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harry potter

“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.

harry-potter-book-covers_320In 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.

Harry-potter1-disneyscreencaps.com-13520In 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

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3 replies to this post
  1. Quote: “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)

    Interesting remark and quite similar to that Tolkien makes in LOTR, when someone—I believe it is Gandalf—says that Sauron can’t grasp that anyone would possess the Ring without using it to rule the world. That proves to be his fatal flaw. He can’t imagine until the last moment that anyone would seek to destroy the Ring. He wouldn’t, therefore they won’t.
    —–
    My experience with Harry Potter was different from yours. I enjoyed the marvelous first volume as much as you, but, as I read or listened to the audiobook version of later volumes, I found they contained too much of what I saw as needless complexity. Tolkien had a complex world behind his tale, but understanding that isn’t necessary for enjoying LOTR. In contrast, I felt that, since I was unwilling to become obsessed with all those details and backstory in Harry Potter, I wasn’t able to benefit much for the larger tale. Rowlings wanted her readers to become fans in the sense of fanatics. I just wanted to read.
    —-
    I’d also love to hear your explanation of what went wrong with the last volume. My frustration with it was that it simply went on and on with the main characters in endless flight without providing any justification for that. When Tolkien hit similar situations with his wilderness marches, he hurried along, giving each day a mere paragraph or two.

    I know because in my book-length LOTR chronology, Untangling Tolkien, I had to spot and note each day-to-day transition in his tale. As C. S. Lewis noted, Tolkien is marvelous for giving us the feel of a landscape without going into a detailed description. We sense the mountains without having them described, peak by peak.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

  2. John Granger, a homeschooling father , English teacher, and Eastern Orthodox Christian, has developed a cottage industry of influences in the Harry Potter books. He originally read them so he could tell his kids why they couldn’t read them. But as he read he saw many references to Christian themes, symbols and virtue. He now lectures and writes about them in print and on his website hogwartsprofessor.com. His subjects range from English boarding school stories to the roots and meanings of medieval alchemy.

    Well worth reading–greatly enhanced subsequent readings of the series.

    Kathy Pinson

  3. I hate to disagree with you, as well as the commenters, but I do. Although, the characters are well intentioned, as a Christian parent, I have a different slant on it. I at first thought they were harmless. Since then, however, I have seen a whole generation becoming obsessed with magic. With Lord of the Rings, there was an understanding premise that with the power of magic came great responsibility, and as such was not wielded by anyone with self seeking motives. The mortal men were enslaved by the rings and became wraiths, and look at the impact it had on Bilbo and Frodo. With the onslaught of magic now, where in previous generations, children perhaps would have sought God for,advice or counsel, they now take things into their own hands. When you add in the obsession with vampires, the supernatural, and ghost hunting and channeling, it appears that an entire generation is being taught by error of omission that God is irrelevant. All you really need is the correct spell, the best technology or the most talented medium, and you can tackle the supernatural realm on your own. Why bother consulting a deity who isn’t going to understand the simple fact that you have your own expectations and desired outcome and expect things to go accordingly?

    I’ll also throw out there that I was not raised in Fundamentalist home with a very rigid literal Bible worldview. However, after seeing the effect this is having on young people, I can now totally understand why the biblical warnings against delving into the supernatural, witchcraft, etc. are so stern. If the children the series was being marketed to were raised, say, 50 years ago, their sense of right and wrong would already have been underpinned by a moral code of ethics, a golden rule you might say. In this day of relative humanism where there is no right or wrong, just expediency, what is right for me or wrong for me, I’m not sure of the effects.

    I would assume it would be difficult to explain to a child who has been raised in a culture where the end justifies the means, a concept like “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord”. I let my son watch the Harry Potter movies, and I felt happy when he didn’t like them. He felt uncomfortable with the idea that in their world, there is no God who is providing any limits on behavior, or Angels that can step into our realm to answer your prayers. You’d just better hope that if something evil goes down, you paid attention in Sorcery class, and you can protect yourself, or you have the magic equivalent of a superhero within range to step in, or you’re toast. This series actually gave me a good platform on which to explain to him why the Bible frowns on magic. You’ve turned your back on God, and are now twisting in the wind trying to save yourself and hoping you can…not a realistic life strategy for the one term in my opinion.

    And yes,I do realize it is fiction, and no one is saying that children should believe that this is real or possible. The problem though, is many of them do. We have children attempting to murder classmates in an effort to impress a fictional character, and trying to summon the devil now, because of course he offers tangible goods, and real spells, while God says “trust me”. I do think the books are well written, and imaginatively produced into film, but Christian? No, I just don’t see it.

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