Harry Potter: pro and con.
The Catholic World Report for April 2001 carried a long article by Michael O'Brien entitled "Harry Potter and the paganization of Children's Culture." In the 19th century, he wrote, there appeared a trickle of books that redefined Christian symbols and occult themes in a favourable light. Until then, witches and sorcerers were consistently portrayed as evil; more and more material began to appear which attempted to shift the line between good and evil. The "white witch," the pet dragon, and the wise wizard became familiar figures. During the last quarter of the 20th century the trickle became a torrent -- applauded by some writers who told us that this was a long overdue broadening of our horizons.
In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman has described how television has reshaped our society, O'Brien writes. The volume of information fed to the mind increased while our ability to sort and evaluate the data has not kept pace; flooded by television, especially the rational and imaginative aspects of our minds became increasingly passive, and our ways of perceiving reality became fundamentally distorted. We now imbibe a massive amount of impressions which do not demand sustained attention or critical thinking; we are close to Brave New World, in a state no longer conscious of our bondage and soothed by endless entertainment. Much of contemporary fantasy for the young is closer in style to television than to literature: it overwhelms by using in print form the pace and stimuli of the electronic media, flooding the imagination with sensory rewards while leaving it malnourished at the core. Thrills have swept aside wonder. Our adjustment to television is almost complete; we have so absorbed its d efinitions of truth, knowledge, and reality that irrelevance seems filled with import and incoherence eminently sane.
The impact on youth
O'Brien points out that 76 million copies (today over 100 million) of the Potter books have been sold, and that they have been translated into 42 languages. They are going to be a major influence on the perceptions of the coming generation, and therefore they invite an appraisal. He does not deny that J. K. Rowling's creation is witty, thought-provoking, and entertaining, and that it expands the child's imagination. Further, she has introduced an electronically addicted generation to the pleasures of reading. The stories are packed with surprises which will enchant almost all readers.
Nevertheless, he contends that the charming details are mixed with the repulsive at every turn. Ron casts a spell which rebounds on himself, making him vomit slimy slugs; the ghost of a little girl lives in a toilet. The roots of the mandrake plant are small living babies who scream when they are uprooted for transplanting, and are grown for the purpose of being cut in to pieces and boiled in a magic potion. The wizard world is about the pursuit of power and esoteric knowledge; in this sense it is a modern representation of ancient Gnosticism. It neutralizes the sacred, O'Brien believes, and displaces it by normalizing what is profoundly abnormal and destructive in the real world. The wizard world interacts with the real world and violates the moral order in both.
Harry is a special boy, hated by evil incarnate and destined for greatness. But he blackmails his uncle, uses trickery and deception, "breaks a hundred rules," lies to get himself out of trouble, hates his enemies, and lets himself be provoked into seeking revenge against them. Lip service is paid to morality, but nowhere in the series is there any reference to a system of moral absolutes against which actions can be measured. O'Brien quotes Kimbra Gish as pointing out how the books portray in a positive light activities condemned in both the Old and the New Testament--enchanting, divination, charms, consulting with familiar spirits, "abominations" in the eyes of God which must be driven out.
O'Brien concludes that the Harry Potter books are dangerous:
We would not give our children fiction in which a group of "good fornicators" struggled against a set of "bad fornicators," because we know that the power of disordered sexual impulse is an abiding problem in human affairs. ... Why, then, have we accepted a set of books which glamorize and normalize occult activity, even though it is every bit as deadly to the soul as sexual sin ...? Is it because we have not yet awakened to the fact that occultism is in fact a clear and present danger?
In a special issue of the Chesterton Review on "George MacDonald and the Sacramental Imagination" (February/May 2001), Father Ian Boyd included a symposium in which seven contributors gave their opinions of the Harry Potter series. They were asked to say something about the significance of the books and to decide whether or not they were products of what MacDonald called "a wise imagination."
Good versus evil
Sheridan Gilley put them in the context of the English public school story, and pointed out that the theme of sex is as muted as it is in older British school fiction. He also maintained that it is difficult to take the "Evangelical Protestant" complaint against the witchcraft too seriously: "Christianity is simply absent from the books .... But to condemn this fantasy world would surely be to damn all the vast mass of fantasy literature in which such magic is commonplace. Moreover bad or irresponsible witchcraft is condemned here, and the actual morality of the works is evangelically of the simplest sort, of good against evil." Ms. Rowling's true enchantment is to keep the story running through a steady flow of fresh inventiveness. There is something philistine about her critics who do not see that in showing the child a new realm of the imagination she is enriching it beyond their dreams.
