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Harry Potter: from Aristotle’s Poetics to Christian Virtue

December 8, AD 2016 10 Comments

What makes a book great? A great book touches people across cultures and nations; it is a tome that reflects the realities of humanity in its characters, as Aristotle recommended in his Poetics,1 and reinforces virtue while decrying vice, as Plato noted in The Republic;2 as well as a classic that draws readers to reread it over and over again, discovering anew its nuggets of wisdom and delighting in its celebration of the best traits and actions of people.

Hogwarts

I nominate the Harry Potter series by Joanne Kathleen Rowling as recent great books. The series is not as impressive as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which has a more mystical and cerebral air; but it is more accessible and appealing to the average reader and has had a substantial impact on an entire generation, having been translated into 67 languages, with more than 450 million copies sold.3 In fact, I avoided reading the series for five years because I disdained its popularity, which I took as a sign that it was just another cheap product of mass culture. However, when I finally picked up the first book in the series, I quickly devoured as many sequels as there were available, recording lines that spoke to my heart.

For instance, Harry’s godfather Sirius Black says: “If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.4 Rowling is an astute observer and recorder of human nature, character, and interaction. Through her novels, she champions the underdog, exalts the lowly, and casts the mighty from their thrones. She writes of prejudice against wizards from non-wizarding families (“mudbloods” like the brilliant student Hermione Granger), cruelty to enslaved house-elves (Dobby and Winky),5 and discrimination against werewolves (the learned Professor Lupin), giants (or half-giants like the gentle, generous Hagrid),6 and other races. In this way, she addresses very real human concerns in the guise of fantasy. In fact, researchers have observed that readers of Harry Potter tend to become more empathetic towards the disadvantaged, such as refugees.7

In addition, Rowling explores sinister modernist ideas. The evil antagonist Voldemort, an orphan born of a loveless union, declares, “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.8 This is an allusion to Friedrich Nietzsche,9 who wrote, “This world is the will to power—and nothing besides.10 Voldemort seeks to purge the world of everyone besides those of pure wizarding stock, a eugenic exercise reminiscent of the Holocaust. The orphaned Harry, who grew up with incredibly abusive relatives, does not succumb to hatred or cowardice but repeatedly triumphs over Voldemort, protected by his parents’ self-sacrificial love and aided by the knowledge and bravery of his devoted friends and mentors. Thus, he and his allies demonstrate selfless goodness overcoming selfish evil. Voldemort tempts Harry to join him,11 and Harry even questions his own sanity at one stage because he can feel Voldemort’s emotions through the cursed scar that links them,12 but Harry does not give in, although at times he really resents having been born into this stressful role of battling with Voldemort. These matters of morality reflect the life of the Christian, born into a fallen world and constantly battling with the devil, yet triumphing through the exercise of reason, virtue,and free will, supported by a community of love. As the headmaster, Dumbledore, tells Harry, reassuring him that he was not meant to be in Voldemort’s house of Slytherin: “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.13 Again and again, Harry chooses to do good, ultimately sacrificing himself but rising again from the dead.14 He is a Christ-like figure, an ordinary-looking human born into the position of saving the world from annihilation. Voldemort seeks to kill him from his birth, warned by a prophecy,15 but is himself destroyed by his own actions every time he attempts to destroy Harry. Rowling adheres to Aristotle’s plot guidelines, with peripeteia or reversal of circumstances, as well as anagnorisis or recognition.16

In spite of these serious themes, Rowling ensures that the books are enjoyable reads because of her magnificent sense of humor. She is a master of irony, sarcasm, and wit, creating immensely likable characters with unique voices.17 Some fans even feel as if the characters are like family.18 Furthermore, Rowling cleverly weaves in classical imagery and language, employing various mythical creatures such as the manticore, the sphinx, and Cerberus; using the names Minerva and Argus for the wisest female professor and the ever-watchful caretaker;19 and liberally sprinkling Latin phrases throughout the books. Moreover, borrowing from medieval times,20 she employs Christian imagery21 and the idea of the philosopher’s stone and even correctly dates the age of the alchemist Nicholas Flamel, a real-life Frenchman.22 Thus, Rowling builds on Western culture and tradition, reinterpreting and transmitting ancient stories to modern generations, as Aristotle recommends.23

