Harry Potter's Magic

The Potter controversy shows that the struggle between science and magic isn't entirely settled.

BY: Alan Jacobs


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The fundamental moral framework of [J.K. Rowling's] Harry Potter books, then, is a familiar one to all of us: it is the problem of technology. . Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is in the business of teaching people how to harness and employ certain powers--that they are powers unrecognized by science is really beside the point. But the school cannot ensure that people will use those powers wisely, responsibly, and for the common good. It is a choice, as the thinkers of the Renaissance would have put it, between magia and goetia, between "high magic" (like the wisdom possessed by the magi in Christian legend) and "dark magic."

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Hogwarts was founded by four wizards, one of whom, Salazar Slytherin, at least dabbled and perhaps reveled in the Dark Arts, that is, in the use of his powers for questionable if not downright evil purposes, and for centuries many of the young wizards who have resided in Slytherin House have exhibited the same tendency. The educational quandary for Albus Dumbledore, then--though it is never described so overtly--is how to train students not just in the "technology" of magic but also in the moral discernment necessary to avoid the continual reproduction of the few great dark lords like Voldemort and their multitudinous followers. The problem is exacerbated by the presence of faculty members who are not wholly unsympathetic with Voldemort's aims.

The clarity with which Rowling sees the need to choose between good and evil is admirable, but still more admirable, to my mind, is her refusal to allow a simple division of parties into the good and the evil. Harry Potter is unquestionably a good (though by no means perfect) boy, but as I have suggested, much of his virtue arises from his recognition that he is not inevitably good. When first-year students arrive at Hogwarts, they come to an assembly of the entire school, both students and faculty. Each first-year student sits on a stool in the midst of the assembly and puts on a large, battered old hat--the Sorting Hat--which decides which of the four houses the student will enter.

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