Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Harry Potter controversy

So, today I read this post. Someone is querying whether or not the Harry Potter books are suitable for Christians. When book six was published, I wrote this post which outlines my own views. In a nutshell: I think they're good books, they give some positive messages, and making a huge outcry against them merely ensures they're read all the more. On the other hand, I think the hype that surrounds them is ridiculous. It's way out of proportion.

Of course the debate rages on. In a way it's very sad: how decadent we in the West have become if one of the major concerns of Christendom is whether or not our children should be able to read a currently popular book. But people have always needed this kind of issue to argue about, and Christians are not exempt. So many people want things to be black-or-white - clear guidelines as to how they 'should' behave. Christians aren't exempt from that either, despite Jesus's generally laid-back attitude to moral niggles, and his insistence that love was far more important than rules or regulations.

Back to Harry Potter. Put aside the wizarding trappings for a moment, and what is the series about? At core, it's the Cinderella story in a school setting. A very unhappy child, living a life of drudgery with some really appalling (almost Dahl-ishly grotesque) relatives, suddenly learns that he is 'different' - he's famous in another world, he has money, he can go to a new school and make friends who are like himself. So off he goes to school where he not only learns to use his gifts and to focus them for positive ends, he learns about honesty, integrity, hard work and loyalty. He comes up against some bad people and there's a classic good vs evil climax to most of the books where good is shown to be stronger than evil. Even if, sometimes, unpleasant things happen along the way.

Moreover, in book one there's a very clear message given that self-sacrificial love is the strongest force in the world.

So what of the characters?

Harry is an ordinary sort of boy, given his unusual abilities. He's not briliantly academic, he's not always well-behaved, but underneath he's a boy of strong integrity who comes up against some pretty big temptations. Compare, perhaps, with Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings, or the children in the Narnia series. Or any everyday person thrown into unusual circumstances.

Albus Dumbledore, the wise headmaster of Harry's school, is comparable with Tolkien's Gandalf - or perhaps even Lewis's Aslan, though maybe that's going too far. Anyway, we know intuitively that Prof Dumbledore can be trusted, both as a person and as a school Head. While he's there, Hogwarts is safe. He is the main force for 'good'. With him are many other trusted friends.

The evil Lord Voldemort is also rather obviously the force for evil in the series, growing ever stronger as the books progress, but partially defeated each time by Harry and his companions. There are others in the book who side with Voldemort, and some whose behaviour is uncertain. There are surprises in the books as we discover which side some people are on, and one or two who remain undecided (from the reader's point of view) at least up to the end of book five. I'm still awaiting book six.

So... in my view, it's a positive spin on children's literature. Whereas many books for teenagers these days are filled with violence and pain, abortion, divorce, incest and worse, JK Rowling has managed something completely different. Children who read these books will not become corrupted; instead they'll see the power of positive traits. Harry and friends are not too good to be true - they have plenty of faults; but those faults are minor. When it comes to the crunch, they can be trusted to support what's right.

All right, so this might all change in the last book, which apparently has some dramatic ending which nobody has yet managed to guess. Perhaps after all Harry will go over to the dark side. Perhaps he'll be killed and evil will triumph. If so, then I'll take it all back.... but in the meantime, I see these books generally as a Good Thing.

Nor am I alone. If the symbolism in the books bothers you, read this amazing article.

As a postscript, I was recently lent a series of books by Francine Rivers to read. I was told they were exciting Christian historical novels. I read some reviews, and people said they were wonderful, awesome, brilliant....

I started the first book. The first chapter was about a Jewish Christian girl caught up in the destruction of Jerusalem in the 1st century. And it goes into the most gory detail about dead bodies, blood, people dying of starvation, and general carnage. It made me feel sick so I skimmed to the end ofthe chapter. The second chapter introduces us to a German solder who's caught up in other battles, and there's even more blood, gore and unpleasantness.

I nearly gave up by the end of that chapter. I certainly couldn't get to sleep till I found some light, amusing and relaxing literature to read instead (I chose '101 dalmations'). But the friend who lent me the book told me it got better. So I've kept reading.

Now I'm over half-way through the book, and yes, it's better. But not much. The heroine is indeed charming - a tiny light amongst a cruel and immoral people. No doubt her influence will be felt in some positive way before the end of the book. But the author seems to revel in describing the lifestyles and general atrocities in Roman society. I find myself cringing, wincing, even sickened at much of what I read. And I wonder why it's necessary to go into so much unpleasant detail. We all know what Roman life was like. I certainly don't need it spelled out in vivid images.

I also find myself wondering why some Christians think JK Rowling's writing is terrible because it's about witches and wizards in a fantasy world, while Francine Rivers is considered a great writer because she's writing from a Christian perspective about a Christian girl in a realistic world. Is it really acceptable to read about extreme violence and perverted desires merely because the author is a Christian?

The Bible tells us to fill our minds with what is 'true, noble, right, pure, lovely and honourable'. This historical fiction may contain much that was true, and in the heroine the other traits are certainly present. But when I read that book, my mind is filled with what's ignoble, wrong, perverted, ugly and dishonourable. By contrast when I read Harry Potter, there may not be anything that's true in the sense of the real world, but there's plenty that's noble, right, lovely and honourable.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to let you know that I really love this article. I agree with everything that you have stated and wanted to thank you for showing me the AMAZING article that you suggested to read... it truely is one of a kind and such a relief to actually read an article that expresses exactly what I have been thinking.
Thank you and go Harry Potter