08.08Is Magic Real?
by Perry DeAngelis and Robert Novella
Modern Attacks on Harry Potter and Roleplaying Games
Here is your character on your character sheet:
NAME: Bob the Fighter
Carries a big club that does
1 to 10 points of damage.
Here is your first adventure:
Gamemaster (GM): Bob wakes up after a good night’s rest in the Lepus Woods, and is pretty hungry. So, he picks up his big club and starts to look for breakfast. After a short time, Bob hears some rustling in the bushes ahead. Ok Bob, what do you do?
Bob: Oh, I guess I try and hear what it is.
GM: Ok Bob, roll a “hear” roll.
You roll a D10 (a dice with 10 sides) and score a 2. 2 plus your smarts of 2 gets you a 4. You tell the GM.
GM: (Quickly checking a chart and seeing that Bob needed a 10 or higher to correctly discern what the noise was) Well Bob, you can’t quite make out what it is, but there is definitely something moving around in there.
Bob: Darn…uh…I go up to the bushes.
GM: Ok, Bob, you go up to the bushes and see that it’s a little rabbit hopping around in there. What do you do now?
Bob: Um…hit it.
GM: Ok Bob, roll to hit.
You roll a D10 and get an 8. 8 plus your strength (10) equals 18. A quick check on the GM’s “to hit” chart shows that an 18 is more than enough to strike a little rabbit.
GM: Ok, Bobbo, you give it a solid whack with your big club. Roll damage.
You roll another D10 as you see by your character sheet, your club does 1 to 10 points of damage. You get a 6, plus your 10 strength equals 16.
GM: Well Bob, since the rabbit only had a Health of 3, and you did 16 points of damage to it, you smush it into a pulp. Looks like you found breakfast.
Bob: Hehe, I sit and eat the mush.
GM: Alrighty Bob, while you’re enjoying your hasenpfeffer, a shadow descends over you. You look up and see a 10-foot rabbit standing behind you.
Bob: EEEK! Er, I jump up with my club.
GM: OK Bob, with the gore of your breakfast still dripping from your lips, you spring around with your trusty club in your hand. However, the big rabbit is much faster than you and swipes at you with his humongous claw.
The GM rolls a D10 and scores a 7. 7 plus the rabbit’s strength of 20 equals 27. A quick check of your character sheet reveals that you have only 10 Health points.
GM: Well Bob, the big rabbit, having taken umbrage at your treatment of his offspring, has swiped you for 27 points of damage. That’s 17 more points than you had. So, as you spin bloodily to the ground you sense your spirit floating off to the big clubbed shaped cloud in the sky.
End of adventure.
What you have just read is typical of a pastime, in its simplest form, that many have enjoyed since its inception some thirty years ago, role-playing games. And for almost as long, there has been a vociferous minority decrying the hobby, claiming that the games promote everything from occultism to murder. The criticisms rise from the same blind misconceptions and suppositions that created the witch-hunts, the satanic panic, and the pre-school molestation craze. I will not rehash here the many fine studies that have discredited these virulent attacks on the hobby I hold dear (you can see them for yourself by reading the sources cited in the bibliography). Rather, in this piece we will try to shed light on what these games actually are, a topic not addressed even in the literature I have read defending them, and then look at the most contemporary occurrence of these attacks, the brau–ha-ha over Harry Potter as examined by the NESS vice-president.
The author has been an active participant in the hobby for more then 20 years. I have found the games to be mentally stimulating in their intricacy and detail, creatively spurring in their immense breadth of fictionalized realities, but above all, the games are a wondrous engine of social interaction.
Countless are the times I have gathered with good friends for a night of gaming around a table and played into the wee hours of the morning, the session running for five, six, or seven hours. The author has done this on average once a week for two decades. Yet what is absolutely essential for the non-initiated to understand is that during these thousands of hours of gaming a significant percentage of the time is spent discussing, arguing, and laughing about anything but the game. The actual game at hand, be it “Call of Cthulhu,” “Space 1889,” or the granddaddy of them all, “Dungeons and Dragons,” becomes the frame work for the gathering. Not the other way round.
