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Some further points on the Harry Potter series

by Michael D. O' Brien

The realm of human imagination is a God-given gift, a faculty of the mind that is intended for the expansion of our understanding by enabling us to visualize invisible truths. In the modern era this zone of man' s interior life has moved to the forefront of his experience. With the advent of film, television, and now the near-virtual reality of special effects videos and other electronic entertainment, the screen of the imagination is stimulated to a degree (both in quantity and kind) more than at any other period in history. This has prompted an ongoing debate over what constitutes healthy nourishment of the imagination and what degrades it.

How does this apply to books that promote a pagan view of the world? Surely, it is argued, their popularity heralds a return to a more literate culture. Is not their success a positive sign, demonstrating that the human imagination can never be fully satisfied by electronic media? At first glance, it would seem so. But a book is not necessarily always better than a video simply because it is a book. While it is true that media-technology tends to overwhelm the viewer, and books usually pay some respect to the integrity of the reader (sparking the imagination but not displacing its creative powers), much of contemporary fantasy for the young is actually closer in style to television than to literature. It overwhelms by using in print form the visceral stimuli and pace of the electronic media, flooding the imagination with sensory rewards while leaving it malnourished at the core. In a word, thrills have swept aside wonder.

Pro-Harry commentators say that Rowling' s sub-creation is witty, thought-provoking, entertaining, expands the child' s imagination, and even retains a certain morality. Furthermore, she has succeeded in introducing an electronically addicted generation to the world of reading. All of this is true. The stories are packed with surprises, delights of the imagination that few readers will fail to be enchanted by. Talking chess pieces argue with the players about the advisability of moves, ingenious toys and devices abound, mythological beasts run in and out of scenes, owls deliver mail, a lovable giant hatches dragon eggs and breeds new species of creatures, elves serve dutifully, wise-cracking ghosts play tricks, and of course there is Quidditch - a combination of rugby, basketball, and polo played on flying broomsticks.

But the charming details are mixed with the repulsive at every turn: Ron seeks to cast a spell that rebounds on himself, making him vomit slimy slugs, the ghost of a little girl lives in a toilet, excremental references are not uncommon, urination is no longer an off-limits subject, rudeness between students is routine behavior. In volume four especially these trends are in evidence, along with the added spice of sexuality inferred in references such as "private parts" and students pairing off and "going into the bushes."

Student witches and wizards are taught to use their wands to cast hexes and spells to alter their environments, punish small foes, and defend themselves against more sinister enemies. Transfiguration lessons show them how to change objects and people into other kinds of creatures - sometimes against their will. In Potions class they make brews that can be used to control others. In Herbology they grow plants that are used in the potions - the roots of the mandrake plant, for example, are small living babies who scream when they are uprooted for transplanting, and are grown for the purpose of being cut into pieces and boiled in a magical potion.

The Harry Potter series is, in essence, a Gnostic worldview

The wizard world is about the pursuit of power and esoteric knowledge, and in this sense it is a modern representation of a branch of ancient Gnosticism, the cult that came close to undermining Christianity at its birth. The so-called "Christian Gnostics" of the 2nd century were in no way Christian, for they attempted to neutralize the meaning of the Incarnation and to distort the concept of salvation along traditional Gnostic lines: man saves himself by obtaining secret knowledge and power. The figure of Christ was just one of many "myths" which they attempted to graft onto their worldview. At Hogwarts, holidays such as Christmas and Easter are stripped of Christ, rendered down to no more than social customs and absorbed into the "broader" context of the occult symbol-cosmology. Halloween is the great feast of the year. Rowling' s wizard world, gnostic in essence and practice, neutralizes the sacred and displaces it by normalizing what is profoundly abnormal and destructive in the real world.

