In Defense of Harry Potter

Steven C. Scheer

Part 1: Context & Literal vs. Metaphoric Meaning

. . . you can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.
- Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

As I was leaving my doctor's office the other day, after a routine eye exam, I happened to have mentioned to him that there are people out there who see nothing but evil in the Harry Potter books. "Yes," he said. "I just don't understand that." Having been a professor of literature for many years, and having taught as well as thought about the art of reading a great deal, I think I can see what the problem is.

Now I know that the Harry Potter books don't really need me to defend them. They are doing just fine the world over with untold millions of children of both sexes and, if I may be a bit mischievous, of all ages (I myself am pushing 60). Yet I think this is an issue well worth a bit of our time and energy. Reading badly cannot possibly be a good thing. It leads to misunderstandings, to say the least, and rejections of all sorts. To see evil where there is none is a terrible thing, a kind of evil in itself. This is a complex matter, for reading itself is more than meets the eye. There are several essays on the art of reading on my Web site (for those who may be interested) but here I will only touch upon the basics and then quickly open up new territory.

We can't make words mean whatever we want them to mean. We need to cooperate with the author, for example, to see what he or she is up to, and not jump to conclusions prematurely. We also need to keep in mind that the meaning of words depends upon the context in which they occur, that the meaning of a word is not stable, that even the same word in different contexts can mean different things. If you see the expression "hold it," what can you make of it? Just by itself it doesn't carry much meaning beyond the basic meaning of the words themselves. It is only in some context that the words can convey what the person pronouncing them intends to convey by using them in the first place. One person may hand a book to another and say "Hold it." In this case the meaning is obvious. But then a person may shout at another "Hold it!" and mean something entirely different, such as "don't do what you were about to do" or "stop doing what you are doing."

The trouble is that there is a discrepancy between what we say and what we mean (I deal with this at some length in an essay called The Art of Reading elsewhere on this site). As with the example above, we may say "Hold it!" and mean "Stop!" And there is no point in saying that we shouldn't say "hold it" when we mean "stop." Language is an enormously complex agglomerate of figurative uses. Which is why each word or sentence or paragraph or page or chapter or whole book must be interpreted with care. As I used to tell my students in my literature classes, "you don't get what a text means, you only get what it says." There is a shock value in that statement (and I was always mischievous enough as a teacher to let my students sweat it for a while).

A bit of a reflection, however, will make the issue clear (and will even remove much of the shock of the shock value). Of course we only get what a text says. It's on the basis of what a text says that we have to figure out what it means. Allow me to use an example as a way of leading into attacks on Harry Potter and how and why such attacks are misguided. There were many times in my career as a teacher when I simply wanted to assess just how competent my students were (or were becoming) as readers. One such assessment was a simple exercise in reading. I would pass out to each member of the class a famous poem by John Donne (though almost never ever did I have a student, even though these were college students, you know, who had ever read or even heard of it before), and just ask them to read it (several times if necessary) and then write a brief statement about what the poem is "saying."

One of the poems I used for this purpose was "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning," which begins with the words:

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
"The breath goes now," and some say, "No,"

So let us melt and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

The students take their clues from the words of the poem itself. They see the word "mourning" in the title and then they see that the poem itself begins by apparently describing a dying person, so they quickly assume (erroneously, of course) that someone has died.

There were times when prior to collecting the brief statements the students wrote, I would ask the class, "Did anyone think that somebody has died in this poem?" Half the hands or more would usually be raised. Depending on my mood, at that point I might just tell them that they were wrong, that no one has died and that they should read the poem over and over again until they saw what it was actually saying. Further readings would produce a few more students who came to see that no one has, in fact, died, but some persisted in their original hypothesis.