I have personally seen what these multitudinous hours around the table can do to hone the social skills of my fellow gamers and myself. I have seen the tempered be made becalmed and the introvert flower. Role-playing games are really quite astounding in their degree of success in the molding of the latter. People who come to the games as shy and reclusive can, many for the first time in their lives, experiment with a voice that is not entirely their own. If only just for a sentence or two (at first), they are “Bob the Fighter,” not Bill Smith the shy. In time, they inevitably begin joining in the rich conversations sparking about the table on other issues, and before they know it, they are successful in a social environment. This success stays with them and aids in other aspects of their life.
As to the game-play in specific, it matures as the gamer does. When you are young, the games are all about getting the sharper sword, the faster horse, and the harder armor. Yet when the novelty of such hording wears thin, the story begins to move to the fore and eventually becomes the only glue left holding the veteran gamer to the table. Under the auspices of an experienced inventive game master, these tales can be compelling. The storyteller will touch on matters of the human condition that the players are unlikely to encounter in their daily lives. Their characters can be placed in situations replete with deep moral or ethical dilemmas. They might have to choose the lesser of two evils or be made to sit in judgment of friends or fictional family. More often than not, it is their wit at play, not their weapons.
In the end, these are games of the mind. They are at their stellar best when the dice are silent, the characters’ stats are forgotten and the table fades from perception as the story at hand sweeps you into it. Like no other entertainment the author has encountered, role-playing games have the unique component of you personally affecting the outcome. This cannot be done with books, theater or even film. With those media you are swept along; within the realm of the role-playing game you are swept into the story and you impact it, albeit for a brief time.
I opened this piece with an example of the role-playing game at its simplest. What follows is an example of it at an entirely different level:
GM: The rain is driving now Thera. You are watching from the front of the angry crowd as the guards lead your brother Aaron toward the gallows. You know that you have the proof that could free him in your pouch, the note from Baron Maller confessing to the murder he is being executed for. Maller gave it to you as he lay dying, after he helped you destroy an evil vampire that had been decimating his barony. Over the time you two worked together, your valor and love of justice slowly won him over from the narrow minded leader he used to be. Yet, bringing the note forth now might be believed by this angry mob, and even if it were, the Barons name would be ruined, and the barony would fall from the hands of his just son, into the ruthless grip of Duke Grond. They are ascending the steps of the gallows now… what do you do?
Thera: Oh god…
In short, these games are fun, compelling, and socially rewarding. Will the critics ever go away? Unfortunately, they will probably persist, like Leatrile. The coauthor now examines the most recent incarnation, attacking the very popular Harry Potter phenomena.
Hide your children! Better yet, don’t teach them to read and do not, I repeat, do not bring them to the movies. This is not some new twisted parenting philosophy yet it is actually sadly commensurate to the irrational reaction of a vocal minority to an eleven year old boy named Harry Potter.
Unless you’ve been off-planet with no radio for a few years you know that Harry is the main character of J.K.Rowling’s publishing juggernaut “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.” The popularity of this book and its offspring has been truly mind-boggling with over one hundred million books sold and translations made in scores of languages including Icelandic, Serbo-Croation and Zulu. Amazon.com has listed the series among its most popular among the more than one million books that they sell online. The series has spent so much time on best-sellers lists that a special list for kid’s books was created so authors of adult books wouldn’t have to compete. Not only can the books themselves be found in the tight little grips of most pre-adolescents, you can also find Harry Potter video games, pillows, card games, and lets not forget M’cDonald’s happy meals. In late 2001, the ante was upped with the release of the blockbuster record-breaking movie version of the first book.
This phenomenon isn’t just a marketer’s wet dream; educators and parents the world over were stunned and overjoyed that children could be so spell-bound by the written word. For years the struggle against video games and t.v. seemed almost insurmountable until Harry started waving his wand, driving kids in droves to voraciously read book after book. This silver lining has a dark cloud however. As the incredible popularity of the books started being widely recognized, an increasingly vocal and outraged group of parents, concerned citizens, and religious leaders started condemning the books as actually harmful to children.
