Thirteen months ago, my children and I embarked upon a literary journey. I was encouraged by some and strongly warned by others, but with careful consideration and willing hearts, in June of 2020 we stepped onto Platform 9 ¾ with curiosity in hand, and boarded the express train bound for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I can still remember when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone first made its way controversially into the bookstores of the United States. I was a college student and everywhere I turned, I heard the cries of woe from my circle of influence. The Christian community at large was loathe to accept a book that we were told embraced and encouraged witchcraft, that cheered on and delighted in blatant acts of sorcery, and that surely would set its readers, particularly children and young adults, on a slippery slope bound straight for the depths of hell by way of the occult.
This is not an exaggeration, as you may be old enough to recall. Pastors and prominent leaders throughout the American Church were terrified of the effects that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone would have on impressionable young minds. Families would be torn apart while children were quickly swept away from God and into the clutches of dark magic. The End Times would be ushered in with Harry Potter himself at the helm as the Antichrist. With all the fear and drama surrounding this story, there was only one thing for a young 20-something-year-old college sophomore like me to do. I borrowed a copy from the library and read it.
Armed in my helmet of salvation and my breastplate of righteousness, my sword of the Spirit at the ready, I opened the first pages of the book, steadied against the powers of Satan that were bound between the haunting covers of wicked British middle-grade literature. But as I journeyed my way through each chapter, I discovered, to my utter astonishment, that I was finding the story not to be vile and corrupt, but actually quite delightful. It was funny. Clever, even. The characters were endearing. The plot was captivating. I kept my armor on so as not to be caught off guard, but by the end of the book, I was enraptured.
Nearly twenty-five years passed from the time I read that first book. I expected I would read the rest of the series, but life happened and, for a multitude of unimportant reasons, I lost interest in my pursuit of the Harry Potter hype. I did, however, know dozens, if not hundreds of people who read the entire series, and I duly noted the fact that none of them ever joined the occult or became Wiccan. The Church still complained now and then, but not nearly as loudly, and I even came to notice that quite a number of Christian friends and trusted heroes of mine applauded the books.
This is why I decided last summer to embark on the Harry Potter adventure with my own children, this time not through the lens of a naive college student, but with the wisdom of a critically-thinking mother. With the exception of The Hobbit, we read only those books during our read-aloud time for the next thirteen months. (Eventually I gave up reading them myself and passed the torch to Jim Dale’s audio version – highly recommended, by the way.) Jeremy, who had already read the first five books on his own years ago, caught up with us so that we could finish the last few chapters of the series together as a family. This past Saturday morning we sat in the living room, hanging on to the last details of the final scenes, nearly breathless as the last pieces of the puzzle fell into place. It was a family moment I won’t soon forget.
When I choose books for my family to read, I always look for themes of goodness, truth, and beauty. I look for classic tales of good vs evil, characters devoted to one another in friendship and loyalty, and love prevailing over hate, or at the very least, the truth of love’s power prevailing in the heart of the story’s main theme. As writer N.D. Wilson would say, I want to “feed them narratives that love the lovely and honor the honorable.” Did I find these truths in Harry Potter? I did; in fact, I found them to be far more prevalent than I had ever anticipated.
I recognize that I’m late to the game in terms of offering a review of Harry Potter. But I do still know a number of people who never read the books when they were younger (many are my age and, like me, thought they were too old to be reading “kids’ books” when they first came out), but now they have children who are old enough to begin reading them, and they’re concerned. Many heard the same warnings and still have the same trepidation that I did when I was a young college student. I wanted to take the time to offer up my take-aways from this story for those of you who find yourself in my place in life and unsure of how to navigate the world of Harry Potter with your family.
(Mild thematic spoilers ahead.)
