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Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

[Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone] Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
by J.K. Rowling
Bloomsbury Publishing, plc, 1997
Amazon.co.uk: hardcover, paperback, large print, audio CD, audio cassette
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Recommended by: Greg Slade

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few years, you're heard the kerfuffle over J.K. Rowling's series of books about a boy wizard named Harry Potter. Some people have vehemently argued that the books are evil, because they present a pleasant face to all kinds of occult practices, and others have argued with equal vehemence that they're perfectly harmless children's books. Now, I have a few prejudices to confess right up front when it comes to this kind of argument. For one thing, when some preachers were all up in arms over alleged "backwards masking" hiding satanic messages backwards in rock songs, I had to ask, "Have you ever tried listening to them forwards?" In my opinion, there is plenty of evil right out in the open, broadcast night and day through our television sets, and practised openly on street corners. We don't need to go ferreting out evil as if it were some kind of secret. The real trick would be finding someplace where evil is absent. For another thing, I have a real problem with people who go around denouncing (or, for that matter, defending) a work which they have never, in fact, read. It seems pretty clear to me that many of the most strident voices on both sides of the argument betray absolutely no sign that they have, in fact, read any of Rowling's books. There's a word for talking about people on the basis of second- (or third-, or ninth-) hand information: gossip. When people argue that nobody should read Rowling's books because they contain witches, monsters, magicians, and giants (all of which, I can't help but point out, are also contained in the Bible), rather than getting to grips with whether this character, that action, or the other value is held up for censure or praise in the book, all they convince me of is that they don't know what they're talking about. God is not afraid of evil: He conquered it. What matters is not whether a book contains evil elements, but whether evil is made to seem attractive, or portrayed as destructive. Well, after much too long, I have laid hands on Rowling's books, and can form my own opinions based on what she actually wrote.

My first impression is that, above all else, the Harry Potter books are morality plays, something like George MacDonald's stories such as The Princess and the Goblin. Characters who are greedy, arrogant, prejudiced, or just plain mean are caused to suffer. Characters who are generous, friendly, tolerant, or just plain nice are rewarded. This is particularly clear when Harry's uncle takes his family from a pleasant house in Surrey to a grotty hotel, and finally to a damp, draughty, "most miserable little shack you could imagine" (p. 37) on a deserted island, just to keep Harry from getting his acceptance letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry's aunt and uncle claim that they treat Harry the way the do to keep him away from magic, so he can grow up to be normal, but the story makes it clear that they mistreat him the way they do because they hate him for being different. Since I was the class weirdo most of the way through school, I particularly enjoy seeing intolerance punished, and the fact that Harry's uncle essentially punishes himself through his meanness just makes the moral that much clearer. (Actually, this moral content is so pervasive that it makes me wonder why the books are so popular. Maybe this world isn't quite so corrupt as I tend to think it is, and people really do still believe in virtue.)

That is not to say that the books have no issues at all. Probably the most glaring problem is that Harry and his friends seem to be developing a persistent tendency to regard rules as applying to everybody but themselves. As a long-time security guard, I can bear witness to the fact that, in our society, the vast majority of people tend to assume that very same thing, which makes me wonder why anybody bothers formulating rules at all if nobody thinks the rules apply to them. If it is true, as seems likely, that part of Rowling's agenda is to encourage virtue in children, this is one very important area she should address before the end of the series.

As for the magical elements which have caused so much controversy, I am reminded of a saying coined by science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Rowling seems to have flipped that saying on its head. Her magic is indistinguishable from technology. There is no sense that, when the characters perform magic, they are making contact with any kind of spiritual power, good or bad. In Rowling's world, you either have a talent for magic or you don't, and even if you do, you need to practice it like any skill, and you acquire powers, not by any kind of spiritual experience, but by study. In other words, Rowling's school for witches and wizards is like nothing so much as... well... school. Far from leading children down twisty occult passageways, Rowling's message seems to be, "Do your homework." The fact that she has dressed up her story with fantastic elements is, apparently, the spoonful of sugar which makes the medicine go down.

So, far from being subversive, Rowling's books are almost shockingly supportive of the whole parent-teacher establishment. Maybe, just maybe, the real conspiracy is that those who are decrying the books as evil are really part of an insidious plot to convince kids to read the books and absorb their lessons. Forbidden fruit tastes sweeter, and all that...

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