Harry Potter and the Critics of Magic

(Yes, it’s a repeat, originally written for the Yule 2001 issue of Shining Lakes News.  Sorry, I was busy writing other things this weekend.  And I thought it would make a good contrast to the article last week, though, to remind us all (and especially the ones complaining about Ms. Gifford) that some of the folks who object to our traditions are convinced that the mainstream media loves us and hates them.  Yes, this particular metaphorical knife does cut both ways.)

For whatever reason – I honestly couldn’t tell you why – I never did read any of the Harry Potter books until just last month. It’s not that I didn’t want to, mind you, as I haven’t yet heard anyone tell me they hated the books, and what I knew of them sounded worthwhile. Maybe it’s because I hadn’t been reading many novels at all, with so many other time commitments in my life these days. (I wish I’d known how quickly I would get through them once I’d started!) Only after seeing the movie on opening night did I actually borrow a copy of the first book from a friend. And I am definitely enjoying them!

During the years when I wasn’t reading the books, I did of course notice a lot of discussion about them on the Internet, and the occasional newspaper article. Much of the discussion-or should I say arguing-was about whether it was appropriate for Christians to read them. I don’t claim to be a scholar of any monotheistic tradition, so I can’t give any kind of reasoned opinion in that context. I do know that some Christian sects believe that any act of magic is contrary to the teachings of their God, and while I don’t share their beliefs, I do respect them for at least being consistent in applying said beliefs. Of course, other sects are more open to the possibility that their God may tolerate, or even help them with, acts that we consider “magic.” Christian parents are going to have to decide for themselves what’s appropriate for their young ones to read.

The more intriguing question from my perspective, and one that I think I can give an informed opinion on, is whether the books are actually pagan in flavor. I haven’t seen much in the mainstream press from pagans commenting on the books (apart from some British witches who were complaining about the direction in which the wizards hold their brooms while flying), but pagans on the Internet have had a lot to say about it, with just about every opinion imaginable being voiced by someone out there. Some say that they think Hogwarts is exactly what a pagan school would be like, others have said that they don’t find a single pagan element in them. J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, says that she herself is a Christian, and is quick to point out that not a single child has told her that the books convinced them to become a pagan. (And those of you out there who believed that satirical article from The Onion which quoted Rowling as saying that the books were intended to make children worship Satan-shame on you! Learn some critical thinking, for the gods’ sakes!)

So what do I think? Are the books pagan? I’ll give a definitive “yes and no” answer to that one.

Why “no”? Well, frankly, I don’t see much of real pagan practice in them. Sure, the kids use wands and ride brooms and make potions-things that every stereotypical witch has been shown to do for hundreds of years. (I believe this makes the Harry Potter books about as pagan as the Broom Hilda comic strip.) Where are the rituals? Why isn’t anyone even talking about the gods, never mind talking with them? No, I don’t see a lot of overt pagan practice or philosophy in these books. The influences seem more mainstream, including Roald Dahl’s books, and the “schoolboy adventure” genre that has been a literary staple for British boys, and to a lesser extent in America. Myself, I see more Encyclopedia Brown than The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft in these books.

So why “yes”? Rowling has said that she did research on folk traditions for her books, and it shows. The references to gods and characters from pagan mythology are everywhere! To mention just a few: Fluffy the three-headed dog is clearly Kerberos, the dog who guards the path to the Underworld in Greek myth. And Hagrid himself was named after a god who was thrown out of Olympus, but was allowed by Zeus (or was it Dumbledore?) to stay on and take care of the animals. Mrs. Trelawney, the prophecy teacher, has a first name of Sybil, which was also the term for the prophetesses of the Oracle at Delphi. One character is named Remus, like the Roman character who was raised by a she-wolf, because . . . well, I won’t give it away for those who haven’t read that book yet. Parvati Patil is named after a Hindu goddess, and her sister Padma’s name means “lotus,” a symbol of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. And even non-pagan legends are included. Did you know that Harry’s owl Hedwig shares her name with the patron saint of communication? I just thought Hedwig was the name of a transsexual singer…. (Don’t ask.)

While I certainly don’t think that Rowling herself follows our path, I do think that she connects her works to these ancient and powerful tales, and because of that, these stories connect us to the Gods and the Ancestors in a meaningful way. Feeling and understanding your connections to the Kindreds and to the world around you is an important part of ADF Druidry, and I hope you feel that sense of connection and draw strength from it every day. And if these stories of a young orphaned hero resonate with you and inspire you to live a better and happier life, then that’s some pretty powerful magic, whatever anyone else may think.

Yours in service to the Kindreds and the Grove,
Rev. Rob Henderson, Senior Druid



One thought on “Harry Potter and the Critics of Magic

  1. (Comments from the original post on our old site:)

    Posted by Dubhlainn:
    JKR has a degree in Classics btw. I agree with your assesment. The books are not pagan at all, but they do incoprorate a lot of what we pagans hold dear. Most of all I just think they are great books! For everyone! Great modern mythology as well and exploration of virtue.

    Hedwig and the Angry Inch! I love the music in that show.
    Monday, July 7th 2008 @ 12:45 AM

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