Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A reflection on Harry Potter and the Kingdom of Darkness

Since I was able to avoid being burned at the stake for my last post on Harry Potter, I find that I am emboldened to offer another reflection. Let us hope that Wal-Mart isn't running a special on firewood and kerosene.

Apart from the ubiquitous witchcraft and wizardry, two favorite evangelical criticisms of the Harry Potter series are as follows: (1) the series portrays a world in which there is no God; (2) the series routinely obscures the difference between good and evil.

In response to the first criticism, I refer my readers to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I am inclined to believe that if J.R.R. Tolkien can create truthful, beautiful stories in a fantasy world devoid of explicit mention of God, then so can J.K. Rowling, no matter how much my conservative brothers and sisters wish to overlook the similarities between the tales. In reponse to the second criticism--the supposed obscuration of good and evil--I offer the following reflection.

Although there are a number of frightening creatures in the Harry Potter series, the dementors, which are introduced in book three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, are the most terrifying by far. The dementors are the guards of the wizard prison in Azkaban. They are brought to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry when a notorious prisoner escapes. What follows is the description of the first dementor Harry encounters on the train to Hogwarts:

Standing in the doorway, illuminated by the shivering flames in Lupin's hand, was a cloaked figure that towered to the ceiling. Its face was completely hidden beneath its hood. Harry's eyes darted downward, and what he saw made his stomach contract. There was a hand protruding from the cloak and it was glistening, grayish, slimy-looking, and scabbed, like something dead that had decayed in water...And then the thing beneath the hood, whatever it was, drew a long, slow, rattling breath, as though it were trying to suck something more than air from its surroundings. An intense cold swept over them all. Harry felt his own breath catch in his chest. The cold went deeper than his skin. It was inside his chest, it was inside his very heart...

After this first encounter, Harry discovers that dementors affect him in a profoundly different way than his friends. Through a number of run-ins with the dementors, Harry realizes that when they come near to him, he can hear the murder of his parents by the Dark Lord Voldemort. In every encounter, the screams of Harry's mother and her pleading for Harry's life fill his head with horrors that overpower him and cause him to lose consciousness.

Harry seeks the help of Professor Remus Lupin, the teacher of the Defense Against the Dark Arts class. (Sounds a bit like a spiritual warfare class, perhaps?) Lupin agrees to help Harry learn to defend himself against their attacks using a very difficult spell. In Lupin's explanation of the dementors' nature, we learn more about the power they wield for evil:

"Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in the decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can't see them. Get too near a dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself...soul-less and evil. You'll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life."

I think that the creation of this horrific, evil creature alone is enough to counter the accusation that Rowling does not properly distinguish between good and evil. Yet, one might say that while Rowling can conceive of evil, she may not understand rightly evil's effects on humanity. Respectfully, I beg to differ.

Hagrid is the Hogwarts' gigantic groundskeeper, a loveable oaf of a man, who spent time in Azkaban when he was falsely accused in the past. He offers the following testimony to Harry of the dementors' effects on him during his time in prison. (Warning to my sensitive friends: there is a teensy-weensy bad word at the end of the dialogue.)

"Yeh've no idea," said Hagrid quietly. "Never bin anywhere like it. Thought I was goin' mad. Kep' goin' over horrible stuff in me mind...the day I got expelled from me dad I had ter let Norbert go..."
His eyes filled with tears. Norbert was the baby dragon Hagrid had once won in a game of cards.
"Yeh can' really remember who yeh are after a while. An' yeh can' see the point o' livin' at all. I used ter hope I'd jus' die in my sleep...When they let me out, it was like bein' born again, ev'ry-thin' came floodin' back, it was the bes' feelin' in the world. Mind, the dementors weren't keen on lettin' me go."
"But you were innocent!" said Hermione.
Hagrid snorted.
"Think that matters to them? They don' care. Long as they've got a couple o' hundred humans stuck there with 'em, so they can leech all the happiness out of 'em, they don' give a damn who's guilty an' who's not."

Many scholars, both Christian and non-Christian, have observed that one of the most insidious aspects of the Enlightenment, modernist mindset is the denial of the existence of evil. With a belief in unstoppable progress and the salvific power of rationalism and human discovery, modern minds put away any belief in personal, powerful evil as a force to be reckoned with. N.T. Wright says it this way in his recent publication, Evil and the Justice of God:

Somehow, despite the horrific battles of Mons and the Somme during World War I, despite Auschwitz and Buchenwald, despite Dostoyevsky and Barth, people still continue to this day to suppose that the world is basically a good place and that its problems are more or less soluble by technology, education, "development" in the sense of "Westernization," and the application, to more and more regions, of Western democracy...This state of affairs has led to three things in particular which I see as characterizing the new problem of evil. First, we ignore evil when it doesn't hit us in the face. Second, we are surprised by evil when it does. Third, we react in immature and dangerous ways as a result.

Scripture speaks of the satan, which means "the accuser," who is also called the devil, Beelzebub, the serpent of old, the red dragon, as a personal, malevolent being who musters all the powers of evil in the world to fight against the Kingdom of God. This clash of kingdoms, the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Darkness, is the centerpiece of the story of God, from Genesis to Revelation. Human beings take part in this conflict as well, for the human heart, without the grace of God, seeks after what is perverted, wrong, and yes, evil. It is the deadly cooperation between the Prince of Darkness and the human heart that has turned God's good world up-side-down.

