“Witchcraft is Just a Metaphor”

I received a wonderful letter today from a school teacher who had just finished reading Harry Potter’s Bookshelf. After saying very kind things about Bookshelf, she wanted to know what I thought about a comment Ms. Rowling made in a 1999 interview with Dan Hulbert (“Just wild about Harry: Dedicated fans of a young wizard have Scottish scribe J.K. Rowling to thank,” The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, October 22, 1999). In that discussion with an American reporter, the author, sharing her frustration with Christian objections to the book, made a pointed comment about the metaphorical meaning of magic in her stories.

First, the original statement as it was reported:

If Harry is becoming a household word today, translated into 28 languages, with 8.2 million copies of the books in print in the United States alone, he’s headed for even bigger fame onscreen. Rowling has an author’s dream clause — final script approval! — for the Warner Bros. film in the making of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” With its flying cars, terrifying beasts, heart-stopping games of Quidditch (a mad variation of polo on broomsticks) and magical transformations, this first 1997 Potter book has all the makings of a Spielbergian blockbuster.

And yet the most miraculous feature of the books is that they are so unmistakably books — good, literate books, no goosebumpish pandering. The imaginative range is vast. The wit is dry (wizard gardens must be forcibly ” de-gnomed”), the satire sharp. There’s sheer Jabberwockian joy in language as character is proclaimed through such names as Snape, Filch, Voldemort and Peeves (the annoying poltergeist). Like “The Wind in the Willows” — one of the few familiar children’s classics that Rowling loves — Potter makes wonderful reading for adults for the same reason it’s catnip to kids: It gives them credit for having minds.

And running under all the colorful action is a clear spiritual message, exemplified in the fearless sacrifice Harry’s mother made for her son before the first book begins.

So it’s not surprising that a wince of pain flickers across the author’s face when she’s asked about the school boards — in four states, including South Carolina — that have not accepted the Potter series on account of its alleged sympathy with witchcraft and the occult.

“They don’t get it,” Rowling, a member of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), says wearily. “They have a perfect right to control what their own children read but not what other people’s children read — that’s a basic censorship issue. Look: I don’t believe in witchcraft. Many of the terms for spells and charms and so on, I invented. Witchcraft is just a metaphor for this other world of possibilities, beyond convention, that the mind can reach.

“Witchcraft is just a metaphor for this other world of possibilities, beyond convention, that the mind can reach.” Do we have confirmation of that quotation as an authentic position of the author? Yes, we do. At the Open Book Tour Event in 2007 in Carnegie Hall, Ms. Rowling was asked point-blank about this statement:

So I got to the front of the line, presented my ticket, walked over to Jo, and without preamble said, “In an October 1999 interview you said that magic was just a metaphor for this other world of possibilities, beyond convention, that the mind can reach. Could you please confirm that for me?”

She’d turned to hand a signed book to one of the Scholastic helper-people, and for a split second I thought she hadn’t heard or hadn’t understood me. Then she turned back, looked me in the eye, nodded emphatically, and said, “I would definitely confirm that.

Good enough for me.

For starters, I think this answer to Christian objections about the books — that the protesters are reading literally when they need to be thinking diagonally, which is to say, metaphorically or allegorically — rebuffs those who insist these books only have surface and pedestrian moral meaning. The author flat out asserts there is meaning that requires looking beneath the surface and interpretation.

More importantly, in offering this in frustration to her Christian critics, I think it is implied, at least, that of all people her Christian readers should understand “this other world of possibilities, beyond convention, that the mind can reach.” The “inside bigger than the outside” being a topos or cliche of Inkling fiction, she all but says, why is Harry Potter being singled out as demonic but Goudge, Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams get a pass?

It must be my week for wonderful letters because another reader wrote me two days ago saying kind things about the exact chapter in Deathly Hallows Lectures I hope the teacher who wrote me about Ms. Rowling’s “Metaphorical magic” will read: Chapter 5 ‘The Seeing Eye.’ She wrote:

I FINALLY got a copy of your Deathly Hallows Lectures book. I just opened it for the first time this morning, and I had to put it down for awhile so I could just process what I read. I’ve only read the end of Chapter Four and the start of Chapter Five, but my mind has already OD’d on boggling. The Lewis, Coleridge, and Cutsinger stuff is really incredible. I hope people read the end-notes to Chapter Five, especially the Cutsinger quotes. My mind is still trying to grasp and process all this. What profound implications, not just for literature, but for theology and for life itself.

You wonderfully articulated the true “high calling” of imaginative and symbolist literature, with its ability to convey, even subconsciously, a sacramental worldview that unites signifier and Signified, matter and Spirit, earth and Heaven, man and God in such a perfect and beautiful way. It makes Sense out of everything. (I always loved Coleridge, Shelley, Blake, and even Baudelaire, without really understanding why.) How refreshing, after formal studies in literature that sought to strip away all meaning, to be given tools and insights that actually ADD to literary meaning in profound ways.[…]

Meanwhile, I’ll be looking up Cutsinger. After I finish your book, of course! Thank you for once again igniting the spark!

I think, in brief, the metaphor of magic points to the heart of English fantasy literature, namely, Coleridge’s natural theology. That’s covered in Lectures. What do you all think of this 1999 interview? Am I over reaching to think this suggests, at least, and that it may even be auctorial, all-but-explicit confirmation that her literary magic is traditional Inkling fare?


  1. Arabella Figg says

    This interview was fantastic! It certainly confirms Rowling’s metaphorical/below-surface meaning, Christian-meaning intent. It’s practically like a brick to the head. Thanks for sharing this; I’ll be passing it on.

    Congratulations on the good DHL feedback.

  2. It is not the only symbolic value but witchcraft as an emblem for technology gets lots of support from me. The subtle parallels between the use of both in the series is poignant commentary on materialism. The heart that is not right is just as deadly with ecckletricity as it is with a killing curse – both technologies are misapplied with a vengeance.

  3. I found this comment to be especially helpful: “…Potter makes wonderful reading for adults for the same reason it’s catnip to kids: It gives them credit for having minds.”

  4. Those two articles with Jo’s statements on the “witchcraft” in HP being a metaphoric literary tool nailed it John!

    As a former “anti-Potter” Evangelical teacher in the church, I needed that education in English traditional fantasy lit. Oh, about 6 years ago.

    As you know I picked up a copy of Looking for God In HP and I’ve never looked back.

  5. Emily Strand says

    The best thing about this Rowling interview archive gem (and her unequivocal confirmation) to me is: I’ve been saying this for a while now in public presentations with absolutely no proof that it was the author’s intent! Now I’ve got it. Thanks, John!

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