We were walking out of an opening weekend showing of Eragon. Most of us there were pretty underwhelmed, but that didn't mean there weren't conversations going on. Juli turned to me right away and asked "So, why are you allowed to read and see Eragon and not Harry Potter?" It was a good question: both contain magic and strange mythical creatures and some other similarities. I stumbled through half an answer before I realized that everything I said about Harry Potter started like this: "From what I've heard..." As Juli would correct me on what I'd heard, I realized it was time for me to actually read the books myself and come to my own conclusion. In the past month I've read the first three books, and eventually plan to read the rest. So what are my thoughts on the book? Are they really as evil as people say they are?
I had originally planned to write this post several months ago (as a matter of fact, the first paragraph of this article was written back in January). But I decided I wanted to read all six that had been written, and by the time I did that Book 7 was due out very soon, so I decided to wait until it came out. So this article has been in planning for a long time. Because the seventh book has only been out for about a week, I'm not going to spill any big spoilers about that one to be fair to everyone who wants to read it. I will be talking about crucial plot elements in the other six, however, so be warned: I always write with spoilers :D
I loved these books. No, really, I did. As novels, they are at the top of my list for engaging, well-written fantasy fare. The plots are original and well-crafted, and more than once I stayed up late into the night to finish one of them. For instance, I borrowed Deathly Hallows from a friend on Wednesday. Thursday morning I gave it back, because the previous night I had read all 759 pages straight through until 3:30. They are that gripping.
Rowling has an amazing talent for creating characters. Even characters that are pure evil, like Lord Voldemort, are given motivations and backstory that flesh them out and give them life. Characters like Harry or Ron have real weaknesses and strengths, and change over the course of the books according to their experiences. Even Dumbledore, the height of good wizardry, definitely has his problems, and wrestles with decisions and their consequences. Snape is...well, you can never be sure about Snape (but I won't say anything else). And Hermione...let's just say that I've never met a character who reminded me so much of me.
I don't have to say much else besides the fact that if this was the only criterium for whether or not to read this book, it would pass with flying colors. Sadly, however, it's not.
This is obviously the issue that all the controversy over the past ten years has centered around. Critics have claimed that the positive portrayals of witchcraft and wizardry will lead more people to embrace the real-life Satanic forms. After having read all seven books, I am still torn about this. However, this is the conclusion I have come to: the portrayal of magic in Harry Potter is clearly fictional enough that only the most obsessive children will be drawn into real-world witchcraft.
Harry Potter's magic consists of waving a wand around and saying certain words until a spell, in the form of a beam of light, comes out the end. It's like a complicated way of firing a Star Wars blaster. Admittedly, this does bear a resemblance to real-world witchcraft in that special words are used, but even that is different because only certain people are even able to do this, because only certain people are born with the power to use magic.
The whole idea seems fantastical enough that nobody would think that any of it existed in the real world, but I know that there are always people out there who take everything incredibly seriously (just think of all the Star Wars fans who insist that they are actually "Jedi"). That, I think, is where the danger comes from: people unable to separate fantasy from reality. They are the ones in danger from the ideas presented in this book. Everyone else, I think, could easily read the book without ever believing a word of it, in the same way that we read a science-fiction book about aliens abducting humans: entertaining, but completely fictitious.
There's another side of this issue, however, which I think is much more serious. One thing that is never addressed in the books are where magic comes from. It's just something that certain people are born with and must learn how to use. There is no higher power, nothing controlling anything at all. Good and evil are equal and opposite forces, and either could win the epic battle which they are raging throughout the books. It's a world, quite simply, without God. This is typical of a fantasy book, but it is something which has always irked me about the genre. Lev Grossman voiced a similar concern in this short article in TIME magazine.
A world without God. Now that's a problem. This lack of a higher authority comes to the forefront when Harry finds that he didn't die when Voldemort first attacked him because his mother's love protected him. Love, apparently, is the highest good, and has more power than even Dark Magic. But love is useless without an origin, and in this book it has no origin. It just is. And that's much more disturbing than the magic.
