More Clay than Potter
By Anne McCain
Placing 1, 2, and 3 on the bestseller charts, childrens
literature sensation Harry Potter increasingly descends into darkness,
raising concerns of parents and school boards around the country.
Moral ambiguity and alienation of youth are strong themes in the
series, which are wrongly marketed as modern successors to The
Chronicles of Narnia. Unlike biblical stories, in Potters world
bad things seem to happen for no reason.
-- For the past two months, a skinny, dark-haired
orphan with a lightning-bolt scar on his forehead has taken over
the New York Times bestseller list. The boy, Harry Potter,
is the invention of British writer J.K. Rowling, who has made
publishing history this fall by grabbing the top three spots on
the bestseller list with her childrens books, Harry Potter
and the Sorcerers Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber
of Secrets, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
More than 8 million copies of the books have been sold in the
United States alone.
Harry is a young wizard who attends the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft
and Wizardry; his parents were murdered. Each of the books in
the series—Joanne Rowling plans seven—chronicles one
of Harrys school years at Hogwarts. Harry interacts with many
fascinating characters in a series of magical adventures. The
books, often compared to those of Roald Dahl, are suspenseful
and humorous, but the second and third ones are increasingly dark,
and maybe the comparison should be to the tangled terrain and
psychology of Batman movies.
The big debate in literary circles last month was whether childrens
books should be eligible for the prestigious Times list;
a win, place, and show by one author brings out the envy in many.
The newly emerging question, though, is whether Harrys world is
a good one for the intended 8- to 12-year-old audience. The American
Library Association is now reporting four serious challenges—in
South Carolina, Michigan, Minnesota, and New York—to use
of the books in schools.
On Oct. 12, the South Carolina Board of Education agreed to review
the suitability of all three Harry Potter books for classroom
use. Elizabeth Mounce, a parent who addressed the board, said
the books have a serious tone of death, hate, lack of respect,
and sheer evil. A member of the board, Clarence Dickert, agreed,
saying that censorship is an ugly word, "but it is not as
ugly as what I've heard this morning."
To many readers the books fictitious world of witchcraft seems
harmless. Ms. Rowling has simply taken some traditional stereotypes
of witchcraft, such as flying broomsticks, and incorporated them
into her created fantasy world. This safety, this apparent harmlessness,
may create a problem by putting a smiling mask on evil. A reader
drawn in would find that the real world of witchcraft is not Harry
Potter's world. Neither attractive nor harmless, it is powerful
That's the most obvious concern about the books, but others may
go deeper. The parallel society Ms. Rowling creates—within
England but invisible to its ordinary inhabitants—is both
fantastic and mundane. Students have to study and take tests in
their magic classes, and Harry has to practice long hours flying
on his broomstick in order to be good at the school sport Quidditch.
These mundane elements make the stories seem more real.
The magical elements, though, throw a relativistic curve ball.
The rules of the wizard world are rarely solid and steadfast,
and nothing is as it appears. In book two, Harry and Ron are able
to transform themselves so they look like friends of their enemy,
who thus gives them secret information. In book three a favorite
teacher becomes a werewolf, a pet rat is actually an evil villain,
and a convicted murderer is really a self-sacrificing godfather.
The implicit message is that your friend may be your enemy, the
person you are talking to might be someone else, and even your
pet cannot be trusted. It's a message that rings true to many
children of divorce, who learn early on that wedding vows are
made to be broken and love almost arbitrarily turns to hatred.
Other dark elements, especially in Potter books two and three,
are downright creepy. Book two spotlights a disturbing character
named Dobby who bangs his head hard against walls and floors as
self-punishment when he disobeys his master. Book three tells
of horrible creatures called dementors (dementia, get it?) that
suck every happy memory and thought from characters so they are
left with only painful memories and negative thoughts. When dementors
approach Harry, he can recall the screams of his mother dying
to protect him, as his parents are killed by their best friend
(or so it seems).
Ms. Rowling has a real knack for description—being around
a dementor seems to be a pretty accurate description of depression.
