Alan Jacobs, professor of English at Wheaton College, wrote an article on the Harry Potter phenomenon in the January 2000 edition of First Things. At the time only three books in the series had been released. Three books later(the sixth book will be released Saturday), the article is still instructive.
Jacobs faces head-on the antipathy many Christians feel for things magical, wanting to avoid any dabbling whatsoever with the New Age movement or the occult. He acknowledges that this carefulness is good and right, and then goes to great pains in the remainder of the article to prove that in the case of Harry Potter, these reservations are ill-founded.
Jacobs points out that only in recent centuries has "experimental science" become distinct from "magic". The divorcing of the two concepts, Jacobs maintains, is due to the fact that experimental science has proved to be a valid and reliable means of solving problems, while magic has not. The distinction, he says, was not always so clear.
The place to begin is to invoke one of the great achievements of twentieth–century historical scholarship: the eight volumes Lynn Thorndike published between 1929 and 1941 under the collective title A History of Magic and Experimental Science. And it is primarily the title that I wish to reflect upon here. In the thinking of most modern people, there should be two histories here: after all, are not magic and experimental science opposites? Is not magic governed by superstition, ignorance, and wishful thinking, while experimental science is rigorous, self–critical, and methodological? While it may be true that the two paths have diverged to the point that they no longer have any point of contact, for much of their existence—and this is Lynn Thorndike’s chief point—they constituted a single path with a single history. For both magic and experimental science are means of controlling and directing our natural environment (and people insofar as they are part of that environment). C. S. Lewis has made the same assertion:
[Francis Bacon’s] endeavor is no doubt contrasted in our minds with that of the magicians: but contrasted only in the light of the event, only because we know that science succeeded and magic failed. That event was then still uncertain. Stripping off our knowledge of it, we see at once that Bacon and the magicians have the closest possible affinity. . . . Nor would Bacon himself deny the affinity: he thought the aim of the magicians was "noble."
It was not obvious in advance that science would succeed and magic fail: in fact, several centuries of dedicated scientific experiment would have to pass before it was clear to anyone that the "scientific" physician could do more to cure illness than the old woman of the village with her herbs and potions and muttered charms. In the Renaissance, alchemists were divided between those who sought to solve problems—the achievement of the philosopher’s stone, for example (or should I say the sorcerer’s stone?)—primarily through the use of what we would call mixtures of chemicals and those who relied more heavily on incantations, the drawing of mystical patterns, and the invocation of spirits.
At least, it seems to us that the alchemists can be so divided. But that’s because we know that one approach developed into chemistry, while the other became pure magic. The division may not have been nearly so evident at the time, when (to adapt Weber’s famous phrase) the world had not yet become disenchanted. As Keith Thomas has shown, it was "the triumph of the mechanical philosophy" of nature that "meant the end of the animistic conception of the universe which had constituted the basic rationale for magical thinking." Even after powerful work of the mechanistic scientists like Gassendi the change was not easily completed: Isaac Newton, whose name is associated more than any other with physical mechanics, dabbled frequently in alchemy.
This history provides a key to understanding the role of magic in Joanne Rowling’s books, for she begins by positing a counterfactual history, a history in which magic was not a false and incompetent discipline, but rather a means of controlling the physical world at least as potent as experimental science. In Harry Potter’s world, scientists think of magic in precisely the same way they do in our world, but they are wrong. The counterfactual "secondary world" that Rowling creates is one in which magic simply works, and works as reliably, in the hands of a trained wizard, as the technology that makes airplanes fly and refrigerators chill the air—those products of applied science being, by the way, sufficiently inscrutable to the people who use them that they might as well be the products of wizardry. As Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, "Any smoothly functioning technology gives the appearance of magic."
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