My kids were too little to read and take in the Harry Potter books when they were being written and released, so my wife and I waited for, bought, and read aloud to one another each volume as it was released. Because of this, we had an entirely adult engagement with the books, even as they inspired our childlike imaginations.
Not having a TV during those first years of our marriage, Charlene and I read hundreds of books aloud to each other as our better-than-TV entertainment. And having read so many books aloud, especially during the evenings, we discovered something unique about the Harry Potter books — they dealt with real evil.
As a typical modern American, I have lived most of my life without a sense of real evil.
No hordes of invaders have threatened to descend upon my country or have roamed our streets with weapons in hand. No slaver has put bonds on my hands and feet and made me work the fields under a lash. I have not been abused or raped. I have not experienced the cruelty of drug lords or pimps. I have not been demonized. I have not been framed and imprisoned for a crime I did not commit. I have not been kicked to the streets and into homelessness.
Yes, I encounter brokenness and sin in myself and in others around me. But as my wife and I were reading these books, I became aware of the fact that I had gradually come to disbelieve in the reality of evil. Sin, yes. Evil, no. My circumstances were too cozy to believe in it.
At the same time as we were reading the first several books in the Potter series, Charlene and I were reading and praying along with Celtic prayers as part of our bedtime practice. And there, embedded within these prayers were wards against evil.
And I realized that though an invocation against evil exists within the central prayer that all Christians pray, I never prayed against evil in any of my other daily prayers. Evil simply wasn’t in my praying vocabulary.
But there I was, rising in the morning and praying a prayer such as this:
I rise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s might to uphold me.
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptation of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and near,
Alone and in a multitude.
It’s a basic protection prayer. Simple. Rhythmic. Theologically astute. Easy enough to learn and pray while getting dressed each morning.
As the schemes of Lord Voldemort reminded me of the reality of evil in the world, the Celts reminded me how to pray in the presence of evil.
The marriage of Harry Potter and Celtic spirituality provided both the point and counterpoint I needed to engage with evil in my impoverished spirituality.
Even so, because of the poverty of our spiritualities in this regard, there were times when the reality of evil in the books threatened to overwhelm our imaginations. Charlene is still rattled by the palpable evil at the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when a character is murdered and human blood is used in a horrifying sacrificial act. Sure, there are plenty of horror movies and books which are more graphic than that scene, but there is a vividness to J.K. Rowling’s writing which made this evil vividly real to us as we read the words aloud.
For some, this is too much, a sign that Rowling herself is in league with evil, and I was given a video which said as much by a concerned relative. But not only did the video misrepresent the books and Rowling herself, it missed the point. Rowling was not painting evil as something enticing to her readers. She showed it as the vile thing it truly is. And then she did one thing even better.
Rowling shows throughout the Potter books how otherwise normal people get drawn into evil and the different forms that evil takes.
Easily one of the best representations of the psychology of evil, Rowling’s depiction of Tom Riddle becoming Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is both astute and convincing. The fact that the book was released at the same time as the movie Star Wars, Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith, with its vastly unconvincing transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader, showed that Rowling has a deeper theological and practical understanding of evil than George Lucas. (Seriously, who wants there to be “balance” in the Force?)
Where Anakin’s blend of fear and anger simply don’t add up to a willingness to slaughter children in the Jedi Temple, Tom Riddle’s sense of elitism, his isolation from any kind of friendship, and his narcissistic desire to gather trophies and followers make sense of his loathing of muggles, his willingness to deal out pain, his deception, his grabbing for power, and his quest for immortality at any cost. Elitism, isolation, and narcissism are far more believable than Lucas’ fear and anger, even though those two are elements Rowling weaves into her unholy trinity of evil. (They can be elements of evil but not sources of it.)
We see those three at play in lesser ways in others Rowling holds out as more everyday examples of evil.
Elitism is behind the evil of the Malfoy family and other pure-blood Death Eaters.
Narcissism is behind the evil of Gilderoy Lockhart, with his good looks and popular books; behind Rita Skeeter, with her famous poison pen; behind Delores Umbridge, with her pink outfits and kitten photos.
Isolation is behind Peter Pettigrew’s betrayal of those who called him friend, a friendship that he walled himself off from without their knowing it.
The opposite of elitism, isolation, and narcissism is, of course, love. Love is always other-oriented, refusing to place one’s self over others in elitism, killing isolation through the embrace of real friendship, and deflating narcissism through humbly seeking the best for others at a cost to one’s self.
Rowling provides ample examples of love in the face of evil, most notably in the self-sacrifice of Harry’s mother Lily to save her son and in the deep bond of friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione.
And so, reminded of my need for protection from evil by the one who loves me best of all, I pray with the Celts before me:
The Son of God be shielding me from harm,
The Son of God be shielding me from ill,
The Son of God be shielding me from mishap,
The Son of God be shielding me this night.
The Son of God be shielding me with might,
The Son of God be shielding me with power;
Each one who is dealing with me aright,
So may God deal with his soul.