Fantasy and Reality


A work of fiction, in one way or another, represents the realities of the historical period the author lives in. After all, an author must ultimately write about what he knows and has experienced. This is true of any historical period. We can see the ancient Greek world in Homer, Medieval Europe in Chaucer and Dante, and Victorian England in Dickens. Literature can show us the structures of everyday life such as social relationships, architecture, technology, commerce, religion, politics and even geography. But, in addition, literature will express the prevalent ideologies of the period in which it was written. There may be more than one ideology in competition at the time, and the author may only express one particular viewpoint. Nevertheless, when we look at any work of literature we see a reflection of the age in which it was written. Living within the contemporary world, a contemporary author will in one way or another reflect the world we live in.

This reflection of humanity by literature is every bit as present in fantasy stories as it is in realistic fiction. This may seem like a strange idea at first, and there is a major difference between the two. However, what both realism and fantasy share in common is the ability to express the world-view of the age in some abstract form. Where they differ is in the objects, characters and places of the story. Realism in fiction must limit itself to using the actual things of our world. Although any author has some artistic license that will allow him to alter everyday objects and real places, there is a limit to how far the author can get from the actual attributes of real things before the story becomes unbelievable to the reader. However, in a fantasy story the writer can invent or adapt places, people and objects and incorporate them into the story without concern for conflict with the real world. As long as the places and things are consistent within the context of the story, the reader will be able to accept them without objection.

Thus, one of the advantages of fantasy literature is that the author can invent any form of magic he desires in order to add interest or help the story's plot. Because the magic is always invented to some extent, and the magic in one story may be completely different from the magic in another, the magic in each work of fantasy has to be considered on its own. For example, in A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K Le Guin, a young boy discovers he has an ability to do magic and subsequently goes to a Wizard's school to improve his knowledge. That story beginning is similar to Harry Potter, but beyond that slight similarity the two works have almost nothing in common. The magic in Earthsea is very different than the magic in Harry Potter and the events of the stories take place in very different worlds.

In addition to inventing magic, an author can borrow ideas from other writers and adapt them to his own stories. Borrowing mythical creatures and symbols and transforming them in the context of a new story is nothing new and myth makers of all ages have done this very thing. Part of what is interesting about Harry Potter is that Rowling borrows terminology, creatures and magical devices from so many other sources and then blends her own inventions in with them. As Rowling has stated,


...[L]et's say ninety-five percent, at least, of the magic in the books, is entirely invented by me. And I've used things from folklore, and I've used bits of what people used to believe worked, magically, just to add a certain flavor - but I've always twisted them to suit my own ends; I mean I've taken liberties with folklore to suit my plot.1

Consequently, her story contains one of the most eclectic uses of magic you will ever read. It isn't always clear when the magic behaves the same as where it was borrowed from, or if it has been adapted and changed to fit the Harry Potter world. Sometimes the magic in Harry Potter mimics the traditional fairy tale, sometimes it borrows from ancient mythology, while at other times the magic is more like high-technology similar to what would be used in a science fiction story. Sometimes the magic is humorous and sometimes it is very serious. Sometimes the magic is purely mechanical, sometimes it involves ghosts and goblins, while at other times the magic involves the will power of the Wizard. In one of the most dramatic scenes in the books, Voldemort conducts a type of blood ritual in order to restore his body to life. On top of all that, in the world of Harry Potter, the magic doesn't always work. A spell can go wrong, or a device can get damaged, and produce a result that is quite different than what the Wizard intended.

The world of Harry Potter is also a blend of realism, adaptation and invention. A typical fairy tale takes place in a magical world that is completely separate from our world, or at least placed so far in the past or so far away that it has nothing to do with our world. For example, Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings takes place in a mythical place known only as Middle Earth, Le Guin's Earthsea is a completely invented world that is distinct from our own, while Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia takes place in parallel worlds. Rowling's invented world is unlike any of these. As Rowling stated in an interview, the world of Harry Potter is "like the real world in a very distorted mirror. We're not going off to a different planet, we're not going through timewarps. It is a fantastic world that has to live shoulder-by-shoulder with the real world."2 

Her eclectic blend of fantasy and reality is like our own world with a magical element added to it. Often reviewers try to compare and contrast Harry Potter with The Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia, but a better comparison would be with the world of Gulliver in Gulliver's Travels. The world of Harry Potter is closer to a parody than a pure sub-creation typical of fantasy stories and that affects how we analyze and interpret the story.

An interesting idea to consider is that the very form of the story is somehow a reflection of our world. Before considering that, I will digress for a moment and look at what some critics have had to say.

