Happy May the Fourth! What do midi-chlorians in Star Wars have to do with magic in Harry Potter?

Of midi-chlorians, magic and the Christian doctrine of grace

by Emily Strand

I have mused elsewhere about the connections, both superficial and essential, between the Harry Potter and Star Wars sagas. Recently I’ve been struck by the parallels between each epic’s approach to its supernatural stuff. With respect for the legitimate and significant differences between the Force in Star Wars and magic in Harry Potter, I’d like to speculate about what notions might undergird each, in the imaginations of their respective creators (or “sub-creators” as Tolkien might call them). In C.S. Lewis’ essay “On Stories,” the Narnia author says, “To construct plausible and moving ‘other worlds’ you must draw on the only real ‘other world’ we know, that of the spirit.” Both Rowling and Lucas seem to have drawn on the Christian idea of grace to set the parameters for the supernatural stuff of their respective sagas, and how, within those parameters, certain characters are set apart.

First, a piece of advice: if you find yourself among Star Wars fans, don’t mention midi-chlorians. Just don’t bring them up. Don’t know what they are yourself? That’s fine, most fans will tell you. You’re not missing anything. The Force was just fine without the midi-chlorians. Many Star Wars fans choose not to think about midi-chlorians much, because, when they do, they realize they hate them more than Jar Jar Binks. Way more.

Now I’m going to totally disregard my own advice, because I really want to talk about the midi-chlorians. So life-long Star Wars fans, please go collect some rotten fruit to throw at your screens.

Okay, we’re back. Star Wars fans first encountered these microscopic trouble-makers in 1999’s The Phantom Menace, when Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, on a hunch, has his apprentice run a test of the midi-chlorian level of young Anakin Skywalker’s blood, only to find it exceeds even that of Master Yoda. Later, Qui-Gon explains to the boy that midi-chlorians are “microscopic life-forms that reside within the cells of all living things” and “continually speak to us … telling us the will of the Force.” (The Phantom Menace novelization by Terry Brooks) All this seems to imply that Force-sensitivity is a function of how many midi-chlorians you have running around your cells.

SW3When Anakin responds that he still does not understand this reality, the audience is right there with the confused 9-year-old. Huh? Fans who grew up with the original franchise, who studied the Force with Luke under Obi-Wan Kenobi in 1977, understand the Force as something which surrounds us, penetrates us, binds us and all living things together. It seemed, from Obi-Wan’s description, that anyone could tap into the Force, and the Force was with us all. The prequels, besides bringing us Jar-Jar, upset our egalitarian impressions of the Force, formed by the original trilogy. Now we were forced (ahem) to wrestle with the reality that some folks have more of these Force-conducting midi-chlorians than others. For life-long fans, some dream died when they learned, as former Stormtrooper Finn learns from Han Solo in The Force Awakens, that average people can’t just “use the Force”: that this is not how it works.

Amy H. Sturgis rescued my imagination from midi-chlorian-induced despair in her inspiring course on Star Wars, the franchise and the phenomenon, for the Mythgard Institute in fall 2015. She pointed her students (some of whom seemed a bit irate about the subject) to Matthew Woodring Stover’s essay in Star Wars on Trial. Stover maintains that midi-chlorians are a metaphor, and not to get too technical with the concept. They count, claims Stover, as a measure of a person’s Force potential, and nothing more. And most helpfully, Stover points out the verisimilitude this lends the story, for this too is the way of the world; some people are especially gifted, others are not. And in the end, one’s giftedness is not what matters, but what one does with the gifts one is given. This is evidenced by the fact, Stover points out, that Anakin “I’m-a-walking-midi-chlorian-family-reunion” Skywalker gets smoked by the hard-working, ever-faithful Obi-Wan Kenobi in Revenge of the Sith.

