From the Mailbag: A Student’s Senior Thesis

I get on average a letter every other day from a reader who accepts the invitation to write me that I put in the introductions to my books. Most of them are very kind — I guess folks who hate books prefer to vent to the world on a tome’s Amazon page rather than to the author — and some ask questions or for help. The bulk of the help requests come, as you might expect, from students. It takes more time than I want to admit to answer these notes, but, of course, the whole Gilderoy experience is so flattering that it is a delight I can’t resist.

Earlier this week I received this kind of email note from a student, a Christian attending a Classical School who is writing her senior thesis on the artistic merits and spiritual content of the Hogwarts Saga. She has met some resistance at the school in even speaking about Harry Potter and asked for some advice and ideas. Here is her letter and my response:

Dear Mr. Granger,

I’m a senior at a Classical Christian school and I’m writing my senior thesis on the elements of artistic beauty (how it’s true and beautiful, and therefore good, and appeals to the Christian aesthete) found in the the Harry Potter series and why it should be placed in the cannon of classic literature. With the thesis we collect information both supporting and opposing our opinions and write the paper (you’re actually one of my main sources in supporting my argument). Later in the year we will have to defend our theses in front of a panel of judges that is yet to be determined.

I was called to write this paper because in my sophomore year during homeroom, my fellow students and myself were discussing symbolism in the books and my teachers told us to be quiet. The teacher herself loves the books, so we asked, “Why?” She responded, “We’re not supposed to talk about them at school. Some people do not like them.” We said, “Why?!” Then she told us that people thought they were evil because there was magic in them.

During my junior year when it came time to pick a topic for the thesis, I immediately thought of the Harry Potter controversy. I am determined to put an end to this prejudice at my school. I sincerely hope my thesis will do so.  I’m reading your books concerning the subject, but I was wondering if you had any advice or words of wisdom for me in my journey to defend Harry at my school.



Dear Katie,

Thank you for your kind letter. Two quick notes this morning:

(1) Harry Haters as a rule have something much more than important than just good taste in reading or knowledge of how literature works, namely, faith in Christ. Usually, too, their disdain is based on either ignorance or obedience to their spiritual director, both of which are forgivable failings and the latter of which is a much-neglected virtue we all should foster, in ourselves as well as others. All of that is only to say, “don’t make this into an ‘us versus them’ crusade with ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’.” In battles among Christians, everyone loses because inevitably we all fail in charity and humility when being contentious.

(2) About your thesis, here are four major points about the artistic beauty and spiritually edifying nature of the Hogwarts Saga:

  • About the Magic: It is ‘incantational’ rather than the ‘invocational’ magic condemned by every revealed religious tradition, i.e., it’s not only not forbidden, it requires a speech-based reality, a Word Creator, for it to work. That this sort of magic in English literature from Shakespeare to Rowling and English literature is a Christian tradition reflects the Christian foundation of imaginative work with incantational or ‘harmonizing’ magic in it. It’s also why Ollivander’s wand cores are all taken from symbols of Christ.
  • The Symbolism of the Books: The overwhelming imagery of the books — the golden griffin (Gryffindor), the unicorn, the red lion, the hippogriff, the phoenix, the white stag, the Philosopher’s Stone, etc. — are tokens or markers of the Christ. Ms. Rowling uses every symbol of Christ, I think, in the Christian literary menagerie except the pelican. And she uses them to powerful effect, i.e., it’s not a mechanical usage but as brilliant translucencies through which we have some glimpse or experience of a quality of Christ.
  • The Major Characters: The three lead figures in the books, Ron, Hermione, and Harry, are what I call a ‘soul triptych,’ that is, each one of them represents one aspect or faculty of a single person: Ron is the body or passions, the “belly” of scripture, Hermione obviously is “brains” or the will, and Harry is the spirit, the “heart” of scripture, and “the noetic faculty” to the saints and philosophers. Their relationship is about the right ordering of these faculties in obedience to the heart in service to the good — usually in combat with evil! Because of the way the story is told, we identify with Harry, become him to some degree, and we are transformed, consequently, our souls turned right side up, by his choices, adventures, and victories. He dies and rises from the dead in the presence of a symbol or as a symbol of Christ in every book — and we experience with him this victory over ego and death.
  • The Literary Alchemy: ‘Transformation in Christ’ is the focus of human life — and literature from a predominately Christian nation reflects this focus in its various traditions. One of the more important and vital streams feeding the river of English letters is something called “literary alchemy.” It’s too involved to get into here, but, suffice it to say, it’s the story scaffolding, in Ms. Rowling’s words “the parameters of magic,” in the Hogwarts adventures. Based on the transformation of a character or characters by repentance and renunciation, purification, and perfection in sacrificial love, it is the heart both of Harry’s story and why readers everywhere love the books.