The plot began to weave a familiar story of good vs. evil, but the evil I had been warned about wasn’t what I had expected. The characters, other than the fact that they had the ability to perform magic, were no different than the characters I remembered from those that had been given places of honor in the Christian faith: Lucy, Susan, Peter, Edmund, Frodo, Sam, even Gandalf in a sense. The evil was there, to be sure. But it was identifiable evil, not cloaked in righteousness so as to cause young minds to stray from the knowledge of truth. It was White Witch evil. Sauron evil. Maleficent evil. And it was clear from the very beginning that such darkness must hold no place of honor. The prophet Isaiah warns us in scripture, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness…” (Isaiah 5:20). In the Harry Potter series, evil is clearly named and is clothed in deceit, hatred, and malice. There is nothing attractive about it.
More than that, though, Harry Potter is a story of friendship that is exceedingly loyal. It’s a story of courage and bravery that kids can cling to when facing their own times of trial and adversity. Within the page of this story, the reader will quickly come to recognize the power of heroism in the hearts of the unlikeliest heroes; unconditional love in the most unsuspecting places; sacrificial love in its purest form, and the harsh truth that even those we admire the most are, at best, flawed and fallen people in need of forgiveness. While this is not a story rooted in scripture, the truth of God’s word is evident throughout its pages:
There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community. Proverbs 6:16-19
The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps. Proverbs 13:15.
A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity. Proverbs 17:17
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15:12-13
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:21
The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 1 Corinthians 15:26
Sometimes these truths were displayed subtly, as in quick decisions made by the characters. Other times, they were displayed as overtly as tombstone epitaphs. But throughout each book, Harry, Ron, Hermione and others had tough decisions to make: choices of right vs wrong, selfishness vs. sacrifice, safety vs. courage, preservation of dignity vs. humility, and choosing truth from lies. They didn’t always make the right decisions, but each time the author reminded her readers that while her characters were free to make their own decisions, they were not free from the consequences of those decisions.
Is this story perfect? No. Yes, there’s witchcraft and wizardry, and yes, the Bible warns us about real satanic sorcery. But while it’s true that the good guys don’t call upon the power of God to save them from the enemy, neither do the bad guys call upon the power of Satan to do their bidding. The world of Hogwarts magic is its own world, a power that one is born with, not one that can be conjured from the depths of hell. Readers aren’t taught how to perform spells (but one could argue that they are taught a little Latin and Greek etymology). To my knowledge, no muggle (that’s us) has ever learned to apparate or been able to turn the kitchen lights on by themselves, no matter how loudly or confidently they shout, “Lumos!” At its heart, Harry Potter is nothing more than a fairy tale, and the magic created therein is as benign and powerless withinin the confines of reality as opening the motion-sensored doors at Target by using the Force.
As Christians, we don’t have to demonize all magic. The Wizard of Oz, practically every Disney movie, and the darlings of Christian novels, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, all contain magic, witches and/or wizards. Scripture certainly warns us about the evils of those who perform dark magic and, as I mentioned earlier, calling that which is evil good. Harry Potter does an impressive job in its own right of warning of the dangers of dark magic, and students at Hogwarts are taught the very real perils of aligning oneself with it and the tragic consequences it brings. But if we make the blanket statement that all magic is evil because the Bible says so, then we must be willing to collectively throw Professor McGonagall, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Mary Poppins out with the bathwater. Instead, we must be critical thinkers and acknowledge that there is indeed a line to draw when it comes to magic, but we also don’t want to miss out on that which is good, true, and lovely because we’re too focused on the trees to see the beauty of the forest.
One of my favorite quotes from G.K. Chesterton says, “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.” We live in a world where dragons do exist, in the figurative sense, anyway. As parents, it’s important that we equip our children to face a world of darkness, where true evil does lurk in the shadows. I read my children stories of scripture to remind them that Jesus has won the victory over Satan once and for all and that they need not be afraid. That they can stand and defeat Goliath because the battle isn’t really theirs to fight, but it’s the Lord’s. In a similar sense, a worthy fairy tale equips children with stories of characters, most of whom are their age, who display courage, valor, adversity, strength of character, loyalty, self-sacrifice, and trustworthiness, and who remind us with each new tale that they can stand boldly in the face of darkness because evil can and has been overcome. Harry Potter reminds us over and over again that, not only can dragons be killed, but also that there is no power greater than true and abiding love, which always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres, and never fails.