Why Harry Potter Goes Awry

Author Michael D. O´Brien Critiques a Literary Phenomenon

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COMBERMERE, Ontario, DEC. 6, 2001 (Zenit.org).- As the film "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer´s Stone" opened to record box-office receipts, ZENIT turned to renowned Canadian author Michael D. O´Brien to comment on the phenomenon.



O´Brien´s works include the novel "Father Elijah" and a critique of the paganization of children´s culture, "A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child´s Mind," both by Ignatius Press.

Q: Many are critical of the Harry Potter books because they claim it is dangerous to expose children to witchcraft and the occult. What is your reaction to this?

O´Brien: I have read the four volumes of the Harry Potter series three times, and with each reading the serious defects of the novels appear in clearer light.

The most obvious problem, of course, is the author´s use of the symbol-world of the occult as her primary metaphor, and occultic activities as the dramatic engine of the plots. It presents these to the child reader through attractive role models, such as Harry and Hermione, who are students of witchcraft and sorcery. This has the potential of lowering a child´s guard -- both subconscious and spiritual -- to actual occult activity, which is everywhere and growing.

Rationally, children know that the fantasy element in the books is not "real." But emotionally and subconsciously the young reader absorbs it as real. This is further complicated by the fact that in the world around us there are many opportunities for young people to enter the occult subcultures, where some of Harry´s powers are indeed offered as real.

Q: Critics of Harry Potter see a big difference between authors such as Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who, they argue, use magical elements in a Christian way, and the books of J.K. Rowling, where magic is presented in a Gnostic and pagan fashion.

O´Brien: The differences are great, I would say absolute. The resemblance between the works of Christian fantasy writers and Rowling is only superficial. Yes, there is "magic" in both. Yet Tolkien and Lewis repeatedly warn about the danger of magic throughout their novels.

Tolkien is especially clear on this. In his great epic "The Lord of the Rings," and in his foundational work, "The Silmarillion," he shows that powers that do not rightly belong to man always have a corrupting influence on man. Only higher ranks of creatures in his imaginary world exercise supernatural powers, and then only as a gift from God.

The evil characters in the tale have corrupted these gifts, or else -- in the case of humans -- they have tried to seize them as personal possessions, only to be deceived and finally destroyed by them. Moreover, the "magic" in Tolkien´s subcreation does not really resemble magic practices in the real world. He makes efforts to explain this in his collected letters, where he expresses some concern that his intention might be misinterpreted by readers.

In his fantasy series for children, "The Chronicles of Narnia," and in his cosmic trilogy for adults, C.S. Lewis also repeatedly demonstrates the seductiveness of powers that are not rightly man´s, especially when they are seized as a form of Gnostic quest for power.

Both of these Christian writers firmly underline the fact that defeat of radical evil depends on humility, courage, love, self-sacrifice -- in short, our natural human virtues.

Q: How does this differ from Rowling´s approach in the Potter series?

O´Brien: Rowling´s Potter-world is fundamentally Gnostic. Magic is presented as an inherent faculty of human nature that only needs awakening and formation through the pursuit of esoteric knowledge and power.

There is not even a whiff of divine presence, whereas Tolkien´s and Lewis´ worlds are radiant with this unspoken presence. In Potter-world, magic is portrayed as a morally neutral power, which in the hands of "nice" characters serves the good, and in the hands of negative characters serves evil.

When the war between good and evil is portrayed as thrilling and highly rewarding emotionally, a child reader will be imprinted deeply with messages about the way in which the "good" characters defeat the evil.

Tolkien´s central character, Frodo, defeats evil by fidelity to truth, by rejecting unlawful power, and persevering in a state of weakness. Rowling´s central character defeats evil by amassing enough power to overcome his archenemy, yet this power is the same as that of his opponent.

Simply saying that the Potter books show good as better than evil, is not sufficient defense of the series. Rowling has radically blurred the lines between good and evil, redefining some of both. The real question is, what is the nature of good and evil as she has presented it, and as it is presented in the film.

Q: Others see in the stories a classical children´s tale, albeit with magical elements, of good against evil. What positive elements are there in the books for readers?

