The Changing Portrayal Of Witches And Wizards English Literature Essay

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The old woman has only pretended to be so kind; she was in reality a wicked witch, who lay in wait for children, and had only built the little house of bread in order to entice them there. When a child fell into her power, she killed it, cooked it and ate it, and that was a feast day with her. Witches have red eyes, and cannot see far, but they have a keen scent like the beast, and are aware when human beings draw near. When Hansel and Gretel came into her neighbourhood, she laughed with malice, and said mockingly: ‘I have them, they shall not escape me again!’” (Grimm J & Grimm W, 2009).

For countless centuries this intimidating, spine-chilling, and horrifying impression has prevailed the figures of what we have come to know as witches and wizards. This cruel, scary description of the ‘wicked witch’, as denoted by the famous Grimm Brothers in the 1800s, coincides nowhere near the normal, ordinary, and human figures witches and wizards have become in modern day film, television and literature. From countless fairytales written in the 1800s such as Snow White and Cinderella, to the Witch of the Wicked West in the Wizard of Oz and Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, witches and wizards have never ceased to disappear. Society seems engulfed by countless stories of evil, old witches, wishes gone wrong, magic leading to disaster, straying the individual from the straight and explainable, to the terrible. Today, long gone are these old tales, of fear, of doubt and confusion, of evil spells and curses. The portrayal and image of such figures has changed, replacing the evil, negative illustration with one which helps reflect modern culture; their characteristics representing the values, beliefs, and attitudes of society. Through the description of witches and wizards; including their appearance, their role, function and purpose and the several motifs and cultural myths such portrayals and images are drawn upon, this essay hopes to provide several reasons for the human fascination of such figures and further suggest the story of Harry Potter, while promoting witchcraft, “through a magical and moral world leading children to occult” (Senland & Vozzola, 2007), it also equally promotes numerous positive virtues, Christian values and morality.

Infused with countless mystery, fear, and grim facts, “witchcraft” has been a common concept since the early days of humankind. Over the course of history, ‘witchcraft’ has absorbed numerous elements and symbols from a range of time periods. Long before Christianity, before the Roman and Greek empires, people honoured the spirit of trees, grass, plants, animals and rivers; spirits of the wind, rain, the Sun and the Moon. In order to do so, rituals of all sorts were developed, eventually becoming complex and aiding shamans, the ritual leaders, to spread the knowledge of the physical and non-physical world. In 351 C.E., Christianity was adopted as an official religion of the Roman Empire, gaining power in political, religious, and economic aspects. Churches were built on old sites of the pagan temples, forcing many to convert, while naming those who did not as heretics. Women were accused of evildoings, of relations to the devil and of collaborations with demons. With numerous burnings of witches taking place throughout history, it is no surprise that little has survived. After the terror which engulfed much of Europe and the United States, accusations of witchcraft simmered down and laws were repelled against witchcraft. Today, witches practice their beliefs in the open, associating and dedicating their lives to health and healing. They believe in tolerance, harmony, peace, and freedom of spirit; living in spiritually, in tune with Nature and in harmony with each other. As of late, through certain motifs and cultural beliefs, both of the past and present, the portrayal of such figures has transformed. Contrastingly to the past, Harry Potter and countless other texts represent witchcraft with references to real-life places, people, values, and beliefs. In particular Harry Potter represents a metaphor for value and humility, of the occasional necessity to rebel and the dangers of desire. Furthermore, it also represents society’s attitudes to death, while similarly promoting normality, survival and bravery, love, prejudice, free choice, trust, loyalty and power.