While Rowling posits the "good" use of occult powers against their misuse, thus imparting to her sub-creation an apparent aura of morality, the cumulative effect is to shift our understanding of the battle lines between good and evil. The border is never defined. Of course, the archetype of "misuse" is Voldemort, whose savage cruelty and will to power is blatantly evil, yet the reader is lulled into minimizing or forgetting altogether that Harry himself, and many other of the "good" characters, frequently use the same powers on a lesser scale, supposedly for good ends. The false notion of "the end justifies the means" is the subtext throughout. The author' s characterization and plot continually reinforce the message that if a person is "nice", if he means well, is brave and loyal to his friends, he can pretty much do as he sees fit to combat horrific evil - magic powers being the ideal weapon. This is consistent with the author' s confused notions of authority. In reality, magic is an attempt to bypass the limitations of human nature and the authority of God, in order to obtain power over material creation and the will of others through manipulation of the supernatural. Magic is about taking control. It is a fundamental rejection of the divine order in creation. In the first book of Samuel (15:23) divination is equated with the spirit of rebellion. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls divination and magic a form of idolatry.

All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one' s service and have a supernatural power over others...are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. (n.2117. See also n.2110 - 2116 and n.2138)

In Rowling' s wizard world, children are taught to manipulate undefined forces, and to submit themselves to no higher law than the wizard authorities who will help them exercise their powers "wisely". However, the authorities themselves are divided, imparting to the impressionable reader the certainty that the best person to decide what is or is not a "proper use of magic" is the young witch or magician himself, guided only by the occasional intervention of a Dumbledore or some similar guru figure. The Ministry of Magic attempts to regulate the use of magic, but it is as bumbling and riddled with compromise as ordinary human governments. The author repeatedly sets up the straw man of legalism and knocks it down with unsubtle blows. The Dursleys are a parody of staid conservatism, "touchy about anything even slightly out of the ordinary." Ron' s brother Percy, the most unattractive member of his family, is a caricature of the fastidious clerk, "fussy about rule-breaking." Nasty Professor Snape mouths the platitudes of the hypocritical legalist. In Hogwarts, although it is organized along a system of rules pretty much like an ordinary boarding school, Harry' s disobedience is frequently overlooked and even rewarded by the school authorities. After all, he is a special boy, gifted, hated by evil incarnate, and destined for greatness. Moreover, his daring and resourcefulness (combined with a sense of fair play toward "good" fellow students) are always pitted against "bad" characters.

But is Harry really all that good? He blackmails his uncle, uses trickery and deception, and "breaks a hundred rules" (to quote the mildly censorious but ultimately approving Dumbledore). He frequently tells lies to get himself out of trouble, and lets himself be provoked into revenge against his student enemies. He "hates" his enemies. The reader soon finds himself forgiving Harry for this because the boy' s tormentors are vindictive and mocking. In a consistent display of authorial overkill Rowling depicts such "bad" characters as ugly in appearance. She does a good deal of sneering at the Dursleys for being fat, and ridicules the oafish bodies of the students who oppress Harry. In these details and a plethora of others throughout the series, the child reader is encouraged in his baser instincts while lip service is paid to morality. In fact, nowhere in the series is there any reference to a system of moral absolutes against which actions can be measured. In a word, this is materialist magic, magic as a naturalized human power.

The virulent growth of evil "spiritualities" in the modern era

When the meaning of the human person is reduced to a strictly natural definition, evil will be considered no more than erroneous abstractions or problems in the dynamics of the psyche. In his book, An Exorcist Tells His Story (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1999), Fr. Gabriele Amorth, the chief exorcist of the diocese of Rome, warns that modern men are losing their sense of the reality of supernatural evil. As a result, he says, many have made themselves more vulnerable to the influence of evil spirits who seek to corrupt and destroy souls.

I can state that the number of those who are affected by the evil one has greatly increased. The first factor that influences the increase of evil influences is Western consumerism. The majority of people have lost their faith due to a materialistic and hedonistic lifestyle...it is a well-known fact that where religion regresses, superstition progresses. We can see the proliferation, especially among the young, of spiritism, witchcraft, and the occult.

