The Harry Potter Phenomenon

J K Rowling, Bloomsbury, 1997 onwards

 

1. Marc de Chazal

(Marc is Managing Editor and Creative Director for Today magazine)

This review was first published in Today magazine, Cape Town, and used here with permission.

I'm sure author J K Rowling never imagined herself, an unemployed single mother who had never been published before, rising to fame on the back of Harry Potter's broomstick. Something in her books has got children in an age of TV, movies and video games hungry to read, but some people are convinced a dark and sinister agenda is behind her writing and don't want her books near their children.

Let's take a step back and make sure we're all on the same wavelength. Who is this Harry Potter who has children reading voraciously? Joanne Kathleen Rowling's fictional character is quite an unusual boy. He's a wizard, orphaned as an infant when the most evil wizard alive, Lord Voldemort, kills his mother and father. Voldemort is mysteriously defeated by Harry when his curse backfires, although he remains the arch nemesis throughout the series. Harry is then raised in the abusive home of his Uncle Vernon Dursley until he discovers that he is a wizard and is invited to attend the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a magical boarding school.

And so the adventures of Harry Potter begin, which unravel throughout the series of seven books. Each book spans a year in Hogwarts, until Harry comes of age at 17 and will be free to use his magic outside school. But we're not there yet. Book four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of fire, a 734 page tome, was recently published and released in South Africa, where the books have also been translated into Afrikaans. The series has sold over 30 million copies worldwide.

Rowling has successfully created a parallel universe inhabited by wizards and witches and all manner of magical creatures. It is a moral world, claims the author, where good witches and wizards use their magic powers - which are inherited or learned and have limits - to fight the Dark Side, wizards and witches and wizards who use their powers for evil purposes. "When a wizard goes over to the dark side there's nothing and no one that matters to him anymore", Harry is told in the third book, ThePrisoner of Azkahan, which I read and couldn't put down. Harry is viewed as a wierdo by his relatives - who are muggles, or non-magical people. They despise Harry and inform people that he attends St Brutus' Secure Centre for Incurably Criminal Boys.

The dark side

Rowling says she doesn't really believe in magic although she does believe extraordinary things can happen in the world for which we don't have an explanation. The magic practiced by Harry Potter and friends, however, is a skill rather than a supernatural power. Rowling's very inventive, often humourous stories have complicated, intriguing plots which follow the classic fantasy conflict between good and evil, much the same way as C S Lewis (admired by Rowling) and J R R Tolkien did before her. Lewis' and Tolkien's fantasy worlds were also inhabited by wizards and dragons and feature showdowns between good and evil. But that's where the danger lies, say some critics. Most agree that children will learn little about the real world of the occult in the Harry Potter books, but they are concerned that kids will become desensitised to the real life witchcraft condemned in the Bible. The Pagan Federation in the UK reports that up to 100 young people a month enquire about how to become witches.

We should be concerned with this fascination with the occult, but let's not jump to conclusions about Rowling's role. "I've met thousands of children now, and not even one time has a child come up to me and said, 'Ms Rowling, I'm so glad I've read these books because now I want to be a witch. 'They see it for what it is. It is a fantasy world and they understand that completely," she said in a CNN interview.

American Lindy Beam, a youth culture analyst for Focus on the Family, is critical of the books (see her helpful parental guidance on www.family.org). She would rather see Harry Potter remain on the shelf, but is realistic about his popularity. So she sets out to help parents analyse the books before letting Harry Potter into their children's imaginations. She states her desired goal for parents: "To grow kids who are wise, thoughtful, culturally literate, pure, God-fearing, and who can make a positive impact on their world." Beam points out that the books do not acknowledge any supernatural powers or moral authority higher than the wizards themselves.(unlike the world of Narnia) and that there are some frightening scenes which are definitely not for young children . Some reviewers suggest the books be limited to children ten and older. but given the negatives she finds in the books, Beam opposes overreaction.

