I will admit from the outset that I am not, and probably never will be, a huge devotee of Harry Potter. I read the first book just before the film came out, struggled through the second, and will most likely not read the third, let alone the fourth, let alone the fifth, if and when it comes out next year.
So, please don’t take this choice of sermon topic as an indicator of my holiday gift request list. I am not a candidate for a battery-operated Nimbus 2000 Quidditch Broom, modeled after the most popular one among the wizardry students in the movie, or a Hogwarts Class Potions and Spells Kit. Or even a Muggles for Harry Potter button as a stocking stuffer.
It’s not because, like the Dursleys in the Potter books, I am embarrassed by, or opposed to, the world of wizardry and witchcraft that Harry Potter and his friends live in.
I appreciate what are often called fantasy fiction and films like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as much for their dark imaginativeness and special effects as anything else. As a teenager, like most of my friends, I read the Rings trilogy, and am curious to see the upcoming films based on them, and I was both terrified and charmed by The Wizard of Oz.
But, truth be told, I have always been more captivated by stories about real, or could-be-real, people in history. Books, when I was a child, like Little Women, or David Copperfield, the Diary of Anne Frank, or my all time favorite, To Kill a Mockingbird.
However, as, I am sure, a whole host of other mothers around the world, I join the ranks of Harry Potter lovers, then, mainly for the reason that my then-13-year-old son actually did read the first book, then the second book, then the third book — his personal favorite because he said it was the most well written and, yes, the most demonic — and he even eagerly tackled the encyclopedically-sized fourth book. His least favorite, he now reports, but he still finished all 734 pages in a day and a half on a cross country airplane trip, and in airports in between.
So, as the mother and sister of males who very nearly never read a book in their entire childhoods, and paid the price, both in the missed joys of those experiences and in lower SAT verbal scores, I would have been grateful for the sheer fact that boys (and girls) have found something engaging enough that they want to read, and read with gusto.
The stories that have always appealed to this group, and offered them the most effective moral and spiritual guidance, are those that contain quests for knowledge, and clear themes of right and wrong — heroes and heroines, as one child development specialist identified.
Because that’s where they are in their moral and emotional development — wanting examples of complex moral struggles and, ultimately, heroic victories.
Books and movies, it would seem, then, to me, just like Harry Potter.
Scottish author Joanna Rowling, who, as many of you probably already know, was a struggling single mother “on the dole” when she drafted the first Potter book on scraps of paper in a local café, was right on the mark with what would appeal to large numbers of children of that age in particular.
Of course the author knew exactly what she was doing, with the right mixture of fantasy, action, and life lessons, because, as my son told me in that how-stupid-can-adults-be kind of tone some of us may be familiar with, she used the stories she had been telling her own kids. If these pun-laden and inventive tales about a boy wizard worked in her own house at bedtime, then chances are they would work for others.
Don’t make so very much of them, he cautioned me with the deadpan wisdom of a now-15-year-old. They’re just a really good read.
Nonetheless, for older children and young teens, this is a time when they are on the brink of adulthood, and are asking themselves questions about identity — who are they really, as opposed to the definitions of adults around them, what is their actual worth, and how should they act in the world.
So the fact also that my son — and apparently millions of other kids — saw these books as not only fun to read but, at least secondarily, demonstrating the eventual triumph of good over evil wasn’t a bad thing either.
The message for my son, anyway, was that dark and faceless forces can be overcome, even destroyed by young people themselves. By a sympathetic protagonist like Harry Potter, as best-selling author Stephen King, puts it, who is the kind of kid most children feel themselves to be, adrift in a world of unimaginative and often unpleasant adults — who neither understand them nor care to.
Muggles, as the author calls us, calls them.
If sheer numbers of readers and now viewers of the film version of the first book in the series are any indication of striking the right chord, tapping into the imaginative interests and life questions of contemporary children and young people (and adults of course), then there is no question that Ms. Rowling struck gold.
Even though the writer had been told many times, and believed herself, that if she ever did find a publisher it was highly unlikely that it would sell many copies.
On the contrary, these warm and funny stories of a beleaguered — if not outright abused — and bespectacled orphan who goes off to a boarding school to study wizardry have been devoured by over 100 million readers in some 35 languages.
In England, editions with adult black and white covers have been printed for the many fathers seen sneakily reading the series on the train.
There has never been anything like this in the history of book selling, a vice chairman of Barnes and Noble booksellers has said, recalling when the most recent Potter book arrived in their stores and made the summer of 2000 a time when the coolest thing to kids wasn’t the latest video game, but reading a book — an extremely long book, at that.
And while the fifth book in the series isn’t due to come out until sometime next year, Potter fans now have the movie, which broke all previous records for opening weekend film revenues, earning more than $90 million in three days, beating the record held previously by another child-focused fantasy adventure, Jurassic Park.
In addition to the profits being made from book sales, film tickets, and Harry Potter merchandise, there has sprung up a virtual mini-industry in Harry Potter polls.
There have been numerous polls taken about Harry Potter, ranging from ones like what kids’ favorite book or character are, to surveys on how many kids have read or know about the book — around 80 percent in this country, by some accounts. Or whether, for example, more Christians are more familiar with Harry Potter, or the popular Christian publication series on the Prayer of Jabbez — (Harry Potter wins).
Despite the grateful and appreciative reception by many educators and parents, and the popular acclaim, just last week my husband received a fax from an outfit called 21st Century Faxes, Ltd, asking him to pay $2.95 per minute to comment and vote in a poll to find out whether people are for or against banning the series from school libraries.
