Alice's Academy

Caroline Jones, editor

Fantastic Literature at the Beginning of the Third Millennium: Terror, Religion, and the Hogwarts Syndrome.

Danielle Gurevitch

Danielle Gurevitch is an ethnologist, and Associate Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Director and Lecturer at the Multidisciplinary Program at Bar Ilan University. Her studies include contemporary fantasy literature and its origins in Medieval English and French prose. Gurevitch is the editor (with Hagar Yanai) of With Both Feet in the Clouds: On Fantasy in Hebrew Literature, Graff and Heksherim Institute at Ben-Gurion University, 2009 (in Hebrew), and (with Elana Gomel) of With Both Feet in the Clouds: On Fantasy in Israeli Literature, Waltham, MA: Graff  Publications and Academic Press, 2012 (in English).

Abstract: The seven books in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, published consecutively over a nine-year period, have achieved unprecedented commercial success. Given the heterogeneity of Harry Potter enthusiasts, it seems as if the whole world has been captivated by the charm of the bespectacled wizard. This article suggests that Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Sorcery trains its students to be leaders, equipping them with the necessary skills by means of pedagogical methods that reflect contemporary, non-magical, progressive Western education systems. For the construction of her plots, Rowling draws on a universal, value-oriented symbolic language (reason and ethics) associated with the cultural codes of New Spiritualism.

The seven books in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, published consecutively over a nine-year period (1998, 1999, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2005, and 2007), have achieved unprecedented commercial success. At the beginning of the third millennium, a period defined as the Internet Era in which the electronic media has largely superseded the written word, it is extraordinary to find such astounding sales figures, with each book in the series becoming a bestseller. Given the heterogeneity of Harry Potter enthusiasts, who are of all ages and from around the globe, it seems as if the whole world has been captivated by the charm of the bespectacled wizard.

Much of the media hype surrounding Rowling's novels has dealt with the wide-ranging commercial success of each book, which adds to the significance of the phenomenon. According to UK Guardian reporter Guy Dammann , in 2008 (on Wednesday 18 June 2008, at 12:30 BST, to be precise) the Harry Potter series set a new sales record of 400 million copies. [1] The enormous popularity of the series, defined by the Guardian correspondent as an all-embracing, global phenomenon, can be found not only in English-speaking countries, but also in 93 other countries as disparate as China, Swaziland, and Pakistan, with the books translated into 65 languages, including Afrikaans, Bangladeshi, Georgian, Vietnamese, and Zulu. For anyone so inclined, there is even a translation of the first book in the series in Latin [Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, Latin Edition. By J.K. Rowling and Peter Needham (July 2003)]. The ancillary products derived from the series have similarly earned millions, particularly the movies, all of which have been box-office hits. Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who plays the role of Harry Potter, was transformed virtually overnight from an anonymous British teenager into a superstar, and author J.K. Rowling, about whom legends of poverty were woven at the start of her career, is today considered the entertainment world’s second-highest female earner of all time.

Over the past ten years, academics have developed an array of theories on the Potter phenomenon, concentrating for the most part, as The Boston Globe noted accurately, on three main issues: morality, mortality, and tolerance. [2] Some of the discussions, such as the two collections edited by Giselle Liza Anatol, Reading Harry Potter and Reading Harry Potter Again, relate to Rowling’s use of British legend and myth, while others, including Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter, edited by Elizabeth E. Heilman, and Lana A. White's The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon, examine the literary merit of the series, as well as its location in the subgenre of magic and fantasy.  In The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter, Andrew Blake sees the books as a "deliberately retrolutionary creation" (17), explaining that the plots explore mostly the old, and just a "little under the surface deal with the new" (ibid).  The series has also been the subject of a monograph by Phillip Nel and numerous essays in collections devoted to the gothic, mystery, and/or fantasy in children’s literature, as well as to literary criticism of books for children in general. [3]

The current article deals with the timing of the success of the Harry Potter series and its correlation with its exceptional popularity worldwide. I contend here that for the construction of her plots, Rowling draws on a global, value-oriented symbolic language (reason and ethics) associated with the cultural codes of the new religious movements that appeal to the modern secular mind. This patterning, whether conscious or not, is indicative of the contemporary mood in the Western world. As I see it, the sociocultural climate reflected in this adventure series conveys, above all, the collective longing for a secular humanistic spiritual ideology, while also reflecting the renewed interest in popular expressions of magic on the one hand, and secret practices and rites of witchcraft on the other. Thus, at least part of the appeal of the series lies in its ability to create an all-embracing solidarity with the concerns consuming the collective consciousness, specifically the discomfort arising from the emptiness, ignorance, and helplessness (angst) of the individual in the free world at the beginning of the third millennium. Despite its lack of philosophical complexity, and possibly even by virtue of it, Rowling's best-selling series arouses a shared sense of personal wellbeing. In other words, I shall attempt to show that the seven Harry Potter books bolster the claim of historian Marc Bloch, that "in every literature, a society contemplates its own image." [4]

I contend that, in literary terms, the depiction of the character of Harry Potter was shaped by the Western image of the universal, monomyth hero in the popular imagination, as systemized in the twenty-two archetypal incidents of the hero-king in Lord Raglan's The Hero, and later in the three stages of the hero’s adventure (departure, initiation, and return) in Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and again in Northrop Frye's model of struggle, ritual death, and recognition in Anatomy of Criticism. [5] In this sense, the universal power of the Harry Potter narratives and their worldwide embrace are due neither to originality nor to the distinctiveness of the hero, but rather to their ability to duplicate the literary structure of the "universal hero" and still create an original perspective.
Literary Structure