The blend of realism, historical magic, and invention causes some of the confusion and argument about Harry Potter. Because the magic in Harry Potter is so eclectic, any analysis of what the magic means and whether it should be considered an analog to something real, such as the occult, is extremely difficult. The unfortunate result is that critics can select quotations that will fit the theory they want to promote and seem to make a solid, well founded argument. Their opponents can do the same, but argue for the exact opposite conclusions. But, if you take all of the magic together, neither side of the debate can explain all of it with one single, simple interpretation.

Unfortunately, the critics' evaluations of the magic are even more confusing than the eclectic blend of witchcraft in the Harry Potter books. A typical example of the interpretation used in arguments made against Harry Potter is in Richard Abanes' book, Harry Potter and the Bible. In chapter two Abanes writes,

Rowling seamlessly weaves into her novels countless references to ancient and modern occultism, sometimes hiding them in people's names or disguising them in minor characters. Such inclusions certainly do not teach the precise doctrines of witchcraft, nor do they explicitly instruct children to purchase a step-by-step guide to Wicca. But the allusions could easily stir a child's curiosity about occultism--perhaps enough for that child to one day dabble in it.3

First, notice that Abanes states that what is blended in is "occultism." That's a negatively loaded term, and it would be more appropriate to simply call it "magic" until we have decided whether or not it truly is occult. The implication is that the magic in the story is somehow linked to actual occult practice, yet Abanes admits that the magic in the book does not instruct children in the occult. It's difficult to see the reasoning here. As best as I can tell, Abanes, like every other critic I have seen, attempts to make a slippery slope argument, claiming that the magic in Harry Potter, although fictional, is so close to actual occult practice that it will lead children into the occult. However, a slippery slope argument only works when there is an inevitable connection between the first element (the book) and the second (occult practice). The more tenuous that relationship becomes, the weaker the argument is. At some point the association is so weak that the argument is reduced to mere rhetoric. Stating that the books do not actually "teach precise doctrines of witchcraft"comes close to destroying the whole argument.

In order to make the claim that the books' description of witchcraft will lead children to "dabble" in the occult, the critics usually fall back on anecdotal claims of children becoming interested in witchcraft after reading the books. However, that same approach works in reverse. We can point to the millions of readers who did not develop any interest in the occult and conclude that the books are harmless. We also have to keep in mind that children often learn by imitation and engage in dress-up, make-believe, etc. A child getting a robe and pointy hat and waving a stick around is simply doing what children typically do. However, that type of imitation is combined with a form of negative reinforcement. The child waving a "wand" around and yelling out Latin words is not going to produce any magical effect. Thus, the child learns that the magic in Harry Potter isn't real, not the other way around. This type of play-acting is a far cry from a real interest in the occult. Even adults like to play at dress-up sometimes; we simply call it a costume party. Fantasy is part of our reality, we might say, and there is no inherent danger in play acting.

Other critics fall back on an appeal to authority. The authority we are supposed to trust is the critic, of course. Thus you see critics present their credentials as an expert on the occult, the New Age, paganism, or even as a prior practitioner of witchcraft, and on that basis simply declare that Harry Potter teaches occult practices. But, such arguments don't provide any basis for believing that the critic has understood the literary form and themes of the story. Nor do they provide any proof that the critic hasn't simply read his own ideas into the work.

Abanes and others have also tried to make a comparison between Harry Potter and other fantasy stories, such as The Lord of the Rings, with the intent of showing that the magic in Harry Potter is different and therefore dangerous and inappropriate for children. Usually this is done in response to arguments claiming that other fantasy literature containing witches and wizards is not considered harmful. Both the argument and counter argument are irrelevant, however. For the purposes of literary analysis and history of fantasy writing, that type of comparison might be interesting and useful. However, the moral themes of a story are dependent on the situation and choices of the characters and not simply any particular literary devices. To compare one type of fantasy story magic to another for purposes of determining the story's moral themes and potential value is inappropriate and invalid. The magic only makes sense within the context of the particular story and the moral themes of each work of fantasy must be evaluated independently as well.

Abanes' and other's critiques are based on a questionable literary analysis. There is no discussion or even apparent understanding of either the literary devices or form of the story. In the remainder of chapter two, and in many subsequent chapters, Abanes lays elements of the Harry Potter story alongside quotations from books on magic and the occult, going to great lengths to show how the elements in the story are related to historical accounts of witchcraft, legend, and alchemy. The assumption in that type of analysis is that it is valid to compare the elements in the stories with real, historical objects and people. In other words, Abanes and others like him treat the magical elements as if they are an example of literary realism, not fantasy. But these types of comparisons alone only demonstrate that Rowling did good research. As previously stated, although Rowling lifted ideas from many different places and incorporated them into the story, she has changed them to suit her own purposes. That implies a fantasy form, not realism. Placing quotations from different writings along side each other without also claiming the work is an example of literary realism, is a naive, simplistic and questionable approach to analysis of literature, tantamount to arguing guilt by association. Such an approach tells us nothing of how the story uses the magic, reflects the world we live in, or the true intent of the author. It does create a kind of "fantasy" that the critic has found something dreadful.

