Sorting Through
Harry Potter

There's only one reason the Harry Potter books are in the least bit controversial. Just one.


That's it. If we didn't have this ridiculous little "religion" bustling around, forming "covens" in dorm rooms and getting army chaplains, I doubt one parent in a million would even think to waste even a minute being concerned about these books.

But the fact is, Wicca's here, and some Christian parents are concerned that the Harry Potter books, full of magic and wizardry, are somehow feeding into Wicca, or at least opening children's minds to its legitimacy. They're annoyed, too, that in a land in which children are punished for mentioning Jesus in their schoolwork and Christianity has been all but wiped out from literature and history textbooks, teachers are "allowed" to read the adventures of wizards and witches to their classes.

No, if these books had been released thirty years ago, before the advent of Wicca, there wouldn't have been a peep of protest, for everyone would have accepted them as the fantasies that they are, and perhaps we would have been spared an entire generation's reading habits being defined by the egregious Judy Blume.

But other parents worry too, that from what they've heard, there's a level of violence and darkness in these books that they're not quite sure their children should be exposed to.

So. Is Harry Potter okay?

I'm just one reader and one parent, but my own assessment, after reading all four books, is this:


Not that I think these books are the most fabulous children's books ever written. I have some problems with them, which I'll outline in a moment. But first, concerned parent, just relax. The Harry Potter books are far better than ninety percent of contemporary children's literature, and I think all of us should be deeply grateful to J.K. Rowling for the gift she's given our children, which goes beyond the books themselves, to the rediscovery of the pleasure of reading.

The books are quite inventive - Rowling has quite a clever way with names and words and obviously had a lot of fun inventing the elements of magical life, from the strange creatures who inhabit this world to the various kinds of spells to the rules of everyone's favorite game, Quidditch.

The plot, too, while derivative (as all plots are, of course), has a core of mystery and suspense that is, along with the fun of the magical world, the wheel that keeps the reader's interest going. Why were Harry's parents killed by the evil Lord Voldemont and what will Harry's role be in (we can assume) ultimately defeating this source of darkness, threatening throughout the first three books, and now re-established and fully back in power by the end of book four?

So yes, in these books, there's clearly a conflict between good and evil, and evil is nothing less than evil, which requires goodness to defeat it.

And now for my quick list of qualifications on my praise:

The quality of writing has declined rather dramatically as the series has continued. Rowling is not a subtle writer anyway, but the first two books were tightly focussed and well-written. With the third, the books started getting much longer and the quality declined. Many people have cited the length of the fourth volume in positive terms - isn't great that kids are reading 742-page books? - they shouldn't. The fourth Harry Potter isn't long because it's packed full of dense plot and interesting details. It's long because Rowling apparently lost her editor, the invaluable person who will reel in your enthusiasm, make you look objectively at what you're doing, tell you that you're being repetitious, wordy, and that you really need to find other ways to move the plot along other than having characters stand around for twenty pages explaining things to each other. In the fourth book especially, Rowling has fallen into an unfortunate dependence on using all caps to express emotion, (lots of "AAAAAARGH!"s going on here), as well as a startling overuse of the ellipses.

We're starting to expect the unexpected. By the second book, the pattern of Rowling's plotting is clear, and it involves a reliance on nothing but the red herring. Of course, the character who seems to be the rattiest will be a good guy, and of course the apparent good guy will be nothing close to it.

There's really very little character growth, at least up to this point. Harry and his friends have faced death with some regularity, and it hasn't seemed to mature them much, but we'll see. Perhaps that will change in subsequent books. Along those same lines, I was struck in the fourth book at how passive Harry actually was - most of the things he was able to do (I have to try to relate this without giving plot points away) that we might call brave, he did, not because he figured out how to do them, but because he was either told what to do or he overheard a secret that helped him. In a way, that's another expression of lazy writing. In this fourth book, Harry seemed to be more carried along by circumstances than he was in previous books, rather than using his own initiative.

The fifth Harry Potter book comes out in November of 2001, and as another reviewer has said, we can only hope that before that time, Rowling takes a breath and, more importantly, takes some time with her writing - she's got some important themes going here: She's tapped into the anxieties of growing up at a rather profound level: not just "fitting in" and "finding yourself," but also entering into the complexities of the world and discovering that life is filled with light and shadows, and it takes clear-sightedness and character to determine which is which. She works hard to help children see that whatever their skills and gifts, there is good they can do - one of the most striking scenes of the whole series occurs at the end of book 1, in which all three of the friends (Harry, Hermione and Ron) must use each of their unique gifts to defeat evil - no single one of them could have accomplished it without the others.

Finally, I'll just say, these books are not really suitable for children under the ages of 6 or 7, not because of content, but because they're rather complex - especially with books 3 and 4, there's no way a younger child could keep track of all the twists, turns and sublots. It would be a waste of time.

And as for the magic? Don't worry, but if you do anyway, just talk to your kids about it. Explain to them that J.K. Rowling doesn't believe in wizards, witches, magic or dragons herself and has simply made up a good story here using her very fertile imagination. Explain what a ridiculous crock Wicca is. And remember - in children's literature, especially, magic functions as a metaphor. It's a metaphor for personal power. Stories in which children must deal with magic are really about the discovery of one's own gifts, talents and capability to use one's life for either good or evil. That, too, is a good jumping point for discussion.

So yes, I give a thumbs-up to Harry Potter. Not uncritical, not unqualified, but a thumbs-up nonetheless. Although I have to say, if it's magic you want, there are better books out there. My favorites are these: (Click on the covers for more information)

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