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It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill.
Lord Elrond in The Lord of the Rings

Joanne Rowling has written four books for children detailing the adventures of the young character, Harry Potter[1], an orphan of murdered wizard parents who died that he might live.  Each book tells the story of Harry's schooling in successive years.  The school is no normal school but one for young wizards and witches.  It is called Hogwarts and is situated somewhere in the north of England.  Harry proves himself a hero in each of the four books, especially in the last where he engages in a duel (with wands) with the evil lord Voldemort.  He is made more appealing by suffering for a time from a lack of recognition by his peers for his achievements.  The plots of the four stories have been set out in detail elsewhere[2].  Shortly, they deal with the continuing attempts by the evil lord Voldemort to return to the power he once enjoyed over the magic community.  Voldemort killed Harry's parents when he was a baby and tried to kill Harry too but Harry had some special potency which protected him.  Voldemort sees Harry as the only obstacle to his return to power and each book details his further endeavours to kill him.  Harry bears the scar of the attempt on his life on his forehead and this marks him as someone special in the magic community.

It is asserted that the books have brought many boys and girls back to reading and there is much in them which makes for good reading.  Almost every chapter provides a fresh adventure or mystery.  There are plenty of imaginary beasts, secret passages and novel solutions to problems to enthral.

There is pathos in Harry's longing to know something of his father and mother.  This is reinforced in the paternal care for him manifested by the head of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore, and by the putative villain, Sirius Black, who had been a friend of Harry's murdered father and who, it transpires, was falsely imprisoned for his murder.  Black turns out to be Harry's 'godfather'.

The plots and subplots are always credible and lead to denouements which satify, if occasionally lacking in logic.  Both the edifice on which the stories are constructed and their plots show evidence of great forethought.  Names and facts thrown off in earlier volumes assume significance in later ones.  There is coherence in each book and between each of the four books.  The writer proves remarkably inventive in constructing a world far removed from the world of reality--persons shown in pictures and photos wave or even speak to the viewer; letters are delivered each day by owls rather than by postmen; devices such as the Invisibility Cloak and the Time-Turner serve to help her hero out of trouble; there is episodic speech of long dead figures to inspire him; the school sport, Quidditch, is played on broomsticks with four different balls and three goal posts at each end of the pitch; and there are no less than three different devices for transporting oneself from one place to another without the need for conventional means of transport.

Rowling uses the half revealed fact, hint and innuendo to raise tension.  She resolves these generally in a manner which satisfies.  There is mystery to entrance and the solutions have an intricacy rivalling those of Agatha Christie.  There are heroes and villains; villains who turn out to be heroes; heroes who turn out to be villains.  The heroes as well as the villains have their defects--more than one would like.

There is intellectual satisfaction for the reader.  Those with some knowledge of Latin and French are able to appreciate words, mottos and tags which exemplify their derivations.  Names frequently provide a clue to the quality of the character involved.  The name of the arch villain, Voldemort, means 'delight in death'; of the odious Malfoy family, 'bad faith'; 'Morsmordre' (L. mors, death + mordere, to bite) is the invocation of an evil clique called the Death Eaters.  Professor Lupin (L. adj. lupinus, pertaining to a wolf) is a were-wolf and the sport played on broomsticks, Quidditch, is probably a corruption of quid iste--meaning, 'what is this'.  They are also in a position to translate the motto of the Hogwarts school--Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus.

There is internal logic to reward the investigator in the terms the author uses, eg, mandragora, salamander, basilisk, phoenix, cockatrice.  The black dog which stands for the character Sirius Black recalls the dog-star; the animal under whose form another hides is named Pettigrew (a combination of petty [Fr. petit, small] and gruesome).  In fact there is much play on words.  The house of the young villains in the school is called Slytherin (sly therein).  In The Philosopher's Stone a mirror (the mirror of desire) is described with its message back to front.  In The Chamber of Secrets the character T.M. Riddle reveals himself with an anagram--Tom Marvolo Riddle becomes I am Lord Voldemort.

There is good characterisation revealed through conversation as, for instance, in Hagrid, the bumbling and loveable giant school gamekeeper, in Sir Cadogan, one of the magic door keepers, and in the oppressed house elves.  Regrettably, characterisation descends in many instances to caricaturisation for reasons of the author which I will endeavour to unfold.

There is humour.  'Scars can be useful,' says the father figure, Albus Dumbledore, near the beginning of the first book.  'I have one above my left knee which is a complete map of the London Underground.'  The dragon raised by Hagrid is described as a 'Norwegian Ridgeback'.  The Whomping Willow is a tree which lays about it trying to flatten anyone who approaches.  One of the characters in The Goblet of Fire wishes to import a flying carpet for general sale into England as 'a family vehicle'.  Another recalls that his grandfather had 'an Axminster which could seat twelve'.  The repartée of the picture door keepers of the magic doors with those who want to come in or out is always diverting.  The text is lifted by the occasional use of figures of speech as when the young heroine, Hermione, is described as 'wearing a dressing gown and a dirty look'.

The Harry Potter stories are a true feast of reading entertainment.  It is no wonder that they have enthralled so many of the young and of the not so young.  Yet for all that is attractive and good in them there is much that is unfitting, much that is coarse and repulsive.  Moreover there is something insidious, like a polluted stream, sometimes on the surface but more often underground, running through each of the tales.

Magic & Sorcery

The first and fundamental problem with the stories is their setting in an imaginary world of magic and sorcery.

