01 March 2005

The Real Magic and Mystery of Harry: Reading and Censorship of the Harry Potter Novels

by Jana Olsen

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which have reached worldwide popularity have an effect on children has not been matched by any other book. The novels have encouraged children to read for entertainment instead of turning to television or video games. When a piece of literature inspires children as the Harry Potter novels do, limiting a child’s access to the novels seems ridiculous. Unfortunately, this is what is happening with Harry Potter. The books are challenged and banned in schools and libraries all over the world because parents contend that the content is unsuitable. The content, which revolves around a world full of wizardry and witchcraft, has some parents actively lobbying against the books. These parents believe the books encourage children to practice witchcraft. Additionally, some parents do not believe that the novels are an asset to the learning development of their children. For most children, Rowling’s Harry Potter novels encourage reading. Not only do children read the massive novels in the series, but also they use the Harry Potter series as conduits to other types of literature because their minds are opened to the wonder of the written word. The novels do not advocate witchcraft or evil, which are often the grounds for censoring the novels from children.

Different features of the Harry Potter series can influence children with both good and bad consequences. The most popular reasons for censoring Harry Potter is that the books are centered around a magical community. The plot revolves around Harry and his friends as they learn how to become wizards and witches at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Through Harry’s adventures, there are allusions to the real world that may help children in their learning process, but there are those who do not want to expose their children to the large amount of witchcraft portrayed in the books. The question of censoring the Harry Potter books is a great debate among parents, children, teachers, and librarians. Parents always have the final decision of whether or not their own children will read the books, but when parents try to censor the books from all children, as in taking action to get it banned from a library or school, they step over the line and infringe upon the rights of other children and their parents. A mother and father know their own child best; they should be able to predict how their child will react to the contents of the story. They need to make sure that their children are at an age where they can handle all that is contained in the tale. This is how it should be with all literature. If parents do not want to have their own children read the book, then censoring the book is what they should attempt to do. However, they do not have the right to censor it for anyone else’s children. In addition to the parents’ decision, children should also be able to have some say in what they read. If they wish to read the books against the will of their parents, then that is an issue they need to work out with their parents. Parents can only guide a child so far, and eventually at some point they will have to learn to trust their children’s decisions.

Teachers can also help to guide children. They are trained professionals who have acquired the knowledge necessary to teach students. Unfortunately, their judgment is continually questioned when they choose to read Harry Potter in their classrooms and use it as a teaching tool for their students. Since 1999, the Harry Potter books have been the most frequently challenged book around (Rosen). Last year's ALA most challenged book list (2004) is the first year since the novels gained world wide popularity that the books are not on the list at all ("The Chocolate War"). As trained professionals, teachers must be able to pick which books they think will help their kids develop in reading skills and should be able to include those books in their lesson plans without the risk of banning.

The issue of banning Harry Potter is argued in school boards and in courts, with both sides of the issue having victories. Controversies popped up all over the nation, many of them echoing the experience in a school in Arkansas. The Cedarville, Arkansas School Board overrode a unanimous vote of the local Library Committee. The school board decided that Harry Potter books cannot be publicly displayed and that children who wished to check them out had to have their parent's permission. One particular couple, with help from the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) and other like groups, successfully sued the Cedarville School Board for an ongoing violation of the First Amendment rights of their daughter, whose right to read whatever she wanted was violated when she had to have her parents permission in order to read Harry Potter. In the notes of the supporting groups, it states, "Cases like this one, involving the censorship of a critically acclaimed book credited with motivating thousands of children to read, are particularly egregious" (Rosen). The initial restrictions that were placed on the books violated the rights of the child who did not wish the books to be censored.