The thesis of almost every book I’ve written has been a corollary to something Mircea Eliade wrote about entertainments in a materialist or secular culture. He said these entertainments, especially fiction, serve a mythic or religious function in a world where God has been chased to the periphery of the public square or banished altogether. My corollary is only that, this being the case, the more spiritual freight and experience embedded in a work, the more popular it will be because it will bring greater satisfaction to the reader pursuing, consciously or more likely unconsciously, this religious function.

Potter-mania, consequently, is what it is because of (a) the great longing that exists for transformative, spiritual experience and (b) the fact that Ms. Rowling has delivered this experience so successfully through the artistry of her work. The Christian symbolism and traditional meaning of her postmodern epic is profoundly enriching and edifying as well as a whole lot of fun.

If you want the more detailed arguments on this, please do purchase and read How Harry Cast His Spell and The Deathly Hallows Lectures. Lectures has a good deal in it about the alchemy and the eye symbolism of the books which is very important for understanding the logos message of Harry’s victory over the Dark Lord. I hope you will write again with any questions you may have while reading those books — or that I will see you on my trip to Alabama next Spring!

Thank you again for your kind note and, in advance, for your future notes.



Post: Please send me a copy of your thesis when you’re done!


  1. Mrs. Mitchell says

    Dear Mr. Granger,

    I teach Katie rhetoric (the class in which the thesis is required), and I am also a Harry fan. The fact of the matter is, there are probably more of us at the school who are fans than those who are not (in the upper school, anyway). You are so kind to respond to Katie. I wrote a similar request to hers to another author who is a supporter of the classical Christian movement as well as an author of a published (Random House) fantasy series. I wrote him seeking advice for where we could find scholarly opinion of those who do not think that Harry qualifies as literature to be included in the canon of the great Western tradition. We find plenty of opposition, but we do not find what Leland Ryken says that Christian literary theory must have–an examination of the art for what it is (a novel). To what degree is it a representation of the novel as art? The only negative criticism we have found has nothing to do with the artistic merit of the work. At any rate, I still have not heard from the other author. Your very kind response will encourage Katie more than you know. Thank you so much for taking the time to interact with her!

  2. Thank you for writing, Mrs. Mitchell!

    Katie wrote me with a request for resources after my note above and I wrote to her:

    The three books on alchemy you should find are Stanton Linden’s Darke Hieroglyohicks, Lindy Abraham’s A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, and Titus Burckhardt’s Alchemy. For traditional iconological literary criticism (reading allegorically at four layers), see Aquinas on the four levels of scripture interpretation, Dante’s Letter to Con Grande and the introduction to Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. I think I point to other sources in How Harry Cast His Spell for the many symbols of Christ in the books.

    For sources that are opposed to Harry Potter and a traditional understanding of his adventures, you have Richard Abanes, on the one hand, a professional dancer turned evangelical Heresy Hunter, and Michael O’Brien, on the other, a Catholic artist and novelist become self-proclaimed culture warrior. It’s a toss-up, frankly, which is worse; each misrepresents Ms. Rowling and the English fantasy tradition, which to both is essentially Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. There is a paucity of thoughtful resources on this “side” of the argument because there isn’t much substance to saying the Hogwarts Saga is not implicitly Christian and often near explicit in its message.