EDIT: Paul brought up a very good point in one of the comments, and I addressed it in the comments, but I think that the point is important enough to bear inclusion in the post itself. Paul argued that Harry Potter is witchcraft, and God declares explicitly in Scripture that he hates witchcraft, therefore we should hate witchcraft too, and should thus avoid Harry Potter. Here's what I wrote in response (with a few minor edits):
The magic of Harry Potter is the same kind of magic found in Eragon and every other fantasy book I've ever read. It exists in a world without God (something I've already addressed in my review), and that is a problem. Beyond that, though, I think that the sorcery condemned in the Bible and the sorcery used by Harry Potter, although called by the same name, are really two different animals altogether. Harry Potter is just typical, God-less, fantasy magic, no different from other fantasy books, as opposed to the real world, God-hating, dangerous magick. A condemnation of Harry Potter would, I think, have to extend to the entire fantasy genre, something I am not willing to do. My personal opinion is that there isn't even a real comparison there.
That said, I think your objections are sound, and I will be honest and admit that I do not know too much about modern-day witchcraft. My impressions are that they are totally different from Harry Potter magic, but I would be willing to be proved wrong by some real solid evidence that the two kinds of magic are the same. What I would dearly love is a decent evaluation of the books by an expert in the occult (and Harry Potter and the Bible does not count--most of its claims are too ridiculous to be taken seriously). Until I am shown that, though, I believe that they condemning Harry Potter for his purely fantastical magic is a mistake. END EDIT
Rowling deals with some pretty deep themes, such as the power of love and sacrifice and loyalty to one's friends. I've already adressed the problems with her treatment of love, but at the same time there are valuable lessons to be learned. There are other themes developed, about bigotry and trustworthiness, that are similarly valuable.
But honestly, one of the biggest problems I had with the book is the way that Harry and his friends are always breaking the rules and getting blessed for it. It's a small thing, but I think that children are much more likely to cling onto that ("I'm allowed to break the rules if it's for a good reason") than they are to a few magic spells. Yes, they demonstrate some admirable qualities as well, such as Harry's willingness to take risks for his friends or his mother's last sacrifice to save his life, but I think that the negative things Harry does that are portrayed positively are much more harmful than the good things he does are beneficial. And I haven't even talked about the "snogging" that is disgustingly dwelt upon in The Half-Blood Prince (I'm all in favor of a good romance in a book, but this was nothing like a "good" romance...just juveniles making out the whole time.) But even that is not my biggest concern about the series.
The first three books are very mild. They just have Harry at school, and Voldemort makes attempts at him but never succeeds. But at the end of The Goblet of Fire, Voldemort comes back, and from that scene (which contains ruthless murders and a blood sacrifice), the books get dark. Very dark. Voldemort and his cronies use some terrible magic, and the world takes on a dark, despairing tone as he gains more and more power, becoming seemingly unstoppable. Some scenes are positively grotesque, such as the Inferi, dead bodies enchanted by Voldemort to do his bidding, that dwell beneath the water in a cave and drag people down to their deaths. This darkness continues all the way through the last book, and is the primary reason why I would not suggest these books to children.
Books 1-3 are relatively harmless, but books 4-7 are increasingly dark. I would not have much of a problem at all with children (if I had any) reading the first three books, but I would not let them read the last four. You can imagine the reaction this would cause, though: the books are so engaging that you just have to know what happens next. I can't imagine a child quietly accepting that he is not allowed to finish such a "fun" series. No, instead you would have angry, resentful kids, just waiting to find a way to sneak the books whenever they can. Basically, I would not let my kids read the first three because they would be drawn into the last four, and I don't feel that that kind of darkness would be beneficial to their young souls.
However, I think that once children are mature enough (and I would see this age as being at least high school), their parents should give serious thought to letting them read it. It has many of the problems inherent in fantasy and children's literature, but once the child is mature enough to deal with that, I think they are immensely enjoyable books. The dark themes that are not appropriate for young children are, I believe, not a problem for a mature reader, and there are many other themes masterfully handled in Rowling's hands (such as love, sacrifice, and perserverance).
Final Evaluation: The books are not appropriate for younger readers because of the darkness inherent, and there are serious deficiencies typical of the fantasy genre, but are fine for older, mature readers.