Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Mystery of Harry Potter

Nancy C. Brown's The Mystery of Harry Potter, a Catholic Family Guide,published by Our Sunday Visitor, is a book I've been waiting for.

Weary of defending the fact that I've allowed Harry into our home, I longed for some good Catholic mom to write down all the reasons why Harry can be perfectly compatible with a faithful, orthodox Catholic family.

I've mentioned here a couple of times that I wanted to write a series of posts about how I came to be a fan, came to allow the books for my older children, and about the ways in which I believe the books are misinterpreted or misrepresented by some outspoken Catholic critics. I haven't gotten that series done because other things have simply taken priority in life and writing, putting Harry on the back burner. And, being a stickler, I didn't want to write about the books until I could devote the time necessary to do them justice.

I still don't have that series of posts written, but now it doesn't seem nearly as important. My own experience of initial reluctance, followed by treading slowly and carefully into Harry Territory, and then not only allowing the series, but enjoying it along with my kids, is very similar to Nancy Brown's experience.

And, my overall take is the same as Nancy's, and it's simple:

Read ... Guide ... Discuss.

But, then, that's my take on everything with my kids. We read a lot of stuff together. Their dad and I guide them. There's discussion, often fun and lively, sometimes critical and dissecting. Isn't that what we parents are supposed to do?

I really enjoyed the opening of Nancy's book, because it all sounded so familiar. Like Nancy, I was initially reluctant to jump on the Harry bandwagon. Like Nancy, I'd read a number of critical reviews from writers I respected. Like Nancy, I'd concluded that there were good reasons to stay away. My kids weren't interested anyway, so there was no conflict. But then, my kids started to ask about the books. I began quizzing friends who were simultaneously HP fans and orthodox Catholics. Then I decided to do the most common-sensical thing:

It was time to read the books for myself. (Hmmm ... just like Nancy.)

I previewed Book One about four years ago. I found it delightful. Not perfect, but delightful. A "rattlin' good story," as C.S. Lewis liked to call such yarns. And by the time I reached the last page, I was surprised by the overarching themes: sacrificial love, friendship and doing "what is right over what is easy."

I decided to share the book with the kids as a read-aloud. From the get-go, we talked about the difference between "magic" as it is forbidden in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2116 All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to "unveil" the future.48 Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.
2117 All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others - even if this were for the sake of restoring their health - are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another's credulity.

and "magic" as it is portrayed in Harry Potter:

the magic of an imaginary fantasy world. J.K. Rowling's creation is an imagined, alternate universe in which "wizards" and "witches" are people who are born with the ability to do magical things. They do not call upon Satan or demons and they do not try to tame occult powers. There are no "occult" powers, because there is not a "source" for their kind of magic. "Magical" in Harry's world, is simply the way some people are born. There's an entire alternate wizarding world, unseen by "Muggles" (that would be us -- non-magical people) in which the fantastic is normal: unicorns exist, giants dwell in the forest, invisible creatures pull carriages and folks fly on broomsticks for a fast-paced game called Quidditch. Wizards can travel through fireplaces and wave a wand to get dinner going or to knit a cap for an elf.

This is all quite different from the case of a Catholic child sitting in her bedroom and attempting to call upon spirits, summon the dead, read tarot cards, use a Ouija board or rely on a horoscope. We know and understand these differences and we take them seriously. (It would take more than one blog post to address all the reading I've done on the HP issue, both pro and con. Suffice to say for the time being that it's been extensive, and over the past few years I've read a great deal of the resources Nancy lists on this bibliography page at Our Sunday Visitor.)

Back to the HP books. We kept reading. I previewed, then we did them as read-alouds together. We made it through the first three and I was hooked. I quickly read Books 4 and 5 just before Book 6 came out two years ago. The kids and I were sharing the adventure, and we talked about everything: from Harry and his friends' mistakes, to their courageous choices, from the ways in which they were growing up to the ways in which they stayed the same, from the Christian symbolism and the theme of free will to the delightful imagination of the author.

And this is exactly the sort of thing that Nancy Brown recommends in The Mystery of Harry Potter, which is why I'm so grateful to have this book to share with friends. Nancy says, and I agree, that we need to know what our kids are reading. We need to talk to them, help them figure it out and, most importantly, place it in the context of their faith. My goal as a Catholic mother is to do this with everything my kids encounter. This is how we teach them to be in the world but not of it.

The Mystery of Harry Potter addresses the concerns that Catholic parents may have about J.K. Rowling's books. Nancy Brown answers the objections with clarity and common sense, as well as literary and theological support. She doesn't give the books her unconditional approval, and rightly so. She doesn't brush off concerns and counter that the books are harmless fun for all ages. No -- Nancy Brown is a responsible mom who gave the series a critical read and moved forward from there. She encourages other parents to do the same.