Authoress Elizabeth Drew said, “The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it.” I last reread Harry Potter over the summer, and found parallels between his life and mine, particularly in his preference to be at Hogwarts rather than home for the summer break. (I am thoroughly enjoying my studies at Campion College and do not really look forward to holidays.) Harry Potter inspires me, like so many others,24 to be considerate to everyone regardless of their background; to place others before myself, even to the ultimate cost; to love and appreciate those around me in this brief time on earth; and to find the joy and humor in this world though things may seem bleak (as things must have appeared to Rowling, who wrote the first book while dealing with divorce, depression, joblessness, and single parenthood). One fan reported that reading the books motivated her to seek help for depression.25 Rowling’s style and impact has even been likened to Dickens’ and Twain’s.26 Harry Potter, I believe, has passed the test, and belongs among the great books of all time.

___

Winner of The Lord is My Shepherd Campion College Book Grant 2015.
Image: Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Recommended reading: Baptizing Harry Potter: A Christian Reading of J.K. Rowling by Luke Bell OSB.
Also see: “9 Reasons the Weasleys Are (Probably) a Catholic Family“.

1 Aristotle, Poetics, chapter XV.
2 Plato, The Republic, Book III.
3 Alexander Atkins, “How Many People Read the Harry Potter Books?” [https://atkinsbookshelf.wordpress.com/2012/08/15/how-many-people-read-the-harry-potter-books/]. (accessed 25 March 2015)
4 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Bloomsbury (2002), p. 456.
5 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Bloomsbury (2000).
6 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Bloomsbury (2003).
7 Bret Stetka, “Why Everyone Should Read Harry Potter”, Scientific American [http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-everyone-should-read-harry-potter/] (accessed 25 March 2015), cf. Jon C. Reidel, “New Book Reveals Political Impact of ‘Harry Potter’ Series on Millennials” [http://www.uvm.edu/~uvmpr/?Page=news&storyID=16276]. (accessed 25 March 2015)
8 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Bloomsbury (2000), p. 211.
9 John O’Callaghan, “Harry Potter and the Catholic Imagination” [https://www.up.edu/portlandmag/2004_summer/potter.htm]. (accessed 25 March 2015)
10 Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Will to Power and the Antichrist”, in M. Perry, M. Berg & J. Krukones (eds.), Sources of European History since 1900, 2nd edition. Wadsworth Publishing (2010), p. 36.
11 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Bloomsbury (2000), p. 211.
12 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Bloomsbury (2002), ch. 30.
13 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Bloomsbury (2000), p. 245.
14 Rowling cites A Tale of Two Cities as a major influence (cf. my last book prize entry) – Norman Lebrecht, “How Harry Saved Reading, The Wall Street Journal [http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304584004576419742308635716]. (accessed 25 March 2015)
15 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Bloomsbury (2004), ch. 37.
16 Aristotle, Poetics, VI. [https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/a/aristotle/poetics/] (accessed 25 March 2015); cf. Eva Langston, “Harry Potter, Aristotle’s Poetics, & Literary Magic”, In the Garden of Eva [http://inthegardenofeva.com/2013/08/29/harry-potter-aristotles-poetics-literary-magic/]. (accessed 25 March 2015)
17 Simran Khurana, “Funny Harry Potter Quotes” [http://quotations.about.com/od/harrypotterquotations/a/funnyharrypotter.htm]. (accessed 14 April 2015)
18 Scott Bryan, “Here’s What The ‘Harry Potter’ Stars Have Got To Say About Their Most Obsessive Fans” [http://www.buzzfeed.com/scottybryan/heres-what-the-harry-potter-stars-have-got-to-say-about-thei]. (accessed 14 April 2015)
19 “Greek Mythology in Harry Potter” [http://www.funtrivia.com/en/subtopics/Greek-Mythology-in-Harry-Potter-126574.html] (accessed 14 April 2015); “Characters and Mythology”, The Harry Potter Project [http://www.tg-offenburg.de/potter/DiscussionTopics/charactersandmythology/characters.htm]. (accessed 14 April 2015) [Incidentally, a certain Campion lecturer strongly reminds me of Professor Minerva McGonagall.]
20 John Granger, “J. K. Rowling’s Medievalism” [http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/j-k-rowlings-medievalism/] (accessed 14 April 2015); cf. Gail Orgelfinger, “J. K. Rowling’s Medieval Bestiary” [http://universitypublishingonline.org/boydell/chapter.jsf?bid=CBO9781846157639&cid=CBO9781846157639A018]. (accessed 14 April 2015)
21 John Granger, “Why my family adopted Harry Potter”, Catholic Digest [http://www.catholicdigest.com/articles/food_fun/books/2007/07-01/why-my-family-adopted-harry-potter] (accessed 14 April 2015) (accessed 14 April 2015); cf. O’Callaghan, op. cit.
22 Travis J. Dow, “Nicholas Flamel”, History of Alchemy [http://historyofalchemy.com/list-of-alchemists/nicolas-flamel/]. (accessed 14 April 2015)
23 Langston, op. cit.
24 Stetka, op. cit.
25 Bryan, op. cit.
26 Norman Lebrecht, “How Harry Saved Reading “, The Wall Street Journal [http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304584004576419742308635716]. (accessed 25 March 2015)

