Michelle Martin

Potter's magic

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Once upon a time, I wrote a story about the Harry Potter phenomenon. It was early in the series, as I recall, just before the first movie came out, after the first two books came out. It was before the series turned as dark as it would in the later stages, and well before any of my children had any interest in it.

At the time, there were some Catholics who were speaking out against the series, saying that it would tempt children into dabbling in the occult, at worst, and that it would encourage them to lie and cheat and break all sorts of rules.

As a connoisseur of children’s literature, I think nearly all kid-heroes are likely to break a few rules along the way, or at least to do things that they know their parents or teachers or other authority figures would not like. Not to mention, most of them are orphans, like Harry.

Now, about 10 years later, the story is over. All the books have been written, all the movies made. Most of the criticism I hear these days come from literary highbrows who say that Rowling does not uphold a classical standard. Then again, Charles Dickens’ detractors said much the same thing. Others say the books go on too long, with not enough editing.

Maybe the change in criticism is because, by the end, Harry’s story borrows liberally from the Gospel story. The greatest love is to give up one’s life for his friends, anyone? Self-sacrificial love is the most powerful thing? This life isn’t the end, and those who have gone before are always with us? The fate of your soul is more important than the fate of your body?

I’m not saying that Rowling set out to write a Christian series, a la C.S. Lewis in “The Chronicles of Narnia”; she has said that she didn’t. But the ideas behind it are ingrained in us, and are a staple of all heroic stories. The hero nearly always has to sacrifice him- or herself in some significant way to vanquish the evil forces and save the world.

But the books, and the movies, too, offer young readers a wealth of lessons, some delivered with a heavier hand than others.

Among them: We all are born with our own gifts, but it is what we choose to do with them that defines us; that sharing a burden with friends can make it bearable; that many things (family, friends, integrity) are more important than personal gain; that redemption is possible; that extremism in the pursuit of good, to paraphrase, can indeed be a sin, because the end cannot justify the means.

I’ve become more a fan of the series as it went on, and I was happy when Caroline picked up the books and started watching the movies a few years ago. Now we can have lively discussions over which characters we think we are most like, which characters we would most like to be, and what traits we find most admirable.

That might be Rowling’s greatest gift: not just writing books that taught children patience and perseverance in an age of immediate gratification, but creating a world that parents and their adolescent children could share.