This week, we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of “Harry Potter”—the books that captured the minds of millions of readers, enchanting and inspiring an entire generation of young people. As Lara Prendergast pointed out at The Spectator, “Harry Potter” has become a new sort of political or ideological Bible for many millennials, who see their worlds through a Potterverse lens:
Harry Potter may be a literary fantasy but for many it is also a substitute religion in a secular era. The books are about the fight between good and evil, and the power of magic. They teach you that bigotry must be fought at all costs, that tolerance and difference must be celebrated. The great symbol of malevolence is Harry’s nemesis, Lord Voldemort — or ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’. He wants to rid the wizarding world of Muggles (people from non-wizarding heritage) and is obsessed with the idea of blood purity.
The Harry Potter generation sees real-life Voldemorts everywhere. Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán — all are compared to the Dark Lord. Following Trump’s election, a number of articles drew parallels between his administration and the Potterverse. ‘How Harry Potter Helps Make Sense of Trump’s World’ was the title of one. ‘Who Said It — Steve Bannon or Lord Voldemort?’, another. … At Harvard, students launched the ‘Resistance School’ to fight back against Trump’s agenda, comparing themselves to ‘Dumbledore’s Army’, a force set up in the books to combat ‘dark magic’.
But “Harry Potter” fans’ religious zeal transcends the political—at root, it reflects a spiritual vacuum experienced by many of J.K. Rowling’s readers. Many millennials dwell in a secularized world, one increasingly shed of magic and enchantment. The Western world is increasingly agnostic, while the millennial generation itself is populated with so-called “nones”—religiously unaffiliated, and uninterested in organized religion. At the root of Rowling’s lasting notoriety, and the deep popularity of her books, is the millennial longing for enchantment and meaning.
Hogwarts Offered Enchantment to the Disenchanted
The world of Hogwarts is one of mysticism and relics, ritual and tradition. It has customs and mores that are cherished and carried down through the ages via its headmasters and teachers. All of that makes Hogwarts a church-like place: one that doesn’t just offer education, but also a community and culture, a safe haven and sanctuary in the midst of a disenchanted, secular world. Many of Hogwarts’ rooms even look cathedral-esque in the “Harry Potter” films. The narrative of Hogwarts-as-sanctuary, in the midst of a menacing or oblivious culture, is a rather religion-laden narrative.
Harry Potter’s world also offered a community and localism many of today’s millennials are living without. The school contained “little platoons” of community in the form of its houses: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. These were neighborhoods of belonging, with their own markers of talent, vocation, and creed. In our increasingly solipsistic and fragmented society, youngsters looked on these talismans of home and camaraderie with an understandable longing. We each wanted to know which “house” we might be in—not just to discover our own potential virtues, whether of courage or cunning, encouragement or craftiness—but also to discover where we belonged, which community we might most easily fit into.
In the world of Harry Potter, it isn’t just the magical items that are enchanted. J.K. Rowling, much like authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, knows that aesthetics matter. The colors and textures, food and drink, habits and ceremonies of the Potterverse are laden with meaning, zest, and beauty. We all found our mouths watering when we read about butterbeer. We all wanted to watch the Quidditch Cup.
J.K. Rowling Left Her Fans Craving Spiritual Context
J.K. Rowling re-enchanted a disenchanted world. She left millennial hearts craving something more—something beyond the sterility of a crisp-cornered iPhone or a long string of texts. She instigated a deep nostalgia for the camaraderie, the clutter, the magnificence of an ancient world—one layered with meaning and mystery.
Thus, though many millennials would never admit it, their love for “Harry Potter” is more like veneration than it is mere fandom. It’s a secular stand-in for the meaning and community that religion would have provided them in a bygone era. The books have become a means of interpreting current events and conundrums, just as religion would have in times past. Perhaps we would have compared our world’s more detestable dictators—the Kim Jong Uns and Bashar al-Assads of our world—to the Nebuchadnezzars or Neros of yesteryear. Acts of betrayal and utmost vice would have brought forth comparisons to Judas, not Peter Pettigrew.