The Harry Potter series recounts a dramatic adventure divided into seven calendar years. At the heart of each book are the events in the life of the young Harry Potter over the course of a full school year, spanning the period from his 11th birthday at the start of the first book, to after his 17th at the end of the seventh. Potter is an orphan, the son of two highly esteemed wizards, a fact he is initially unaware of, who receives a letter on his 11th birthday informing him of his acceptance to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He thus learns, to his surprise, that he is endowed with magical powers. As part of the school curriculum, he acquires a range of magical skills, including the use of spells and potions, but even more importantly he becomes familiar with the strange laws of the world of wizards

In the introduction to Reading Harry Potter, Giselle Liza Anatol relates that her first intuitive impression from the series was "the incredible range of genres woven together in the novels--fairy tale, bildungsroman, boarding school narrative, detective novel, adventure story, quest tale--[which] allow each reader to satisfy her preferences" (x). Indeed, the fabric of multiple genres must be examined most carefully, as it reflects the zeitgeist of an era seeking freedom of thought in a "supermarket of ideas," perhaps explaining, at least in part, why this new form has proved to be so popular.

The influence of folk tales on the basic plot pattern is already evident from the first book. It opens with the story of Harry the orphan, a bespectacled boy who lives in abject misery with a family "of the worst kind": his aunt Petunia, his uncle Vernon Dursley, and their spoiled son, Dudley, all of whom treat him with merciless cruelty. The young Harry is aware of the gap between his moral world and the values of his adoptive family. In real life, it would be difficult to guarantee the sanity of a child growing up without any hope of change, but in the world that Rowling constructs, the child survives, and even finds time to get up to a bit of mischief, while resigning himself to his fate.

Another likely source of inspiration for this narrative format lies in fairy tales, a sub-group of the folk tale as defined by Vladimir Propp and J.R.R. Tolkien. [6] Many fairy tales begin with a description of the wretchedness of the hero, forced to live with people of dubious morality, such as Cinderella and Snow White from Grimms' Fairy Tales. [7] Familiarity with the classic structure of these tales assures the reader that after many tribulations, adventures, and torments, the story will end well and with global acknowledgement of the hero's values. An additional thematological hint borrowed from the classic fairy tale is the arrival of the letter informing Harry that he has been invited to study at the school for wizards (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone 41). The letter is a turning point, symbolizing the beginning of the upheaval in the hero's life, the means by which the outer layer is removed, exposing the function of the major narrative character as a prince, the heir to the throne, the "chosen one," or the person everyone has heard about and whose arrival they eagerly await. [8] This is precisely the function of the letter sent from the palace in Cinderella, which reveals the heroine’s perfection. [9]

Other sources that may have constituted an inspiration for Harry Potter are the children's stories that were very popular in England in the 1950s and 1960s, or somewhat later books such as Roald Dahl's Matilda and The BFG and Michael Ende's The Neverending Story. What all these stories have in common is the way in which adults are portrayed through the eyes of children. The adult, the guardian, is always hostile, domineering, and evil, and must be overcome by means of ingenuity, the exercise of restraint, and the patience to wait for the timely moment, which inevitably arrives. The longed-for change takes place when a wondrous agent in the form of a stranger happens to arrive, or an unusual character (by the limited standards of "ordinary" people) is revealed to be a hero and paves the way to freedom.

We can also discern in Harry Potter motifs borrowed from the tradition of detective fiction, namely, adventure, suspense, and action alongside the search for the truth and the solving of a mystery. Another particularly salient influence might be the popular stories describing life in English boarding schools by British author Enid Blyton, who wrote hundreds of suspense and adventure stories for children and teenagers during the years 1940-65. [10] In Harry Potter this framework appears as the fixed structure of a threesome carrying out daring missions of sleuthing and rescue, where each of the three has his or her own expertise: Harry Potter is the "leader," Ron Weasley is the "chess player," and Hermione Granger is the "clever one." These characteristics, in conjunction with courage, resourcefulness, and cooperation grounded in mutual trust, enable the trio to overcome obstacles that are beyond the capabilities of adults, the police, and even the best-trained wizards. They solve the mystery, the wrongdoer gets his just desserts, and they are rewarded with accolades. [11]

Furthermore, each of the seven books in the series ends with a direct confrontation between good and evil, that is, Harry Potter faces off against "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named," the villain Voldemort. With the help of his evil accomplices known as the "Death Eaters," the dark, ruthless wizard threatens to take over the world by despotic means. Potter's repeated victories over Voldemort instill hope of liberation/resurrection from terror and tyranny in the world of wizards, and, in fact, the benefit and salvation of the entire free world, albeit without the awareness of the Muggles (ordinary human beings).

