Do you remember the concern some Christians voiced (loudly) over the Harry Potter books a few years back?
I do. I remember some discussing the difference between the moral universe in the Harry Potter books and that depicted in The Lord of the Rings. If I recall correctly, one of the complaints was that while both sets of books depict magical realms, with the Lord of the Rings you have a clear line between good and evil, whereas with the Harry Potter books, the suggestion seemed to be that J. K. Rowling was not presenting a world where good is good and evil is bad.
I didn’t read the books at that time. Too busy. I asked a friend who had read one, and he told me that he thought the books were subversive because they present the adults bumbling along getting things wrong, while the kids come along and save the world, even if they have to break the rules to do it.
See: subversion of good and evil. No right and wrong.
I’m grateful for the partial spoilers in the reviews I saw of the seventh movie (see this one in particular), which prompted me to give these books a chance. Having now listened to the audio books of the first three, and having read the first one, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, aloud to my sons, I am mystified as to why these books would bother Christians.
Caveat: I’ve only heard the first three, and only read the first one. So this is admittedly a partial judgment. But I felt no qualms about reading the first one aloud to my 7 and 5 year olds, so if you need it, you’ve got a green light from me on the first three.
Here are my thoughts, hopefully spoiler free, on the profound Christianity of book one, with a few nods to its points of contact with “Literature,” pronounced, slowly, preferably with a British accent, and with great dignity and solemnity (i.e., the great tradition of western word art).
Harry Potter and Jesus of Nazareth
The great evil power tried to kill the baby boy. His inability to destroy the child at birth was in itself a defeat, in response to which he turned on the mother.
Did I just describe Revelation 12, where the birth of Jesus is presented in symbol? Or was that a description of the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, “The Boy Who Lived”? Both. When I read this to my boys, I asked them: “which came first?” Obviously Jesus came first, and Revelation was written long before Harry Potter. “So where do you think J. K. Rowling got the idea?” They got it.
At several points Harry breaks rules. I asked my sons about this, inviting them to tell me about the rules Harry broke and reasons he broke them. They told me in greater detail than I remembered. I asked them what was constant, what was (almost) always the case when Harry broke a rule? They told me that every time Harry got into trouble he was trying to help someone else, and often he had been set up by a bad guy, so that if all the facts were known Harry wouldn’t have been in trouble.
Don’t get me wrong here. Harry’s not perfect. Sometimes he does the wrong thing. But on the whole, he’s on the side of the angels (in Potter-speak – he’s against the Dark Arts). At one point he resists the temptation to make himself great, insisting that he does not want to go that way, preferring to align himself with the brave, chivalrous, and honorable. Again and again he and his friends live out the words of Jesus: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
“But what about the rules?” Some rules are moral. Some are just rules. What’s interesting is that in the cases that stick out to me, Harry is just breaking rules not doing immoral things. And when he breaks the rules, he does so because he’s recognizing that trying to keep the bad guy from taking over the world is more important than not breaking curfew.
“But he’s just a kid and the adults make the rules!” Ah, but in this story, Harry Potter is the boy who lived. He’s the hero. He’s the one who is laying down his life for his friends, showing them that some things are more precious than life. And there are adults who are helping him and adults whose petty concerns keep them from loving truth, goodness, and beauty. Isn’t that the way life is?
“But what about this charge that the books subvert morality, that they don’t portray a clear line between good and evil?” This charge convinces me that some of the critics of this series just haven’t read the books, while others have failed to read them well. Near the end of book one, the antagonist says to Harry,
“A foolish young man I was then, full of ridiculous ideas about good and evil. Lord Voldemort showed me how wrong I was. There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it”
The bad guy says these words. Harry clearly rejects this line of thinking, and so do his friends and the adults who help him. When I read this passage to my sons, we stopped and talked about it. We talked about how some people think that power is more important than good and evil. I asked them if they thought that was right. They didn’t side with the villain. J. K. Rowling clearly doesn’t either.
“But Harry doesn’t always tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth! That’s not just a rule; it’s immoral when he doesn’t give straight answers, or when he even lies.” First, Harry isn’t perfect; that’s clear. He’s not altogether sinless. Who but Jesus is? Second, though, have you noticed that in the gospels Jesus doesn’t always give straight answers? Go look at how he answers the question of where his authority comes from in Mark 11:27–33. At many points, Harry is put in positions where he knows that he won’t be believed if he tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so he has difficult ethical waters to navigate as he seeks to oppose the aims of the evil one. Doesn’t Jesus do the same thing? Didn’t Samuel do the same thing–at the LORD’s instruction–when he went to anoint David king instead of Saul (1 Sam 16)? Shouldn’t missionaries to closed countries do the same thing?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not defending those who tell lies. I am saying that life is complicated, that Psalm 18:25–26 is true, and that the Harry Potter stories are true to life on this point. If we’re not going to read the Harry Potter stories because of things like this (or if we’re going to say they’re too morally complicated for children), are we going to stop reading the Bible because the LORD told Moses to tell Pharaoh to let Israel go three days into the wilderness to worship when all along the LORD’s intention was to bring Israel permanently out of Egypt?
More could be said, but I’ll close this section with these claims: the Harry Potter books are set in a moral universe where Harry is contending for the good, and the good (laying down your life for others, opposing evil, standing up for what’s right, living in a way that honors father and mother, etc.) is a Christian kind of good. What’s more, there are many ways that Harry is like Jesus.
One more related thought: the non-magical people in the stories are called “Muggles.” Muggles don’t do magic, don’t see magic, and in general scoff at magic. Their explanations of the world and what happens in it are entirely free of magic. They live for the world. Every time I encounter Muggles, I wonder if this is Rowling’s veiled way of describing worldly people who deny the existence of anything supernatural. I think Muggles are worldlings, secularists, atheists, etc.
Harry Potter and Great Literature
This first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for Americans, was titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Rowling’s British. I happened to be listening to an audio version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales right before I started listening to Harry Potter, so I was struck by the fact that one of Chaucer’s last tales has to do with a “philosopher’s (a.k.a. sorcerer’s) stone.” Wonder where Rowling got the idea? This book is rife with references to great literature. There’s a lot, no doubt, that could be pointed out here (for instance, old Cerberus makes an appearance as “Fluffy”), but for space considerations (this post is already too long) I note only this: one of the characters is named “Seamus Finnegan,” which seems to me to be a tip of the hat to Seamus Heaney and Finnegan’s Wake.
I think Rowling is brilliant. There were moments of Sorcerer’s Stone that brought tears to my eyes, moments when I marveled at her ability to bring a complicated logic test into a concise poem, and moments when, the second time through, I smiled at the way she set the plot up for its lurches and twists.
I’ve read and heard people say things like, “I don’t think these books are well written.” My reply may not stand a logical test, but it’s simple: let’s see you write something better. When you’ve written something that prompts the Scottish Arts Council to give you an award that will enable you to finish the first book, when that book sells a gazillion copies, when the details from that first book become bulls eye hits for details in second and third books (and I assume this will keep happening through books four, five, and six), when kids everywhere can’t put your seven book series down, so that even adults start reading them (the teenage girl who lives next door to us has read the seventh book nine times!), when all seven of your books are made into movies, you can tell me you don’t think the Harry Potter books are well written.
Something has captured imaginations and kept the pages turning. And it’s fun to turn them as they delight, cause laughter, and present a picture of the power of love overcoming evil and all its fury.