’ films gives us insight into every boy’s desire for recognition as hero and saviour. Somehow, for Christian education to touch the boy at the deepest level our practical theology must place Jesus in that heroic context, offering a meaningful, non-soppy heroism to children today, connected to the cosmic context in which their minds now operate. The feminising and over-spiritualising of Jesus we have inherited from an Italianate piety that essentially invites Catholic boys to be Mammy’s boys has not yet been properly eradicated from our Catholic culture – and the over-theologising of Jesus that grips the academic theologian’s imagination is equally misconceived as a means of capturing the hearts and imaginations of young men.

The Lucas stories, the Narnia books, the Potter stories and the Tolkien books all demonstrate the desire of children to live in a world that they can master and mould, escaping from the one they patently can’t. That so many now seem to want to escape from Christianity also is a problem that deserves the most careful thought.

I am convinced that the problem is precisely that theistic Christianity has largely remained the intellectual property of those governed by fear of the future, by fear of freedom, and by nostalgia for a buttoned-up past. Far from seeming subversive to the young, it is seen as supportive of an adult controlling instinct nostalgic for Victorian order – if not something even fustier. It is an Anne Widdicombe preserve (she would make a marvellous Muggle Tory school inspector double-taking the absence of maths and economics from the Hogwarts curriculum), and therefore something to avoid at all costs.

We are faced with the problem of explaining redemption in imagery that can grip children as the best children’s art does – and neither a retreat to Lewis’s medievalism nor censorship will answer. The truth is that we adults are lacking the kind of grasp of the gospels that would allow us to do this persuasively in our children’s imaginative world – and this is a fundamental reason for the current evangelical shortfall of Christian education. For most of the children who leave our schools our ‘good news’ is a complicated, incoherent and meaningless adult tale that takes place in a world entirely remote from their own, for the support of an institution to be ruled forever by an oligarchy of old men dressed in skirts. So it is very stale news best forgotten, rather than a possible vital centre of their own life’s journey.

This is our fault (I speak as a parent and former teacher) – not theirs or J.K. Rowling’s.

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