Harry Potter for grownup believers (of all kinds)

ORLANDO -- Lee Hillman's nightstand contains a copy of Sir James George Frazer's classic "The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion." It's a condensed version, not the two-volume 1890 epic or the12-volume monument from the following decades. The single volume contains more than enough magical minutia for ordinary readers. Six dense pages will usually put Hillman to sleep.

Nevertheless, the practicing pagan keeps reading. It has helped give perspective on her other passion -- reading and writing about a certain young wizard in England.

"There is no relationship set up in the Harry Potter books between magic and religion," said Hillman during Nimbus 2003, the first global convention dissecting the 2,715 pages published so far in the series. "This had to be a deliberate decision by J.K. Rowling. ... She is using literary conceits drawn from throughout Western culture."

She scanned the crowd at a panel discussion last weekend entitled "Harry Potter: Witchcraft? Pagan Perspectives." Then she said the same thing again, as a Wiccan believer and another miscellaneous pagan nodded in agreement.

"There is nothing in these books that relates magic to any particular religion," said Hillman. "There is no connection. None. None. Zero. ... They are not really about witchcraft."

Don't misunderstand. Hillman still loves the Potter books. That's why she was wearing a spectacular witch's hat and robe, a flash of purple that even stood out among the 600 other colorful fans at Disney's Swan Hotel. Among online Potter devotees, the 31-year-old secretary from Rochester, N.Y., is known as "Gwendolyn Grace, Minister of Magic" and she was the driving force behind the gathering.

Nimbus 2003 sprouted out of the Internet, where the "Harry Potter For Grownups" email list has 10,000 members and a "Fiction Alley" list dedicated to stories written by fans for other fans has 30,000 members.

With this kind of reach, organizers attracted participants -- about 90 percent female -- from across the United States, as well as from England and Australia.

In hotel hallways, witch wannabes raised their expensive, professionally carved wands and fought imaginary duels with tickling spells and other incantations. In the lecture halls, others heard papers on everything from Harry Potter and the First Amendment to "Greenhouses are for Girls, Beasts are for Boys? Gender Characterizations in Harry Potter." There were packed sessions on so-called "slash" fiction in which online scribes write gay and lesbian themes into new Potter stories.

Organizers also dedicated an entire track of lectures and panels to spiritual issues, addressing topics such as "Seven Deadly Sins, Seven Heavenly Virtues: Moral Development in Harry Potter" and "Can Any Wisdom Come From Wizardry?"

Hillman and other pagan panelists were convinced that Rowling -- who has said she attends the Church of Scotland and does not believe in magic -- is a wonderful writer for children, but is clearly not interested in witchcraft. This is not the magic in which they believe.

"There is a cause-and-effect relationship to everything in these books," said Hillman. "You say the spell, you see the effect. ... It's like turning on a light. You flip the switch and the magic is there. That just isn't how things work."

Meanwhile, evangelical writer Connie Neal enthusiastically found echoes of biblical stories and parables in the Potter canon. Her book "The Gospel According to Harry Potter" has been banned in many Christian stores, but "this only seems to have made the secular stores more interested," she said. She keeps challenging people to set up evangelistic reading groups that mix Bible study and Harry Potter discussions.

A Jewish cantor found echoes of the Talmud. A Mormon speaker found strong family values. And classics teacher John Granger aired the thesis of his book "The Hidden Key to Harry Potter," arguing that Rowling has soaked her work in centuries of Christian symbolism and spiritual alchemy themes shared with Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, C.S. Lewis and countless others.

"The human person was designed for resurrection, in love. That is what we yearn for because that is how we were created," he said. "That is what these books are about. We respond to them because we are human. Rowling is using symbols and themes that have worked for centuries. And you know what? They still work."