Amorth does not hesitate to say that cultural influences such as film, television, music and books play no small part in the lowering of spiritual vigilance. "I was able personally to verify how great is the influence of these tools of Satan on the young. It is unbelievable how widespread are witchcraft and spiritism, in all their forms, in middle and high school. This evil is everywhere, even in small towns." (pp. 53, 54)

Speaking of the growing phenomenon of diabolical possession and other forms of bondage to evil, Amorth points to sorcery as the most frequent cause. (p. 57) He warns that ultimately there is no real difference between "white" and "black" magic. Every form of magic is practiced with recourse to Satan, he says - either knowingly or unknowingly, the practitioner of magic exposes himself to diabolic influence. (p.60) "Scripture warns us that witchcraft is one of the most common means used by the devil to bind men to himself and to dehumanize them. Directly or indirectly, witchcraft is a cult of Satan." (p. 143)

The spread of occult activity, and the resulting increase in the number of exorcisms performed by Catholic priests, has been noted by secular commentators as well. Articles on the subject have recently appeared in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. An article in the November 28, 2000, edition of the New York Times reported a ten-fold increase in the number of official exorcists in the United States during the past decade. These, however, are still few in number, and a majority of dioceses have yet to implement the directives of a 1999 Vatican document that instructed every ordinary in the world to appoint an exorcist for his diocese. Fr. Amorth laments that many bishops still do not realize the scope of the problem. If he is right about this, it is no wonder that many lay people also consider the danger to be so remote that it has no bearing on their lives.

Discerning truth by principles, not by what we feel

With occult themes now a part of mainstream culture, the Potter series is juxtaposed between a growing amount of blatantly diabolical material for the young on one hand, and on the other a tide of cultural material that redefines good and evil in subtler ways. Thus, it can appear to be a healthier specimen of what has been more or less normalized all around us. This is precisely the time when we need to exercise more careful discernment, because in this confusing array of the extremely disordered ranging to the less disordered, our discernment can be seriously blurred, the strange and disordered no longer strike us as such.

Our society is saturated in the false notion that a lesser evil (in this case, "good sorcery") is preferable to the great evil of Satanism, a message further reinforced by the books' condemnation of the extremes of diabolical behavior. What we so often forget is that the "lesser evil" concept is a classic adversarial tactic in the great war between good and evil - the real war in which we are all immersed. The evil spirits seek to attract us to evil behavior by first offering us evil thoughts disguised as good. In opposition to these, they set up great evils from which we naturally recoil, and offer the lesser evils as the antidote. If the lesser evil is presented with a little window-dressing of virtue or morality (or the modern term "values"), we can turn to it assuming we are making a choice for a good. This dynamic can be observed in the way film classification has gradually altered our proper judgement and consequent viewing habits. We have come to assume that a film rated PG is better than an X rated film, forgetting that what is now called PG would have been completely objectionable a generation ago.

A child' s experience of culture is not an adult' s

Children are dependent on adults to make careful discernments in the area of culture because they do not have the advantage of age and experience. They are in a state of formation, absorbing impressions about the nature of reality at a fundamental level, and few things in life are as powerful as culture for defining reality - for defining good and evil. In the case of the Harry Potter series discernment has been difficult for many people because these novels seem at first glance to reject evil by dissociating magic from the diabolic. Yet in the real world they are always associated. We must ask ourselves if they really can be separated without negative consequences. If magic is presented as a good, or as morally neutral, is there not an increased likelihood that when a young person encounters opportunities to explore the world of real magic he will be less able to resist its attractions? Of course, children are not so naive as to think they can have Harry' s powers and adventures; they know full well the story is make-believe. But on the subconscious level they have absorbed it as experience, and this experience tells them that the mysterious forbidden is highly rewarding.

What long-term effects do fictional heroes and heroines have on the mind' s ability to distinguish truth from falsehood? A novel about a boy who regularly skips along a tightrope across Niagara Falls without falling is no real threat to one' s child, because he instantly recognizes the absurdity of the notion. The danger is immediately perceived and the practice rejected. But a novel about a boy who skips along a tightrope across an eternal abyss is a real threat, for the danger is difficult to recognize without knowledge of moral absolutes and a developed sense of the immediacy of spiritual combat. Parents' warnings about abstract dangers can pale in a child' s mind when compared to tales packed with potent images that have lodged deeply in his imagination.

