he term media phenomenon is often, perhaps too often,
used in considerations of popular culture. But if the
has ever been appropriate it certainly is in the case of
Harry Potter. The first four of the Harry Potter books
top slots in the paperback bestsellers lists for most of
2001. In America it is estimated that half of all seven
year olds have read at least one Harry Potter book. The books
have been translated into more than forty languages from
Now we have the astonishing, though predictable, success
of the movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.
For some reason both the book and the film have been sold
in the United States as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's
Stone. Multiplexes have been packed, some showing Philosopher's
Stone on more than one screen. In the run up to Christmas,
some store toy departments looked like shrines to Harry Potter,
ranging from the nasty and tacky to the stylish and expensive
Hornby trains and Lego sets.
The author, JK Rowling (I guess she was advised by either
her agent or publisher that eight year old boys would not
buy books written by someone called Joanna), has promised
a total of seven books and we will get the films to go with
them. The mountain of Potter-themed merchandise will continue
I see no end in sight to the triumph of Potterism. If anything
its appeal will grow. Do we need to try to understand what
is happening? I believe we do.
Not all have reacted with equanimity to Pottermania. In America,
as early as 1999, many on the Christian right were condemning
the books and seeking to limit their reach. A parent giving
evidence to the South Carolina Board of Education described
Harry's story as having overtones of "death, hate, lack
of respect and sheer evil." One of the Board members
argued "the occult and witchcraft are religious. If Christianity
and Judaism and any other religion is going to be banned from
the public schools, then this should be too."
The argument used is that Harry Potter encourages children
to take an interest in the occult or even satanism. The internet
sites which I have visited that make this type of allegation
either produce no evidence or supporting information at all
or are manifestly fraudulent, along the 'I know because until
two years ago I was a practising satanist priest' type.
Because evangelical Christians in Britain so often take their
cue from their fellow believers in North America the controversy
has now moved to the UK. One Church of England primary school
has already banned Harry from the school library and, no doubt,
we will see further attempts to ban or burn and to gain media
notoriety for views shared by only a tiny proportion of believing
Mark Stibbe, an academic and Hertfordshire vicar, puts it
this way, "we should be aware that the Potter novels
have fuelled a huge increase in the occult generally. Children,
particularly girls, are now seeking to sign up as witches
in unprecedented numbers." This is, of course, crazy,
and later in the same feature (Christianity + Renewal,
December 2001) Stibbe seems to suggest that the Potter books
are a deliberate and conscious attempt to undermine Christianity
at the behest of the forces of darkness.
As John Monk put it during the 1999 debate in America, saying
that Harry Potter lures children into witchcraft is like saying
that Treasure Island will make them become pirates,
that Gone with the Wind teaches readers to become slaveholders
or that Peter Pan is the reason for young runaways.
Shakespeare's plays are full of the supernatural: Hamlet
has a ghost, Macbeth its witches, A Midsummer Night's
Dream its fairies, and that most magical of plays, The
Tempest, has Prospero, a magician, at its centre. So they
can all go on the bonfire or in the skip, and while we are
about it, Dickens' A Christmas Carol can join them.
I never cease to be amazed by the ignorance of the evangelist
right. Many of the attacks on Harry get many details wrong,
such as his age or the magical and mystical creatures involved
in the stories. Always condemn a book without reading it,
it is so much easier. But then again they seem to know so
little about the Bible why should we expect them to know much
about any other book. In the Old Testament the prophet Daniel
is described as "master of the magicians" at the
court of King Nebuchadnezzer. Explain away the role of the
Magi in the Christmas story.
An outline of the basics of the first Potter story is straightforward.
Harry is a ten year old orphan who lives with his aunt, uncle
and cousin in suburban Surrey. He is thin, untidy and mistreated.
After his eleventh birthday he is whisked off to Hogwarts
School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and it turns out that Harry's
parents were wizards and so is he. There follows a series
of adventures and magical happenings which culminate in a
confrontation with the evil wizard Voldemort who killed Harry's
parents. The film follows the book very closely. JK Rowling
is very protective of her creation: when the BBC staged a
reading by Stephen Fry, she insisted on the full text.
Stories about magic and the supernatural are nothing new
in either adult or children's literature. The fact that the
cinematic version of the first part of JRR Tolkein's Lord
of the Rings hit the big screen only weeks after Harry
Potter is an illustration of this. I guess theologians would
call it transcendence, the need to believe in something above
and beyond ourselves. One of the explanations of the ubiquitous
character of some form of religious belief even in a largely
secular world where God has been officially declared dead.
