Most people know something of the story behind the Harry Potter novels, but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable. It begins in 1990, on a train traveling between London and Manchester, when 24-year-old Joanne Kathleen Rowling (rhymes with “bowling”) first thought of writing a story about a boy who lives in a magical universe. “Harry Potter strolled into my head fully formed,” she remembers. For the next four years Rowling made notes while living in Portugal. While on the plane to Portugal she jotted down the names of the four dorms at Hogwarts School (Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw) on an airsick bag. By 1995, a divorced mother with a daughter living “on the dole” in Scotland, Rowling completed the first book, but was too poor to make a photocopy, so she retyped the entire manuscript. Most of the book had been written at a table in a café near Rowling’s unheated apartment while her baby napped.
As she began seeking a publisher, one literary agent told her that “you won’t make any money writing children’s books.” Then, in 1997, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published by Bloomsbury in the U.K., and quickly sold 150,000 copies. (When it was published in the U.S., “Philosopher” was changed to “Sorcerer” in the title—marketers felt Americans wouldn’t purchase any book with “Philosopher” on the cover.) Not only have all four of the books (out of a projected series of seven) been bestsellers, they have set publishing records. When the much anticipated fourth volume appeared in July 2000, the first printing by Bloomsbury was 1 million copies—a British record. In the U.S., the previous first-run record had been held by John Grisham, at around 2.5 million copies; Scholastic Press printed 3.8 million copies of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. And literary agents notwithstanding, as of March 2000, Rowling’s income from the books was estimated by Forbes at $40 million—and that doesn’t count her royalties from the fourth book.
Now a movie is in the works, and the books continue to sell, enjoyed by both children and adults alike. In Great Britain they even published a special edition, minus the children’s cover, so adults could read it in public without embarrassment. “In the twenty-some-odd years that I have been pretty closely following trends in American publishing,” Wheaton College English professor Alan Jacobs says, “no development in the industry has been nearly so inexplicable to me, nor has any development made me so happy. For I adore the Harry Potter books.”
Rowling, like J.R.R. Tolkien, “simply has that mysterious gift,” Jacobs says, “so prized among storytellers and lovers of stories but so resistant to critical explication, of world-making.” To read the Harry Potter books is not merely to read an engaging story, it is to be invited into another world, consistent and complete within itself, yet very different from our own. Rowling exhibits an amazing attention to the little details of Harry’s world, usually quaint, often funny, and always interesting, that lend both charm and plausibility to the plot. It is, Jacobs says, a “thoroughly imagined universe.”
The Harry Potter novels are well-conceived and smartly-written stories, delightful to read; fantasies set in a moral universe. “The theme running through all seven books,” Rowling says, “is the fight between good and evil.” Though villains exist, Rowling’s world is neither superficial nor sentimental, and the consequences of evil are disturbingly horrible. Choices matter—even little choices. Evil resides in every heart, and like in our fallen and fragmented world, brokenness, abuse, and death haunt the footsteps of Harry and his friends.
I recently asked my daughter not to read the first four books to my granddaughter. When she is old enough for them, I said, I hoped I could be the one who reads them to her. Needless to say, I can hardly wait.
The Mirror of Erised
In the first novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, there is a wonderful episode about a mirror. I would like to use it as both an introduction to the books as well as to the controversy the series has generated in some parts of the Christian community.
Harry is in his first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and needs to stay at school over the Christmas holiday. He can’t go home because he has no family, no home where he is welcome. It’s true there is the Dursley’s, Harry’s Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia, who took him in after his parents were killed by the evil wizard Lord Voldemort, but they have never cared for or loved him. Selfish and self-centered, the Dursleys dislike Harry passionately, mistreat him cruelly, and live in fear that their respectable friends might discover he is actually related to them. Christmas has always been a lonely time at 4 Privet Drive with the Dursleys, and Harry welcomes the opportunity to remain at school.
After most of the students have left for home, Harry celebrates Christmas with his best friend, Ron Weasley. Ron has a loving family and lovely home, but his parents have gone to visit his older brother, who is studying dragons in Romania. So Ron and Harry open their gifts in their dorm room early on Christmas morning. Harry receives a small coin from the Dursleys, which is quite generous since they usually give him nothing. Ron’s mom has knitted Harry a warm emerald green sweater and enclosed a box of home-made fudge in the same package. Hagrid, the huge Hogwarts’ groundskeeper, gives Harry a hand-carved flute. And inside the final package is a wondrous, silvery gray cloak, which feels to the touch as if water were “woven into the material.” Rare and precious, it had been his father’s, an enclosed note said. It is an invisibility cloak, just the thing for an eleven year old boy with all sorts of time to explore the huge and ancient castle of Hogwarts over Christmas break.
