I first read a Harry Potter novel so I could explain to my older daughter why we don’t read junk like that. As father to seven children whom we educate at home, I decided we wouldn’t have anything to do with Harry after a coworker had recommended these stories (with no little enthusiasm!) about an English boy who goes to a school to learn witchcraft and wizardry.
We don’t watch television, so I was unaware of the controversy about the books in the Christian community, but I didn’t need much guidance to figure this out. The title of the first book included the word sorcerer, and this seemed sufficient to me to keep it out of my home. Alas, our pediatrician (and Baptist mother of four) gave a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to Hannah, then 12, and I was obliged to read it or just a few pages in order to point out its failings as literature and edifying reading. I mean, advocating witchcraft … as a Christian, this seemed a no-brainer.
I sat down with the beat-up paperback when the children were finally in bed and expected to be in bed myself in a few minutes. Instead, I was up the better part of the night enjoying the best story I had read in many years. The next day I told Hannah she could read Harry — in fact, I told her to start reading the book that day. I bought the other books in the series, apologized to my co-worker for disregarding her recommendation, and read the first chapters of the first book aloud that night to my other children.
What caused my aboutface on Harry? First, there isn’t any sorcery or invocational magic in Harry Potter (the American publisher changed the original title, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, because he felt Americans would not buy a book with philosophy in the title). Objections to the witchcraft in Harry Potter are unfounded because the incantational magic of literature has nothing to do with the occult.
As important for me, though, was the depth and evidently Christian meaning of the stories. I didn’t know then what I have learned since — that the author, J.K. Rowling, has an honors degree in classics from the University of Exeter and is Church of Scotland in her faith (Presbyterian). The author’s faith, intelligence, and classical training come shining through her stories. In the best tradition of English literature, which until very recently has been Christian literature written by Christians for Christians, Rowling instructs while delighting and baptizes the imagination.
I confess to being more than a little surprised when I learned that other readers had trouble seeing past the title to enjoy the delightful characters and drama. I realized then that I was able to see what the author was doing because I look through the same prescription eye glasses she does. Like Rowling, I love the Great Books, have an honors degree in classics, and I grew up in the Anglican communion (the American Episcopal Church). I could see the literary spellwork she was performing in these adventure-mystery tales because I could understand the literary references and formulas, recognize the Christian imagery and symbols, and translate the Latin spells.
The most interesting thing about these books for me, however, isn’t the artistry and faith of the author, though I find them remarkable, to say the least. Father Don Peter Fleetwood of the Pontifical Council for Culture and many other literate Catholics have noted the Christian meaning and goodness of these books. What stays with me is the salutary effect these books have had on my children.
C. S. Lewis once explained the bad behavior of one of his child characters as being the unhappy result of the boy’s “not having read the right books,” namely, stories about knights in shining armor slaying dragons and rescuing fair maidens. My children love King Arthur and Robin Hood (especially the Howard Pyle versions) and our yard often has several of them acting out their favorite stories from these books as well as Harry Potter. I think my neighbors know all the spells in the books from hearing the Granger kids yell them across the lawn. “Expecto Patronum!”
I didn’t think much about this until the day I had to leave some papers with an unpleasant business associate. My 10-year-old daughter Sophia was with me in the van on the way to her violin lesson, and she could tell when we pulled into the business’s parking lot that I was uncomfortable about the man I was going to see, however brief our meeting would be. She asked me why I looked upset and I explained that I was just nervous about my errand, but that I would be right out to take her to her lesson.
She got out of the van with me, I assumed to rollerblade around the empty parking lot. No, she was determined to come in with me and skated up to the door. “Of course, I’m coming with you,” she said. “You know, Daddy, just like Harry Potter; friends don’t let friends face danger by themselves.”
My children are reading the right books. Entering the building with my daughter and comrade- in-arms, I had to think that the Harry Potter novels are some of the best. CD
Christian clues in Harry Potter
In his book Finding God in Harry Potter, John Granger illuminates some of the striking examples of Christian meaning in the series. Here is a small sampling:
- A Gryffindor, the name of Harry’s dormitory, has Christian implications: It is named after its founder Godric Gryffindor, whose first name means godly or worshipful, and it contains the word griffin, a mythological figure and common symbol for Christ (like Christ, the griffin has both an earthly and a heavenly nature; it is half lion and half eagle).
- A Slytherin, the dormitory of Harry’s enemies, bears the mascot of a serpent. The villain of the books, who is also associated with Slytherin, is Lord Voldemort, who has serpentine features as well as a pet snake.
- The books recount a constant battle between good and evil, not only between characters,
but also within Harry himself. Harry is depicted as the counterpoint and figurative twin to Voldemort, the villain of the series.Thus the protagonist struggles, as do all humans,
between the good and evil in one’s own nature.
- Harry is a name affiliated with royalty — several English kings bore the name — and, therefore, with being the heir to a great kingdom. Harry’s last name, Potter, may be viewed as a reference to God, who is sometimes called “the potter” in the Bible (e.g. Isaiah 64:8). Pronounced, potter also sounds like the Latin pater for father, as in God the Father. Harry Potter may therefore be read as Heir to the Father. Granger writes, “Harry Potter is not the Son of God as Jesus Christ is, but in the manner that you and I are sons of God. Harry is the fallen man seeking to be both image and likeness of God.”
Editor’s Note: As the Harry Potter series progresses, and a final confrontation between the forces of good and evil approaches, the books (and films) become increasingly dark, rendering them less suitable for young children despite the series’ overall themes of justice, love, self-sacrifice, and friendship. Catholic Digest advises parents to preview the books and films, or read relevant reviews, to determine their appropriateness for their children and teens. To read the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ reviews of the Harry Potter films, click here and search under “Harry.” For the Catholic News Service review of Part II of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, now out in theaters, rated PG-13, and classified A-II (adults and adolescents) by The Catholic News Service, click here.