Warning: I’ve tried to be vague and keep spoilers at a minimum, but if you don’t want to know ANYTHING about the plot, be warned that this post contains allusions to themes and plot events.
Confession: I have loved the Potter series since I was 12 years old. I grew up with Rowling’s books and they continue to delight me. I cannot wait until my children are old enough to delve into the enchanting world of Harry Potter. Now, I know some folks take issue with the idea that the characters are wizards. Particularly in conservative Christian circles, the Harry Potter books have been maligned and enraged parents have demanded they be banned from school libraries. This is hard for me to understand. Few modern fictional works are built upon such a strong Christian philosophical framework as Rowling’s books. Your kids need to read them. For the sake of their souls (and I’m only being slightly hyperbolic.)
First, let’s get something out of the way. The main characters are described as wizards. True. And the school they attend is Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. That’s enough for some folks to throw them in the fire right then and there. But, an important distinction needs to be made. Sorcery in these books is not the sort of witchcraft forbidden in Holy Scripture.
The wizards in Harry Potter do not invoke evil spirits or dark forces in order to change the physical world. Rather, they possess a genetic capability, like a superpower. (No one seems to have objections to Tolkien’s Gandalf although he is a self-described wizard.) For a more in depth explanation of the differences between witchcraft as defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the sort of magic in Harry Potter, please read Karen Edmisten’s excellent post.
Now that that’s out of the way, why is it so important that your children read this series? The Harry Potter books have many virtues including a high view of the family, strong female characters, and an Aristotelian view of friendship, but I want my children to read them because as humans we learn through stories. And these stories reveal an exaltation of virtue, an orthodox view of evil, a courageous view of self-sacrificial death, and a portrayal of the beauty and strength of love.
Themes of Christian virtue carry Rowling’s characters through the tale. Bravery, loyalty, self-sacrifice, compassion; these are all presented as important traits to be sought after. Now, that’s not to say that the characters never make mistakes. Indeed, the main characters lie, abandon friends in need, and neglect their families among other grave errors. But, it is clear when they transgress that they have done wrong and they suffer the consequences.
There are no morally ambiguous or warped characters that you find yourself rooting for. This is where the Potter books differ greatly from some other fantasy works such as the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. Lyra, the main character of Pullman’s books, has an extraordinary ability to lie without detection, a skill from which she benefits and which is viewed as a positive trait.
Rowling’s series has you cheering her characters on toward virtue. No one can help loving Ron and when he really fails his friends in The Deathly Hallows, it truly breaks your heart because you so dearly wanted him to do the right thing. When he makes amends, his redemption is splendid. The characters may be flawed, but the stories make the path of virtue clear.
Like Tolkien, Rowling’s depiction of evil is incredibly Augustinian. Early Church father St. Augustine defines evil as a perversion of the good. He also emphasizes that evil is not an equal match of the Good, but far weaker. As something good becomes twisted and warped, it moves closer to nonbeing. Lord Voldemort is really a perfect example of this. As he becomes more deeply entrenched in evil, he becomes less and less human, less and less alive. The acts of murder and cruelty he carries out literally tear apart his soul making his being less whole. He is a shadow of a man.
The quest for power without goodness is truly a journey toward pathetic and grotesque brokenness as is portrayed in the King’s Cross chapter in The Deathly Hallows when Harry is face to face with a visual depiction of Voldemort’s soul. Like the White Witch in Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, evil according to the Potter books cannot even comprehend the great strength of love and is ultimately destroyed by it.
Indeed, Rowling’s works understand that love is the strongest magic of all and evil crumbles before it. Harry’s headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, explains this truth repeatedly. We can only be truly human and truly ourselves if we love, the story teaches. If we can live out self-sacrificial love, like Harry’s parents Lily and James, Harry himself, Dumbledore, and the numerous other characters willing to give their lives for those they love, we have already overcome. Sound familiar? Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).
And that brings us to a theme that Rowling returns to again and again: death. Rowling began writing the Harry Potter books as a way to process her own mother’s death and the very first chapter of the book reveals that Harry’s mother and father have been murdered, leaving him an orphan. The way Rowling deals with death in the series is just so….well, Christian. The tales emphasize that death is not the end. No, indeed. In fact, on Harry’s parents tombstone is the verse, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).
Also, although death is a complex and difficult reality, it is not presented as something to fear. There are worse things than dying, the story shows us, such as destroying one’s soul through submission to evil. Giving up your life in order to save those you love is an unbeatable “magic “of incalculable power. In the end, evil is conquered by an act of ultimate sacrifice. Love and death are intricately connected. But love, as Rowling’s story shows us, is stronger than death.
I firmly believe that every parent should be closely involved with the books and ideas their children are presented with. So read the Harry Potter books. And if you find them as compelling as I do, share them with your kids.