In the success of Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, many people have seen a parallel with the great fantasy works by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis; Christian authors of the most-loved fairy tales of the twentieth century. Two men that with the pure beauty of their works have done for an endless number of people what many others have not been able to do or did not want to do: they have exposed them to transcendence, to the infinite beauty of the great providential story in which “we live, we move and we exist”.
However, although on the surface there may apparently be many points in common, the imaginative source and the educational proposal at the base of Rowling's novels is very different from that of Tolkien and Lewis, and communicates a vision of the world and of man that is full of errors and deeply dangerous suggestions; and these are all the more seductive because they are interposed with half-truths and enthralling writing. But as Lewis warned "poisons, as they become sweeter, do not stop killing." The truly great fantasies in healthy western tradition have always been of a window opened on the profound order of the created universe and on mankind. Tolkien in his major essay on fairy tales, recalls that the narrator of fairy tales can move away from the physically-created universe, but not its moral order: we can imagine a universe illuminated by a green sun, but we must not succumb to the temptation to present as a positive reality the situation where spiritual and moral structures are reversed or confused: a world where evil is good.
This is exactly what happens in Harry Potter. Although single positive values can be found in the story, at the heart of this tale witchcraft is proposed as a positive ideal; violent manipulation of things and persons thanks to occult knowledge and the prerogative of the few: the ends justifies the means, since the wise, the chosen, the intellectual know how to control the dark powers and turn them into good, isn’t it so? This is the “civilisation of the machines” against which Lewis warned us. Bernanos and John Paul II have covered this as well.
This is a deep and serious lie, the ancient Gnostic temptation of joining salvation and the truth with a secret knowledge; that is why Harry Potter is nevertheless rich in Christian values, but they are detached from the real source that makes them be, the true order of things. The protagonists of fairy tales have always been normal boys involved in an extraordinary adventure: magic has always been used as a visual representation of the forces of evil that threaten the way, or, on the positive side, as a visual image of grace: the wise magicians and good fairies represent providence that does not leave us alone on our journey. But these are precisely the powers that can accompany or impede man, and not powers that man his self should obtain to dominate and win. These powers are vested only to God and his messengers, as we are warned in Holy Scripture.
Tolkien himself took to clarify this when he wrote that the world of fairy tales "could possibly be translated into a more appropriate manner with magic - but this is a magic with particular means and power, the antithesis compared with the vulgar tricks of the industrious and scientific magician" And then added that "I used magic previously, but I should not have done so: magic should be left to the operations of the magician (...), magic produces, or claims to produce, an alteration in the primary world (...). It is not an art, but a technique; what it wants is power in this world, the domination of things and will."
He is always wise to distinguish between "art, or magic"; the wonderful good that exposes us to the beauty of creation, and the great tragedy that takes its place from the "treacherous fraud of magicians." Harry Potter is precisely this industrious and scientific magician. As a teacher I can well verify the harmful influence of such a proposal on my students. The protagonists of the great fairy tales do not ever become magicians, and the seduction of magic has always had extremely serious and highly destructive consequences: the stories of Tolkien and Lewis tell about the rejection of magic and power, not of a certain power or a certain magic, but of power and magic per-se. There is no hero more antithetical to Harry Potter than Tolkien’s young man Frodo, or Lewis’s Pevensie brothers. Their paths are paths of hard work, offerings and dispossession.
It is this extraordinary discovery of authentic Christianity, in which the protagonist of the story is not exceptional man, as in ancient paganism and its fresh outbreaks in today’s ideologies, but the man who says yes, so it is, to the initiatives of the mystery of God. It is this that extols and enhances beyond the imaginable the human experience of each one of us, whereas books like Harry Potter show a blatant disregard for "muggles"; common men who do not have magic. It is no longer taught that there are bad things and to reject evil in itself, but only that there are forces to be subdued. This is truly "diabolical", as opposed to "symbolic". Therefore fundamentally we are told that certain things are not evil in themselves, so long as they are used for a good purpose: violence becomes good, if in the right hands and with the right people, perhaps even in the right doses. Harry Potter proposes a wrong and morally harmful image of a hero, an areligious image that is even worse than an explicitly antireligious proposal: the devil in Holy Scripture does not ever say "There is no God", but offers the much more subtle seduction of "You shall be like God", whether he is there or not you will not have any more need of his love, because you will have the same power.
Harry Potter apparently refers to the same narrative form used by Tolkien and Lewis, but empties the meaning of its significance. It is no coincidence that Rowling’s books do not teach true transcendence, but vague new-age spirituality. This is true escapism; of escape from reality, since they let you think that we would be happy “if”: if we had certain powers, if we had some technique unknown to others, instead of finding out that we are loved and respected for what we are by someone who is better, wiser and greater than we are, and who guides our lives and our journey.
Here we have the “morbid illusion” that Tolkien warned us against: the illusion of a power that appeals to the desire for hidden and magic formulas that Lewis sharply defined as “spiritual lust”. The significant increase in interest in black magic and Satanism among young Harry Potter readers should make us think and worry as Fr. Gabriele Amorth reminded us. Therefore the judgement the then Cardinal Ratzinger expressed on the serious criticism of Harry Potter by the German journalist, Gabriele Kuby, sounds evermore profound: “It is a good thing that you clarify the case of Harry Potter, since it contains some subtle seductions that work in depth and with great effect, and that corrupt young Christians in their souls even before they are fully formed”.