That the greatest publishing event in history should turn out to have been a children’s book about an English orphan boy training to be a wizard has, depending on who you are, been a cause for celebration—or a matter of concern. There are parents whose children wait for months for the next volume in the series and who are likely to disappear for a day or two to their rooms after it arrives (we’re talking about the children here, not the parents).
The Harry Potter books are indeed terribly popular, and many parents wonder what they should think of them. Generally speaking, there are two basic questions about the Harry Potter books: First, are they bad? Second, are they good? Some people think that since they use images of witchcraft to tell their story, this could have a detrimental influence on children. Others think the books are simply not good literature. Still others think they are simply delightful.
Let’s address the first question: are the Harry Potter books bad?—or, to ask it in its most common form, Are they dangerous? When I am asked by a parent whether the Harry Potter books are dangerous, my answer is, “Absolutely.” “In fact,” I point out, “all literature is dangerous.” Granted, this is usually not what they expected to hear.
Many parents of my generation will remember the fellow students they ran into in college during the 1970s and 80s who were hijacked by the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. These were people who left home and came to college where they encountered Rand’s novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and were captivated by Rand’s egoistic ideology. Why were they so swept away? For one reason: they hadn’t read anything else. By and large, these were people who were not well-read in the first place. They were ignorant of the great books, and so, in encountering Rand, they mistakenly concluded that they had come in contact with great thinking. They were not used to ideas, and so, to use G. K. Chesterton’s words, Rand’s one idea went to their heads like “one glass of wine to a starving man.”
“Literature,” says Chesterton, “classic and enduring literature, does its best work in reminding us perpetually of the whole round of truth and balancing other and older ideas against the ideas to which we might for a moment be prone … You can find all the new ideas in the old books; only there you will find them balanced, kept in their place, and sometimes contradicted and overcome by other and better ideas.”
To a child who is not well-read, Harry Potter is dangerous—and so is any other book he or she may read. But the best defense against one idea is not fewer ideas, but more of them; and the best defense against one book is a whole host of them. Being widely read, in other words, is the best inoculation against the dangers of literature. Being widely read enables a person to not only see an idea, but, as Chesterton put it, to see through it.
Literature is dangerous—except when taken in large doses.
If my theory is correct, then if the Harry Potter books are dangerous, they are a threat mainly to children who are not well-read. But what about the witchcraft? It would seem here that the critics have a point. But let us think about this a little further.
I think there are two responses to the concerns over witchcraft in Harry Potter. The first is to ask whether the so-called “witchcraft” in these books is of the same kind as that prohibited in the Scriptures. I have my doubts about whether what is discussed in Scripture—namely necromancy—is really what is going on here, or whether what we really have in the Harry Potter books is what I call “fairy tale magic.” Waving wands and exploding birds just don’t seem to compare with calling up the spirits of the dead for purposes of prophesy.
Most of the magic in the Harry Potter books is a sort of natural magic, used to manipulate things to do what we want them to do. This being the case, we might ask how it differs fundamentally from science and technology, which do the same thing with processes that, to most of us (with the exception of a few magicians we call “scientists”), are just as mysterious as what happens when Harry waves his wand.
But even if the “magic” in Harry Potter poses a problem, there is something to be said for it being out in the open. In fact, if there are problems with the Harry Potter books, they are largely on the surface: the better we may see and assess them. How much better this is than a book in which the problems are underneath the surface and pass into our mind unnoticed. For this reason, I am much less uncomfortable with my children reading Harry Potter, which at least has a fairly clear delineation of good an evil, than some other children’s books you find on the shelves these days that don’t have that and whose lead characters are often self-obsessed and morally confused.
Another charge thrown against the Potter books is that they are not great literature. Harold Bloom, the great literary critic, levelled this charge in an article in The New York Times. After it ran, the editors called and told Bloom that they had never seen anything like it: they had received 400 negative response letters and only one positive one, and the latter they said they suspected he had written himself!
But those who think that the Harry Potter books are dangerous should be less concerned, not more, by the thought that they are not great literature. Why? Because not only is literature dangerous, but, in one sense, the better a piece of literature, the more dangerous it is. This may seem like a paradox, but it is really just common sense. Anything that captures your heart (and the better a piece of literature is, the more it will do this), can propel you in the right direction—or the wrong one.
In the case of Harry Potter, the books cannot be that bad because they are not that great. There is a difference between great literature and good literature, and they both have their place. When it comes to fiction, a great book is not only a book that you read again and again or that speaks some great truth: it is a book that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a book in which there is something behind what you initially see—a book in which there is more than meets the eye.
There have been many criticisms of the Harry Potter books, but the most insightful remark anyone has made about them was by Madelaine L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time and several other classic stories. In a May 2008 interview in Newsweek magazine, L’Engle made an interesting observation: “It’s a nice story,” she said of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, “but there’s nothing underneath it.”
There’s nothing underneath it. That is perhaps the greatest difference between a great book and a merely good one: great books have something underneath them.
There are many things to commend the Potter books as reading material. I happen to think that Rowling’s characters are well-drawn and compelling. In fact, they remind me very much of some of Dickens’ characters: they have the same vividness, they have the same reality, and the have the same fundamental comic nature—even some of the bad characters. Rowling even gives them names that express something about their character: Bathsheba Babbling, Bathilda Bagshot, and Severus Snape, names that are not that far from Josiah Bounderby, Mr. Bumble, or Ebeneezer Scrooge in descriptiveness and propriety.
And yet there is something different. Dickens’ characters—and his stories—often tell us something fundamental about human nature itself. There is something “underneath” Dickens’ stories in a way that there is not in the Harry Potter books. While Rowling’s stories are about what they are about, Dickens’ stories are about more than what they are about. Chesterton once said that the aim of good prose words is to mean what they say, while the aim of good poetic words is to mean what they do not say. There is a poetry about great books that is missing from merely good ones.
In his book The Death of Christian Culture, John Senior makes a distinction between what he calls the “100 great books” and the “1,000 good books.” He makes the distinction not to dismiss the good books, but only to put them in their proper place. In fact, he says, it is important to be familiar with the 1,000 good books before even attempting the 100 great books.
To say that the Potter books are not great literature is not an argument against reading them: it is only an argument against the misconception that they are great. Because a book is only good and not great is not a reason for not reading it: it is only a reason for not misconstruing its place.
In some sense, there is no arguing with success. There is something to be said for the argument that J. K. Rowling’s creation must have something to it for it to have been so successful. In fact, she spins an exciting yarn. As good books go, they are pretty good good books.
But second things, said C. S. Lewis, suffer when put first. He didn’t say what their fate was when put last. But neither mistake does the books—or ourselves—any favors.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2008 edition.