Yet, the modernist mindset knows not what to do with biblical descriptions of the power of evil, as a cosmic force in the world and a personal force within each human heart. In contrast, Rowling's Harry Potter stories, which focus upon the growing conflict between Harry and the Dark Lord Voldemort, nicely complement the truths of Scripture. Whereas the words of Scripture fall on the deaf ears of Enlightenment thinkers, I think Rowling, whether consciously or not, has listened and understood.

"And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to this worldly age, according to the ruler of the atmospheric domain, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and by nature we were children under wrath, as the others were also" (Eph. 2:1-3).

"Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the tactics of the Devil. For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens. This is why you must take up the full armor of God, so that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having prepared everything, to take your stand" (Eph. 6:10-13).

"Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, [Christ] also shared in these, so that through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the Devil—and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death" (Heb. 2:14-15).

The dementors of book three are a powerful example of Rowling's insight into the nature of evil. The description of the dementors' affect on the human soul is a vivid illustration of the way in which the Kingdom of Darkness exercises its tyrannical rule over humanity. In closing, I recall the words of Professor Lupin:

Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in the decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them...every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you...the dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself...soul-less and evil. You'll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.

If this is not a vision of the nature of evil, a profound description of the human life devoid of God, an imaginative illustration of the satan's work in the world, then I don't know what is.


Derek Leman said...


Was the picture the reflection? I missed something there.

I am reading HP #7 at the moment.

Read LOTR six time so far in my life. I'm sure 2 or 3 more readings are in my future.

Derek Leman

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Ha ha...

No, I'm not done yet. I accidentally posted this before I was finished. The rest should be up tonight.

Take care,


Carn-Dog said...


this is a topic that currently intrigues me. I recently had a discussion with someone about some of the possibly explicitly religious material at the end of book 7, which I won't specify in case readers are still working their way through the book. We talked about weather Western Culture is so dominated by the story of Jesus that in some sense that narrative is the sense that her work at least reveals that it was touched by the story of Christ, or if she was intentional in what could possibly be interpreted as religious imagery.

I did read one interesting article in which this guy pointed out that the Latin phrased spell "expecto patronum" made famous by book three can be translated as "I long for...a savior figure" and on top of this that the stag was a popular medieval Christological figure.

I'm not sure about the linguistic/historical accuracy of this, but I'll try and find the article and post a link.

looking forward to what is to come.


Derek Leman said...


Glad to meet a fellow fan of N.T. Wright, not to mention LOTR and, to a lesser degree, Harry Potter.

Halfway through book 7 and pretty engrossed.

There will always be people who cannot understand imaginative literature.

I just read the four published volumes (series not yet finished) by George R.R. Martin (starts with A Game of Thrones). He is called by some the American Tolkien. Yet his story is praised by some critics for a more sophisticated take on good and evil than LOTR.

In Martin's world, evil is pervasive and universal. I suppose I agree, but in our world the image of God is also pervasive and universal. If you get a chance to read Martin, it is a bit depressing, yet powerful.

My point in bringing up Martin is that one critic said his work far exceeds LOTR because LOTR is a naive polarization of good and evil. I think that there are a number of philosophical delusions in modernism. Some see too much the goodness of humanity, but others, such as this critic, are too cynical about the existence of true goodness. If true goodness does not exist, then we are in trouble. If true evil does not exist, then our faith is in trouble as well. We would do well to remember that both are equally real.

Derek Leman

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


I have been puzzling on the meaning of "expecto patronum" since finishing book three. You raise an interesting possibility.

What I love about the nature of God's world is that everything truthful and beautiful belongs to God and comes from God. So, whether or not Rowling is aware of it, God's truth shines through the Harry Potter stories.

BTW: I should clarify that when it comes to Harry Potter, I'm quite a novice. I've only recently joined the bangwagon and begun to fully appreciate the novels. I'm in book four right now, hoping to get to the seventh by the time the price is reduced. So, those of you more deeply involved, I relish your comments very much.

Grace and peace,


Emily Hunter McGowin said...


Thanks for the recommendation of Martin. I will definitely check him out. I think I agree with your characterization of evil in LOTR. I'll have to think about it some more, though. Strictly polarized evil doesn't jive with reality. We live in a world where the potential for great evil exists within each of us. But, like you said, the image of God shines forth as well. Good and evil are real, but unfortunately, most of us live in the shadowy gray area in-between.

Grace and peace,


Ben said...

If we follow Carl Jung's writings on archetypes and the collective unconcious, we know that one of the major themes throughout humanity is the role of the magician.

This part of us brings to light the ability to bring about transformation and change by means outside of this present dimension that is limited to a physical reality.

The shadow side of "the magician" is the part of us that wishes to bring about or orchestrate harm to others.

Taking that into account, couldn't the draw to Harry Potter be more about our identification with a world that exists beyond than with Satanism or its practices?

Joel A. Patrick said...

The only critique that I have heard, that seems to be fair, is that allowing young, undiscerning children children to read the books can lead to an unhealthy interest in witchcraft. All of the other critiques are, as Hermione would say, "rubbish."