In an essay titled Is Harry Potter Evil?, beloved children’s book writer Judy Blume recalled that when she was in England in the summer of 1999 on the very day that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was published, she could not believe her good fortune.
She rushed to the bookstore to buy the book, knowing how much this would thrill her eight-year-old grandson, who, at least at that time, was a big Harry Potter fan.
It’s a good thing, she remembers thinking, when children enjoy books. But within the next few months, these books that had been a source of pleasure for her and her grandchild had come under fire in Minnesota, Michigan, New York, California, and South Carolina (and, undoubtedly, here in Georgia) from parents and others in communities who felt the books promote interest in the occult. By the year 2000, according to the American Library association, the Potter books topped the banned book listing.
Judy Blume says she knew this was coming. The only surprise was that it took so long. If children are excited by a book, she has come to believe, it must be suspect.
Her grandson was bewildered when she tried to explain that some adults don’t want their children reading about Harry Potter. But that doesn’t make sense, grandma, he said.
It’s just a good story.
The controversy centers this time around claims by some parents and organized conservative Christian groups claiming that the Potter books are threatening to children’s innocence and could encourage what they view as satanic worship.
An article in a Dallas, Texas, newspaper reported last month, just before the premiere, that the new Harry Potter movie has re-enflamed conservative Christian critics who have contended for years that the popular series about the boy wizard is a deliberate tool leading children to witchcraft and sin.
Critics like Richard Abanes, author of Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace behind the Magick. Although he acknowledges that the story is fictional, he still believes that Harry Potter has real-world and, in his view, dangerous occult parallels. The books, after all, present astrology, numerology, mediumship, crystal gazing. Kids are enthralled with it, he worries, and kids like to copy.
Which is a direct threat to the Christian faith in the eyes and minds of some Christians, says Richard Mouw, who writes a regular column called the Evangelical Mind. Now, he read the first book and plans on reading the others because, although his endorsement, he predicts, will upset a percentage of evangelicals, he believes they are enjoyable, even for adults.
While he does not see the harm in Harry Potter, he explains as an evangelical insider that some of the more fundamentalist folks worry that not too far beneath the surface of this fantasy series lurks a worldview that is in stark contrast to what is, for them, the only accepted and acceptable biblical story.
A very recent show on the Christian Broadcast Network, Pat Robertson’s station, accused the publisher of the Harry Potter books, Scholastic Press — the same company that supplies schools with curriculum — of replacing “Christian” ideas with witchcraft, exposing 23 million young minds to “pagan” thought, and since Wicca is recognized by the IRS as a religion in this country for purposes of tax-exempt status, this is also a violation of the separation of church and state.
Many supporters of the series argue, as I have said earlier, that the representation of good and evil is portrayed in a very moral way in the book and that Harry Potter, after all, is simply a fictional story designed to entertain children.
The author herself calls the accusations “absurd,” saying that the world she has created in Harry Potter is entirely imaginary.
I have met thousands of children now, and not one time has a child come up to me and said, Ms. Rowling, I am so glad I read these books because now I want to be a witch.
Her position has been echoed by Connie Neal, who has written a just-published so-called Christian defense of the Potter books, explaining, as the title says, What’s a Christian to do with Harry Potter?
Her goal, she has told interviewers, is to help her fellow Christians to understand that there are Christians who love God, hate the devil, believe the Bible, and want to protect kids, on both sides of the Harry Potter debate — and for non-Christians, to remind all of us that a single view or personal interpretation of a piece of literature cannot be imposed on someone else.
Sure, the Potter books are about witchcraft, she grants. If you look at Harry’s school, she observes, my goodness, that’s what the school teaches. But this is using magic as a setting the way Star Trek uses technology and outer space as a setting. It isn’t about witchcraft anymore than Veggie Tales, a popular Christian video, is about vegetables.
Beyond this intra-Christian debate, for her, is the more important issue of what values are being taught, and she sees Harry Potter as being about choosing the side of good. Evil is hidden in the wizards’ prep school, like in any society. Danger is afoot but you don’t always know. Harry and his allies are grappling, she believes, with their own battle between good and evil on the inside. The book lets us see these kids struggling with a desire for vengeance, with their anger at kids for making fun of them for being poor. With jealousy and greed and class and snobbery.
How do we identify the real source of evil, and how do we deal with it. What is the worst evil — is it the quest for power, in itself?
And why is the mark of love so painful, so agonizing, to those who know only hate?
These universal themes in Harry Potter are what captivate us, no matter what religious or spiritual practices or settings provide the framework around them.
The real danger, Judy Blume tells us, is not in the books, in any book at all, but in laughing off those who would ban them. Whether it is conservative Christians who see the satanic in every popular fantasy book, or Unitarian Universalists in years past or in years present who don’t see the harm at all in Harry Potter, would defend, and, in fact, embrace, multicultural Earth-centered myths and legends but who don’t want their children exposed to traditional Western miracle stories, especially those in the Bible.
A good story in any age and genre, from any religious or spiritual or cultural tradition, columnist Karen Krissane reminds us, do what people, children and adults, have always needed stories to do.
To play out symbolically the psychic dramas of human development and the moral dilemmas of life’s big questions. Stories, enduring stories, help us unlock and view our ideas, feelings, fears, hopes, and yearnings. They deepen our powers of imagination, expose us to flights of fantasy, tell us about love and desire, friendship and heroism.
What’s up with Harry Potter for millions of children and adults, then, are the opportunities they provide to entertain us, teach us, and even liberate our emotions at each developmental stage. Move us towards our own transformation.
As one reader wrote in response to the book-banning critics, whatever evil others see in the Potter books are manifestations of their own dark thoughts.
In this season of light and lights, may this truth shine through.