If accusations of promoting witchcraft and being in league with demonic forces sound like seventeenth century fare, it is because that is where such accusations belong. And yet such claims have been levied against “Harry Potter” author J. K. Rowling since the first of her wildly popular books came to the attention of some more conservative individuals. A neutral reader, however, would not find much–if any–religious or political charge to these novels; rather, he or she might find that the stories contain many valuable lessons about friendship, honesty, personal values, and the constant struggle between right and wrong.
If it can be agreed that the Harry Potter series was not written to twist children’s moral values, then, how suited is the subject matter to the children who are interested in reading these books? Have the books had a positive effect on the children who have read them? What contributions, if any, have they made to children’s literature? Do the remarks of the series’ critics have any validity? A tremendous amount of discussion exists on these Harry Potter issues. However, based on the literature, it appears that, the Harry Potter series does more good overall than harm by its existence.
The Morals of Harry Potter One of the strongest and most repeated arguments against the Harry Potter series is that it erodes the moral fiber of the youth who read them. The claims made are often vague and past-thinking in their construction. The novels are about wizards, the critics emphasize, and wizards sell their souls to the Devil. Given today’s culture, however, and the relative sophistication of today’s children, how logical is it to assume that Harry Potter influences the moral fiber of children at all?
In an era in which a child can turn on a television and see a murder at any time of day, in which simple computers are designed for toddlers to use, and in which even pre-teenagers are abusing drugs and having sexual relationships, can this series of books have that dramatic an effect on children’s morals? The fact is that the Harry Potter books do contain a great deal of Christian symbols and symbolism. According to Nancy Carpentier Brown, in the final book Harry and Ron a “baptized” in water after which Harry is saved by Ron (3). In addition, the cross makes a number of appearances in the series.
The Sword of Gryffindor is an important recurring symbol of loyalty; it may be no accident that the sword has often been used as a symbol of the Christian cross. In addition, after one of the main characters is buried, Harry gouges a cross into the bark of a tree to mark the burial place (Brown 3). In addition to the sword and cross parallel, the Christmas holiday is featured in every book of the series. While the secular aspects of the holiday are those that take precedent, in the final book Harry and Hermione seek out the graveyard in which his parents are buried.
Although it is previously mentioned that only one all-magical village still exists in England, if Muggles are present in the village they are apparently aware of its magical history. When Harry and Hermione read from Bathilda Bagshot’s book, A History of Magic, they learn that Godric’s Hollow is one of several mixed Muggle and Wizard communities that “were notable homes to knots of Wizarding families who lived alongside tolerant and sometimes Confunded Muggles” (Rowling 319). In this village, Harry and Hermione hear a service being held at a Christian church, while they seek out his parents graves in the graveyard next to it.
Even if it could be argued that the cemetery might simply be communal, Biblical inscriptions are present on wizard tombstones. The stone marking the grave of Harry’s parents is marked with the Biblical passage I Corinthians 15:26, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death (Rowling 328) and the stone marking the grave of Dumbledore’s sister is marked with the Biblical passage Matthew 6:21, “Where you treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Rowling 326). But even with this symbolism, does the Harry Potter series really make a statement about morality?
Yes, according to Robert Needlman, M. D. , who emphasizes that the moral statements that are made are not “summed up neatly in any particular sentence” (par. 4) but, rather, are reinforced throughout each book and throughout the series as a whole. Dr. Jerram Barrs notes that some of the positive aspects include the broad diversity of characters Rowling uses, the “depth of commitment and service” in their relationships, the willingness toward self-sacrifice that Harry and other characters display, and the great contrast portrayed between good and evil” (1).
Barrs dismisses the argument that the books encourage occult practice, stating that in watching a small child at play, a great number of magical acts similar to those portrayed in the Potter books will take place; however, these acts do not mean that the child is interested in occult practices (Barrs 2). In fact, Lauren Binnendyk and Kimberly Schonert-Reichel argue that the Harry Potter series actually contributes to the development of children and the “understanding of life” by “fulfill[ing] the reader’s need for a story with moral certainty” (196-197).
The authors explain that Harry has no moral uncertainty when defending the school against what is perceived as evil, although he relies on his friends and the memories of his parents to do so. This moral certitude is aided by Rowling’s efforts to make evil characters unpalatable by designing them to be “intrinsically immoral” and “physically repulsive” (Binnendyk and Schonert-Reichel 197). It is interesting to note that when Harry first encounters Tom Riddle in the second book that Riddle is an attractive young man, which seems to be the cue that Harry and Ginny can trust him.
It is only when he is revealed to be evil that the adjectives used to describe Riddle’s demeanor change, although his physical appearance does not. This incident is not the first time in which Harry is misled by appearance: in the first book the innocuous Professor Quirrel surprises Harry by being host to Voldemort, although both he and the reader might reflectively be suspicious about him because Quirrel’s turban leads to him having an unusual appearance. Older Children or Younger Children?
Without a doubt, the first two Harry Potter books are written with young readers in mind. Following these books, however, the series seems to take a somewhat darker turn. In the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, a child even dies. Brown suggests that parents reserve the Harry Potter books for “mature mid- to older teens” because “in particular, the seventh book contains a lot of intense fighting scenes, many, many deaths, and some intense imagery” (5).
This opinion seems to be a valid one; however, even children’s stories that are largely considered acceptable to young readers may contain scenes that might be considered frightening. Even in the Disney version of Bambi for example, young Bambi is orphaned by a hunter and “pursued” by the fire. As long as parents take the time to explain the more disturbing events to young children, it might be possible to keep them from being frightened. Binnendyk and Schonert-Reichel suggest that the Harry Potter books might be used to launch discussions of real dilemmas that young people encounter in their everyday lives.
They state that “because the Harry Potter stories are both developmentally and psychologically significant they can be used as a motivational tool to engage pre-adolescent children in discussions of moral dilemmas” (200). Parents can relate these discussions to developmentally appropriate difficulties in their children’s lives. Counteracting Negative Effects Because of the darkness that exists in many of the Harry Potter books, it is necessary that parents become available for addressing their children’s potential questions and concerns when they read these books.
Some of the criticisms of these books include that the books encourage occult practice, that Harry defies authority, and that this kind of fantasy world is hazardous to children (Barrs 1). Of these observations, at least the second one has some validity. Parents, however, should already be a guiding moral force in their children’s lives. If parents take the initiative to discuss the actions that Harry and his peers take with their own children, then any possible negative effects are potentially neutralized.
In following the suggestion of Binnendyk and Schonert-Reichel, above, parents might want to address the issues of lying or of doing things without permission with younger readers, using asking them to think about incidents in which the main characters suffered consequences for those acts. In addition, parents might also want to use these stories to discuss appropriate sexual relationships between teens or the importance of maintaining respectful and long-term relationships with older teens. Conclusion The Harry Potter series of books provide hours of entertainment for millions of children worldwide.
There is little valid evidence that exists for supporting the claim that the Harry Potter series of books is detrimental to the moral health of today’s children. Many of the claims that they cause harm come from fundamentalist Christians who use the same narrow views to support these claims. On the other hand, some evidence does exist to support the claims of those that say the Harry Potter novels can actually aid with childhood moral development. For this benefit to occur, however, parents need to be involved with their children’s reading and enjoyment of this series.