About the Author:

Jean Elizabeth Seah is a 28-year-old law and liberal arts graduate. She has had several adventures with Our Lord and Our Lady, including running away to join a convent after law school. The journey is tough and the path ahead is foggy, but she knows that as long as you hold firmly onto Our Lady’s hand, you’ll make it through! She blogs at http://signum-crucis.tumblr.com/ and http://allthingscatholic.tumblr.com/.
  • james

    In addition, Rowling explores sinister modernist ideas
    ” This is an allusion to Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote, “This world is the will to power—and nothing besides.”

    Let’s not demonize the philosopher as he also wrote:

    – All things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.

    – We love life, not because we are used to living but because we are used to loving.

    – Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you..

    The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.
    Friedrich Nietzsche

    • samton909

      But it is hard to like Hitler’s favorite philosopher. It does not matter if he wrote a couple of good things, if he also wrote profoundly evil things at the same time.

      • james

        I agree. It is difficult to understand such bi-polar reasoning. It’s sadder than
        Peter’s denial which was born out of fear.

  • samton909

    Let me get this straight. You, a Catholic, want us to read a book about a boy witch (gender bending) who belongs to a class of superior people (witches) who really know what is going on. They are superior to the “muggles or mudbloods or whatever” who have no idea what is going on in the world. This boy witch then learns the arts of magic, by which he controls the physical world. There is no God in Harry Potter’s world. There is no one higher than an excellent witch. The first quote about how you treat your inferiors was stolen by Rowling, But you don’t know that, because your generation has not read many books. So you are blissfully unaware of the treasures of western civilization that exist, because you spend your time reading trash like Harry Potter. it has been around for centuries before her. Rowling assigns this quote to someone named Sirius BLACK.

    This boy witch learns to fly around on his broom. He gets in a big fight against various monsters, etc and the biggest of all big witches, Voldemort.

    • Julie Anne Curristan

      Agreed.

    • retiredconservative

      Thank you for pointing out the moral flaws in the very Gnostic Harry Potter world. In addition to these failings of imagination and education in the novel, I bemoan the simplistic diction and syntax in the one Harry Potter novel I have read. The characters were entertaining in limited ways. But they were flat characters, predictable characters, not quite two dimensional characters. All in all, as entertaining as it was, it cannot be ranked as art.

      I think of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and know that, with far fewer words, better words in better order than anything Rowling has published, Shakespeare created a moral world inhabited by full, three dimensional characters.

      I agree that our generation has robbed the youth of the riches of real literature, literature that explores the human condition with honesty and grit.

    • Yes, I already have completed a “real great books program”, which was at the liberal arts college for which I wrote this essay. I read Shakespeare before I ever read Harry Potter, and I have completed courses in Theology, Philosophy, History, Literature, Latin and Greek. (Personally, I prefer Tolkien and Dickens to Rowling, but they each have their place on my bookshelf.) I understand your concerns, but a well-catechised orthodox Catholic is capable of enjoying Harry Potter as a story which celebrates virtue and self-sacrifice.

      Here is an orthodox Catholic homeschooling mother’s detailed reasoning on the subject: http://www.carrotsformichaelmas.com/2012/06/11/why-your-kids-need-to-read-harry-potter/

    • I found at my college that those who had been deprived of fairytales were unable to appreciate Philosophy, and because they could not grasp it, they scoffed at it.

