In celebration of 20 years since the first Harry Potter book was published, I thought it’d be a good chance to look back to one of my own offerings in which I offered a radical reading of Potter’s relationship to his magical art.
During a short speaking tour on Mutiny in the US with Peter Rollins, I realised that I had some unfinished business with the material. I’d touched on the piratical roots of Shakespeare’s final play The Tempest, but not really dug down deeply into what the main character Prospero’s abandonment of magic in the final scenes really meant:
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up
The pine and cedar; graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.
Prospero’s life has been ruined by his obsession with his magical art. It caused him to neglect his work looking after the people of his city, and it fractured his family. The play opens with him exiled on a far-off island, only the savage Caliban and the sprite Ariel for company. What unfolds is essentially a story of a family’s reunification, one that is made possible only by Prospero’s realisation that his superpower – this extraordinary magical craft – must be renounced if he is going to exit his exile and re-enter community. ‘This rough magic I here abjure… I’ll break my staff… drown my book.’
As the Shakespeare scholar Stephen Orgel notes:
By renouncing his special powers, Prospero becomes more fully human.
Yes, I thought, the act of abandoning divine powers in order to become more fully embodied as a human? Abandoning a lonely paradise in order to be re-born in human community? Yes, that sounds like a seam worth mining.
These thoughts became After Magic – Moves Beyond Supernature, From Batman to Shakespeare, a work that has only been marginally less successful that Rowling’s own offerings 😉
What I wanted to explore there was this hunch that The Tempest offered a pattern which pretty much all of the great stories involving ‘super-nature’ follow: that in order to become ‘more fully human,’ the protagonist – whether Batman, Banquo or Frodo – must give up the magical art that they had committed their lives to. As I write in the prologue:
Magic is everywhere. Despite the best efforts of the Enlightenment and the pursuit of the scientific method to investigate our universe, stories about magic and fascination with magic have not only persisted, but blossomed. The most popular single volume fiction book of the past century, bar none, is the story of a hobbit and his adventures with wizards and a magical ring. The most popular book series has been that concerning a young wizard called Harry Potter. Not far behind is C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
As these enduring magical stories plot out something of what it means to engage with the supernatural they also plot out how this supernatural engagement has affected the journey human beings have taken as we have come to understand both our world and our relationships with one another. My contention here is that the most long-lasting of these tales – the ones that go beyond familiarity and into archetype – all share a common strand as they come to fulfilment: they all contain a move beyond super-nature, a renunciation of magic in favour of something greater. It is by these stories that we will be helped in our natural next stage of human development: to navigate our way in the world ‘after magic.’
In each of the stories I pick up – and the book apparates deftly between Macbeth, Spiderman, Watchman, The Prestige… and the Bible – I explore how the promise of a super-natural power lures the hero into thinking that they can finally conquer and get what they desire… but then ends up dehumanising them and removing them from community, from healthy relationship. In fact, the most heroic thing that they do is to give up the very power that they believe had made them heroes. It is only in this renunciation of super-nature that they can become truly human, and thus truly perform the sacrificial work of salvation that they are called to.
And so to Potter.
On the radio this morning, a theologian was talking about how the Potter books could show people how evil can be conquered with the help of a higher power. If this were true, it would be going against the grain of all these archetypal tales stretching back over the history of story. And I believe that Rowling is far too smart to do that.
Instead, she has deftly offered generations of children a superb tale about how to navigate our way towards ‘becoming more fully human.’ Harry’s journey is from one of total ignorance about the magical world, through wide-eyed and naive joy, and on to healthy critique and – I would argue – rejection.
Consider the effect that magic had on his life: destroying his parents, his godfather, his friends. It is no surprise that, at the conclusion of the whole thing, as Harry reflects on the ‘elder wand’ – this powerful magical object akin to Prospero’s staff – he concludes:
‘That wand’s more trouble than it’s worth,’ said Harry. ‘And quite honestly,’ he turned away from the painted portraits, thinking now only of the four-poster bed lying waiting for him in Gryffindor Tower, and wondering whether Kreacher might bring him a sandwich there, ‘I’ve had enough trouble for a lifetime.’
