Some Thoughts on the Harry Potter SeriesMICHAEL D. O'BRIEN
There is currently a strong controversy raging over J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Because I have six children of my own, all of them avid readers with an interest in fantasy literature, I have followed it closely.
There is currently a strong controversy raging over J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Because I have six children of my own, all of them avid readers with an interest in fantasy literature, I have followed it closely. It is interesting to note that the truly reasonable arguments are all on the side of caution regarding the Potter series. By contrast, the pro-Harry articles lack any serious reflection on the issues involved. Their opinions can generally be boiled down to this: "Now, now, let's not get paranoid here. Isn't it wonderful to see kids enthusiastic about reading?" That is no argument at all, because there are a great many things to be cautious about in our present secular culture (calm vigilance is not necessarily paranoia), and children are frequently enthusiastic about unhealthy interests.
Librarians around the English-speaking world have noted that due to the unprecedented marketing pressure and media attention surrounding these books, and the resulting fascination young readers have for them, a spin-off phenomenon is occurring. Among the young, an interest in witchcraft, sorcery, and allied occult activity is growing at an astonishing rate. Some libraries now put their occult section beside the Potter books, to make access easier for young readers. Thus, millions of children, including large numbers of Catholic children, are getting involved in spiritually and psychologically dangerous activity. Harry Potter provided the role model.
I was not impressed by the four books in Rowling's series, despite all the media hype that tells us how wonderful they are for young readers. And I strongly disagree with those reviewers (sadly, even some Catholic reviewers) who compare her work to solid Christian fantasy writing such as C.S. Lewis's Narnia series, or J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, or the imaginative novels of George MacDonald. The comparison is only superficial. At root, Rowling's objective is to interest the young in a spiritual path that is the converse of what healthy Christian fantasy is about. The use of "magic" in Christian fantasy is always for the reinforcing of the moral order of the universe, the development of man's proper use of freedom. Rowling, by contrast, tries to turn that order topsy-turvy. The subtle and unsubtle manipulation which she uses to control the child's mind is obvious from the first few pages, prompting one to wonder if this is a deliberate attempt at indoctrination. Among the many dubious messages, presented with charm and power, there are these: occult activity is liberating, noble, exciting, and not what your parents and Christians in general say about it. Coupled to this message is the gross characterization of traditional families, and anyone else who objects to the occult, as abusive hypocrites. The line between good and evil is significantly shifted, and the child enticed into a radically changed worldview, one in which activities known for over 4000 years to be extremely dangerous to mind and soul are now presented as positive forces.
Potter-frenzy and Potter-hype are suddenly everywhere, from school to shopping-center to library, affecting many millions of children. The promotion of such books even in Catholic schools should alert us to the fact that the Catholic community is suffering a grave loss of discernment. In a secular culture searching in all the wrong places for answers to the meaning of life, and for a "spirituality" to replace lost or weakened faith, occult movements and spiritual experimentation of all sorts are having a revival that has not been seen in the Western world since the early centuries of the Church. What is particularly disturbing is the fact that otherwise sensible people see no problem in introducing to children books that promote such activities - activities strictly forbidden by God and the Church (see Cathechism of the Catholic Church, sections 2116-2117).
The Potter series takes the old Gnostic worldview, makes it look glamorous and exciting, and does so in a way that is proving to be far more seductive than similar books in this field of children's literature. Early Gnosticism was a combination of cult and heresy that came very close to undermining Christianity at its birth, during the first few centuries of the Church. It was only defeated by the efforts of the Church Fathers as they taught, corrected, exhorted and debated with the naïve devotees of this perversion of genuine faith. And here it is again, popping up with unprecedented force, but now aimed at the most vulnerable, most impressionable part of the Body of Christ - our children.
Paradoxically, the Potter books have been able to invade the Christian world due to the fact that there are a few admirable virtues promoted in them: Harry the orphan seeks a family - hey, isn't that a desirable family value? Harry the victim-innocent brings down justice on the heads of his tormentors - and don't we want to see justice done? Harry wins the reader's affection and empathy (and the child reader's identification) more readily than the bratty characters in much of children's fantasy literature - isn't it refreshing to have a "nice" boy as a hero? Harry seeks to discover his destiny and unique identity - don't we all? Yes, but in Harry's world, the ends are continually justified by the evil means (conveniently redefined as good). If the author has thrown into the plot a little moralizing for added measure, this is not a valid argument in defense of the books; indeed the whiff of morality makes them that much more deceptive. In this way, the moral order of the universe is deformed in a child's mind far more effectively than by blatantly evil books.
