Back when the Harry Potter books were still being written, there was a lot of discussion in my circle about the appropriateness of the books for Christian families. Homeschoolers seemed especially wary of the books, which (in case you have been under a rock for the last 17 years) follow the story of a young orphan boy who, at the age of 11, discovers he is a wizard. He is invited to attend Hogwarts, a prestigious school for wizards, rather than whatever school his neglectful aunt and uncle have planned for him, and when he arrives at the hidden-from-muggles’-eyes world of wizards, he discovers that he is rather famous. His parents were not killed in a car accident, but were murdered by an evil wizard named Voldemort, who in turn attempted to kill Harry. However, Harry lived by some miracle, and is now considered to be the answer to a prophecy about the defeat of Voldemort. The seven books follow his seven years of eligible attendance at Hogwarts, from ages 11 to 18. During his time at Hogwarts, Harry learns how to use his innate magical abilities and winds up having all kinds of adventures, even though he merely wants to be a normal boy. (Well, normal for a wizard, anyway.)
I had friends and family whose kids were gobbling up the books, even in elementary school. It was presented as a children’s series, and most parents trust the library to put the books in the appropriate section of the library. I was never quite that easy-going about books for my girls, though, and preferred to read what they would be reading first. (As they’ve hit their teen years, this has become nearly impossible. I can’t keep up with them, but have to trust them that they aren’t reading completely inappropriate material. Neither has any desire to read smutty stuff, so I try not to worry too much.)
But Harry was different. There seemed to be this huge divide between parents who let their kids read it because they saw it as good, clean fun and parents who absolutely refused to let their kids near it because it dealt with witches and wizards and magic. A lot of Christian homeschoolers were adamant that it was a sure way to ruin your child if you let her read the books. Some Catholics wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger when he was head of CDF and asked him if it was appropriate to let kids read books that taught them how to perform magic spells and lured them into the occult. Naturally, Cardinal Ratzinger said such books would be a terrible thing to give to a child. But then I found a blog by Nancy Brown where she talked about Harry Potter as a great read and a fine series to give to your children. She had even written a book called The Mystery of Harry Potter: A Catholic Family Guide. She reasoned that the book series was not about luring children into the occult, but a fantasy tale about people who were born as wizards and witches; there was nothing that non-magical people (Muggles) could do to make themselves into witches and wizards.
After reading both sides of the argument, I finally decided I would read the books myself. My older daughter, who was almost 9, had been begging to read the books because her cousin (who is 18 months older) had read all six that had come out. The final book was due to be released later that year, so I decided I would find out for myself what the books were about. After all, I had a reasonably well-formed conscience, and I would be able to reject anything overtly evil. One of my girls had caught the flu, so I could only do school for one. I had the time! I picked up the first book from the library and brought it home with me.
Once school was done for the day and my sick girl was settled in for a nap, I opened up the book.
“Chapter One: The Boy Who Lived
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense. …”
The book was easy enough to read, and I found the story engaging. The Dursleys were hilariously, purposefully ignorant of things they did not wish to see. And as I read on, I found I couldn’t put the book down. I saw interesting characters who struggled with friendship (or the lack thereof) and doing right in the face of evil. They were not perfect, but you could see a definite tendency toward doing good in the three main characters: Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Yes, they learned some simple magic spells, but, for the most part, it was a matter of concentrating and speaking the charm words. And the book was rather insistent: unless you were a magical person, you would not be able to do magic. As if to emphasize this point, one of the adults at Hogwarts was born to magical parents and had no magic in him at all. Called a “squib,” this man could no more perform magic spells than you or I could fly. I breezed through the first book and returned to the library the next day to get books 2 and 3. By the time I’d finished book 2, the flu had passed from one daughter to the other, and I had plenty of time to read the book about Harry’s third year at Hogwarts between school lessons. By the time I’d gone back to the library to return those books, I decided that I needed to just get the books about years 4, 5, and 6 all at once. It’s a good thing I did, too. I wound up getting the flu next, and read the final two books while weakly directing the girls in the few lessons I could teach. School was heavily supplemented by Veggie Tales and Schoolhouse Rock that week. When I’d recovered, I returned the books to the library and put myself on the waiting list for the final Harry Potter book. II felt like I was going to die from anticipation, and wondered aloud how anyone waited years between books without committing hari-kari.
I had also come to a decision about Harry and my girls. I was fine with them reading the books, but not all at once. I felt like some of the themes as Harry and his friends got older became too mature for my elementary-aged children. I made the decision that they could read Harry Potter books when they were the same age as Harry in that book. So on her eleventh birthday, my older daughter was presented with a hard-cover copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which would be a family copy of the book. Each year on her birthday, we added the next volume to our collection. I kept this up,letting our younger daughter start on her eleventh birthday, as well, until our older daughter finished eighth grade. It was at that point that we decided she could finish the series, and we checked out the final couple of books from the library for her. She poured through them in a flash!
