Introduction: The Magic of Harry Potter
Part I: Lessons of Harry Potter
Part II: Criticisms of Harry Potter
Conclusion: Mischief Managed
Part III: Additional Essays
It was the most exciting book buy of my life. My wife and I, along with several family members, went to a bookstore on the evening of July 20, 2007, when stores stayed open late so that they could sell the final Harry Potter novel starting at midnight. Never have I seen any bookstore so packed or heard one so noisy. Gangs dressed as Quidditch players passed by on the sidewalk. Innumerable foreheads sported lightning marks. Children and adults alike drew lots for a place in line to buy the book. The scene was similar in countless bookstores across the nation.
There is no question that J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books constitute an unprecedented global literary phenomenon. Scholastic, publisher of the books in the United States, announced that the last book sold 8.3 million copies within the first twenty-four hours and 11.5 million in ten days. Combined, the books have sold over 350 million copies worldwide.1 A Harris Poll suggested that, while the Bible is the favorite book among U.S. readers, “the second choice for 18- to 31-year-olds was J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.”2
Nor does anyone doubt Rowling’s profound impact on the reading habits of children. My young cousins, for example, voraciously read each book several times. Parents credit the books for inspiring their children to do better in school.3 British Chancellor Gordon Brown said, “I think J. K. Rowling has done more for literacy around the world than any single human being.”4 It’s difficult to accuse him of exaggeration, if we limit consideration to the modern era.
Yet fierce debate rages over the books. At one end some claim that “the signature of the Prince of Darkness is in these books.”5 In the documentary Jesus Camp, a woman speaking to a group of children says, “Had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death.”6
The Vatican has offered a mixed review. Before he became Pope, Joseph Ratzinger warned Catholics to beware the books’ “subtle seductions,” according to Catholic News Service. More recently, the source reported, “The Vatican newspaper sponsored a face-off between a writer who said the Harry Potter novels offer lessons in the importance of love and self-giving and one who said they teach that with secret knowledge one can control others and the forces of nature.”7
Obviously, I’m a Potter fan.
I came late to the series, starting after someone gave my wife the first four books in a paperback boxed set. I hold no particular interest in fantasy, and I dismissed Potter as books for kids. But several of my adult friends continually raved about the books, so I thought I’d give them a try.
Quickly I was hooked. What first struck me was the richly dark world of Harry’s childhood with his aunt and uncle, Petunia and Vernon Dursley. The idea of escaping from such dreadful circumstances into a bright world of magical heroes fascinated me; it made me think of all the real boys and girls who grow up in similarly bleak circumstances (or worse) and struggle to create a better life for themselves. I hoped that the Potter books comfort those children and motivate adults to help them. Then Rowling took me into an adventure that I enjoyed but did not fully appreciate until I had read further into the series.
By the end of the first book, my respect for the series was sealed with a couple of outstanding quotes by Professor Albus Dumbledore. “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” Yet I was intrigued by some of Dumbledore’s other comments that struck me as cryptic. “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” “Humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things [as much money and life as you could want] that are worst for them.” “Your mother died to save you.”8 What did Dumbledore mean by these comments? What did they portend for the rest of the series?
Through the first three books, I continued to think of Harry Potter as interesting children’s books. Then I read the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The main plot, at least until the last few chapters, remains oriented toward children; it involves Harry meeting several challenges in a contest, such as taking an egg from a dragon. More mature themes take on greater significance: the characters deal with bigotry and slavery, the laws of society, and the ethics of journalism. Near the end of the book the forces of evil rise to strength. These are not themes for children, but for maturing youth and adults. The final three books excite youthful spirits, yet the themes grow more complex and at times quite dark, as the villain Lord Voldemort combines qualities of Satan and Hitler.
My book focuses on the heroic fight for values in the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter and his allies struggle valiantly to defend the things that matter to them—their friends, their lives, and their liberty. They do so against great odds, often in agonizing circumstances, and against powerful and relentlessly vicious enemies.
In Chapter One, I review examples illustrating the central theme of the heroic valuer, as contrasted with the motives of the villains.
Chapter Two reviews independence, the virtue that allows the heroes to discover the values that enhance their lives and to pursue them with thoughtful courage.
