Of Boggarts

The Boggart Snape after Neville's Riddikulus Charm
Many Christians have claimed that the Harry Potter books are dangerous, encouraging children to get involved in witchcraft. We are called to exercise discernment and reject such literature completely. It is interesting to observe how much popular children’s literature escapes such judgment, for instance literature that presents disfunctional relationships between children and parents and broken families as the norm and encourages the reader to identify and empathize with promiscuous and morally twisted characters. It is quite heartening to observe just how robust the family values put forward in the Harry Potter books are. Marriage, faithful relationships and strong relationships between children and their elders are presented as the norm. Given that these are books written by a former single mother in a society where countless families are broken and disfunctional, this fact probably deserves more attention than it has generally received (one also wonders whether Rowling has her own experience in mind when she has Harry speak some strong words to a particular character about marital commitment in book 7).

The contrast between Harry Potter and the messages that many popular TV shows, movies and books are giving young people about relationships is quite startling. The fact that many Christian parents permit their children to sit in front of TV shows and films that subtly but determinedly corrupt morals and expect their children to be mature enough to deal with such influences whilst fearing that Harry Potter will lead them to dabble in the occult is quite bizarre.

When it comes to the accusation of witchcraft, I actually believe that Rowling can help us arrive at a more Christian view of witchcraft. The world that Rowling writes of is a world of Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, self-shuffling cards, flying cars, wands hidden in umbrellas, bat bogey hexes, Whomping Willows, Quidditch, owls who deliver the mail, wizards who wear the most ridiculous garments to pass themselves off as Muggles, and the like. It is a delightfully humourous and playful portrayal of a magical world. It is not intended to be taken seriously. The fact that many Christians do take it seriously is a sign that something is badly wrong with us.

One of my favourite creatures found in Harry Potter’s world is the Boggart.

‘Now, then,’ said Lupin, beckoning the class toward the end of the room, where there was nothing but an old wardrobe where the teachers kept their spare robes. As Professor Lupin went to stand next to it, the wardrobe gave a sudden wobble, banging off the wall.

‘Nothing to worry about,’ said Professor Lupin calmly because a few people had jumped backward in alarm. ‘There’s a Boggart in there.’

Most people seemed to feel that this was something to worry about. Neville gave Professor Lupin a look of pure terror, and Seamus Finnigan eyed the now rattling doorknob apprehensively.

‘Boggarts like dark, enclosed spaces,’ said Professor Lupin. ‘Wardrobes, the gap beneath beds, the cupboards under sinks — I’ve even met one that had lodged itself in a grandfather clock. This one moved in yesterday afternoon, and I asked the headmaster if the staff would leave it to give my third years some practice.

‘So, the first question we must ask ourselves is, what is a Boggart?’

Hermione put up her hand.

‘It’s a shape-shifter,’ she said. ‘It can take the shape of whatever it thinks will frighten us most.’

‘Couldn’t have put it better myself,’ said Professor Lupin, and Hermione glowed. ‘So the Boggart sitting in the darkness within has not yet assumed a form. He does not yet know what will frighten the person on the other side of the door. Nobody knows what a Boggart looks like when he is alone, but when I let him out, he will immediately become whatever each of us most fears.’

‘This means,’ said Professor Lupin, choosing to ignore Neville’s small sputter of terror, ‘that we have a huge advantage over the Boggart before we begin. Have you spotted it, Harry?’

Trying to answer a question with Hermione next to him, bobbing up and down on the balls of her feet with her hand in the air, was very off-putting, but Harry had a go.

‘Er — because there are so many of us, it won’t know what shape it should be?’

‘Precisely,’ said Professor Lupin, and Hermione put her hand down, looking a little disappointed. ‘It’s always best to have company when you’re dealing with a boggart. He becomes confused. Which should he become, a headless corpse or a flesh-eating slug? I once saw a Boggart make that very mistake — tried to frighten two people at once and turned himself into half a slug. Not remotely frightening.

‘The charm that repels a Boggart is simple, yet it requires force of mind. You see, the thing that really finishes a Boggart is laughter. What you need to do is force it to assume a shape that you find amusing.