All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others--even if this were for the sake of restoring their health--are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion.  These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons.  Wearing charms is also reprehensible.

Catechism of the Catholic Church n.2117

The sin involved in magic and sorcery is against the first commandment--I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before Me--and contradicts the honour, respect and loving fear that we owe to God alone.  It encompasses all forms of divination, recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to unveil the future.  Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance and recourse to mediums--all conceal a desire for power over time, history and other human beings as well as to wish to conciliate hidden powers [cf Catechism of the Catholic Church nn. 2110, 2116 and 2138].

Now the reader of stories about magic and sorcery is not himself engaged in that sin.  There is some justification, then, in the comment--'It's only a book and the readers know that the stories are only imaginary.'  But there are dangers involved in familiarity with what is so perilous to the soul, especially for those who have no belief in God, for as Chesterton remarked, he who ceases to believe in God can believe in anything.

There have been four books written so far.  The author has proposed a total of seven which will make the set a sort of saga rivalling C.S. Lewis's Narnia series and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.  Had the story of Harry Potter been a single book like Roald Dahl's Matilda, about a little girl with preternatural powers, it might have been passed over.  But Rowling seems bent on making a statement about the licitness of wizardry and witchcraft and encouraging her young readers to empathy with her views.  The problems which appear in bud form in the first volume have increased with each successive volume.

Everything the child reads feeds the imagination and the intellect and is open to move the will.  Exempla trahunt--example attracts, example teaches.  Even though the stories deal with an imaginary world, the system of values and mores they impart has its effect on the reader.  True, the discerning reader will see through many of the defects.  But children, by definition, have yet to learn full discernment--which is why they have parents.  And there are adults who never properly develop that discernment.  There are evils described in these stories which are accurate reproductions of diabolical phenomena.  There is, moreover, anecdotal evidence that those who have previously been involved in occult activities find the Harry Potter stories highly disturbing[3].

The reason the Church warns us so comprehensively about magic and sorcery is that one who attempts to tame occult powers in fact subjects himself to those powers.  The sin involved is the sin of pride.  God has made us to live in the natural world.  He gives us natural powers.  Those powers have limitations.  He intends us to live according to those limitations.  One who by magic or sorcery seeks to exceed those limitations seeks to elevate himself beyond the station in which God has placed him.  The one involved in magic and sorcery thinks himself possessed of a secret (and higher) knowledge not given to other mortals.  It is this asserted higher knowledge which is the underlying theme of the Harry Potter stories and the possession of each of its characters.  This attitude of mind is called gnosticism.

Gnosticism, Esoteria--the Revelation of Things Hidden

Although the setting of the stories replicates that of a boarding school, what is involved is not education, the development of the rational mind, but the opening to the student of the hidden mysteries of the cabal--esoteria, secret knowledge to which the neophyte must be exposed step by step.  The revelation of secret knowledge is characteristic of every association in which the Devil's influence is involved.  It is characteristic of Freemasonry which Pope Leo XIII called 'the synagogue of Satan'.

The neophyte at Hogwarts must undergo certain rituals.  The first of these, a sort of rite of initiation for all first year students, is the crossing of the lake to the school.  This must occur regardless of the state of the weather [The Prisoner of Azkaban 68].  Next is 'the Sorting Ceremony', where an inanimate object, a hat with a voice, determines the school house the neophyte wizard or witch is to join.  In The Goblet of Fire at 157 the hat sings a song which ends like this--

'Now slip me snug between your ears,
I've never yet been wrong,
I'll have a look inside your mind
And tell where you belong!'

This smacks of phrenology, an activity in which the operator reads the mind of the subject by allegedly feeling the bumps on his head.  It is an activity in which the Devil is known to be involved.

There is another instance of an inanimate object determining fate, the Goblet of Fire, which appears in the fourth volume.  It selects the student champions to take part in the Triwizard Tournament.  'The placing of your name in the Goblet constitutes a binding magical contract,' says school head Albus Dumbledore.  'There can be no change of heart once you have become champion.'  This is typical of the esoteric commitment demanded by Freemasons of their neophytes.  The commitment is irrevocable and it is to something whose scope is unknown.

Magic as a Literary Trope--Magic and Magic

There are two sorts of literary magic--the fairy tale variety and the occult.  There are two different genres.   Dr Susan Moore acknowledges the distinction in her article, The Harry Potter Craze, published in Annals Australasia in September 2001[4].  The fairy tale variety is a legitimate literary device, and has been around at least since the Mediaeval Romances.  It provides an escape into the imaginary, as diversion, to ease the burden of life, to rest a while.  It is part of recreation.

The occult variety of literary magic was formerly universally acknowledged as evil because the world was Catholic.  The Protestant Revolt removed the commonality of abhorrence for the Devil and all his works and in time this manifested itself in its qualified acceptance.  Michael O'Brien summarises the position--

In the late 19th century there appeared in children's fiction a trickle of books that began the process of redefining Christian symbols and the presentation of occult themes in a favorable light.  Until then, witches and sorcerers--important elements of traditional fables and fairy tales--were consistently portrayed as evil.  With the advent of the occult revival (which entered the West primarily through certain British writers involved in esoteric religion) more and more material appeared that attempted to shift the line between good and evil.  The characters of the 'white witch', the pet dragon and the wise wizard became familiar figures. . .[5]

The television series of the nineteen sixties I dream of Jeannie and Bewitched were part of the occult revival, trivial and diverting maybe, but atheistic and gnostic at root.

