What is this? Hannah reads Harry Potter? How have the mighty fallen!
Yes, I know. I didn’t want to format this article as a regular review for that very reason. When we officially review a book, we want our readers to take it as a formal recommendation of a good book. I do not recommend Harry Potter– but neither do I urge parents to steer clear.
Long story short, I was supposed to preview this controversial material for the rest of my family. I am a nearly-eighteen-year-old storyteller and eldest child, therefore I am my mom’s go-to previewer of books for younger siblings. Neither of my parents had so much as touched one of J.K. Rowling’s books before, but after hearing many and varied opinions about it, we decided that now was the time to try the infamous sorcery-story.
But, before I discuss my opinion, you ought to have some context for the discussion…
Young orphan Harry Potter lives with his sour aunt, cruel uncle, and spoilt cousin Dudley in a small house in England. His aunt and uncle don’t like him very much, and Dudley absolutely hates him. Harry lives a miserable life in a small cupboard-room under the stairs. That is, until he starts getting strange letters marked “Hogwarts-” hundreds of them. Then a large jocund groundskeeper named Hagrid turns up and whisks Harry off to the more magical part of London. “Ye’re a wizard, Harry,” Hagrid explains as they travel to Hogwarts, an ancient school of wizarding. And he is no ordinary wizard, either; Harry’s parents died fighting against the evil wizard Voldemort, aka He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Harry himself is already a hero for surviving the encounter as a baby.
Harry is thrilled. Things are finally looking up for him! But he soon realizes that things are not all well at Hogwarts. Mysterious professors, suspicious accidents in a game of Quidditch, and rumors of a monster in the hallway all point to the return of a certain evil wizard- and Harry and his friends are the only good guys who seem to know or care about it.
Now for what would traditionally go under “What is good.” To a certain extent, Harry makes a good role model for young children. I still can’t understand how he became such a decent, even kind person while living with Dudley and his irascible parents. Harry makes fast friends of the nervous Ron Weasley and uptight Hermione Granger, despite obvious pecuniary and educational differences. He comes to rely on Hagrid almost as a father-figure. He shares his snacks with the poorer kids on the train, and he encourages little Neville Longbottom to stand up to the bullies at Hogwarts.
The characters are forced to make hard decisions between doing the right thing and the easy thing. Furthermore, those who choose the right thing are rewarded. I’ll talk more about this later, but the very nature of the Hogwarts hierarchy makes it difficult for Harry to do anything about the rising threat of evil. However, Harry and his friends choose to do what they know is right, even if breaking the rules will lose them points or even get them expelled.
What I enjoyed most about the book was its brilliant execution of classic concepts mixed with originality. Characters boast such audacious names as Draco and Severus. Silly centaurs and amiable ghosts fill the halls and grounds of Hogwarts with their mythological smalltalk. Hogwarts itself smacks of a proper English boarding school twisted up with a fantastical wizard’s castle. As for the writing itself, Rowling never shies away from writing well simply because a word is too long or archaic, so don’t be surprised if you come across words from a tenth-grade reading list. Rowling writes stories for children as if expecting them to read them again as adults.
And now for the bad and the ugly. I know that everyone reading this has been screaming at their respective computers for the last five minutes, “What about the magic?” That’s the big question. But as Josiah DeGraaf explains in this enlightening article, magic is a very subjective term and has to be handled differently in every book. Of course, I wouldn’t put this magic system on par with that of The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter’s adventures take place in real-world England, and therefore the book has to grapple with God’s real-world condemnations of magic and the occult. The smattering of Latin-esque words and bursts of sparkles often sound suspiciously like necromancy.
Yes, Harry and his friends use wands. Yes, the professors teach binding spells and potions classes, and yes, there is a magical mirror which shows the deepest desires of everybody’s hearts. Wizards and witches are portrayed as good- to an extent. The general rule is that magic is supposed to be used to do good things. That sounds suspiciously like the old “Do no harm” rule; however, it seems that Rowling adds a caveat: use your magic to fight those who do bad things- for example, Voldemort- which is exactly what Harry and his friends do. And maybe that’s an easier pill to swallow.
Now, this is not a defense of the magic system or morals of the book; this is the lowdown on the content that will hopefully give you an idea of what you will encounter in Harry Potter’s world. Parents, you know your kids- you need to make this particular judgment call.
Believe it or not, the biggest problem I had with this book was not the magic. It was the childish view of authority. All the adults, with the exception of headmaster Dumbledore and perhaps Hagrid, are distinctly Charlie-Brownish: inflexible, clueless as to the shadier activities of the school, and often downright evil. Now if all authorities were really so incompetent, I would agree with Harry that we subordinates need to take matters into our own hands. However, Rowling painted a demeaning caricature of what real biblical authority could be. At Hogwarts, all of the available adults are fools, and the mature ones like Dumbledore are always away on more important business. Furthermore, those like Hermione who try to encourage rule-following are only uptight wet blankets who need to get over themselves- something which Hermione herself does. That may not be a picture young children should see.
So what is my opinion? Like all other books, Harry Potter is not without problems, nor without benefits. Yet unlike other books, it alone has been singled out, officially or no, as That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Read.
To the old question: “Should I let my kids read Harry Potter?” I give an old answer: “That depends.” For one thing, I would recommend the book to mature writers just for the sake of improving their storytelling; J.K. Rowling does have that effect on you. On the other hand, the questions of sorcery and authority figures, among others, will always present a problem to responsible parents.
The most definitive answer I can give is this: Harry Potter is one book that Christian parents should read first.