Steven S. Tigner is equally convinced that the Potter books show "a Right Imagination." While the confrontations between good and evil are sometimes violent, he writes, Rowling has been careful never to muddy the distinction between what is pretend and what is real. He concludes that "The Harry Potter books are salutary forces advancing the divine order of things. And they are delightfully engaging."
Inez Fitzgerald Storck, on the other hand, entitles her piece "J. K. Rowling: A Wounded Imagination." A wise imagination, she declares, is primarily one capable of distinguishing between good and evil, and judged by this criterion, the Potter volumes fall short. Traditional values are replaced by individualism and New Age beliefs, including the occult. Children will be overstimulated by the continual succession of gimmicks, spells, and other forms of magic. The knowledge of magic functions as a kind of gnosticism: people with magic skills tend to live apart, and carefully guard their secrets from the uninitiated. Due to their many flaws in the presentation of good and evil, the books must be seen as the product of a wounded imagination, and they will render more difficult the assimilation by children of the mind of Christ, the divine imagination.
Gertrude White says that she does not know whether J. K. Rowling is a fan of Chesterton, but that if he were alive he would be a fan of hers; he would enter into the world she creates with approbation and delight. The delight would be for the imaginative details which are the heart of these stories; God, it has been remarked, is in the details, and the truth of this observation was never better illustrated than here. "Magic" is the title of a play Chesterton wrote, and he insisted all his life that the world is magic and has been given to us by a Magician.
Writing on "Harry Potter and History," Owen Dudley Edwards writes that by now children should be deep into illiteracy and books close to oblivion, but Rowling has turned the tide. The book is back, and she above all other authors has done it.
Swiftian in her satire, Edwards writes, she posits realms of fantasy in whose intricacies we can wallow, while elegantly lampooning extremely terrestrial and unmagical human conduct. Her only failures are when characters are supposedly real humans themselves, specifically Harry Potter's horrible relatives.
A major reason for the Harry Potter success is that it appeals to very old stories of a child miraculously transposed into a hidden life where his identity is withheld from neighbours. It lies deeply within Christian consciousness, and with no shade of blasphemy the Potter stories may begin there: a child whose very existence strikes at the heart of Evil, at whom Evil will move every means to strike. Also, the stories are passionately in favour of free will within a divine plan. Rowling has won her fame by building her hero on the foundations laid within great traditions. She has the ingenuity and enthusiasm for it; she also has the necessary humour.
As to Harry Potter himself, Edwards says, the best may be yet to come. He is not yet a full character, though he certainly has his share of unpredictability. We know that we have more growth to see. Chesterton speaks of "the soul of a schoolboy waiting to be awakened by accident," which is what Harry discovers in himself when he first gets the call of the witchcraft school. Rowling has kept her Harry as a schoolboy, and his friends Ron and Hermione are even more convincingly well-rounded schoolchild characters. But the heat will turn as they move into adolescence, and then it will be necessary for her to remember Chesterton's distinctions. "For among her glories is her quintessence of Chestertonism."
Against the culture of death
Finally, Leonie Caldecott in "Harry Potter and the Culture of Life" addresses O'Brien's question of whether the books seriously undermine our value system. "Overall," she says, "I cannot help feeling that a writer who calls the arch-enemy of all that makes life worth living 'Voldemort' can't be a million miles away from a Pope who sums up the ills of the modern world with the term 'culture of death.'"
And it is against this culture of death that the Harry Potter books stand. "She proves how vital the imaginal world can be when it comes to putting flesh and bones on moral ideas." Chesterton speaks in an essay on "Magic and Fantasy in Fiction" of the net of St.Peter and the snare of Satan as presenting two kinds of magic in which we can become enmeshed. And he says that every deep or delicate treatment of the magical theme "will always be found to imply an indirect relation to the ancient blessing and cursing, and it is almost as vital that it should be moral as that it should not be moralizing."
One of the most interesting aspects of the Harry Potter phenomenon, then, is that it should have been found worthy of serious discussion by a group of eminent critics like those who took part in the Chesterton Review symposium.
Evidently there is plenty of room for argument about the books' merits and their morality.
Dr. David Dooley is professor emeritus of English at St. Michael's College in Toronto, and associate editor of Catholic Insight.
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|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2002|
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