With all the sober warnings about experimenting with real magic, what are we to think of make-believe magic? Isn’t there a place for children’s fantasy that loves to pretend?
THE VALUE OF MAKE-BELIEVE
Telling stories has had an enduring appeal to young and old. When storytellers write down their tales, it’s called fantasy. Fantasy may be defined as “a literary work based on the imagination and not necessarily on fact.” Fictional stories can take the form of drama classics like Hamlet or even children’s stories like Aesop’s Fables. These tales are not based on real events, but they teach us lessons about human nature and values. Yet when the theme of magic is introduced into a fantasy world, legitimate questions should be raised.
CAN MAKE-BELIEVE MAGIC BE DANGEROUS?
When an illusionist is able to pull a rabbit out of a hat or coins from someone’s ear, we all know it’s make-believe. It’s the special skill of fooling us that we find entertaining. From the dawn of time, people have been fascinated by sleight of hand. Even though we know it is makebelieve, this kind of “magic” captivates us. “How did the illusionist do that?” we ask.
Similarly, when the thrill of make-believe magic finds its way into literature, it carries with it a similar delight of enchantment. King Arthur is mentored by Merlin the Magician. Dorothy travels down the yellow brick road with the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion to meet the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Peter Pan is able to fly and outmaneuver Captain Hook with the help of enchanted pixie dust.
From these stories we learn chivalry from King Arthur, positive character qualities from Dorothy and her friends, and bravery from Peter Pan. The magic is fictionally created to move a moral lesson forward.
But while King Arthur, The Wizard Of Oz, and Peter Pan are viewed as legitimate children’s fantasies, not all literature with magical themes is viewed as harmless.
In our present day, nothing has created more questions about magicians and sorcerers than J. K. Rowling’s fictional character Harry Potter. Many have declared the series a wonderful read and have given their enthusiastic applause to an author who has reintroduced a love for reading to many of our schoolchildren. Others have advised parents to forbid their children to read the Harry Potter books or see any of the films because they believe the series is inspired by the occult. In certain parts of the US, legal action has been taken to overturn efforts to keep these books out of the classroom and the school libraries.
What is behind such controversy? Interviews with Rowling have indicated that the author did consult books on the occult as a reference for her books about Harry Potter. But the author persistently claims she had no intention of trying to involve young readers in the world of magic. Despite her assurances, many find her dark themes very disturbing and are afraid that her books may lead young readers to become interested in occult experimentation.
Even among committed Christians, there is a split decision for and against the Harry Potter series. Is there any way for a discerning parent to arrive at an informed conviction about this series? I believe part of the answer comes when we try to evaluate the motives and worldview of the author.
Perhaps it would be helpful to compare Rowling’s books with two other prominent children’s fantasies and their use of magical themes. The Chronicles Of Narnia by C. S. Lewis and The Lord Of The Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein provide an excellent litmus test of author integrity and intent in the genre of magical fantasy.
The Chronicles Of Narnia. The distinctive of C. S. Lewis’ children’s books are their use of Christian symbolism in fairy tale. In the first book, The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, Narnia is under a terrible spell from the wicked witch (the devil). Aslan (the Lord Jesus Christ), the rightful ruler of Narnia, breaks the spell by giving his life for a spoiled little boy, Edmund (a rebellious traitor). Lewis’ intent was to create a mythic world that would build a framework into which true faith in Christ could later be poured.
These stories, rich in Christian symbols, clearly are in a fantasy world with no connection to our own world. Lessons of Christian virtue and Christ-honoring themes are characteristic of the plots. Evil’s characteristics are spelled out and condemned. Some children might be frightened by the witch and/or the battle scenes. But few Christian parents have raised objections to these particular children’s books.
The Lord Of The Rings. J.R.R. Tolkein’s famous trilogy teaches Christian values in a war between good and evil within a mythical world. Gollum, a hobbit who has been corrupted by “the ring of power,” provides penetrating insights into the psychology of evil.
Tolkein was an Oxford scholar in the fields of languages and literature, and was an expert in the classic tale Beowulf. He chose a mythical world to teach lessons about the titanic struggle between good and evil. The magic that is used is limited to the wizards and the race of elves and does not encourage experimentation with real magic in our world. Rich lessons of Christian virtue and the deceitfulness of sin are a source of moral instruction. Both in the books and in the films, some children might be alarmed by fearful creatures.But the story’s theme is redemptive. Although it’s more intellectually complex than The Chronicles Of Narnia, Tolkein’s trilogy has become widely accepted as a legitimate fantasy with Christian-friendly values for readers young and old.
The Harry Potter Series. J. K. Rowling has studied occult theory and practice to develop a fantasy that parallels real-world magic. At the same time, she has written believable characters in compelling plot lines that are accompanied by positive moral lessons for children. But in contrast to Lewis’ and Tolkein’s Christian perspectives, Rowling operates out of a magical worldview. She consulted real-world magic on most of the magic fictionalized in her Harry Potter books. In the books she has written so far, she has not used any real spells in the text but relies on a creative use of fantasy. She claims her sole motive is to interest children in reading. And she’s succeeded beyond her wildest imagination.
It’s clear that Rowling’s stories teach children positive values such as protecting the underdog, inclusiveness, valor in standing up to evil, and children’s intelligence in problem-solving. But because Rowling based her fiction on occult research, there must be a “buyer beware” warning. The parallel to real-world magic is close enough to possibly lower the resistance of the reader to occult experimentation. The danger, therefore, does not lie in the books themselves but in the possibility that young people could be lulled into viewing any magic as only harmless entertainment. (Book reviews were adapted from Harry Potter And The Bible by Richard Abanes, pp.229-246.)
Despite the celebration of freedom of speech and creative license in literature,we need to think carefully about books and movies that introduce readers to the actual spells and formulas of real-world magic. When the incantations that are used by occult practitioners are written into the plot, script, and character development, the literature has moved beyond mere imagination. Having access to the wording and knowledge of rituals used by occultists provides a dangerous level of information and can invite readers to become directly involved with occult power.
But how can we be sure that Harry Potter does not contain real spells? In his well-researched book Harry Potter And The Bible—The Menace Behind The Magic, Christian scholar Richard Abanes writes:
Although the [Harry Potter] novels may not contain true incantations, they do illustrate the importance of spells to occultists and the significance that words play in casting those spells. . . . Obviously, the nonsensical words used in the Potter books (e.g. Alomohora! Expelliarmus! . . . ) . . . are not truly magic. Each spell is nothing but silly babble, humorously latinized by Rowling to impart a sense of mysticality (pp.57-58).
So if there are no real spells in the Harry Potter series, why the continuing uproar? According to some, Rowling’s popularity is breaking down healthy resistance to the occult and making sorcery look like fun. It’s on this point that concerned parents have the right and responsibility to make a judgment call about the suitability of Harry Potter for their child. In certain cases, it may be best for a child who is weak in discernment not to read the books or see the films. What may be safe for one can be dangerous for another. Wisdom and discernment need to govern the life of a follower of Christ.
For those parents who believe there is merit in allowing their child to read the Harry Potter series, a word of caution is in order. Try to make sure they don’t read the series without evaluating what they are reading. Look for occasions to talk with them about the positive values illustrated in the books, and reinforce that the magic described in the story must never lead to experimentation with occult practices in the real world. In this way a child can learn to read with a filter of discernment and not be tempted to dabble in the occult.