Harry Potter and the Dark Side

J.K. Rowling is history's richest—ever author, enjoying an incomparable global readership. With eager consumers lined up at midnight to buy her book on the date of release, she stands as the literary phenomenon of our times.

Rowling resembles no one in popularity so much as Charles Dickens, who inspired excited crowds in America to meet the packet ships from England, calling out for the next installment of the story of Little Nell. 

She also rivals Dickens in her ability to create some of the most delightful names in literature. Uriah Heep, meet Severus Snape.

Few authors today write books for adolescent boys, who readily fall away from reading and are lured to the video tube.  Daring to write long and complicated plots, Rowling doesn't underestimate her readers. Her books contain delightful inventions on almost every page:  from mail delivery owls to the winged boars (flying pigs) that grace the Hogwarts school gates. 

But huge success makes for a big target. Rowling does not lack for critics.

Some are bothered by her abundant use of adverbs, or worry about exposing very young children to the violence in the books' good vs. evil plot lines.  Occasional gross—out humor and love of annoying practical jokes dismay some adults, but meet the literary tastes of the adolescent boy.

By far the most serious criticism of the Harry Potter series comes from those Christians and Jews who believe any mention of magic in literature is completely and automatically off—limits based simply on the Biblical prohibitions against witchcraft.

I respect such critics, but I disagree with them. A few of them go overboard, muttering darkly about bargains with supernatural forces. But many are sincere and intelligent.

There is a basic difference between reading a Harry Potter book and invoking the dark forces. Casting actual spells is one thing. Reading about them while engrossed in a struggle between good and evil on the magical plane of childrens' literature is quite another.

Magic has become a literary convention of imaginative literature, positing forces for evil and forces for good, from ancient myth to the stories of today.  These days parents fearing that it will lead child readers to Satanism, suspect even the Disney version of Grimm's fairy tales. 

It was a controversy unknown to some of the best of writers in the long Western tradition of myth and fantasy. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries some were far more concerned that imagination might be killed by the utilitarian rationalism of their age.  This was Dickens' fear, personified in Ebenezer Scrooge with his hatred of the harmless amusements of ordinary people, and played out in novels like Bleak House. 

Harry Potter is not luring many souls to the Dark Side, in my estimation.  In fact, Rowling's work may be more about saving souls than tempting them with damnation.

Just as Dickens worked marvelous Christian themes of compassion, repentance and rebirth into his work without ever specifically quoting from the Gospels, Rowling can be seen as another writer in the Christian tradition, a tribute that will horrify some of her severest critics (and for all I know, may surprise even the author herself).  This idea has been explored by others, most prominently by John Granger.  

Consider the character of Albus Dumbledore, the all—powerful headmaster of Hogwarts School, home to Harry. Dumbledore's very name Albus tells us that he is a white wizard, an allegorical figure for the Deity. Over and over again, Dumbledore invites Harry into his confidence, asking him to be honest.  In every case where Harry fails to tell Dumbledore the truth, it invariably will turn out to be a mistake; something that his friend Hermione knows. Hermione reposes complete trust in Dumbledore and continually counsels Harry to do Dumbledore's will. 

In fact, the entire plot of the fifth book, Order of the Phoenix, hangs on Harry feeling cut off from contact with Dumbledore (in a dark night of the soul), rebelling against his advice, and eventually blundering into a battle with Voldemort [the Dark Lord] that costs the life of someone he loves. 

The book concludes with Harry pondering the mystery of death, another theme like truth running through the novels.  His conclusion has more to do with hope, and a confidence in things unseen, than one finds in a secular work.  In HP1 The Sorcerer's Stone, this theme is first heard in Dumbledore's statement to Harry,

'...to the well—organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.' (p. 207)  This statement is important enough for Harry to repeat it to his friends Ron and Hermione. (p. 302)

The Phoenix that Dumbledore's followers have named themselves for is a symbol of resurrection, present in Dumbledore's office in the form of his pet, Fawkes, who flies to Harry's aid in HP2 Chamber of Secrets, after Harry makes a specific statement of loyalty to Dumbledore;

'No, Harry—I fashioned myself a new name, a name I knew wizards everywhere would one day fear to speak, when I had become the greatest sorcerer in the world.'  Harry's brain seemed to have jammed . . .

'You're not, 'he said, his quiet voice full of hatred.

'Not what?' . . .

'Not the greatest sorcerer in the world,' said Harry breathing fast. 

'Sorry to disappoint you and all that, but the greatest wizard in the world is Albus Dumbledore.  Everyone says so.  Even when you were strong, you didn't dare try and take over at Hogwarts.  Dumbledore saw through you when you were at school and he still frightens you now....' (p. 314)

Far from a satanic force to be resisted, I find J.K. Rowling's novels to be valuable life—affirming and positive.

Parents are going to be offered more magically—themed fantasy stories in the near future. The science of computer—generated imagery is driving the mass entertainment market, making it possible for the first time to bring the art of fantasy literature to life on the screen as in Peter Jackson's epic interpretation of the Tolkien trilogy. 

Now, similar treatment is promised for C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia.  Thirsting, as Lewis did as a child, to re—capture and re—live the experience of the numinous (what is other worldly and, in the true meaning of the word, awesome), a whole new group of readers will be invited to move on to the books which offer more complete immersion into the world of Lewis's powerful imagery.

Christian readers learned that Lewis's magic was a vocabulary he used to open the inner eye and touch the heart with his message.  The same can be said for Rowling.

The wave of popularity being ridden by Harry Potter is a good thing for children and their parents.