How, then, are we to understand the use of magic in the books? It seems that if the reader believes that witchcraft is only superstition, or, disassociates the story elements from actual historical witchcraft, they will never conclude that the story has anything in common with the occult. But, if the reader believes the practice of witchcraft is real and cannot disassociate the terminology in the book from actual practice, he will see the book as dangerous literary realism cloaked as fantasy. Once again, we seem to have reached an impasse of ambiguous and conflicting interpretation.

When we keep running into an impasse like this, it is time to stop and re-ask the question. We only get answers to the questions we ask, and how we ask the question affects the answer we get. Rather than asking if the witchcraft in Harry Potter has something to do with the occult, we should ask the simpler and more useful question, "What form does the story employ?" And, an even more interesting (and possibly related) question, "What does Harry Potter reflect about the world we live in?"

Children born since 1980 have never lived in a world without micro-computers. Children born since 1990 have never known a world without the Internet. The changes in our world that these two technologies have created are enormous. Knowledge today is becoming less and less tangible and more and more virtual. Computer simulation has reached the point where it is often difficult to tell what is "real" and what is not. If you can imagine something you can probably program it into a computer. You can take scanned images, manipulate them on the computer and produce an image that puts real things into a completely imagined context, and vice versa. You can program simulated devices that operate in a manner that violates all known laws of physics. Open a computer and you will not find any file folders, documents, or financial records. Yet we speak of those things as being on or in the computer. In other words, we increasingly live in a world that is a blend of virtual and physical, simulation and reality. We indeed live in a world where fantasy resides side-by-side with reality, just as in Harry Potter.

Current computer simulation is a continuation of a trend that started over a century ago with the invention of photography followed by the development of moving pictures. With the ability to capture an image and then process and reprint that image, it became possible to alter the normal world and yet make it appear real. Today we may consider early cinematic effects primitive, but even those early effects began to call into question what is real and what is fantasy. With reliance on radio then television and video for facts about the world we live in, our knowledge of what is real begins to depend more and more on trust that we are not being manipulated with invented images. In our world today it is increasingly difficult to state categorically that something is real as opposed to virtual.

To reiterate, and avoid any possible misunderstanding, what I am referring to is the form (and genre) of Harry Potter, not the content. What the literary form reflects is a world of magic and non-magic together. Rowling could have chosen to use realism as the form of the books and avoided any use of magic. Likewise, she could have written a straight fantasy story and removed any doubt that the elements of the story are invented. By blending the two forms, she has created a difficult problem for interpreters of the books. We cannot simply label every object or character in the books as real and proceed to interpret on that basis. Neither can we treat all the elements as fantasy and arbitrarily attach some allegorical meaning. This leaves interpreters arguing over which elements in the story should be considered real and which fantasy.

That is precisely the type of problem encountered in the arguments over Harry Potter. When we try to ask if the witchcraft in Harry Potter is a portrayal of real occult witchcraft, it is like asking if an object in a computer game is real or not. Within the context of the game, the object certainly acts real and may even be modeled on a physical object. However, the reality of the object within the game, no matter how accurate the simulation, is not the same reality as a physical object. But if the object in the simulation looks and acts identically to the real thing, we may conclude it is something real even when it is simulated. Confusing, isn't it?

The only way we can honestly handle this situation is to be very careful when interpreting the themes in Harry Potter. We have to make sure that we don't get caught up in arguments that are based on trying to categorize the elements of the story as to which are real and which are invented. We can look at the magic in the story solely in terms of literary purpose without any problem. We can analyze the actions of the characters and see how they express moral ideals. We can even create analogies about the relationships of the actions of the characters to the elements of magic in the stories. But, because the line that divides the realism and the fantasy is vague, we must be very careful when claiming that any one object is inherently the same as something in our world.

Considering all of this together, Harry Potter presents an interesting reflection of the world we live in. It is a reflection of our world, not because the magic can somehow be compared to occult practice past or present, but rather because the eclectic blend of fantasy and realism is not all that different from the high-tech world we live in. Our world truly is a blend of fantasy and reality.


1. Harry Potter and Me , BBC Christmas Special, December 28, 2001,

Transcription at

2. Harry Potter and Me

3. Richard Abanes, Harry Potter and the Bible , p. 24.




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