The magic of Harry Potter

Magic is in the air again.  In two days, a new Harry Potter book; in four months, a new Harry Potter movie. And while the bookstores and theaters are being mobbed, some of us will wonder what the fuss is all about.

A few years ago, tired of being the only person in the country who hadn't looked into an HP book, I borrowed and read the first three.  I was delighted.  These are the sort of undemandingly entertaining books that are vulgarly called "a good read".  They are reasonably well written, the characters are well defined and believable, and the plots have sudden wild twists that are truly ingenious.

Even so, the HP books are not in a league with juvenile classics like Kim, The Wind in the Willows, or Alice in Wonderland——nor even as good as the classics of my children's childhood, such as The Phantom Tollbooth or The Mouse and His Child.  Why then this incredible storm of popularity, among adults as well as children?

After due reflection, I have concluded that the magic of Harry Potter is—the magic.

Why We Need Magic

Most societies regard any phenomena that they do not understand as "magic".   Or they imagine invisible agencies and invent secret rituals in the hope of accomplishing what they cannot do with their natural powers. Therefore, belief in magic generally flourishes among the primitive and impoverished.  

It is dismaying to think that we high—tech Americans, who are regarded as indecently fortunate by everyone else in the world, should feel the need for magical betterment.   But apparently, having rejected God and having lost confidence in our ourselves and our society, we have nothing else to turn to. 

Surely, you have noticed our society's morbid preoccupation with magic.  Think of shows like Charmed, Buffy, Spiderman, X—men — all based on the magical attainment of superhuman powers.  Think of the swarms of psychic readers and astrologers, the UFO and "unexplained mystery" cults, and the New Age fads promising to unlock the mystical powers abiding within us. Our futuristic movies, that once celebrated the possibilities of real technology, are now thinly disguised displays of magic.  Our 'reality' TV shows such as Extreme Makeover are reenactments of Cinderella, with the networks waving their magic wands to transform the lives of unhappy people. When conventional medicines fail us, we turn to herbal remedies because, as a pharmacologist said recently on PBS, 'People want a magic bullet and they want it now.'  And when all else fails, we read Harry Potter for vicarious magic.

This craze has bypassed the classics of magical fiction because, I think, those classics warn of the difficulties.  The greatest — Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn and Thurber's Thirteen Clocks — portray magic as both funny and dangerous, a disturbing combination.  Ursula K. LeGiunn's Earthsea trilogy depicts magic as so perilous and taxing that it's used only when necessary.  Dickens' Magic Fishbone says it explicitly: magic is a last resort, to be used only when every other effort has failed.  And that clashes with the public's desire that magic be abundant and easy, just as in the Harry Potter books.

Beyond Magic

Another selling point of the HP books is their earnestness.  One feels that the author, whom I'm told is a follower of Wicca*, really believes in magic as our only hope.  This may explain why religion is absolutely ignored — an omission that brings a sigh of relief to politically correct public school librarians but that deeply disturbs many parents. 

But even so, the HP books have a higher moral code than most current fiction.  They extol virtues such as courage, loyalty, honesty, and the renunciation of revenge.  They preach the power of candor by mocking everyone's horror when Harry boldly speaks of  Voldemort by name instead of saying "You—Know—Who".  It is a sober truth that all euphemisms, like "ethnic cleansing", "termination of pregnancy", or "put to sleep", are evil verbal evasions that attempt to put an attractive facade on an ugly fact. Rowling does us a service by reminding us of this. 

Perhaps the most profound moment comes in the first HP book, when the five—hundred—year—old Flamards destroy their sorcerer's stone, which confers immortality and wealth, to prevent it from falling into evil hands.  It is hard to imagine anyone rejecting immortality in favor of suffering and death for the sake of others.  And yet, one dark night long ago in a garden of olives, a man did make that choice, thereby unleashing the greatest and truest magic this world has ever known.

The Washington Post has reported that J.K. Rowling and her daughter Jessica belonged to the Church of Scotland, in which Jessica was Christened

Paul Shlichta is a research scientist who is currently writing a Manual of Methods for dealing with ideas, people, business, and everyday life.

