July 2003: The final cultural event of which I take note is the release of the long-awaited fifth volume in the Harry Potter series. Having decided to opt out of the midnight partying in favor of a good night’s sleep, I picked up my reserved copy at Borders soon after they opened Saturday morning and settled in on the couch with a mug of tea on the stand beside me, eager to learn what adventures and challenges would engage Harry and his friends this time.
For those who still labor under the mistaken impression that the wizardry in the Potter books somehow stands in opposition to religion, this latest book makes even more clear than the previous ones that such is not the case. There is simply nothing of a specifically religious nature in the books. Wizardry is opposed to modern technology rather than to any system of worship or belief. The “Muggles,” as non-wizards are called, live in a world of telephones and computers, automobiles and airplanes, just like our own. The wizards, on the other hand, manipulate the material world around them by force of mental exertion and knowledge of the magickal properties of plants and animals.
Within the parameters of the fantastical universe she has created, J. K. Rowling writes about a very real and moral world. Harry and his friends learn to value loyalty, hard work, and concern for others, especially those who are somehow different from the norm. In this they are encouraged by Professor Dumbledore, the school headmaster, who demonstrates repeatedly his belief in judging persons by their character, not by their wealth, looks, or family background. Voldemort, the evil wizard who killed Harry’s parents and terrorizes the whole wizarding world, is the wizard equivalent of a white supremacist or Nazi, contemptuous of those who do not have “pure blood” and willing to slaughter any who stand in the way of his quest for total power.
In this latest volume Harry and his classmates are fifteen years old. They no longer inhabit the black and white world of childhood. Interpersonal relationships are more complex than in the previous books, and like any teen Harry wavers between youthful angst and adult comprehension. He discovers with dismay that the father he has idolized was not always perfect or even, sometimes, very nice. He finds himself distanced from, and occasionally very angry at, the adults whom he has most trusted. Confronted with misunderstanding on all sides, he questions everything, including his own motives for opposing Voldemort. But through the pain and turmoil of a difficult year, he emerges as a more mature and compassionate young man, facing the future with both dread and determination.
Unlike the fantasies of J. R. R. Tolkien or C. S. Lewis, the Harry Potter books are not specifically based on Christian allegory. The lessons that they teach about valuing good character and resisting evil, however, are ones that I believe any parent would want their children to learn. One caution: these are not non-violent books. The struggle between good and evil includes graphic battle scenes, great injury, and occasional death. In this also they are very much like our own real world. Parents would be well-advised to read the books themselves along with younger children so that they can provide informed reassurance through the “scary parts.”