And from that moment on, there is no mention of Harry performing magic again. Interestingly, though the final book is about the ‘Deathly Hallows’ – these super-magical objects without which Harry doesn’t think he can destroy Voldemort – he in fact uses none of them. He drops the resurrection stone, pulls off the invisibility cloak… and what eventually kills Voldemort is his own death-curse rebounding back onto himself.
In fact, beyond super-nature, the essence of what allows him to overcome Voldemort (read: ‘the death drive’) is a power much greater: love. In the very final battle, as Voldemort sends the killing curse, Harry’s final spell is instructive: ‘expelliarmus!’ His last act is to try to un-wand his enemy, to take away his magical staff, offering even up to this last point a chance for Tom Riddle to re-enter his own humanity too. Magic has been more trouble than it’s worth, and he has now had enough trouble for a lifetime.
The Harry Potter books are a great gift to children because they plot in almost real time this most extraordinary journey from naive childhood into the foothills of adulthood. This is the time of soaring passions and fundamentalist viewpoints. And what Rowling offers, I believe, is a modern-retelling of the most ancient archetype: that if we are to become fully human, we must slip off the cloaks of magical arts, the alluring powers that, at the birth of our individuation in our adolescence, promise to lift us above others into something more powerful and heroic. The most holy thing we can do is to destroy the idea of the holy, these hallows that promise life, but turn out to be deathly.
Despite its limited readership, I’m extraordinarily proud of After Magic because through myriad stories, ancient and modern, it paved for me the way towards the real (hor)crux: that it is not the transcendent, but the radical Christian narrative that fits this form so perfectly. It is here in the post-theist reading of the gospels that we see a young man, so troubled in birth, grow up to battle a great foe, realising that it is only in the laying down of his great powers, and his absolute association with the deepest essences of human existence – love and death – that evil will be unmasked and defused.
As Rowling herself said in a commencement address to Harvard students in June 2008, she wrote the books from the depths of her own struggles. ‘Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life.’ To these students with such great power and privilege at their command, she was clear:
‘We do not need magic to transform our world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already.’
That power is no more, and no less, than love for each other. Despite promises to the contrary, the introduction of a divine dimension to this love does not enrich our humanity, but reduces it. This, I believe, is right at the heart of Jesus’ teachings.
It is not that these higher powers do not exist. As I have explained elsewhere, I’m the opposite of atheist: I think that it’s obvious that we are surrounded by forces – whether consumer capitalism or techno-optimism or state-sponsored communism – that impact on us as ‘super-natural demands,’ that lead our behaviours away from kindness and generosity and into something closer to delusion and madness. As we grow we are tempted by their promises, but maturity as human people means appreciating that the most godly thing that we can do is to put these godly drives to death (and do so over and over again as a eucharistic act) in order that we might become more fully human(e).
This is as true for our view of divine good as it is for hellish evil. We cannot simply reject doctrines of hell until we reject the idea of an eternal heavenly paradise too. There will be no magical act to save our world, only our own human agency.
In fact, Rowling performs both deicides in orthodox order: Dumbledore must die before Voldemort can be destroyed, because God must be forsaken before the devil is vanquished. The point about her Potter books is that neither can exist without the other: transcendent good and pure evil are co-created by our desire to overcome death, to escape the human dress, but we must first relinquish the promised prize – heaven – if we are to disempower the idea of hell. To attempt it the other way round simply will not work.
So, three cheers for Potter at 20. They’ve delighted me and my kids and I for one am hugely grateful to Rowling for putting such extraordinary themes in a story cycle that – because it is so deeply rooted in archetype – will be read not for 20 more years, but 200.
You can order After Magic here.
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