Chesterton gives the best defence of the magic of fairy tales in Orthodoxy where he shows how they elaborate our native instinct of wonder at creation and existence.

These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green.  They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.[6]

The problem with analysing the two streams arises from the fact that in many works they are mixed.  Thus in T.H. White's Once and Future King, a modern retailing of Malory's Morte D'Arthur, the first book, The Sword in the Stone, is unashamedly of the fairy tale stream.  The second and later books involve themselves somewhat in the occult.  While the fairy tale stream predominates throughout the four books, the tragedy of the tale, based in the evils of witchcraft and illicit sexual activity, should prevent parents from allowing their young children to read any other than the first book until they are older and have greater discernment.

In Harry Potter Rowling also mixes the two streams but the occult predominates.  She makes the fairy tale stream serve the occult.

The Character of the Material

The text of the Harry Potter stories is aimed at the television addicted child and reflects many of the politically correct or hackneyed mind-sets one finds in television shows.  Harry has two young friends with whom he shares his adventures, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.  None of them express much respect for authority except when it is right, or for their elders, except when the elders' views agree with their own.

There is nothing uplifting about the way Harry or the other students express themselves.  Harry never says 'Yes' in answer to a question but 'Uh . . Yeah!'  Conversations between the young characters frequently reproduce the sort of banal interchanges found in television programs like The Simpsons, dotted with exclamations whose assumed profundity is only matched by the emptiness of their content.  The worst example of this occurs in the The Goblet of Fire.

The three friends witness the abuse of a family of non-magic believing 'muggles' by 'dark arts practitioners' who have hoisted them into the air with their wands.  A man, his wife and two children are manipulated like marionettes sixty feet above the ground, rolled around and turned over for amusement.  The mother's dress is thrown up and her underwear revealed and she endeavours to hide her nakedness at which the bullies and their hangers-on laugh at her embarrassment.  The only reaction to this conduct comes from Ron who describes it as 'sick . . really sick'.

Throw away comments such as this say nothing of any depth.  They are mouthed as a substitute for thought--worse than platitudes.  The minds of modern man are full of these inventions of television script writers--'That bugs me.'  'Give me a break.'  'Get a life.'  'Exactly right.'  'Catch ya later.'  'Hullo!  Is there anybody there?'  Their content is minimal.  They serve only to provide the hearer with a familiar sound; a cliché.  The throw away comment used here is a substitute for action.  There is not the slightest manifestation of sympathy for the members of this family, of indignation at their plight or of action taken to assist them on the part of any of the Rowling's three heroes.  Any moral tension is resolved later by the happy device of 'modifying the memories' of the people involved so that they forget what has happened to them--which is just another instance of abuse.

The Quidditch games are presented to the reader via the pizzaz of the worst of modern television sports reporting [eg, The Goblet of Fire 96].  Sarcasm or abuse is the standard response to another's clumsiness or error.  The inevitable reaction of the object of this, as the reaction in real life, is antipathy on which the author makes her characters feed.  Harry has an enemy, Draco Malfoy, and their mutual hatred is reinforced by facile expressions of hostility in each successive story.  Harry and his friends are frequently consumed by anger for each other over some minor offence and Rowling seeks not to excuse but rather to justify their attitudes.

Disagreements are resolved only by some accident, or by the 'weaker' character giving in.  In The Goblet of Fire Ron, motivated by jealousy, criticises Harry for having put his own name in the Goblet.  It is not true and Harry resents the error.  He refuses to forgive Ron--[277-8] and assaults him [294].  At the conclusion of the first of three tasks assigned the four competitors Harry is almost killed.  Ron realises his mistake and he offers Harry the preliminary of an apology.  Harry rejects it--

'Caught on, have you?' said Harry coldly.  'Took you long enough.'

Hermione stood nervously between them, looking from one to the other.  Ron opened his mouth uncertainly.  Harry knew Ron was about to apologise and, suddenly, he found he didn't need to hear it.

'It's OK,' he said, before Ron could get the words out.  'Forget it.'

'No,' said Ron, 'I shouldn't've--'

'Forget it,' Harry said. . .

Harry forgives Ron but Rowling makes this forgiveness look like weakness.

Not only are the stories like television scripts, but reading them is like watching television.  They are fast paced and contain vivid descriptions.  They are acceptable as so many television programmes are acceptable--not because there is in them anything inherently good, but because they are attractive to their television trained audience.


Rowling uses a device popularised by the English story writer, Roald Dahl.  Normal people are caricatured and made the object of the readers' disdain and contempt so as to secure praise, by contrast, for the writer's hero who is always someone deprived of material benefits and oppressed by those caricatured but possessed, happily, of a higher knowledge or power.  The device serves also to secure praise for the hero's views.  This is so marked in the early parts of the Philosopher's Stone that one might wonder whether Dahl had in fact written the material.  Vernon and Petunia Dursley (Harry's abominable uncle and aunt) might be clones of Harry Wormwood and his wife in Dahl's story Matilda.  Mr and Mrs Dursley 'were Muggles (non-magic people) who hated and despised magic in any form, which meant that Harry was about as welcome in their house as dry rot.' [The Goblet of Fire 23]  The implication is that only fools despise magic.

Rowling uses the same device to make ridiculous the character Percy Weasley, a stickler for rules and regulations.  In contrast Harry is often in breach of the rules of the school but his breaches are always forgiven or overlooked.  As his friend Ron remarks, he is 'someone special'.  The very expression 'muggles' ('mugs' for short?) is another instance of such caricaturisation.

