Our society’s preoccupation with magic and sorcery in books and movies

Undeniably, one of the greatest series of all time (in both film and fiction) is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Everything about it was blockbuster, and people have flocked to it consistently for nearly 15 years. The closest comparison would be The Lord of the Rings, for me, which I reread every year–and I’ve just begun a reread of Harry Potter, because writing this post made me nostalgic for the escapism of the Potter universe.

Why, though? What is it about magic and sorcery in books and movies? I could write a treatise on Harry Potter (which I’ll likely do when I finish rereading them), but here I’ll only use it as one example of a larger whole: magic and sorcery in film and fiction. One of the largest criticisms of Rowling’s series is that it promotes witchcraft–but does it? Where is the line between fiction and fantasy? How do we distinguish between the good and the bad?

I think the easiest way to differentiate between the good and the bad in terms of this fictional magic is to look at two things: the source and the intention.

In terms of Harry Potter and sorcery, I really suggest you look at a few definitions definition of terms used throughout Harry Potter, as well as those terms imposed upon it, and whether or not the series follows those definitions.

Magic: the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces (via Oxford Dictionary “Magic”)

Witchcraft: the practice of magic, especially black magic; the use of spells and the invocation of spirits (via Oxford Dictionary “Witchcraft” )

Black Magic: magic involving the supposed invocation of evil spirits for evil purposes (via Oxford Dictionary “Black magic”)

One of these definitions can clearly be seen upon even a cursory reading of the first book if the series, let alone the rest. Magic is merely the influence of events through mysterious forces. This is what we see in Harry Potter; his powers come from a mysterious, unrevealed source. It’s more of a trait that some people happen to be born with, rather than gained by some darkness or evil. Harry does not get his powers through human sacrifice or a satanic ritual. The closest the series gets to this is at the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and it’s the bad guy who goes in this direction, and it’s very clearly, utterly evil and abhorrent.

Gandalf the White

In C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, magic is prolific and pervasive. Yet condemning it would shock the Christian community simply because of the author. J.R.R. Tolkien’s transgressions into the magical realm are just as easily allowed by the same groups because it, like Lewis’ series, exemplifies a clear Christian allegory than has stood the test of time. Yet a very similar and powerful allegory is sidestepped because Harry and company attend a school of witchcraft and wizardry. Many seem to have forgotten a line from The Hobbit:

But of course, Gandalf had made a special study of bewitchments of fire and lights… (The Hobbit, Chapter VI: Of of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire)

These bewitchments of fire and light had just killed a goblin. So Gandalf uses magic to kill, while Harry–even against his enemies–will do little more than disarm. Yet Harry Potter will teach our children about the evils of witchcraft. Now, I’m being hyperbolic, because as I stated earlier, I love The Lord of the Rings; what I don’t love is a double standard.

Actually, the magic in Harry Potter is more like the X-Men. They’re born with powers and must learn to use them properly. They go to a school where they learn to control their abilities so that they don’t accidentally hurt someone. Their powers are explicitly explained, which is possibly why no one questions them with such zeal. In both Harry Potter and X-Men, their powers spring forth at adolescence, which is a metaphor for teenagers’ growing maturity. They’re growing up, and their God-given abilities are coming out. Obviously, real aren’t able to use magic or shoot lasers out of their eyes, but the metaphor of properly using the gifts and abilities with which God has blessed us, is certainly there. Rowling may not use “God,” but she would go with the abilities metaphor.

Harry Potter isn’t the only pop culture example of magic these days. Vampire Diaries (which I never thought I’d reference this much in my blog) puts forth a good bit of magic, including seances and and sacrifices, as does its sister show The Secret Circle, which is all about witches, drawing a good bit from the occult. Both would follow the above definitions, not in the Harry Potter way. Magic and the occult is sexy here, something to be sought and craved for the power that it gives.