The Harry Potter series, written by J.K. Rowling, consisting of seven novels and six motion picture films, is just one of the countless texts portraying witches and wizards; joining several other television series and motion pictures such as Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina: The Teenage Witch and films such as The Witches of Easwick, The Craft and Practical Magic. Rowling utilises contrasting ideas to the past in the illustration, function, roles, and purpose of witches and wizards, but also presents the audience with the evil and wicked side of witchcraft. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series accounts the life of a young wizard be the name of Harry Potter. Coming to the knowledge of his true identity at 11 years of age, Harry’s story gives audiences two distinct representations of witches and wizards. Rowling steers away from the old portrayal of witches, captivating this through Harry, his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, and several other characters; while using Draco Malfoy, his father Lucius and numerous followers of the evil Dark Lord, such as Bellatrix Lestrange, Peter Pettigrew, and Severus Snape as illustrations of the evil, arrogant and mean-spirited witch or wizard. Harry, Ron and Hermione are the humane, genuine and honest young wizards. Harry is depicted an ordinary boy, with “untidy jet-black hair” and “startlingly green, almond shaped eyes” (Rowling, 1997). He is tall, skinny and wears round rimmed glasses. He is brave, loyal and selfless; a young man who possesses a large strength of character. He is also loving and protective of the people he loves, whether his friends or his family. Similarly, both of his friends, Ron and Hermione are average, ordinary people; Ron with his “blue eyes and flaming red” (Rowling, 1997) hair, his “tall, thin and gangling” (Rowling, 1997) stature, “with freckles, big hands and feet, and a long nose”(Rowling, 1997); while Hermione is described to have “a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth” (Rowling, 1997), yet she is a plain sort of girl who is hardworking and intelligent. Additionally, both are loving, caring and brave individuals. Similarly, numerous other witches and wizards, such as Ron’s parents, Professor Albus Dumbledore, Professor Minerva Mcgonagall, Rubeus Hagrid and Harry’s godfather Sirius Black, throughout the series are portrayed as ordinary, hardworking, loyal, brave, and good-hearted people. All of these individuals, while having personal goals and aspirations, acquire purposes in life that are selfless; caring for their family and those they love. The adolescent children are taught constantly to strive for success in the wizarding world, by ways of hard work and ambition. Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s purpose is life, while striving to be the best they can be, also includes the task of fighingt against all evil, stopping the evil wizard, Voldermort in his quest to take over the wizarding and muggle (non-magic population) worlds.

Contrastingly, wizards and witches are also portrayed as evil, arrogant, power hungry and selfish. Draco Malfoy is known to be arrogant, snide and a bully. He is described as tall, with sleek, silverish-blond hair and cold grey eyes. His father is much the same, with a pale, pointed face, blond hair and cold grey eyes. Most importantly, both he and his father believe they are superior, because of their pure- blood lineage, putting them above all other wizards, as well as being of great wealth and high social standing. While arrogant, evil, and snide on the surface, both characters are rather cowards when comforted with violence and threats against them. Similarly, Bellatrix, while originally beautiful, after time spent in Azkaban, she is described as “having a gaunt and skull-like face” (Rowling, 2000), with long black hair and a strong jaw. She is described as being a complete psychopath, with no conscience and as being an intensely sadistic witch, devoted to her master, yet cruel to almost everyone but her family. Just like Bellatrix, Severus Snape is very much described as being unpleasant and mean, very uptight and controlling, yet brave, courageous and of high strength of character. He is however depicted, as a man with cold, black eyes and a thin-lipped, sneering mouth. Most importantly, as opposed to Harry; his enemies, especially Voldemort are described differently. He is known to be the most evil wizard for hundreds and hundreds of years, and as J.K. Rowling herself put is he is a ” raging psychopath, devoid of the normal human responses to other people’s suffering” (Jensen, 2000). He is depicted as “tall, skeletally thin, and frail snake-like man, with dark scarlet eyes” (Rowling, 2000), a flat nose, long and thin fingers and spider like legs. Albus Dumbledore easily sums up the purpose of wizards and witches such as Voldermort, stating: “his knowledge remained woefully incomplete, Harry! That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing.” (Rowling, 2007)

Throughout all films, the story “foster’s virtues such as courage and friendship, creating opportunities for moral instructions as Rowling places Harry and his friends in ethical dilemmas requiring them to think in complex ways about right and wrong” (Senland & Vozzola, 2007). It can also be suggested that the films and novels promote certain spiritual insights, teaching certain good values and morality and “serving to open the door for talking about right and wrong, the nature of faith, loyalty, bravery, and trust” (Senland & Vozzola, 2007). Additionally, self belief, modesty, humility, tolerance, love, friendship, injustice, unity and self-sacrifice are also used to further promote positive virtues and morals. The need for occasional necessity for rebellion, the duality of life and importance of education are also emphasised, while the danger of desires and knowledge and time promote some of the human values which we should try to control and avoid.