‘We will practice the charm without wands first. After me, please … riddikulus!’

The pre-Christian world was full of dark, enclosed spaces for Boggarts to hide. People were plagued and tyrannized by fear, held in its bondage. Satan played with people’s imaginations, holding them in bondage as much (if not far more) by means of the fear within as by external demonic forces without. One of the effects of the gospel was to flood the world with light, driving the Boggarts out from their darkened lairs.

In the light of the gospel we can, like Harry and his classmates, learn to perform the riddikulus charm on our demonically-induced fears. After the gospel has taken effect we can mock things that once terrified us. This is one of the purposes of the celebration of Halloween. The gospel reveals that much of the fear that Satan excited in men prior to the advent of Christ resulted merely from the exaggerated shadows that he cast in the darkness. Now that light has come the shadows are removed and Satan is reduced to a far less terrifying stature. We can begin to laugh at the shapes that we once saw in the shadows.

Whilst there are undoubtedly evil forces at work in our world — Harry’s world contains Dementors and Death Eaters, not just Boggarts — we need to learn that many of the terrors that haunt us are merely products of our fearful imaginations. Satan loves to have the huge shadows that he tries to cast taken seriously. We will only truly defeat him when we learn to laugh at the shadows, walking through death’s shade while fearing no evil.

Good Christian fiction writers can help us to do this. Christian authors can and should tell stories of Greek and Norse gods, of dragons, giants, goblins, faeries, of witches on broomsticks, of pixies, gnomes, elves and dwarves. These stories are the chains in which defeated Boggarts are paraded in triumph before the Risen Christ. J.K. Rowling, by presenting us with a delightfully exaggerated magical world, has robbed real witchcraft of power, performing the riddikulus charm on many of its Boggarts. Much of the power of witchcraft derives from the huge aura that it builds up around itself and the irrational fears that it creates in us. Once these irrational fears and superstitions have been exorcized by humourous light fiction, witchcraft looks considerably less threatening (even though it never ceases to be real).

Many Christians operate in terms of a view of the world that is driven by fear and superstition. There is a terrible fascination with the morbid and the dangerous; such people see demons and witchcraft everywhere. The wonderful thing is that Christ died to set us free from such a paranoid fear of the demonic realm. There is witchcraft in our world and it is evil and dangerous and Christians should openly and strongly resist it. However, it is by no means as all-pervasive as some fevered imaginations might suggest.

Many of those who object to Rowling’s works are those who are still terrified by Boggarts. They continue in panic, hysteria and conspiracy theory-driven witchhunts. Thankfully, orthodox Christians have historically encouraged far greater scepticism towards such exaggerated myths of occult practices. This strong Christian scepticism towards many of the claims made for the occult has encouraged the rise of science and a more rational society. It is no accident that the sciences seldom prosper in superstitious societies. It is only as the old witch-hunts and superstitions end that our clearer vision enables us to come to a more scientific understanding of our world. This is one of the chief ways in which the clearer light of the gospel paves the way for science.

Occult practices undoubtedly exist, but viewed through eyes freed from fear and superstition through Christ’s victory we see a world where many of our former fears are revealed as mere creations of our own imaginations. Works like Harry Potter are a good way to start innoculating ourselves and our children against such fears.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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24 Responses to Of Boggarts

  1. Al says:

    And kudos to my brother Peter, who first remarked on the significance of Boggarts in this context to me.

  2. Byron says:

    Thanks – great post.

  3. Al says:

    From today’s Wall Street Journal:

    It has been widely observed that J.K. Rowling owes a creative debt to Christian fantasists J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (apart from their fondness for initials). It’s odd now to remember that, at the same time, some parents have objected to the magic depicted in the Harry Potter books as a glorification of satanic practices. For “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” confirms something else apart from the well-thought-out-ness of Ms. Rowling’s moral universe: It is subtly but unmistakably Christian.

