During the week preceding the release of the fourth Harry Potter novel, I decided that it was time that I caught up with this particular bit of popular culture. Having been a junior high English teacher early on in my career, I am gratified to learn of any phenomenon which gets young people reading and using their imaginations instead of merely parking in front of a television set for hours on end. Still, I was aware from various letters to the editors of the local papers that the Potter books are not without controversy. Wanting to form my own opinions on the matter, I borrowed the first volume from a co-worker and settled in at the laundromat with book in hand, figuring that the 45 minute wait while washers and dryers performed their appointed tasks was just about enough time to determine if the story was sufficient to hold my attention.
By quarter to eleven Saturday evening I had closed the back cover on the best fantasy novel I had read in many years, and was eager to find someone at work on Monday who could lend me volume two. As I write this (a few days before you will read it), I am well into the fourth book, and wondering how long it will take J. K. Rowling to complete the fifth. While clearly juvenile fiction, they are tightly and cleverly plotted, with lots of vividly described action. The main characters are archetypal, and their function in the stories at times approaches allegory, yet most are sufficiently nuanced as to avoid the two-dimensional predictability of the totally allegorical figure.
Most of the objections to the books that I have heard and read have been on the order of, “They are about witchcraft and the occult, and the Bible warns us not to have anything to do with such knowledge.” There are, I believe, a number reasons why such objections are not valid in the case of the Harry Potter books. To begin, witchcraft and wizardry as they are presented in the stories are not a religion, they are a way of life. Rowling writes in the genre which is termed “alternate universe,” in this case a universe in which a substantial minority of the population has magical powers. This is not unlike the world of the superheroes who were widely popular when I was growing up, or of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and
of a generation before that. Peter Pan flew thanks to fairy dust, and battled pirates who wanted to capture the lost boys and make them walk the plank. Superman flew because he was from another planet, and he battled crime figures in the great city of Never-Never Land . Harry Potter and his friends fly on racing broomsticks, and battle the evil forces of Lord Voldemort and his followers. The mix of fantasy and adventure has long been a staple of popular juvenile fiction. Metropolis
Moreover, the Harry Potter books are “about” wizardry in roughly the same way that Moby Dick is “about” whaling. Sorcery is the milieu in which the action takes place, but the stories are really “about” an orphan boy who, having been raised by an aunt and uncle who barely tolerate him, suddenly discovers that he has a respected place in a world which he never even dreamed existed. There are elements of “Cinderella” here, and of “The Ugly Duckling.” Rowling explores the universal themes of coming of age and finding one’s identity.
Unique among the objections which I have seen was a letter to the editor of our local newspaper several weeks ago which complained bitterly about the use of the term “harelip” to describe the appearance of a witch. The author of the letter asserted that it was totally inappropriate to teach children to use what is now understood to be a derogatory term. When I came to the passage in the second book in which the term is used, however, I saw that the context made it quite clear that this is not language to be imitated. The speaker is a vain, pompous liar whose fraudulent claims about his exploits have just been exposed. He is a totally unsympathetic character throughout the volume, and his desperate attempts at self-justification are hardly the kind of speech which any reader would want to repeat.
On the positive side, I note that the author has constructed a highly ethical and principled society. Harry’s circle of close friends includes a girl whose parents are “Muggles” (non-magical folk), and a boy whose family is large and friendly, but struggling financially. His nemesis in school is Draco Malfoy, a boy from a well-to-do family of wizards who disdain any they consider beneath their standards of wealth and breeding. Rowling repeatedly affirms the egalitarian Harry over the privileged Draco. In various episodes of the books she teaches the value of such virtues as honesty, loyalty, and courage. While describing some of Harry’s lessons, she is also giving the reader tools for coping with difficult situations which one might encounter in real life. And in this age of media manipulation of images and ideas, her repeated message that things are not always what they first appear to be is an essential lesson to convey to young people.
The British seem to have a gift for moral fantasy. J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books are likely to take their place alongside the Narnia tales of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien’s magnificent “Lord of the Ring” trilogy as “must read” stories for generations to come. If you have the time to delve into them, I think you will find it to be both an entertaining and a rewarding experience.