    I didn’t mention this to Katie, who wanted extended criticism rather than internet urls, but academic criticism of the books, pro and con, is also more postmodern litmus strips of aestheticism and political correctness than substantive treatment of the books as art. Hence their disregard for what I try to do, which is exactly that — the “slow mining” Ruskin recommends to get at the depths of the text beneath the narrative line, the depths which touch and shape the reader.

    Thank you again for writing!

  3. This is a wonderful exchange! Thanks for sharing it with us. Would Katie be willing to share her thesis when it’s completed?

    Also, the first point you make about Christian arguments of these sorts failing in charity rings so true. Do you have any pointers on how to handle this issue with “Harry Haters”? I would like to present my viewpoints on the merits of the Harry Potter Series without resorting to namecalling or failure of charity. I have read most of your books on Harry Potter, so I am familiar with the alchemy, literary symbols, etc.

    Thanks again!

  4. My advice for dealing with Harry Haters is (a) to insist that everyone in the discussion have read the work in question so the conversation can be about that work rather than other issues only and (b) that the novel(s) be read primarily as literature rather than litmus strips of creed points. Mrs. Mitchell makes this point in her comment via Leland Ryken. Reading books as books first is something I have insisted on from the start, unlike Connie Neal and other Christians who confronted the Harry Haters during the Potter Panic. Arguing from Leviticus rather than the traditions of English fantasy means you have yielded the argument to folks dedicated to using art as weapons in an all-consuming culture war — with the unintended, ironic, and comi-tragic consequence of a profoundly Christian work and mania being dismissed as demonic or “not read by good Christians.”

    To your point, insist on this framework and that your Harry Hating friend read the books — or don’t participate. The conversation can only be contentious and uncharitable if you’re talking about something other than the work at hand and the goods it is meant to deliver.

    If Katie is reading this, I hope she’ll give us a thumbs up or down on posting her senior thesis. I’ll post it if she gives me her permission.

  5. May I suggest AN EXPERIMENT IN CRITICISM by CS Lewis and MYTH AND REALITY by Mircea Eliade as possibly helpful guides?

    It’s well enough to insist that everybody must read what they criticize but I’m not sure all the Harry-haters are strong on reading comprehension or able to distinguish the opinions of the villain from the message of the work.

  6. I advise Experiment in Criticism for all my students. It is the most rational, level-headed, and delightful tool for literary criticism I have ever encountered!

  7. What academic level is Experiment in Criticism? Would my sixth grader get a lot out of it or should I wait? Perhaps I will grab that and read it for myself and then have him read it.

  8. May I share a personal note that could benefit Katie’s future defense? When the thesis has been written, make every effort to examine the content for personal bias. Focus on your well-defined comparative analysis to ensure your content is scrutiny-clear. Scoffers will look for any opportunity to undermine your composure, thereby breaking down your credible work. I had an interesting reaction to a comparative-analysis paper where one classmate chose to discredit my resource material by making claims of fallacy in the texts, sighting his personal knowledge and prior training. Thankfully I had directed my paper on the deveopment of argument and other technical rhetorical points. I stayed the course with my response, ,nailed the A, and my classmate unfortunately lost face. My resource text? Holy scripture: Peter’s speech before the Sanhedrin and Paul’ speech on Mars Hill. Good luck, Katie

  9. Katie, there are other high school kids who have done what you are attempting, so hang in there! I had issues while serving as an elementary school aide at a well-respected local christian school. The principal was planning a tea on “Harry, the Gateway to the Occult.” My offense was that I was discussing the proposed harry-assault with another parent/employee. Shades of Professor Umbridge! At the same time, some students in the school were doing their senior presentations on the merits of Harry. So, there is still a lot of uncertainty about the magic, etc. People need to hear the truth. No one who was against Harry had read the series, in my experience. I had reluctantly read them, because my kids were so entranced, and became a convert. You sound like a very exemplary young lady who wants to fight for what she knows is true!

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