Libraries, like schools, have also had the Harry Potter books challenged. Not only are they being challenged, but activities surrounding the books are questioned, as well. In Payson, Arizona, a local public library held an event called "Harry Potter, a Kid's Night Out." Children came to the library where they participated in activities, such as pumpkin painting, prize drawings, and listening to a local Forest Service ranger give a presentation on owls, a bird frequently mentioned in the Harry Potter books. Several protestors stood outside with signs and yelled through bullhorns at the children who were entering the library to attend the event. Pat Helmick, the circulation clerk, believed they crossed the line by yelling at the children. Describing the situation, Helmick said:
[The protestors] were screaming, 'Don't go in there, it's evil. Don't read Harry Potter.' It was amazing and pathetic […] A person came in and gave me a copy of the paper they were handing the children. It had scriptures on it talking about abominations and adultery--stuff that I never got from reading Harry Potter. I mean, my goodness. (Haddad)

Some of the children were scared and felt like they were doing something horrible by attending an event at their public library. The pastor who organized the protest, Gary Basham, believes that the scare tactic used on the children was justified. He said, "Yes we scared them, but I'd rather scare them to heaven than just let them go to hell--because hell's kind of scary […] We believe that this Harry Potter thing is wicked. All we were trying to do is open the people's eyes to reality—it’s not just a little story book" (Haddad). Basham believes that the author, J. K. Rowling, is a witch herself and is trying to encourage witchcraft through her books. Of course, a major problem with Mr. Basham's objections is that he has admitted to never actually reading the Harry Potter books.
When the controversy developed over the Harry Potter films, which were targeted towards children, several religious leaders issued statements that either supported or rejected the movies and books. Leaders of the Catholic Church examined the matter. Father Peter Fleetwood represented the Vatican when he responded to reporters about the controversy. He said, “No one in this room grew up without images of magicians, witches, spirits, and angels. These are not bad things, and I certainly don’t think Harry Potter is flying some kind of anti-Christian banner” (qtd. in Allen). Magic is represented in all sorts of forms to children in an effort to help them to understand good values.

The attempt to censor these stories, based on the sole criteria of magical content is unrealistic because witchcraft, magic, and fantasy are ingrained in children from the earliest stages. Magic is an essential part of traditional storytelling. Books with some form of magic include Mary Poppins, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Wrinkle in Time series, Matilda, and The Wizard of Oz. Movies include “Star Wars”, “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”, “Pete’s Dragon”, and “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The largest genre, which seems mostly aimed toward children, is fairytales. All sorts of fairytales have magic in them: Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstiltskin, Aladdin’s Lamp, and Cinderella, to name a few. None of these categories include video games or the Saturday morning television shows filled with superheroes and magical ponies, whose target audience is, in fact, children.

Christian leaders as well as regular fans have praised the books as a good moralistic story with many Christian allegories. The series is full of Biblical images. Defenders of the books praise them as powerful, moral tools. Ministers have preached sermons that liken Harry’s running through a solid wall onto Platform 9 ¾ as a leap of faith (Gibbs). In the climax of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, book two, Christian allegory is particularly noticeable. Harry battles a serpent, a common symbol of the devil, and is almost defeated. He is unable to win by himself and eventually needs help. The help comes from above in the form of a phoenix, a Christ figure that dies and rises again. In the end, the phoenix weeps on Harry to heal his wounds, a symbol of Christ’s passion, as Christ is the one who heals us and makes us whole. While the serpent is an obvious representation of evil, Harry is a representation of virtue that fights wicked. Other Christian elements included in the story are a godfather for Harry, a Friar, and the celebration of Christmas and Easter. The story is about good versus evil, with good prevailing. Whether or not the Christian allegories were intentional by J. K. Rowling is unclear. According to Father Fleetwood, “As far as I can tell, the chief concern of the author is to help children to understand the conflict between good and evil. This seems very clear” (Allen). One of the main themes of the books is the fight between good and evil, hero versus the villain. The magical world is simply the setting for this particular fight.

Not all Catholics, however, share the same view or take note of the Christian allegories. Michael O’Brien, Canadian author and a Catholic, argues the Potter series “has the potential of lowering a child’s guard to the actual occult activity in the world around us, which is everywhere and growing” (qtd. in Allen). O'Brien believes that reading Harry Potter causes a child to become susceptible to cultish activity. This is true in rare cases, but the purpose of the magic is for entertainment. As stated before, the methods of storytelling that the media uses saturate a child’s learning development with the concepts of magic and wizardry. Magic is an element that keeps a child’s interest in a story with didactic purposes.