Disturbance and Fear

The characteristics of the influence of God on the soul are peace and order, joy and love.  Those of the influence of the Devil are fear, disturbance, disorder, antipathy and hatred.  The atmosphere in which the Harry Potter stories take place is one characterised by disturbance and fear.  The creatures of Rowling's imagination have some bizarre features about them.

A diabolical presence threatens the school in the second volume.  Harry hears a voice which says--'Come to me. . let me rip you . . let me tear you . . kill you' [The Chamber of Secrets 92].  The students have recourse to talismans, amulets and 'other protective devices' to protect them [The Chamber of Secrets 139].  In The Prisoner of Azkaban the school is at risk from a notorious escapee from the wizard prison Azkaban, Sirius Black.  To protect the school permission is given for it to be surrounded by Dementors, beings who are evil personified and harm whomsoever they contact and who, the character Hagrid remarks, don't care whether those they guard are innocent or guilty 'so long as they can leech the happiness out of 'em' [The Prisoner of Azkaban 164].  Despite their presence, Black gains entry to the school to the terror of all concerned.

It has been objected that there is more disturbance and fear in J.R.R. Tolkien' Lord of the Rings than there is in Joanne Rowling's Harry Potter.  But a distinction has to be drawn here.  The patriots hounded by the Nazi SS during the second world war were disturbed and fearful at the possibility of falling into their hands.  But even with this threat hanging over them they could preserve their own peace of soul.  It is otherwise with those who live evil lives: with liars, thieves, adulterers, murderers and those who indulge in the occult.  The disturbance and fear they suffer afflicts their very soul because they are steeped in mortal sin.

Now the disturbance and fear presented in Lord of the Rings is largely of the first sort.  The disturbance and fear presented in Harry Potter is largely of the second.  An example from each of the works will serve to illustrate.  In The Fellowship of the Ring Frodo, Sam and Pippin encounter the Ringwraith by the roadway.   He is an emissary of Sauron, the evil one, and he is looking for the ringbearer, Frodo.  They hide out of fear but their peace of mind is not presented by Tolkien as disturbed save for that of Frodo who is faced with the compelling urge to put on the evil ring.  In The Prisoner of Azkaban at p.66 the Dementor appears in Harry's railway carriage like the Devil incarnate and Rowling describes Harry as falling into a faint.  As he does so she says he hears screaming, 'terrible, terrified, pleading screams'.  When he recovers consciousness he is described as feeling sick, his face covered in a cold sweat.  The one description is of danger from without.  The other is of something diabolical arising as if from within.

Harry, Hermione and Ron cannot rely on a stable matrix of reality.  It is forever shifting with the mind of the author and may open under their feet at any moment.  Evil arises where they least expect it, in their midst.  In The Goblet of Fire, thousands of wizards and witches attend the Quidditch world cup which takes place in a large arena.  In the silence of the night after the game, the camping area is transformed suddenly into a scene of chaos by 'the practitioners of the dark arts'.  Their activities are capped by the sudden appearance of a huge representation in the night sky of a skull with a snake for a tongue--'the Dark Mark'--which produces universal terror and disorder.

[S]trange and terrifying phenomena impinge and take over in a world whose surface features are ordinary.  Without warning, normality and order vanish. .[7]

This is Susan Moore's description of the features of occult literature.  It fits these aspects of Rowling's stories like a glove.

The Catholic Church's theologians teach that angels have great powers over nature.  That goes also for the angels who have fallen.  It is a theological truth that one cannot be a witch or a wizard without having submitted oneself to the dominion of the Devil.  It is the price the Devil demands for the powers he gives them, though, of course, it is not the witch or wizard who exercises the powers at all but the Devil--they are his instruments[8].  Let us be quite clear about this: in the real world the witch, the wizard, lives in a permanent state of mortal sin.

The theologians also teach that submission to the Devil necessarily brings with it disturbance and fear.  It is not surprising, then, that we should find that the fictional representation of witchcraft and wizardry in the Harry Potter stories reproduces that disturbance and fear.

Unnatural Creation, Unnatural Behaviour

God is the author of nature.  It reflects His goodness and majesty.  It is fruitful and ordered--never disordered.  Sub-creation, the construct of the writer's imagination, ought to reflect the order of creation and the moral order of the universe since literature should refine and not coarsen the sensibilities.  The nature of the imagined creatures should be ordered to some good and any disorder in them shown as the perversion of what was originally sound.  Similarly, the rule of morals, that good is to be done and evil avoided, should be maintained[9].

The traditional mythical creatures Rowling describes--unicorns, dragons, phoenixes and hypogriffs--are splendid.  But those of her own imagination are often repulsive.  Bubotuber plants are described as looking 'less like plants than thick black giant slugs, protruding vertically out of the soil.  Each was squirming slightly, and had a number of large shining swellings upon it, which appeared to be full of liquid.'  The liquid is pus to be collected by the students by squeezing them.  It is 'extremely valuable and not to be wasted' [The Goblet of Fire 172].  She presents the purulence which results from bodily lesion as if it were a natural product in a noxious parody of the provision of milk for the young in mammals.

