Of course, all great literature illustrates the dark side of human existence; however, the best authors do not intend darkness itself as entertainment.
With all of the media hype, even in the Catholic press, I could not help looking over the Harry Potter books while shopping one day. After reading a few pages, I put Potter down with a shudder. Oozing with the occult and dressed with disgusting details, these stories by J.K. Rowling are not the kind of thing I would read my little ones at bedtime. Compared with the truly great books lining our shelves at home, they are not the kind of literature I would want my 10 and 12-year-old sons to read on their own, either.
Despite my decision to pass on Potter, he has affected my children. As we were leaving the park one recent afternoon, my six-year-old daughter informed me that she and a herd of other girls her age had pretended they were the characters from the Rowling books.
"We were using sticks as magic wands, Mom," she said.
"Oh? And what were you doing with these magic wands?" I asked.
"We were casting spells and killing bugs," she answered.
"Why were you killing bugs?"
"Because they were the bad guys," she shrugged.
Her responses troubled me. How has Harry Potter become so ubiquitous that he influences the play of children too young to read about him? More importantly, why do these stories link magic, power and the killing of one's enemies in the tender imagination of little girls? To begin answering these questions, I read two of the books myself.
In the very beginning of the first two episodes, Rowling's heavy-handed and sophomoric treatment of Harry's aunt, uncle and cousin disturbed me. These relatives, who become Harry's adoptive family after the murder of his parents, are narcissistic and vulgar, with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever. In one repulsive scene, Cousin Dudley belches at the breakfast table, while his fat buttocks hang over the sides of the chair. Meanwhile, with a bit of food clinging to his face, Uncle Vernon sputters forth with his customary rage. Call it a matter of taste, but these antics evoke no laughter from me. Rowling's sneers at a grasping middle-class family cannot hold a candle to the satire of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. The most terrible feature of Harry's relations is not their churlishness, but their heartlessness toward the orphaned boy. While they spoil their own horrible son with two bedrooms, Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia assign Harry a spider-infested closet. In the second book, they lock him in a room with bars on the windows, and feed him a starvation diet through a slot in the door. The reason for their harshness, apart from their own selfishness, is Harry's magical background. This is an abnormality, they declare, that they will not tolerate.
Tolerance, of course, is a Christian virtue based upon respect for man's God-given freedom. While Catholic children should be trained to respect those who do not profess their faith, they also should be taught that the practice of magic is a serious sin. Apart from prayer to God, the invocation of superhuman powers in order to obtain results beyond the capacity of mere nature is condemned with the strongest language in both the Old and New Testaments. The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares the practice of magic "gravely contrary to the virtue of religion," for it involves a mistrust of God and a refusal to accept His will. The practice of magic can lead to the worship of nature, man, or Satan. Because he is a wizard by birth, Harry is sent for by Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and is delivered from the hands of his relatives. At this boarding school, the alma mater of Harry's dead parents, the twelve-year old grows into his true identity. In Albus Dumbledore, the seemingly sagacious wizard who directs Hogwarts, Harry finds a mentor/father figure. Peripheral to the main unfolding of the plot, Dumbledore conveniently appears after the climax of the first two books to neatly interpret Harry's harrowing, coming-of-age experiences at school. There is some humor to be found at Hogwarts, which is housed in a mysterious, haunted castle. Among Harry's textbooks, for example, is "One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi" by Phyllida Spore.
The lethal beast guarding a secret in the bowels of the castle is named Fluffy. But the overall atmosphere at Hogwarts is ominous, and many of the features of daily life there are gruesome. From a good guy eating an earwax-flavored jelly bean to a bad guy drinking unicorn blood, there is a distinct dash of the macabre.
The subjects taught at Hogwarts range from ordinary fields of knowledge, such as astronomy and botany, to magical arts such as changing one object into another, casting spells and mixing potions. Nearly every forbidden magical practice known to man is mentioned or explored. In contrast to the dull and narrow world of Harry's non-magic relatives, Hogwarts appears interesting and broadening. Looking at a drawing of the castle on the back of the second book, my 12-year-old son declared, "That looks so cool!"
