Harry Potter: Friend or Foe for Kids?

Parents and Others Weigh Whether He´s Really Magic

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LOS ANGELES, DEC. 6, 2001 (Zenit.org).- What sells over 100 million copies in book form, breaks movie-receipt records, and has some observers fearful about its effects on children?



Harry Potter, of course.

As the film "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer´s Stone" opened last month, parents and keen cultural observers continue to agree to disagree upon the appropriateness of the movie -- and the whole Potter subculture -- for children.

Some see the series as merely adventuresome entertainment, while others wonder if the film might take the stigma away from witchcraft and the occult, opening children to danger.

"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer´s Stone" is the first of four Potter adventures written by Britain´s J.K. Rowling. The film follows the exploits of an orphan with magical powers who attends the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

"It was really fun for my 13-year-old son and I to see the film together," Barb Hennen, a Catholic mother of seven in Ghent, Minnesota, told the National Catholic Register.

Hennen cautioned, however, that the film was probably not appropriate for anyone under the age of 9. "Lord Voldemort is scary," she said. "At one point he absorbs a man´s body.... That certainly would not be appropriate for younger children to see."

Otherwise, she said it was a fine movie. "The Christian mothers I´ve talked to have agreed that it´s an imaginative and adventuresome story."

While she admitted that it could be an entry point for a child into the occult, she added, "A child leaning in that direction might ... but Harry Potter wouldn´t be the only source the child would go to."

Michael D. O´Brien disagrees. "I think it is a mistake to take a child to the Potter film," the Canadian Catholic artist and author of "A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child´s Mind" told the Register.

"The series uses the symbol-world of the occult as its primary metaphor," he explained. "This has the potential of lowering a child´s guard to the actual occult activity in the world around us, which is everywhere and growing." (See related interviews with ZENIT in today´s Forum.)

Clare McGrath Merkle, a former New Age adherent and a revert to the Catholic faith, said she has seen firsthand that O´Brien´s warning should be heeded. "We just don´t understand that our children live in a reality steeped in violence, sex and the occult," she told the Register.

She said the problem with Potter remains, despite the explanation that the books depict an innocent, even humorous, white magic. "There is only one kind of magic," said Merkle. It´s "variously known as black magic, occultism, diabolism, or the dark arts."

Despite the popularity of Potter, at least one self-proclaimed pagan group has not seen any big jump in its adult ranks.

Andy Norfolk of the London-based Pagan Federation, said the youth-aimed Potter books have created no serious interest in his movement. The books, he told the Associated Press, do not appeal to older people seeking spiritual options. They "see them as rather uncool,´´ he said.

Los Angeles film critic Michael Medved, known for his defense of traditional virtues and criticism of Hollywood´s rejection of them, defends Harry Potter.

"It´s hard to imagine any child who will want to study necromancy, spells or Satanism as a result of seeing the film," he told the National Catholic Register. Medved contends that the film projects a "deadly serious battle between good and evil, while highlighting humane values of generosity, loyalty, discipline and selflessness."

"Magic," said Medved, "remains a staple in most of the best children´s literature in history, and generations of young people have indulged in those fantasies without satanic influence. In Grimm´s Fairy Tales, for example, magic and witches and shape-changing and curses and incantations have always played a role."

British Catholic home-schooling mother Debbie Nowak also thinks the movie is good entertainment. She has seen the film with four of her eight children and doesn´t worry about her children falling into the occult.

"Harry Potter has an invisible mark inside of him that his mother gave to him when she sacrificed her life for his," she said. "This mark, unlike his lightning bolt scar, is one of love. Because he has this mark of love, evil cannot bear his touch."

Thomas Hibbs, an associate professor of philosophy at Boston College, writing in National Review Online, opined: "In the aftermath of September 11, the books are remarkably timely, offering precisely the sort of lessons and examples young persons need to prepare them for life in a nation at war with the evil of terrorism."

Hibbs continued: "Over the past 20 years or so, our popular culture has been preoccupied with a) destructive evil as a form of entertainment, b) freedom as a form of adolescent self-expression, and c) narcissistic individualism as characteristic of ordinary American life. By contrast, Harry Potter insists a) on the clear distinction between good and evil and between both of these and mere entertainment, b) on the importance of the responsible or virtuous use of freedom, and c) on the nobility of sacrifice for the common good."

But Mary Weyrich of Paso Robles, California, warned that, in these days of cross-marketing, much of the danger with the book is extraneous to the story.

She told the Register: "I went to a large online bookstore´s Harry Potter site, found Harry´s ´related subjects,´ which included witchcraft." Three clicks connected her to "The Witch Bible."

Her conclusion: "Many will say that the Harry Potter books and movie are just fiction. Many will say that they are so glad that the children are reading again. Many will say that the movie wasn´t that scary and it is no big deal. But I do believe that it is a very big deal."