We should always keep in mind a fundamental principle of culture: Symbols in our minds exercise a certain power over us, though their influence is usually subconscious, and especially so in the minds of the young. Symbols are keystones in the architecture of thought, indeed in our perceptions of reality itself. If we lose symbolism, we lose your way of knowing things. If symbols are corrupted, concepts are corrupted, and then we lose our ability to understand things as they are, rendering us more vulnerable to deformation of our perceptions and our actions.
The holy scriptures are rich in the true symbols that are absolutely essential to a proper understanding of who we are and where we are situated in the Great War between good and evil—the war that will last until the end of time. Our Lady, for example, is the woman foretold in Genesis 3:15 who will crush the serpent’s head. In her role as Co-redemptrix with Christ on Calvary she is the promise fulfilled, and is further revealed as the Woman of Revelation, “the great sign, the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Rev. 12:1). Satan is “the huge dragon, the ancient serpent known as the devil . . . the seducer of the whole world” (Rev. 12:9) who “makes war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the Commandments and give witness to Jesus” (Rev. 12:17). In the first and last books of the Scriptures, salvation history is revealed in these symbolic forms—symbols, however, that are no “mere” fantasies, for they represent real persons and forces that affect the eternal destiny of each of us.
For this reason, we must take great care about what kind of symbols we permit into our minds. Children especially need wise parental guidance regarding the kinds of symbols they absorb through books, film, videos and other forms of cultural media. In the ongoing controversy over J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books (and their spin-off films), we have a case in point. It is precisely in this series that the corruption of symbols has moved to a new level, and on a scale that is unprecedented in history. It is a grave matter, therefore, that a number of learned Catholic commentators have promoted these books and films within the household of the Faith, and have done so with energy, fierce loyalty to the books, and at times anger against even the mildest critics—the latter reaction a telling symptom of loss of objective discernment.
Part of right discernment involves an examination of how Christian writers have used symbols in the past, have created fantasy worlds that stimulate the reader’s imagination in such a way that he is better able to consider invisible realities, without inflaming his imagination in the wrong directions. In the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George MacDonald, we find examples of how Christian fantasy can be effective in this way through a variety of approaches without loss of authentic moral order. I have written extensively on the subject in my book, A Landscape With Dragons: the Battle for your Child’s Mind, and need not restate the arguments here. Yet a shorter examination may help us see the problem more clearly.
The evidence that is now mounting regarding the fruits of neo-pagan fantasy, notably the Potter books and the way they have prompted a growing number of young people to explore the practices of witchcraft, sorcery, and other forms of occultism. No such parallel phenomenon occurred following the publication of two other fantasy epics for children, The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. Of course, a contributing factor was the social context in which they were published, an earlier stage of the modern era when access to occult subcultures was minimal. Equally important, these two Christian writers used magic in a way fundamentally different from Rowling’s use.
In The Magician’s Nephew, the first volume of the Narnia series, the corruption of Narnia begins when an elderly Londoner dabbles in occult activity, and opens the doors between worlds. The ensuing disasters are the direct result of the very activities the Potter books portray as morally neutral forces. Lewis depicts them as forces that radically disrupt the moral order. Chaos, bondage, and violation of the dignity of creatures is the inevitable result of that disruption. Throughout the Chronicles witches are portrayed in classic terms, as malevolent, manipulative, and deceiving—not the least of whom is a character called the White Witch. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a selfish boy who has no understanding of the supernatural meets a dragon. Entering its lair he seizes its treasure hoard and is changed into a dragon. He is liberated from this condition—“undragoned”—only by the intervention of the Christ figure, Aslan, who alone has the authority, the “deep magic”, to undo what evil has done. Supernatural powers, Lewis repeatedly underlines, belong to God alone, and in human hands they are highly deceptive and can lead to destruction.
