The Death of Wizards


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The Death of Wizards
By Bobby Neal Winters

Harry Potter has gotten a lot of press.

That might be the only thing the two sides which inevitably form with regard to the Harry Potter phenomenon agree upon.

Those who are Potter fans rally behind him because the books are fun. Young people—and their parents—enjoy reading them. There are countless stories coming from parents and teachers wherein the Harry Potter books get the credit for a child learning to love reading.

On the other hand, there are those who despise Harry Potter and see his popularity as an almost demonic means of popularizing witchcraft.

Before we go any further, let me identify myself as a member of the first camp. My middle daughter is one of those who learned to love reading with the aid of Harry Potter. However, let me say I do believe what our children read is important and that reading if you are just going to read garbage is worse than not reading at all.

Reading is an intimate act. We let a person’s words come in through our eyes and set up residence in our brains.

To concede that the other side of this debate may have a certain point, let me briefly relate my family’s experience with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The first two books (The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife) and the first two-thirds of the last book (The Amber Spyglass) were wonderful, though I must admit that a more suspicious reader that I would have picked up an anti-Catholic strain. The final third of the last book is a direct assault on Christianity.

We were led to read this trilogy, which is full of fantasy and magic, because of our fondness for Harry Potter. Having read His Dark Materials, I’ve become more muted in my enthusiasm for Harry Potter and somewhat more understanding of his critics.

However, whatever valid criticism there may be, it is not because of the magic. On that note, the Narnia Chronicles of C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings provide excellent counterexamples to any blank statement claiming that magic in books aimed at children or young adults is evil. This having been said, one of the reasons that we as Christians have confidence in the works of Lewis and Tolkien is that we know the authors to be Christian. Philip Pullman is an atheist and J.K. Rowling is something of an unknown quantity.

It is a red herring to ask whether a particular book promotes witchcraft or not. The magic in these stories is simply a tool for capturing a young person’s imagination. The real question is what the child is being taught by the book once his imagination is captured.

What sort of values are being transmitted?

The discussion of the Harry Potter series is somewhat hampered by the fact it isn’t finished yet. However, it is six-sevenths done, and my family, as a group, has recently finished Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

That which follows contains spoilers and fans of the series who’ve not yet read The Half-Blood Prince might wish to stop.

One of the key characters of the series has been Albus Dumbledore, the wizard who is the headmaster of Hogwarts school of magic. The main event of The Half-Blood Prince is the death of Dumbledore. In hindsight, it was heavily foreshadowed, and, as a reader, I shouldn’t have been surprised. The fact that I was surprised is a measure of how much I didn’t want the event to happen.

Albus Dumbledore is a very likeable character. He is a wise, caring adult who clearly cares for his charges at Hogwarts. In The Half-Blood Prince, Rowling takes great pains to show him as a well-mannered man with class and patience. There is a scene between him and Harry’s foster parents where he very deliberately models good manners to them in spite of their clear absence of good manners to him.

As an aside, let me remark that Rowling is, in my opinion, realistic in her portrayal of teachers. While there are teachers which she uses as comic relief, by and large the teachers she portrays at Hogwarts are caring and competent.

Dumbledore is an ideal: The Scholar-Teacher. This is education’s equivalent of the Philosopher-King. We would love it if school administrators in real life were like Dumbledore, that is to say qualified to lead because they are the best of the best.

I would like to compare Rowling’s portrayal of the death of Dumbledore and compare it to the death of Gandalf as portrayed in The Fellowship of the Ring. In this, I will be hampered by the fact that the Harry Potter series still has one book to go, and we readers of Rowling have discovered things are not always as they appear.

This was the case, as well, with J.R.R. Tolkien. The death of Gandalf was not the end of Gandalf. Gandalf died as a result of his battle with the balrog of the bridge of Khazad-dûm. This battle is one of my favorite scenes in literature. Gandalf, who has been a part of the Fellowship of the Ring on the side of good, faces the ancient evil of the Balrog across the bridge. If the Balrog makes it past Gandalf, the lives of the members of the Fellowship will be lost and their quest to save Middle-Earth from the evil of Sauron will be ended.

Facing this evil, Gandalf shouts across the bridge, “You shall not pass!”

This has been a scene I’ve called to mind again and again. While there is a certain amount of give and take was we live among people who do not share our values, we must each draw a line beyond which we will not move regardless, otherwise we will be swept away. Gandalf draws this line. The Balrog will not be allowed to cross the bridge of Khazad-dûm while Gandalf lives. He defeats the Balrog, but the Balrog’s whip catches Gandalf’s legs and pulls him into the abyss. Gandalf dies, but through his death is transformed.

This is one of the scenes that endears Tolkien to Christians as it parallels the death and resurrection of Jesus. The parallel with resurrection is a good one, but it is not certain how far it can be pressed. While Gandalf does come through his death changed, Christ’s resurrection entails rather more. Christ had a resurrected body which could move through closed doors and span space in an instant, while Gandalf’s appears to be simply a restored version of his old one.

With the death of Dumbledore, parallels to scriptures are not so easy if they are to be had at all. If Dumbledore is to undergo a quasi-resurrection, that will wait until the series last volume.

The death of Dumbledore doesn’t involve a duel with a Balrog. It is a rather more complicated matter involving Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape. Draco, as you may know, is Harry’s opposite member in Slyterin house and Snape is Harry’s nemesis in the faculty. From the reader’s point of view, we’ve seen very little but nastiness from either of these characters. However, the picture has been complicated by the fact that Dumbledore has trusted Snape implicitly throughout the entire series.

In The Half-Blood Prince, we eventually discover that Malfoy has been commissioned to kill Dumbledore. After several failed attempts, he meets a weakened Dumbledore at a point where Harry is paralyzed nearby, hidden under his invisibility cloak. Harry listens as Dumbledore talks calmly to Malfoy, telling him that he is not a killer. While one might read this as simply bargaining for his life, the easier reading is that of Dumbledore simply being a teacher to the last. He really cares about his students not just in their capacity as scholars but as human beings.

We don’t know whether or not Dumbledore would have succeeded in talking Malfoy out of murder because the scene is interrupted by Snape.

As I’ve said, throughout the series we’ve not known what to make of Snape. On one hand, we’ve seen nothing of him but hatefulness, but on the other, Dumbledore has trusted him. The Half-Blood Prince doesn’t really shead much light on the situation. Snape does ultimately kill Dumbledore, however, we do have lingering doubts as he was magically bound at the beginning of the book by an “unbreakable oath” to carry out whatever task Malfoy couldn’t, and that task has turned out to be the murder of Dumbledore. Snape had been serving as a double agent for the Evil Lord Voldemort, and we don’t know where his loyalties really lay. Is he truly a servant of the Dark Lord or was the unbreakable oath he took simply a calculated risk that went horribly wrong?

At the end, Dumbledore is pleading for Snape not to take his life, but one could believe it is less for his own sake than for the sake of Snape’s soul.

The final analysis waits for the final book of the series. However, until this point, I see no hidden evil message within Harry Potter. In particular, Albus Dumbledore is an exemplar of virtue who’s worthy of emulation even to the point of his death.

(Bobby Winters is a professor of mathematics, writer, and speaker. You may contact him at or visit his website at
Hi Okie--

Wanted to leave that up there for pure reading before I adulterated it with my humble opinion.

Besides, I know it is probably about time that it will change--looking forward to the next string of pearly wisdom:).

When I read your stories, I feel better somehow. Within my family (not my husband and I) the issues you bring up are a big deal, I guess. And I can understand why. But it is just nice to hear from you on it. Thanks.