2016-06-30
Excerpted from "A Visit to Vanity Fair," by Alan Jacobs, Brazos Press, 2001.

It was not obvious in advance that science would succeed and magic fail. In fact, several centuries of dedicated scientific experiment would have to pass before it was clear to anyone that the "scientific" physician could do more to cure illness than the old woman of the village with her herbs and potions and muttered charms.

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Isaac Newton, whose name is associated more than any other with physical mechanics, was continually absorbed by alchemical research, as John Maynard Keynes, the famous economist, learned when, in 1936, he bought Newton's alchemical manuscripts at auction. A stunned Keynes wrote a paper in which he revealed that Newton, far from being "the first and greatest...rationalist," was instead "the last of the magicians."

This history provides a key to understanding the role of magic in Joanne Rowling's books, for she begins by positing a counterfactual history, a history in which magic was not a false and incompetent discipline but rather a means of controlling the physical world at least as potent as experimental science.

In Harry Potter's world, scientists think of magic in precisely the same way they do in our world, but they are wrong. The counterfactual "secondary world" that Rowling creates is one in which magic simply works, and works as reliably, in the hands of a trained wizard, as the technology that makes airplanes fly and refrigerators chill the air--those products of applied science being, by the way, sufficiently inscrutable to the people who use them that they might as well be the products of wizardry. As Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, "Any smoothly functioning technology gives the appearance of magic."

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.

After unusually long reflection, the Sorting Hat, to Harry's great relief, puts him in Gryffindor, but not before telling him that he could achieve real greatness in Slytherin. This comment haunts Harry; he often wonders whether Slytherin is where he truly belongs, among the pragmatists, the careerists, the manipulators and deceivers, the power-hungry, and the just plain nasty.

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Near the end of the second book, after a terrifying encounter with Voldemort--his third: Voldemort had tried to kill Harry, and succeeded in killing his parents, when Harry was a baby, and Voldemort had confronted Harry again in the first book--Harry confesses his doubts to Dumbledore:
"So I should be in Slytherin," Harry said, looking desperately into Dumbledore's face. "The Sorting Hat could see Slytherin's power in me, and it--"
"Put you in Gryffindor," said Dumbledore calmly. "Listen to me, Harry. You happen to have many qualities Salazar Slytherin prized in his hand-picked students...Resourcefulness...determination...a certain disregard for rules," he added, his moustache quivering again. "Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was. Think."
"It only put me in Gryffindor," said Harry in a defeated voice, "because I asked not to go in Slytherin..."
"Exactly," said Dumbledore, beaming once more. "Which makes you very different from [Voldemort]. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." Harry sat motionless in his chair, stunned.

Harry is stunned because he realizes for the first time that his confusion has been wrong-headed from the start. He has been asking the question "Who am I at heart?" when he needed to be asking the question "What must I do in order to become what I should be?" His character is not a fixed, preexistent thing, but something he has responsibility for making; that's why the Greeks called it character, "that which is engraved"--the metal is capable of receiving and retaining a distinctive impression, but the impression once made is hard to erase.

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In this sense the strong tendency of magic to become a dream of power makes it a wonderful means by which to focus on the choices that gradually but inexorably shape us into certain distinct kinds of persons. Christians are perhaps right to be wary of an overly positive portrayal of magic, but the Harry Potter books don't do that: in them magic is often fun, often surprising and exciting, but also always potentially dangerous.

And so, it should be said, is technology that has resulted from the victory of experimental science. Perhaps the most important question I could ask my Christian friends who mistrust the Harry Potter books is this: Is your concern about the portrayal of this imaginary magical technology matched by a concern for the effects of the technology that in our world displaced magic? The technocrats of this world hold in their hands powers almost infinitely greater than those of Albus Dumbledore and Voldemort. How worried are we about them, and about their influence over our children?

Not worried enough, I would say. As Ellul suggests, the task for us is "the measuring of technique by other criteria than those of technique itself," which measuring he also calls "the search for justice before God." Joanne Rowling's books are more helpful than most in prompting such measurement. They are also--and let's not forget the importance of this point--a great deal of fun.



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