In his great fantasy epic, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien also portrays magic as fraught with deception. Supernatural powers that do not rightly belong to man are repeatedly shown as having a corrupting influence on man. While it is true that Gandalf, one of the central characters, is called a “wizard” throughout, he is not in fact a classical sorcerer. There are ranks of beings in Middle-earth, and the Istari lie somewhere between angels and men. The term “wizard” is one which men of Middle-earth have projected onto the Istari, who are only superficially like the wizards in the Potter series. Tolkien maintains that Gandalf is rather a kind of moral guardian, similar to guardian angels but more incarnate. In a number of his collected letters, he explains his depiction of matter and spirit, and his intentions in using “magic” as a metaphor (see The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, letters 155, 156 and 228). In essence Tolkien’s “good magic” is not what we think of as magic in the real world. Gandalf’s task is primarily to advise, instruct, and arouse to resistance the minds and hearts of those threatened by Sauron, the Dark Lord of this saga. Gandalf does not do the work for them; they must use their natural gifts to resist evil and do good—and in this we see an image of grace building on nature, never overwhelming nature or replacing it. Gandalf’s gifts are used sparingly, and then only so far as they help the other creatures in the exercise of their free will and their moral choices. But it is only an assist, never a replacement.
The central character, Frodo Baggins, is asked by Gandalf to bear a ring of magical power to a volcanic mountain in Mordor, a region ruled by Sauron, in order to destroy the ring in the volcano’s fires and thus weaken the grip that Sauron has over the world. Frodo agrees to undertake the journey but soon realizes that the ring has a seductive hold on him. As he carries the very thing that could ruin the world, he is constantly tempted to use it for the good. But he learns that to use its powers for such short-range “goods” increases the probability of long-range disaster, both for the world and for himself. Such powers, Tolkien demonstrates repeatedly, are very much a domain infested by the “deceits of the Enemy,” used for domination of other creatures’ free will. They are metaphors of sin and spiritual bondage. By contrast, Gandalf’s very limited use of preternatural powers is never used to overwhelm, deceive, or defile. Even so, the author mentions more than once in the epic that these powers must pass away from the world as the “Old Age” ends and the “Age of Man” (and by inference the Age of the Incarnation) approaches.
Much of the modern pagan use of magic is the converse of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s approach. In neopagan fantasy literature, magic is frequently used to overwhelm, deceive, and defile. In the Potter series, Harry uses his powers to overwhelm, deceive, and defile his human enemies, and he resists Voldemort with the very powers the Dark Lord himself uses. Harry is essentially a younger more appealing Saruman (the wizard in The Lord of the Rings who seeks the ring in order to use it against the ultimate evil, Sauron). Indeed, Potter-world exalts the very state of mind and spiritual corruption that Tolkien warns us against through his portrait of Saruman.
Tolkien’s Saruman is a man of extraordinary gifts who in the beginning of the tale is introduced as one of the wisest men of his times, the head of the Council of the Istari. Gradually we discover that he has learned to communicate with Sauron in the “language of Mordor.” His motives in the beginning appear to be good, the defense of the world from ultimate evil, but in time he is seduced by Sauron and overcome. Harry, too, is a gifted boy, aware that he has special powers that enable him to resist the ultimate evil of Voldemort. He is a “Parsel-tongue” one who is able to speak the language of serpents—and the intelligent serpents in the series are helpful to his cause (with one exception, a not very bright basilisk). Harry is never overcome in any way other than the physical blows he suffers in combat. At one point he appears to have been killed, then returns to life “on the third day.”
Rowling has not inverted our symbology. No, she has done something more corruptive, which is to appropriate it and mutate it. She is telling us through her symbology that because there are good serpents and bad serpents, therefore there are good witches and bad witches, good sorcerers and bad sorcerers. The point I wish to make here is that the cumulative effect of the series, as published to date, is to dissolve the parameters of our traditional symbol world. If I may return to the analogy used in a previous article on the topic: What would we think of a series of captivating novels for young people that posited a set of good fornicators against a set of bad fornicators, and used fornication itself as the means to attain the good end? The answer is obvious. Yet countless Christian readers have not felt any repugnance to the Potter series because for many of them occult activity does not appear at first glance to be a vice of the lower appetites—the more obvious sins, the ones that have such clearly negative consequences. What we forget is that occultism is far more dangerous than sexual sin because it is a vice of the higher faculties of man, involving spiritual pride.