Berit Kjos, a minister who runs a website called Kjos Ministries, believes the purpose of the magic in the Harry Potter books is to lure children to witchcraft, away from God. After meticulously reading the Harry Potter books, he traces the witchcraft elements mentioned in the books to their actual Wicca roots. Through his findings, he believes that the novels encourage the practice of witchcraft among children and leads them away from religion. He quotes Ephesians 6 and admonishes people to put on the armor of God and listen to His word. Though well researched, not all of his arguments are logical. In reference to the growing amount of magic that Harry uses in his adventures, Kjos says, “The readers are all rooting for him. They want to see him win—and the stronger the magic the better! No wonder witchcraft is on the rise these days. The world is learning that magical training brings virtual success. It feels good. So why not go for the real thing!” Kjos is not correct in his assumption that magic is what makes the story “feel good” to the reader. The spells are a remarkable element, which serve to enhance the storyline, but this is not what entices the readers. Harry’s decisions and the consequences of those choices are what fascinate the readers, not the spells, as Kjos suggests.

Another Christian leader who is opposed to the Potter books, Pastor Jack Brock from New Mexico, quotes Deuteronomy, saying that witchcraft is an abomination. Brock made national headlines when he staged a “Holy Bonfire” where, among others, Harry Potter books were burned. This action fuel the popularity of the books and the popularity of the banning of the books. When speaking about witchcraft, Brock says, “Anyone who thinks that’s healthy, I don’t understand. God says in Deuteronomy that witchcraft is an abomination. Whatever God hates, I hate. [ . . . ] The books are totally, completely, entirely about witchcraft” (qtd. in Gibbs). Robert McGee, a Baptist pastor, made a one-hour video available to the public that alleges to reveal that the wildly popular series is “really a secret plot to make Wiccans of its young fans” (Goldberg). Kjos, Brock, and McGee, whose beliefs about Harry Potter are in the minority, seem to believe that all children will turn to occult action by reading the series. They automatically assume that children do not have a grasp of what is fantasy and what is reality. The magic is only the backdrop for the story, while the books are concentrated almost wholly on noble, conventional virtues (love, honesty, bravery, loyalty), which are developed in the natural human way.

Like the majority of the readers, J. K. Rowling knows that the magic is a fictional element and is present in the books to entertain, not to pull people away from God. Rowling has made it clear that she does not believe in magic. When some children asked her if she believed in magic in a June 2003 interview, she replied:
I'm sorry to say this, because often when I answer this question I get a groan but I don't believe in magic. I don't believe in it as it appears in the books. I could be slightly corny and say I believe in other kinds of magic. The magic of imagination for example and love, but magic as in waving a magic wand and making things happen…no I don't. I'd love to, but I'm afraid I can't. (qtd. in Fry) Incredibly, disgruntled individuals have come to Rowling, pointing out that they have tried the spells in the books and cannot get them to work. Rowling simply tells them that the spells are not real and that is why they are not working. She makes it very clear that she does not believe in magic.

The realization that Harry Potter is fantasy is an important part of the reading process. Though readers are involved in the story, the separation between real life and fantasy is noted. Innocently, a child may say to a parent, “I wish I was a wizard,” “Can I have a light saber?,” “I want to play quidditch,” “I’m an X-man,” or “I want to be a teenage mutant ninja turtle.” However, through the teaching of parents (and, in the case of the turtle and the X-man, a good lesson in genetics), children should be able to grow up with the knowledge of what is real life and what is fantasy. Teresa Osorio Boncalves, a worker for the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, commented on the Harry Potter films. She said, “Parents concerned about the film’s sorcery elements should know that it is unlikely to pose any threat to Catholic Beliefs. Harry Potter is so obviously innocuous fantasy that its fiction is easily distinguishable from real life. Harry uses his ‘magical powers’ for good to fight evil” (qtd. in Allen). Websites set up and run entirely by fans make it clear that the readers know what is real and what is not. Though some of the webmasters have admitted to abnormal obsessions with Harry Potter, they know the difference between what is real and what is fantasy. When fans get a little overzealous in their belief of the realness of the books, it is common for other Harry Potter fans to poke fun at those believing the magic is real enough to test.