The tension between the opposing forces and the way they are presented in the plot also link the Harry Potter series to another literary style, the "marvelous," which is a subgenre of fantasy. [12] A story is typically classified as "marvelous" if it shows the existence of two parallel worlds that never meet. While events in the "natural world" can be explained logically, the "other world" is filled with supernatural phenomena manifested in miracles, sorcery, magic, and witchcraft. In the Middle Ages, the world was commonly believed to be filled with supernatural phenomena, and there was no doubt as to the existence of miraculous creatures (unicorns, basilisks, werewolves, fairies, goblins), which were seen as an inseparable part of the natural world. Today, these stories are regarded as folk tales or fairy tales, including the legends of King Arthur, whom Tolkien refers to as "King of Faërie." [13] At the heart of the stories in this literary genre lie not the wonders of nature, but rather the wondrous way in which the heroic human being deals with critical situations. The Harry Potter books reveal the polarity characteristic of the "marvelous" story, the contrast of good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, as well as an additional confrontation between polar opposites: the pure, chaste, physically weak child versus the corrupt, powerful adult. Moreover, as typical of the "marvelous" structure, the hero suffers and undergoes hardships, yet despite his ordeals, he never loses his courage, hope, or sense of justice, and ultimately, almost predictably, emerges triumphant.

Stories in the "marvelous" format generally begin with the hero's daily routine, when suddenly a wondrous agent appears and directs him to a secret entrance to the other world, such as the white deer in Welsh tradition or the white rabbit who leads Alice down the rabbit hole. [14] In Harry Potter, Hagrid, the friendly giant, plays the role of the magical agent or guide, leading Harry Potter through the hidden access to Diagon Alley (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone 88). Potter's feelings of shock and astonishment are quickly replaced by a sense of discovery and a strength not manifested in his natural world.

Although the "marvelous" is a literary style that does not require authenticity (the imitation of reality), details of the plot may relate to a person, place, or event that can be identified in our familiar world. Most of its appeal, however, lies in its optimistic message for the audience in the non-magical realm, the assurance that while the world is indeed filled with dangers and threats, if you remain true to your principles and are guided by morality, ethics, and justice, options will ultimately present themselves and you will attain reward, fame, and honor for your actions. [15]

The first four books in the Harry Potter series can clearly be seen to be modeled on the format of the “marvelous.” The fifth book, however, marks the beginning of a change of direction, indicating a genre slide from the "marvelous" to a totally different subgenre of fantasy, the "fantastic." While the "fantastic" is also based on reality in crisis, and, like the "marvelous," deals with anxieties about the future, it does not transport the reader to another world. On the contrary, the events take place in the world as we understand it, or as we think we understand it from our daily lives. This literary genre casts the familiar in a different light, exposing dark, threatening corners and the dangers lurking at our front doors. It aims to remove our veil of apathy and warn us of the dark forces amassing beneath the surface, cautioning that if we ignore them and entrench ourselves in a self-delusion of complacency and security, a bitter end awaits us. In other words, unlike the “marvelous,” the “fantastic” describes an experience that might very well be our own, an awareness that arouses in the reader not only concern and profound shock, but also an uneasiness mixed with a feeling of powerlessness to prevail, no matter how courageous we may be. [16]

Just as in real life itself, the heroes in "fantastic" narratives are required to experience anguish and personal loss. The fifth book in the Harry Potter series suggests an attempt by Rowling to cross boundaries and break down both subgenre and inter-plot barriers, a trend that is intensified in the sixth and seventh books. Indeed, in the final book, the barriers separating the worlds (the firm "marvelous" differentiation between the "natural" world and the "other" world) seem to have been removed entirely. Breaching the accepted boundaries of the areas of combat heightens the brutal, violent atmosphere, which is already hinted at in the fifth book. This change appears to indicate Rowling's determination to describe the loaded encounter between the “marvelous” fictional plot and the implied “fantastic” real world, with its complex difficulties and hazards. Whether or not this was her intent, such a depiction is partially achieved, and is ultimately embodied in one unique antagonistic character who leaves an authentic, heart-rending, one might almost say tragic, impression.

Throughout the series, Severus Snape is etched into our consciousness as a totally vile, ungrateful individual and a despised collaborator of the dark forces. His murder of the esteemed Dumbledore, which concludes the sixth book, expands the circle of the potion teacher's adversaries to his colleagues at Hogwarts, who may not always have been fond of him, but nevertheless respected his vast knowledge in his area of expertise. Snape's multifaceted identity develops as a sub-plot in the narrative that runs from the sixth to the seventh book. In the final volume, Lord Voldemort brutally kills Snape, who was wrongly believed, almost to the very end, to be his ally in the great revolt at Hogwarts. Shortly afterwards, Harry Potter chooses to sacrifice his own life in order to end the bloodshed. Only then does the spirit of the late Professor Dumbledore rise up and reveal the inner struggles, suffering, and hardships endured by the reviled teacher. As the spirit explains, Snape was torn between his commitment to Dumbledore and his attraction to dark magic, which eventually led him to join the evil forces headed by the Dark Lord. With his last breath, Snape himself feels the need to explain the reason for his unremitting hostility toward Potter and the whole house of Gryffindor. He tells Potter, who witnessed Nagini the snake kill Snape, to look at the pensieve and uncover his most secret, intimate, buried memories (Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows 659-676). To his amazement, Potter (and the reader) learns that Snape's frustrated love for Lily Evans (Harry Potter's mother) and his humiliation as a young man by James Potter and his mates left him feeling he had no alternative, virtually pushing him over to the dark side:

"‘I'm sorry!’ ‘Save your breath’.…There was no pity in Lily's voice. ‘It's too late. I've made excuses for you for years. None of my friends can understand why I even talk to you. You and your precious little Death Eater friends- -you see, you don't even deny it! You don't even deny that's what you're aiming to be! You can't wait to join You-Know-Who, can you?’ He opened his mouth, but closed it without speaking. ‘I can't pretend anymore. You've chosen your way, I've chosen mine’" (ibid. 675-576).