In some elements of his personality Harry is a classic hero, a courageous underdog whose innate qualities are gradually developed and who resists evil through much adversity. The problem lies not in these traditional heroic elements but in the modern elements of the anti-hero (the character who overcomes evil through evil means) which the author has integrated into Harry’s personality. Harry is both hero and anti-hero. He is the reverse image of Frodo, who is a genuine hero. This is not to say that Frodo is a cardboard cut-out “good-guy.” He has flaws and temptations, and he sometimes stumbles. But he never calls good evil, nor evil good. His failures are due to human weakness; they do not derive from malice and pride. By contrast, Rowling portrays Harry’s victory over evil as the fruit of acquiring esoteric knowledge and power. This is Gnosticism. Tolkien portrays Frodo’s victory over evil as the rejection of unlawful knowledge and power, and the fruit of his humility, obedience, and perseverance in a state of radical suffering. This is Christianity. Harry’s world is about pride, Frodo’s about sacrificial love.
It bears repeating that in the Potter series some of the characters exhibit courage and love, but it must be remembered that courage and love can be found in all peoples, even those involved in the worst forms of paganism. The presence of such virtues does not automatically justify an error-filled work of fiction. In Potter-world the characters are engaged in activities which in real life corrupt us, weaken the will, darken the mind, and pull the practitioner down into spiritual bondage. Rowling’s characters go deeper and deeper into that world without displaying any negative side effects, only an increase in “character”. This is a lie. Moreover, it is the Satanic lie which deceived us in Eden: You can have knowledge of good and evil (you will decide what is good and what is evil), you can have enhanced life, you can have God-like powers. In Potter-world the message is, such powers are a birthright, a natural faculty that needs only to be awakened and informed in order to be used properly. In essence, Potter-world is immanentized—it is a godless Flatland, relieved from the weight of its limited materialist dimensions by dazzle and flash. Moreover, Rowling’s dramatization of these powers are very much drawn from the rituals and practices of witchcraft and sorcery in the real world, a fact that has been proven in detailed assessments of the Potter series by former witches.
Yes, there is “magic” in both Rowling’s Potter-world and Tolkien’s Middle-earth, but here the similarity ends. Unlike Harry’s powers, Gandalf’s powers are bestowed on him as a gift from Iluvatar, “the Father of All,” Tolkien’s mythological representation of God. This is a crucial point, the crucial distinction between Middle-earth and Potter-world. Tolkien’s sub-creation is fundamentally hierarchical, representing a moral order that ascends from the incarnate all the way up to the throne of God Himself. Tolkien has employed the sub-creator’s liberty to envision a world that might have been. Yet he takes pains to state, in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” that no matter how fabulous the sub-created world may be, no matter how wildly it departs from the details of material existence, it must remain faithful to the moral order of the real universe.
In another letter he wrote about his trilogy, Tolkien expressed some concern about the danger of readers misinterpreting his intentions: “I have been far too casual about ‘magic’ and especially the use of the word . . . .” He goes on to state that his fictional use of “magic” is not what we think of as magic in this world, which is obtained by lore or spells (the Gnostic seizing of secret knowledge). Rather, in Middle-earth it is “an inherent power not possessed or attainable by Men as such.” A small word, this “not”, one easily overlooked by those who would use Tolkien to justify Rowling. On this seemingly minute distinction a great deal depends, indeed the good of many souls.
It is my guess that if Tolkien had written the ring trilogy in our times, not half a century ago, he would have been less casual, would have been careful to make the distinctions more clear. Even so, the ring trilogy is sufficiently clear when understood according to its author’s intention, especially in the light of his foundational work The Silmarillion. With some leeway for imaginative expansion on his themes, Tolkien has given us the “theological” foundation of Middle-earth, one that corresponds in essence to the book of Genesis. It’s all there: the Creator, the creation of the universe, the revolt of the fallen angels, Satan, the corruption of Man, the seizure of unlawful powers, the ensuing battle between good and evil in the incarnate world. The names have been changed and the details of the battles enlarged, but this is a dramatic portrayal of reality itself.