Usually, a child can only read Harry Potter so many times before he or she will want to branch out. Eventually, children will move onto other authors to satisfy a newly developed liking for fantasy literature. Sharyn November, a fantasy publisher and editor, says, “Harry Potter has been an enormous help to a lot of people. It’s brought attention to wonderful authors such as Tammy (Pierce), Diana Wynne Jones, and Lloyd Alexander. They’ve always sold well—but now they’re selling better” (Keller). As evidenced, Harry Potter often serves as a kid’s break-out novel.

Fan sites provide "After Harry Potter" lists with recommended reading for their users because so many fans want to continue to read. On one popular fan site called Mugglenet.com, there is a section called "The Book Trolley." In this section, site managers, who are young people themselves, provide a list of authors and books suggested and compiled by the editors, webmasters, and site users. Some of the authors include Lloyd Alexander, Eoin Colfer, Roald Dahl, and J. R. R. Tolkien. Another list on a children's book website has suggested C. S. Lewis, Diana Wynne Jones, and P. L. Travers. All of these authors are suggested as additional reading to Harry Potter. Children will pick up these author's books and read, leaving behind the monotonous sitcom, the violent video games, and the demoralizing movies that plague the theater. With all of these mind-numbing activities surrounding the lives of children, there is no wonder that the popularity of Harry Potter is at its current height. Children seemed to have been waiting for something like Harry Potter to come along.

Harry Potter fans devour literature. Besides fantasy, readers also move on to read other genres of literature that pique their interest. In one particular case in a Southern Illinois middle school, a group of youngsters and a teacher began a Harry Potter book club with the permission from the school board. The program was entirely voluntary and the result of such a club was astounding. The 7th and 8th grade students studied Greek, Celtic, and Norse myths that may have influenced J. K. Rowling’s writings. The club grew in numbers, even attracting high school students. Besides the Harry Potter novels, the students compiled a “Recommended Reading for Potterheads” list, a list that included Gothic authors such as Edgar Allen Poe, Anne Rice, Bram Stoker, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and original creator of fantasy worlds, J. R. R. Tolkien (Donnell). Not only have these students expanded their literature repertoire, they have also explored literary theory, art psychology, film theory, and mythology. They have also learned the importance of standing for one’s beliefs, as the existence of the club was challenged for the familiar witchcraft reasons. Members of the club conquered these challenges through research, which was presented by representatives of the club to the school board. This group of young students is an example of what the Harry Potter books can do for children. The books inspire learning and lend children to other genres outside of Harry Potter including psychology and mythology.

Some literary critics who have read the books don't have a problem with the magic, but claim that the Harry Potter novels are empty. Harold Bloom, a “keeper of the keys” type figure of the literary world, dismissed the first Harry Potter book as thin and derivative in a 2000 article in the Wall Street journal. He has since refused to look at any of the sequels. He says, “I would think in another generation or so, Harry Potter will be in the dustbins everywhere. It will be period-piece rubbish because it is so atrociously written” (qtd. in Gibbs). Bloom, however, is in the minority. Even if Harry Potter is not great literature, as Bloom says, the novels speak very powerfully to people, especially children. Instead of deciphering one painful word after another, children gulp down paragraphs and chapters whole, learning the joy of reading and the meaning behind the story (Block). A large number of readers, both child and adult, find the story saturated with archetypes and folklore. Rowling, with no intention to promote “real-life” magic, definitely uses details from the history of the occult, such as names, paraphernalia, and figures of speech. Readers like to trace the roots of the archetypes and compare Harry to figures like King Arthur, an ordinary person endowed with magical powers, and Luke Skywalker, whose chronicle is the epitome of an archetypal story. Readers research the history of the figures, the magic in Harry Potter, and consume the literature in the process.

