Review: Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture

Donal Anthony Foley reviews Michael O’Brien’s Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture (Fides et Traditio Press, 2010, 278 pages)

The Canadian author and artist, Michael O’Brien, in his Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture, has written a forceful condemnation of the whole Harry Potter phenomenon, but without rancor or polemics, and in a reasoned and objective manner.

He begins by giving the reader a synopsis of all seven of the Potter books, noting that many pro-Potter commentators, including Christians, have seen the series as essentially healthy with entertaining plots and charming characters. But as he notes, these details are mixed with repulsive aspects at every turn: disgusting spells and bodily functions are described in detail, while rudeness abounds.

And as the series progresses, sexual content becomes more explicit, as the general tone becomes darker. He argues, though, that regarding Rowling’s work, “The most serious problem is the use of the symbol world of the occult as her primary metaphor, and occultic activities as the dramatic engine of the plots.”

Harry Potter himself is no paragon – indeed he is consistently guilty of objectively immoral acts, including habitual rule-breaking, indulging a violent temper, lying and deceiving others, brooding about revenge, and actual deeds of vengeance. O’Brien points to the paradox that most readers are drawn to Harry despite these serious character flaws.

Moreover, he argues that Rowling has created a world where the boundary between good and evil has been shifted, given that Harry and many of the other “good” characters use the same powers – although on a lesser scale – as the really evil characters such as Voldemort.

But the stance of the Church and the Bible has always been that such powers are essentially evil and that there is no justification for their use.

O’Brien then deals with other critical responses from those who have investigated the Potter phenomenon, including people who have been involved in occult activities, and who realize from bitter experience just how dangerous the Potter books are. He also points to the explosion in interest in witchcraft and sorcery over recent years, and the easy accessibility of such material in bookstores and on the internet. And these criticisms have not come just from Christian sources – secular reviewers have also taken Rowling to task for, amongst other things, her undemanding, cliché ridden style, and for the way the Potter books psychologically manipulate their readers to accept witchcraft and sorcery as wholesome.

In traditional fairy tales, magical elements have always been present, but within an overall world-view which clearly separated good and evil – for example, traditionally witches were always regarded as abhorrent. The same has been true of works by J. R. Tolkien or C. S. Lewis; but in the Potter series, the problem is “not the presence of magic … but how the magic is represented.”

O’Brien also looks at the way ancient Gnostic ideas have been revived in our own society, and sees the Potter books as a vehicle for this type of thinking, given their rich symbolism which echoes that of ancient Gnosticism. And by redefining ancient symbols such as dragons, casting them not as essentially evil, but as morally neutral, O’Brien argues that Rowling’s series of books has had the cumulative effect of dissolving “the parameters of our traditional symbol world, with the resulting shift of our moral judgments into a zone dominated by feelings.”

Likewise he looks at the powerful subliminal effect which modern cinema and TV can have on our perceptions, noting that the screen persona of Harry Potter has been portrayed in a much more wholesome way than the much darker picture found in the books. And these are also very much subversive of traditional authority, including the authority of Father figures. O’Brien sees Harry as a hybrid of “hero and anti-hero,” and contrasts him with Tolkien’s Frodo, who is a genuine hero, albeit one not without flaws.

For O’Brien, the Potter series presents a warning sign that our culture is being undermined and that a new paganism, far more potent and powerful than its ancient counterpart, is being ushered into the modern world. Gradually, standards have been lowered, and material which would once have been seen as highly objectionable is meekly accepted as “just the way things are.” And if anyone does object, they are labeled as old fashioned or, worse, a “fundamentalist.”

In the second half of the book, O’Brien discusses other contemporary works which have followed in the wake of Harry Potter, including some films, and also the Twilight series of vampire novels written by Stephenie Meyer, which he characterizes as: “poorly written teen romances, pulp fiction with a twist of supernatural horror combined with racing hormones and high school boy-girl relationships.” As with some of the symbolism in the Potter books, in this series, which posits “good” and “bad” vampires, he argues that we have a “cultural work that converts a traditional archetype of evil into a morally neutral one.”

And this blurring of the lines between good and evil has been taken a step further by Philip Pullman, in his fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, which is also analyzed by O’Brien.

Pullman has quite explicitly set out to undermine the Christian moral order, and has described himself as “of the devil’s party.” He has created an imaginary world governed by the “Magisterium,” an authoritarian religious organization, and thus it is clear that his main target is the Catholic Church.

As O’Brien says: “Pullman has his tens of millions of young readers. Rowling has her hundreds of millions. But Rowling has played a major role in paving the way for Pullman. Both have pushed and warped the poles in men’s minds. They exercise complementary functions in the deformation of the contemporary imagination, and their differences are only in degree, not in kind.”

The essentially negative effect of the Potter books is also shown by their excessive focus on death and dying, with many of these deaths being violent and gratuitous, a fact acknowledged by Rowling herself: “My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry’s parents, …[and] there is Voldemort’s obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price, the goal of anyone with magic.”

Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture work is a cogent and convincing criticism of Rowling’s creation, and any parent who is concerned about the spiritual welfare of their children would be well advised to take note of Michael O’Brien’s persuasive and timely arguments.

This review appeared in the Wanderer