As befitting a typical "fantastic" hero, Snape is not all black or all white, but a diversified human being. He is forced to choose between three fateful options: the human need to belong and be appreciated; the need to avenge the insult; and never-ending devotion to the woman he loved. Each of these possibilities will inevitably exact a heavy price. Yet, the personal agony that resulted from the choice he eventually made emerges only in retrospect, when after his death the altruism of the banished and tormented anti-hero is revealed:

"‘The prophecy…the prediction…Trelawney …[…] Everything--everything I heard!’ said Snape. ‘That is why--it is for that reason--he thinks it means Lily Evans!’ […] ‘…he is going to hunt her down--kill them all—‘  ‘Surely Lord Voldemort will spare her? Could you not ask for mercy for the mother, in exchange for the son?’ ‘I have--I have asked him--’ […] ‘Hide them all, then,’ he croaked. ‘Keep her – them- -safe. Please.’ ‘And what will you give me in return, Severus?’ ‘In--in return?’ Snape gaped at Dumbledore, and Harry expected him to protest, but after a long moment he said, ‘Anything’" (ibid. 677-678).

The next memory shown in the pensieve occurs after the death of Harry Potter's parents, when Dumbledore asks him to abide by his promise: "‘If you loved Lily Evans, if you truly loved her […] Help me protect Lily's son’" (ibid. 678-679).

On Fantasy Literature, Terror, and Neo-medievalism

The past decade has been flooded with fantastic-fictional movies unlike anything seen for many years. This is partly the result of catastrophes of enormous proportions, either natural disasters such as the tsunamis in Thailand in 2004 and Japan in 2011, or acts of human malevolence such as the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Whether for this or other reasons, the Western audience today reads books, plays computer games, and goes to movies in which superheroes save the world from the forces of evil.

Irrationally, and perhaps even unconsciously, the fear that the curse of the 20th century hangs over the generation of the 21st is becoming increasingly widespread, and seems to influence the public's entertainment preferences as well. Feelings of angst, [17] persecution, helplessness, and anonymity in the face of the danger of global destruction in the nuclear era cast a heavy shadow over our very survival. The start of the third millennium has been accompanied by a traumatic sense of insecurity and confusion, with the atmosphere of the end of days, global environmental instability, and terror attacks causing the individual to feel alone and helpless in the face of threat.

Terrorism experts admit that they also feel frustrated in the reality imposed on them. We speak today of "the integrated attack" of world terrorism, with the scale of the horror unleashing a double attack: the physical, concrete threat to life when our daily routine is violently disrupted, and the aggressive dissemination of information about the attack in every possible media outlet.

In explaining the connection between art, communications, and violence, German lecturer and curator Boris Groys claims that part of the "new" terrorists’ sophistication is that they see their victims as a means of creating pictures. The new terrorist, he argues, does not aim to kill specific people, but rather to kill so that the message they wish to promote will be spread by the media, and the grisly pictures sent around the world will sow anxiety and fear. Groys places the "blame" for this situation on the media itself, stating: "The media gives the individual who activates the terror the real possibility of becoming a ruler" (David Witztum, Yediot Aharonot, 2 April 2004, in Hebrew). In the spirit of the famous phrase coined by the theoretician Marshall McLuhan in 1967, "the medium is the message," Groys maintains that the press has unwittingly become a tool in the hands of the terrorist who will stop at nothing. [18] The press fulfills this role by selecting the news items to be published (from the vast amount of information that is placed on the editor's desk), categorizing the material (as spectacular events), and determining the way in which the information is presented (in a provocative, shocking manner). For the average independent, secular individual at the beginning of the third millennium, the result is disastrous. The reality on their television screen seems to be have been taken from a horror movie. Order and chaos have become intermingled, and we are unable to comprehend the evil, monstrous forces that have amassed power or to assess the tools available to cope with them. This collective, anxiety-producing mood, which, to judge by popular cultural preferences, has gripped whole countries, leads one to wonder whether the beginning of the third millennium will be remembered as the period when people desperately craved for a miraculous leader or solution to their existential fears.

One fascinating cultural expression of this cultural and social mood (whether conscious or otherwise) is the literary revival of neo-medievalism. For some years now, the leading Hollywood box-office hits have been grand cinematic depictions of ancient and pseudo-ancient tales of magical bravery. Hollywood entrepreneurs, with their keen commercial antennae, correctly identified the demand, and invested in giant productions such as King Arthur (directed by Antoine Fuqua, 2004), The Matrix Trilogy (directed by Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski, 1999-2004), and Hellboy, 2004 and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, 2008 (directed by Guillermo del Toro), as well as in such video games as Batman: Arkham City, 2011; Crysis 1-2, 2007, 2011; Killzone1-2-3, 2007, 2009, 2011.

The same trend can also be seen in literature, with a genre renaissance and strong reader interest in fantasy, science-fiction, mystery, magic, and witchcraft. Leading the field in terms of international commercial success are Rowling's Harry Potter series and Tolkien's masterpiece, Lord of the Rings. [19] These books share the central theme of a single, heroic, mythological leader. Whether his name is Arthur, Neo, Aragorn, or Harry Potter, he is a representative of the national ethos "chosen by force majeure," the one who safely leads his people to freedom from the shackles of a dark, brutal rule bent on tyranny and destruction. It is interesting to see how the Gnostic, apocalyptic perception, which until quite recently was the province of a handful of science-fiction fans, has suddenly encroached into realpolitik, reflecting the contemporary cultural and social climate.