The gamekeeper, Hagrid, specialises in 'unusual' animals.  He introduces the students to 'Blast Ended Skrewts'.  The young Skrewts 'looked like deformed, shell-less lobsters, horribly pale and slimy looking with legs sticking out in very odd places and no visible heads. . . They were giving off a very powerful smell of rotting fish.  Every now and then, sparks would fly out of the end of a Skrewt and, with a small phut, it would be propelled forwards several inches.' [The Goblet of Fire 173]  The Skrewts didn't seem to have mouths.  'Ah, some of 'em have got stings,' said Hagrid.  'I reckon they're the males . . the females've got sorta sucker things on their bellies . . I think they might be to suck blood.' [The Goblet of Fire 174]  They kill eachother because of 'an excess of pent-up energy'.  When they had grown the Skrewts 'looked like crosses between giant scorpions and elongated crabs but still without recognisable heads or eyes.  They had become immensely strong, and very hard to control.' [The Goblet of Fire 258, 259]

Of greater concern is the description in The Chamber of Secrets of the root systems of Mandrake plants.  Mandragora (L., man + dragon) is a plant whose root system is supposed to resemble the human form.  Rowling's version has the root system of the young plants comprised of ugly babies which have the plants growing out of their heads.  They scream when you touch them and to hear their screams means death.  The students (equipped with earmuffs) must re-pot them and push the babies back under the soil.  The plant is grown that it may be cut into pieces to be boiled in a magic potion.  The episode is passed by and the details not mentioned again but the description is such as to send a shiver down the spine of the reader.

These creations of Rowling's mind are without rhyme or reason, it seems, other than to accustom the reader to the disordered and the revolting.  In comparison the creatures of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the Orcs, the Cave Trolls, even Shelob the giant spider, are creatures which reflect the natural.  The trees that try to stifle the Hobbits are humanised and have chosen evil.  The Balrog might be a sort of angel gone wrong.

In The Chamber of Secrets the Weasley boys are directed by their mother to clean the family garden of gnomes, as if they were garden pests like snails.  Yet the gnomes are clearly rational creatures--that is, men, in miniature.  There is a lack of proportion here between ends and means.  For rational animals are always ends in themselves and not to be treated as if they were mere brute animals.

In the same vein is the conduct of the house elves who willingly submit themselves to slavery because that is their lot.  'House elves is not supposed to have fun.  House elves does what they is told.'  The house elf, Dobby, performs bizarre acts of self punishment when he breaches the elves' code of conduct.

Rowling's handling of the mandrake plants, the gnomes and the 'muggles' manifests an attitude towards the weak, the abnormal and the disabled which is concerning.  Nor is it difficult to see in her treatment of the immature mandrake plants a fostering of the attitude that it is appropriate to sacrifice the lives of the unborn for the benefit of society.

The most offensive material in each volume of Harry Potter is usually found early in the narration as though to condition the reader.  None of it is essential to any of the stories or to their plots.

The Revolting

There is frequent reference in the stories to the revolting--often the childishly revolting or the puerile.  Sweets are described as 'like bogeys'; a liquid to be drunk described as 'having the colour of bogeys'; a character in The Goblet of Fire is described as 'picking his nose again and again'; the ghost of a young girl, Moaning Myrtle, lives in a toilet, 'down near the U bend'; engaged in studying the planets in 'Divination', Ron asks a fellow student whether 'he can have a look at Uranus' [The Goblet of Fire 178]; there is a reference to a character's (Crabbe's) toenails as required for a potion which will change one of the characters into a replica of Crabbe's appearance for an hour so he can spy on Malfoy; there are sweets 'for unusual tastes' such as blood flavoured lollipops; Gobstones is 'a wizarding game rather like marbles, in which the stones squirted a nasty-smelling liquid into the other player's face when they lost a point' [The Prisoner of Azkaban  43]; the Dementors are described as giving 'the kiss of death' to one whom they want to destroy and which 'will suck out his soul'.

It is true that kids love revolting things--frogs legs and guts etc.  So they do--up to a point.  But their interest, transient and limited, is part of the task of exploring the bounds of acceptability.  The proof of this is that they do not maintain that interest but pass beyond it.  But it seems Rowling wants to take her readers beyond the childishly revolting.

Inversion of the Moral Order

The first principle of morals is: Good must be done and evil avoided.  One of the Weasley brothers uses the following incantation as he touches with his wand a parchment to make it reveal a map (the Marauder's Map) of Hogwarts castle--I solemnly swear that I am up to no good [The Prisoner of Azkaban 143].  The misuse of an oath is done in passing, humorously, as a password.  But the lesson is imprinted on the subconscious mind.  In The Prisoner of Azkaban at 145 Rowling describes Harry as giving in to temptation 'quite suddenly, as though following orders'.

The second principle of morals, allied to the first, is: It is not lawful to do evil that good may come of it.  Harry is revealed as a liar.  At first this defect in his character is transient.  But by the third volume his lying has become a preferred option whenever he is pressed for an unwelcome explanation.  Not only does he lie, but Rowling accentuates the fact that he is telling a lie.  She goes so far as to assert [in The Goblet of Fire 505] that Harry has lied when in fact all he has done is to respond ambivalently.  Now lying can be a literary device--in adult books.  But it is rarely utilised in those for children except to illustrate the evils of such conduct.

The breach of this second principle appears also in the author's device of the Dementors, beings which are evil personified, yet used by the 'Ministry of Magic' to do good.  They are 'here to protect you from something much worse' [The Prisoner of Azkaban 151].

Allied to these breaches is a lack of due proportion between means and ends.  Harry is depicted as fighting the Dementors, not for any adequate reason (a reason which would justify the risks involved) but for the sake of winning a sporting event, the Quidditch cup.  Personal glory is put forward as an adequate reason [The Prisoner of Azkaban 177].  In The Goblet of Fire at 114 the character Bagman's lack of virtue is excused by the assertion 'He was a great Beater though', as if being good under some minor respect justified a failure in virtue.