Present in all of the films, the constant battle between what is good and what is evil, trust, bravery and friendship positively portrays witches and wizards. Good prevails evil in the story of Harry Potter. Rowling sets the presence of good and evil in the wizarding world, not in the world of Muggles. “In the Muggle world, the evil of Voldemort metamorphoses into the stupidity, venality and meanness of Harry’s relatives, the Dursleys” (Weisz, 2000), and the only way of dealing with such evil is to escape. In the world of Hogwarts the good it purely good and the evil is purely evil. More so, no attempt is made by those evil to transform themselves, “the good is merely maintaining the status quo, and keeping the evil, in the guise of Lord Voldemort, from gaining a foothold” (Weisz, 2000). It is simple; evil wants to prevail just because is it evil and hates good, and vice versa. Working hand in hand with the good versus evil ideology, themes of trust, bravery, loyalty and friendship further stress the humanity, kindheartedness and good will of Harry, Ron and Hermione and wizards in general. Self-belief and trust is presented strongly through Harry, as he, despite all obstacles, is pushed by the sense of doing what is right. Part of him is aware of the consequences and he “knows that to play the hero will forever put him in the spotlight” (Nezol, 2010). The themes of bravery, trust and friendship are present throughout all the story, as all three; Harry, Ron and Hermione decide to play heroes against all odds to help those that have no compassion. Additionally, Harry also learns that the “value of friendship is far more important than a famous name” (Nezol, 2010). Both Ron and Hermione decide to help Harry in his quest to destroy the Philosopher’s Stone, to open the Chamber of Secrets, to rescue Sirius Black and later in his quest to destroy Voldermort, offering their skills and abilities for nothing in return. He accepts their offer without reluctance, as he knows he cannot achieve his goal on his own. Due to his care, respect and trust in them, he feels upset by the notions that he could lose his two friends forever, again promoting the idea that friendship and trust are important. Throughout all of the films Harry trusts those close to him, especially Dumbledore listening to him and trusting his judgement as the right thing to do.

Self-sacrifice of one’s peace and happiness for the greater good and the discourse of humility seem to be dominant in several of the films and novels in the series. While, both Harry and Dumbledore would be content with living their lives as normal, ordinary wizards, Harry in particular knows it is his destiny to kill Voldemort. He sacrifices his life for the greater good, protecting his friends, teachers, and his school instead of himself. Similarly, Dumbledore risks his life in order to help Harry retrieve what is needed in order to be one step closer to destroying the evil Voldermort. Harry, in particular, learns that in order to be the real hero, one must be willing to make all necessary sacrifices, even if it means dying in the process. We see Harry as a normal boy, who has many talents and flaws, many friends and many enemies. He is gifted at some things, yet he is not perfect at others. What we are meant to take away from this is that modesty is best; one does not need to be selfish and arrogant to achieve great success. Furthermore, he does not stop being humble when he gains fame and popularity and in this respect, he differs from Draco Malfoy and Voldermort, who only strive to achieve their own selfish goals, wanting attention and recognition for anything they do.