O´Brien: I can think of few works of culture, regardless of how flawed, that do not contain some positive elements. But this is no argument for giving gravely disordered material to our children.

In the Potter series there is an attempt to portray courage and loyalty in the "good" characters. But courage and loyalty can be found in all peoples, even those involved in the worst forms of paganism.

It is important to note that children read fiction with a different consciousness than adults. This is something that has been overlooked by those Christian leaders who have written pro-Potter commentaries. They forget that children are in a state of formation, that their understanding of reality is being forged at every turn.

Wholesome fantasy, regardless of how wildly imaginative it may be, reinforces the moral order of the universe in a child´s mind. Corrupt fantasy undermines it. The Potter world is corrupt fantasy with a little cosmetics. The cosmetics are the "values" woven into the tale by the author.

In modern culture we have all become accustomed to eating a certain amount of poison in our diet; indeed most of us no longer even recognize the poison. I believe that´s why many educators and parents simply don´t recognize the scope of the problem with the Potter books.

Q: Would you say that the witchcraft and sorcery element is the only defect in the Potter series?

O´Brien: There are other serious problems in these books, notably the question of authority and obedience.

Harry´s faults are rarely punished, and usually by the negative authority figures in the tale. The positive authority figures actually reward Harry for his disobedience when it brings about some perceived good. His lies, his acts of vengeance, and his misuse of his powers are frequently ignored. The message of "the end justifies the means" is dominant throughout.

Lip service is paid to a code of ethics -- never really spelled out -- but in fact the undermining of those ethics is reinforced at every turn. Another problem is the consistent use of repulsive details, lowering the child´s instinctive aversion to the horrible and grotesque.

For example, in one class the students are taught to cut up mandrake roots, which are living human babies, for use in a potion. At the least, this can cause a subconscious desensitization to abortion.

Q: In recent years there has been a surge of interest in themes related to the occult. Why is this happening?

O´Brien: The phenomenal resurgence of interest in occult "spiritualities" is a symptom of the bankruptcy of secularism. There is an innate hunger in human nature for the sacred transcendent, for the holy, wherein man finds his true identity and worth. When it is denied, a void opens up within him.

If our particular churches are not offering the fullness of the Catholic faith to the coming generation, if we are not giving the young an authentic and vital spiritual life, they will go searching elsewhere -- and the realm of the pseudo-mystical, which is so often connected to the diabolical, will be waiting for them.

The Potter books open a doorway into that world. Articles have been appearing for more than a year now, in secular and religious periodicals, providing evidence that this series of books bridges the gap between normal children and the world of darkness.

With the appearance of the film version of the first volume -- and this film promises to be the biggest box office hit of all time -- an added dimension of psychological influence is at work.

Any serious student of modern media recognizes the power of film to reshape consciousness. By using both overt and subliminal techniques, it can override the mind´s natural critical faculty. It is also interesting to note that, even in the books, Rowling´s use of imagery and pace is actually derived from the techniques of visual media.

Q: Is the interest in the occult among the young a sign of the lack of Christian influence in modern culture?

O´Brien: Certainly the lack of truly Christian culture is part of the problem. It is never enough simply to keep unhealthy influences from our children. The primary task is to give them good food for the imagination, providing opportunities to fall in love with the great adventure of existence.

By and large, modern culture has replaced the splendor and wonder of existence with cheap thrills. The Potter series is a full-blown orgy of cheap thrills, dipped in a little pseudo-morality. The morality is thin; the corrupt messages, both overt and subliminal, are overwhelming.

But the Potter phenomenon must be seen within a larger context -- not only the ideological confusions of the present sociohistorical era, and the unprecedented power of the new media culture to reshape our understanding of reality.

Most urgently, we must recognize that the nature of the spiritual war in which we are all immersed is changing rapidly, entering a new phase of intensity.

Q: What should parents do to guide their children through the hazards of modern culture?

O´Brien: First of all, parents need to recognize that there is a problem. A majority of our Catholic parents are not yet awake to the spiritual assault that is waged primarily through culture.

Culture defines us to ourselves, tells us what is of value, what is harmless or dangerous, what is the real meaning of existence. We must recognize that the times we live in are unique; the bombardment of our minds by powerful imagery and messages has no parallel in human history.

