The Magic of Words

Harry Potter is not only popular, it is also controversial. One of the controversies surrounding the Harry Potter books concerns the use of magic. As a young wizard, Harry is enrolled in a school where he and his fellow students study transfiguration, charms, spells, potions and divination. They fly on brooms, travel by flying cars and a network of fireplace flues. Magic in the stories is used by both the heroes and the villains, although there are some differences in how and why magic is used by each.

The detractors claim that the use of magic in the story promotes and encourages an unhealthy interest in children towards occult practices. Some have even gone so far as to claim the books are a practical textbook for learning occult practices. Others will admit that the magic in the story is made-up, but feel that it is so intriguing to children that they will seek out real information about the occult as a result. Critics also claim that the use of the same magic by both good and evil characters implies that occult practices are not inherently evil, only evil in their use. On the other side of the debate are those that claim these are merely literary devices, purely mechanical, have nothing to do with occult practices, and are therefore harmless. Both sides of the argument quote heavily from the books to prove their respective positions. So, who is right and who is wrong?

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to resolve this controversy. You might think that a book either does or doesn't promote the occult, that one side of the debate is right and the other wrong. That is too simplistic, however. Interpretation of literature is not as easy as it may seem to be. The words, characters and events in any book, but especially in a work of fantasy, may or may not have a hidden or allegorical meaning. Where and how you attach a symbolic meaning to an element of the story can significantly change the meaning of the story. Likewise, just because a book talks about magic doesn't tell you very much about what the magic in the book implies. You have to decide if the magic is purely literary or contains veiled references to things in the real world. That is a matter of interpretation and involves attaching the pre-existing knowledge of the reader to elements in the story. Although we may not be able to reconcile the differences of opinion, we can come to understand why this controversy exists.

As I am fond of saying, "Words are a funny thing." Any given word can have a variety of meanings and usage. We typically have to discriminate between different meanings of a word by considering the context in which the word is used. For example, "ball" means one thing in reference to sports and something entirely different if we are talking about dancing. Furthermore, any word both denotes (stands in place of something) and has a connotation. We think of a "ballroom" as something fancy and associated with formal dances, but a "disco" as something more mundane and informal, even though both refer to a place where people dance. Some words may even call to mind a complex set of associated ideas. Put another way, when we read a word we form mental associations that are not explicitly stated in the word itself. Because a single word can call to mind a large set of associated ideas, we may read additional meanings into a word whether or not we are consciously aware of doing so.

Words like "witchcraft" and "sorcery" have different meanings and associations depending on the context. In many instances, the word witchcraft calls up the image of fairy tale stories such as Cinderella, Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty. In that usage, witchcraft simply refers to make-believe elements of a story and doesn't have anything to do with reality. At other times, we use the word witchcraft in the sense of an ancient superstition and associate the word with unscientific ignorance. In still other situations, witchcraft may be used metaphorically, as when we say a man is "bewitched" by a beautiful woman. None of these usages have anything to do with the occult and there is no connotation of something inherently corrupt or evil. However, in other instances we use the word witchcraft in reference to occult practices or demonic influences. The connotation in that case is very negative. This connotation is especially strong for people who have had personal experience in the occult, spend a great deal of time studying the occult, or simply have a Biblical world-view. Those with a different background or world-view are much more likely to see the magic in the story as merely entertaining and inventive.

Reading hidden meanings into words is a key aspect of occult practice. The occultists give a hidden, or esoteric, meaning to words, objects and events in addition to the normal, or exoteric, meaning. A person who has been involved in the occult, or made an in-depth study of occult practice has already developed the habit of reading these hidden meanings. It is not surprising then that most of those who see occult meanings in Harry Potter are people who have extensive knowledge of the occult. Their association of witchcraft with the occult is so ingrained that it is difficult for them to see any other association. Despite their claims, this expertise is as much of a hindrance as a benefit. They are far more likely to read in symbolic meanings where they do not actually exist, especially if the words or objects are similar to those used in occult writings.

Although we should just let the story speak for itself without trying to read associations into Harry Potter, that's almost impossible to do because of the eclectic nature of the writing combined with the strong associations that people have with words such as magic and witchcraft. The conflict we are trying to resolve involves not just what is in the book but also what is in the mind of the reader of the book. To better understand this, we have to consider some aspects of human psychology and perception.

There is always a temptation to think that facts are just out there in the world and that we can objectively observe them and rationally draw definitive conclusions from those facts. The idea that "reality" is as much in the mind as in the world will seem strange to those who have never thought about it. However, we carry in the mind a set of assumptions about the world and those assumptions filter our observations while also acting as premises for our reasoning. As a trivial example, would you say the presence of a policeman on a nearby street corner is a good thing or a bad thing? A criminal seeing a policeman on the street corner might become very nervous, while an honest citizen would likely experience a feeling of safety. In more extreme examples, we might not even see something right in front of us because we are not expecting to see it. Anyone who has had to search for a set of misplaced car keys has probably experienced this first hand. Although the keys are in plain sight we don't see them because they are not where we expect them to be.

In addition, there are personality differences that affect the mental process we use in evaluating facts and making decisions. Some people are what psychologists call "judging" in their decision making. They will make associations, eliminate alternatives and quickly reach a judgment based on previous knowledge and experience. A person of this type will likely reach a conclusion about magic by the end of the first Harry Potter book and then use that conclusion to interpret the remaining books. Consequently, any later information that conflicts with the initial assessment will be either misinterpreted or ignored, making it very difficult to get the person to change his mind.

