Crossing the line

Do you want your children to identify with a sorcerer?

Issue: "Enron's collapse," Jan. 26, 2002

Much of the debate concerning the harry Potter books and movie has missed the point. The problem is not the presence of wizards; fantasy characters have often lived among sorcerers. The problem is that J.K. Rowling has created a character who truly goes where fairy tales have never gone before: Harry, the character every child reader identifies with, the character every child internalizes, is a sorcerer. Ms. Rowling's innovation becomes clear when we compare her work to J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle, or even L. Frank Baum with his Oz books. In Tolkien, the great wizards Gandalf, Radagast, and Saruman are maiar, angels. The heroes, hobbits, are homey creatures who like nothing more than a good meal, a warm fire, and friends to share tales and songs with, but rise with great courage when confronted with evil. In Lewis, the children remain children, though children who have experienced more reality than most. In L'Engle, Meg, Sandy and Dennys, and Charles Wallace are children, exceptional ones but still children. In Baum, Dorothy is a child and stays one. The importance of crossing the line that Ms. Rowling crosses lies in what we understand sorcery to be. In "The Decline of Religion" C.S. Lewis wrote that we live in a time when middle things, innocent things, are gone, the Round Table is broken, and we must follow either good or evil, Galahad or Mordred. In That Hideous Strength, the last novel of Lewis's Space Trilogy, Merlin plays a major role. He is a middle thing, last of the white magicians, last of those whose power comes from Good. It is important that he be found because the bad guys want to get to him first to put his magic to their evil purposes. Middle things, white magic, are going fast. As sociologist Peter Berger pointed out in The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, we in the West live drenched in a mindset that denies the reality of the supernatural, both good and evil. He suggests that believers in the West have, for the most part, either rejected that understanding by creating safe enclaves into which to withdraw, or have adapted to that mindset by translating their faith into terms acceptable to the materialists. In failing to see the dangers in Harry Potter we adapt to the materialist view. We overlook the reality of black magic and put our children in spiritual danger by saying, implicitly, that it is safe to be a sorcerer. The Harry Potter books are hardly alone in mainstreaming the occult. Sadly, they are part of a literary trend that desensitizes children to the real power of witches and wizards, spells and potions, while denying the reality of any other kind of religion. Check children's literature texts, the poems of Jack Prelutsky, the children's section at Borders, or magazines from Muse to Cricket. You won't find many Bible stories or even stories that deal with life's struggles from the vantage point of Jewish, Christian, or even Confucian morality. You will find tales of sorcerers, spells, and wizards. It's not likely that Elizabeth George Speare's The Bronze Bow, a story of children in the time of Christ, could win the Newbery Award today as it did in the 1950s. Lewis predicted our predicament. After regretting that devils presently must conceal themselves, Screwtape says that when humans don't believe in them, devils lose the fun of terror and make no magicians. But, when humans do believe, devils cannot make them materialists and skeptics. So, he hopes devils will learn "how to emotionalize and mythologize their science" to the extent that humans will believe in devils under another name while still denying God. "If once we can produce our perfect work," Screwtape exults, "the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls 'Forces' while denying the existence of 'spirits'-then the end of the war will be in sight." Sorcery in our time is not a middle thing, as Lewis knew all too well. If we stand in the biblical tradition and assert the reality of the supernatural, we must also stand with Lewis and Tolkien and assert that part of the supernatural is not up to any good. Ms. Rowling has taught children not merely that sorcery exists-so have many writers-but that it is good and right to imagine themselves practicing it. Parents need to assert that sorcery is not a game made safe by young, appealing sorcerers who make what appear to be proper moral choices. The line from seeing sorcery to seeing ourselves as sorcerers is not a line our children should cross.

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