In the period following the attack on the Twin Towers, this myth openly and publicly became an instrument both of media discourse and political thinking. Former US president George W. Bush, for example, repeatedly spoke in this vein, as in his State of the Union address on January 29, 2002 in which he stated: [20]

[…]These enemies view the entire world as a battlefield, and we must pursue them wherever they are. So long as training camps operate, so long as nations harbor terrorists, freedom is at risk. And America and our allies must not, and will not, allow it. […] But some governments will be timid in the face of terror. And make no mistake about it: If they do not act, America will. […] States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.

Philosopher Peter Singer, an expert in bioethics, counted 310 uses of the word "evil" in President Bush’s speech. Overall, Singer claims, the issue of "evil" occupied 30% of the president's speeches from the time of his election in 2000 until the date of Singer's article (June 16, 2003). According to his calculations, the word "evil" appeared 914 times as a noun and only 182 times as an adjective. Furthermore, in only 24 instances was it used to describe human action. Singer suggests that these figures raise the possibility that Bush identified the actions not as the work of vicious, cruel, and extreme individuals, but rather as the result of evil forces. [21] On the personal level, Bush's statements reflect the general spiritual worldview of a religious person who publicly declared that he reads the Bible daily and believes in the power of prayer. [22] From a public perspective, it is highly likely that political interest dictated the phrasing of Bush's speeches in the contemporary language of discourse. [23] At the same time, however, his comments might reflect the spirit of the media management of discourse on the crisis, particularly in the visual media. Bush's comments describe the confrontation with the axis of evil in apocalyptic terms, with unqualified dichotomous polarization: black and white, good guys and bad guys, life and death. Thus, the cultural symbols served up to us today arouse imaginary-fantastic excitation. People perceive reality by means of the same typology of symbols and myths used by President Bush: a war between human beings and the forces of darkness. It is not a war against a "nation" (the Iraqi, Afghan, or Iranian people), but against a cruel leader and an army of his followers, lacking form and name. It is a campaign conducted against a single, bloodthirsty individual with an indefatigable appetite for destruction who challenges the world order. Whether he is called Saddam Hussein, Bin Laden, or Ahmadinejad, he is always one named person who succeeds in exploiting the media for his own destructive purposes by orchestrating extravagant spectacles of terror and violence.

On the Concept of Authority: The Spiritual Battle

Whereas most commentators marvel at J.K. Rowling's universal popularity, some see the success of the Harry Potter books more as a threat. Among their harshest critics are religious groups and leaders, Jewish and Christian alike. The series has been accused in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish press of corrupting the young. Even more radically, Cardinal Ratzinger, before his election as Pope Benedict XVI, stated in a letter to German Catholic author Gabriela Kuby that the books are "subtle seductions, which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly." [24] Following these remarks, a document appeared on the Vatican Internet site warning against the various manifestations of the "New Age" movement. [25]

One of the document’s main claims was that the general public no longer sees Church doctrine as an answer to their legitimate spiritual yearnings, and therefore tend to be attracted to alternative, easy to conduct, forms of religion that do not require any fundamental practice and do not challenge them to make any profound changes in everyday routine.

These social movements, which emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s and gained momentum in the second half of the 1980s, indeed led to a questioning of all authority, including the absolute certainties of science and traditional religions. Representing a variety of eclectic spiritual streams grouped under the broad definition of new spiritualism, these creeds resulted in the birth of what has been called the new secular religion, or the New Age movement.[26] A revival and integration of a vast diversity of spiritual ideas, beliefs, and practices, it draws on the Judeo-Christian tradition, Asian religions, paganism, Sufism, Theosophy, the holistic health movement, and existential philosophy, with its cultural, ideological worldview said to be shaped to fit the social and political concerns of the current generation.[27] Although identified by a number of fundamental characteristics (such as environmental and apocalyptic concerns that are mostly regarded as symbols of mystical change), its doctrine remains largely amorphous, enabling it to be easily adapted to suit the adherents of all religions, faiths, and beliefs without any significant changes in lifestyle. Generally speaking, one of the primary features of the new religious doctrine is the search for an alternative to conservative, dogmatic, religious thinking, along with near-total negation of the power of central worship. It is thus characterized by a vague religious identity that emphasizes the freedom of individual thinking, as well as environmental and interfaith practices including ideological occultism, neo-paganism, herbal healing techniques, and alternative curative approaches including witchcraft, channeling, and miracles.[28

The growing interest in magical religions and the occult has led novelists and movie directors to question the literary implications of the new spiritualism. Treading the thin line between traditional religion and New Age beliefs, [29]  they have produced films such as The Matrix (directed by Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachawski, 1999), Minority Report (directed by Steven Spielberg, 2002), and in the fantasy genre, The Golden Compass (directed by Chris Weitz, 2007), to name just a few. But without a doubt, the most popular of all works of fantasy in both literature and cinema, and the ones that most clearly highlight the tension between the old and new religions and have garnered the strongest protests from the Vatican, are the Harry Potter books and films. They constitute a prototypical blend of individual spiritual practices, occult activities, divination, magic, and veneration of nature, animals, beasts, and the environment in general, seamlessly interwoven into the monotheistic longing for one true leader.