Obviously, then, Donne doesn't use the word "mourning" in the title literally. At first that's what the word in the title implies, but as we read the poem we adjust our understanding as we pay attention to the poem's developing context. Though I have only quoted the first two stanzas, it should be clear from these alone that the speaker is making a comparison between the dying moment of virtuous men (who seem willing to go to their reward in the hereafter and don't scream or shout for fear of death) and his own apparent intention to leave his wife behind for a while (perhaps while taking a business trip of some sort).

The fact that the poem's speaker is a man taking leave of his wife (and advising her not to make a scene, as it were) is made clearer and clearer in the poem as it progresses from beginning to end. But even by the second stanza it's clear that he is not talking about men dying, but making a comparison between those who don't object to death because they are virtuous and know that nothing bad will await them in the hereafter and his own impending temporary separation from his wife. When he uses the word "melt," he obviously doesn't mean it literally. Nor does "noise" carry its ordinary meaning in this context. "So let us melt" means "So let us part," and "make no noise" means "let's not make a scene by loud shouts of 'please don't leave me' or the like."

The last two lines of the stanza in question contain a number of clear clues as to why this particular husband doesn't think that his wife should make a scene at the time of his temporary departure from her. The last two lines of the second stanza clearly imply something like: our love is sacred, so let us not profane it by making a display of unseemly emotions in public. The lines clearly imply a kind of religious significance here (which is in keeping with the quiet process of dying the speaker imagines that "virtuous men" undergo).

A competent reader should see all this instantly and should not be mislead by the literal meaning of words such as "mourning." It is unfortunate that most college students aren't competent enough as readers to see all this at once. But they can (and do) see what is going on in the poem in no time at all and even learn to read better in general as time goes by. And, of course, they could have been better readers by the time they got to college in the first place had they been free enough to read whatever they had wanted to as children. Part of the problem is that most children these days are not allowed to read whatever they would find truly interesting and entertaining. Both parents and teachers can be overprotective. So children are frequently "made" to read things that cannot possibly compete with the enormous audio-visual media that the written word has been in competition with for many decades now. In the absence of truly rewarding reading experiences reading is doomed by the onslaught of the monumental world of radios and stereos and television sets with VCRs or DVDs, not to speak of computers and what's available online.

The Harry Potter books have clearly shown us already, though (in just the five years that they have been making their appearance), that children can and will read for pleasure when they are given texts that truly interest and entertain them. And those who feel that these books will inspire children to turn to Satan worship, black mass, and/or other forms of occult and evil practices are much less competent as readers than even the benighted college students who assumed that John Donne's "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" dealt with an actual death. Let us then (finally! I hear some of you say) turn to some examples.

Though the people who see evil in these books may mean well, they are wrong on two counts. They are wrong about what the Harry Potter books mean and also what effects they are more than likely to have on children in general. I shall now turn to a concrete example. I found this on a Web site (no longer on the Internet) called Muggles for Harry Potter. It is to the credit of this Web site that it included attacks on the Harry Potter books as well as defenses, of course. One of the attacks came from another Web site, a certain Freedom Village USA ministry. The writer of this attack begins by denouncing the Harry Potter books for possibly giving false hope to underprivileged children (a topic I shall deal with later). The piece then goes on to juxtapose a quote from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with a statement, a biblical truth, for which II Corinthians 5:6-8 is used as a source. Because the quote from the Harry Potter book and the statement of a biblical truth seem to talk about the same thing, the writer of the attack concludes that because the biblical truth contradicts the quotation from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the Harry Potter book is wrong!

Here is the quotation from the Harry Potter book: "You can exist without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working. But you will have no sense of self anymore, no memory, no . . . anything. There is no chance at all of recovery. You'll just - exist, as an empty shell" (247). And here is the statement of biblical truth offered by the writer of this attack: "Truth: We cannot exist without our soul. Since soul and spirit are one, if spirit leaves, the body dies. (II Cor. 5:6-8)." There are several things to be pointed out here. First of all (and this is the least important), this writer has almost made it seem that the statement of the biblical truth is a direct quotation from one of St. Paul's epistles. It is not. It is an interpretation of the following verses (II Cor. 5:6-8, from the King James Version of the Bible): "6 Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: 7 (For we walk by faith, not by sight:) 8 We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord."

