Saving Harry: Clearing the Controversy Over Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
In an Edinburgh café several years ago, a struggling single mother sat writing on a pad of paper. The sheets did not contain a grocery list or a half-finished letter, as one might expect. Instead, those pages held the beginnings of a novel that would soon take Britain, and the world, by storm ("J. K. Rowling" 178). J. K. Rowling emerged from her self-described "Grim Period" (quoted in Schafer 28) and entered to glare of international fame through the success of her first novel of an expected seven, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Jones 53). Rowling’s unexpected rise to fame parallels that of her novel’s young hero, Harry Potter. However, not everyone appreciates Harry’s rise to fame. The book has many loud detractors who criticize its supposedly wicked message to children (Hallock 11A). Despite their opinions, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is not an evil book but resembles and draws from classic mythology and fairy tales.
Before Harry became a symbol of Satanism to conservatives, the Harry Potter series already had garnered much attention from the public for being a commercial phenomenon. The first three Potter books reached incredible heights of popularity and success, especially for ostensibly children’s books. Publishers have printed thirty-five million copies, with translations made into thirty-five languages. The first three novels alone have earned at least $480 million (Jones 53). In addition, the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, won the United Kingdom’s Smartie Prize and was declared the British children’s book of the year (Feldman 137).
The publication of the fourth book in the series took the books’ success to another level. Most children’s books have small first printings. The publishing industry normally considers five hundred thousand to be an unusually large number of copies to produce (Gardiner 1A). Nonetheless, for the fourth Potter book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the publishers ordered initial printings totaling an astounding 5.3 million copies in the United States and Great Britain (Jones 53). Apparently, the demand justified the large printing. Before the fourth book even made it to shelves, it soared to number one on the Amazon.com bestseller list through advance orders. History also justified the enormous number of copies, as the first three novels were regulars on the New York Times adult fiction bestseller list until the newspaper created a separate children’s fiction list (Gardiner 9A).
Not surprisingly, Hollywood has not overlooked Harry’s success. Time Warner, Mattel, and Hasbro are producing merchandise to tie in with the series. The companies view Harry merchandise as a potential gold mine. In addition, Warner Brothers will spend $100 million on a movie version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to be released in November 2001. A successful film adaptation will only increase the potential for cashing in on tie-ins, although J. K. Rowling herself does not savor the idea of marketing Potter paraphernalia (Lieberman 1B-2B).
Still, despite the books’ enormous popularity, some parents and religious leaders condemn them, insisting that the books and their author promote witchcraft (Jones 55). More than twenty school districts in seventeen states have encountered challenges to the book (Troiano 1). Conservatives fear the books foster worship of the devil and encourage an interest in the occult. Some parents believe the books are too scary. Others fear that, like other entertainment forms, the books may desensitize children to violence and witchcraft (Hallock 11A).
In truth, the series does contain killing, death, and other violence, in addition to wizardry and witchcraft (Troiano 1). The latest Potter book is even darker than the first three, with more prevalent violence (Gray 71). The Family Research Center confirms that the novels contain "troublesome elements" (quoted in Troiano 1), suggests that adults be "extremely cautious about introducing young children to them and that teachers take seriously parental objection to their use in the classroom" (quoted in 1).
Author Judy Blume, whose own books have often been the subject of conservative criticism, writes that book banning has so grown that almost any reason suffices for parents to demand a book’s removal from schools. The reaction to the Harry Potter series disappoints her, although it does not surprise her (Blume 1-2), as she states:
The only surprise is that it took so long–as long as it took for zealots who claim they’re protecting children from evil (and evil can be found lurking everywhere these days) to discover that children actually like these books. If children are excited about a book, it must be suspect (1).
However, Blume also says that the novel’s supporters must take the protests seriously, because they could pose a serious risk to the freedom to choose what to read and, especially, affect school officials who want to encourage reading. Librarians and teachers who defend children’s freedom to read, she adds, often find their jobs threatened (2).