In Chapter Three, I discuss free will in Harry Potter, the precondition of the selection and pursuit of values.
Chapter Four grows more critical, arguing that Rowling’s theme of the heroic valuer ultimately clashes with her secondary theme of Christian self-sacrifice.
Finally, Chapter Five addresses the theme of immortality. How does the quest for earthly immortality motivate the villains? What is the connection between the fear of death, an obsession with objects, and the abuse of others? What does this have to do with the Horcrux? Does virtue require a belief in supernatural immortality? I argue that Rowling does not convincingly develop her theme of immortality or connect it to the motivation of the heroes.
This book presupposes that readers are familiar with the Harry Potter books. The pages that follow discuss crucial elements of plot and will ruin the suspense of the books for those who haven’t yet read them.
Much of the fighting over the Potter books involves Christians on both sides, and two of my chapters explicitly deal with Christian themes. Though I am not Christian, and I criticize religion in other forums, I acknowledge that Rowling intentionally includes Christian themes in her books, and I want to understand them correctly. I argue that Rowling’s Christian themes of sacrifice and immortality clash with her more central theme of the heroic valuer. I develop my case from the books and outside sources.
My take on the Christian elements of the Potter books conflicts with the views of other reviewers. Some argue that the books should be avoided because they oppose Christianity. Others argue that the books should be read and praised because they promote Christian themes. My claim is that the Christian elements of the Potter books are real but disconnected from the broader moral themes of the books, which nevertheless remain brilliant (as Ron Weasley might say).
I compare and contrast some of Rowling's ideas with those of Ayn Rand and Aristotle. Rowling and Rand treat both independence and free will in some strikingly similar ways. Regarding sacrifice, the views of Rowling and Rand clash. On that topic I rely heavily on the writings of Aristotle, whose comments may seem surprising only because they are too often neglected. Rowling and Rand both create vivid heroes who fight for their values, and they again clash on immortality, yet those themes are common enough that I found direct comparisons unnecessary.
Part of my motivation for writing this book is the conviction that the moral lessons of Harry Potter are profoundly important. I made some regrettable moral mistakes as a young adult because I failed to heed some of these lessons, which were widely available long before Rowling conceived Harry Potter. Vitally important is to understand one’s values, choose the right values, and enact the virtues that make the achievement of values possible.
While I appreciate Rowling’s contribution to a renewal of literacy, I am desperately grateful to her for promoting moral literacy. Adopting the virtues portrayed by the heroes of Harry Potter can make you a better person. Yes, read the books for the sheer joy of the heroic, magical adventure. Then think more deeply about the moral lessons of Harry Potter and strive to integrate them in your day-to-day life. Part of the point of admiring heroes is to become a hero. It’s not enough to read about it or write about it; we, all of us, need to live it and face that challenge every day. That is how to discover the true magic of Harry Potter.
2. Julie Mollins, “Bible is America’s favorite book: poll,” Reuters Life, April 8, 2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/lifestyleMolt/idUSN0835916320080408.
3. Scholastic, “New Study Finds That the Harry Potter Series Has a Positive Impact on Kids’ Reading and Their School Work,” July 25, 2006, http://www.scholastic.com/aboutscholastic/news/press_07252006_CP.htm.
4. BBC News, “Chancellor praises Potter books,” July 14, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/4683219.stm. This source and the last one were provided by Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Potter.
5. WorldNetDaily.com, “Witchcraft in America: Behind the growing fascination with all things pagan, occult and magic,” January 2, 2008, http://wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=59488. The attribution claimed by the cited article has not been verified.
6. The quote about Jesus Camp is included on my blog post, “Religious Insanity,” January 10, 2008, http://www.ariarmstrong.com/2008/01/religious-insanity.html. The documentary’s web page is at http://www.jesuscampthemovie.com/.
7. Cindy Wooden, “Writers in Vatican newspaper debate lessons of Harry Potter novels,” Catholic News Service, January 15, 2008, http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0800250.htm.
8. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 1998), pp. 297-99, 306.
This book is a work of literary criticism. It has not been prepared, authorized, or endorsed