Another of the film’s most prominent lessons is that while rules and laws may be necessary, sometimes it is also necessary to question or even sometimes break them for the right reasons, and in only ways which help achieve good. Equally, tolerance is one of the most important themes explored in Harry Potter as the whole story focuses on the idea of tolerance through the eyes of evil wizards and the acts of eliminating the magical world of ‘mudbloods’, wizards who do not have magical ancestors. Both Harry and Hermione fall into this category, and compared to Malfoy who believes that he himself is a true wizard, the two show that in fact it is “dedication and work, rather than genetic heritage” (SparkNotes, 2010), that in fact can help you succeed. For the Slytherins the fact that they are pureblood is all that matters. Similarly, in a way, the Dursleys also represent this theme as they tend to be portrayed as intolerant, “a pitiful lot, terrified of magical people, mean to Harry, nosey and ill-tempered, and yet extremely proud of themselves for being, in their opinion, normal” (SparkNotes, 2010). In a way, Rowling uses Harry, Hermione and even Ron as examples of people who are tolerant, respectful and open-minded, aware of laws and rules and the fact that such rules can only be broken for the greater good. But it is important to never step and cross the line. From the very beginning of the story, Rowling does use the theme of the dangers of one’s desires to represent society’s overpowering needs and wants. This is evident through the portrayal of Harry’s spoiled cousin to much later in the film when it is portrayed in a more “evil form through the power-hungry desires of Voldemort, who pursues a life of evil and wickedness in order to act unlimited wealth and life. While Voldemort and Dudley are obviously different in other respects, they share an uncontrollable desire that repels Harry and makes him the enemy of both of them”(SparkNotes, 2010). Contrastingly, Harry’s desire to see his dead parents is not wrong, but touching. Yet the point Rowling is trying to conceive in the idea that “overblown desire is dangerous in that it can make people lose perspective on life” (SparkNotes, 2010).

Similarly, the series utilises the discourses of injustice, duality of life and loyalty to portray witches and wizards. Rowling attacks the unfair and moral insecurities of the legal systems; where as it is in reality, it is controlled by some who tend to get away with everything. In this case, men such as Lucius Malfoy are able to push and bully their way through, not listening to alternatives. Most importantly, Harry’s quest involves his, prisoner godfather, Sirius Black. In this case, everyone in the wizarding world point him as guilty, as opposed to actually examining the evidence given. In a way, authority in the legal system seems to make unfair choices, ones that are just simpler and easier to make. As shown constantly, audiences are made to understand that everything can have two sides. We see this in the case of Professor Lupin, who is a respectable teacher, yet a man-eating werewolf by night. Everything in Harry Potter has two sides, and just as in the real world we have to sometimes believe that both sides can be true. Additionally, the importance of loyalty to your friends is also stressed. When Harry actually finds out that in fact Peter Pettigrew betrayed his parents, both Lupin and Black question him as to why he is not dead, stating that he should have “died rather than betray your friends, as we would have done for you” (Rowling, 1999). Human relationships are very important and are core in the entire story of Harry Potter. Hagrid nicely summarises this most important message of the series, when he simply states to Harry and Ron” “I thought you two’d value yer friend more’n broomsticks or rats” (Rowling, 1999).

The importance of choices is explored through Harry’s use of each event as an indication for the next big test in his life. Instead of waiting for his life to take shape, it is his every choice that shapes his life in return. Just as Dumbledore explains to Harry, it is not the notion that wizards have inborn skill and great minds that is important, but rather it is “knowing how to use ability and knowledge” (SparkNotes, 2010) that is ultimately important. In addition knowledge and the importance of education and unity are the themes which are further promoted. The story utilises themes of knowledge and education; suggesting that were the students not so focused on their education and acquirement of new skills to escape dangers posed by the Death Eaters, no one would have survived. It is clear that Rowling presents audiences with an idea that enforces the importance of learning and education, hard work, persistence and practice; suggesting that in fact Harry, Ron and Hermione’s stubbornness in learning and practicing defence spells is what one should do, if one thinks it is right. As their education is jeopardised constantly by the corrupt Ministry of Magic, we see the true value of education and its importance in our lives. With the Ministry of Magic in control, Harry’s efforts to defeat Voldermort are stopped constantly, making his attempts difficult. It is in such situations, more than ever before that Hogwarts, its students and its teachers stand together in order to protect their friends, their families and their school.