That night, when Ron has fallen asleep, Harry drapes the invisibility cloak across his shoulders and sets off. In a long corridor on one of the top floors of the castle, Harry finds an open door, and in the room is a mirror. Propped against the wall, it reaches to the ceiling, has an ornate gold frame, and an inscription carved across the top. He looks into the mirror, and sees himself not in an empty room, but with his parents, whom he has never known for they were killed when he was still an infant. “The Potters smiled and waved at Harry,” the story goes, “and he stared hungrily back at them, his hands pressed flat against the glass as though he was hoping to fall right through it and reach them. He had a powerful kind of ache inside him, half joy, half terrible sadness.”
Harry has stumbled across the Mirror of Erised in which a person sees the very deepest yearnings of their heart. The next night Harry returns again to the mirror, but this time he is not alone, for old Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts is there waiting for him.
“Now,” asked Dumbledore, “can you think what the Mirror of Erised shows us all?”
Harry shook his head.
“Let me explain,” Dumbledore said. “The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is. Does that help?”
Harry thought. Then he said slowly, “It shows us what we want…whatever we want….”
“Yes & no,” said Dumbledore quietly. “It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. You, who have never known your family, see them standing around you…However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible. The Mirror will be moved to a new home tomorrow, Harry, and I ask you not to go looking for it again. If you ever do run across it, you will now be prepared. It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that. Now, why don’t you put that admirable cloak back on and get off to bed?”
“Sir—Professor Dumbledore? Can I ask something?”
“Obviously, you’ve just done so,” Dumbledore smiled. “You may ask me one more thing, however.”
“What do you see when you look in the mirror?”
“I? I see myself holding a pair of thick, woolen socks.”
“One can never have enough socks,” said Dumbledore. “Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.”
The Mirror of Eris?
I want to use the story of the Mirror as a place to begin thinking about these children’s books that have quite literally taken the world by storm. Though only one brief episode in an ongoing series of novels, it is representative of the books in almost every way that matters.
It is written with a wry and warm sense of humor. J. K. Rowling has a wonderful ability to capture the humor of children. Sometimes, as in this episode, she evokes a gentle smile, and sometimes she spins tales that make children laugh out loud. And not just children—I found all four books a great deal of fun. Rowling uses humor effectively, not just to draw us into the story, but she uses it redemptively as well. Laughter and wit are evidences of grace in a world where abuse and death are all too prevalent.
The story of the Mirror of Erised, though utterly fantastic, is also utterly believable. The mark of good fiction is not whether it is realistic (in the narrow sense of the term), but whether it is plausible. The Harry Potter books sweep us into a world which does not exist, except in the imagination, but it is a world which is imaginatively real. It seems right, somehow, that an invisibility cloak would feel different from ordinary cloth, as if it were a cross between fabric and some mysterious liquid. Harry’s exploration of the castle, using the cloak, is just what most eleven year old boys would do in his situation. And who wouldn’t want to discover the Mirror of Erised and have a chance to look into it?
The magic and witchcraft which are part of Harry’s world are not the stuff of the occult, but of fantasy. In Rowling’s books we read of riding on broomsticks, invisibility cloaks, owls that deliver mail, spells to turn beetles into buttons, and mirrors in which you can see your heart’s desire. Each year Harry and his fellow students must purchase their textbooks at a bookstore named Flourish and Blott’s. For the class “Care of Magical Creatures”, the required text was The Monster Book of Monsters which had to be kept in a cage. The books snapped aggressively at anything that dared to come close, and even tore one another to shreds if given the chance. The manager said he had already been bitten five times that morning. “I’m never stocking them again, never!” he exclaimed. “It’s been bedlam! I thought we’d seen the worst when we bought two hundred copies of the Invisible Book of Invisibility—cost a fortune, and we never found them.”
It’s true that Voldemort uses magic for evil in the books, and spells are cast which end in death and destruction, but this too is fantasy, not the occult. It is wrong to confuse it with the world view of neopaganism, as anyone who has both read the books and taken neopagans seriously will understand. The books “don’t have anything to do with Wicca,” Patricia Allgeier, a witch from Springfield, MO, is quoted as saying in an Associated Press report. “It’s this generation’s version of The Wizard of Oz.” They do “not portray my religious beliefs,” Chad Anctil of the Witches’ League for Public Awareness says, “it is difficult for the religion to be taken seriously when books like this portray it as magic.”
