Book Review: Harry Potter Series

Since the first book was published in 1997, Harry Potter has become a cultural sensation.  There are movies and merchandise based on the series, and gallons of ink have been spilled discussing their literary quality and cultural significance.  Additionally, there has been an ongoing debate among Christians about the moral quality of the series.  Advocates such as John Granger argue that the books provide a cosmic good-against-evil battle that is essentially Christian (a claim that Rowling may have indirectly refuted in her strange 2007 announcement that Dumbledore, the deceased headmaster of Hogwarts, was gay.) Detractors claim the books could lead readers into occultic involvement.  A good example of the spirited debate over Harry Potter is the July 18, 2005 discussion on the Albert Mohler radio program.

The books tell the story of the orphaned Harry Potter, who lives with his outrageously abusive (and nonmagical) aunt and uncle.  On his eleventh birthday he receives a letter inviting him to study at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where his parents attended before him.  There he discovers that his unique gifts make him special, and he earns his place at Hogwarts through excellence at the wizard’s sport Quidditch.  At Hogwarts he deals with the everyday trials of preadolescents, making some enemies and a few good friends, who join him in his adventures.

Most of the wizarding community are goodhearted, and many are heroic; but Voldemort, an evil wizard, holds the wizarding world in terror, and he emerges as Harry’s nemesis.  In each installment of the series his vendetta against Harry is expressed in a new way, and each time Harry defeats him.

I have read books 1-6, and found that books 1-4 seem to be entertaining, basically innocent magical fantasy including loyal friends, some positive adult role models, and a classic good-against-evil struggle.  Unfortunately, books 5-6 grow quite dark and are rather disturbing as Harry matures into a young teen.  His confrontations with evil become progressively more frightening (at times horrifying and macabre), and sensitive readers will definitely be disturbed.

More troubling than the magical elements, which can be dismissed as mere fantasy, are Harry’s relationships with the people in his life, especially those in authority.  The Hogwarts faculty who care about Harry often overlook important safety concerns, forcing him to break the rules in order to oppose Voldemort.  Even Dumbledore, his primary advocate and father figure, is unable to prevent his own murder in front of Harry, and his death leaves Harry bereft of his primary source of adult guidance.  Young teens are already prone to the belief that they know more than their elders, and Harry’s experiences will do nothing to discourage this delusion.

Harry’s isolationism is also troubling.  While his friends do show courage and loyalty as they join in the fight against evil, it is always Harry who ends up facing down the villain.  At the end of book six Harry walks away from the wizarding community as a one-man vigilante.  While his heroism is not all bad, there is an individualistic and self-absorbed quality to his departure that is likely to appeal to adolescent pride.  If any readers have read book seven, I would be interested to know if this quality is altered in his final confrontation with Voldemort.

The Harry Potter series is entertaining and well written, and follows a good-against-evil motif that is in some harmony with a Christian worldview.  The magic in the early books seems for the most part fantastical, although the later books move into darker, more occultic territory.  More problematic is Harry’s isolationism, as well as the absence of trustworthy, competent adults in his life.

Some families may feel that the books’ popularity with their children’s peers is reason enough for reading them, and a reasonable case may be made for their inclusion in home reading as a part of cultural literacy.  However, I would recommend that if the books are approved, their introduction should be delayed until the early teen years, when readers are old enough to engage the problematic elements with the help of a discerning adult.

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Publication Information: Rowling, J.K.. Harry Potter Series, The. GrandPre, Mary (Illustrator). Harry Potter; Scholastic. 2006. ISBN: 0439887453.
Categories: 2 Stars, Age 12-16, Honey For a Child's Heart, Read-Aloud Handbook, What Stories Does My Son Need
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Posted on October 19, 2009

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