Thoughts on Harry Potter
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Ever since the first Harry Potter book, “The Philosopher’s Stone” appeared and sharply divided opinion among Christians, the subsequent books in the series have ignited further ongoing debate.
I was initially very unsure whether to read the first book or not. As someone who works with children, aiming to teach and inform them to the best of my ability, I decided to read it. (As a reason to choose to read the books, it’s not strong enough on its own. I would not, for example, feel the need to read every horror or occult book released for children in order to recommend that children do not read that type of book. The national, and global, response to the HP series, however, was massive, and of sufficient magnitude to warrant an informed opinion. How else could one answer the question posed by a nine year old girl, or parents of a six year old boy - “is it OK to read Harry Potter?”)
There is no doubt that the writing is compelling, exciting, and addictive! JK Rowling uses many of the techniques employed by the best children’s writers through the ages. She writes in a way that is accessible to child and adult alike, and is tremendously evocative and enjoyable. Her invention, imagination, and attention to detail are first-rate.
The story unfolds through the eyes and mind of a child, Harry, who grows a year older with each book, so is 16 by the latest edition, “The Half-Blood Prince”. The books feature friendship, food, mystery, magic, adventure, tension, tears, laughter, sport, sweets, and is set in a world which is at once familiar to us all - home, school, shopping, travel - and yet totally transformed beyond our wildest imaginings.
Harry himself can be a hero to any child: he is special, set apart and different, yet is also ordinary, vulnerable, and prone to making mistakes, as well as winning amazing victories against all the odds. Orphaned as a baby, he evokes our sympathy through the classic literary device used to such great effect from Dickens to Pantomime - the step-family that doesn’t want him and treats him terribly. His subsequent attachment and fierce loyalty to Dumbledore (headmaster of the school that rescues him from his sad childhood and throws him into the extraordinary magical world Rowling creates) is quite understandable: he becomes a surrogate father to him, and helps him come to terms with, and understand, not just the nature of the magical world he now lives in, but also his own history and destiny, and that of his dead parents.
The theme of friendship runs deep through the writing - Ron and Hermione are ever-present, and issues of friendship loyalty are treated in a way that is reminiscent of the developing relationship between the Hobbits in “Lord of the Rings”, for example. The nature of enmity and betrayal is also deeply explored, through Harry’s encounters with arch-rival Malfoy, and others.
Other strong themes include racism (”pure blood” vs “half blood”, and “muggles” - non-wizards), authority and the nature of government, parenting and what we pass on to our children (good & bad), destiny vs. choice, the power of words, wealth, justice, imprisonment, the role & integrity of journalists & the media, the nature of identity & self, and healing & forgiveness. No wonder the books have been so widely read and appreciated - these are great themes!
One initial concern that I had after reading the first book, and that is still strongly with me after the latest, is the frequent writing on depression and fear, and the way that it is portrayed, especially through the invention of “dementors” - shadowy, dark, floating creatures that have the ability to “kiss” a victim and suck the very joy and life from their soul, so that they are left in darkness and despair. As a description of depression, it may be a very good one - Rowling herself is reported as saying that she has suffered depression in her life, and from that perspective, it may be “fair” to write about it in a realistic and personal way. However, when writing for children, it is not unreasonable to argue that for a child who is not prone to depression or fear, would reading Harry Potter bring about that possibility? Could they suffer nightmares for the first time? Some would argue that is a good thing - every child has to face the reality that the world can be a very unpleasant place sooner or later, so we can be “cruel to be kind” and let them know at an early age that such horrors as deep depression and fear exist.
Personally, I feel that for a very sensitive, or very young, child, the potential for nightmares and fear to be introduced into their life should be very carefully considered by a parent or guardian before allowing them to read, or reading to them, the books. (If pressed to specify an age, I would say that I am not an expert, and it should be very much to the parent’s discretion, but very serious thought should be give to allowing a child younger than 8 to read them.) Society already does more than enough to disavow children of the very nature of childhood - innocence - at an ever-earlier age, so I am against anything that further hastens “growing up” prematurely.
Another theme that has been strongly ever-present, and is explored in even greater depth in the latest book, is that of death. It is perhaps one of the strongest reasons why so many people enjoy the series - the writing does not shy away from dealing with the ultimate issue of life - death! (As Christians, we should surely welcome that - we live in a society that does not often discuss death, and one of the greatest obstacles to encouraging people to explore the Christian faith is in getting them to accept or contemplate their own mortality.)
Having said that I don’t like the focus on depression in the books, you may be expecting me also to criticise the focus on death, but I’m not going to. In fact, I think that we sometimes shield children, even very young children, from the reality of death too much. It is something we must all face sooner or later, for ourselves, and in the lives of those we love - family, friends, even pets (often a child’s first introduction to death).
A few years ago, I wrote a lullaby to the tune of “Twinkle twinkle little star” (the melody, of course, by Mozart). One line had the lyric “You came down from heav’n above, died to show the Father’s love”. The song was recorded on a compilation CD for small children by a record company, and during the vocal session, the producer asked the vocalist to change the line to “You came down from heav’n above, to show us the Father’s love”, thereby removing the reference to Jesus’ death. They did this on the basis that a CD of lullabies for babies and children should not contain a reference to death. I could appreciate the reasons behind their decision, but was not sure if I agreed with it, and it really got me thinking about life, death, and small children…
When I was six years’ old, an older brother, Christopher, aged 14, died in a tragic mountaineering accident. It was my first experience of the death of anyone, let alone someone so close. In trying to shield me, quite understandably, from the realities of the awful situation, my parents did not take me to the funeral, and with hindsight, I wish they had, because I think it would have helped me deal with, and understand (to the extent that anyone can in the event of a tragic family bereavement), what had happened.
I contrast this to the recent tragic death of a friend: a wife and mother who died suddenly in a terrible car accident in front of her two young children. Her husband, instinctively perhaps, did not shield the reality of what had happened, but explained it immediately to his young daughter and son. Watching them all at the funeral, I was amazed at how the children were coping. They were grieving, deeply, of course, but they had an understanding of the reality of what had happened, and it is my belief that this will help them greatly as they grow and reflect on the sad sad loss of their mother.
Back to Harry Potter, it is my belief that the fact that death features so strongly as a theme through the books may be of great help to a number of children, and adults too. From a moral point of view, the unfolding story makes it clear that violence and murder are abhorrent and evil, and that life is precious. It also makes it clear that a death of sacrificial love, that of Harry’s parents, and especially his mother’s, is something tremendously powerful.
Harry’s parents’ deaths are not the only ones to feature through the books - there are several more. As well as giving the story much of its grip and compulsion, it keeps the reality ever-present that ultimately life, even the ficticious life of a boy wizard, is all about life AND death. Many children, and adults, have a fear of death – it’s the most common fear. We need to teach the Biblical truth that death is not to be feared. While it is certainly true that Harry Potter is far from being a Christian allegory (and I imagine JK Rowling must despair in equal measure of those Christians who denounce her as evil, and those who laud her as full of heavenly wisdom), if it’s ultimate message is, in the words of Dumbledore, that “love is stronger than death”, then how can that be bad?!
With the final book still to come, I wonder what the final judgment on the complete series from most Christians will be. I think of the impact the fist “Matrix” film had, where so many Christians seized on the strong allegorical nature of the story to make exaggerated claims of the underlying Christian message, only to be disappointed as episodes 2, and especially 3, “let them down”. With Harry Potter, I have a sneaking suspicion that those who condemned the first book for being occultist and unhealthy will ultimately be more than pleased with the final message. Time will tell…