Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Book Review: The Harry Potter Books

I have just finished reading all seven of J.K. Rowling’s books about Harry Potter. I have both praise and a caution.

There tends to be a great battle among Christians between those who reject the Harry Potter books completely because they involve witchcraft, and those who love the Harry Potter books because they incorporate Christian themes such as the struggle between good and evil and life after death. I think that both sides are partially right and partially wrong.

I would first give my cautionary warning: the Harry Potter books are not fit for small children who do not yet know that the occult is wrong or know the difference between real good and real evil. The Harry Potter books are very complicated. One of the major themes of the books is death. Another major theme is the problem of revenge, dislike, hatred, and anger. For children’s books involving children at school, the books are extremely violent. And it is true that the books do incorporate some ideas and practices from the world of secondary witchcraft and historic alchemy. Children who do not understand why magic is wrong are likely to pick up sticks to use as wands and to go around attempting to cast spells as part of their play after reading the Harry Potter books. I think there is a risk that reading Harry Potter could interest children in the occult or in possible experiments with alchemy (that could be physically dangerous). But the books do not actually create a view of witchcraft or alchemy that makes it practical in the real world. So for older and more mature children, I do not think that the books are particularly dangerous. Indeed, if one understands them, the books can be quite enjoyable.

After having read the books, I am willing to accept that J.K. Rowling may be a Christian of some sort. She does incorporate a variety of Christian themes and arch-types in her work. It is also true that she is a post-modern person and incorporates some of the themes, ideas, and approaches of the post-modern worldview either consciously or unconsciously. Nevertheless, I must say that the Harry Potter books are a magnificent work of literature and enjoyable to read.

Many others have already documented the amazing literary aspects of the Harry Potter series. One of the most well-known is John Granger, author of Looking for God in Harry Potter, Unlocking Harry Potter, and a blog at Granger describes many of the ways in which Rowling incorporates Christian themes, pays homage to classic Christian literature such as Dante, and incorporates a philosophy of character change called literary alchemy. I haven’t read Granger’s books and have only looked at his blog, but I definitely think that he is on to something.

The Harry Potter books are not just separated individual stories, but rather are each part of a larger story. Ideas that are mentioned in the first book and the subsequent books culminate together to explain and set up the situation in the final book. Every little tidbit of information that you’re given by the author is used at some point or other in the course of the stories. They form a whole that is locked together in quite an amazing way. In a sense, this sort of writing in which past events, current events and future events all come together to work things out just perfectly is a literary testimony to providence. In a random world, it would not be the case that people would always learn along the way exactly the fact that they will need to know in order to solve a problem near the end. And yet this is exactly what happens in these books and in many other Christian works of literature such as the writings of C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers, not to mention writers like Charles Dickens or William Shakespeare. Writing that expresses a providentially guided reality is antithetical to the materialist scientific worldview whether its adherents recognize this or not. These books can be said to reflect a Christian worldview if for no other reason than because they clearly reflect a world that is guided by providence in which things work out as though they were planned even though they could not have been planned by mere mortals.

Another aspect of the books that could be thought of as consistent with the Christian worldview is Rowling’s admission of the reality of good and evil. Rowling describes a world in which all human beings are flawed. All struggle with sin and difficulty within themselves. But some of them are clearly worse than others, having sold themselves out to purer and more vicious forms of evil. But there are aspects of Rowling’s dealings with good and evil that are somewhat post-modern – that is to say they imply a world in which morality is relative to culture, family, or individual rather than implying a world in which morality is flowing from a universally accessible objective moral order. While Rowling incorporates many good themes and plot motifs that reject racism, bigotry, and stereotypes in a variety of ways, there are at least three examples of a more post modern approach to morality. First, Rowling almost seems to accept that being on the “dark arts” side of things is in some way natural and acceptable for some people. Second, the witches and wizards slice and dice various relatively intelligent sentient creatures in order to make their potions and medicinal compounds with no moral qualms. And, third, no real thought is given to the question of whether or not practices like divination might be wrong rather than merely ineffective.

There are ways in which Rowling attempts to make her magical world more compatible with the Christian world. For example, she admits in one of the later books that ghosts are not actually the souls of dead people but rather “projections” of them. She is not at all clear about what may or may not happen to people after death. At one point, Harry despairs about facing death. He does see visions of people who have gone on to death before him. But are these, like the ghosts, merely projections or are they actually the real souls of the real departed people?