Although the Harry Potter books are the focus of conservative criticism today, they actually belong to a great fantasy tradition in children’s literature, including classics such as C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (Gardiner 9A). Harry and his adventures develop from traditional myths and fairy tales, and the series draws upon their elements to create a magical world of good and evil (Schafer 128-129).
The first Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, marks the beginning of Harry’s heroic journey. Harry embodies the archetype of the mythological hero. A tragedy scars him as a child, both physically and spiritually (45). Harry’s forehead bears a scar shaped like a lightning bolt (Rowling 20) from the evil Lord Voldemort’s failed attack on him as an infant (12). The lightning bolt is a symbol of fear in mythology associated with the Greek god Zeus. This mark, then, designates Harry as a hero with a quest to fulfill (Schafer 127). In the same line, Harry bears a spiritual heroic scar, the painful loss of his parents in that same epic battle with Voldemort (Rowling 12).
Harry’s tragedy leads him on a journey to seek vengeance for his parents’ deaths. Although hesitant to begin his quest, Harry’s brave and caring spirit enables him to overcome his limitations (Schafer 46). Like a mythical hero, Harry seeks self-knowledge and maturity on his quest, all while battling evil (48). He persists even when the goal seems impossible to reach (46). For example, in the novel, Harry must reach the mystical Philosopher’s Stone before his nemesis does. Although seemingly impenetrable magical defenses protect it, Harry stays true to his quest to defeat Lord Voldemort and bravely faces danger (Rowling 270).
Harry exemplifies the four qualities that Joseph Campbell, a mythologist, describes as essential to the mythical hero. First, Harry conquers the impossible (Schafer 130) by resisting Lord Voldemort’s curse as an infant (Rowling 12). Second, Harry displays qualities valued by his readers, such as innocence, persistence, and vulnerability. Third, Harry becomes a member of several groups, such as Hogwarts and Gryffindor House, and embraces his role within them by fighting evil that threatens the school and leading his house’s Quidditch team to victory as its Seeker. Finally, Harry grows as a result of his adventures and comes to know himself, allowing readers to relate to him and his quest (Schafer 130).
Lord Ragland, author of a study of archetypal heroes, defines the hero in terms of his adventures, which usually follow a formal pattern:
Ragland finds that traditionally the hero’s mother is a virgin, the circumstances of his birth are unusual, and at birth some attempt is made to kill him. He is, however, spirited away and reared by foster parents. Little is known of his early childhood, but as he nears maturity he returns to his future kingdom where he learns some of the secrets of his past (162).
Harry fits Ragland’s pattern almost perfectly. While he lacks a virginal mother, the circumstances of his birth are unusual. Harry alone survives the Potters’ battle with Voldemort, although he is only an infant (Rowling 12). Wizards retrieve him from his destroyed home and deliver him to the doorstep of his mother’s sister and her family, who raise him (15-17). His early childhood receives only a brief mention in the novel (17), but as his eleventh birthday approaches, Harry begins receiving summonses to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (34). Harry leaves the Dursleys, his foster family, for Hogwarts, a part of his original world, and he learns along the way that his unknown fame as the vanquisher of Voldemort precedes him (95-100).
Not only do Harry and his quest fulfill the requirements of the mythological hero, his story meets the criteria of a fairy tale. First, it follows the mythological style without the influence of religion (Anderson and Groff 55). Second, imaginary creatures, such as goblins (Rowling 63), ghosts (115), and centaurs (252), populate the world of the wizards, another defining element of the fairy tale form (Anderson and Groff 55). Third, the use of magical items and other departures from the normal order are characteristic of fairy tales (Schafer 151). Harry casts spells using a wand (Rowling 85) and becomes invisible when he puts on a magical cloak (201), both distinctly abnormal happenings. Finally, Harry’s transformation from an ordinary boy to a wizard when he receives these magical items mirrors other fairy tale transformations, such as Cinderella’s transfiguration from a humble maid to a beautiful princess after receiving splendid gifts from her fairy godmother.
