I’ve now read three of the Harry Potter books. I’m among those who are not quite comfortable with the occult elements in the books, but I recognize that that is my problem (I’m unusually sensitive about the occult). I’m pretty well persuaded by what I’ve read and by what people I respect say that they are in fact good, even if not great. In any case I think each family has to make its own choice and in no way think they are “required” reading (as I might say about LoTR).
My real issue about them has to do with the relationship the story has with what Tolkien called “The Story.” It seems to me that, unlike the LoTR and Narnia, there is none.
This can be phrased in a variety of different ways. It came to my attention when I was reading the end of the Hobbit. Gandalf affirms that what happened to the Hobbit was a part of a greater story and that there Bilbo, though retaining his freedom and dignity, was inserted into a great struggle that involves a world beyond the merely human and pedestrian. Specifically, there was an invisible and unnamed hand involved in the entire adventure.
“Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!' said Bilbo.
“Of course!' said Gandalf. 'And why should not they prove true? Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person,
Mr Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!'
“Thank goodness!' said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.”
Tolkien is able to infuse a great sense of Divine Providence in his works in which no religion appears. Such divine providence is necessary to fight the type of supernatural evil that Voldemort displays. But, as Mark Shea points out, at least in the first three books it is merely human virtue, human wisdom and strength of character that HP relies upon to defeat Voldemort.
Harry's universe simply knows nothing of [the theological virtues], nor do religious questions or the reality of God ever enter into the picture, with the unfortunate consequence that Harry is likable but not a light whose brightness is equal to the magnetically frightening black hole of Voldemort's evil.
Another way of phrasing this is that HP feels Pelagian to me. I really would feel more comfortable if there were a greater sense of grace in the books. Because a person like HP wouldn’t be able to defeat V without it. It seems like the good side is not deeply rooted enough to match the evil. There is no deeper magic from before the dawn of time to match the deep magic from the dawn of time. The way I put this in a e-mail to a friend earlier today (before reading the Shea essay) was this: “The evil is more sharply and accurately drawn than the good, which seems somewhat ambiguous.” And weak, I might add. I think a book like this not only needs to be psychologically, morally and socially perceptive, but spiritually. Some novels, such as those of Jane Austin perhaps, can settle for the first three. A novel that deals directly with death and supernatural evil needs to have spiritual insight as well.
On a side, but related note, I know that sacrificial love is a central theme of the books, but I wonder, how does Dumbledore know about that? What is the Wisdom Tradition in the Wizard world into which he taps to find it out? Or did he figure it out himself (making him a religious genius)?
Now, of course all this may change in the later books. Unfortunately, I’m having trouble motivating myself to slog through 2000+ more pages in order to find out. I’m thinking of taking my son up on his offer to just summarize 4-6 for me so I only have to read 7 when it comes out in July.