The Magical Worlds of ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Left Behind’

In honor of Harry Potter’s 33rd birthday (and author J.K. Rowling’s birthday), Scholastic unveiled a new cover for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It’s the last book to get an updated cover by top illustrator Kazu Kibuishi. (Source: Mashable.com)

This month brings fans one fantasy franchise’s new covers, and the start of production of another franchise’s film remake. But the backstories of both franchises are more alike than we may think.

Once upon a time, specifically the late 1990s, these franchises fought. One was set in a world of good wizards, a dark lord, non-magical citizens, and a global battle between light and darkness. It won over bestseller lists. This surprised readers, because this series was by a Christian thriller novelist and a Christian prophecy teacher: the Left Behind series.

At that time arose another series about a boy wizard by British author J.K. Rowling.

Bestsellers battle

These Harry Potter Cosplayers were Left Behind . . . By their parents. Image-Sklathill-via-Flickr-CC-BY-SA-2.0

You may recall these novel series’ battle to top the New York Times fiction bestseller lists. Back then I was rooting for the Left Behind series. It won only because the NYT finally classified the Harry Potter series as children’s lit and moved the top-ranking titles to a separate list to make room for other books.

Please note, fellow evangelicals: Years ago I was a rabid Left Behind fan, and with some qualification, remain a more-tranquil fan. But now I’m more of a Potter fan, thanks to its better writing and better-plotted story. And if I could travel back in time and scandalize myself, I would say:

In the future you have all seven Harry Potter books and all eight films. But you’re not too disillusioned with your Left Behind fandom; you have 15 Left Behind books except the last one, which alone destroyed your default belief in premillennialism.

For me, the two franchises are too similar to reject one or the other. In fact, their similarities may be exactly what propelled them both to bestseller status.

Tribulations Saints vs. Wizard Societies

  • Both series started trends in their genres. Potter led a fantasy revival in both novels and film, coming soon after the film trilogy based on The Lord of the Rings. And though Left Behind gets little credit for this, that series preceded the current fad of dystopian fiction.
  • Supernatural events occur to the point of normalcy. In Potter, natural-law magic is part of life; in Left Behind, God’s-law miracles bring plagues, angelic aid, and resurrections.
  • Special people have destinies and separate societies. In Left Behind, “tribulation saints” predict events and fight their enemies; in Potter, magically gifted people form both a Ministry of Magic to preserve their wizarding lifestyle and the Order of the Phoenix to fight evil.
  • Normal, non-magical people are often helpless yet not always wicked. In Potter they are “Muggles”; in Left Behind they are non-Christian masses whom Christians evangelize.
  • Prophecy is big. Left Behind’s prophecies predict the Tribulation, the Antichrist, and Christ’s return while Harry Potter himself is prophesied to confront Lord Voldemort.
  • Villains are deceptively, demonically evil. Potter’s Lord Voldemort and Left Behind’s Nicolae Carpathia both begin as charismatic leaders whose evil goals are soon exposed.
  • Battles between good and evil have clearly drawn lines. However, both series make room for other characters whose allegiances and goals are often more complex.
  • Good guys practice magic. Christians may balk at this about Left Behind, but it’s true: Prophets, and later appointed believers, turn water into blood and call down or rescind plagues, including some described in Revelation. The villains even refer to this as magic. (“I have tricked this wizard into breaking his spell!” Carpathia boasts in Desecration.) Of course, the magic of Potter’s heroes is well known, but rarely if ever does it cross into the real occult actions Scripture forbids.

Mystical Arts

One more comparison extends from fantasy to reality: Both of these series have dedicated fan bases of readers and/or film viewers, fandoms who wish these worlds were real.

“Dumbledore cautiously watches the anti-Christ’s police state” Image-Thomas-Leuthard-via-Flickr-CC-BY-2.0.jpg

Certainly this applies to Potter fans who yearn to get their own student-acceptance letters from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But this I-wish-I-were-there dedication also applies to many Left Behind readers. Several fans on the old Left Behind website forums even said they’d like to be “left behind” themselves — to sit out a pre-tribulation Rapture. Why? They loved the books’ camaraderie between believers united against obvious evils, and the miracles and prophecies bringing vindications of Christianity.

I would venture this desire helps leads this unique Christian end-times fandom into error.

Often out of ignorance, some Christians accuse the Potter series of endorsing unhealthy escapism, occult mysticism, and anti-biblical fantasy. But don’t we often see Christian end-times fiction and prophecy fans falling into this very trio of temptations?

