With five million copies in hardcover and three million in paperback, the Harry Potter series is a dramatic success. But not everyone is wild about Harry.
With a flash of mysterious green light, Harry Potter's parents were taken from him when he was just a baby. Every time Harry asks his aunt and uncle to tell him something of his mother and father, they banish him to the cupboard under the stairs. But when a letter arrives on his birthday inviting him to attend Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the errant-haired, bespectacled eleven-year-old with a lightning bolt scar across his forehead finally learns the truth: His parents didn't die in a car accident but were a wizard and witch killed by the dark wizard, Lord Voldemort.
Whisked into a hidden world of sorcery, where shopping for school supplies includes picking up a magic wand, a pointed hat, and various spelling textbooks, Harry leaves his loveless family for wizard boarding school. In this new world, Harry Potter is something of a hero. Clutched in his mother's dying arms, somehow the infant Harry short-circuited Lord Voldemort's rise to power. With each book, readers learn, along with Harry, some new detail of his past and promise for his future.
At their core, the Harry Potter books are detective stories. Harry and his two best friends, Ron and Hermione, resolve some Hogwart school mystery that always leads to a sinister plot by the undead Lord Voldemort and his stealthy henchmen. The unfolding mysteries in The Sorcerer's Stone and The Chamber of Secrets are page-turning stuff. However, by the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, the plot becomes so convoluted that is it doubtful many eleven-year-olds let alone observant adults will stick with it.
Between the mysteries, the author paints a picture of English boarding school life with all the comic possibilities afforded by a magic boarding school. The real charm of the book, however, is its irreverent humor at the expense of myth and magic. Busybody ghosts walk Hogwart's halls and sobbing suicidees haunt its restrooms. Magic wands short-circuit and Oldsmobiles levitate. Wizards go on book tours and every young boy wants his very own Nimbus 2001 broomstick. Pixies demonstrate that they are pound-for-pound the angriest and most destructive of all mythical creatures. And we learn the finer points of de-gnoming a backyard apparently gnomes aren't quite the cute and industrious Santa Claus figures we'd imagined but more closely resemble ugly, talking groundhogs.
Despite the potential minefield of occultism, one has to breathe very deeply to get a whiff of real paganism here. The witchcraft in Potter's world is the trick-or-treat sort. Wizardry is an occupation, not a religion. But if you aren't keen on today's commercialized version of Halloween, you won't enjoy the Harry Potter stories either.
In fact, the failure of author J.K. Rowling's world is that it is pure cotton candy. Her books are entertaining' but the lessons are shallow. Rare lines such as, It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities, are shoehorned painfully into the dialogue. Besides, the chief motivation for most characters in the books, including Harry, appears to be revenge, whether it's getting back at Lord Voldemort or the school bully.
Unlike characters in the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, whom Rowling claims as one of her inspirations, none of her characters show any sign of moral growth. Students who begin the series as bullies, showoffs, or dunderheads end up much the same by book three, except now they have magical skills that make those flaws more dangerous to themselves and others. Compare that with the redemption of Eustace in Lewis's Voyage of the Dawn Treader, whose ill temper and selfishness are transformed by submitting his dragon-transformed self and all of his wickedness to the painful process of Aslan's grace.
The Harry Potter series suffers from the common flaw in most children's books today: It's a kids' world and the rest of us are merely players. Teachers range from incompetent to cruel. Lying and rule-breaking are instrumental to the plot and rarely punished. All the children have sharp tongues and often resort to threats of physical violence to resolve disputes. Unfortunately, these themes are all too common in today's children's books and frequently predict popular success.
And with five million copies in hardcover and three million in paperback, the Harry Potter series is a dramatic success. But not everyone is wild about Harry. Parents in Columbia, South Carolina, have urged their school board to remove the series from the bookshelves, arguing that the books promote paganism, violence, and a lack of respect for authority. A minority of parents nationwide have followed Columbia's cue. Critics of the books, both parental and literary, are shouting into a marketing hurricane that looks like it will be with us for a while.
The Sorcerer's Stone has won several prestigious awards, including the UK's 1997 National Book Award. Three wildly successful books are on the shelves of libraries and bookstores worldwide, and four more sequels are planned. With a movie in the works (possibly produced by Steven Speilberg) and toy merchandising machine gearing up for Christmas, the Potter phenomenon will only grow. But it is also likely the controversy will intensify.
If one can't avoid the Harry Potter books, what is a parent to do? Well, follow its author's lead. Rowling admitted in an interview that she hasn't yet read them to her six-year-old but has read her the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which her daughter quite enjoyed. HarperCollins recently released a one-volume edition of Lewis's masterpiece, large and heavy in the tradition of great books and perfect for stretching out with in front of a winter's fire. Lewis's lively prose creates a world every bit as rich with magic and mystery as Harry Potter's but with a story line that's also good for the soul.
Boffetti, Jason. Not Quite Narnia. Crisis 17, no. 11 (December 1999): 44-45.
Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.
Jason Boffetti is the Programs Co-ordinator and Research Associate in Education for the Faith and Reason Institute.
Copies of the monograph All Schools Are Public Schools are available from the Faith & Reason Institute for $3.
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