Rowling’s books are most likely viewed as problematic by the Vatican due to the messages they contain, which are damaging first and foremost to the monotheistic hegemony and deviate from conservative "old school" pedagogy. It is certainly conceivable that those who oppose the books do so because, among other things, they are concerned about the depictions of the school’s spiritual foundations and educational values. In this regard, Rebecca Stephans discusses the concept of authority in the Harry Potter series and responds to the argument (put forward mainly by fundamental Christian activists) that the books’ exposure of readers to the danger of dark, anti-biblical sorcery and their "‘anti-Christian’ perspective…are likely to lead children to the practice of Wicca" (54). [30] "What they actually seem to fear most about Rowling's books," Stephans claims "is their subversion of traditional hierarchal power structures where there is a single ‘right’ or ‘true’ source of power" (56).  Unlike more allegorical Christian-themed books such as C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, what disturbs them in Rowling’s series, she explains, "seems to be the lack of a single controlling authority in the book, not just the practice of magic. In Rowling's books, the headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, might seem to be such an authority figure, but he, unlike Aslan, is far from omniscient. Dumbledore does not exercise total control over events or people the way Aslan does" (56-57).

One of the main features of Rowling's original concept of authority in the Harry Potter series is, indeed, the lack of a single omniscient controlling authority figure. Nevertheless, I  interpret this construct differently. To my mind, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is a prototypical representation of the New Age pedagogical vision. While the aim of the school is undoubtedly to teach, it does so by setting its students a series of challenges and exercises that are individual, active, experimental, intellectual, educational, and extreme in nature, and are designed to encourage independent thinking.

Although Hogwarts is a magical school, it closely mirrors certain progressive educational methodologies in the “real world,” including Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophist system and the concept of democratic schools, among others. One of the main goals of these education systems is to encourage equal opportunity among members of the community and instill leadership skills, regardless of the individual’s personal history, background, or any other external factor. Similarly, upon admission to Hogwarts, each student undergoes  a sorting procedure performed by a professional sorting hat which assigns them to houses according to their personal interests, skills, and potential talents. Another prominent feature of the school is the importance attributed to knowledge. The faculty comprises highly educated teachers who share their wide horizons and unique and exciting expertise. Some, like Prof. Remus Lupin and Prof. Minerva McGonagall, do so willingly, while others do so reluctantly, such as Prof. Severus Snape, or with utter lack of skill yet with touching affection, such as Prof. Rubeus Hagrid. Interestingly enough, history, the single course offered in Hogwarts in a traditional Muggle subject, is taught by a deceased professor who passed away years earlier but failed to notice this minor detail.

Furthermore, the salary of the faculty is never mentioned in any of the seven books. Money, it seems, is not of prime importance at Hogwarts. Even when the Gringotts Wizarding Bank is broken into in the first book in the series, it is not money that is stolen, but knowledge, in the form of the Philosophers’ Stone, whose nature is a closely guarded secret. In point of fact, money is mentioned mainly in a negative context throughout the books. Draco Malfoy’s wealthy father, himself a graduate of the Hogwarts House of Slytherin, is corrupt. He bribes his son’s classmates by purchasing the most advanced model of broomstick for the Quidditch team, and thus enables his son to join the team and gain the highly sought-after position of seeker. In contrast, the large Weasley family, whose sons are all Gryffindor graduates, are poor, but they are a warm, loving, caring family.

Another pedagogical principle in the books, which will certainly appeal to environmental spiritualists, is the fact that the education system at Hogwarts encourages not only its students, but indeed the entire universe, to be proactive and creative. The magic wand, for example, as Ollivander explains, chooses the student and not the other way around; the fat lady in the picture has sensitivities which students must respect; the Room of Requirement (also known as the Come-and-Go-Room) in the fifth book alternately comes and goes, but when it appears it is always equipped with whatever is needed by the person who sought it out.

Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, is the consummate representative of this progressive education system. Rather than being a “single ‘right’ or ‘true’ source of power,” as Stephans puts it, he is a spiritual teacher who propounds a worldview in which knowledge and wisdom are available to those who seek it. The ultimate mentor for instilling independent, yet moral, thinking, he directs his students toward the proper path in a subtle, positive manner that allows them to discover it for themselves. This pedagogical methodology is evident in every activity at Hogwarts. And so, apart from the unique sophisticated gadgets Harry Potter and his schoolmates have at their disposal, they also have access to diverse sources of knowledge, such as the enormous library filled with extraordinary books of potion-making recipes, spells, and counter-spells, as well as other guidebooks and documents on the art of witchcraft and sorcery. The Mirror of Erised, for example, reveals itself only at times of extreme need, but once revealed, it reflects the user's most secret desires (Erised  is “desire” spelled backwards), providing them with the support and confidence needed to achieve personal growth. Students at Hogwarts are encouraged to actively practice and examine their skills, and, just like in non-magical reality, to cope periodically with defeat and distress.

