Defending Harry

Platform 9¾! Howling telegrams! Diagon Alley! From the moment I first read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's (Sorcerer's) Stone, I was hooked. Hooked to the genius of Joanne Kathleen Rowling (b July 31, 1965). Her brilliant imagination, engaging narration and amazing plots have captivated audiences across the globe, creating an extraordinary sensation and world wide phenomena to the tome industry. Thanks to the Harry Potter (HP) books, the children's publishing world is experiencing the dawn of a renaissance as children willingly abandon their Gameboys and begin to take an interest in reading. The remarkable success of the books unsurprisingly led to equally blockbusting movie adaptations. Children and adults continue to revel in the magical world of HP as their imagination soar to newer heights by leaps and bounds just as if they were on the Firebolt! The fantasy/adventure/mystery genre has never before created such a stir. As with most fantasy worlds in fairy tales written throughout the centuries, we also typically find in Rowling's books the presence of magic and witches.

Unfortunately this means that inevitably there would come along narrow-minded HP bashers or beaters (and we are not talking about Quidditch here). These critics claim the books to be evil and promoting anti-Christian ideology since they contain witchcraft, and are a bad influence to children. Some of those who make and spread such claims possibly have their own personal agendas and probably never even read a single copy of HP.

But just as there are defamers of HP, there are also fans and promoters, myself included. Jewish rabbis and Christian ministers, including Catholic priests have praised the HP books. Some ministers also use HP in their sermons. Parallels have also been made between Rowling and both CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien whose fantasy worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth respectively are filled with Christian themes.

While Rowling may not have intentionally written the HP series with spiritual themes in mind, her books (as we can also discover in many secular books and films) are nevertheless imbued with Christian morals. Parents of young children can point out these themes to them, while at the same time, help them distinguish reality from fantasy. However most children who are old enough to read HP and who have been brought up with fairy tales would, I believe, be able to determine the difference between reality and fiction.

Low Hui Chih, a teacher and Catholic parent of 2 children aged 13 and 7 says, "It all depends on how parents relate to their children. If children have a vivid imagination and start to take on the fantasy as life then you have to help them draw the line between fantasy and reality, and say 'You cannot do magic!' But we must expose them to all kinds of literature."

Both Hui Chih and her 13 year old son, Guillaume-Marc Caza are currently taking turns in reading the newly released Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. He describes the HP books not so much as a tale about magic and witchcraft but "A beautiful story of a boy who is victimised by his uncle and aunty, like being a martyr…. It's adventure, mystery, fun, friendship."

Other children who share their enthusiasm for HP also hardly emphasise the wizardry aspects of the story, like Sharon Tan, 14, "It's really exciting and funny, and if you're an adventurous person you'll love the books. I totally recommend it even for old people!"

Theresa Khoo, who has served in Children's Liturgy says, "I like it because it's fantasy, fiction, has good plots, with well rounded characters. For children as in all things, there must be guidance. Parents need to know if their kids are susceptible to influence. Harry Potter is essentially good but he is very human. Like computer games, we have to supervise children so that they don't get mesmerised by it."

When we find parents and children both enthralled by the same book, it is a grace-filled opportunity for them to communicate and strengthen their ties by discussing their shared interest. In the process, as in the case of HP, it is also an opportunity to discuss Gospel themes. In doing so, parent and child are partaking in what is called Media Spirituality - finding God and deepening their understanding and relationship with God through the media.

Some Christian/Moral Themes to look out for in Harry Potter:

Good vs Evil, Sacrificial Love, Friendship, Courage
The most evident and prevailing theme in HP is the struggle between good and evil, and the ultimate victory of the good through the power of human love and the courage and faith of the human spirit. In the very first book and a recurring point of emphasis in the series, Baby Harry survived the attack of the evil Lord Voldemort (who killed his parents) due to the power of his mother's love and her willingness to sacrifice her life for him. The theme of sacrificial love as a powerful form of magic in itself is a continual theme throughout the series. Voldemort is repeatedly defeated by Harry and his closest friends through the bond of their friendship and their combined gifts - the power of goodness implanted in Harry, the faith and loyalty of Ron, the ingenuity of Hermione, and the courage and chivalry of all three (they belong to Gryffindor after all!)

Prejudice and racism* - we are all one body in our Communion in Christ
The wizard world is composed of "pure-blood" and "half-blood" or "muggle born." Gender prejudice however is non-existent – it is taken for granted that every profession has personnel who are both male and female; even the sports teams are mixed.

Choices* - the Narrow Path that is difficult or the Broad Path that is easy
In Chamber of Secrets, Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, makes perhaps his most famous quote on this issue: "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." Through the books, Harry must repeatedly choose between what is right and what is easy, and the choices Harry must make become increasingly more difficult.

Suffering and Humility*
Harry has to spend many tedious years in the muggle world with his abusive relatives, who ill-treat him. He is the scapegoat, like the image of the suffering lamb and servant of Yahweh who is persecuted. When Harry learns that he is the famous "Boy Who Lived", he is more concerned about living up to his reputation than using it to his own advantage - a contrast to his counterpart, Draco Malfoy. Harry turns out to be a highly skilled Quidditch player with a talent for Defence Against the Dark Arts. Instead of basking in the glory of his abilities, he is humble, and even bashful, when complimented on his skills.
(* adapted from

With just a sample of some the themes found in HP listed above, many would agree with me that Rowling is unlikely to be what some of her detractors accuse her of - an advocate of sorcery or witchcraft. Her background was in education. She was a French teacher in the UK, and for a short time, an English teacher in Portugal. However before she taught, she worked longest in Amnesty International (AI) which indicates surely a compassionate, if not Christian, heart for the victims of injustice and abuse. Links in her official website do not lead to any Black Magic or Occult societies. Rather, apart from publishing and publicity links, there is a link to AI, as well as to a charity, the Multiple Sclerosis Society (she lost her mother to MS in 1990). A few years ago, Rowling donated proceeds from the sale of two companions to the HP books to Comic Relief, a charity which raises funds for the poor in Africa and in the UK.

For me, the HP books are a welcome, recreational and delightful read. Adapting the famous London Sunday Times' review on Lord of the Rings, I'd say "The world is divided into those who have read Harry Potter and those who are going to." Before we stop children from enjoying one of the greatest literary marvels of all time, which will expand their imaginative powers and widen their horizons in the process, the best thing a doubting parent could do is to first read the books themselves. Read the books starting from the first and form your own opinion, rather than rely on the opinions of others, including mine. Discover the magical, yet spiritual, world of Hoggarts! I don't think you'll regret it.

(published in the CatholicNews 22 July 2005)

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