A few days ago, I finally had a chance to watch the last of the Harry Potter movies, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2”. The movies run the range from excellent (Deathly Hallows Pt.2, Half-Blood Prince) to competent (the first two movies, directed by Chris Columbus) to odd and head-scratchingly inconsistent with the characters of the novel in places (Azkaban). Overall, however, they’re a remarkable achievement because they manage to replicate in movie form what makes the books so unique: they progress and grow with the characters through seven years.
After I finished Deathly Hallows, I had the impulse to read the books and watch all the movies again from the beginning because I was sad to see the story end. This is what makes great storytelling to me–when you feel a nostalgia and sense of loss for a world that never existed except in your head and that of the author. it also reaffirmed my personal theory of storytelling: that a novel ultimately stands and falls with the author’s ability to make us care about the characters. Ideally, a good novel has both great characters and a great plot, but a novel with a humdrum plot can still be great if we care enough about the characters and the world in which they move. On the obverse, the best and most airtight plot will not save a novel with bland and uninteresting characters. If we don’t care about the people in it, the story becomes uninteresting even when the author is firmly in command of the plot and throws in narrative razzle-dazzle.
Harry Potter isn’t about witchcraft and wizardry. Those are the dressing on the salad, the tinsel on the tree, the swirl on the pastry. Harry Potter is about friendship and love and loyalty, about family and the nature of life and death, and about what’s truly important in life, the qualities that define us as human beings. That’s why the criticism of the series from certain segments of Christianity is not only misguided, but profoundly unfair. So much of the Harry Potter books could actually serve as Christian allegory (and far more effectively than C.S. Lewis’ heavy-handed pap in the Narnia books) that people who accuse Harry Potter of being the Devil’s work only show that they either don’t have a clue what the books are about (and many haven’t even read them), or that their version of Christianity is a particularly loveless and grim one.
I know that most Christians don’t have a problem with Harry Potter. Most of the Christians I know, for example, read the books and let their children read them, simply because they’re good entertainment that ultimately champions good values. But I have come to understand why some Christians reject the books, and why they’re invariably members of the inflexible and fundamental branches of Christianity. You see, the Christians I know and get along with have an understanding that books are a way to make us understand our nature and our place in the world, and that nothing is literal in fiction. They apply this attitude to the Bible as well–Jesus speaks in parables, the lessons of the New Testament are to be seen in context, and the spirit of the book is in the totality of its message.
There’s another kind of Christian, though, and they treat the Bible differently. For them, the important thing is that parts of it have lists of black-and-white rules, lots of “Thou shalt not” and so on. They are the ones who see the Bible as literal truth. What’s important is not the message or the intent or the spirit of the book, but the lists of printed rules that can be followed. They absolve the believer from having to apply their own judgment, from having to examine an issue from all sides and see it both in the context of human experience and the spirit of the book’s message. That would require having to attempt to understand the issue, when it’s much easier to hold it up against the go/no-go gauge of Leviticus et. al. The Bible says “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”, Harry Potter talks of witches and wizards, ergo Harry Potter is anti-Biblical and therefore un-Christian. It doesn’t require understanding, or exercising judgment, or even reading the books in question. In reality, Harry and his friends embody values that Christianity claims as virtuous. They are kind, fair, loyal, and concerned with the suffering of others. They face evil with courage even at the risk of their own lives. Most importantly, they love each other and remain loyal to friends and family even in the face of persecution. Those are all professed Christian virtues, aren’t they? I mean, if you’re going to encourage your kid to read, isn’t that the kind of stuff a Christian would want their kid to read and like? When it comes to moral lessons in literature, you could do a lot worse than Harry Potter.
Do I believe in the literal truth of Harry Potter, that reading the books will make my kid turn to witchcraft? Not any more than I believe in the existence of God or gods or divinity in general. I don’t believe that I can point a wand at an object and make it levitate by saying “Wingardium Leviosa”. But I do believe in the power of love and friendship and beauty, the things that elevate us above just being meat–and those are the essence of the Harry Potter books, not wands and spells and witchcraft.