The magic in Harry Potter differs from that in Narnia and Middle Earth in that it looks so much more like our popular images of occult magic – black pointed hats and all. But, the magic used in Harry Potter is, as other writers have pointed out, “incantational” rather than “invocational.” In other words, people are witches and wizards in Rowling’s world because they have magic in them that they are able to project into the outside world in accord with various laws not unlike the laws of physics. In the Christian worldview, occult power is generally seen as flowing from the invocation or use of the power of unclean demonic spirits. In the real world both invocational and incantational magic are problematic. While magic, in the occult sense, may seem like an application of laws like the laws of physics, it is, in a sense, an attempt to force God’s hand or to make the universe function in certain ways that it is not actually designed to function in – to obtain forbidden power by forbidden means. The way Rowling deals with magic in her books makes it seem quite different - like a natural talent, power, or ability within certain human beings. The mature can accept this conceit in literature. The weak of character may be lead astray by it unless assisted or guided by the more mature. After a thousand years of Christian freedom in the west, most people have come to deny the existence of spiritual power. Indeed, most appearances of the occult in the west are shams, frauds, and play acting. But, as C.S. Lewis has written, there is real personal evil in the world, and it is as much a mistake to ignore the reality of evil as it is to become obsessed with it. But one can read Harry Potter without being drawn into the occult.

Some people have suggested that in Rowling’s world the distinction between wizards and witches on the one hand and non-magical people known as “muggles” on the other, is one that involves two different species, and hence there is no real problem with genuine humans getting involved in magic. But this is not true. In Rowling’s world, children of normal muggle parents can be born with enough magic in them to be witches or wizards. By the same token, the children of witches or wizards can be born without magic in them and be what they call“squibs.” No explanation is offered as to why some people have this innate magical power versus others, but the innate magical power seems to render them far more durable than non-magical human beings. Characters of the Harry Potter stories survive many physical injuries that would clearly prove fatal to non-magical people in the real non-magical world. The apparent between children attempting to become witches or warlocks like those in the Harry Potter stories is not their muggle birth, but rather the problem that we have no magic wands made with the magical creature parts such as dragon heartstrings or unicorn hairs required for the direct application of magical power in Rowling’s magical world. But I don’t suppose this will stop new ageish human beings from looking for such magical devices even though they cannot exist.

But while I would disagree with many of the ways in which Rowling goes about her project, no one who has read the books can contest that she tries to deal with some important themes. Rowling emphasizes the power importance of both real love and romantic love. Truly God’s love is far more important, but one must understand and deal with the realities of romantic love as well in order to fully live life in the real world. Rowling also illustrates the problems of prejudices and loyalties, but from a very post-modern aspect. She shows how they can turn out well or turn out badly, but that the way they turn out is in many ways almost beyond the control of those who have them. Rowling also extensively mocks government. But then one must admit that government is so often worth mocking. I wonder if Rowling realizes that the Ministry of Magic in her books is more like the real labor government of England not because it abuses civil rights, but because it fails to recognize the true nature and power of radical Islamo-Fascism in much the same way that the Ministry of Magic refused to recognize the return of Voldemort (Rowling’s villain).

The Harry Potter books start out at a lower reading level and gradually increase to a higher reading level. The vocabulary goes from relatively simple to relatively complex. The concepts and situations to which the reader is exposed go from the dramatic but simple to the deeply complicated and troubling. In that sense, the books do appear to be designed to correspond to the growth and continued education of children over time. But as I say, I don’t think that Harry Potter is really good for young children who don’t understand why the occult is bad or who don’t understand the difference between good and evil and the importance of not taking revenge or of disliking people purely because they have irritating personalities. On the other hand, the books are extremely enjoyable and a wonderful reading experience for mature readers. They can stimulate thinking about character, loyalty, romance etc. The books are suspenseful, engaging, and fun.

Christian adults should read Harry Potter in order to be culturally literate. I believe that they will be seen as classical literature at some point in the future. Certainly a variety of elements including the fairy tale of the Deathly Hallows will be grist for the English professional journal writing mill for decades to come. For people who have any sort of reservation about adding to J.K. Rowling’s already vast wealth, the books can always be read by checking them out from the library or buying copies at used bookstores. But they probably should be read—just don’t go out and try to do any magic because of what you read.

1 comment:

Vance said...

I was one of those Christian renegades who secretly read these books and watched the movies -- against the advice of certain clergy.

I completely agree with your review. The books are wonderfully written, but they are definitely books FOR mature readers ABOUT children, not simply books FOR children.

I cannot see how these cannot become a classic series. They are simply too well written. Everyone I know picks one up, then loses a lot of sleep and productive time, racing to the end to find out what happens.

The movies are good, too. But if you have not read the books, you miss out on a lot of what is really going on.