When it came to the movies, we took a slightly different tack. The year our older daughter finished the series, the final movie was out on DVD. We consented to allow our younger daughter, who had just read book the first two books, to watch the first six movies with us. We felt as if it would not spoil the plot too much for her, and the movies had left out much of the more-mature content that we worried about in the books. When we went on a family vacation, we brought along all eight DVDs and watched the movies with our girls (except for the final two, which we only shared with our older daughter, who had just finished the final book).
This summer, our younger daughter got to finish the series. Needless to say, she loved it! Not only that, but she has gone back and re-read the entire series again. (This is actually something I need to do in preparation for watching all 8 movies on our family vacation next month.) The morning after she finished the final book, she walked around in a daze. We called it a book hangover.
I came to learn that when J.K. Rowling wrote the books, she wrote each one for an audience that was the same age as Harry. This knowledge reinforced my decision to limit which books the girls could read until I felt that they were mature enough to handle the plots of the later books.
Now that I’ve explained how we went about letting our children read Harry Potter, I want to talk a bit about why we let them read it. We’re protective parents. We’re serious Catholics. We homeschool. We are adamant about not exposing our girls to things that will put their souls at risk. And yet we decided long ago that Harry was allowed in our house.
I did not take lightly the accusations that Harry Potter books leaned toward the occult. I’m always watchful things that might expose my children to evil, and this was the biggest complaint against the series. What I discovered upon reading the books is that magic is not the point of the series. Instead, the books are about overcoming your faults, friendship, love, courage, and a good old-fashioned good-versus-evil plot that winds throughout all seven books. Christians worried about the “white magic” (a term used in articles about Harry Potter but not in the books themselves) have nothing to worry about. The books aren’t how-to manuals for magic — in fact, the “spells” cast are usually Latin phrases that sum up the intended action of the witch or wizard casting it. And magic isn’t even the main plot of the series, but a fantasy background to a story that is about how Harry learns to deal with his fame, his powers, and the growing threat to not only himself, but his friends, as well.
At the center of the entire series is the fight of good against evil. Harry isn’t perfect, but he tries to do good. His terrible childhood has made him into someone who sympathizes with the weak, and this sympathy keeps his temper (and he can have a terrible temper) in check. There are times he does something he shouldn’t and attempts to justify it with the good ends that he is working towards, but that doesn’t always fly (especially with Hermione, the most straight-laced of Harry’s friends). And he has to learn that his fame among the wizarding world for surviving the attack on him as an infant has both positive and negative impacts on him (as well as how to deal with both).
Another aspect of the books that shines forth is the idea that life is good. We’re not just talking about Harry’s life, but all life is held up as good. Harry does not want to do evil, and as his powers develop and the books’ plots grow darker, he demonstrates time and again that he is unwilling to kill anyone — to do so would mean he is no better than the wizard who killed his parents when he was only an infant. His best friend Ron comes from a big, happy family of nine (seven children and their happily married parents) whose joyfully messy homelife is a pleasure to experience. Molly, Ron’s mother, is a force to be reckoned with, and she runs her home with efficiency and love in exactly the right mix. One thing I noticed about the book is that the happiest people were the ones who were most joyful about life and family — the ones, if I might put the Catholic spin on it, who were most open to life. The more closed off the people were to life, the more miserable they seemed to be. The Dursleys had one child, and they were a most miserable lot. The Malfoys, another family with only one child, seemed to have less love to give than anyone. The Weasleys had a big family and always seemed to have more love to go around than anyone else. (I’ll say this now: Molly Weasley is my hero. She was my favorite character in the books: an unassuming mother of seven who turns out to be a pretty badass witch.)
More than anything else, though, the Harry Potter series is about sacrificial love. Without giving away too much of the plot, Harry demonstrates again and again a willingness to put himself in danger if it means saving his friends. In this way, Harry really is a Christ-figure. (And no, he’s not perfect. He’s not Jesus Himself but a figure who is like Christ.) And Harry is not the only figure who gives himself in sacrificial love, either. Many of the characters who surround him as he acclimates himself to Hogwarts and the world of magic demonstrate this same kind of love towards others.
If you’ve been avoiding Harry Potter for your family, but haven’t read it, I encourage you to do what I did. Pick up the series and read it for yourself, then make the decision. If your conscience is well-formed, you’ll be able to sift through the stories and see what they’re about. I don’t think everyone will agree with me (I’m sure some parents will still be uncomfortable with the whole thing), but I do believe that people should at least read the first few books, if not all of them, before they make a final decision. See for yourself what all the fuss has been about for all these years.