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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.

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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 29-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 also writes at https://aleteia.org/author/jean-elizabeth-seah/