"We know God hates the practice of witchcraft (Deut 18:100). But we have committed a fault of logic in saying that reading about wizards and witches necessarily translates into these occult practices. I would propose instead that reading Harry Potter produces curiosity and that it is what we do with that curiosity that makes all the difference," says Beam.

Charles Colson, respected Christian author and founder of Prison Fellowship, also addresses the concerns of parents who may have a Harry Potter fan in their home. "It may relieve you to know that magic in these books is purely mechanical, as opposed to occultic. That is, Harry and his friends cast spells, read crystal balls, and turn themselves into animals - but they don't make contact with a supernatural world."

Bowling's plots "reinforce the theme that that evil is real and must be courageously opposed," he adds.

Positive about Potter

As the theme of the fight between good and evil unfolds, so do the characters of Harry and his friends, comments Colson. "They develop courage, loyalty, and a willingness to sacrifice for one another - even at the risk of their lives. Not bad lessons in a self-centred world," he says.

Michael Maudlin, online executive editor of Christianity Today, sees the good and evil portrayed by Rowling as "clear and absolute....just not fully explained". He encourages us to "shout a little more loudly about the wonderful virtues modeled in the books". Rowling's triumph, he says, is creating a "cool" good kid out of Harry Potter.

Rowling states that she is not bored by goodness. Before her Harry Potter fame Rowling worked as a research assistant for Amnesty international. Her field was human rights abuses in Francophone Africa. This personal experience has worked it's way into the theme of The Goblet of Fire where Hermoine, one of Harry's friends, deals with injustice in relations to the rights of elves.

Many other examples could be cited from he books to reinforce the theme of goodness, which in my opinion the author succeeds to make more attractive than evil. When Harry desperately wants a new flying broomstick to play Quidditch, a high-speed ball game played in the air, he practices self-control instead of spending extravagantly. The professor who teaches the Defence Against the Dark Arts class instructs the students to fight their fears with laughter. And Harry is advised by his appointed guardian that "if you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals."

I have no way of telling what Rowling's personal religious convictions are - although I'm sure they do not lean to the "Dark Side" - but the virtue which emerges from her heroes is sorely needed in our world today. And if "family values" mean anything in the equation consider the reason she gives for keeping a low profile, despite her fame: "I'm still a single parent," she says. "The expectation seems to be that once you've made some money, you will hand over your child to a battalion of nannies and then go off and do what you want to do. Well, the fact is that I want to bring up my daughter (who is seven) and that means I want to spend time with my daughter.'

Christian parents and teachers who accept that Rowling has created good and bad witches and wizards - knowing full well that real life witchcraft is evil and destructive - are most likely those who will be positive about Potter without feeling the author needs to have her theology squared up with theirs. Read the books for yourself. Discuss the themes weaved into the plots with your children. And if they enjoy fantasy, encourage them to read C S Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia and J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

G K Chesterton claimed his journey to Christian faith began with fairy tales which taught him that the world is 'precious but puzzling, coherent but mysterious, full of unseen connections and decisive truths. "As we seek to help our children think critically about their relation to the world, let's not overlook the strangeness of the story of Christ - a virgin birth, miracles, demons, resurrection - which we hope and pray our kids will not imagine as fantasy, but grasp and experience as reality.

 

2. Jim Harris

(Rev Dr Jim Harris is an Anglican minister in the Parish of St John's, Wynberg, Cape Town)

 Good wholesome fantasy. If we handle the genre correctly, Christians won't have any real problems with JK Rowling's Harry Potter novels. Whilst not having quite the same orientation as CS Lewis' Narnia series, or JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit series, Harry Potter is squarely in the realm of fantasy. No overt occultism is advanced. I would suggest that people read the books before rejecting them. Reading other people's perspectives can be helpful, but some reviews I've read include negative comments by those who openly state that they've not read the books themselves. How on earth can one be honest and objective about a book if the commentator hasn't even read it? . Just for the record, I've read all four books!