The effects of Harry Potter on the young

Regardless of how few or many children are prompted to venture into occult activity after reading the Potter series, it will have a strong effect on most, in the sense of what educators call the propaeduetic - preparing the ground for later developments. If the natural and spiritual guard has been lowered in a child' s mind, if his concept of morality has been skewed and authority undermined, what other kinds of disordered interests and activities will follow as he makes his choices later in life? This is no longer an academic question. A recent search of the internet for Harry Potter references yielded more than 500,000 "hits" or sites where the books are being discussed, including those of major libraries. Selective searches turned up more than a hundred high-profile web sites devoted to the series, many of which offer cross-links to advanced occult web sites under titles such as "Learn More about the Secrets of the Occult" and "How to Become a Witch."

In an interview with Newsweek, a spokesman for the Pagan Federation in England reported that he receives an average of 100 inquiries a month from young people who want to become witches - an unprecedented phenomenon which he attributes in part to the Potter books. An article in the December 17, 2000, issue of Time magazine reports that a similar organization in Germany deals with an increasing number of inquiries, which it also credits to the Potter factor. Rowling herself has expressed surprise at the volume of mail she receives from young readers writing to her as if Hogwarts were real, wanting to know how they can enter the school in order to become witches and wizards. Librarians in diverse social settings report that children in increasing numbers are requesting material from the occult sections of their collections, including Witchcraft and Satanic manuals.

The Christian use of magic in fantasy literature

Two well-known Christian fantasy writers, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, use magic in a way fundamentally different from Rowling. In The Magician' s Nephew, the first volume of Lewis' s Chronicles of Narnia, the corruption of Narnia begins when an elderly Londoner dabbles in occult activity, and opens the doors between worlds. The ensuing disasters are the direct result of the very activities the Potter books portray as forces for good. Lewis depicts them as forces allied with chaos, disruption, bondage, and violation of the dignity of creatures. Throughout the Chronicles witches are portrayed in classic terms, as malevolent, manipulative, deceiving and destructive - not the least of whom is a character called the White Witch.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a selfish boy who has no understanding of the supernatural meets a dragon. Entering its lair he seizes its treasure hoard and is changed into a dragon. He is liberated from this condition - "undragoned" - only by the intervention of the Christ figure, Aslan, who alone has the authority, the "deep magic", to undo what evil has done. Supernatural powers, Lewis repeatedly underlines, belong to God alone, and in human hands they are highly deceptive and can lead to destruction.

In The Silver Chair, the crown prince of Narnia has been kidnapped and brainwashed by a witch, and the children in the tale embark on a quest to rescue him. The witch captures them and seeks to enthrall them by reprogramming their minds while at the same time lulling their natural defenses to sleep. They are close to utter enslavement when the brave Marsh-wiggle deliberately burns himself in order to shock his mind back to reality. When he does so and challenges the witch, she reveals her true nature by taking the form of a powerful serpent, thus alerting the children to their peril.

In his great fantasy epic, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien also portrays magic as deception. Supernatural powers that do not rightly belong to man are repeatedly shown as having a corrupting influence on man. While it is true that Gandalf, one of the central characters, is called a "wizard" throughout, he is not in fact a classical sorcerer. Tolkien maintains that Gandalf is rather a kind of moral guardian, similar to guardian angels but more incarnate. (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1981) In letters 155, 156 and 228 he explains his depiction of matter and spirit, and the distinction between good magic and evil magic. In essence Tolkien' s "good magic" is not in fact what we think of as magic in the real world. Gandalf' s task is primarily to advise, instruct, and arouse to resistance the minds and hearts of those threatened by Sauron, the Dark Lord of this saga. Gandalf does not do the work for them; they must use their natural gifts - and in this we see an image of grace building on nature, never overwhelming nature or replacing it. Gandalf' s gifts are used sparingly, and then only so far as they assist the other creatures in the exercise of their free will and their moral choices.

The central character, Frodo Baggins, is asked by Gandalf to bear a ring of magical power to a volcanic mountain in a region ruled by Sauron, in order to destroy the ring in the volcano' s fires and thus weaken the grip that Sauron has over the world. Frodo agrees to undertake the journey but soon realizes that the ring has a seductive hold on him. As he carries the very thing that could ruin the world, he is constantly tempted to use it for the good. But he learns that to use its supernatural powers for such short-range "goods" increases the probability of long-range disaster, both for the world and for himself.