Hogwarts’s educational methods, therefore, do not represent the absence of a "controlling authority figure," as Stephans contends, but rather an alternative authoritative system in which students are urged to continually question and investigate in a search for profound rational and ethical truths. One might then ask why there are such frequent violations of the school’s regulations.  Indeed, Hogwarts sets strict restrictions on its students. Certain areas on the school grounds are clearly defined as off-limits, whether it be the forbidden books in the library, Hogsmeade, the third floor corridor, or the Dark Forest. The ban is explicit, and those who ignore it do so at risk to their lives. Yet, these restrictions are invariably violated. As I maintain that the education system at Hogwarts represents a free spiritual movement, I believe these limitations should also be seen as part of this progressive alternative approach. They are deliberately designed to actively engage the students, to coax them to take action to reveal their potential leadership skills, adventurous personalities, and moral values. For example, in the first book, when Madam Hooch leaves to tend to wounded Neville Longbottom, she issues the explicit instruction: "None of you is to move while I take this boy to the hospital wing! You leave those brooms where they are or you'll be out of Hogwarts before you can say 'Quidditch'" (182). Potter ignores this directive, and yet not only is he not punished for disobeying his teacher, but he is chosen to be the Gryffindor seeker. This is not an indication of a lack of authority on the part of the school, but rather of its desire to reward the courageous action of the talented first-year student. Breaking the rules at Hogwarts enables the young magicians to explore their hidden abilities, and presents Harry Potter with opportunities to confirm his leadership. The examples are myriad. Potter disobeys Dumbledore’s prohibition against entering the third floor, an offense punishable by an agonizing death, and is ultimately rewarded with gratitude, respect, and even applause. In the second book, he makes his way into the forbidden forest, and in the third book, he enters Hogsmeade without permission. The results of these actions demonstrate that the school’s most rigid restrictions are put in place in order to test the students. By successfully surmounting the obstacles, the students exhibit imitative, courage, and the ability to break through barriers and handle crises with humility and the help of team work.

Moreover, in Rowling’s books, breaking the rules is not a violation of social values or a form of anarchy, nor should it be understood as "non-Christian or even anti-Christian" provocation, as some critics have claimed. On the contrary, it is aimed at restoring the purest essence of order from within, with the students’ experienced mentors keeping a close watch on their every move from a distance. Furthermore, knowledge can be gained in this manner provided it is equitably distributed and shared by all groups or individuals. Thus, the points earned by Potter's acts of bravery are awarded to the House of Gryffindor. Similarly, Hermione Granger, the daughter of Muggles, is an exemplary product of a system that promotes team work and offers equal opportunities to those with potential. She is constantly reading and acquiring knowledge, but does not know how to implement it in practice. On the other hand, Ron Weasley, who grew up in the world of wizards, serves as an interpreter of the labyrinth of the magical world for his friends, Harry and Hermione. Their solidarity, along with other prized values that are repeatedly put to the test, such as fellowship and loyalty, are the primary moral principles championed throughout the series.

In summary, the contemporary political-cultural-social climate, whose origins lie in the collective fear of destruction in the real world, have enabled the literary design of a national ethos characterized by the fond embrace of the mythological-monarchial golden age and the sense of security it provides together with the desire for an alternative authority. This unconventional, seemingly paradoxical, duality is reflected in the Harry Potter series, which centers around a young leader-warrior who, accompanied by his courageous and loyal companions, grows to be confident in his ability to defeat the most devious, wicked villainy. The wished-for alternatives are practiced at Hogwarts. While it may not be explicitly labeled as such, the methodology at the school is an expression of egalitarian, non-repressive, non-hierarchical principles. Authority is represented by spiritual mentors and facilitators who employ progressive "grassroots spirituality" methods to foster leadership. [31] "Spirituality is the shape of one's life as a whole," Robert Furman quotes the etymologist Richard Wood, and adds: "In this way spirituality becomes a guiding value orientation for our whole lives" (68). The new spirituality overrides the hegemony and bonds of conservative institutions, and is nourished by an eclectic mix of mysticism, magic, philosophy, myth, and practices derived from ancient rituals and mythologies in Eastern and Western traditions alike. All these dynamic forces equip the young wizards at Hogwarts with practical tools that will enable Harry Potter and his fellow wizards to grow into adults with faith in their ability as individuals to challenge evil, to be leaders, and to emerge victorious.


1. 2008/jun/18/ Compare with previous BBC reports: 4308548.stm;; 18 July, 2005; 1/hi/entertainment/6907855.stm  21 July 2007.

2. over_religious_critics/.

3. Giselle Liza Anatol (ed.), Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2003; Giselle Liza Anatol (ed.), Reading Harry Potter Again: Critical Essays, Santa Barbara,, CA: ABC-Clio, 2009; Lana A. White (ed.), The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002; Andrew Blake, The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter, London: Verso, 2002. For an interesting economic interpretation, see: Avichai Snir and Daniel Levy, Human Capital and Economic Growth in the Potterian Economy, The article examines the "Potterian economy" in the world of wizards in the Harry Potter series, from which the authors draw conclusions about social reality, international trade, and globalization.

4. Marc Bloch, Feudal Society, trans. by L.A. Manyon, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1961, 102.

5. Lord Raglan, The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama, New York: Dover, [1936] 2003; Joseph Campbell, The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, [1949] 1973; Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, [1957] 2000; Compare Jungian archetypes of the collective unconscious in dreams; C.G. Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, trans. by  R.F.C. Hull, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, [1943, 1928] 1977.

