With the seventh and final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling, being released soon, much interest is growing in the media and public concerning magick, witchcraft, and wizardry. Being a public witch and author, I'm often asked how "real" the world of Harry Potter is. Kids go away to a magickal boarding school, fly through the air, and face all sorts of otherworldly creatures. How real do you think it is? But what they really mean is: how real, how accurate, is the magick being presented in the Harry Potter series?
While I'm happy to know that the popularity of the Harry Potter series is both getting people to read and getting people interested in magick, I'm sorry to report that the magick of Harry Potter isn't very real. Yes, I do realize it is a movie, and movie magick, even the most respectful movie magick, has to have some extra oomph to it. People want to see lightning bolts and fireballs fly from fingertips, even though I know of no living witch or wizard who can physically perform such acts. It's part of the movie's excitement, and our sword and sorcery epics must be able to compete with lasers, light sabers and other spectacular special effects.
I also know that some of the lore is correct (to a certain extent), at least in a historic sense. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, when the class at Hogwarts was transplanting the mandrake, they correctly taught that the mandrake's yell is dangerous, screaming when it is uprooted, and that special precautions are needed. In the book they wore earmuffs to stifle the sound. In Medieval Europe, they purportedly tied a dog to the root and placed meat out of the dog’s reach, so that when he tugged to get the meat, he would uproot the mandrake, receive its deadly scream and be killed. The mandrake would then be rendered harmless and was available to be used as a potent charm. Though to my knowledge no variety of mandrake literally screams when it's uprooted, such rituals are a lingering knowledge of how to appease the spirit of the plant, with whom you must partner to do your magick.
Working with the spirits and the spirituality of magick are what is truly missing from the work of J.K. Rowling. In an effort to make the magick both exciting and more palatable to the modern reader (who assumes that magick has nothing to do with religion or spirituality), the rich historic spiritual traditions of magick are forgotten and a whole body of lore that could be drawn upon to deepen the world of Harry Potter is cast aside.
Ironically, conservative Christian groups in the United States have accused the Harry Potter books and J.K Rowling of promoting witchcraft in children. As a witch, I'd have to disagree. While the movies can stimulate an interest in witchcraft and magick, the magick depicted in this world is nothing like mine. If you come into Wicca, Ceremonial Magick, or any form of modern magick thinking that you will be Headmaster Dumbledore or Professor McGonagall (with their overt uses of magick), you'll be really disappointed. For a few, they will see what is missing in Harry Potter and present in our traditions, and look to the spirit of magick.
While magick is a science to many of us, because there are repeated patterns and theories, it is also a spiritual tradition. One of the first definitions I learned of witchcraft is that it is "science, art, and religion." Many traditions of magick, including the more intellectual and educated ceremonial magick traditions, emphasize the spiritual side of magick, if not the overtly religious side. For many of us, magickal talents are considered gifts from the gods, and particular talents indicate those blessed by particular gods. When speaking to a layman about magick and spells, spells are often described as a form of prayer, a petition, or supplication to the divine forces that rule over a particular area of life. If the spell is successful, the prayer was answered. Others look at it as a spiritual partnership with these forces, not necessarily a supplication. In either case, it deals with otherworldly and immanent divine forces that the magician communicates with to create change.
The world of Harry Potter perpetuates what I call the chemistry approach to magick. If you simply do the right thing—the right words and pronunciation, the right gesture, the exact ingredients and timing, you will get the same result. Magicians know that you can pronounce words incorrectly and still have great results if you have enough energy and will behind your magick, and you can pronounce them technically right and still fail. Magick is an art as well as a science and something to defy reproduction.