Some of this confusion comes from a failure to understand the nature of literature and the relationship between imagination and reality. Well-crafted fantasy does not seduce us from reality, but helps us to see reality more clearly. The Lord of the Rings does not make me believe in dwarves (though I believe in them as I read), but it makes me believe in the reality of a cosmic spiritual battle, and how our pilgrimage is, in fact an adventure, if we have eyes to see it. One Christian critic has said that though “Tolkien’s great character Gandalf is a powerful leader called a wizard… witchcraft plays no part in the saga.” They need to read the story again. The lightning that flashed from Gandalf’s staff was not powered by EverReady.
Even the Mirror of Erised has drawn a reaction from Christian critics. In its cover story on the books, for example, World magazine calls attention to the episode, acknowledging that Dumbledore’s advice to Harry is “wise counsel,” paralleling the teaching of Scripture. Still, they include a warning. “Eris was the Greek goddess,” the authors note, “of discord and strife.” But since it is the Mirror of Erised, not the Mirror of Eris, what does Eris have to do with it? If it is the Mirror of Eris, why is there no “discord and strife” in the episode? And since the Mirror reveals the deepest desire of one’s heart, is not a more plausible explanation of the name simply that “Erised” is “Desire,” spelled backwards?
Another criticism that has been raised is that Harry’s attitude towards the Dursleys is problematic. He doesn’t like them, doesn’t want to be with them, and tries to escape from their home whenever possible. How can he be a hero if such rebelliousness is an essential part of his character? No doubt Harry’s relationship with the Dursley’s is a painful one, and their systematic abuse of him is painful to read. Rowling’s world is not a simplistic one, where good and evil resides in carefully delineated groups, and where all the good guys wear white hats.
Rowling has created a moral universe, one in which Dumbledore’s gentle warning about the Mirror makes sense. Truth is taught here, truth that is worth some reflection and discussion, and though it is taught in an imaginary world, it applies to reality as well. The truth taught in Rowling’s fiction not only appeals to the mind but also to the heart. As in all good fiction, it is comprehended by both intellect and imagination. The world in which Harry Potter lives is a world of moral order, where ideas and choices have consequences, where good and evil are clearly distinguished, where evil is both dehumanizing and destructive, and where death is distressingly real.
The True Scandal of Harry Potter
Jerram Barrs reports that J. K. Rowling has been deeply hurt by the attack of Christians against her. They have attributed to her beliefs she does not hold, and have slandered her in print and in email. They have exhibited a defensiveness and fearfulness that is unbecoming in those who profess to believe in a Lord who has risen victorious over death and the devil. They have used technology to distribute warnings about the books which are poorly researched at best, and often false. Professor Barrs plans to write to Rowling, to apologize for the shameful way she has been treated. And he asks us all to pray that, out of the thousands of letters addressed to her each day, his will somehow get into her hands.
Even if all the critics say was true, the defensiveness of their recommendations is frankly embarrassing. If the Harry Potter novels were introductions to the occult, the church should welcome the opportunity to read and discuss them. Neopaganism is a growing reality in our post-Christian world, and our children need to be able to meet its challenge with a quiet confidence in the gospel. They need to know the difference between fantasy literature and the occult. And they need to see their elders acting righteously, not scandalously.
Please pray for Jerram Barrs’ letter to J. K. Rowling. Please learn about neopaganism. And please read and enjoy the first four volumes of the Harry Potter novels. We recommend them to you highly.
SourceInformation about J. K. Rowling and publishing from “The Return of Harry Potter!” in Newsweek (July 10, 2000) pp. 57-60).
“Wild About Harry Potter” in Time (September 20, 1999) pp. 67-72; “An Interview with J. K. Rowling” on www.scholastic.com/harrypotter/.
“There’s Something About Harry Potter” in the Pioneer Press (June 27, 2000) pp. 1A,3A.
Alan Jacobs from “Harry Potter’s Magic” by Alan Jacobs in First Things (January 2000) pp. 35-38.
The Mirror of Erised from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (pp. 194-214).
“More Clay than Potter” by Anne McCain and Susan Olasky in World (October 30, 1999) pp. 16-18).
Allgeier and Anctil from “Potter Charms Modern-Day Witches” by Deepti Hajela (Associated Press, May 30, 2000) on www.cesnur.org.