Extreme end-times fans often want to escape the world, rather than help build the Kingdom wherever Christ calls us, and anticipate creation’s resurrection into a New Earth (Rev. 21).

Such fans also practice plain mysticism. I don’t know what else to call Christians’ attempts to divine the Antichrist or Mark of the Beast, or their apparent insistence that Bible has a secret code that reveals modern global events over and above the Word’s Gospel themes.

Finally, fans indulge in vindication or revenge fantasies such as “I can’t stand those liberals, but they’ll face the Tribulation because the end is near.” (Oddly, we may end up warning more about the Mark of the Beast and Satan than we teach about Christ’s return and judgment.)

Now, one need not blame the Left Behind authors or books for all these sins — any more than we would blame J. K. Rowling if Potter fans wanted to be “real” witches and thus joined Wicca.

Instead, individual Christians take our end-times fandoms too far. Of this we must repent.

No, we needn’t renounce Left Behind — though we might consider burning books of divination by some would-be evangelical “prophets.” And sure, we might also explore other end-times perspectives (I’m looking for one myself). Either way, let’s enjoy our fantasies for God’s glory, and not use our fandom freedoms as opportunities for the flesh.

BONUS: Harry Potter/Left Behind Cross-over Fan Fiction. Read at your own risk.

About E. Stephen Burnett

E. Stephen Burnett is a journalist, aspiring novelist, and editor and webslinger at Speculative Faith. His mission: to explore and enjoy epic stories that reflect the truths and beauties of the first and greatest Epic Story, God’s Word. He also writes for a dynamic news franchise in Austin, Texas and delves into Christ-and-culture doctrine at Christ and Pop Culture. He also enjoys nonfiction, soundtrack music, and spending life with his wife, Lacy, in their Texas headquarters.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    My cautious take, not having sat down and read through the books of either series but knowing quite a bit about them and seeing some movie action, is that they’re both junk in their own way. Give me Tolkien or Lewis any day of the week. There’s nothing any fantasy author can attempt to do, let alone Christian fantasy, that either of these two guys didn’t already do much better.

  • E. Stephen Burnett

    Not junk. Certainly “Potter” isn’t junk. In fact, many rank Rowling’s story and plotting and mythological significance on equal terms with Lewis and Tolkien, and I believe this is fair. As for “Left Behind,” it fulfills exactly what it set out to be: a potboiler end-times thriller series based on a certain view of Revelation. And it hit the NYT bestseller list repeatedly. No easy feat, that.

    I love Lewis and Tolkien, but there are other gold-standard, did-what-they-set-out-to-do authors out there. Even Christian speculative ones. Surely Lewis and Tolkien themselves would encourage taking their work and then exploring further, including the literature worlds they wanted to tribute.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    I think it’s about more than doing what you set out to do. You could say that about quite a few authors. It’s about a whole ‘nother level of richness—richness of tradition, richness of vision, knowledge, language, scope. You can’t seriously say that you’d rate _Left Behind_ on the same level as, say _The Last Battle_ can you?

    I doubt Tolkien would be a great fan of Potter, especially since he didn’t even like Lewis. (Talk about hard to please!) And while Lewis was modest about his own achievements, he would quickly recognize that Rowling just isn’t on the same plane with Tolkien.

  • E. Stephen Burnett

    Can’t disagree with the rest. But my encouragement is to explore different levels of storytelling that include different kinds of richness. “Potter” is rich and enjoyable in ways that Tolkien is not. So is a well-done “children’s” animated series such as Avatar: The Last Airbender. So is even the Left Behind series. And it’s odd you raise this comparison, because despite my dislike of some of it, the final volume brings to my heart the same anticipations for Christ’s return that The Last Battle brings to my heart. After all, no one else has attempted such a detailed (if not pop thriler-level) story explanation of the Second Coming. The LB series, and its better radio-drama adaptation, is the only game in town.

    Of course literarily, The Last Battle is superior. In my view, however, I’m eager to avoid the perceptions of “high culture vs. low culture” divide that often restricts Christians’ story enjoyments. Lewis/Tolkien are indeed the best, yet they’re not the be-all-end-all of fantasy. I would encourage giving Harry Potter a try.

