With the inevitable success of the final "Harry Potter" film comes the inevitable uproar from religious conservatives, who have, since the book series' inception in 1997 (hard to believe!), found much to complain about. It is unnecessary for me to reproduce their arguments in toto, especially since their main points about the godless, magickal universe of Harry Potter are summarized so nicely in this essay by Jay Michaelson:
Harry Potter’s world is one of materialist magic, and while its ethical teachings are basically “Judeo-Christian” (love is important, trust in your friends, be brave no matter what people say, etc.), these teachings are played out against an ontological/theological background that is thoroughly devoid of a monotheistic deity. [...] For a conventional theist, surely it is problematic that Harry’s drama of good versus evil plays out in an entirely this-worldly context. God (by which I mean here the unreconstructed monotheistic God) has no role whatsoever. The best man wins the duel—or rather, the man with the best wand.
Michaelson thus confirms that naysayers' complaints about Potter are not without water (well, maybe the arguments that Harry and his friends inspire disobedience or the use of magic for evil, an argument similiar in both line and flaw with the video-games-cause-violence argument). However, he suggests that, if I interpret him correctly, that the relationship between philosophy and religion plays out differently in different spiritual traditions, and in traditions that include magical acts and artifacts, that magic stems from mythos and awe, but within a logically ordered universe. He concludes:
But I think part of why I loved ["Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2"], and the series as a whole, is the same reason that religious conservatives mistrusted it: because Rowling’s world is a magical, pagan universe in which chthonic beings duke it out without any hint of a Supervisor in Chief. Its Christ figure is a human boy who lives, dies, and is reborn, thanks to a magical stone. Its Satan is a human wizard gone awry, drunk with his own power. It’s a magical, wonderful world—and, in conventional terms, a godless one.
This description of Rowling's created universe perfectly encapsulates the spiritual appeal of the books and films to their older audiences, and mirrors the mythical universe created by "Buffy" creator Joss Whedon. Having moved on to more futuristic lines with "Firefly," "Dollhouse," and the new "Avengers" film, Whedon began his worldmaking with something considerably more ancient, and like Rowling, formed a godless universe that was rocked by ongoing battles between the forces of good and evil, as played out in fallible human agents, some of whom were imbued with nonhuman power or assisted by magical acts and artifacts. Moreover, the ethical problems and philosophical questions asked by its characters were explored and resolved within a magical, pagan universe that generally worked on its own secular terms; as in "Harry Potter," at the end of the day characters were responsible for their own grace or self-destruction.
The premise of "Buffy," in case you're unfamiliar, is as such: at the beginning of humankind, the world was populated by demons who mixed themselves with humans before their expulsion from this dimension. With these now-permanent fixtures raising Hell on Earth, a group of tribal elders harnessed the essence of a demon (what this is exactly, is left unexplained) and planted it into a young girl. This created the Slayer, who, despite the show's title, is responsible for protecting the humans from the demons who walk around in humanoid form (not just vampires). Some demons are generally wandering morons looking for things to push over, blow up, and kill, but most are the ancient conception of demon as a force that manipulates humans into evildoing. Examples:
- Paranoia demon ("Angel" 2.2): provokes an inflamed sense of mistrust, paranoia, and fear in humans, and continues to feed and feed on these emotions until the collective paranoia is enough that the demon can take physical form
- Vengeance demon (Anyanka on "Buffy"): grants wishes of harm and revenge to wronged people whose anger and pain summons the demon
- Fear demon ("Buffy" 4.4): manipulates objects and space-time so as to increase fear in people
These are only the most literal examples. The show's claim to fame, the vampires, are human corpses piloted by demons. While not literally what happens to Death Eaters or their pawns under the Imperius Curse, both the Potterverse and the Buffyverse are populated by people who have allowed evil power within their bodies (the Dark Marks), who are overridden by a force that compels them to perform evil acts, and who have lost all or part of their souls in weak moments of lust for another (vampires) or for power (Voldemort).
In Harry Potter, anyone who commits evil deeds does so not necessarily for Voldemort, but has given into an irresistible need to act upon primal desires; the magic used in those instances is rarely good (e.g. the Unforgivables, or even minor curses that Hogwarts students occasionally inflict upon each other.) In "Buffy" and "Angel," those who commit evil deeds are often demons or afflicted by demons (though not always, which usually prompts Buffy to wish she were allowed to kill rapists and murderers who are simply bad humans) who embrace and gorge upon these primal desires.
What I see then, in both fantasy worlds, is that their creators implore us to act with grace and compassion, not to give into our basest desires and meanest impulses. Not to avoid judgment from a Creator, or to align to any religious paradigm, but because bad thoughts and bad feelings lead to bad things: loss of one's soul, having your free will taken away, the deaths of loved ones, and terror and pain for innocents. Furthermore, once you give in, you no longer recognize the value of good. Vampires know that they do evil, as do Death Eaters, yet they have little motivation to change their ways. The human parts of themselves are weak and suppressed by the complacent lust and desperate need for further power.
And yet as the Potterverse's most powerful magic--love--demonstrates, the emotions and acts that are good by any sound logic increase power for their bearer and experiencer. Similarly, on "Buffy" and "Angel" acts of sacrifice and compassion (e.g. Buffy's suicide to save her sister, Xander's tough love on Willow to save her from self-destruction, Doyle's sacrifice to save the half-breeds) all dispel the magical whatzits and demonic intent in a threatening situation immediately.
Fantasy writers capable of creating worlds with their own mythos, metaphysics, deities and demons, and magics need only a non-theistic, practical, and moral philosophy in which to operate. Everything else becomes a symbol, with which we can interact, that reflects the most innate fears, passions, urges, and desires, or endorses the ancients' wisdom. I haven't seen a lot of fantasy novels, TV shows, movies, or comics where that philosophy is one of "kill to get ahead," "evil is better than good," or "love is weakness." These are not moral beliefs that are commonly held, yet they manifest in action daily and globally. Fantasy provides the inverted mirror of self-reflection:
"Why do people do bad things? Because a demon got in their head or they were put under the Imperius Curse? Why did I hurt this person? Because I am a demon or a follower of Lord Voldemort?"
Any sane person would answer "no" to those questions. And try as religious conservatives might to argue otherwise, no one familiar with the Potterverse and Buffyverse would believe in those excuses. Our relationship with popular culture is the same as our ancestors' was with the oral tradition: we don't accept it as reality and adjust our behavior accordingly; we ask questions upon encountering similar problems of life, love, temptation, and faith among characters, and through the exploration we adjust our behavior to be better.
Hence the influx of "What Would Harry Do?" and "What Would Buffy Do?" merchandise. These mantras symbolize the reflection of Buffy's sacrifices and tenacity, of Harry's compassion and moral-centeredness, in how we address evil and temptation in our daily lives, not an advisement to stake someone through the heart or engage them in a wand duel. Are those mantras, with their deliberate substitution of two fantasy heroes' names for Jesus, blasphemy? No, merely a very personal religion that if one finds through fantasy works, is all the more personal by turning the story inward.