Even if this passage simply meant (as the writer in question implies) no more than that our body cannot live without our soul or spirit (that even when the body dies, the soul or spirit lives on), it is still not a legitimate counter to the point made by the passage quoted from The Prisoner of Azkaban. More of that in a moment. Actually, it seems to me that what II Cor. 5:6-8 is talking about is confidence that even though while we are present in our bodies and are for the while absent from the Lord, we should not fear the time to come when we will be absent from our bodies, for then we will no longer be absent from the Lord. (The implication is that death is a good thing in that it releases the spirit from the prison - if you will - of the body, so that the spirit may thereafter live in the presence of the Lord.)

The next thing wrong with this juxtaposition or comparison between a passage from a Harry Potter book and a biblical truth is that it takes the quotation from The Prisoner of Azkaban out of context. Without going into a complete treatment of this part of the book's complex plot, suffice it to say that the quotation is a statement by a certain Professor Lupin who is explaining to Harry Potter something called the "Dementor's Kiss," which imposes upon its victims a fate worse than death, namely a kind of death-in-life, a kind of zombie-like or even comatose existence.

The final and most important thing wrong here (the most important in my view, at least) is the taking of the quotation from the Harry Potter book literally. J.K. Rowling is not even implying that the body can keep on living after the death of the spirit (whatever that may mean), but that (at least in the context of the magical world of the book) certain persons can be rendered, by a certain being called a Dementor, zombie-like or comatose while remaining apparently whole and ambulatory. To say that the Harry Potter books are bad because of a statement like the one under consideration here is simply a case of bad and misguided reading. Furthermore, don't we habitually speak of certain people as being heartless, for example? Such talk is neither in cahoots with Satan nor "unrealistic" (even though it's clear, of course, that one cannot be literally heartless and go on living).

I take it that this kind of attack is as unfair as it would be for me to suggest, for example, that the quotation from St. Paul is "evil" because it encourages people to commit suicide so that their spirits, released from the body, may join the Lord. This would be an equally bad example of misreading, for it would overlook the basic Judeo-Christian tenet that life is a gift from God and that according to one of His commandments we "shall not kill," not even ourselves.

At this point the attack announces that the "real" theme of the Harry Potter books is the occult and that these books suggest that witchcraft and wizardry are "perfectly acceptable and harmless for children." And it is here that the attack succumbs to a non-sequitur by pointing out that in the real world such practices do exist and that they are "not fantasy" or "fun." The attack then goes out to pull a really fast one by stating that since "witchcraft" is a "tax-exempt" religion in America "with an agenda contrary to every moral Judeo-Christian fiber that built this nation," books, like the Harry Potter books, should not be allowed in school. The implication is that the Harry Potter books may violate the separation of church and state. It seems that the people who dislike (hate?) these books on misguided (though probably well-intentioned) religious grounds will go to absurd lengths to try to ban them.

Part 2: Disrespect for Authority, Anyone?

"I have no reason to doubt the authorities."
"They are the authorities, that's reason enough."
from Kafka (1991), a movie directed by Steven Soderbergh

I would now like to explore one more issue from this attack on the Harry Potter books here. One of the many other "wrong" themes in these books that this particular writer objects to is "Harry's disrespect for authority." This is not a falsely identified theme, but is it a bad thing? And is it anti-Christian? Christ himself had a lot of trouble with the "authorities" of his day, the Scribes and the Pharisees, and made no bones about his disrespect for them, a disrespect writ large, for example, in Matthew, 23:2-29.

The idea that all authorities are automatically worthy of respect is a dangerous one. It overlooks the very real possibility of corruption in high places and of one's duty to exercise, if need be, (civil) disobedience in the face of unjust laws. This, too, has been at the heart of Christianity itself from time to time during its long history in the last two millennia. History is replete with examples where obedience to authority has gone wrong, in some cases (as in Nazi Germany, for example) terribly and incredibly wrong.

