Cover Story

More clay than Potter

Placing 1, 2, and 3 on the bestseller charts, children's literature sensation Harry Potter increasingly descends into darkness, raising concerns of parents and school boards around the country. Moral ambiguity and alienation of youth are strong themes in the series, which are wrongly marketed as modern successors to The Chronicles of Narnia. Unlike biblical stories, in Potter's world bad things seem to happen for no reason.

Issue: "More clay than Potter," Oct. 30, 1999

and Susan Olasky For the past two months, a skinny, dark-haired orphan with a lightning-bolt scar on his forehead has taken over the New York Times bestseller list. The boy, Harry Potter, is the invention of British writer J.K. Rowling, who has made publishing history this fall by grabbing the top three spots on the bestseller list with her children's books, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. More than 8 million copies of the books have been sold in the United States alone. Harry is a young wizard who attends the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; his parents were murdered. Each of the books in the series-Joanne Rowling plans seven-chronicles one of Harry's school years at Hogwarts. Harry interacts with many fascinating characters in a series of magical adventures. The books, often compared to those of Roald Dahl, are suspenseful and humorous, but the second and third ones are increasingly dark, and maybe the comparison should be to the tangled terrain and psychology of Batman movies. The big debate in literary circles last month was whether children's books should be eligible for the prestigious Times list; a win, place, and show by one author brings out the envy in many. The newly emerging question, though, is whether Harry's world is a good one for the intended 8- to 12-year-old audience. The American Library Association is now reporting four serious challenges-in South Carolina, Michigan, Minnesota, and New York-to use of the books in schools. On Oct. 12, the South Carolina Board of Education agreed to review the suitability of all three Harry Potter books for classroom use. Elizabeth Mounce, a parent who addressed the board, said, "The books have a serious tone of death, hate, lack of respect, and sheer evil." A member of the board, Clarence Dickert, agreed, saying that "censorship is an ugly word, but it is not as ugly as what I've heard this morning." To many readers the books' fictitious world of witchcraft seems harmless. Ms. Rowling has simply taken some traditional stereotypes of witchcraft, such as flying broomsticks, and incorporated them into her created fantasy world. This safety, this apparent harmlessness, may create a problem by putting a smiling mask on evil. A reader drawn in would find that the real world of witchcraft is not Harry Potter's world. Neither attractive nor harmless, it is powerful and evil. That's the most obvious concern about the books, but others may go deeper. The parallel society Ms. Rowling creates-within England but invisible to its ordinary inhabitants-is both fantastic and mundane. Students have to study and take tests in their magic classes, and Harry has to practice long hours flying on his broomstick in order to be good at the school sport Quidditch. These mundane elements make the stories seem more real. The magical elements, though, throw a relativistic curve ball. The rules of the wizard world are rarely solid and steadfast, and nothing is as it appears. In book two, Harry and Ron are able to transform themselves so they look like friends of their enemy, who thus gives them secret information. In book three a favorite teacher becomes a werewolf, a pet rat is actually an evil villain, and a convicted murderer is really a self-sacrificing godfather. The implicit message is that your friend may be your enemy, the person you are talking to might be someone else, and even your pet cannot be trusted. It's a message that rings true to many children of divorce, who learn early on that wedding vows are made to be broken and love almost arbitrarily turns to hatred. Other dark elements, especially in Potter books two and three, are downright creepy. Book two spotlights a disturbing character named Dobby who bangs his head hard against walls and floors as self-punishment when he disobeys his master. Book three tells of horrible creatures called dementors (dementia, get it?) that suck every happy memory and thought from characters so they are left with only painful memories and negative thoughts. When dementors approach Harry, he can recall the screams of his mother dying to protect him, as his parents are killed by their best friend (or so it seems). Ms. Rowling has a real knack for description-being around a dementor seems to be a pretty accurate description of depression. She also has a sharp wit-the way to combat a dementor is by eating chocolate! But her writing talents may be under the sway of her own dementors, and in an interview with Time