Because J. K. Rowling uses such details from the history of witchcraft, parents and religious leaders object to the novels, but there are other reasons, though none as popular as magic, which cause the Harry Potter series to be censored. Harry has good attributes—love, loyalty, courage—that influence the way he deals with his problems. Harry fights against Lord Voldemort, the story’s villain, because the problem fell in Harry’s hands and he feels fighting Lord Voldemort is right. Harry is also loyal to his friends whom he loves and would do anything for, even if he is called to risk his life. However, Harry’s bad personality traits cause parents to censor the books from their children. Harry is a rule-breaker and, often through narrow escapes, he gets away with his delinquency without punishment. He often chooses to break a rule with the justification that the rule must be broken in order to save the world from certain peril. He does this for what he believes are good reasons. Parents, however, argue that he is still breaking a rule.

In one case in The Chamber of Secrets, book two, Harry and his friends, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasely are curious as to who has been attacking students in the school. Hermione hatches a plan to catch the culprit and suggests the plan to her friends. She says, “Of course, it would be difficult. And dangerous, very dangerous. We’d be breaking about fifty school rules, I expect” (Rowling 159). In this plan, the trio manipulates a teacher, light fireworks in class to create a distraction, steal from another teacher, use a hidden potion to knock out two fellow students, and mix and brew an illegal potion for over a month in a girls’ non-working bathroom. They knowingly break several school rules, for what they believe, is a justified reason. Parents have cause to be concerned about this because, as Harry is the hero, children may be inclined to mimic his and his friends’ actions. Children may find reasons to break rules and then attempt to justify their actions by saying it was for a good cause. Though kids may not always understand what a good cause is, they can be good judges of what is right and what is wrong. As Harry and his friends make choices, children must also make choices in the real world that may include breaking a rule in order to bring a positive outcome. If kids followed every rule given to them, the creativity of the younger generation would suffer. They would become little androids, following orders all the time. Though some parents would be happy to have their children follow every order, kids need, at some point, to learn to think for themselves. Instead of living a life filled with regulations, children should be able to make their own choices in directing their lives when they reach an appropriate age.

Many children’s books have main characters as rule breakers or delinquents. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer are considered delinquents by their fellow townsfolk. Ender Wiggin, from Orson Scott Card’s science fiction novel Ender’s Game, kills two fellow students in excessive self defense and gets away with the crime. Other non-perfect characters include Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, and the Hardy Boys. What makes these characters attractive is that readers can relate to them. They see that their heroes in their books are not perfect and they do make mistakes. Of the Harry Potter characters, Nancy Gibbs, a journalist, says [They are] inspirational, but mercifully not perfect. Wizards have troubles and egos and envy and ratty robes they are embarrassed to wear. Harry is capable of jealousy and insensitivity. He breaks rules and doesn’t tell grownups things it would plainly be in his interest to reveal. He gets into trouble. Hermione may be smart, but she can be rigid […] Ron is loyal but insecure. Rowling loves her characters and invites readers to love them, not just despite their flaws but because of them. Since one’s flaws loom large in adolescence, that is quite a healing potion.

Kids are able to relate to the emotions that Harry feels and can connect them to their own lives. They can learn from his mistakes and make better choices, just as they learn from boys like Huckleberry Finn, Frodo Baggins, and Luke Skywalker whose choices sometimes bring grief and unhappiness. In Chamber of Secrets, Dumbledore, the Hogwarts school headmaster, explains to Harry that “it is our choices […] that show what we truly are” (333). J. K. Rowling is very adamant in her books that choices are what determine how our life will be, whether we will be happy or sad, good or bad.

When this connection is made by readers between the fantasy world and the real world, the real-life situations surrounding Harry are an intriguing part of the story that attracts readers to the books. Ligia Mizhquiri, a 12-year-old from Chicago, says, “[J. K. Rowling] gets everything right. What happens (at Harry’s school) happens to us. Some of us are popular. Some of us are not. Some of us get bullied. Some of us are bullies” (qtd. in Gibbs). As Ligia points out, human nature is present in all sorts of characters in the books. Though set mostly in a wizard’s world, the story of Harry Potter promotes—through their characters—friendship, love, bravery, self-reliance, the importance of family, and tolerance toward those different from us. They depict the quest for knowledge, wisdom and right action—the universal journey every human takes. The books condemn bullies, falsity, rudeness, greed, and Nazi-like tendencies to denigrate and hurt those who aren’t like us (Monk).