Science fiction and fantasy books are very popular, as are
or have been television shows such as Buffy theVampire
Slayer, which combines streetsmart dialogue with the manichean
battle between good and evil, and Xena Warrior Princess,
which manages to overlay traditional mythic qualities and
themes with irony and lesbian subtext.
For many children, Harry is a hero because they can relate
to and sympathise with him. He is unloved, poor, neglected,
skinny and untidy, but it turns out that he is special, he
is gifted. He is nobody to the muggles (the non-magical he
lives amongst), but amongst magical folk he is famous, a living
The film and book are deeply nostalgic. Writing in Sight
and Sound (January 2001), Rob White, points out of the
film that "The journey towards magic is also a journey
into the past. When Harry looks through the cupboard vent,
he sees a 1950s suburban interior. The inn, shops and bank
in Diagon Alley are Victorian, populated by wizened shopkeepers
and goblin-bankers wearing capes or half-moon spectacles."
Harry sets off to Hogwarts in a steam train which looks as
though it had just come off the set of The Railway Children
or Brief Encounter.
The school seems to do without any technological conveniences,
lit by oil lamps and floating candles. The food arrives by
magic, not the magic of the microwave. Hogwarts is in a time
warp; the sort of boarding school that those of us of a certain
age might have read stories about as children - Greyfriars
transported forward in time. This is not an accident. The
look of the film was much influenced by John Bryan's work
on David Lean's 1948 film Oliver Twist. The director,
Chris Columbus, wrote the script for Barry Levinson's 1985
film Young Sherlock Holmes, which is largely set in
a Victorian boarding school which could be a precursor of
Hogwarts. The film also includes gloomy Dickensian streets
and graveyards as well as sinister and quasi-magical happenings.
One can see the appeal of nostalgia to older generations.
People on the political left are often nostalgic for community,
class solidarity and a settled and predictable welfare system,
hence Old Labour. On the right, people are nostalgic for authority,
patriotism, Sunday closing, red telephone boxes, stable family
life and respected historic institutions. Conservative commentator,
Peter Hitchens' 1999 book, The Abolition of Britain,
is largely an exercise in such nostalgia.
But why would children be nostalgic for a world they have
never known? Perhaps because they like many of us are dissatisfied
with the present. Golden ages are always in the past. Harry
himself is nostalgic for a past he has never known. He was
only one when his parents were killed and he does not remember
them. This furnishes one of the most moving sections of the
first book, when Harry looks into the magical Mirror of Erised.
The mirror shows Harry his mother and father because it shows
everyone what they most desire. But there is a sting in the
tale: Dumbledore, who serves as the book's combination of
Obi Wan and Gandalf, warns Harry against the mirror. "It
does not do well to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember
that." Harry cannot go back to the future, he can only
One of the much commented upon features of the Rowling/Potter
phenomenon is that it all starts with books. It is not like
Pokemon and other transient playground frenzies a product
of computer games, television and gamecards. Danny Duncan
Collum (Sojourners Magazine, November/December 2001)
has described his children and their friends acting out Harry
Potter in the yard long before the film was visible on the
horizon. Rowling has described meeting children for whom Harry
was the introduction to reading. The books and the film are
partly about books and the value of them. The children learn
through books and being taught not by being stuck in front
of a computer screen or being encouraged to learn by discovery
(beyond the fact the iron is hot not very much worth knowing
can be learnt by discovery). Children who read the books and
watch the films might begin to understand what real education
ought to be like. We should clear out the philistines who
inhabit the Education Department (or whatever its acronym
is this week) and put JK Rowling in charge.
What of the values of Harry Potter? Some people have compared
the saga to CS Lewis' Narnia stories, with their heavily Christian
message. For some Christians, this is a false comparison,
since Lewis was writing from an explicitly Christian perspective,
which Rowling is not.
However, there is a lot there. Harry's mother sacrifices
herself. Harry's best friend Ron is prepared to sacrifice
himself so that Lord Voldemort can be foiled. Harry and Ron
risk themselves to save the leading female character Hermione,
who they have put in danger by being thoughtless towards her.
Teamwork, individual responsibility, care and concern for
others and respect for those different from you - they are
all covered at some point. As for the struggle between good
and evil, well our Harry does not try to find a third way
between Voldemort and Dumbledore. Amongst all the sleaze,
double talk and moral duplicity of the people who dominate
our world rather than Harry's the messages are refreshing.
Adults as well as children could do a lot worse than a bit
of Pottering around.