Many traditions of magick also put a moral code to magick. In Wicca, we have the Wiccan Rede: "An' it harm none, do as ye will." We believe that what you do, good, evil or otherwise, returns to you threefold. It's not a judgment or moral code of the universe, but a mechanism of the universe, like gravity. But the results of it help us create a more pleasant magickal experience. Other traditions have similar traditions of karma, and reaping what you sow. Many magicians go by one of the numerous variations of the Golden Rule, popularized by Christianity, to "[d]o unto others as you would have done onto you." While Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has many rules, the same concept of magickal ethics and morality is not held strongly. The characters are always striving to do what is good and right by the virtue of being heroes, but morality is not really taught as part of a magickal spiritual tradition, leading some of the students (such as Draco Malfoy and his cohorts) to be less moral than the main characters. Not everybody can be a hero, and such characters provide an interesting counterpoint to the heroes in the story.
While in the book Hogwarts is a school of witchcraft and wizardry, the names are usually used to denote female and male practitioners of magick. Girls are witches and boys are wizards. In the modern world, men will take the name witch just as readily as women, not wizard and certainly not warlock(as warlock is usually considered to be a derogatory term by modern male witches). Women usually don't use the term wizard, but can be ceremonial magicians. They can be mages, sorceresses, and enchantresses if those terms appeal to them. Modern witchcraft has a strong feminist streak, stressing the equality (if not superiority) of women, and a prominent place for the divine feminine as Goddess and mother of God, as well as leadership positions for women. While there are female professors and characters, particularly the very smart and capable Hermione Granger, the world of Harry Potter doesn't have the same divine feminine wisdom the world of modern witchcraft is aspiring.
Some of the aspects of Harry's world that do conform to modern magick include the idea of muggles. A muggle is a non-magical person, and actually refers to someone as being of a different blood, while many of the magical families attempt to remain pureblood. Such ideas are also found in old world witchcraft traditions, with the concept of witchblood. Some witches believe they are descended from the elder races of beings, including the Celtic gods, the faery/elven folk, or the race of fallen angels known as the Watchers. Magick was passed on in family traditions because it was also in the blood. Modern witches have called non-witches cowans, initially a term referring to an unlicensed mason, one who was not initiated into the guild. British Traditional witches, particularly those following a strict Gardnerian or Alexandrian tradition of witchcraft will consider all those not initiated into a proper tradition cowans. I personally hate both terms, muggle and cowan, for they imply that some people are not magickal. I think we are all magickal, and that those who we call cowans or muggles simply haven't learned yet or aren't called to recognize it. They are still divine, magickal beings just the way they are. The terms come from our need to feel special and superior to others. This idea is in both Harry Potter and modern magick, unfortunately.
In the books, Hogwarts stresses study and discipline as an important part of magickal training, and I must agree. I believe that while certain people are talented in magick, perhaps being of the witchblood, anybody can learn how to do magick if they put their mind to it. It takes education, training and practice, but magick is a skill like any other, and can be developed over time. You might not be a world-class wizard or witch, but you can use simple spells and meditation to improve your life considerably.
Lastly, the world of J.K. Rowling doesn't purport any silly idea that magick can only be used by good people, or for good purposes. Magick is an energy, or perhaps a way of manipulating energy, the unseen forces of the universe. People use it for good. People use it for ill. People use it to get what they want. People use it to help others. There is a spectrum of uses for magick and all of them, regardless of their intentions, have consequences. Magick teaches us to take responsibility, to face the consequences of all our actions.
When people ask me about the reality of the Harry Potter series, after talking about a few of these points, I suggest they take Harry Potter for what it is: a story. Enjoy it. The whole series is fun and will probably become a classic. Each book gets a bit deeper and more serious, growing as a child grows reading them. And they are great fun for adults too, including witches, wizards, magicians and pagans. But don't mistake a book or movie for the deep spiritual traditions of witchcraft and magick.
While The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, both classics recently turned into movies, have Christian associations due to the faith of their authors, no one mistakes them for manuals on how to practice Christianity. While J.K. Rowling is writing about witchcraft, she isn't writing it from a modern witch's perspective, so don't expect it to be an accurate practice book. If you are looking for fiction that teaches you magick, I suggest reading the work of Dion Fortune, such as her book The Sea Priestess, once you are all done with the Harry Potter series. She is both entertaining and illuminating, and carves a true path into the mysteries of magick.