Supernatural powers, Tolkien demonstrates repeatedly, are very much a domain infested by the "deceits of the Enemy", used for domination of other creatures' free will. As such they are metaphors of sin and spiritual bondage. By contrast, Gandalf' s very limited use of preternatural powers is never used to overwhelm, deceive or defile. Even so, the author mentions more than once in the epic that these powers must pass away from the world as the "Old Age" ends and the "Age of Man" (and by inference the Age of the Incarnation) approaches.

Much of the modern pagan use of magic is the converse of Tolkien' s and Lewis' s approach. In neopagan fantasy, magic is frequently used to overwhelm, deceive and defile. In the Harry Potter series, for example, Harry resists and eventually overcomes Voldemort with the very powers the Dark Lord himself uses. Harry is the reverse image of Frodo. Rowling portrays his victory over evil as the fruit of esoteric knowledge and power. This is Gnosticism. Tolkien portrays Frodo' s victory over evil as the fruit of humility, obedience and courage in a state of radical suffering. This is Christianity. Harry' s world is about pride, Frodo' s about sacrificial love.

There is, of course, some courage and love in the Harry Potter series, but it is this very mixing of truth and untruth which makes it so deceptive. Courage and love can be found in all peoples, even those involved in the worst forms of paganism. The presence of such virtues does not automatically justify an error-filled work of fiction. In Potter-world the characters are engaged in activities which in real life corrupt us, weaken the will, darken the mind, and pull the practitioner down into spiritual bondage. Rowling' s characters go deeper and deeper into that world without displaying any negative side effects, only an increase in "character". This is a lie. Moreover, it is the Satanic lie which deceived us in Eden: You can have knowledge of good and evil, you can have Godly powers, and you will not die, you will not even be harmed by it - you will have enhanced life. There is so much that dazzles and delights in Rowling' s sub-creation, the reader must exercise a certain effort to see these interior contradictions and mixed messages.

In a letter he wrote about his Ring trilogy, Tolkien explained why Gandalf (the "wizard" character in the story) is not a classical magician or sorcerer. Gandalf's powers are bestowed on him as a gift from Iluvatar, "the Father of All", Tolkien' s mythological representation of God. This is a crucial point, the crucial distinction between Middle-earth and Potter-world. In the latter, all supernatural and preternatural powers are entirely naturalized. Rowling' s sub-creation is fundamentally immanentized - it is a godless Flatland. By contrast, Tolkien' s sub-creation is fundamentally hierarchical, representing a moral order that ascends from the incarnate all the way up to the throne of God Himself.

In Tolkien's sub-creation, there are ranks of beings, and the Istari lie somewhere between angels and men. The term "wizard" is one men have projected onto the Istari, who are only superficially like the wizards in the Potter series. Tolkien has employed the sub-creator's liberty to envision a world that might have been. Yet he takes pains to state, in his essay "On Fairy Stories", that no matter how fabulous the sub-created world may be, no matter how wildly it departs from the details of material existence, it will remain faithful to the moral order of the real universe.

In another letter he wrote about his trilogy, Tolkien said, "I have been far too casual about 'magic' and especially the use of the word..." Even so, the decisive point of Tolkien' s letter states that his fictional use of "magic" is not what we think of as magic in this world, which is obtained by lore or spells (the Gnostic seizing of secret knowledge). Rather, in Middle-earth it is "an inherent power not possessed or attainable by Men as such." It is a faculty of the higher ranks of creatures (Elves and Istari), bestowed on them by God the Creator as a gift.

It is important in assessing Tolkien' s impact to situate The Lord of the Rings in the fuller context of the body of the author's writings. The ring trilogy is only properly understood according to its author's intention, in the light of his foundational work The Silmarillion. With some leeway for imaginative expansion on his themes, Tolkien has given us the "theological" foundation to Middle-earth, one that corresponds in essence to the book of Genesis. It' s all there: the Creator, the creation of the universe, the revolt of the fallen angels, Satan, the corruption of Man, the ensuing battle between good and evil in the incarnate world. The names have been changed and the details of the battles enlarged, but this is a dramatic portrayal of reality itself.