This condemnation has taken many forms. A library in Kansas cancelled readings of the Harry Potter books due to concerns raised by irate citizens of their magical content. Members of the Harvest Assembly of God Church in Butler County in PA held a book burning in which Potter books and videos of Pinocchio and Hercules were consigned to the fires. Reverend George Bender stated that “We believe that Harry Potter promotes sorcery, witchcraft-type things, the paranormal, things that are against God,… That is really bad.”1 Across the nation, numerous school trips to the Potter movie have been canceled due to its ostensible support of witchcraft. Some students in Jacksonville Florida must present parental permission slips before reading the books in school libraries. For nearly three years, the Potter books have topped the American Library Association’s list of challenged and banned books. In Peryn Pennsylvania, local police refused to direct traffic for the annual YMCA triathlon because the club is said to promote witchcraft by reading the books to children. There is now a “hate-line” telephone number in Austria that you call to vent on how much you hate Harry Potter.
Critics tend to fall into one or more of three categories. There are those who feel that the books glorify witchcraft, spells, and the occult; activities that they believe are unambiguously proscribed by the bible. Others feel that the books create an almost overwhelming interest in these activities which draws the reader into the occult and away from biblical teachings. At the absurd end of the spectrum, there are those that believe that the Potter book series is a direct tool of Satan and his minions, designed to prepare the children of the world for his hostile takeover bid. Baptist activist Jon Watkins warns that “Satan is up to his old tricks again and the main focus is the children of the world”2.
What of these claims? Does the bible condemn witchcraft? Part of the problem lies in the definition of witchcraft itself. Seventeen different types of activities have been called witchcraft, some are similar but many are completely different or even opposite. What follows is a brief description of some of the different types of witchcraft.
Both the Old and New Testaments of the bible mention the words witch or witchcraft in certain English translations. For example: “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18 KJV). The Hebrew word, M’khashepah, means someone who uses spoken spells to cause harm or kill others. Wouldn’t “Evil Sorcerer” be more apropos than “Witch”?. Similarly, In the New Testament, the word Pharmakia is often translated as witch but it really refers to the practice of using poisons to harm or kill others.
The primary group of individuals that refers to themselves as witches today are Wiccans. The Wicca Neo-Pagan religion draws it inspiration from many aspects of the rituals and culture of the ancient Celtic people. These modern-day witches bear little resemblance to our culturally induced conceptions of them. Of paramount importance to Wiccans are their two laws that define appropriate behaviors. The first, the Wiccan Rede, says essentially that Wiccans are free to do anything they want as long as no one is harmed. The Threefold Law states that any evil or good that one does returns three times over. Obviously the wicked witch of the west never heard of these laws.
The term witchcraft can also bring to mind the worship of Satan with its arcane demon summoning rituals plus the concepts of hell, pure evil, and satanic ritual abuse. The Satan that modern-day Satanists worship however bears little or no resemblance to this Conservative Christian conception of him. The Satan that Satanists worship is a figure from a pre-Christian era that embodies power, virility, and sensuality, which has nothing to do with pitchforks and pointed ears.
This type of witchcraft stems primarily from the culture and media of the United States. TV shows like Bewitched and Sabrina, books like Harry Potter, and movies like The Wizard of Oz and Fantasia have all instilled in us images of old hags flying broomsticks, spells that manipulate matter and minds, cloaks of invisibility, and evil familiars that can change shape but prefer posing as black cats.
The term Witchcraft is a hopelessly vague concept, embodying ideas and images from many different activities, sources and times. Yet people persist in believing that all are similar enough to warrant a one-word description. The witchcraft that many claim the bible condemns has nothing to do with 21st century witches or Harry Potter and is at best a very poor translation.