Other personality types are described as "probing" and have a preference for withholding interpretation until as many possible options as can be found are considered. They will want to read far into the books and use much more of the story in making a decision on questions like the use of magic and its potential meaning in and out of the story. Furthermore, a probing type personality is more likely to allow the magic in the books to be unique to the books and not associated with anything else. In extreme cases, the probing personality type may appear ambivalent or unconcerned, while the judging type may seem rigid and obstinate in his thinking.

In philosophical terms, acquiring knowledge involves questions of epistemology and semiotics. How do we know what we know? How much of the knowledge we have is based on objective observation as opposed to prejudices, limitations of perception and reasoning, and other internal mental activity? It is entirely possible that the limits of human perception, thinking and communication can allow different people to hold very different viewpoints without either viewpoint being correct or incorrect in an absolute, objective sense. For example, two observers on opposite sides of an object can both accurately describe what they see even though their descriptions will be different due to each observer's limited field of view. We can also arrive at a wrong conclusion because we do not have all the facts. Given the facts available we make the best possible explanation, but when additional facts become available we may need to change our explanation. However, even when those additional facts are made available, we may reject them as false because we have already formed a mental model that excludes them.

Another way to understand this epistemological problem is to look at the differences between "objective" and "subjective" aspects of knowledge. For example, suppose I take a chair and turn it upside down. Is it still a chair? In an objective sense, the same material and form are present and thus we would say it is still a chair. But in a subjective sense I can no longer sit on the object so the answer would be no. Likewise, is an antique chair in a museum display a "chair" or an "object d'art" since I am not allowed to climb up and sit on it? Looking at the object, we say that we are looking at a chair, but in actuality the material we are looking at is wood, metal, etc. A chair is an abstraction that exists in the mind, not the physical thing. We see the "wood" as a "chair" because it is in a form that we can potentially sit on. We can think of a chair objectively and define it only as material in a certain form. Or, we can think of it subjectively and only call an object a chair if it is something I can actually sit on. We can go one step further and consider a painting of a chair. We still identify the object in the painting as a chair, but it is actually a mere representation and nothing of the material or use of a chair remains, only the visible form. All this talk of chairs is not just some form of sophistry or philosophical "playing around with words." At each stage of change of material, form or context we get farther from or closer to the useful form and the object has varying associations with the abstract idea of a chair. Yet, we use the identical word in all cases.

A similar thing happens when we take something and use it in a work of fiction. The context and the form changes, and this can be considered a change in use. This goes right to the heart of the controversy over Harry Potter. For some people, the mere fact that the magic is incorporated into a fictional story is sufficient to remove any occult reference. That is, the context has changed and therefore the potential use as something occult is eliminated. For others, a change in form of the magic from that used in actual occult practice is sufficient to avoid an implication of occultism. But, for some, the word itself is what is important and any reference at all to witchcraft will be considered a reference to the occult.

This conflict between observed facts and preconceived ideas in the mind becomes especially problematic when we are dealing with potentially symbolic language such as that used in allegorical literature. In the case of a classic allegory such as John Bunyon's The Pilgrim's Progress, the allegory is easy to see due to the use of names such as Christian, Faithful, Hopeful, etc. When the metaphors are not obvious, it is not so easy to establish the allegory or to even be sure that an allegorical meaning is intended. For example, the headmaster of Hogwarts is named Dumbledore, an Old English word for a bumblebee. The bumblebee can be used as a symbol of some character trait, or it could be a hidden reference to some other symbolic use of bumblebees, but it could also be used just because "Dumbledore" is an interesting word. That leaves open the question of whether or not we should try to read some symbolism into the name of the headmaster. In this case we know the answer because the author has explicitly stated why she used that name. Rowling stated that the name Dumbledore "seemed to suit the headmaster, because one of his passions is music and I imagined him walking around humming to himself."

When the allegory is not explicit, the reader must supply the metaphor to the story in order to read it as allegory. If we do apply symbolic meaning to a word, device or character, we have to be aware that we may be supplying the symbolism to the story from our own minds. The danger, then, is that someone who tends to read symbolic meanings into words may very easily read them into a story when it is not appropriate to do so. If a word or object is used in the story that has a well-known association, the temptation is even stronger.

Desire and how it affects our perceptions is one of the themes in Harry Potter. In The Sorcerer's Stone the mysterious "Mirror of Erised" plays a key role in the plot. In case you didn't notice, "Erised" is "Desire" spelled backwards. As the reversed inscription on the mirror states, "I show not your face but your heart's desire." When Dumbledore finds Harry staring into the mirror he warns him, "this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible." In many ways, a work of literature can become like the "Mirror of Erised." We often see in a story what we desire to see, but a mere reflection of our own desires does not give us knowledge or truth. If we want to get to the truth about a story, we have to put aside preconceptions and let the story speak for itself. That requires that we start with a literary assessment of the book and not a prejudiced response to the words that are used.

The eclectic and complex writing in Harry Potter combined with the various meanings attached to words like "witchcraft" are the primary reasons for all this debate. The story has so many ideas and archetypical images embedded in it that a reader or reviewer can extract the part they find interesting and then use Harry Potter as a starting point for discussion. That diversity is also part of the appeal of the books. Because there are so many elements to the story, the books can appeal to a broad range of readers and be used to initiate discussion of a wide variety of topics. Rowling has created an amazing literary cafeteria where the reader can pick and choose the items that are most interesting while leaving the rest behind and still have a full plate of ideas to chew on.

To those who would debate Harry Potter, I suggest that you consider this carefully. Rowling has given you a book that you can use to talk about the things you want to talk about. But this is equally true of those who hold an opposite view. Each has seen in the books references to issues that are of concern and can use the books as a starting point for discussion. This is part of the true "magic" of Harry Potter.


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