6. According to Tolkien, fairy-stories do not necessarily include winged fairies, but rather relate a tale that occurs in the Perilous Realm and contains all the primary elements of our own realm–-earth, sea, sky, space--and all inhabitants, real, imagined, and magical. This is where the readers explore, and perhaps fulfill, their deepest desires, where good and evil do battle. Its key function lies in the fact that although enchanted, it is a place of reason; J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, London: HarperCollins Publishers, [1964] 2001, 9-11. Propp maintains that a tale is "any development proceeding from villainy or lack through intermediary functions to marriage, or to other functions employed as a dénouement"; Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, trans. by L. Scott, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Research Centre in Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics Publication, [1958] 1968, 92.

7. The Brothers Grimm, Grimms' Fairy Tales, 1812; compare with: Blake, 17.

8. For the role of the magical agent or helper that facilitates the liquidation of the hero's misfortune, see: Propp, 1968, 39-43.

9. See also: Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, New York: Random House, 1976.

10. Enid Blyton's detective stories include 15 books in the Secret Seven Society series, 21 books in the Famous Five series, and 15 books in the Five Find-Outers and Dog series. Popular in Israel for many years was the Hasamba (an acronym of "total and absolute secret society") series, containing 45 books by Igal Mossinsohn.

11. Their peers in Gryffindor House also take part in some of the daring acts. For "Dumbledore's Army," see below.

12. The four subgenre are science fiction, weird fiction, the marvelous, and the fantastic.

13. Tolkien, 2001, 29.

14. The story that opens the first cycle of the Welsh Mabinogion dynasty, for example, begins with a hunting expedition deep in the forest conducted by Pwyll, Lord of Dyved, in the course of which he kills a shiny white stag, the likes of which no one has ever seen. This incurs the wrath of the owner of the stag, Arawn, King of Annwvyn from the other world, and the meeting between the two marks the beginning of a marvelous adventure; The Mabinogion, trans. by Lady Charlotte E. Guest, New York: Dover, 1997. Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, 1865.

15. Consider: "Fantasy literature uses poetic means to examine the limits of the possible out of a belief in a purposeful order. Through this belief, people organize their thoughts in the realm beyond the familiar"; Danielle Gurevitch, "What is Fantasy?" in: With Both Feet in the Clouds,  Danielle Gurevitch and Elana Gomel (Eds.), Waltham, MA: Academic Press, 2012; see also: Pierre Mabille, Mirror of the Marvelous: The Classic Surrealist Work on Myth, trans. by Jody Gladding, Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, [1962] 1998, 13; "Le Merveilleux dans l'Occident Medieval" in: Jacques Le Goff, Un Autre Moyen Age, Paris: Quarto-Gallimard, [1977] 1999, 460.

16. For the fantastic, see: Tzvetan Todorov, Introduction à la Littérature Fantastique, Paris: Seuil, 1970.

17. Angst, a word originating in German philosophy (Kierkegaard, Heidegger and existentialism), is used to describe fear, terror, and trembling. It reflects an extreme feeling of undefined distress, combined with anxiety, tension, depression, and panic.

18. McLuhan's main argument is that the media has a decisive impact on society because it does not present its audience with an objective picture of the world, but rather shapes the way in which people perceive the world and interpret what they actually see; Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, London: Rutledge, [1964] 2001.

19. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was published in 1954-5, and returned to the bestseller list thanks to the impressive cinematic version directed by Peter Jackson, the third installment of which, The Return of the King won three Oscar awards in 2003.

20. President Delivers State of the Union Address. At:

21. Peter Singer, The President of Good and Evil: Questioning the Ethics of George W. Bush. New York: Plume, 2004, 2.

22. See for example:

23. Some authors deny the legitimacy of speeches of this kind, claiming that they do not present a picture of the world to the viewers, but rather shape the way in which people perceive the world and interpret what they see or understand as reality. The leading proponent of this view is the sociologist Jean Baudrillard, who as early as 1981 issued the warning that the public in the postmodern era lives in a world in which it has lost the ability to differentiate between reality and simulation, between representer and represented. A central Baudrillardian concept is "hyperreal," i.e., an artificial media product that produces behavioral models that replace the "realistic." Society internalizes these models until the boundary between the hyperreal and daily life becomes blurred; Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation: The Body, In Theory: Histories of Cultural Materialism,  trans. by: Sheila Faria Glaser, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1994 [1981], 6-7.

24. "Pope Benedict opposes Harry Potter Novels," LIFESITENEWS.COM, June 27, 2005,

25. A Christian Reflection on the “New Age,”  "New Age Spirituality: An Overview,"

26. Wouter J. Hanegraaf, New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought, New York: State University of New York Press, 1998; Paul Heelas, The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996; J.R. Lewis "Approaches to the Study of the New Age Movement," in: J.R. Lewis and J.G. Melton (Eds.), Perspectives on the New Age Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1992, 1-12.

27. Helen A. Berger (Ed.), Witchcraft and Magic: Contemporary North America, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005, 6.

28. "Neo-paganic Witchcraft: The Movement," in: Jeffrey B. Russell and Brooks Alexander, A New History of Witchcraft (second edition), London: Thames and Hudson, 2007, 164-185.

29. See, for example, the craze over what was identified as "the great 2012 apocalyptic cycle."

30. Rebecca Stephans, "Harry and Hierarchy: Book Banning as a Reaction to the Subversion of Authority," in: Giselle Liza Anatol (Ed.), Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays.

31. Robert K C Forman, Grassroots Spirituality: What It Is, Why It Is Here, Where It Is Going, Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2004.


Danielle Gurevitch

Volume 17, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, May/June 2013

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