If Harry appears to exercise self control or forbearance it is only for a material reward, not as an act of virtue [eg, The Prisoner of Azkaban 24].  The exception to this occurs in The Goblet of Fire in the second task of the Triwizard Tournament when he must rescue a hostage, Ron, from a watery grave.  He arrives first at the underwater tryst where the hostages are tied to a statue. Finding none of the other competitors around to rescue the remaining hostages, he sees to their rescue too.  The other competitors profit by his altruism and Harry is left to finish behind them.  This action is later revealed as unnecessary because, as Ron says: 'Dumbledore wouldn't have let any of us drown. . . I hope you didn't waste time down there acting the hero!'  Harry is also criticised by Hermione for finishing well outside the time limit.  'Harry felt both stupid and annoyed. . Why hadn't he just grabbed Ron and and gone?  He would have been first back.' [The Goblet of Fire 436-8]

Thus a temporal good (good secundum quid), winning points in a competition, is placed above virtue (good simpliciter).  The lesson is not redeemed by the gratuitous act by the judges who announce that they have adjusted the points awarded so as to reward Harry for his action in showing 'moral fibre'.  To this Ron responds derisively: 'There you go, Harry.  You weren't being thick after all--you were showing moral fibre!' [The Goblet of Fire 436-440]  As with the case of the act of forgiveness cited above, Rowling makes an act of virtue look like weakness.

It may be objected that Harry's imperfections serve as an antidote to popularity among his readers.  But the reader is always made to sympathise with Harry even as he lies, or eavesdrops, or expresses anger, or refuses to forgive the ones who have offended him.  His behaviour is presented as acceptable, justifiable: it's okay to do these things at times.  The breach of the principle is admitted: it is lawful to do evil that good may come of it.  Now, if the stories advocate this sort of behaviour at Hogwarts, why, the reader is bound to ask, is it unacceptable to do the same in the real world?

It is noteworthy that Tolkien never inverts the moral order in Lord of the Rings.  He never has some evil thing serve a good end or allows evil to be done that good may follow.

The World, the Flesh and the Devil

St John details the three weaknesses of human nature--the concupiscence of the eyes, the concupiscence of the flesh, the pride of life--in his first letter.  How do Rowling's heroes and her other characters stack up?

Harry glories in the possession of a thing (the Firebolt broomstick) that others have not [The Prisoner of Azkaban 190].  In The Goblet of Fire [107] he fantasizes about his own glory on the Quidditch pitch seeing himself in robes that had his name on the back, and imagined the sensation of hearing a hundred-thousand-strong crowd roar as [the commentator's] voice echoed throughout the stadium, 'I give you  . . . Potter!'

What about the weaknesses of the flesh?  There are always four or five helpings when they attend some feast.  And no fetter is ever mentioned as imposed by their school masters on this overeating.  It is easy to miss the hypocrisy.  Rowling makes Harry's 'muggle' cousin, Dudley Dursley, a figure of fun and the reader's contempt, inter alia, for his overeating.  But that's precisely what her hero does.  There is only this difference between them--Harry doesn't have Dudley's weight problem.

In The Chamber of Secrets Hermione is described as eating her meals at great speed that she may go to the library or attend her next class.  There are other instances of gluttony and disorder in the eating activities of her heroes.

However, Rowling's descriptions touching on sexual matters are of greater concern.  She breaches the convention against mention of genitalia in children's book in The Goblet of Fire where an old wizard complains about having to wear trousers because 'I like a healthy breeze round my privates', the overhearing of which sends Hermione into a fit of giggling.

In The Goblet of Fire the Bulgarian Quidditch team is described as bringing onto the pitch as mascots a troupe of dancing women called 'Veela'.  The sight of these deprives Harry and other males present, including the paternal and otherwise fairly exemplary Mr Weasley, of their self control--

'I wonder what they've brought?' said Mr Weasley, leaning forwards in his seat.  'Aaah!'  He suddenly whipped off his glasses and polished them hurriedly on his robes.  'Veela!'

There is complete loss of self control--

 . . then the music started and Harry stopped worrying about them not being human--in fact he stopped worrying about anything at all. . . All that mattered in the world was that he kept watching the Veela, because if they stopped dancing, terrible things would happen . . .

The behaviour that follows is portrayed humorously as showing off and outrageous boasting, redolent of the conduct of male brute animals towards females on heat.  The implication is that in the face of overt female sexuality a man cannot be expected to control himself.

Later in the same volume Rowling has Harry enter the school prefects' bathroom to take a bath for the purpose of listening to sounds made by a magical egg which can only be deciphered underwater.  On the wall is a picture of a sleeping mermaid.  Like all pictures in the Harry Potter stories the person in the picture is not static but alive.  Harry is in the bath when he is visited by the ghost of the little girl, Moaning Myrtle, who assists him to solve the clue.  Harry berates her for peeping at him in a state of undress.  She compares the speed of his resolution of the clue with that of Cedric Diggory who had attended earlier while the mermaid was awake and whom she described as 'giggling and showing off and flashing her fins'.  The implications are obvious.  Later, Harry is depicted as being poked and teased by the mermaid while he is in the bath in a dream.  The material is designed to excite the latent sexuality of the young reader.  It is particularly dangerous for young boys.

