Eric Rigney: The Good Spell of Harry Potter

The Good Spell of Harry Potter
by Eric Rigney

Last summer I was traveling with a friend of mine, listening to the radio, when NPR broadcast a short feature on the Harry Potter books and the rapidity with which children were reading them. Being that NPR is a news organization, the producers dutifully dug up “the angle,” and the piece ended with a recounting of some of the flack and criticism that the books have received (if you’re not familiar with the flack and criticism of which I speak, please read on — but be prepared to be amazed at yet one more proof that some people aren’t happy unless they’re over-reacting to something).

As the NPR piece ended, I knew what was coming — my friend and I don’t exactly see eye to eye on a good many issues, mostly of a religious and theological nature. After about a fifteen second interval, he turned his head and uttered the inevitable question: “What do you think of those Harry Potter books, Eric?” I was sort of glad the question DID come. I love to debate, and although discretion is indeed the better part of valor, I often throw discretion to the proverbial wind when a debate presents itself. Such I did in this case. I responded that I was all for them, even though I knew that make-believe witchcraft and wizardry were major components of the novels, and I would support any child who wanted to read them.

I was not, of course, basing this entire opinion on that one radio feature. Not long before that, I read an article about how many kids were reading — no, devouring — the Harry Potter books. One mother talked about how her 12-year-old son, who normally loathed reading and refused to try it, read the first book cover to cover and was begging for the next.

But even though I had not based my opinion on a single radio report, I was guilty of the crime I often criticize others for committing: I had developed an opinion about books I had never read. Now in my defense, I must claim “English Teacherism”: that inexplicable, knee-jerk, visceral flood of adrenaline every time I hear that someone, particularly someone of a young age, is READING VOLUNTARILY. I mean, most of my time as a teacher is spent doing a kind of frantic tap-dance routine to try to convince kids to read. So I admit I had an unfounded opinion, but don’t worry — I’ve since redeemed myself.

But in spite of my then lack of concrete knowledge of the Potter books, I told my friend that if a kid is reading because he wants to, the book would pretty much have to contain step-by-step instructions for building a chemical bomb before I would try to get the kid to STOP reading it. As an English teacher — heck, as a thinking human being — I think reading is important, and that lack of literacy is a big problem in our society — not just a minor, nostalgic loss, like the fact that no one wears hats and ties to the ballpark anymore, but a PROBLEM. We are rearing a generation of kids who have only two reactions to literature: boredom and fear. Wonderful. (I hate self-reference, but since I don’t have time to go into it here, please see my article on the decline of modern literacy in the archives of this website).

So my friend and I had a long, healthy Harry Potter debate for the rest of our trip that changed neither of our minds, as is the result of many a good debate. I was satisfied. But I must admit a bit of guilt was nagging at me: the more I thought about it, the more I felt like a hypocrite for not reading the books before making a decision about whether the criticism of them was founded or not. The reality is that my reading list is already way too long, so I didn’t know how I’d fit it in. I’ll probably never be able to get through all the books I want/need to read, so how could I make a children’s book fit? My daughter is too young for novel-length plots, so reading the books to her was out. I just didn’t think I’d ever get to read and decide for myself.

Then it occurred to me: read it to your class! I read to my class every day. I love it and they love it. Last year we read “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “The Hobbit,” and two years ago it was Frank Peretti’s “The Oath” (I don’t think I have to tell you which of the years made for better reading).

So I went to my boss and asked him if we could purchase the Harry Potter series for my class. And although certain individuals had already petitioned him to ban the books from the school, he authorized the purchase of the series for use in my classroom. (If you don’t have a principal who is an actual educator, as opposed to an insipid literary censor, you have my condolences).

All of this means I finally got to read the books (we’re about halfway through the third one right now). And now that I am more qualified to have an opinion, I have to say . . . huh? What is all the friction about? People are upset by THESE books? They’re about as dangerous as the latest Dick and Jane installment. In fact, it may be argued that they are not dangerous enough. I think good literature should contain at least some element of subversion. That’s what’s wrong with the bulk of modern literature: it’s got no teeth! Good literature should, at least to some degree, make us uncomfortable — that’s how it moves us and inspires us to action (for more on literature’s role in this light, read Don DeLillo’s “Mao II”). I suppose the Potter series has SOME bite to it, otherwise people wouldn’t be clamoring to censor it, but I just can’t see why people think these cute, story-driven books are so dangerous.

