October 16, 2007
Harry Potter and the supernatural
The release of each new Harry Potter book or film bring out of the woodwork those religious people who are disturbed by them and decide they need to spam everyone and try to make money from it as well.
I received a spam email following the release of Deathly Hallows that recycled old warnings about the subversive nature of the books and asking me to buy a video to help combat the Potter menace. It said:
Through Harry's world of sorcery [children] are learning the occultic tools -- occult visualization and soulish mind power, wands, brooms, spells and curses.
In this video, you will see how completely occult is the world of Harry Potter. After reading the Harry Potter books, millions of children will demand to see Warner Bros. new movie, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."
Christian parents have faced a similar problem for years with the teaching of evolution in their public schools. They have responded by teaching their children that they cannot believe everything they are taught in school. Now, with the Harry Potter books on sorcery becoming part of public school curriculum, parents need to know enough about it to also teach their children that the spell-casting and other activities of Harry Potter are also forbidden territory. This video will help.
I have touched on this topic before and I said I that those religious people who objected to the Harry Potter books on the grounds that they seemed to promote witchcraft had it all wrong. The reasons for their objections should have been that the wizarding community seemed to be all atheists. The magic in the books does not involve any kind of spiritualism. Instead it seems to follow a prescribed set of rules and students learned about spells the way craftsmen learn the skills of a trade, by learning recipes and prescriptions and carefully choreographed series of actions. It is more like technology than dealing with the spiritual world.
What is notable about the books is the lack of any formal religion or religious practices, Satanic or otherwise. There are no ritualized practices of any kind. Since Christmas falls during the school year, its presence is acknowledged but it is clearly purely a Muggle phenomenon that happens in the background. As far as the wizarding community is concerned, Christmas only involves exchanging presents. I cannot recall any person in the books praying for anything or to anyone or invoking god, even when they were in the most dire straits and facing immense dangers and even death. Although some wizards were 'godparents' of others, these seemed to be just formal titles without any religious significance.
But there were many mentions of the afterlife and communications with people who were dead. As I have said before, the idea of an afterlife where our loved ones exist and whom we can hope to make contact with again is a much more appealing prospect than a god and one can see why it has such a strong hold on people's imaginations. It also makes for good drama. J. K. Rowling's mother, of whom the author speaks fondly, died while she was writing her first book in the series and Rowling mentions her regret that she did not know about the books. The strong themes of people being able to communicate with the dead under limited circumstances may have been a reflection of her own sense of loss for her mother's companionship.
The absence of god and the devil and other supernatural entities may reflect Rowling's own religious perspective but may also be due to the concrete needs of fantasy writers. I am not in general a fan of the fantasy genre but as commenter Shruti pointed out in response to a previous post, it seems that such writers have good reasons for keeping gods out of the picture. It is hard to mix fantasy used in novels with the even greater fantasy that is god.
In regular fiction, one can have characters who experience all kinds of problems because even deeply religious people are used to the fact that god does not intervene in everyday life, even though they continue to believe he can. So they don't ask why god did not step in (say) to stop some evil or save a major character from dying.
But when you are dealing with the world of magic, you have chipped away at the wall that separates the real world from the magical and then it is hard to explain why god is not playing an active role in the events. If wizards can use spells, then why isn't god the biggest, baddest wizard out there? Where is god while the forces of good and evil are battling each other on the fields of Hogwarts? It is much easier for the novelist to keep god out of the picture altogether. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there did not seem to be a god either, though I only saw the films and have not read the books. Perhaps those who are more familiar with the fantasy genre can help me out here and say if there are any fantasy writers who have a role for god in their books.
Whatever the reason, the absence of any forms of religion or religious observances in the Harry Potter books is quite striking. It would be an interesting study to see what influence these books have had on children's views of god, religion, and spirituality in general.
POST SCRIPT: Left brained or right brained?
I am not much of a fan of things that seem to provide quickie answers to complex questions but this one is fun. It shows a silhouette of a twirling dancer and whether you see her as turning clockwise or counterclockwise (looking from the top presumably) supposedly determines which of your brain hemispheres is dominant.
Curiously, when I first looked at it, she seemed to be going clockwise for a very brief moment but then suddenly switched to counter-clockwise. I could never recapture that original perception.