There is a veiled reference to sexual promiscuity in The Chamber of Secrets when the Mandrake plants are described as 'mature' when they begin climbing out of their pots to visit the pots of others.

Magic and sorcery, the whole theme of the books, are a direct application of the sin of pride.  The instances are innumerable in which dominance is portrayed as being exercised over others.  Hermione casts a 'full body binding spell' on a character, Neville, in The Philosopher's Stone; Tom Riddle (alias Voldemort) dominates Ginny Weasley through a diary which talks back to the writer and makes her carry out harmful actions [in The Chamber of Secrets]; Professor 'Mad Eye' Moody turns Malfoy into a white ferret [The Goblet of Fire 180]; the 'dark arts practitioners' abuse the 'muggles' in The Goblet of Fire in the episode referred to above.  Rowling even has her characters willingly submit to such dominance in the classroom so that fellow students can have practice in casting spells.

Anti God

There is an anti-Catholic (ie anti-God) leitmotif running through the books.  2She parodies the fear of magic during Mediaeval times [The Prisoner of Azkaban 7].  American historian Warren H. Carroll notes that the term 'Mediaeval' in the modern world is a code word for the Catholic Church.  It was the Catholic Church which condemned--it is the Catholic Church which continues to condemn--magic.  In The Prisoner of Azkaban at 78 she describes a painting as showing 'some sinister looking monks'.  Christmas and Easter are celebrated in these stories but they are treated materially, occasions for holidays and for the receiving of gifts.  At Christmas Harry never seems to give gifts, only to receive them.  If he gives a gift he expects one back.  There is never any reference to the reasons for these feasts.  In The Goblet of Fire at 344 the Christmas carol 'Oh Come All Ye Faithful' is sung 'by an empty helmet that only knew half the words'.  The resident poltergeist fills in by inserting words of his own 'all of which were very rude'.  In The Prisoner of Azkaban at 149 one of his friends asserts Harry should be allowed to break the rules imposed upon him because 'it's Christmas'.  The real feast of the year for the wizards and witches is hallow'een.

She uses the word 'transfiguration' to signify the magical process of turning something into something else.  There are two Latin verbs having almost the same meaning--transformare and transfigurare--to change shape or appearance.  Transformare is reflected in our English words transform, transformation, transformer, transformism.  Transfigurare has a more limited application in English.  In particular is it appropriated to the appearance of Christ on Mount Tabor in glory with Elijah and Moses before the apostles Peter, James and John.  The more logical word to use for the change from one thing to another in English is 'transformation'.

The Diabolical

There are a number of instances in the stories of material which is patently diabolical.  The first occurs in The Chamber of Secrets when the character Ron is described as vomitting slugs when his wand 'backfires'.  Father Corrado Balducci, the Vatican's former expert on Demonology writes: "When the evil spirits are finally driven out, their departure is usually accompanied by certain phenomena . . [including] a particularly repulsive type of vomiting; the issuance of little animals from the mouth of the patient . ."  [The Devil, Corrado Balducci, trans. by Jordan Aumann O.P., Alba House, New York, 1990, p.174].

Another occurs in The Prisoner of Azkaban at 238 when Professor Trelawney, the specialist in 'Divination', suffers a seizure and then speaks to Harry in a harsh voice quite unlike her own--The Dark Lord will rise again with his servant's aid, greater and more terrible than ever before.  Speech by a person in a foreign voice is another of the phenomena which characterise demonic possession[10].

The third is the description in The Goblet of Fire referred to above of a frightful appearance in the night sky.

'[W]ithout warning, the silence was rent by a voice unlike any they had heard in the wood; and it uttered, not a panicked shout, but what sounded like a spell.  MORSMORDRE!  And something vast, green and glittering erupted from the patch of darkness Harry's eyes had been struggling to penetrate: it flew up over the treetops and into the sky. . . it was a colossal skull, composed of what looked like emerald stars, with a serpent protruding from its mouth like a tongue.  As they watched, it rose higher and higher, blazing in a haze of greenish smoke, etched against the black sky like a new constellation.

Good Magic and Bad

Rowling seeks to distinguish between white (or good) magic and black (or bad) magic.  Her descriptions of Voldemort and his cohorts involve darkness or blackness.  The father figure Albus Dumbledore is the personification of the good magic--Albus is Latin for 'white'.  Yet all magic is evil and this appears in Dumbledore's hesitant statements of principle.  Near the end of The Goblet of Fire [626] he says: the truth is generally preferable to lies.  But the moral law requires that one should never lie.

In a capital passage which follows shortly after, Dumbledore, by way of encomium for a fellow student of Harry killed by Voldemort, says to the assembled children and guests at the school--Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right, and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave . . [The Goblet of Fire 628]  It is noteworthy that he does not say 'when you have to make a choice between what is good and what is evil . .'.  Nor does he go on to draw the moral and excite his hearers to acts of virtue.  The lesson is left hanging and uncertain.

There are other indications of this ambivalence about good and bad magic--the kindly influence over Harry of both the white (Albus, the father figure) and the black (Sirius Black, Harry's 'godfather'); the suggestion at the outset from 'the Sorting Hat' that Harry was as suitable for the school house of Slytherin (the hold of 'the dark arts' students) as for Griffindor; and the fact that Harry, like Voldemort, is a 'parseltongue', ie., one who can converse with snakes.

The Perils of the Occult

We wouldn't let our children play with ouija boards or indulge in other games to do with the occult.  Why is it appropriate for them to immerse themselves in stories about occult activities?  Why is it appropriate for them to amuse themselves with a fantastic reproduction of people living in a universal state of mortal sin?