Ms. Rowling said the books will become darker yet as the series progresses. "There will be deaths," she says, for "the only way to show how evil it is to take a life is to kill someone the reader cares about." The gospels are centered on the evil taking of an innocent life, and Harry Potter books can give Bible-conscious parents an enjoyable opportunity to teach older children how to think critically. Truths sprinkled throughout the books are "trail markers" that can be used to point to God. For example, in the first book Harry comes across the Mirror of Erised. (Eris was the Greek goddess of discord and strife.) When a person gazes into the mirror, he sees his deepest longings fulfilled. When Harry looks, he sees his family; as an orphan, his deepest longing is for his mom and dad. When Professor Dumbledore, the Hogwarts headmaster, discovers Harry looking into the mirror, he offers him the wise counsel of not spending too much time with it since "the mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen." Dumbledore encourages Harry to be content with what he has, not spend his life wishing for what he hasn't. The Bible teaches that contentment accompanied with godliness is great gain. This mirror episode provides an opportunity for discussing the value of contentment, and of the great gain in pursuing God as our deepest longing. What would each of us see if we were to look in the Mirror of Erised? Another trail marker comes at the end of book two, when Harry discovers that he has many of the same abilities as the archvillain Voldemort. Harry is disturbed by the thought of being lumped in the same category as his enemy. But Dumbledore offers him wise counsel: "It is our choices, Harry, that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities." Scripture teaches that our actions flow from the heart, our "choice-making center." What we do and choose, not our abilities, shows our godliness or sinfulness. Voldemort is truly evil, and Dumbledore is wise in a wonderful, grandfatherly way. Most of the other characters are more mixed, which again is a trail marker. Scripture teaches that we as humans are totally depraved but yet, by God's sanctifying or common grace, we sometimes choose to do good. Harry, the hero, has many good qualities. Yet, he is not always a shining example of virtue. He does not love his enemies-often he returns hurt for hurt. Harry is always trying to put one over on the Dursleys, the mean relatives who took him in after his parents died. But the depiction of the Dursleys and other "Muggles"-common folk without imagination-is also one of the warning signs about the Harry Potter books. Scholastic Press, their U.S. publisher, links them to The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. But C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, creators of the seven Narnia tales and the four volumes set in Middle Earth, depicted common folks (Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, Sam Gamgee and his dad) as the salt of the earth. Ms. Rowling depicts them as clueless irritants, the way an alienated child sees parents. The worst of the Muggles, the Dursleys, are said to have "a medieval attitude toward magic." In book two students learn that their school was built 1,000 years ago "far from prying Muggle eyes, for it was an age when magic was feared by common people, and witches and wizards suffered much persecution." Who disapproved of magic in the middle ages? The church. Narnia and Middle Earth are also better worlds for a child's imagination than Harry Potter's because in them a great cosmic struggle between good and evil is taking place, and the difference between good and evil is clear: Tolkien's great character Gandalf is a powerful leader called a wizard, but witchcraft plays no part in the saga. In comparison, Harry Potter's topsy-turvy moral universe is confusing. That confusion, however, may make the series a hit in a confused culture. Harry Potter is a perfect modern hero for alienated youth. He is an orphan who hates, and is hated by, his adoptive parents. He has talents his parents don't recognize. He makes his own way, directed by his feelings and his friendships, but not by any written moral code. The big sales of Harry Potter books are the culmination of a long-growing movement in children's literature and American culture generally to make "tweens"-8- to 14-year-olds-grow up faster. This is not to say that children that age should be unacquainted with the consequences of original sin among adults. If families read the Bible night after night, children will hear of brains smashed or eyes being gouged out. In the Bible, though, bad things happen for a purpose, and that's very different from today's sophisticated kids' books that show things happening for no reason, and without much rhyme. -Anne McCain is director of children's education at Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Charlottesville, Va.

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