What is the context of J. K. Rowling’s Potter-world? What are its “theological foundations”, if you will? In a word, there are none. The Harry Potter series is a fantasy-projection of materialist man imagining himself to have god-like powers without any reference to the source of those powers, nor to any set of moral absolutes against which he can measure the rightness or wrongness of his actions. He is, in a sense, “beyond good and evil.” He is the offspring of Nietzsche’s “super-man” and Camus’ “stranger”, the outsider adrift in a cosmos without fixed moral reference points, who can find himself only through the force of his autonomous will. Indeed, the dominant themes in Rowling’s Potter-world are the search for identity and the willful exercise of power as the means to discovering that identity. These are its primary “values”(a term coined by Nietzsche). Of course there are secondary values as well, some of which appear at first glance to reinforce good as understood by the Christian Faith. However, good and evil are redefined in these books, and whatever survives of Christian morality in them is a remnant of what it once was. Full of internal contradictions, its values are dominated by subjectivity and impulse. The commentators who emphasize these few positive values, while ignoring the repeated violation of absolute principles, run the risk of straining out gnats and swallowing camels. That so many Christian commentators have succumbed to its enchantment is a symptom that the Western world is fast losing its bearings, its sense of the actual moral order in the universe. The loss of that sense began with the loss of our understanding of the meaning and power of symbols.
Allow me to conclude by saying once again: If we lose symbolism, we lose at a basic level of consciousness our way of knowing things as they are. If symbols are corrupted, concepts are corrupted, and then we lose our ability to understand the human condition, rendering us more vulnerable to deformation of our perceptions and our actions. Symbols are not items in some storage room or attic of the psyche, that we can take up and discard at will or rearrange without consequences. To tamper with them is to destabilize the very foundations of the house. While most Christians would never knowingly exchange symbols of evil for symbols of good, (to do so they would cease to be Christians), many have accepted a new realm of eclectic symbology that allows a mixture of good and evil symbols to influence their thoughts and feelings. But two contradictory symbol worlds cannot long remain in a state of peaceful co-existence within us. Either one or the other will come to dominate and will eventually demand the expulsion of the other.
Our Lady is a real person, and the symbols we have of her help us to know her better. Satan too is a real person, and the symbols we have of him help us to recognize his devices and deceptions. More than any other creature, Mary is hated by our ancient adversary the devil. Put another way: More than any other creature, the Woman Clothed with the Sun is hated by the Great Dragon. If in our minds this Woman is no more than a pleasant image representing a purely historical figure, or the principle of the feminine or some other abstraction, then we will hardly be disposed to turn to her as the personal mother of our souls, still less as God’s valiant warrior, the New Eve who with her son will bring about the ultimate triumph over Satan. By the same token, if in our minds the symbol of the Dragon, the ancient deceiver of mankind, is no more than a cosmic bogeyman, a character in an outmoded tale, or a caricature of negative psychological elements in human nature, we will hardly be able to engage him in battle. This would surely please him. And if we neutralize in our children’s minds the truth about the urgency of the battle, the necessity of resisting the enemy with the weapons of prayer, he will be very pleased indeed.
It is a common assumption these days that peace can always be obtained by conciliation and openness to negotiation. Parallel fallacies would have us believe that all conflicts can be resolved by making an effort at mutual understanding, and that loving non-violent children are produced by stripping their culture of traditional conflicts and traditional heroes. It goes without saying that efforts at mutual understanding between human beings are desirable. But we are incredibly naïve if we project our nature upon a being whose unrelenting purpose is the destruction and damnation of mankind as the master-stroke in his revolt against the divine order. It is very much in the interests of the Great Dragon that we think he does not exist, or think he can be placated, tamed by redefinition, or negotiated with. He will wage total war against us until the end of time, regardless of how idealistic our attempts to make a separate peace with him. The proliferation in young people’s culture of friendly dragons and of “heroes” who use dragonish techniques to bring about some perceived good, is a futile attempt to make such a false peace.