To begin, a bold claim: So far as movies go, you’ll not find a better investigation of education than the eight films in the Harry Potter franchise.
No filmed story better elucidates the paradoxes and trials of being a teacher or a student. The Potter films uncomfortably confirm fears that at least a few teachers are evil, and, what’s worse, evil teachers cannot always be easily extracted from schools even though they are known to be evil. At the same time, the Potter films valiantly affirm parents’ hopes that some teachers are willing to die for their students, that some teachers are willing to quit if staying means compromising principle and virtue. Perhaps what is most valuable about the Potter series is what it offers to student viewers, and that is a vision of school as a place where the world of teachers and the world of students are ever collapsing into each other. At Hogwarts, the interests of adults are not separable from the interests of the best students. Teachers may have pet projects and private concerns, but those projects and concerns invariably intersect with the lives of students. Ultimately, teachers are far more dependent on students than students can understand; paradoxically, that dependence means teachers are far more restricted in what they can and cannot tell students than ever seems fair to the students, who constantly feel as though teachers keep an unreasonably tight lid on what might prove life-or-death information.
When Christians argue about Harry Potter, they tend to argue about magic. Is it safe to expose children to stories which favorably present magic and witchcraft? While it is perhaps easier to dismiss the 1980s era Christian obsession with cultivating teenage fear of the occult (Dungeons and Dragons, heavy metal played backwards), the question gains some sharper teeth, I think, when posed by St Patrick or St Denis or some Late Antique saint who openly battled demons and the delusions of idols. Not all negative reactions to Potter’s magic are reactionary. However, that is a matter for another time. What about muggles? Are they real? Is the existence of muggles perhaps a more divisive, more subtle question of the Potter books?
Some readers will perhaps already sense what is on the line in asking the question.
In the Potter cosmos, there are really only two kinds of people. Those with magical abilities, and those without. Those with magical potential are the initiate, the ones privy to secret rules and discreet histories. Those without magic blood are muggles, often presented as slow-witted, concerned with the trivial and the mundane, oblivious to the more profound operations of nature and human desiring. Most people are muggles, few people are part of the magical community. Designation as a muggle or magician arises somewhat mysteriously, and not entirely predictably, from the blood and might be known from birth. The Potter series might grant a muggle here or there who is not loathsome, although none capture the imagination; every arresting character in the story is born with an in, with a golden ticket.
If the Potter story comments upon and elucidates the trials of education, what ready thing in the lives of our students do muggles represent? An interesting range of possibilities opens up, and especially for the classical Christian student: Magicians read Boethius as sophomores, muggles read Bob Jones textbooks. Magicians live contemplative lives, muggles live active lives. Magicians understand the import of classicism, muggles go for grades and scholarships. Magicians go to ACCS schools, muggles go to government schools. Magicians are believers, muggles are unbelievers. Magicians go to my church, muggles go to the church down the street. I suspect there is a great temptation for many readers, old and young, to make the magicians into their own circle of friends and to exile the muggles to all points east.
Of course, none of these interpretations will prove spiritually beneficial for classical students or classical teachers. The great flaw of Potter’s dichotomy between magicians and muggles is that there exists no gateway between the two worlds. No ritual with allows a muggle entrance into the society of magic, and no heresy which ejects a magician back into delusional disenchantment. Granted, there are both righteous and wicked magicians, skilled and unskilled magicians, however, the magical die is cast at birth.
St. Paul refuses to make such divisions. In Acts, the Apostle preaches, God has made from one blood[c] every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ No man, by blood, is further from God than any other. In fact, when God disperses men from the Tower of Babel, He sends each nation to a particular geographical location (the ‘boundaries of their dwellings’), and each location is influenced differently by their distinct experience of seasons (‘preappointed times’), but also the interplay of those seasons with local flora, fauna, lakes, rivers, mountains, valleys and so forth. Lewis seems to suggest as much in Till We Haves Faces; the convergence of the Shennit River, the Grey Mountain and the Ungit Stone lead to a religion whose sacrificial system and mythos make it easy for the people of Glome to seek the Lord. By the conclusion of the novel, Orual has ingested the cult and theology of Ungit as deeply as any human could, and begins speaking like a crypto-Christian missionary.
St Paul proves the point by borrowing from the theology of the 7th century pagan Epimenides, who claimed in the Cretica that men ‘live and move and have their being’ in Zeus; Paul suggests Epimenides merely misnamed the god of whom the profound claim was true. Epimenides was able to draw such an apt conclusion because God had fixed the boundary of his dwelling in Crete, where men had begun to claim Zeus was dead. Just as Job arrives at many deep truths about God in thinking through the false theologies of his friends, so Epimenides.
In his chapter on the 4th and 5th centuries AD for the Oxford History of Christianity, RA Markus (whose longer work, The End of Ancient Christianity, is the finest history book I have ever read) describes the way the doctrine of the Incarnation allowed Late Antique men to see the horizon between the human and the divine become “tantalizingly open.” If the distinction between magicians and muggles is to bear witness to anything true, there must be a door between the two. If there is no door, there is no sense in groping for God in the hope He might be found, because finding Him leads nowhere new.
Next: Martha’s revenge; Classical Christian anti-intellectualism; “Lies of intellectuals, child. Lies of intellectuals.”