My only quibble with the book is a selfish one: I would have loved to see more explication of specific examples from the books that illustrate the Christian themes. But Nancy, an avid reader who is considerate of other readers, didn't want to create a book full of spoilers, and I have to admire that consideration and restraint.

The Mystery of Harry Potter doesn't try to convert anyone to Potterism. But, if you've wondered what all the fuss is about, if you've had doubts or concerns, if you've read things that convince you your children will be drawn into the occult as a result of reading the series, then Nancy Brown's book can help you. It offers a concise guide to the objections that have been floating around for years, as well as reassurance that not only is Harry not going to harm your well-guided children, but you and your family just might even find joy and unexpected delight in Harry's extraordinary, imaginary life.

(This post also appears on the Catholic Exchange blog page. Visit it here.)


Suzanne Temple said...

This is a terrific review and very interesting to read. For now, my kids still confuse Harry Potter with Beatrix Potter. I'm sure, however, we will come to that bridge some day and I'll be glad to have Nancy's book to help us cross it.

christine M said...

I read the first few books myself before allowing my daughter (and later my son) to read them. The main restriction I put on them is one of age. My son is seven. He's read the first three and wants to read the fourth. I'm making him wait. It will still be there when he's a little older. In the meantime there are lots of other great books to read.

Anonymous said...

Great post Karen. I just started the series myself. They are certainly not perfect but I agree that it is not the same thing as dabbling in the occult. It is fiction. I see no reason they should be any more dangerous than the Greek myths.

Anonymous said...

Karen, since you mentioned wanting a book that more fully explores the Christian themes in HP, you might like Finding God in Harry Potter by John Granger. Granted, he's not Catholic - but the Christian imagery is vividly explained - and that imagery goes back far into Christendom in general.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I just got this for my birthday and am eager to dive in.

Anonymous said...

Wonderfully said, Karen. This book and your words reflect my experience with Harry Potter, and reading with my kids, as well. I just started reading book one aloud with my oldest, who is 11. I am enjoying rereading it, and it's even more fun the second time around experiencing it with him.

Jill said...

Thank you for this thoughtful review. My kids are all way too little, but I found this interesting and someday may find myself thinking about Harry. Your wisdom applies too many things, though. Communication is vital.

Karen Edmisten said...

Thanks, everyone. Carrie, yes, I've read Granger's book and I like his work very much! I just selfishly wanted to see a Catholic "One Stop Shop" on all things HP, but that's not the book Nancy set out to write, which I totally understand. But, I agree with you -- Granger does an excellent, in-depth job of putting all the symbolism together.

Anonymous said...

thank you for the wonderful review! i, too, have enjoyed the HP books and look forward to sharing with my oldest (just 5 now) when the time is right. surely it will be easier with brown's book at my side. thanks again

Kristen Laurence said...

Great review, Karen. I'll be needing this book in a couple years. I'm so glad you posted on it.

Lenetta said...

Just wanted to let you know I linked to this on the Faith & Family coffee talk on education this morning. :>)

Karen Edmisten said...

Thank you!

Lizzie said...

I know you wrote this ages ago but I've come back to it a few times as my 9 year old son has just finished reading the whole series.
My dilemma has been that I physically don't have time to read them myself too - I am a single mum and I work 5 days a week and my reading time is minimal. However, I've begun watching the films with him as well as dipping into the books - discussing the themes,characters and so on and I've really enjoyed the stories!
We went to 'The Making of Harry Potter' at the weekend (we live in London, UK) and it was just wonderful.

Thank you for writing about Harry Potter so thoughtfully - it's really helped my journey to allowing them into the house!

Just a quick thought too - a lot of the more mature themes genuinely go right over children's heads. All the romance stuff has eluded my son completely! And he hasn't been frightened by any parts of the books - fantasy never seems to daunt him. Read him a book more 'true to life' and he's terrified though!

Karen Edmisten said...

Lizzie, it's never too late for a comment! :) Thanks for taking the time to leave one, and I'm so pleased that this post was helpful to you along the way. You have my admiration for all that you do as a single mom -- I can only imagine -- and you sound like a terrific mom.

Isn't it funny how different children can be, i.e., what frightens them, what they breeze through, etc.? I wonder if there's a difference between boys and girls in the way they react to the scarier things in HP? Or maybe it's just, as you said, reactions to fantasy vs. realism, or maybe it's just varying sensitivities in general.

And my girls are going to be very jealous of your attendance at The Making of Harry Potter. :)

Oh, and re. romance -- I agree that most of it is over the heads of younger kids.