Journalist Roy Maynard compares Harry’s story to the traditional fairy tale in other ways. He points out that Rowling writes not about the everyday world, but about a separate, fantasy world inhabited by magical people, similar to Lewis’ Narnia or Tolkien’s Middle Earth. While she fills this world with wondrous things, she clearly divides good and evil, in both ways like a fairy tale (Maynard 5).
According to Bruno Bettelheim, fairy tales allow children to release and cope with their fears. Reading them, a child can let out the bottled-up feelings of terror that usually go undetected by adults (Schafer 156). G. K. Chesterton agrees that fairy tales make a great contribution to a child’s emotional well-being. They provide the heroes to vanquish the foes in a child’s world (Maynard 5). The Potter novels depict children dealing with fearful situations and people, and those children overcome their struggles with determination and intelligence. In this way, the novels reassure their vulnerable readers (Schafer 156). Without these stories, says author Michael O’Brien, terror and evil can take control of the mind of a child. He affirms that fairy tales, such as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, teach readers morality, the ability to distinguish between good and evil.
While fairy tales, including Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, do contain magic, magic’s appearance in a story does not immediately make that story evil (Maynard 5). Children’s literature scholar Michael Patrick Hearn believes certain people will always feel the opposite way, and, in truth, conservatives have attacked books as seemingly innocuous as The Wizard of Oz (Jones 55). Yet in Harry’s world, magic takes on the mundanity of the things in the ordinary world. Harry casts spells, but he must learn them from books and take exams in their proper execution. Ghosts haunt the halls of Hogwarts, but they whine and pester the school’s residents.
More important, magic does not solve Harry’s problems or serve as an easy way out of a situation (Maynard 5). As Father Anthony Carbone, Irwin Immaculate Conception’s parochial vicar, says, "Even though it deals with magic, it also deals with common sense and logic. Harry has problems like everyone else. He makes a wrong decision, he pays the consequence" (Troiano 20). In addition, although Harry himself has magical powers, J. K. Rowling does not encourage her readers to become wizards and witches. In her third novel, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, she takes aim at the false magic, known as divination, to which the real world often exposes children (Maynard 5).
While the books do deal with evil’s power to seduce, their dominant themes include family, the power of love, loss, and the triumph of good over evil (Troiano 20). Moreover, in spite of their magical settings, the Potter books deal mainly with the problems of childhood. They depict children’s feelings of vulnerability, and they deal with themes of sorrow and loss, such as the death of a parent (Jones 56). In fact, Harry’s greatest desire in the novels is not to be an all-powerful wizard, but to see his dead parents again. He almost gets his wish in when he gazes into the Mirror of Erised, which reflects the most cherished wish of a person’s heart (Rowling 213).
The Potter books not only help children deal with their emotions, but they also encourage children to read. The series has torn children away from video games and the internet to tackle adult-sized books, the most recent numbering more than 700 pages. Consumers have purchased more Potter books than there are people in Greece and Hungary combined (Quindlen 64), and bookstores report that the novels have increased the sales of all children’s literature (Gardiner 9A). Harry Potter has cast a spell over young readers and magically removed the stigma formerly attached to reading among today’s children. Kids who never read for enjoyment before Harry came along now feel unafraid to take on the classics of children’s literature (Troiano 20).
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone does not transform all of its readers into maniacal wizards-in-training. The book does not encourage evildoing but, rather, depicts a growing hero fighting against evil to preserve the good in his world. It does not even break entirely new ground in children’s fantasy. The book instead relies on the great body of literature that came before it, in the forms of mythology and fairy tales, and draws inspiration from those classic forms. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has greatly contributed to literature revitalizing it among the next generation of readers. Judy Blume describes discovering this passion for books well: "My husband and I like to reminisce about how when we were 9, we read straight through L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, books filled with wizards and witches. And you know what those subversive tales taught us? That we loved to read!" (Blume 2). Children and even adults who read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone rediscover the joy of literature, and that rediscovery constitutes Harry’s greatest triumph of all.
Copyright © 2002 Colleen Fischer | Last updated October 7, 2002