Wednesday, August 21, 2013

What I Thought of Harry Potter

I've heard of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling for years, in contexts of widely-varying opinion. Many praised them highly. Many judged them severely. I just ignored them, having better things to do - until I realized that, as they were becoming somewhat of a 'classic', the boy child we are expecting might want to read them someday. I felt a need to see for myself what this much-loved wizard boy story was made of. So I read the first book in the series - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I felt that reading one book entirely was sufficient to form my judgment of the spirit and quality of the series, if not sufficient to make a comprehensive literary judgment of Rowling's plot.

Since the Harry Potter books are frequently lumped with the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis as well-crafted magic literature for children, I found myself comparing and contrasting Harry Potter's world with Lewis's Narnia as I read. The differences were striking, especially at points where the story elements seemed most similar. While my critique is not a thorough comparison/contrast between the two series (I haven't read the one entirely, after all), I have made a few comparisons throughout. My critique is mainly a criticism, since I was largely displeased with the spirit of the book, but I think each of the criticisms are significant.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was not a chore to read. Rowling knows how to craft a good story. The plot skeleton of the first book is actually similar to many classic kid's adventure/ mystery stories, but the clever layers of fantastical elements - goblins, flying brooms, wands, spells, etc. -  over the classic plot make it uniquely fascinating. Harry Potter himself is very ordinary, human and likable for being so extraordinary, and in my opinion, his boyish, courageous character is the chief appeal of the book.

Rowling seems to have attempted to portray in Harry Potter the classic battle between good and evil that parents and educators love to find in children's books. However, I believe the book is a marked failure in this respect. There is a definite evil - referred to as the 'dark side', but the good opposing is not defined biblically, as is Lewis's good against evil in the Narnia series. Narnia's 'good magic' is a holy power, used in submission to authority, and is made of entirely different 'stuff' than the 'bad magic' of the evil side.  The 'good guys' use of magic in Harry Potter is sometimes just as self-directed and unsubmissive to authority as that of the 'dark side'.  Characters repeatedly take supernatural matters into their own hands and use magic to do what they want -which is specifically what Scripture condemns when it forbids witchcraft and sorcery. (1 Chron 10:13, 1 Sam 15:23)  The Pevensie children in the Narnia series learned to love and submit to Aslan's magic - it was not given to them to use as they pleased, but only worked rightly when they obeyed him.  Harry Potter's magic skills are his own and echo every sinful child's desire to be able to do what they please and be their own authority. Potter's lovable, courageous character does not atone for this flaw to make him a hero I would set before my children. "To obey is better than sacrifice" seems to be the last lesson on Rowling's mind.

Hogwarts, the school where Potter learns wizardry is populated not only by students and professors (some of whom are witches), but by ghosts (are they good or evil?) and a demonic creature called Peeves who is simply allowed to exist there. I was impressed by a sense of the unholy as I followed Harry Potter and his friends through the halls of Hogwarts. Imaginary beings that children are taught to regard as evil are portrayed as tolerable, sensible authority figures, or normal (though irritating) companions. I couldn't help but think that the old hag killed by the brave Narnians in the mound of Prince Caspian would have probably been a respected professor at Hogwarts.  In the Narnia books, witches, ghosts and other ugly/demonic spirit-like creatures are always on the dark side, but the lines between holy and unholy in Harry Potter are muddy. Defining good vs. evil as 'brave and generous vs. selfish and cruel' is nice, but not sufficient if there is no  'pure and obedient vs. impure and disobedient'. It is the good and evil of humanism, but not of Scripture.

Another major flaw I found in the characters of Harry Potter was their un-rebuked sinful attitudes. Obviously, no children's book is good with polly-plum-perfect characters, but the hero's flaws need to be seen as flaws and not as acceptable qualities. Lying to authorities to get out of trouble, repeatedly breaking rules for one's own ends, and maintaining hateful, vengeful attitudes towards troublesome people are sins Potter and his friends commit in their heroic adventures, but these are all seen as normal young people's behavior, atoned for by the good they end up achieving in the end. Again, Harry Potter's version of "To obey is better than sacrifice" is "To sacrifice is better than to obey", and the story is constructed in such a way that it works. There is no sober, holy Aslan to confront Harry with his heart at the end, but only the prospect of Harry's summer holiday, rich with opportunities to torment his beastly cousin with newly-learned magic skills.

A last criticism of Harry Potter is one that seems less important, but is still weighty - that is the emphasis on ugliness rather than beauty. Humorous, droll, awe-inspiring or creepy descriptions of ugliness or weirdness fill the pages, but descriptions of genuine beauty are sparse and mostly limited to descriptions of the wizard's grand buildings or meals. Glimpses of appreciation for natural beauty, which are usually sprinkled throughout good children's books, are remarkably absent in the first volume of the Harry Potter series. This is merely a reflection of the growing focus on ugliness in children's literature as a whole, and the accompanying avoidance of real, heart-touching beauty. Ugliness can be funny or exciting or scary. It doesn't demand the observer to grow up. Real beauty demands our sobriety It makes one mindful of God and holiness. Lewis knew how to express beauty to children in his Narnia series. Rowling seems to write for children who don't care about that stuff anymore. Power, thrills and action, humor and horror - yes, but beauty and holiness - no. We're more comfortable with ghosts and goblins, actually.

So why is this book popular? My prudish-sounding answer is that it appeals to sinful human nature, especially that of young people. We all desire to be better than other people, to have special powers that others don't have, to be admired and intelligent, and to do what we want and be heroes in the end, without needing to repent of our sinful desires. Harry Potter lets us live in a world with a boy like that, and watch him succeed despite great opposition. It's a fun escape, but unlike better book-journeys, it is not an exalting one. It left me just as base, greedy and earthy as when I picked it up, but with just enough inspiration to heroism to feel good.

I did reap one benefit from this book though. I was able to critically compare myself throughout the book to Hermione, Potter's annoyingly task-driven, nosy, mothery and overbearing fellow student. The evening after finishing it, I stopped myself mid-nag in a conversation with my husband (who has also read Harry Potter) and apologized for being Hermione. It made him laugh and I was glad I read the book.

That evening, however, our Bible reading was Psalm 101. That finalized my decision that I wouldn't choose to read any more Harry Potter books or recommend them to my children. Read it. Holiness is more important than entertainment. I won't deny I was entertained by Harry Potter, but I need holiness more, and thankfully there are other places (like Narnia) to find a bit of both.


John and Joanna Colby said...

Thank you, Alyssa. Now you have a well thought out answer for your children when they ask about reading such literature. "I will walk with integrity of heart within my house." Ps. 101 JMC

Benjamin Colby said...

I think your criticisms are well-aimed. It's not a series to be recommended wholeheartedly, especially when it comes to young, impressionable minds.

If you read the whole series, you will find that your criticisms will remain largely unchanged. However, from a literary standpoint, your admiration for the books should increase. Rowling seems to have developed as she wrote the books. But I can't say the conclusion completely redeems the moral shortcomings rife between the covers.