J.K. Rowling is history's richest—ever author, enjoying an incomparable global readership. With eager consumers lined up at midnight to buy her book on the date of release, she stands as the literary phenomenon of our times.

Rowling resembles no one in popularity so much as Charles Dickens, who inspired excited crowds in America to meet the packet ships from England, calling out for the next installment of the story of Little Nell. 

She also rivals Dickens in her ability to create some of the most delightful names in literature. Uriah Heep, meet Severus Snape.

Few authors today write books for adolescent boys, who readily fall away from reading and are lured to the video tube.  Daring to write long and complicated plots, Rowling doesn't underestimate her readers. Her books contain delightful inventions on almost every page:  from mail delivery owls to the winged boars (flying pigs) that grace the Hogwarts school gates. 

But huge success makes for a big target. Rowling does not lack for critics.

Some are bothered by her abundant use of adverbs, or worry about exposing very young children to the violence in the books' good vs. evil plot lines.  Occasional gross—out humor and love of annoying practical jokes dismay some adults, but meet the literary tastes of the adolescent boy.

By far the most serious criticism of the Harry Potter series comes from those Christians and Jews who believe any mention of magic in literature is completely and automatically off—limits based simply on the Biblical prohibitions against witchcraft.

I respect such critics, but I disagree with them. A few of them go overboard, muttering darkly about bargains with supernatural forces. But many are sincere and intelligent.

There is a basic difference between reading a Harry Potter book and invoking the dark forces. Casting actual spells is one thing. Reading about them while engrossed in a struggle between good and evil on the magical plane of childrens' literature is quite another.

Magic has become a literary convention of imaginative literature, positing forces for evil and forces for good, from ancient myth to the stories of today.  These days parents fearing that it will lead child readers to Satanism, suspect even the Disney version of Grimm's fairy tales. 

It was a controversy unknown to some of the best of writers in the long Western tradition of myth and fantasy. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries some were far more concerned that imagination might be killed by the utilitarian rationalism of their age.  This was Dickens' fear, personified in Ebenezer Scrooge with his hatred of the harmless amusements of ordinary people, and played out in novels like Bleak House. 

Harry Potter is not luring many souls to the Dark Side, in my estimation.  In fact, Rowling's work may be more about saving souls than tempting them with damnation.

Just as Dickens worked marvelous Christian themes of compassion, repentance and rebirth into his work without ever specifically quoting from the Gospels, Rowling can be seen as another writer in the Christian tradition, a tribute that will horrify some of her severest critics (and for all I know, may surprise even the author herself).  This idea has been explored by others, most prominently by John Granger.  

Consider the character of Albus Dumbledore, the all—powerful headmaster of Hogwarts School, home to Harry. Dumbledore's very name Albus tells us that he is a white wizard, an allegorical figure for the Deity. Over and over again, Dumbledore invites Harry into his confidence, asking him to be honest.  In every case where Harry fails to tell Dumbledore the truth, it invariably will turn out to be a mistake; something that his friend Hermione knows. Hermione reposes complete trust in Dumbledore and continually counsels Harry to do Dumbledore's will. 

In fact, the entire plot of the fifth book, Order of the Phoenix, hangs on Harry feeling cut off from contact with Dumbledore (in a dark night of the soul), rebelling against his advice, and eventually blundering into a battle with Voldemort [the Dark Lord] that costs the life of someone he loves. 

The book concludes with Harry pondering the mystery of death, another theme like truth running through the novels.  His conclusion has more to do with hope, and a confidence in things unseen, than one finds in a secular work.  In HP1 The Sorcerer's Stone, this theme is first heard in Dumbledore's statement to Harry,

'...to the well—organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.' (p. 207)  This statement is important enough for Harry to repeat it to his friends Ron and Hermione. (p. 302)

The Phoenix that Dumbledore's followers have named themselves for is a symbol of resurrection, present in Dumbledore's office in the form of his pet, Fawkes, who flies to Harry's aid in HP2 Chamber of Secrets, after Harry makes a specific statement of loyalty to Dumbledore;

'No, Harry—I fashioned myself a new name, a name I knew wizards everywhere would one day fear to speak, when I had become the greatest sorcerer in the world.'  Harry's brain seemed to have jammed . . .

'You're not, 'he said, his quiet voice full of hatred.

'Not what?' . . .

'Not the greatest sorcerer in the world,' said Harry breathing fast. 

'Sorry to disappoint you and all that, but the greatest wizard in the world is Albus Dumbledore.  Everyone says so.  Even when you were strong, you didn't dare try and take over at Hogwarts.  Dumbledore saw through you when you were at school and he still frightens you now....' (p. 314)

Far from a satanic force to be resisted, I find J.K. Rowling's novels to be valuable life—affirming and positive.

Parents are going to be offered more magically—themed fantasy stories in the near future. The science of computer—generated imagery is driving the mass entertainment market, making it possible for the first time to bring the art of fantasy literature to life on the screen as in Peter Jackson's epic interpretation of the Tolkien trilogy. 

Now, similar treatment is promised for C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia.  Thirsting, as Lewis did as a child, to re—capture and re—live the experience of the numinous (what is other worldly and, in the true meaning of the word, awesome), a whole new group of readers will be invited to move on to the books which offer more complete immersion into the world of Lewis's powerful imagery.

Christian readers learned that Lewis's magic was a vocabulary he used to open the inner eye and touch the heart with his message.  The same can be said for Rowling.

The wave of popularity being ridden by Harry Potter is a good thing for children and their parents.