Magic is in the air again.  In two days, a new Harry Potter book; in four months, a new Harry Potter movie. And while the bookstores and theaters are being mobbed, some of us will wonder what the fuss is all about.

A few years ago, tired of being the only person in the country who hadn't looked into an HP book, I borrowed and read the first three.  I was delighted.  These are the sort of undemandingly entertaining books that are vulgarly called "a good read".  They are reasonably well written, the characters are well defined and believable, and the plots have sudden wild twists that are truly ingenious.

Even so, the HP books are not in a league with juvenile classics like Kim, The Wind in the Willows, or Alice in Wonderland——nor even as good as the classics of my children's childhood, such as The Phantom Tollbooth or The Mouse and His Child.  Why then this incredible storm of popularity, among adults as well as children?

After due reflection, I have concluded that the magic of Harry Potter is—the magic.

Why We Need Magic

Most societies regard any phenomena that they do not understand as "magic".   Or they imagine invisible agencies and invent secret rituals in the hope of accomplishing what they cannot do with their natural powers. Therefore, belief in magic generally flourishes among the primitive and impoverished.  

It is dismaying to think that we high—tech Americans, who are regarded as indecently fortunate by everyone else in the world, should feel the need for magical betterment.   But apparently, having rejected God and having lost confidence in our ourselves and our society, we have nothing else to turn to. 

Surely, you have noticed our society's morbid preoccupation with magic.  Think of shows like Charmed, Buffy, Spiderman, X—men — all based on the magical attainment of superhuman powers.  Think of the swarms of psychic readers and astrologers, the UFO and "unexplained mystery" cults, and the New Age fads promising to unlock the mystical powers abiding within us. Our futuristic movies, that once celebrated the possibilities of real technology, are now thinly disguised displays of magic.  Our 'reality' TV shows such as Extreme Makeover are reenactments of Cinderella, with the networks waving their magic wands to transform the lives of unhappy people. When conventional medicines fail us, we turn to herbal remedies because, as a pharmacologist said recently on PBS, 'People want a magic bullet and they want it now.'  And when all else fails, we read Harry Potter for vicarious magic.

This craze has bypassed the classics of magical fiction because, I think, those classics warn of the difficulties.  The greatest — Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn and Thurber's Thirteen Clocks — portray magic as both funny and dangerous, a disturbing combination.  Ursula K. LeGiunn's Earthsea trilogy depicts magic as so perilous and taxing that it's used only when necessary.  Dickens' Magic Fishbone says it explicitly: magic is a last resort, to be used only when every other effort has failed.  And that clashes with the public's desire that magic be abundant and easy, just as in the Harry Potter books.

Beyond Magic

Another selling point of the HP books is their earnestness.  One feels that the author, whom I'm told is a follower of Wicca*, really believes in magic as our only hope.  This may explain why religion is absolutely ignored — an omission that brings a sigh of relief to politically correct public school librarians but that deeply disturbs many parents. 

But even so, the HP books have a higher moral code than most current fiction.  They extol virtues such as courage, loyalty, honesty, and the renunciation of revenge.  They preach the power of candor by mocking everyone's horror when Harry boldly speaks of  Voldemort by name instead of saying "You—Know—Who".  It is a sober truth that all euphemisms, like "ethnic cleansing", "termination of pregnancy", or "put to sleep", are evil verbal evasions that attempt to put an attractive facade on an ugly fact. Rowling does us a service by reminding us of this. 

Perhaps the most profound moment comes in the first HP book, when the five—hundred—year—old Flamards destroy their sorcerer's stone, which confers immortality and wealth, to prevent it from falling into evil hands.  It is hard to imagine anyone rejecting immortality in favor of suffering and death for the sake of others.  And yet, one dark night long ago in a garden of olives, a man did make that choice, thereby unleashing the greatest and truest magic this world has ever known.

The Washington Post has reported that J.K. Rowling and her daughter Jessica belonged to the Church of Scotland, in which Jessica was Christened

Paul Shlichta is a research scientist who is currently writing a Manual of Methods for dealing with ideas, people, business, and everyday life.