This is where my Potter-shaped imagination took over, drawing connections between the two saga’s supernatural matter: the Force and magic. For doesn’t the same principle apply in Harry’s world? Either you get your owl from Hogwarts on your eleventh birthday, or you don’t. Fans of Rowling’s saga have never rebelled against the idea that not all children are given a place at Dumbledore’s school of magic. Simply put, some folks are magic, and some are Muggles. It’s just the way things are. Most readers see Petunia Evans’ childhood jealousy over her sister Lily’s witchhood as misguided and selfish, not justified. Of course, this notion of the selectivity of magical power in the Potter universe is clear from the beginning of Rowling’s saga: she never led us to believe magic is something one can choose to tap into. Even as she emphasizes the importance of choice in all things, it is understood to be choice of what to do with the gifts one is given, not the choice to possess those gifts in the first place.

This leads us to understand midi-chlorians in Star Wars as a tool Lucas uses to, like Rowling, set certainKylo 3 characters apart for some special purpose. Anakin’s abnormally high midi-chlorian count tells viewers that Qui-Gon was right: Anakin is the Chosen One, the one who will bring balance to the Force. And the calamitous advent of Harry Potter’s owl(s) from Hogwarts in Philosopher’s Stone shows us, all too clearly, that the magic of the universe will not be kept from its true purpose by Harry’s hard-hearted, unbelieving relations, the Dursleys. Harry too is a “Chosen One”, and he cannot be the beacon of old magic he is meant to be, locked away in a cupboard.

It is accepted that Christianity has, to varying degrees, influenced both the Harry Potter and the Star Wars sagas’ creators. It seems both Rowling and Lucas may have taken C.S. Lewis’ advice, drawing upon the realm of the spirit to inform and guide their narrative worlds, especially with regard to the supernatural stuff of their stories: magic and the Force. The “given-ness” (as opposed to “achieved-ness”) of both magic and midi-chlorians resonates, to this Christian fan of both sagas, with the doctrine of grace.

In ten years of teaching various aspects of Christianity on the collegiate level, I have always found grace the most difficult Christian concept to convey, despite its fairly straightforward nature. Christian students, especially, tend to think of their own salvation as a function of how well they’ve obeyed God’s commandments. They appear so scandalized when I contradict them, and despite my correction, many persist in the erroneous belief that Christians effect their own salvation through good works. Now different Christian traditions have differing notions of the details of how grace works, but most theologians agree that our salvation as Christians is not a function of our own good works, kind deeds or our faithfulness to God’s commands. These are all important factors in our earthly contentment, but what is essential to our eternal salvation is grace: a free gift from God through the person of Jesus Christ, who calls sinners, not the righteous, who rescues the lost, and whose death brings new life. Just ask the brother of the Prodigal Son in Luke’s Gospel; it’s not being “good” that saves us. It is the extravagant, even foolish mercy of our Father, who loves and forgives us sinners to excess.

Christians boldly believe ourselves to be special, set apart for a divine life. We believe we will get that letter from H20091106125430!Dumbledoreogwarts someday; we believe we can use the Force, even when the skeptics tells us that’s not how it works. But we concede with humility that what makes us special is not up to us. It is pure, boundless gift. As the charismatic Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber has pointed out, our only role in our own salvation – in this life of grace that God lavishes upon us so gratuitously – is our choice to live our lives in response to it: to live in such a way that God’s love for us will not have been in vain. Anything else is a path to the Dark Side. For, as a wise man once said, it is our choices, far more than our midi-chlorians, that show who we really are.

Emily Strand is a Catholic catechetical writer and author of the book Mass 101: Liturgy and Life (Liguori, 2013). She teaches Comparative Religions at Mt. Carmel College of Nursing and is the newest member of the HogPro teaching staff. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter (@ekcstrand).


  1. If you’re comparing Christian grace to having a high midi-chlorian count or not being a Muggle, are you saying that not everyone gets offered a chance to live their lives in response to grace?

  2. Emily Strand says

    Good question, Jen. As Stover puts it (and this applies to magic in HP too), it’s a metaphor, so we shouldn’t get technical with it. I’m not saying midi-chlorians and magic are allegorical stand-ins for the Christian life of grace, but are notions, in their own contexts, which resonate with the idea of grace in some important ways. Grace is given, not earned. So too are high midi-chlorian counts and getting your owl from Hogwarts.

Speak Your Mind