Opposing the positive portrayal of witch and wizards, it is proposed that while many believe the occasional ‘imaginary friend’, spell or flying dragon is a normal part of a child’s life, some Christian fundamentalist parents believe such ‘friends’ or “actions” may be associated with the devil. Several others propose that “fantasy equals deceit and that fantasy and storytelling will lead to lying and other deceitful behaviour” (Cockrell, 2006), that such films are manuals of witchcraft shaped in form of eye-catching entertainment. While it is obvious that “Rowling persists in the imaginary distinction between good and bad witches” (Cockrell, 2006), the American Family Association believes that “Harry Potter’s world may be fictional, but the timeless pagan practices it promotes are reality and deadly … The movie’s foundation in fantasy, not reality, doesn’t diminish its power to change beliefs and values” (Kjos, 2001). What many propose also is that while Harry and his world are fictionalised, the story is “so compelling and well written that he seems almost real” (Oliver, 2001). In some aspect, the questions lay in relation to how children, especially younger ones distinguish the real from the imaginary. The individual must know the difference; should one act as Harry, Ron or Hermione; should one take revenge because they have the power to do so or should one simply make decisions themselves. Equally, the story of Harry and his life is set in a world similar to ours. Rowling abandons the medieval world of Tolkien and lays her story in a contemporary England setting. What many emphasise is that the world we live in and the world of fantasy should be at a distance and that “Rowling suggests the existence of witches and wizards, and of workable magic, in the world we inhabit here and now” (Cockrell, 2006), encouraging children to rebel against authority, to question values and to fight for power. Many also believe “the insistence that magic is by definition of supernatural origin is at the heart of the fear that Harry arouses. To present it as a science is either a trick, luring the susceptible into wickedness with harmless-seeming stories, or else a delusion, a manifestation of the author’s ignorance and the devil’s power” (Cockrell, 2006). More specifically, “many fundamentalist Christians express concern that Harry Potter desensitizes children to magic, undermines Christian values by exposing children to protagonists who frequently lie, cheat, and break rules, and challenges the Christian worldview as Harry overcomes evil by relying on himself rather than God” (Senland & Vozzola, 2007). Furthermore, Christians believe we should closely examine the idea of promoting war between good and evil, or the fact that some see occult as real and not imaginary. The overall and most important argument is that of the use of violence to fight evil. While not something new to humanity, with wars as proofs of this philosophy; Jesus, was a man who prayed and cared for his enemies, forgiving those who condemned him to death. “Although Jesus had the power to blot out His enemies in an instant, He refused to do so because of the principle of love” (Oliver, 2001).

The notion of magical witches and wizards, spells and potions has entertained and captured audiences for many years, changing constantly but never completely disappearing. For it is evident that while vile and crude in the past, witches and wizards had become examples of ourselves, guiding us along paths of morality, Christian values, and positive virtues. Whether the values are personal, societal, internal, or external, the representation of magic practitioners transforms as time passes. The themes of good and evil, friendship, self-sacrifice and countless others represent the image of witches and wizards. All of the themes discussed mirror our views of personal growth and morality. How intriguing it is to see that several social anxieties, personal beliefs and values are represented through such individuals, ones which break boundaries between good and evil, love, fear and power. How interesting it is, that the magical world lives on in this modern society of constant conflict; between what is real and what is not, between what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, in such a way as helping to dissolve the numerous conflicts and the fixed boundaries by means of representation and example. The story of Harry Potter encourages creative thought and emotional stability, its characters representing virtues and values which we would rather acquire, and examples of how we should act, think and be. Long and forever gone is the image of witches as ugly, evil, old hags, promoting witches and wizards as protagonists rather than victims. And while one cannot but criticise the paganistic and Wiccan tales, of black arts and black magic present throughout the story, in a very subtle sort of way Harry frightens those people who want the answer to all questions to be consistent, to be the same very time. The fact is, Harry; along with his friends, his magical world of potions, spells and flying broomsticks represent our world, our views, our actions and our values. One must look beyond the magic and occult and see the underlying ethical and moral complexities; ‘for, tucked among the preteen gags, human frailties and fantastical mythos of Harry Potter, lay the seeds of the Gospel- love, self-sacrifice, discipline, friendship and freedom” (Keaton, 2001). As British novelist, Virginia Woolf once said: “fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners” (Wohlberg, 2005). Perhaps just as Woolf suggests, witches and wizards, fiction or foe are and will continue to be powerful in communicating ideas, influencing thoughts and behaviours of society today, tomorrow and in the future.

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