Stanley Milgram's now classic Obedience to Authority (1974) reports on the now famous (but already forgotten?) psychological experiments on the dilemma of obeying malevolent authorities. In the "Preface" to the book the author spells out what's at the heart of this dilemma: "The person who, with inner conviction, loathes stealing, killing, and assault may find himself performing these acts with relative ease when commanded by authority. Behavior that is unthinkable in an individual who is acting on his own may be executed without hesitation when carried out under orders." Already in the "Preface" the author points to the reason behind this unfortunate phenomenon: "The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as an instrument in carrying out the [authority's] wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions."

A healthy disrespect for authorities is a good thing. Furthermore, it is a long-standing tradition in folk and fairy-tales to encourage such disrespect. The titles of some of the scholarly books on fairy tales alone speak volumes in this regard. There is, for example, Jack Zipes's Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization (1983) or Alison Lurie's Don't Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children's Literature (1990). What children get out of classic fairy tales and wonderful contemporary versions such as J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books is not the kind of disregard of authorities that parents and teachers rightly fear, the kind that leads to destructive rebellion and ends in drug addiction and a life of violence and crime.

To think that the Harry Potter books are bad for children because they may mislead them is to underestimate their intelligence. Bruno Bettelheim's Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976), has this to say on this topic: "Some people claim that fairy tales do not render 'truthful' pictures of life as it is, and are therefore unhealthy. That 'truth' in the life of a child might be different from that of adults does not occur to these people. They do not realize that fairy tales do not try to describe the external world and 'reality.' Nor do they recognize that no sane child ever believes that these tales describe the world realistically." Later, Bettelheim adds this: "The 'truth' of fairy stories is the truth of our imagination, not that of normal causality."

Another writer, Ursula K. Le Guin, in a splendid book called The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (1979), has this to say on the uses of myth and the effect of works of art on the reader: "The way of art is neither to cut adrift from the emotions, the senses, the body . . . and sail off into the void of pure meaning, nor to blind the mind's eye and wallow in irrational, amoral meaninglessness - but to keep open the tenacious, difficult, essential connections between the two extremes. To connect. To connect idea with value, sensation with intuition, cortex with cerebellum."

The Harry Potter books do all this and more. The fact that Harry Potter can think for himself when it comes to telling the difference between good and evil is clear, even on the simple level of who to "hang out with." When in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone his foil, aptly named Draco Malfoy, tells him not to make "friends with the wrong sort," Harry Potter replies without hesitation: "I think I can tell who the wrong sort are for myself, thanks" (108-109). But for all the magic in it, the world of Harry Potter is a mirror image of our own world. It comes with the whole shebang, good and evil, rules (some of which are to be obeyed and some of which are to be broken, the important thing being to know when to do which), good persons and bad, good decisions and bad - in short whatever there is in our world (including holidays like Christmas or Easter) is also represented or at least hinted at in that other dimension, as it were, where the magical folk of witches and wizards reside. The clearest emblem for this duplication of our world with a difference is spelled out in the scene where Ron, Harry's friend, begins to teach Harry "wizard chess." We are told that this "was exactly like Muggle chess except that the figures were alive" (199).

Enchanting and enchanted though the world of Harry Potter is, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone clearly distinguishes between fruitless dreaming and wishing, and the hard realities we all must face up to. Harry is delighted when he discovers the Mirror of Erised. For the first time in his living memory he sees, beside his own reflection in this magical mirror, the reflection of his dead parents happily smiling and waving at him. At first he yearns to return to and spend time with this mirror over and over again. But Professor Dumbledore warns him against this by saying:

"[The Mirror of Erised - "desire" spelled backwards] 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 nor 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." (213-14)

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Copyright 2000 - 2004 © by Steven C. Scheer. All rights reserved.