      “In attempting to understand why intelligent young men and women were occasionally unable to grasp the significant human experiences treated by the Great Books, an American professor by the name of John Senior, who jointly founded and taught in a hugely successful Integrated Humanities Program based on the Great Books, concluded that a man cannot truly comprehend the 100 Great Books if he has not first had the soil of his imagination prepared and nourished by the thousand good books. Only in a mind enriched by the good books, Senior believed, can the significant experiences and truths of the great books take root and grow.

      By the “good books”, Senior had in mind everything from the rhymes of Mother Goose, the Fables of Aesop and the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, to works such as Treasure Island, The Wind in the Willows, Wuthering Heights and The Virginian. Senior recognised that just as in the spiritual life we must become as little children before we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven, so it is in the intellectual life.”
      https://www.catholicweekly.com.au/dr-stephen-mcinerney-fairy-dust-needed-if-great-books-are-ever-to-take-root/

      http://www.ignitumtoday.com/2016/11/29/formation-in-faery/

  • Julie Anne Curristan

    No. You don’t rationalize evil, on any grounds, ever. These characters get their powers from something other than God, in a world where all the characters use power not given by God, and it is acceptable and encouraged. Harry Potter is thoroughly evil because of the deception to parents and families. And worse, the evil deception targets and aims to capture the innocents: kids, children, by preying upon their imaginations. The deceptive evil allows a wide open door to the occult placed within the soul. Amulets, memorizing rituals, spell books, wands, etc, come across as toys and play-time activities. Yet, they are not and provide a welcomed entrance for demons to settle into the unsuspecting young soul, and subtly encourages the child to play and hope for the same or similar power as Potter or another character. And demons will give powers for those who commit themselves. The Evil also uses common childhood fears and concerns and bad guys to connect on an emotional level with the intended impressionable childhood audience. And blind families walk away from the movie thinking, ‘Oh Harry is so similiar to my child; he had a hard time, but really worked hard and fought the bad guy and won! How sweet.’ But the parents choose to ignore that Harry & his friends (good guys) and the bad guys are both evil, the come from an evil place, employing evil. All, all of it, is evil. Catholics who fear God’s anger and do not want to go to their rooms Satan has prepared for them in his kingdom in Hell do not accommodate and transact with evil. Ever. No. “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” 1Peter 5:8

    • We have always had magic in fairytales, which are part of the patrimony of Christian Europe. Here is a detailed explanation of why the magic in Harry Potter is not something to be alarmed about:

      ‘I decided to share the book with the kids as a read-aloud. From the
      get-go, we talked about the difference between “magic” as it is
      forbidden in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

      2116 All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse
      to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely
      supposed to “unveil” the future.48 Consulting horoscopes,
      astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena
      of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power
      over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as
      well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor,
      respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.

      2117 All practices of magic or sorcery,
      by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at
      one’s service and have a supernatural power over others – even if this
      were for the sake of restoring their health – are gravely contrary to
      the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned
      when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have
      recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also
      reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical
      practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it.
      Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the
      invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another’s credulity.

      and “magic” as it is portrayed in Harry Potter:

      the magic of an imaginary fantasy world. J.K. Rowling’s creation is an
      imagined, alternate universe in which “wizards” and “witches” are
      people who are born with the ability to do magical things. They do not
      call upon Satan or demons and they do not try to tame occult powers.
      There are no “occult” powers, because there is not a “source” for their
      kind of magic. “Magical” in Harry’s world, is simply the way some
      people are born. There’s an entire alternate wizarding world, unseen by
      “Muggles” (that would be us — non-magical people) in which the
      fantastic is normal: unicorns exist, giants dwell in the forest,
      invisible creatures pull carriages and folks fly on broomsticks for a
      fast-paced game called Quidditch. Wizards can travel through fireplaces
      and wave a wand to get dinner going or to knit a cap for an elf.

      This is all quite different from the case of a Catholic child sitting in
      her bedroom and attempting to call upon spirits, summon the dead, read
      tarot cards, use a Ouija board or rely on a horoscope. We know and
      understand these differences and we take them seriously.’
      http://karenedmisten.blogspot.com/2007/08/mystery-of-harry-potter.html