MOST readers are aware of the success of J. K. Rowling’s creation, Harry Potter. Walk into any respectable bookshop, and you will soon be greeted with giant stacks of the Harry Potter books, especially the recently published “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”, the fourth of seven volumes projected by the author.
The success of the books is matched by the equally successful movie version of Rowling’s first book, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, produced by Warner Brothers, never mind the Americanisation. (The American publisher judged that no book with the word “Philospher” could sell, and went ahead to replace it with “Sorcerer”).
Be that as it may, the producers are not only envisioning big profits from the movie but also those generated from sequels, TV broadcast rights, cartoon spin-offs, home video games, theme park rides and interactive games. All this adds up to what some have described as “the Harry Potter phenomenon”.
Equally remarkable is the story of the author’s rapid rise to fame. Joanne Rowling began as an out-of-work teacher and single mother living on the dole in Edinburgh. She wrote her first book in a local café, scribbling her story while her daughter slept in a stroller. An English publisher, Bloomsbury Books, took an enormous risk when it accepted the manuscript of an unknown author, and decided to publish the work.
By word-of-mouth reports, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, Rowling’s first book, became a best-seller, not only among children – who are Harry Potter’s greatest promoters – but also adults. Before long, Rowling’s first three books sold more than 8 million copies and were published in 115 countries and in 28 languages.
The magnetic attraction to Rowling’s work is often attributed to its stylistic brilliance. Connie Fletcher, a renowned reviewer could therefore write without exaggeration that “once you start reading it, you’ll find it so well constructed, so artfully paced and so packed with surprises, both delightful and dreadful, that you’ll wish it were much longer than its 734 pages”.
So phenomenal is their success that Caroline Ward, President of the American Library Association’s Services to Children, could comment to USA Today that the Harry Potter books have turned an entire generation back to reading!
But not everybody is pleased with the Harry Potter books. Conservative Christians have attacked them for their confusing morality, and most significantly, for introducing the world of the occult and magic to children. The Harry Potter books, it is alleged, push children into a morally confused world. Parents complain that the children in the Harry Potter books lie, steal and take revenge, thereby confusing children who read them because they were told not to do these things by their parents.
Rowling is also accused of teaching children that authority is determined by their own cleverness. Some compared Rowling’s Harry Potter with C. S. Lewis’ tales of “Narnia” and J. R .R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, and argued that unlike the latter two, where the difference between good and evil is clear, Rowling’s topsy-turvy moral universe is confusing for children.
A closer reading would show that Rowling’s moral universe is more nuanced than is usually noted. Harry is sometimes at odds with some of his teachers. But it must be noted that his teachers are not exactly admirable figures themselves. They are themselves at odds with the wise, powerful and benevolent Headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, whom they try to undermine. It is interesting to note that Harry, by being disobedient and defiant to his teachers, is in fact, being obedient and faithful to Dumbledore.
‘Harry’s tendencies to flout rules are a moral issue to himself. This is seen in his worries about the self-justifications he offers and also his doubts about his own abilities and virtue. All this makes Rowling’s moral compass not only sound, but acute and subtle. It dares to venture beyond the black and white into the ambiguous grey areas, and presents a rich and thoughtful portrayal of moral struggle.’
Harry’s tendencies to flout rules are a moral issue to himself. This is seen in his worries about the self-justifications he offers and also his doubts about his own abilities and virtue. All this makes Rowling’s moral compass not only sound, but acute and subtle. It dares to venture beyond the black and white into the ambiguous grey areas, and presents a rich and thoughtful portrayal of moral struggle.
The more valid concern is the occult and witchcraft in the Harry Potter books. It is alleged that Rowling invites children into a world in which the occult and witchcraft is neutral. Such books, it is argued, together with the growing popularity of youth-oriented TV shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”; “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch”; and “Charmed” have desensitised children and teenagers to the occult.
The American Family Association has, in a news statement, described the Harry Potter series as “books which promote witchcraft”. Others argue that Rowling has presented a cross-pollination of Christianity and paganism because in Harry Potter’s school of wizardry Christmas and Halloween are both celebrated. Joanne Rowling is seen as the pied piper of modern neo-paganism.
To make matters worse, practising witches are beginning to praise Rowling for popularising witchcraft. Michael Darnell, a practising witch for 25 years, praises the Harry Potter books because they do not portray witches as “ugly old hags” and as villains. Witchcraft is portrayed as “neutral” – it can be used for good or for ill.
Again, a closer look would show that these concerns are unfounded. The “magic” in Rowling’s books is patterned after “technology” and not witchcraft. The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is in the business of teaching people how to harness certain powers. It cannot, however, control how they use these powers. To be sure, Albus Dumbledore sought to teach his pupils discernment in using the powers they have acquired. But the point here is that “magic” in the Harry Potter books is not a false and incompetent discipline, but a means of controlling the physical world that boasts of the same precision as science.
Put differently, in the hands of a well-trained wizard, magic works, and works with the reliability and precision of modern science and technology. Harry Potter, therefore, presents a counterfactual world in which magic takes the place of technology. After all, was it not Sir Arthur C. Clarke who famously said that “Any smoothly functioning technology gives the appearance of magic”?
De-mythologised, the Harry Potter books present a fundamental moral framework that is familiar to all of us, i.e., the problem of technology. In the world of Harry Potter, magic is portrayed as fun and exciting, but also dangerous. In our world, technology is fun and exciting, but also dangerous. In the hands of evil men – like Voldemort, the Dark Lord – magic can be used to harm and destroy. The same is true of technology.
A nagging question still remains. Will children be drawn to the occult through the Harry Potter books? This question is difficult to answer. Studies on the influence of literature on children are inconclusive, as are those on the impact of TV violence. Whether children will be drawn to the occult through the Harry Potter books is almost impossible to answer. Whether they can be is a different matter.
I have counselled some young people who have become heavily involved in the occult because of the literature they have read out of curiosity and ignorance. But does this mean that parents should prohibit their children from reading the Harry Potter books? Here I think inculcating discernment is better than censorship.
Inculcating discernment ‘better than censorship’
Charles Colson’s advice is sound, and should be heeded: “Some Christians may try to keep their kids from reading these books; but with 8 million copies of Harry Potter books floating around American homes, it is almost inevitable that your own children and grandchildren will be exposed to them. If they do read these books, help them to see the deeper messages.”
Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. He is a member of Fairfield Methodist Church.