    The principal Hogwarts holidays have always been Christmas and Easter, but it took five books before Ms. Rowling really began tipping her hand. In Book Six, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” she addressed concepts of free will, the power of love, and the sanctity of the soul. But in the final volume she gently lays it all out. The preciousness of each human life; bodily resurrection after death; mercy, forgiveness and redemption; sacrificial love overcoming the powers of evil — strip away the elves, goblins, broomsticks and magic wands and these are the concepts that underpin the marvelously intricate world of Harry Potter.

  4. Weston says:

    Great post, Al. Now, how do you send a link to family members that need to read this without being patronizing? Hmmm…..

  5. The Scylding says:

    Now I need to say Riddikulus! to that Black Dog that has been following me around…

  6. Halden says:

    This is a great post. Truly.

  7. Matthew Moffitt says:

    Thanks for a great post!

  8. shannon grubb says:

    A very good post. But from my layman’s reading of 2 Peter 2:10b, I wonder if we should “…mock things that once terrified us.”

  9. Al says:

    There is a difference between mocking Boggarts and mocking Dementors. I do not recommend the latter.

  10. lorinda says:

    Bravo, Alastair. Well said.

  11. Kelly Kerr says:

    Personally, I have really enjoyed the books, but I can live with people who don’t like them, even though I think they’re wrong. What upsets me is when people start attacking JKR herself (a gift to the church in good standing from what I hear) and call her a witch, or say she is going to hell, or whatever. It ought not be.

  12. Julana says:

    Good point, about the family values. I had taken that for granted, but the lack of them would have thrown off the emotional balance of the book.

    The picture of Home at the Weasley’s is an important emotional anchor. Even though Harry seems to think of Hogwarts as his home, the Weasley’s seem to give him a truer model for it. Hogwarts is a model of community, not home.

    I also appreciated Rowlings’ commitment to Dobby, Kreacher, and the house elves–the underdogs and underprivileged (but not powerless!) of the society. They’re not only worthy of respect; they play a crucial part.

    I will say that I found some parts of the book rather dark, and would recommend some children have the guidance/ sounding board of an adult available at times. I do think that parents should be reading them, if their children are reading them.

  13. Al says:


    You are quite right about the dark parts of the books. A number of the later books seem to be written with more of a teens and young adult readership in mind. I would not recommend them to younger readers without adult supervision.

    Your observation about Rowling’s attention to the marginalized and oppressed is a good one. Rowling is very much a postmodern author in this respect, acutely aware of the silencing of the ‘other’ and also aware of how even ‘good’ characters are complicit in and unwittingly sustain oppressive social structures. The books display a moral vision of some clarity, whilst having characters with a far greater degree of moral complexity than most children’s books. The line between good and evil runs through all the characters and not just between them.

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  15. The Scylding says:


    Having finished HP7 last night, I posted a short comment on my blog – http://scyldingsinthemeadhall.blogspot.com/2007/08/hope-against-all-hope.html – for what it is worth.

  16. Al says:

    Great post! Thanks for linking to it.

  17. Pingback: J.R.R., C.S., and J.K.? « Uber Goober

  18. Al,

    I need to contact you. It looks like I am transferring to St. Andrews to finish the PhD since my supervisor is moving there. Though, I will remain living in Durham since I am in my parish working. Can you contact me on my email with your phone number?


  19. Pingback: More Harry Potter? « Reflections of a Sojourner

  20. Karan says:

    You said exactly what I felt but not had the eloquence to phrase. C.S. Lewis always does this to me also. I’m so glad there are people who can express what I feel when I can’t!

  21. Peter Shack says:

    I have really been enjoying reading your posts. I have yet to delve into the world of Harry Potter. I would need a full month with no obligations to get through the whole series. I am lost to the world when in a book.
    Take care,
    Peter Shack
    PS You have my permission to replace Education by Wonder with our travelblog

  22. Al says:


    Great to hear from you! Hope that you are doing well at the moment. I have just added your travelblog.


  23. Pingback: Speculative Faith: Casting the ‘riddikulus’ spell on Halloween

  24. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2006-2007 | Alastair's Adversaria

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