Witchcraft and Spells
Regardless of the semantics, what about the critic’s fear of children being drawn into the dangerous and evil world of magic and spellcasting (I know, but humor me on this one). At the DemonBuster.com site I found the following quote: ‘Hey parent, what are you going to do when your child puts a spell on you? The (Potter) movie/books may be ‘fantasy’ to some, but witches and anyone with the knowledge can really TRANSFORM into animals and back.”3 Filmmaker and anti-cultist Caryl Matrisciana believes that the Potter series lures children to web sites where they can learn how to cast their own spells and even transmogrify themselves into different types of creatures.4 Author Cindy Jacobs comments in her book “Deliver Us From Evil”: “These books are entry-level occult tools that introduce readers to such things as witchcraft, sorcery, spells and spiritual power apart from God. What begins as fantasy leads to real spells and potions. Books such as Harry Potter are openers through which a person can become a practitioner of magic.” 5 Christian occult investigator David Bay, runs a website attacking among other things, the Freemasons, the Roman Catholic Church, and Harry Potter. He also seems to think that spells and magic are real: “The storyline of her Harry Potter creation features the most sophisticated, the most accurate, depiction of advanced Witchcraft imaginable. Rowling clearly knows her Witchcraft.”6
It is correct that J.K Rowlings did do a great amount of research for her books but this effort was spent on mythology and folklore as well as the occult and very little time, I suspect, was actually spent on the spells themselves. Rowlings herself says that the spells are made up. Look at some examples in her books, they consist, for the most part, of pseudo-latin phrases with a little wand waving. To make your wand shine like a flashlight just wave it around and say “Lumos” (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, page 335). To bind someone simply do the wand thing while saying “Petrificus Totalis” (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, page 273). Is this part of the dangerous influence that Rowling’s Pandora’s box has unleashed? Well, I’ve tried some of these spells and they did not work. I guess you could always say that my wand was missing a crucial ingredient but where do I find a unicorn hair or phoenix feather?
This is the one thing about the Harry Potter controversy that really gets my goat. It’s not the confusion about the word witchcraft, it’s not the book banning or even the book burning; it’s the fact that in the 21st century people still think that magic spells are real. I can’t even remember if I ever thought that spells were real and I believed some pretty weird things in my credulous youth. Even if I was raised in an environment that constantly stressed their reality and their inherently evil nature, I’d like to think that I’d have a hard time swallowing their efficacy. The ramifications are just too extraordinary. Think of the impact on physics and medicine and our lives in general if spellcasting was a reality. Wouldn’t someone by now have demonstrated a simple yet spectacular spell in public that no amount of controls and double-blind protocols could explain away? Wouldn’t a hard-up witch head straight to Florida and easily claim the Amazing Randy’s million bucks? Wouldn’t we be literally inundated with bizarre yet increasingly believable news stories that continually seem to point to one inescapable conclusion; that spells really truly work? This reminds me of crashed alien saucers, cures for cancer, and even those quick-and-easy-weight-loss schemes in that if they were true, the proof would be in our face and we would talk of little else.
1- Purging Flame: Pa. Church Members Burn Harry Potter, Other Books ‘Against God’ March 26 2002 ABCNews.com http://abcnews.go.com/sections/us/DailyNews/book_burning010326.html
2- “Harry Potter–Christians Debate New Movie” Anthony Breznican, November 9, 2001 http://www.cesnur.org/2001/potter/nov_05.htm
3- http://www.demonbuster.com/harry.html, 2002, Stan $ Elizabeth Madrak
4- The Trouble with Harry: A documentary filmmaker says the upcoming Harry Potter films threatens Christianity with their occult messages. by Tony Ortega http://www.newtimesla.com/issues/2001-10-18/faultlines.html/1/index.html
5-Deliver us from Evil: Stop the Occult Influences Invading Your Home and Community. By Cindy Jacobs, Gospel Light Publications, 2001 pp. 57,58
6- Harry Potter: Expelled from School by Brian Kim http://www.ucsf.edu/synapse/archives/2001.11.29/expelled.html
7-http://www.ntskeptics.org/1995/1995may/may1995.htm, May 1995, Jeff Freeman