We would not give our children fiction in which a group of 'good fornicators' struggled against a set of 'bad fornicators', because we know that the power of disordered sexual impulse is an abiding problem in human affairs, the negative effects of which we can see all around us.  Why, then, have we accepted a set of books which glamorise and normalise occult activity, even though it is every bit as deadly to the soul as sexual sin, if not more so?  Is it because we have not yet awakened to the fact that occultism is in fact a clear and present danger?[11]

Is the Standard Relative or Absolute?

The vast bulk of parents whose children are exposed to the works of Joanne Rowling do not have an exhaustive grasp of the current field of children's literature.  It may be, as has been suggested, that Harry Potter is better than much that is currently on offer.  But that is not the end of the matter.

Evil doesn't cease to be evil just because it has come to be generally accepted--as the Pope has recently pointed out when speaking of divorce in an address to the Roman Rota.  The standard of acceptability in literature is not a relative one.  Ultimately, the question of what is worthy to be read is determined by the good of the reader.  That good is absolute.  In the same way as a woman's moral integrity is not to be compromised by a current, and immodest, fashion in dress, the integrity of the reader is not to be compromised for the sake of literary fashion.

All that can be said in the end is that in a field which on the whole seems to be appalling the Harry Potter stories are better than many--but they are still evil.

The Sleeping Dragon

It is significant that interest in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings should be paralleled at this time by interest in the Harry Potter stories.  It is a theological truth that God concedes to the Devil the right to tempt us to evil even as He prompts us to the good[12].  Films of the first books of both sets of works have recently been released.

Tolkien sets evil and good apart from each other, insisting that the rule of morals is to be observed and that we should struggle even against overwhelming evil.  Rowling seeks to show that not all evil is bad and lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater.  One stands for the moral law and seeks to draw the child to embrace all that is noble.  The other stands for compromise in a relative morality, seeks to engage the child in what is degrading and suggests to him occasions of sin.

The motto of Hogwarts school is Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus--Never tickle a sleeping dragon--on its face a humorous motto.  But there is a warning here and the warning is apposite.  Who is the Sleeping Dragon if not the Devil?  Latin is an inflected language.  There is no definite or indefinite article.  Draco, the noun, may mean 'a dragon' or 'the dragon'.  Of course the motto may refer to something entirely different from this interpretation but it is open to this interpretation.  Gabriele Amorth, the chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome, thinks there is clear evidence that the Devil is behind these works.  If this is right it would be a delicious literary joke on the Devil's part to inspire Rowling to put in humorous form the peril to which her readers might be exposing themselves.  Latin has been used to execrate the Devil formally for twenty centuries.  How ironical if now he could use Latin to mock the children of those who have done away with the study of it for more profitable sciences and in the process lost their sense of discernment of his activities!

In chapters 13 and 20 of the Book of Revelations St John speaks of the mark of the Beast placed on the foreheads or the right hands of those subjected to him.  Children caught up in the enthusiasm of the Harry Potter syndrome are frequently seen with a copy of his lightning type scar on their foreheads.  Is it going too far to suggest that they are fulfilling the prophecy?


'There are two kinds of books,' St Thomas More used to tell his children.  'Those that lead us to God and those that lead us away from Him.'  Parental guidance is recommended for television shows.  There is every reason why it should also be applied to books, especially books which have caused such controversy.  Public figures, among them Church figures, have come out on both sides in the debate.  Parents should take the time to read these books and to judge for themselves whether they want their children to do so too.

Whatever their judgement about the books parents should be vigilant that their children do not become involved in games rooted in the occult and based on the Harry Potter stories.  Games with wands; or involving a 'Sorting Hat' or a Goblet of Fire; or the wearing of a mark upon the forehead or the wearing of talismans or amulets to ward off evil; or requiring the child to perform some act whose ambit is hidden; or calling up spirits; or having their fortunes told; or telling a lie convincingly; or submitting to the dominance of another--the scope for such games is limitless.  The harm they bring may be infinite.

Michael Baker

St Joseph--March 19th, 2002

[1]  Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  They will be identified in the text of this paper as The Philosopher's Stone, The Chamber of Secrets, The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Goblet of Fire.  The works collectively will be referred to as Harry Potter.

[2] Cf Harry Potter and the Paganization of Children's Culture, Michael D. O'Brien,

[3]  Cf. Harry Potter: Agent of Conversion, Toni Collins,

[4]  The Harry Potter Craze, Dr Susan Moore, Annals Australasia, Vol. 112 no.7, September 2001.

[5]  Harry Potter and the Paganization of Children's Culture, Michael D. O'Brien, op.cit.

[6]  Orthodoxy, Fontana Books, London, 1961, p.53.

[7]  The Harry Potter Craze, op. cit.

[8]  The sign of that submission in Harry Potter, incidentally, is the ceremony of the Sorting Hat where the head, the seat of the intellectual powers, is covered and the eyes, the most noble of the senses, are blindfolded and the neophyte's free will is subjected to the rule of another.

[9]  Cf Michael D. O'Brien in Harry Potter and the Paganization of Children's Culture, op. cit.

[10]  Cf. the article 'Hell to Pay' by Rod Williams in the 5th January 2002 edition of The Spectator detailing the exorcism of a sixteen year old girl in Tuscany.

[11]  Harry Potter and the Paganization of Children's Culture, op. cit.

[12]  Cf. Job 1:8 et seq