Harry learns who good people with good values are, who bad people with bad values are, and how to tell the difference. Through his interaction with good and bad, the readers will connect with Harry and his dilemmas. They recognize that Harry’s world is much like their own with good and terrible virtues represented in people. While the books do have evil characters, in no way are children encouraged to have sympathy for those characters. The villain is always looked upon as evil, and his characterization is such that he cannot be loved by readers. Voldemort is someone readers do not want to emulate because he is miserable, a liar, and a murderer. He is clearly the villain of the story, and is not the person to which children listen. They do not put any value into what he says or does. Voldemort is solely a representation of evil, not a glorification of evil.

Harry learns through Voldemort and his school rival, Draco Malfoy, that racism exists in the wizard world as it does in the real world. The Malfoy family, like Voldemort, are classic villains, with hate as their drive. J. K. Rowling says, “We all grow up with those sorts of people and certainly as adults we’ve all met Lucius Malfoy and some of the other characters. [Harry] found out that Wizards are racist and slowly but surely he’s found out that many people in power in the wizarding world are just as corrupt and nasty as they are in our world” (Fry). The Malfoy family and Voldemort, among others in the novel, harbor prejudices against anyone who does not have pure wizard blood in their genealogy, meaning no ancestor can be a non-magic person, or a muggle. The snobbery of the purebloods against the mudbloods (the derogatory term for magic people with mixed ancestry) is all a mirror image of racism and intolerance in the real world. The word "mudblood" is comparable to the racially prejudiced term, "nigger," that is used in the real world. This racism is the primary cause of conflict in the novel. However, the characters who are intolerant of others are not the heroes of the story; they are the villains and it is up to Harry to choose the kind of people, good or bad, moral or immoral, that he wants for his friends.

How Harry deals with the problems that face him, such as the racism, and the mystery in the books are what draw the audience to Harry's story. Fan based websites of the books (over 20 major sites on a Yahoo! Search alone) are overwhelmingly not centered on witchcraft, but about the mystery and situations surrounding Harry and his friends. The story of Harry Potter is for today’s younger age group what Nancy Drew and the Hardy boys were for previous generations, each having its own allure (Maliszewski). The magic is the imaginative center element of the book, but not the hook into the story. The major attraction that pulls people into the story line is the detective work involved. Christopher Routledge, an English professor and critic, argues that, “while the magic, witchcraft, and the supernatural are all central to the Harry Potter novels, it is the detective story elements that provide the main form of mystery in the series. [ . . . ] It is finding justice for the wrongly accused [ . . . ] that is the main aim of detection in the novels” (202). Readers do not countdown until the day when, filled with anticipation, they can try the next spell created by Ms. Rowling. Readers countdown the days to find out how Harry will escape, how he will survive his classes, who will be the next Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and whether or not Ron and Hermione will ever hook up.

The story is filled with mystery and is there for children and adults alike to enjoy. Because the Harry Potter novels are fantasy, the magic held within its covers is meant to entertain the reader, not to advocate the practice of witchcraft. J. K. Rowling does not advocate witchcraft because the novels themselves are fiction. She is adamant in her belief that magic is not real. She makes it clear in her novels that it is not Harry’s magical ability that can make him great but it is the choices that he makes that will determine how his life will be led. Because of Harry’s mind and how he handles the problems in his life, people are drawn to the novels. The books cannot be blamed for the spread of witchcraft. The fantasy element is an enjoyable way for the reader to see reality. The books have encouraged children around the world to read. Censoring these books from children is a ridiculous course of action that would only deny children of the real magic of Harry Potter. Any book that encourages children around the world to embark on a reading feast, as the Harry Potter novels have done, should be praised for its ability to cause a stir in children, which opens them up to a world bursting with great literature.

(Originally composed December 2003, revised March 2005)

Works Cited

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