This raises the question: which is the most destructive form of paganism now invading children's culture? A direct assault upon faith by hard-core cultists recruiting on the streets, or an indirect seduction in the pleasant surroundings of your own home? I believe it is the latter, a "soft" form that will do the greatest damage over the long haul, because it brings a spiritually dangerous worldview into good families under the guise of promoting "values" and enthusiasm for reading. But it also prepares a child's developing imagination for worse things to follow. When he has finished reading the Potter series, what will he turn to? There is a vast industry turning out sinister material for the young that will feed their growing appetites. In the wake of likable young Harry's adventures, not-so-likable characters will appear, and they will become role models or, at the very least, images of alternative ways of living. And it should also be noted that Harry himself becomes less likable as the series gets progressively more murky.
Regarding the argument sometimes put forward - "There is much good in the book, so why should we be so concerned about the flaws?" - this is not really a valid argument. The flaws in this case are grave distortions of reality in a field where such distortions have often proved disastrous. In my extended family, circle of friends and community, there are a number of people whose lives have been seriously damaged by involvement in the occult. I know three young people who have attempted suicide in acts of despair which they now attribute, years later, to dabbling in the occult. A significant factor in their attraction to the dark side of spirituality, they maintain, was their love of fantasy literature that portrayed this subculture as exciting and rewarding. Only later did they come to realize that, while occultism promises light, it actually delivers a gradual darkening of the mind and weakening of the will.
I have talked with parents of children whose lives have gone seriously astray as a result of losing their moral bearings through involvement with the occult. Their anguish and puzzlement is evident as they state how their children were once stable and virtuous, how they had been so certain their child could handle anything. I have talked with priests and psychiatrists who deal with young people damaged in this fashion, and their assessment of the causes consistently points to some "experimenting" with the very activity Rowling presents as a healthy and liberating way of life. In the beginning they felt it to be no more than harmless play, simple imagining, or the acting out of fantasy.
We should take note of the fact that in our sensually dominated culture the habit of acting out fantasy is becoming a widespread cultural norm. It varies from voracious consumption of expensive "toys" for all age groups, to trading in one's spouse for a new one found on the internet, to various clubs devoted to immoral activity, to high school murders. Why, then, do we presume that a sensually powerful series of children's books will not affect the young reader's interests and activities? Why have we come to assume so readily that such novels are simply entertainment, that they have no consequences, that the experience of plunging the imagination into that alternative world will remain sealed in an airtight compartment of the mind?
Of course millions of children are not going to suddenly start killing themselves and each other after reading the Harry Potter series, but studies by both secular and religious researchers demonstrate that something unhealthy is at work in the occult revival. And while we must never forget that Christ can forgive and heal the effects of any form of sin, he also calls us to guard the lambs of his flock against such sin, and the near occasions of sin. What is so often forgotten in this particular controversy is that occultism is gravely sinful. Both the Old and New Testaments warn against it with utmost urgency. Occult activity is a misreading of the nature of the war between good and evil on this planet, and the consequences of this in real life can be quite dire. Why, then, are we giving our children false tales about the nature of the war?
Fantasy literature can be a splendid way to introduce them to the great drama of existence, but we are terribly naïve if we fail to make a clear distinction between true fantasy and false fantasy - between healthy imagination and poisoned imagination. We would soon sicken and die if we applied the principle of "a little poison won't harm you" to our diet of food. Would we eat a cake in which a cook had mixed 1% cyanide with 99% good ingredients? It might not kill us, but why would we want to risk being even "mildly" poisoned. To use another metaphor, would we offer our child a bowl of fruit in which ten pieces of fruit were harmless and one had been injected with deadly poison, especially if the fruit were indistinguishable from each other?
How do we distinguish a good piece of "fruit" from a bad one, if in the mind there is no reliable criteria for doing so? How do we discern properly if we have no developed understanding of the moral order of the universe nor a consciousness of the reality of spiritual battle? If we have little or no sense of the crucial role of symbols in the healthy functioning of the mind, how can we accurately assess the spiritual realities represented by those symbols? Simply saying that the corruption of our symbol world, and in the worst cases the inversion of our symbol world, is not poison doesn't change the nature of the poisoned fruit. That's denial, not moderate reasonableness. By the same token, gathering "expert" opinions on the subject isn't very helpful either, because experts come in all varieties these days, even in Christian circles, and few are the people unaffected to some degree by the overwhelming subjectivism of our present social environment.
