A MAGIC OF RELATIONSHIPS: THE SACRAMENTAL IMAGINATION OF HARRY POTTER
By David Russell Mosley
Word Count: 1046
Rating: G (suitable for all audiences)
Summary: An analysis of Harry Potter as an aide to expanding the imagination.
There are many books I have read after my childhood, but which are still children’s books, like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Smith of Wooton Major; George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie, as well as some of his fairy tales; and perhaps others you might recommend. But the Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling, are the last books from my childhood which I will be examining in the context of the Sacramental Imagination and how they might help children form one.
There are, however, some problems with Ms Rowling’s works that I would like to lay out at the forefront. First is something I have noted before, the almost Calvinistic system of how one becomes a witch or wizard. Following along relatively covenantal reformed lines, one primarily becomes a witch or wizard by being born from parents where at least one of them is a witch or wizard. This is a major plot point for the books commencing with earnest in book 6. However, whether one has wizard parents or not one still must be born a witch or wizard. It is not something one can claim for oneself. Muggles cannot learn magic, nor can squibs. This, therefore, suggests that the preferred way of living presented in the books, as a witch or wizard, is entirely outside of one’s control just as one’s salvation is outside of one’s control in a stringently Calvinist system.
There are even those born of wizard ancestry who cannot do magic, who are not part of the community in the same way as everyone else, namely, squibs. This is, for me, a non-Calvinist, fairly problematic, though Rowling does back pedal a little in her The Tales of Beedle the Bard. In a footnote by Albus Dumbledore it is noted that research in the Department of Mysteries up to that point (likely somewhere around the mid-90s in the story’s chronology) that even those with Muggle parents who themselves can do magic likely have a witch or wizard somewhere in their ancestry.
The second problem I have is Rowling’s more or less Cartesian understanding of the human person. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, we learn that Dementors can suck out your soul.
Your body would continue to function with your soul gone, but the person would no longer be there. Rowling’s books are based in an essentially Christian cosmos, but it is, in many ways, still a modernistic one, subject to post-Enlightenment thinking.
That being said, there is much that can be gained for children in Rowling’s Potter books. Perhaps the primary thing is how Rowling’s magical world gives us back our own world made strange. Wizards and witches do many of the same things we do: they shop, cook, throw parties, go to school, communicate with one another, and more, but each is rendered strange as we experience the magical world through Harry’s equally unaccustomed eyes. Harry’s first encounter with a magical being is Hagrid, a man too large to be allowed.
As we later find out, not only is Hagrid big and a wizard, he’s even half-giant! Harry’s first shopping experience involves an apothecary, a wand shop, getting fitted for late-medieval/Renaissance style robes, and buying a pet owl.
What I find most interesting is how, even with magic, much of what the witches and wizards do would seem to us, slower. They don’t email one another or communicate by telephone, they write letters and send them by owls. It is almost astonishing how ultimately non-magical this is. The letters themselves, in fact nearly all the writing they do, with the exceptions of the newspaper, more recent books, and posters/cards, is done by hand, with a dip pen in the form of a quill. They actually dip a quill in a pot of ink and write, with their hands, on paper.
The only magical element is when they send letters, the carriers are owls, but this is almost accidental to the whole process. They might just as well be carried by people. I think this is important. Rowling gives us a world with little technology and even less machining.
Magic often takes the place of machines, but in the writing of letters or homework, neither magic nor sophisticated technology is used. Rather, the quill is a tool serving merely as an extension of the person holding it in order to effect a change in the world around them by the generation of something new, namely written words. It is interesting that wands serve the same basic function. They are tools, possessed of little magic themselves. Again, in the same footnote in The Tales of Beedle the Bard (footnote 4 in the notes after ‘Babbity Rabbity and the Cackling Stump), Dumbledore notes that a muggle picking up a magic wand might be able to do a random bit of magic, but only because there is a residual magic left in the wand by its owner.
However, in the hand of a witch or wizard, it serves as a conduit for performing magic, magic which comes not from the wand nor any other external source, but from the wielder. Rowling, I think, is teaching children something about words, both that there is something magical, we might even say, sacramental about writing and the use of words (hence the magic spell). There is a relationship between the sign, the word or words, and the thing signified. In writing, the relationship is between the words and their author, with the quill/person as the conduit or sacrament and the letter the effect. In performing magic it is the word or words and their relationship to the change affected in the real world, with the wand/wizard as the sacrament and the magic performed the effect.
There is much more that could be said, particularly about human/animal relationships with the magical animals (like owls), and cosmic/terrestrial relationships (astrology as taught by Firenze the centaur).
However, I have waffled on long enough. In the end, despite the flaws, Rowling’s Potter stories can help children see something magical in words, something sacramental in the relationship between words and what they represent, something that isn’t simply accidental. This makes her books immensely helpful in growing a sacramental imagination in children.