  • Joanna

    All I could think of reading this is the meme that’s been floating around the internet:

    Harry Potter fans: I want my Hogwarts letter
    Narnia fans: I want to find a magical wardrobe
    Percy Jackson fans: I want to go to Halfblood Camp
    Twilight fans: I want my own vampire/werwolf

    HUNGER GAMES fans: I’m good, thanks. :D

  • Joanna

    There are two things that make HP stand out: the quiet humor that sneaks up on you – the little things that are just there if you notice them, and they just get funnier – and the depth of JKR’s literary allusions and symbolism.

    She is obviously well read – far more so than most fantasy authors. She’s read and studied the very masters that Lewis and Tolkien used. And it comes through in her sometimes quite lyrical prose.

  • Joanna

    Actually, there are two reasons he didn’t like Lewis – one, he detested “allegories” – stories with an intentional lesson.

    Second, he hated the way Narnia was a mashup of pretty much every European legend ever (Greek, Norse, etc.). The mixing of it all bugged him.

    I think for those two reasons, he actually might prefer HP (at least the later books) to Narnia, because, one, HP is more like his own works in theme and focus, and, two, JKR shows more constraint in what she does and doesn’t include in her stories.

  • Joanna

    Burnett – I’m not going to lie, that fan-fiction sort of made my day. :D …. and the post script by the author was the best part:

    “A/N – At some point during my deep and intellectual musings, I realized that both Lord Voldemort and Nicolae Carpathia rose to power in the summer of 1996. After that revelation, this story just had to be written. More chapters coming soon!”

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Most people do seem to feel the movies don’t do the books justice. I can believe that they’re pretty well written. It’s more probable that a British author would be well-read than an American one. But I still find the core story of _LOTR_ more compelling.

  • Joanna

    I saw the movies, then read the HP books…. (when the movies proved to homeschooled-me that the books wouldn’t burn my brains out with evilness. :D)

    I definitely regret not reading the books first. But it also showed me so clearly how the core plot of the books was all but lost in the movies – it explained why so much of the Deathly Hallows movies made zero sense to me. :D

    Yes, Tolkien’s story line is vast – it stretched over thousands of years and includes many different peoples, but in the end, it does come down to two little Hobbits. All the machinations of the Wise turned on a little gardener from a people who’d been left off all the old lists.

    He spent his life working on that world and history. Few authors will ever be able to touch that depth.

    But be that as it may, JKR actually tells a story that, at the core, is every bit as meaningful and powerful. Without devoting the better part of her life to it.

    After all, just like in LOTR, in HP, the fate of the world hangs on, not the machinations of the great and powerful – not the years they’ve spent plotting and counter plotting. It all comes down to a tussle between two school boys and three friends doggedly determined to finish an impossible mission while the world collapsed around them. It came down to the least of creatures in the mind of the Great ones – the things overlooked.

    Really, how is that any less compelling? Even if it doesn’t come with the giant, fully realized world of Tolkien.

  • E. Stephen Burnett

    Yes, that may be the best part of the feature.

    It’s a shame I didn’t write the fanfiction.

    Or, for that matter, even include it in my original column for CAPC. :-)

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Don’t get me wrong, I decry snobbery as much as you do. I find that a turning up of the nose at _Left Behind_ can often be accompanied by a general snarkiness towards evangelical culture writ large. That’s certainly not where I’m coming from.

    I guess that I hold even the pop art I enjoy to higher standards. Like _The Princess Bride_ isn’t great art, but fantastic for what it is. I would also highly recommend the one-off novel _The Face In the Frost_ for light fantasy reading.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Well, Tolkien was a hard sell. I’m quite sure he’d criticize Rowling on her own terms, even though she’s stylistically different from Lewis. For one thing, the magic in her books is handled very differently from Tolkien. Magic is a skill that the ordinary characters of Harry Potter learn to hone and practice. In Tolkien, the hobbits never practice magic. It’s reserved only for people like Gandalf, who’s more like an angel than a wizard even though he’s called a wizard. And he uses it for specific purposes, like creating light to guide them in darkness, or splitting the bridge of Khazad-dum. We do know he creates fireworks, but even that’s done sparingly. Harry Potter, by contrast, is over-saturated with spells.

  • Joanna

    Yes, Tolkien was picky. But again, you have to remember the world JKR has created. It has different rules from Narnia or LOTR, but it does play by those rules — again, the movies don’t follow the rules as well.

    I think he wouldn’t abject to magic being used differently than he portrays its use, as long as the author remains consistent and logical throughout the story. I don’t think Tolkien thought his use of magic was the only way magic could be done — as if he’d somehow cornered the market on all things magical.