Parents often underestimate the power of imagination in shaping a child's sense of truth. Parents forget that they themselves grew up in another time and culture. Though theirs was an imperfect world (as is every era of history), basic truths still formed the solid architecture of their times. That is no longer so. Parents also forget that they can sort through good and bad material with more immunity than a child, because they are already formed. A child is still in a state of formation, and for that reason he experiences culture in a very different way than adults do. We can sift (although on the whole even we "grown-ups" aren't doing a very good job of sifting these days), but the child is not yet trained to recognize subtle and even unsubtle falsehood. He is busy learning about the world, and usually he is learning indiscriminately. He absorbs images and understandings of the nature of reality at a foundational level.
Getting our thinking on track according to Biblical and Church principles is essential to seeing what's really happening in this war. In other words, rational discernment. Equally important is the charism of spiritual discernment. Every parent needs to pray daily for an extraordinary grace of discernment, and for divine protection for his children. This isn't extremist or alarmist. This is just normal Christianity. Tragically, Christian faith has been so weakened in the Western world that such statements now strike many an ear as somewhat extreme. We're all a little too eager to prove that we're just normal folks, that our faith doesn't turn us into unpleasant critical people. But Jesus himself calls us to constant vigilance, to exercise the critical faculty of discernment. It is the spirit of the secular world, and the spirit of our adversary, which tells us we should all just relax and stop over-reacting. Of course, it's true that over-reacting doesn't help anyone, and usually makes matters worse. But at the other end of the spectrum is denial, a refusal to face facts, an inability to recognize a real threat to our child's well-being. This, I believe, brings about far worse consequences - again, in the long run. Neither apathy nor panic will reorient our present culture toward a condition of health. What is needed here is wisdom.
And what about the unity issue? Many of the husbands or wives who write to me about the Potter problem say that they can't come to an agreement with their spouses. A general and time-tested principle in Christian family life is that on issues where husband and wife disagree over what is or is not harmful for their child, more prayer is needed. The father's role is paramount in this, because by nature and grace his job is to watch the horizon carefully for anything that threatens the well-being of his family (tigers, bears, drunk drivers, drug-pushers, heretical teachers and unprincipled hawkers of kid-kulture). In a word, his primary focus is exterior.
The mother's role tends to be primarily interior, focused on nurturing (though of course there is considerable overlapping of roles in this regard). For that reason it's inevitable that there will be differences of emphasis and judgement. Most of the parents who contact me about these questions experience some difference of opinion between husband and wife. Prayer can bring these two "lenses" into a single unified focus. By this I do not mean that spouses should resolve their difference of opinion by bartering or compromise. Neither of the lenses work properly without the other; their harmonious function depends on earnest prayer and avoiding superficial decisions. Our culture is continuously pushing us to let down our guard, to make quick judgments that feel easier because they reduce the tension of vigilance. The harassed pace and the high volume of consumption that modern culture seems to demand of us, make genuine discernment more difficult in this regard. But in prayer and waiting on God, we do come through.
As a parent, my daily prayer is: "Oh God, please give me the wisdom of Solomon, the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, today. Every day." Without it, I would soon be shaped and molded by whatever forces are flying about in this society. My kids even more so. There is so much bombarding us all the time, with unprecedented power to overwhelm the senses and to confuse our interior radar, that we scarcely have time to make sound decisions before the next wave hits. In such a climate, if one has to choose between over-caution or under-caution, I would say that in the formation of our children's minds, hearts and souls, it's better to lean in the direction of caution rather than laxity - especially during these times when a relentless indoctrination comes at our children from every level of the culture.
A balanced, intelligent and spiritually discerning collection of articles examining the Potter phenomenon is available at the website of St. Joseph's Covenant Keepers, a large international organization for Catholic fathers. The address is: www.dads.org. If you want to consider some in-depth arguments about the nature of the new paganization of children's culture, see the Ignatius Press internet website where an entire section is devoted to what well-known Catholic authors think of the Potter series. The address is: www.ignatius.com. See also the highly recommended Catholic Educator's Resource Center, which has a section dealing with the Potter phenomenon. The address is www.catholiceducation.org.
O'Brien, Michael "Some Thoughts on the Harry Potter Series." National Catholic Register (October 22, 2000).
Reprinted by permission of the National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.
Michael O'Brien is a professional artist and the author of a series of novels including his most recent A Cry of Stone, the best selling Father Elijah, and Eclipse of the Sun. In addition, he is the author of A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind which looks at the proper role of children's literature in the forming of character (see sample chapters from this book on the CERC site). O'Brien's articles on faith and culture have appeared in numerous journals throughout the English-speaking world. Michael O'Brien is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center. Visit his web site at: studiobrien.com.
© 2000 National Catholic Register.
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.