On the surface, the Harry Potter tales fit right in with Goosebumps, Rugrats, and that gooey cerebral-like matter designed for throwing upon walls. Yes, pre-pubescent boys, especially, can think this stuff is pretty neat, hence there is a huge market for it. But if we want our children to love truth, goodness and beauty, then why are we buying them products that encourage their tendencies toward the grotesque? Of course, all great literature illustrates the dark side of human existence; however, the best authors do not intend darkness itself as entertainment. Like shadows in a landscape that make the bright spots all the more brighter, evil in fiction should serve as a contrast to the good. Perversely, Rowling presents her dismal world of the occult as a circus. Worse than that, she offers it as a desirable alternative to her caricature of normalcy.
Rowling has been quoted as saying she does not believe in magic, but in God. To her credit, she places the hocus-pocus at Hogwarts in a moral framework, in which some uses of magic are good and others bad. The Sorcerer's Stone, which brings everlasting life and riches to whoever possesses it, is destroyed at the end of the first episode because, like the ring in J.R.R. Tolkien's books, the stone had become a source of corruption. When one peels away the magic, it appears Rowling is addressing important moral questions. Often Harry must make difficult choices, and like any other schoolboy, he is sent to detention when he is caught breaking the rules. When Harry is in mortal danger, as he is at the end of the first two books, it is self-sacrificial love, not magic per se, that saves him. Harry's ultimate quest, it seems, is not so much to develop his powers as a wizard as it is to develop his character.
While I am gratified to find such themes in Rowling's books, I nevertheless consider her smorgasbord of magic, yuck, and gore an unfitting package for the truth. Moreover, her stories create the impression that some of us, like Potter and Dumbledore, could learn to handle occult powers and wield them for good.
This is a grave error, for our intentions, however noble, cannot transform an objective evil into a good. Though the books are fantasy, young readers relate to Harry and his classmates as their own peers. The aspiring witches and wizards at Hogwarts are not other-worldly beings from some prehistoric age, such as the wizards Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings and Merlin in the Arthurian legends. Rather, they are ordinary boys and girls, with the exception that they have inexplicably inherited a magical gene present in the human race. By following their education, could our children's curiosity in the occult or in the bizarre be sparked? Could their spiritual defenses against certain temptations be weakened? Could their imaginations become haunts of "things that go bump in the night"?
According to a public librarian here in San Francisco, the Potter stories already have inspired countless children to seek other books about witches, wizards, and spooks. The city's libraries have stocked their juvenile collections with this subject matter, along with Rowling's titles in order to encourage summer reading. The trend concerns me because, apart from serious sin, occultism is the main way the diabolical can enter a person's life.
Nevertheless, many, many other parents, including Catholic ones, remain untroubled. They consider the Harry Potter stories perfectly acceptable for their children. As a result, Harry Potter has become a pop culture icon. After the new sequel is released this summer, there will still be three more forthcoming episodes in the continuing Potter saga. Also lying ahead are Harry Potter movies, and spin-off Mattel action figures.
Given the enormous profitability of the young wizard, one can only guess what other magical heroes and heroines will be created next. And when all of the money made off our hunger for the supernatural has been counted, what level of literary accomplishment and what vision of spiritual reality will have been sold to our children? That remains to be seen.
Dudro, Vivian W. "Is Harry Potter Good for Our Kids?" St. Joseph Covenant Keepers 6 no. 4 (July/August 2000).
Reprinted with permission of St. Joseph Covenant Keepers.
Vivian W. Dudro is a free-lance writer and editor, and the mother of four children ages 4 to 12. Her articles have appeared in Catholic publications nation-wide. Currently she writes a regular column on family life for the Catholic San Francisco.Copyright © 2000 St. Joseph Covenant Keepers
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