    (Actually, Gandalf does a lot of random tricks with magic — especially in the Hobbit. He really does like to show off… :D)

    What’s interesting about the books is how most of the way through, things happen that seem like they break the rules, but in the end, as each piece is revealed, you discover they didn’t at all. It’s incredibly consistent. Way more so than Narnia, which does have a pretty fluid set of base rules, because Narnia is a world CSL built in pieces. He didn’t have the ending when he started LWW. JKR did have the end from the moment she first described the iconic lighting bolt scar on HP’s forehead.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    I agree that Potter has a different set of rules. That may be part of the problem. I’m not sure how Tolkien would react to a story where ordinary children in THIS world are going to school to learn how to practice magic and cast spells. However, I’m glad you acknowledge that
    the universes are fundamentally different. The “Why don’t you like Harry Potter, you like Tolkien and that’s no different” response can get very old very quickly!

    I am quite sure it’s the sort of thing Lewis was warning against in Eustace’s voice at the beginning of The Silver Chair. Do you remember that scene, where he and Jill are trying to figure out how to get into Narnia? Jill suggests they “draw a circle in the ground and write queer letters in it and stand inside it and recite charms and spells.” Eustace decides strongly against the idea, saying he suspects all that stuff is “rather rot” and that Aslan wouldn’t like it. And notice that she wasn’t even suggesting that they cast a “bad” spell.

  • Joanna

    First, Tolkien wrote his books as an ancient mythology for our world. He wasn’t making his own universe. It was a mythology for England as the Greek pantheon was a mythology for Greece. When Lewis wrote the Space Trilogy, it was out of a challenge he and Tolkien had given each other to write science fiction. He was going to write space travel, and Tolkien was going to write time travel. In the first few chapters of his book that he never finished, (Chris Tolkien has published them) his English professor character travels back in time to the fall of Numinor. In *this* world.

    So Tolkien had no problems playing with the fabric of this world’s reality and no problems adding magic to this world. …. Though I don’t understand why we need Tolkien or Lewis’ stamp of approval on any fantasy we read and enjoy today. They both made valuable contributions to the literary world, but does that now make them the infallible gold standard?

    Second, Lewis, and the “draw a circle thing.”

    The short answer is that, in Harry Potter, they don’t do that either. There are no circles drawn. There are no dead spirits called up. There is no “making Aslan do things.”

    Remember Caspian’s tutor, Doctor Cornelius,? He “has magic.” It’s in his blood – he inherited it from his dwarvish ancestry, and so he can do things like find Caspian. It’s just *what* he is, not what he does. That’s the sort of magic that HP characters do. They are born with it, and they are taught how to use and control it. And Lewis apparently doesn’t have any issues with that sort of magic. It’s culturally a part of English literature.

    Lewis wrote it. So does JKR. Really, the biggest problem is semantics. She uses some of the same imagery and names for something very different. But then, so does Lewis.

    Lewis also loved George MacDonald, who wrote books that were full of magic of all kinds (“black” and “white”), and all ostensibly set in *this* world. I think Lewis had a very clear idea in his mind of the different kinds – the kinds that would force Aslan’s hand to do something, or some form of tapping into the power of the spirit world – the kind the Bible forbids for obvious reasons, and the kind that is a force of nature in fairy tales, like electricity is a force we can harness and use in the real world.

  • Joanna

    FYI:
    Until a couple of years ago, I was an anti-Potter evangelist. I was the kid who’d start the argument about how they were pure evil at youth group and summer camp.

    Then I started reading Speculative Faith Blog, and was presented with the real facts, not the half truths I’d been fed about the books and slowly my anti-Potter convictions started to crumble and I knew then I at least couldn’t judge my friends who’d read and liked them.

    Finally, I decided to dip my toe into that world, and started with a couple of the movies, and suddenly went “What the heck?! This is more Biblical than Star Wars! … This is WAY better than Star Wars.”

    I watched the movies, still unsure about diving into the books, knowing how deeply books pull me in. Then I saw Deathly Hallows, and went “I don’t get it.” I did some reading online, but those didn’t really explain it either.

    So only a few months ago, I started reading the first one, and realized how much I’d been missing with the movies – I had trouble taking the movies seriously, but then, reading the books, I realized there was a serious story there, better than most of the stories from, yes, my childhood obsession, Narnia. (my jr. high email address had the word “Narnia” in it.) And HP had all the things I loved most from the “Redwall” series that I’d gotten into as well.

    Then I read the last two books, and went “wow. JKR gives even Tolkien a run for his money on crafting a deep and powerful story.”

