Anthropologists, historians of religion, and professors of literature will all tell you that the rule in traditional cultures, and even in cultures such as ours, is that story, in whatever form, is meant to instruct and change us.
-John Granger, Looking for God in Harry Potter
The Harry Potter series celebrates its twentieth birthday this year. It’s been appearing on banned book lists for as long, regularly condemned for promoting witchcraft and satanism. I knew of the controversy long before I read the series – to be honest, I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in a fifth-grade classroom for the first time about fifteen years ago, read the first couple of pages, and wasn’t especially gripped either way. Not until Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was about to be released did I take the real plunge. I had attended a conference with a group of children’s lit MFA candidates, who described the coming of the final book and their anticipation of it with eyes gleaming like those of beatified saints:
“I ordered it and when it’s delivered, I am going to lock myself in the bedroom – I told my family not to bother me, I am going to be reading this book, and I need to be left alone.”
I swear I saw tears shimmering in their wide eyes.
So, with a just month to go before the release date, I read all six preceding books, even went to Barnes and Noble to get my own copy of Deathly Hallows at midnight on the release date.
In short: The books are magical, all right, but not in the sense of spells, wands, sorcery. These appear in the books but aren’t the real draw, are not what the books are really about. The draw – the thing that puts the gleam in the diehard fan’s eye – is caring about the characters, the needing to know what’s going to happen to them. The age-old theme of good versus evil, making choices to preserve life or to destroy it. The big umbrella from which the stories hang is love – think of why Voldemort really cannot win in the end.
What we take away from the Potter books is that as long as as there is love, there’s hope. A young boy with a lot of hard knocks in his early life is willing to sacrifice himself to save others. He’s successful, and because he is, in his not-exactly-perfect-hero example, we know we can be, too. After all, he’s just a child.
The books don’t entice children to practice magic; they entice readers to be their better selves, to strive, to overcome darkness within and without.
I was an avid reader ever since I can remember. Every summer when I stayed with my grandmother in the far, coastal reaches of North Carolina, she took me to the tiny, dusty county library. I checked out stacks of books, more than I could carry by myself – Grandma had to help. One year I saw a title that compelled me. I had heard about the movie, that people at my church said it was really bad; I knew people were afraid of it. Naturally, it piqued my interest. I put the book in my stack and, wonder of wonders, Grandma didn’t notice, or I surely wouldn’t have been allowed to have it.
That book was The Exorcist.
It was well beyond my developmental level, to say the least, and it was the first cover I opened when I got back to Grandma’s house. After maybe four minutes of attempting to decode words with multisyllabic chunking, before I even knew that was a real strategy, I was horrified by the images I could and did glean. I closed the cover and hid the book from my sight, fervently wishing I could just leave it outside until the return trip to the library.
I was maybe ten years old.
What I learned at that young age is that you have to be your own judge.
This is something that Harry does exceedingly well.
Every book that we read changes us; we take away some learning, some new thinking, some depth of emotion. Agreeing or disagreeing with the content, our given tastes in that regard, are not primary considerations – our freedom to decide is. We must be careful of what we are advocating – for, if a book containing stories of magic, sorcery, and evil acts should be banned, then that includes the Bible itself.