What is the context of J.K. Rowling' s Potter-world? What are its "theological foundations", if you will? In a word, there are none. The Harry Potter series is a fantasy-projection of materialist man, homo sine Deo, man without God imagining himself to have god-like powers without any reference to the source of those powers, nor to any set of moral absolutes against which he can measure the rightness or wrongness of his thoughts and actions.

Loss of Christian Discernment

It is now almost universally taken for granted that we can absorb a certain amount of immoral entertainment without being adversely affected by it. We simply assume that if we have sufficient rational faith, we will be able to sift through good and bad material without being harmed by it, ignoring the bad, savoring the good. We numbly watch the graphically dramatized murders of many human beings every week, but would be upset if a dog were to be kicked on screen. We are entertained by television programs based on the occult worldview, such as Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, and comedy programs such as Cheers, Friends, and Seinfeld, deriving enjoyment from the wit but little realizing how a diet of laughing at what is profoundly unfunny will over time alter our ability to understand the gravity of immoral acts. In short, we have accepted the normalcy of corruption.

Books and films which three generations ago would have been instantly recognized as unhealthy for our children, are now considered acceptable, and those who oppose them alarmist or "hysterical." We need to take a step outside the situation and ask ourselves some clear-headed questions. For example, Why are real threats to our children' s well-being now being interpreted as harmless? To what degree have our judgments been influenced by secularization? Have we been affected by the pagan world view - possibly affected to the core?

A few final points:

Reasonable Christian parents would not permit their children to read a series of enthralling books depicting the rites and adventures of likable young people involved in drug-dealing, or premarital sex, or sadism. We are still capable of recognizing the falsehood in glamorizing torture, because physical pain is a reality in everyone' s life and anyone unjustly inflicting pain is instantly recognized for what he is - an enemy. We would not give our children fiction in which a group of "good fornicators" struggled against a set of "bad fornicators", because we know that the power of disordered sexual impulse is an abiding problem in human affairs, the negative effects of which we can see all around us. Why, then, have we accepted a set of books which glamorize and normalize occult activity, even though it is every bit as deadly to the soul as sexual sin, if not more so? Is it because we have not yet awakened to the fact that occultism is in fact a clear and present danger?

When we are told by book reviewers or "experts" that fantasy such as the Potter series is an expansion of the imagination, an enrichment of mind and soul, that it is, well, "literature", we should take a moment to pause and reflect. Experts come in all shapes and sizes these days, and they can all sound quite reasonable and intelligent, even when they are in strong disagreement with each other. Would we not do better to listen to the guidance of the Church instead?

We must ask ourselves why evil concepts, if they are wrapped in the aura of "culture", now enjoy a special exemption from the normal rules of discernment. Moreover, we should take note of the fact that in our sensually dominated society the habit of acting out fantasy is becoming a cultural norm. It varies from voracious consumption of expensive "toys" for all age groups to trading in one' s spouse for a new one found on the internet, from clubs devoted to immoral activity to high school murders. Why, then, do we presume that a sensually powerful series of children' s books will not affect a young reader' s interests and activities? Why have we come to assume that such novels have no consequences, that the experience of plunging the imagination into that alternative, and ultimately false world, will remain sealed in an airtight compartment of the mind? We must ask ourselves how we arrived at a position where we allow our children to absorb for hours on end, in the form of powerful fiction, activities that we would never permit them to observe or to practice in real life.

Recommended Reading: Catholics and the New Age, by Fr. Mitchell Pacwa, S.J., Servant Publications, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1992. A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child' s Mind, by Michael D. O' Brien, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, 1998. The Power of the Occult, by Terry Ann Modica, Magnificat Press, Avon-by-the-Sea, N.J., 1990.

For more arguments against Harry Potter:

  • A collection of articles examining the Potter phenomenon is available at the website of St. Joseph's Covenant Keepers, a large international organization for Catholic fathers.
  • If you want to consider some in-depth arguments about the nature of the new paganization of children's culture, see the Ignatius Press internet website where an entire section is devoted to what well-known Catholic authors think of the Potter series.
  • See also the highly recommended Catholic Educator's Resource Center, which has a section dealing with the Potter phenomenon.

For discussions in favour of Harry Potter, see: "The Moral Messages of "Harry Potter" by Doug McManaman.

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