“Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing that Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves a mark.”—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997)
Sometime around the year 2000, I was flying to Houston. On the way to the Detroit airport, I stopped at a grocery store in Ann Arbor. This was pre-9/11, and I stocked up on some drinks and food to take on the relatively long Detroit-Houston flight. In the check-out line, next to the horrific tabloids and child-candy bait were a stack of mass-market paperbacks with the interesting name, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The cover was rather plain, but I was taken by the title. Having nothing else to read at the moment, I grabbed a copy. From the moment I sat down for that flight, I found myself utterly immersed in J.K. Rowling’s world.
In part, my interest was purely academic. I was already writing a book on J.R.R. Tolkien, and I found this new book a wonder. Tolkien had argued that fantasy could never be set in the modern world as the technology of the modern era would ruin the atmosphere. While I would never claim that Ms. Rowling’s writing to be at the level of Tolkien’s (not even on the same plane of existence!), I was taken with the author’s ability to set such a profoundly imaginary world in the midst of our own whirligig.
In equal part, however, my interest was purely selfish. I found the book absorbing at the level of pure gut-entertainment. The cleverness of it all, the character stereotypes, the Arthurian element of Harry, the inventions, the heroism. From the outset, it seemed rather clear to me that Ms. Rowling knew her mythology—Celtic, Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and classical—and that a sense of Christian charity and justice pervaded the book.
Immediately after devouring the first book, I bought and dove into the second and third and eagerly awaited the fourth. I not only purchased but read, within a day of their individual releases, the fourth, fifth, and sixth books. Each one brought something new to the mythos as a whole, and I found myself a privileged member of this fantastic world. Then came number seven. Released on July 21, 2007, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows bored and disappointed me as much as the previous six had enthralled me. The ending of the entire series, I thought, was nothing but cheap. It went against almost everything the story had created and advocated in the first six stories. Where was the heroism, the loyalty, and the justice that had seeped through and pervaded every page of every other book Ms. Rowling had published? Where was the mystery, the wonder, and the deep humanity of it all? My disappointment in the final book soured me. Whereas I had given serious thought to writing something long and scholarly on the series (for what it would have been worth!), devoting a few years to the task, I found myself beyond disappointment at the end of the summer of 2007. Indeed, I felt utterly apathetic about the subject.
I had hardly given J.K. Rowling or Potter another thought until about six weeks ago. My fourth child, ironically enough named Harry (age ten), had just picked up the first of the series. The infectious delight of it all—the boy, the school, the magic, the friendships—radiated from my Harry’s eyes as he read, giggled, grimaced, and kept reading.
Our Harry is his very much his own person, but he also wanted to share this new joy with all of us. To do so, he started a Saturday Birzer family book club.
In an exclusive interview with this young reader, Harry told me: “I love the books because they’re full of magic. And, I’m a nerd, and I love everything science fiction and fantasy. Plus, they’re just awesome.”
Maybe enough time had passed since my disillusionment and apathy, or maybe I was just thrilled to see my Harry devour books with such intensity. Whatever the reason, almost a decade after forgetting the whole thing, I picked up the Harry Potter books again. Two weeks into my re-reading, I am somewhere in the middle of the third book. It all feels very fresh and clever again.
Whatever J.K. Rowling’s own political, cultural, and social stances as expressed may be— her retroactively labeling the main mentor-wizard of the Potter series a homosexual and her disappointment with the previous pope give clues to her leftist leanings—the books are, for the most part, deeply traditionalist and humane. Perhaps even more deeply, they are Christian.
In the time-tested tradition of western heroes, Harry suffers immense loss as a baby. An evil wizard has killed his parents. Orphaned, Harry grows up friendless, neglected, and abused by his mom’s wickedly gossipy relatives, a “Muggle” (ordinary) family. Yet, this ordinary family is deeply dysfunctional. Relatively middle class and lacking in any imagination, the father, tellingly, makes drill bits. He is, rather happily, a cog in the machine of modernity. The family craves the latest luxuries, repeat the conformist drivel they hear all around them, and desire nothing more than to be equal but slightly better off than their neighbors.
When clever and resilient Harry discovers at the age of eleven that his parents were wizards and that he is one as well, his destiny as a unique and powerful person becomes apparent. Gaining several close friends and attending a school for wizards, Harry finds himself in increasingly dangerous situations. Whatever his mischievous (and often quite normal boyish) faults, Harry never fails when it comes to loyalty or behaving heroically. Through the first three books, Ms. Rowling reveals—explicitly and implicitly—that her magical world is a traditional Socratic and Judeo-Christian world based on the seven traditional virtues and ethics and that our modern world is based on power and manipulation. The evil, in Rowling’s magical world, have been conned into believing that power and manipulation transcend love and will work in the magical world as well. Such action, however, only leads to their own condemnation.
In one of her more explicitly Catholic moments, the main evil character in the story kills and drinks the blood of a unicorn. “The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price,” one character explains. “You have slain something pure and defenceless to save yourself and you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips.”
It would be difficult to find a more interesting Pauline (1 Corinthians 11:29) moment in modern children’s literature.
At the end of the first story, Harry is justly rewarded for his heroism throughout the book. And, yet, as with real life, not all is well. School is out for the summer, and he must return to live with his Muggle family for three months, an excruciating period that ensures he will never take himself too seriously.
Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.