She also has a sharp wit—the way to combat a dementor is
by eating chocolate! But her writing talents may be under the
sway of her own dementors, and in an interview with Time
Ms. Rowling said the books will become darker yet as the series
progresses. There will be deaths, she says, for the only way to
show how evil it is to take a life is to kill someone the reader
The gospels are centered on the evil taking of an innocent life,
and Harry Potter books can give Bible-conscious parents an enjoyable
opportunity to teach older children how to think critically. Truths
sprinkled throughout the books are trail markers that can be used
to point to God. For example, in the first book Harry comes across
the Mirror of Erised. (Eris was the Greek goddess of discord and
strife.) When a person gazes into the mirror, he sees his deepest
longings fulfilled. When Harry looks, he sees his family; as an
orphan, his deepest longing is for his mom and dad. When Professor
Dumbledore, the Hogwarts headmaster, discovers Harry looking into
the mirror, he offers him the wise counsel of not spending too
much time with it since the mirror will give us neither knowledge
or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they
Dumbledore encourages Harry to be content with what he has, not
spend his life wishing for what he hasn't. The Bible teaches that
contentment accompanied with godliness is great gain. This mirror
episode provides an opportunity for discussing the value of contentment,
and of the great gain in pursuing God as our deepest longing.
What would each of us see if we were to look in the Mirror of
Another trail marker comes at the end of book two, when Harry
discovers that he has many of the same abilities as the archvillain
Voldemort. Harry is disturbed by the thought of being lumped in
the same category as his enemy. But Dumbledore offers him wise
counsel: It is our choices, Harry, that show who we truly are,
far more than our abilities. Scripture teaches that our actions
flow from the heart, our choice-making center. What we do and
choose, not our abilities, shows our godliness or sinfulness.
Voldemort is truly evil, and Dumbledore is wise in a wonderful,
grandfatherly way. Most of the other characters are more mixed,
which again is a trail marker. Scripture teaches that we as humans
are totally depraved but yet, by God's sanctifying or common grace,
we sometimes choose to do good. Harry, the hero, has many good
qualities. Yet, he is not always a shining example of virtue.
He does not love his enemies—often he returns hurt for hurt.
Harry is always trying to put one over on the Dursleys, the mean
relatives who took him in after his parents died.
But the depiction of the Dursleys and other Muggles—common
folk without imagination—is also one of the warning signs
about the Harry Potter books. Scholastic Press, their U.S. publisher,
links them to The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord
of the Rings. But C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, creators
of the seven Narnia tales and the four volumes set in
Middle Earth, depicted common folks (Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, Sam
Gamgee and his dad) as the salt of the earth. Ms. Rowling depicts
them as clueless irritants, the way an alienated child sees parents.
The worst of the Muggles, the Dursleys, are said to have a medieval
attitude toward magic. In book two students learn that their school
was built 1,000 years ago far from prying Muggle eyes, for it
was an age when magic was feared by common people, and witches
and wizards suffered much persecution. Who disapproved of magic
in the Middle Ages? The church.
Narnia and Middle Earth are also better worlds for a child's
imagination than Harry Potter's because in them a great cosmic
struggle between good and evil is taking place, and the difference
between good and evil is clear: Tolkien's great character Gandalf
is a powerful leader called a wizard, but witchcraft plays no
part in the saga. In comparison, Harry Potter's topsy-turvy moral
universe is confusing. That confusion, however, may make the series
a hit in a confused culture. Harry Potter is a perfect modern
hero for alienated youth. He is an orphan who hates, and is hated
by, his adoptive parents. He has talents his parents don't recognize.
He makes his own way, directed by his feelings and his friendships,
but not by any written moral code.
The big sales of Harry Potter books are the culmination of a
long-growing movement in children's literature and American culture
generally to make tweens—8- to 14-year-olds—grow up
faster. This is not to say that children that age should be unacquainted
with the consequences of original sin among adults. If families
read the Bible night after night, children will hear of brains
smashed or eyes being gouged out. In the Bible, though, bad things
happen for a purpose, and that's very different from today's sophisticated
kid's books that show things happening for no reason, and without
-Anne McCain is director of children's education at Trinity
Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Charlottesville, Va.
Reproduced with permission by WORLD magazine ©
1999, 1-800-951-NEWS. For further articles and archived stories
visit WORLD's Web site at worldmag.com.
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