The show Supernatural, which is also immensely popular, deals regularly with these things. Its mythology is derived from myriad sources, most clearly from Paradise Lost and other similar works. The magic here is not to play around with. It’s a tool used by the oppressive, dark forces of this fallen world, unceasingly seeking to wreak havoc upon humanity, desiring destruction at every turn. In the show, two brothers seek to destroy monsters which plague people, along the way they also fight demons, angels, and seek the truth of God and their own existence. They use magic, but it’s most clearly for the purposes of combating evil. However, there are times when they stray into the gray areas of going too far, and this is where the show shines. They continually self-scrutinize, discussing what is right and wrong, and occasionally making disastrous mistakes. This is a flawed show, in this way, yet it’s honest with its aims, and it’s deeply human.

Our society latches onto this aspect because it’s something unattainable by us, something for which we strive. Whether it’s simply heroic or desiring the excitement of powers, this speaks to the way we were created. We were created to seek something beyond ourselves, and we desire something more. The main thing is that we should know the proper avenue of pursuit–is it something that is only a dream, like magical powers, or is it found in something more concrete?

In terms of how we should react to these things–both shows and films–I come back to motivations. Is owning a gun wrong, if you intend only to hunt or for self-defense? Maybe that’s too loaded a question. Is owning a fork wrong? I may stab someone with it and really injure or kill them, but does that make forks inherently evil? No. The evil comes from intentions. Rowling’s wizarding world’s powers are not inherently evil, but they hold the potential for evil, depending on the one who wields the power. Harry seeks to use his powers for good, because he desperately wants to be the antithesis of Lord Voldemort, who has continuously used his powers for death and destruction throughout his entire life. This is more significant than just blithely dismissing or condemning the series just because it says the word magic. What is the intention, and what is the source? Is the source of magic evil, and is the user driven by evil intentions? Harry, just like Gandalf, is flawed and driven by a desire to do good. This should be our focus, not semantics.

Last time: Vampires

Next time: Zombies


2 thoughts on “Our society’s preoccupation with magic and sorcery in books and movies

  1. Mr. Howat,

    I find your comparison of Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings interesting, as I am one of those people who praises The Lord of the Rings but still retains some skepticism in regards to Harry Potter. I think there are a couple issues that warranted more attention.

    Firstly, the source of the power. In Harry Potter, like you said, it is a natural, in-born ability. In The Lord of the Rings, however, Gandalf’s power is derived from Manwë, who has been vested with this power from Illúvatar–the plainly apparent God-figure. In an almost allegorical sense, Gandalf is an angel.

    Which brings me to the second point: The portrayal of this power. In The Lord of the Rings, the main character with which Tolkien wants readers to identify is Frodo–who has no magical powers. In fact, the only magic he has access to is that of the Ring–and when he does use it, and claim it for his own, he succeeds in nearly destroying all of Middle-Earth. In Harry Potter, Rowling presents readers with a character to identify with, who wields the power. Not only does he have this power, but it grows with him, and he becomes more powerful. As far as I know (I have not actually read Harry Potter, although I have done research on the topic) there is no limit at which Harry ought to “cap” his magic. There’s good magic, and bad magic, and the more powerful you get with your good magic, the better off you are. There is much more of a “you can be like this,” theme in Harry Potter. This portrayal of power is very seductive, I feel, and the following quote by Rowling exemplifies my fears

    “I get letters from children addressed to Professor Dumbledore, and it’s not a joke, begging to be let into Hogwarts, and some of them are really sad. Because they want it to be true so badly they’ve convinced themselves it’s true”

    X-men might elicit the same response, but for a child obsessed with X-men, there’s nowhere for them to turn. The terms used in Harry Potter do in fact link it–however remotely–to the occult. While it does not “promote” real-life black magic, it is undoubtably associated with it to a degree. While I don’t think there is harm in Harry Potter for a mature Christian reader–in fact, there may be much good to be gleaned from it–I do feel that Christians should hesitate to support something that could prove deadly to those without the Truth. All in all, I found your analysis very interesting. Neat post!

    Respectfully, Seth Rosamilia

  2. Pingback: Our society’s preoccupation with Zombies in books and movies | Elementary, My Dear Reader

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