I envy author JK Rowling. She has stated more than once that the idea for Harry Potter just came to her as she was riding a train back in 1990. Five years later she was a clinically depressed single mother living on welfare when the first book was published. Less than a decade after that she was a billionaire. If that isn’t a rags to riches story I don’t know what is. Someone somewhere once said something to the effect that “everyone has a book inside of them”, and I have long believed that to be true for myself. I’ve always felt like there was a great idea right on the cusp of forming in my brain but it never quite has. I so want to someday have that Rowling moment, to just be driving along in my truck or traipsing through WalMart and have that awesome character or story come busting through into my consciousness. I am not even concerned with becoming wealthy or famous…I just think it would be very cool to create something that scores of people enjoy and that would last beyond my lifetime.
That definition of success certainly fits the accomplishment of Rowling and her boy wizard. The Potter series encompasses 7 novels which have been made into 8 films, with both the books & movies setting multiple records within their respective industries and making billions of dollars. My focus here is obviously the books, and I don’t think I’d be stepping out on too much of a limb to assume that children and adults will still be reading and be thoroughly enthralled by them a century from now, just as modern readers still enjoy the works of authors like Dickens, Twain, Tolkien, Bradbury and many others whose greatest achievements came long long ago. I wouldn’t go so far as to classify Potter as classic literature, but it probably comes as close as anything that has been published in the last few decades.
For the benefit of those unfamiliar and as a refresher for those whose mind may be more feeble than they care to admit, Harry Potter is, at the outset, an 11 year old boy living with his abusive aunt & uncle because his parents died when he was a baby. We find out that Harry isn’t your normal, average, run-of-the-mill pre-teen…he is a wizard. And he isn’t even your normal, average, run-of-the-mill wizard…he is The Boy Who Lived. Harry’s parents didn’t just die, they were murdered by Lord Voldemort, the most evil wizard in all of wizardry, sort of a cross between Darth Vader, Adolph Hitler, and Biff Tannen from Back to the Future. Harry is whisked away to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, where he spends the next seven years coming of age, having various adventures, and battling Voldemort, who eventually resurfaces after lying dormant for about a dozen years.
In the course of 7 books we meet a whole host of interesting characters from Rowling’s fertile imagination, but only a few are what can be called featured players. Of course there is Harry, who evolves from a sheepish young boy into a courageous, valiant hero & leader. Then there are his two best pals, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. Hermione is an intelligent, precocious, ultra driven, somewhat annoying muggle child, meaning neither of her parents are wizards. Ron is the classic sidekick…loyal & brave, yet somewhat clumsy & unaccomplished…the very essence of mediocrity. This triumvirate forms the centerpiece of the action for all of the books. Their mentor is Hogwarts’ headmaster, Professor Albus Dumbledore, a wise & gentle soul akin to Star Wars’ Yoda or Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There is also Rubeus Hagrid, a half giant that serves as the groundskeeper for Hogwarts (a little like Schneider from One Day at a Time) and becomes a trusted confidante to our young heroes-in-training, and Professor Severus Snape, the triumvirate’s nemesis reminiscent of teacher Dick Vernon in The Breakfast Club or Dean of Students Mr. Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, only a lot more bitter and pissed off for reasons we learn about in the last few volumes.
Rowling, much like her fantasy predecessors JRR Tolkien & CS Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia), masterfully creates a whole other world filled with unique characters and memorable images, but she doesn’t stop there. Harry Potter isn’t all style and no substance. Just like the famed works of Tolkien & Lewis, there is a lot of meat on the bones here, much much more than just fancy window dressing. Sure Harry Potter might be cloaked in a world of magic, potions, and spells that makes it palatable to adolescents, but underneath it all is an epic plot and a level of quality writing that easily surpasses most of what is considered modern “popular fiction”. Don’t be fooled…these books may be marketed as children’s literature, but once one gets past the first two books the tone becomes progressively darker and more mature.
I did not begin reading Harry Potter until I believe after the fourth book was published. First of all I thought it was for kids and that as a nearly 30 year old man I wouldn’t be the slightest bit interested. Secondly, I had some serious concerns relating to God & faith vs. the occult.
Let’s face it, the literary device that is the whole framework for the series is sorcery and other pagan imagery, which The Bible is very clear in warning against. Deuteronomy 18:10-12 says “there shall not be found among you anyone…who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead, for all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord.” Sorcery is one of the works of the flesh that we are warned against in the 5th chapter of Galatians. Lots of space in the Scriptures is dedicated to differentiating between darkness & light and telling us that we are to be the light in the world. 1 Thessalonians 5:5 says “You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness.” 1 John 1:5 tells us that “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.” Romans 13:12 advises to “cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.” The Gospel of John says in the 3rd chapter that “Light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”
I understand that there are many Christians who choose to stay away from or even actively campaign against things like Halloween, Harry Potter, Santa Claus, and a host of other pop culture & entertainment influences, and I appreciate their viewpoint. Some feel that such things, while harmless on the surface, serve as a sort of gateway into dabbling in much more serious & sinister activities that pull people away from God and into the abyss of darkness & sin. I am sure that isn’t an unheard of circumstance. However, as usual, I tend to look at things a bit differently. It has always been my opinion that if something as simple as a movie or rock n’ roll music or buying the occasional lottery ticket can so easily sway a person and drag them into a life of debauchery then maybe their faith wasn’t very strong to begin with. Discernment grows as one’s relationship with Christ deepens, and personally I don’t see these books as a threat. I may be wrong, I may be right, or I may be crazy.
Actually I see a lot of Christian undertones in Harry Potter. I see themes like good vs. evil, sacrifice, friendship, love, life & death, and standing up to fight for what is right. To the extent that the books deal with darkness & light, darkness is ultimately defeated. Good triumphs over evil. I still struggle with the debate, just as most Christians battle a variety of issues. It’s just that in the grand scheme of life I think there are bigger nits to pick and at the end of the day I don’t feel that my enjoyment of an extremely well written series of books threatens my faith. Your mileage may vary, and that’s okay.
I would be remiss if I didn’t atleast mention the films that have been made based on the books. Honestly I think I have only seen half of them. As is usually the case, the books are far superior to the movies. Most of the books are 500-900 pages long, so when the movies were made lots of things got left out. There are entire characters & subplots that are interesting parts of the books but never appear in the movies. That doesn’t mean they are bad movies, it just means that one shouldn’t skip the immensely pleasurable experience of reading the books.
Most Harry Potter fans would probably agree that these stories will be enjoyed for many generations to come. I suppose at some point that would qualify it as classic literature. But for now let us avoid labels and just enjoy a fun reading experience.