HUNTINGTON, Ind. (Our Sunday Visitor) – I cringe when I hear “Harry Potter” read by teachers to children in second grade. Or that “Harry Potter” is required reading for a fifth-grade class. Although there are children in the classroom ready to hear the stories, not every child is.
The first book is less intense than those following, each book grows more intense and, therefore, the appropriate age for each book goes up, depending on the individual child’s maturity.
The stories should be discussed within the family, by parents who know their faith. A teacher might be restricted from explaining that the phoenix represents resurrection. Headmaster Dumbledore has a pet phoenix throughout the series named Fawkes. Fawkes rescues Harry in one book, sings a funeral song in another and plays an important role in the books.
The phoenix has traditionally been viewed as a symbol of Easter – the resurrection – because it is a mythical bird that dies periodically by burning itself up, and then rises again from its ashes. There are phoenix stained-glass windows in some Catholic churches. The church fathers used the phoenix to communicate the mystery of the resurrection of the flesh and the concepts of virginity, chastity and filial piety.
It also frustrates me to read about movie merchandise targeted to 4- to 9-year olds, who are much too young for a PG-13 movie. I know one mom who let her son read the books, but when the “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” movie came out rated PG-13, she previewed it and thought it was too violent.
Because Harry is going through adolescence, author J. K. Rowling introduces more mature themes with each successive school year. Harry develops a crush, and Ron acts immaturely toward a female student out of jealousy. Eight-year-olds do not need to be exposed to these issues.
Parents: Read it
I believe parents should read the books first. This is a good idea for a great many books, not just the Harry Potter series. Even the Bible can be confusing without parents.
For example, Jesus says to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. And St. Paul says that when he was a child, he thought like a child, but then he put aside childish things. Which way should we follow?
In the same way, in the Old Testament, God instructs the Israelites to wipe out an entire people; and yet Jesus, in the New Testament, tells us to love our enemies, and do good to those who would do us harm.
After reading the Potter stories for themselves, parents have a good idea if their child can handle the intensity of the story line. Read the book aloud to a child who is mature enough.
Another choice is listening to an audio recording together. Least desirable is letting your child read it without knowing what’s in it yourself, thinking you are off the hook because someone says the books are OK. I rate the books “PG,” in need of “parental guidance.” Your children need your guidance with the series.
The magic and the witchcraft should be addressed, which is easy to do. It’s enough if a parent said, “You know, honey, Rowling doesn’t believe in magic, dragons and spells herself. She’s just pretending about the magic, using her imagination to tell a story, like a fairy tale.”
Even if you don’t have time to read the books with your children, you can say this. If you’ve grounded your children in their faith, they’ll read the book through with the eyes of their beliefs – the beliefs you’ve instilled in them.
Too into Harry?
Children and adults can go overboard with Harry. As with all things, moderation is the key. Read the books together. Read other books, too. If Harry Potter is consuming your children, take a break.
I believe Harry is a good thing, but I know children can go too far, and parents need to be watchful of this. Just as you limit the time your children spend on the computer, watching TV or talking on the phone, you can limit your children’s exposure to Harry Potter. Even though Harry Potter is in the form of books, and most parents are thrilled when their children are reading a book instead of playing a video game, children can become obsessed with books, too, so monitor your children.
Adults can get fanatical about Harry, too. There may be even more temptations for parents, as the Internet has many message boards and Web sites where Harry Potter can be discussed, reviewed and speculated upon, wasting time and energy better spent on family matters.
Just why, distressed parents ask, are these books about magic? Couldn’t this story be told – if there is anything to be gained from it, for example, if it is a moral tale – another way without magic or witchcraft?
Yes, this story could have been told another way. For example, if the story had been science fiction, and the characters used futuristic transporters to travel from place to place, or used blue liquids to fall asleep during the jump to hyperspace; or weapons such as phasers, ray guns, a photon bomb or other high-tech weaponry, I don’t think anyone would question the use of “magic.”
Why does Rowling use magic and witchcraft and make the whole story confusing? The story seems to take place not in an ancient fairy tale or in a futuristic science-fiction era but in our own times.
Rowling is quite well versed in mythology, fairy tales, ancient stories, Greek and Roman gods and goddesses and forms of literature. She had a whole slew of choices when she started writing her story about Harry Potter. She chose to use the literary device of witchcraft and magic.
Why? Children are becoming bewitched into false “good” type magic books; books with popular titles such as The Little Green Witch by Barbara Barbieri McGrath, Little Witch’s Bad Dream by Deborah Hautzig and Sylvie Wickstrom, The Witch’s Handbook, and A Field Guide to Magic by Rachel Dickinson, Timothy Crawford and Paul Kepple, found in the local library and the big chain book stores. The “good witch” books are popular.
Wicked is in
What’s in is wicked. Yes, even the word for “cool” nowadays reflects society’s interest in witchcraft. The second reason I believe Rowling uses the world of witches and wizards, is that by presenting a good story in disguise, she has the capability of luring millions of readers to her stories, who find a traditional moral tale, a tale that has no bones about spelling out what’s good and what’s evil.
Rowling gives us clues the stories are not about magic. For example, the magic wands in the story have a magical core that makes them functional. The magic core does not exist in our world: a phoenix feather, the hair from the tail of a unicorn or a dragon heartstring.
Then there are the incantations, which are often simply Latin or Latin-sounding words or phrases. The potion recipes are never given wholly, and the ingredients mentioned are non-existent, such as the stone from a goat’s stomach, powdered horn of a unicorn, dragon liver and so forth.
Often, the descriptions of the magical elements are humorous elements in the story. In addition, if the characters were truly magic folk, they should be able to use magic to solve all their problems, and they can’t. Harry, Percy, Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall and Mr. Weasley still wear glasses to see clearly.
“Magic” is Rowling’s fictional name for “human ability,” neither good nor bad, except as to how one chooses to use it. The students must study and learn how to use their talents and skills for a purpose.
And does any child fail to recognize the Harry Potter stories as stories? Does any child read Jack and the Beanstalk and begin to wonder if they can use magic beans to solve their problems?
Real witches, wizards and magic are not tame or harmless. Real witchcraft is evil and to be avoided. Real witchcraft is nothing to be dabbled in. And there are those who, without guidance, may go astray reading Harry Potter.
There are those who, without guidance, could go astray reading The Lord of the Rings, or even the Bible, if one picks out only certain sentences.
The key to Harry Potter then is not to ban the books from the possibility of one person going astray because they read them, but to offer guidance.
If magic is to be compared to anything in the Potter books, it might be best described as a talent some have, and others don’t. This talent is inborn, or it isn’t; you can’t become magical just by wanting to.
In this way, too, the books can’t be said to encourage witchcraft, when we all know people haven’t been born with the magical talent the characters in the Rowling books have. She is using the idea of magic to tell her story. She isn’t encouraging children to learn magic and try out spells on each other. She is encouraging children to learn to be good, and try to be courageous in the face of fear.
Perhaps Rowling is weaving a spell to wake us up out of our current malaise of indifferentism toward what is wrong and evil.
Republished with permission by Catholic Online from the Nov. 2, 2007, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper (www.osv.com) in Huntington, Ind., a Catholic Online Preferred Publishing Partner.