Of course some readers may take this to mean that I think it is good that Harry Potter is leading kids into witchcraft, that I am in favor of destroying youth for the sake of good literature. Not true. For one thing, I don’t think that the books do lead kids into witchcraft. Folks, it’s fantasy fiction. Harry rides a broom and has a magic wand and attends a school that doesn’t exist, for crying out loud. The “spells” he uses are about as effective and authentic as “hocus pocus.” And these books no more lure kids into real witchcraft than the Star Wars movies lure kids into careers as astronauts. If a kid wants to be an astronaut, he’s going to become one regardless of George Lucas’s films; and if he goes into the field thinking he’s going to be Luke Skywalker, he’s soon going to lose interest, because reality is very different. Apply the same analogy to Harry Potter’s “witchcraft.”

It seems silly that I even have to point this out, but have none of these people read C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series or J.R.R. Tolkein’s whimsical tales? They are FULL of witchcraft and wizardry, far more than Harry Potter’s little adventures: Gandalf, Aslan, the White Witch, the Necromancer, and on and on. So where’s the clamor to ban those books? I am cynical enough to be sure that somewhere there’s someone who wants them banned, but there’s no outcry like with the Potter books. Most people would probably argue that this is because Tolkein and Lewis were Christians, but do we really want to get into the quagmire of judging a book’s worth based on the author’s moral principles? How will these determinations be made, and where does it end? Wouldn’t we have to throw out every book ever written?

The truth is that the Potter books are very similar to the Tolkein and Lewis books (although Rowling’s are not as good) in one important way: good wins out over evil. Is this a specifically Christian theme? No, good can defeat evil in an non-religious way in literature, just as in real life. But it is a healthy and attractive concept nonetheless, and it is one which Harry’s detractors tend to ignore. Yes, there are evil characters in the Potter books. But to ban them for this reason is akin to banning The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe because of the White Witch.

I am puzzled by the reaction to Harry Potter to a large degree, but I think in an odd way I understand some of the concern. I think people are justifiably concerned about our children’s moral and spiritual health. In our society the threat of corruption is very real, and we should be vigilant about what our children are exposed to (and how they are exposed to it). Every responsible parent should pay close attention to anything their kids bring home. But it is my contention that a responsible look (that means actually reading the book, folks) at the Harry Potter series will show that there is no danger there.

I also think I understand another reason for some anti-Potter sentiments. I think that some people (particularly people steeped in the odd, cult-like Christian counterculture that seems to have hi-jacked much of modern Christianity) are simply suspicious of anything new and popular. The philosophy seems to be: if kids love it and eat it up, there must be something wrong with it (in fact, one website, subtly labeled “Harry Potter and the Anti-Christ,” actually asserted that the books’ popularity was proof of demonic inspiration). Quite frankly, such an attitude disgusts me. It is a suspicious attitude too closely akin to the mentality that prompted people to burn supposed witches because they were double-jointed or something. Popular things which you do not understand are not necessarily evil. The whole idea is pretty egotistical, in fact.

As I write this, my wife is lying on the bed behind me, engrossed in the latest Potter installment, “The Goblet of Fire.” She sped through the first three in record time, and she is nearing the end of this one. She is sad because she does not have another installment waiting for her (a sure sign, some would say, that the books are evil), but, strangely, she has yet to cast a spell on me or run away to marry Professor Snape and teach at Hogwarts. My four-year-old daughter is also on the bed, watching “The Wizard of Oz” for about the gazillionth time. Oddly enough, she has not yet attempted to find her way to Oz to become a witch or an apple-throwing tree or a flying monkey — or a scarecrow, for that matter. And when she is old enough to read on her own, I will likely introduce her to Harry and his friends, and send her on imaginary adventures at England’s only school of witchcraft and wizardry. I will also introduce her to Aslan, Gandalf, Bilbo Baggins, and Lucy, Susan, Edmund, Peter, and Digory. But I won’t be surprised when she does not try to steal Bilbo’s ring, become invisible, ride a lion to the train station, hop the Hogwarts Express to Narnia, and eat the White Witch’s enchanted Turkish Delight. It’s called fiction.

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