But these days, as Prendergast points out, every villain is recast as Voldemort (or, if it’s a woman, Dolores Umbridge). Voldemort’s the caricature of evil we now use to typecast the world’s most loathed leaders. Prendergast suggests that this is happening because the Potterverse has continued to develop and morph into a progressive tale of good and evil, via the suggestions and directions of its author:
Rowling has continued to update the world she created to ensure it fits with how the Harry Potter generation view their own political struggle. She has revealed Dumbledore was gay and that Hogwarts would have been a ‘safe place’ for LGBT students.
… The Potterverse, then, keeps developing. Yet it is a naive landscape in which most problems are solved by magic. To believe in it, even ironically, is to divide people into goodies and baddies, and ignore the complexity of reality. For all the joy that Harry Potter brings to its millions of readers, the world cannot be sorted by a magical hat.
She’s right. I think that in this instance, millennials are just doing what most religious people do when they cite a religious text in response to a political problem: they’re seeking precedent and direction in a confusing, disillusioning time. Without recourse in the Bible, the Quran, or some other religious tome, millennials are turning to their most beloved good vs. evil narrative. In it, they find virtue and vice, heroes and villains. And they need these things, badly. We all do. Our human hearts crave meaning, context, direction in the midst of a chaotic and painful world.
Children’s Books Can’t Be Our Bibles
But my hope is that millennials will eventually realize how far short “Harry Potter” falls when you consult it as anything other than it is: a remarkable and delightful children’s series. Because as good as “Harry Potter” is, Prendergast is right: it’s simplistic and naïve. That’s what makes it an excellent children’s book—as C.S. Lewis said, “Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. . . Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.”
But Lewis never intended us to remain trapped in that world of dragons and knights. He intended fairy tales to inspire a wisdom and courage that would serve young readers well once they reached adulthood. The problem with many admirers of the “Harry Potter” universe is that they’ve confused the two. Rather than letting morality tales with dragons and knights inspire and animate their grownup problems, they’ve turned grownup problems into morality tales with dragons and knights (or wands and horcruxes).
What we need are adult “Harry Potter” readers who bring to their lives all the courage of Harry, savvy of Hermione, and humor of Ron, without the childishness and immaturity of their fictional world. We need readers who don’t caricature every current event into a Hogwarts-inspired mold. That’s because we’re not going to confront sheer evil in human form (most likely). Instead, we’re going to confront a million vices in a million different people throughout our lifetimes.
Most importantly, perhaps, we’re going to confront millions of vices within our own hearts. The beauty of “Harry Potter” always lies in its metaphor and symbolism. And its books, especially its last book, remind us that the true enemy ultimately lies inside. Until and unless we die to ourselves, we cannot find redemption. (That’s a bit of a spoiler alert, but since it’s about 10 years late, hopefully you can forgive me.)
‘Harry Potter’ Should Inspire Us To Seek What Lies Beyond
I love “Harry Potter.” It still fills me with that sense of longing and nostalgia for a world I’ve never known (just like all good fairy tales should). I still want to taste butterbeer and attend a Quidditch tournament, race around the halls of Hogwarts and have a long conversation with Dumbledore. Don’t we all?
But I believe I have an infinitely more powerful and potent experience available to me every day of my life: as the Psalmist once put it, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.” My feelings of nostalgia and longing for the enchantment of “Harry Potter” are ultimately reflections of a larger longing for whatever lies “further up and further in.” Or—as Dumbledore says to Harry—for whatever is “on,” ahead of us, out of sight.
Let’s never stop reading fairy tales. They’re beautiful, delightful things. But we shouldn’t confuse our favorite fables for the real enchantment. “Harry Potter” is only a shadow and symbol of a greater, grander reality. As Chesterton once put it, “[Fairy tales] make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”
So happy 20th anniversary to the “Harry Potter” books, and to all its fans. May you never stop seeking enchantment and meaning—in this world, most especially.