  • Esther O’Reilly

    I was discussing how Tolkien and Lewis might view it because I think it was Stephen who said they would probably like the books.

    You’re right that we need to distinguish between different kinds of magic to clarify the discussion. But I guess I don’t really see a resemblance between MacDonald’s fairytales and 20th century kids going to magic school. For one thing, the former isn’t likely to inspire a kid who reads the books to try spells on his own, but the latter might and actually has.

    I can tell you’re very young and enthusiastic about reading, and that’s great. We might disagree about what qualifies as great literature, but I don’t think you’re an ignoramus for believing the Potter books rival Tolkien. I also don’t think they’re pure evil from what I’ve heard. It obviously didn’t influence you to try your hand at spells. However, I can think of at least one young person I know personally (not a Christian, for what that’s worth) and others I’ve heard of who were influenced in exactly that way by the books. My friend was inspired to try a spell that would get another kid in his school to become his friend. But he got creeped out and decided to drop it. I’ve also read message boards where kids are swapping ideas for stirring romantic affection.

    By contrast, I’ve never heard a single story of people who went off and dabbled in magic or the occult after reading Lewis or Tolkien.

  • Joanna

    So I wasn’t going to keep this going on and on, but as I kept thinking about your last comment, my own thoughts on this subject suddenly clarified, and so I decided to post one more time.

    First, ever heard of Roll Playing Games? (They were the “Harry Potter” before Harry Potter for the Christian world. And, yes, some of them did have the characters/players doing magic/divination. And much of the “nerd world” who got into those got into them through Tolkien.

    When Tolkien’s and Lewis’ books first came out and people were reading them, the occult hadn’t swept America like it has now, and there was little to be learned about such things, even if you wanted to. The only reason such things have been linked to HP is because it was already here.

    The real reason the kids were dabbling in it, was because they didn’t have Jesus, not that they were pure before reading a story. The story may have influenced the *direction* the darkness inside expressed its self, but how is that any worse than, say, lustful fantasies about a character in a teen – even Christian – romance story? (According to Jesus, entertaining lust = adultery. Adultery was a stoning offense as much as sorcery. And it all equals sin. The stuff that Jesus came and died for because we were hopelessly trapped in it and under judgment for it.)

    How about we meet that child where he is, and rather than freaking out about the reflections of the darkness of the human heart in a story (and they are in every story), how about we take that story and use the reflections of God’s story that are also in there, to point him to Jesus?

  • Joanna

    P.S. little of the story actually takes place in the classroom anyway. The boarding school setting is just a classic place to set an English children’s story, because a vast number of English children were sent to boarding school once they could read. It was their home all through middle and high school.

    I have to say though, from the classroom scenes, I do know a particularly useful spell to shoot at a boggart, for next time I run into one of those. :D

    (actually, for those of you who know what I’m talking about – the more you think about it, the more symbolism and meaning the boggart has for life, and even, so often, the way the enemy works with the church. And we spend so much time feeding the boggarts with our fear, that we really aren’t ready to face the real enemy.)

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Yeah, I’ve heard of Dungeons and Dragons and stuff like that. But I never tried them because (I’m not kidding) I listened to an Adventures in Odyssey episode that scared me off of them forever! In all seriousness though, they do sound like the kind of things it would be wise not to engage with.

    We’re gonna have to agree to disagree on some of this stuff, but I appreciate the conversation anyway. Enjoy the rest of your week!

  • KSV

    Harry, Hermione, the Weasleys and their friends are not ordinary 20th century kids, they are inherently magic youngfolk who need to hone their skills and learn to use them properly. Harry’s muggle cousin Dudley will never be able to cast spells because he is human, like the young people you cite. I also agree that the protagonists in HP use magic more like a force of nature like electricity.

    Humans have desired friends and romance partners forever and don’t need books to consider charms and spells. Most of us know it isn’t real or even desirable.

    As for Lewis, his universe always struck me as anemic and not likely to inspire much of anything,

  • Esther O’Reilly

    I understand that they’re not “ordinary” in the sense that they have magical talent which sets them apart, but I thought my meaning was clear. You’ve actually raised something else that puts me off about the series, namely the cliqueish distinction between the “special” people and the muggles. This just adds fuel to the fire for young people who are already prone to create “in” and “out” groups. Real-life kids have appropriated “muggle” as yet another insult with which to demean the un-cool kids.

    Of course you’re free to dislike Lewis, but it saddens me that you’ve failed to recognize his genius.


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