Book Views Harry Potter Through Moral Lenses
Published: August 2, 2007
THE MYSTERY OF HARRY POTTER: A Catholic Family Guide; by Nancy Carpentier Brown; Our Sunday Visitor, 2007; 175 pp; paperback, $12.95.
Are the Harry Potter books safe for kids? This question has been bandied about for years, with some parents insisting the books encourage young children to see witchcraft and magic as ordinary parts of life, while others believe the books are harmless.
Where does the truth lie?
Nancy Carpentier Brown in “The Mystery of Harry Potter” attempts to look at the series written by J.K. Rowling through a variety of lenses. Brown admits she went from being anti-Potter to becoming a supporter, after she took the time to read the books.
Brown has some good advice. Above all, she believes the books, now numbering seven with the recent publication of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” are not for children of all ages. Thus, parents should read them first to decide if the plots would be too upsetting or inappropriate for their own children.
She believes the Harry Potter books are moral tales depicting a struggle between good and evil, with emphasis placed on human free will. For her, the magic in the books is no more harmful than that found in many fairy tales.
The books, she claims, emphasize the very Catholic belief in the importance of sacrificial love, so Rowling has “told a Christian story in the unexpected disguise of a witchcraft tale.”
“Mystery” will be a good read for busy parents who want to explore more deeply the underlying messages of the Potter series. But at times, the writing seems rushed and disjointed, and many topics are too general to be considered specifically pertinent to Catholic parents.
Yes, it is true, as the author points out, that parents and friendships are shown to be important in the Potter books, and, yes, it is true that the books have no smoking, no drug use, no same-sex partners and “very little swearing.”
Still, these points alone won’t assuage the fears of parents who believe the books are too dark and too deeply involved in magic and witchcraft. And Catholic parents especially will want to know what the Catechism of the Catholic Church—and the Bible—say about magic, and what church leaders have said about the books.
Early on, Brown mentions that Pope Benedict XVI, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had expressed an opinion that the Potter books contained “subtle seductions.” His full statement was: “These are subtle seductions that are barely noticeable, and precisely because of that have a deep effect and corrupt the Christian faith in souls even before it could properly grow.” But rather than take his criticism seriously, Brown dismisses his remarks as polite responses to Gabriel Kuby, a German author who had sent him a copy of her book, “Harry Potter: Good or Evil?”
Oddly, Brown concludes, without evidence, that the pope has never read any of the Harry Potter books himself.
At times, she mentions places in the Bible and the Catechism that she feels are relevant to her defense of the books, but some of her claims are vague, such as her assertion that even the Bible has stories about magicians, and others about people lying.
She also believes it is important for parents to guide their children through the books, and discuss concepts with them. As she points out, some moral situations in Harry Potter can be hard for young children to understand:
“Although there is a clear delineation between the good and evil, there are many times when we must choose greater goods over lesser goods, and we must be able to weigh complex issues.”
This comment alone shows why the books may be inappropriate for very young readers, who lack the wisdom to make such distinctions.
Unfortunately, Brown chose a rather awkward device to deliver her message. In each chapter, she presents a section from a poem by G.K. Chesterton, “Lepanto,” and then compares the action of the poem with the plots of the Potter books. Since this is not a well-known poem, the technique is a bit of a stretch.
Every chapter has dinner-table questions, which may be helpful for parents who want to discuss the books with their children. Also, there is a good chapter on the difference between the movies and the books, with the author noting that the movies are generally more upsetting and violent than the books, and parents should take movie ratings seriously.
When all is said and done, one questions remains: Are the books safe for children? Even after reading this book, the jury is still out.
Lorraine V. Murray is the author of three books on spiritual issues. She works in the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.