The stories are well written with believable characters. Many children (and adults) can identify with Harry: a rather nerdy 11 year old, an orphan who lives with snobbish, boorish, abusive relatives who comes to realise his remarkable heritage and his unique ability for wizardry. Again, the wizard side of Harry can in no way be aligned with the demonic. Most of the stories relate to human virtues and the outcome of such virtues in life and relationships. Friendship is a major factor in all the books. Reflect on how Rowling portrays the relationships between Harry, Ron, Hermione and Hagrid, for example. Courage, kindness, generosity, along with adventure, growing up in difficult circumstances, fear, and coping with essential adult evils are the stuff of Harry's stories.

Parents and teachers: do yourselves a favour. Read the books yourselves. Read them with your children, for your children. Talk about the stories; let your children tell you what they understand about Harry and company. Laugh, cry, and enjoy these remarkable stories. They're good for life, the mind and the soul.

 

3. Sue Gibbings

(Apart from being an avid reader, Sue teaches in the junior department of an Anglican girls' school in Cape Town)

Everybody's reading about Harry! Well, almost everyone. 30 million people/children around the world are reading about him in their own language, including Afrikaans and Serbo-Croatian! It is an astonishing and unparalleled achievement in children's literature. But there are some, Christians in particular, who have voiced disapproval and rejected the fantasy world of wizards and witchcraft because of their association with the occult which is so plainly condemned in the Bible. Is their position legitimate? Every parent and language teacher has a responsibility to read children's books and evaluate them. And there lies the rub. How do we determine what is good and what is bad? What are the elements of good creative fiction? We need to know the criteria.

Good literature has a timeless quality. It enables the reader to make sense of the unknown, explore meanings in life and help him/her to re-examine attitudes, ideals and prejudices. Children unconsciously search for truth and they need communication between their inner and outer worlds. Good literature, especially fantasy, can provide this link and great children's authors understand this. I believe this is certainly true of J K Rowling. Many critics reject fantasy literature for children, and I believe this is done at enormous cost to society, for it is indispensable to our development as fully human beings. Imagination is a gift we should nurture and cherish. Essentially, fantasy literature deals with human behaviour in a world of magic and the ongoing struggle between good and evil. This theme is obvious in Rowling's books. Dragons, wizards, witches, goblins, fairies and hobbits are the inhabitants of a fantasy world which literary giants like CS Lewis and R Tolkien have used so successfully. The Narnia series are parables of redemption and Tolkien's Hobbit highlights freedom of choice and responsibility. In Elidor by Alan Garner and The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, both authors illustrate their belief that every individual must choose whether to be an agent of light or darkness. Good imaginative literature conveys these enduring moral truths and I believe Rowling's books fit comfortably into this genre of universal appeal. When we search for creative fiction of a high standard we should discern whether it is imaginative, has skilled narrative organization, clear plotting, credible characters, acceptable language, and some message of deeper significance. Measured against this yardstick, Rowling's books easily pass the test.

But in children's literature, there is another more stringent evaluation that must be applied. Children's books, which have enthralled readers around the world, contain several essential ingredients. Firstly, children are fascinated by detail, for it enables them to enter a new and exciting world. This they most certainly do in the Harry Potter books. Enjoyment of the story must be a priority and few would argue that this is absent. The opportunity to explore relationships is also very important in children's literature. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone children learn that parents or caregivers are not always kind. Many can identify with being an orphan while others will get in touch with their fears of abandonment. Identification is therefore a key characteristic in children's literature, for the search for identity is a fundamental need and the primary task of childhood. Children everywhere can readily identify with Harry. He is a child just like them who gets hurt and angry and makes mistakes. But he remains loyal to his friends. He learns to be brave and strives to do what is right even though it may be difficult, and ultimately he comes to believe in himself. Rowling's insight into the world of the child has been her passport to success and I say, "Well done!" to someone who has caused television to be relegated to second place in the lives of so many children around the globe who have been inspired to read once again. This is a remarkable accomplishment. Moreover, both adults and children alike enjoy her books, and CS Lewis echoes my sentiments when he says that "...there is no book worth reading as a child that is not equally worth reading as an adult." (An Experiment in Criticism)

 

 

The Big Picture Volume 2 Advent 2000 p.22