A constant onslaught of indoctrination pours into our children´s lives through films, videos, books, music and all the other forms of social communication -- peer pressure being one of them. Parents need to familiarize themselves with what´s really going on in youth culture.

The sheer volume and complexity of this material, however, makes it impossible to assess it all. For that reason, we need to pray daily for spiritual protection for our families, and to ask God for extraordinary gifts of wisdom and discernment.

We also need to ask the Holy Spirit for the development of an inner barometer, or radar, which triggers a warning bell within us whenever corrupt influences enter the family. Last but not least is the gift of courage -- courage to firmly and lovingly resist the invasion.

Q: One consequence of the books has been to spark interest in reading among children. Isn´t that a positive sign?

O´Brien: While it is true that the Potter books are hooking a generation on reading, I must say that this is a superficial defense of the series. Will the 100 million young fans of Harry now turn to Tolkien and Dickens and Twain?

Or will they go searching for more of the thrills Rowling has whetted their appetite for? There is a lot of corrupt literature out there, well-written material that may indeed stimulate a literary habit, as it speeds the degeneration of moral consciousness.

Q: So you believe that literacy is not of utmost importance in the development of a healthy child?

O´Brien: A discerning literacy -- the true literacy -- is of very great importance in a child´s formation. But literacy alone can never be enough. Is an appetite for reading fiction a higher value than a child´s moral formation? Is any book better than no book? Would we give our children a bowl of stew in which there was a dose of poison, simply because there were also good ingredients mixed into the recipe? Of course we wouldn´t.

Discernment is always needed in deciding what we give our children. So why are we discarding this basic understanding when it comes to unhealthy cultural material?

Reasonable Christian parents would not permit their children to read a series of enthralling books depicting likable young people involved in drug-dealing, or premarital sex, or torture. We would not give our children fiction in which a group of "good fornicators" struggled against a set of "bad fornicators."

We would not justify giving our children such books by pointing out the characters´ good qualities. Why, then, have we accepted a set of books which glamorize and normalize occult activity, even though it is every bit as deadly to the soul as sexual sin, if not more so?

Q: Some literary critics and scholars say that the Potter series is a valuable contribution to culture. Why are they not concerned about the problems you see in the books?

O´Brien: I´m surprised by the promotion of the Potter series in certain Christian circles, even among some Catholic academics. Perhaps this is due to their naiveté about the power of fantasy. Possibly it´s an overreliance on individual reason, as if to say, "I am so intelligent, and my child is so intelligent, that we can enjoy the irrational and the corrupt without being affected by it, and therefore it´s not really corrupt."

This non sequitur is based on the mistaken belief that the imagination can be safely contained within an airtight compartment of the mind. I´m guessing here, but I suspect there is also a certain fear at work in their adamant and not always objective reaction to criticism of the Potter series.

Is their overreaction caused by a fear of anti-intellectualism, a fear of "fundamentalism," perhaps even a fear of loss of credibility among other academics? I´m not certain. At the very least it indicates a lack of understanding about the integral relationship between faith and culture, between imagination and the world of action.

Consistently, the pro-Potter advocates extract details from the books that point to some kind of "morality" in the series, actually more a set of "values" -- to use the modern term -- than genuine morality. Their approach is, I think, rather revealing. Any serious scholar should know that empirical "evidence" for any theory can be found by dipping selectively into a large body of source material, and that this can be highly misleading.

When a scholar operates from an a priori need to find supportive data for his gut attraction, truth gets lost in the process. And this is the crux of the problem for all of us: Regardless of whether we are impelled by a gut attraction or a gut repulsion to the world of Harry Potter, we must ask ourselves if we are thinking according to principles, or are we articulating impressively as we let ourselves be driven by feelings.

If Catholic intellectual life becomes dominated by visceral likes and dislikes, we may very well find ourselves contributing to a dark future for Western civilization. We may even help form a race of super-impressionists incapable of right discernment. This is a profoundly disturbing trend. The fruits of it will be even more disturbing.

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More detailed assessments of the Harry Potter series can be found at the Web site of the Catholic Educators´ Resource Center, at www.catholiceducation.org and also at www.studiobrien.com.