Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Pottering Through the Courts

I really was planning to ignore the story of the Gwinnett County, Georgia mom who launched a court challenge in an effort to remove the Harry Potter books from libraries in her school district. Really. Campaigns of this sort crop up around here every so often; usually they fizzle pretty quickly. So I was pretty surprised this week when the story actually started garnering headlines in the national press.

It clinched the deal yesterday when I flipped on the radio to catch a bit of news. There was our girl, on CBS, voice choked with tears. She wondered aloud how, in the wake of recent school shootings, our nation could continue to allow such "evil" in our schools. So now, on top of promoting sorcery and Wicca (the original complaint) Harry and his creator, J.K. Rowling, are associated with school shootings.

Well, the patently obvious response to that would be, "Show me clear and convincing evidence that the Harry Potter books have been implicated in any school shooting." I have yet to hear of a such a case. Heck, I don't think you could even make that case for Wicca, and I'm not saying that as a fan of the practice. It's just that when it comes to potential catalysts for incidents of extreme sociopathic violence, Harry's not even a blip on my radar screen. Nor, for that matter, is a flaky, gynocentric New Age spiritual discipline (if you can call it that) that in my experience, at least, seems particularly appealing to women seeking to compensate for an overall lack of control over their own lives and actions. My suspicion regarding school shooters is that you have to be one seriously screwed up pup to do it in the first place. Still, were I going to pin blame on any form of literature or media for the actions of some of those who have, I'd be more inclined to seek out the graphically violent or politically anarchic than a 'tweener fantasy series about kid wizards.

Now that our Gwinnett County mom's fifteen minutes have passed (we hope,) and an actual case is having to be presented before a state appeals court, we can in all likelihood abandon the violence connection entirely and focus on the original complaint against the series: that it glamorizes and encourages Wicca and other occult practices. To this end, a fifteen-year-old "ex-witch" who attributes her fall into occult practices (including seances, which have not, to my memory, been mentioned in the books to date, and Tarot, which was soundly ridiculed) to the books was produced to testify. Her little escapade with "the Craft" reportedly bankrupted and embarrassed her good Christian family. It probably got her attention in spades, too, as it continues to do now. I have to agree with another mom quoted by the Gwinnett Daily Post: if a kid can't differentiate between fantasy in the books and reality out of them, s/he is either too immature to be reading them or has more serious issues than can be addressed by withholding a book. I'd add that, if she was able to dabble in all that stuff to an extent that seems to have required serious deprogramming before the tender age of fifteen, somebody wasn't doing a very good job of minding the kids.

So the question is, do the Harry Potter books encourage witchcraft? While we're at it, are they so dangerous or evil that they should be excluded from school library collections? I submit my humble opinion here. My qualifications are as follows:
I am a practicing Roman Catholic who is at least striving towards orthodoxy, but more importantly toward following Christ. I therefore make an effort to avoid that which interferes.
I have a background in natural science, which leads me to regard Wicca and other forms of neopaganism with, shall we say, a healthy skepticism. Oh, let's dispense with the niceties-- I think it's so much folderol. (G'wan--hex me! I dare you!)
I am widely read--very, very, widely read in children's literature, and have read the entire Harry Potter series to date. I have also seen a few of the movies.
I have children. Some of them grown. All have read the books. None have tried to hex me.

The assertion that the books encourage witchcraft is one I often hear made with great conviction. I respectfully disagree.
The mere fact that they are about magical beings does not make them glorifiers of the occult, any more than are C. S. Lewis's Narnia Chronicles, J. R. R. Tolkien's books, or Roald Dahl's children's books. (I refer to these authors deliberately. Their influence on Rowling's writing, Lewis and Dahl in particular, is not difficult to spot.) In fact, there are quite a few books published for young teens and 'tweens that would give me and most parents far more concern in that regard than the Harry Potter series. (Sorry, I'll have to get authors and titles from Hon. Daughter #1--she's a bit more up to speed on the recent stuff than I am. I know she came across a few some years back.) Magic in the series is a vehicle for plot, action and conflict. Simply put, the books aren't about kids learning to do magic (or magick, if you prefer,) they're about people--including kids--who happen to have magical powers. In the books these kids--some from magical families, others apparently biological "sports" from nonmagical ones--learn, not to acquire power from some occult source, but to control and apply (hopefully for good) the abilities they already have. In many cases, the magic in the Potter books is pretty cartoonish stuff, moreover--no Mists of Avalon stuff, and certainly no Wicca. How seriously can anyone take a story in which the Herbalism prof grows "mandrakes" that at first resemble shrieking infants with leafy tops, go through a moody adolescent phase complete with acne, and are deemed fully mature "once they start trying to move into each other's pots?"

Not only does Rowling not appear to make any effort to glorify the occult, she indicates--repeatedly--a dim view of those who do. The one teacher at Hogwarts, Harry's school, whose courses actually resemble real-world occult practice is Sibyl Trelawney, the Divination teacher. As self-important as she is incompetent, Trelawney is a caricature of a sideshow fortuneteller. Her stocks-in-trade are crystal balls, tea leaves, and card readings; she cryptically encourages her students to "look with their inner eye," an organ she as well as most of them seem to lack. Usually she just recycles the same doomsday prophecies over and over: students report that she predicts the death of someone in her class every year, and is generally wrong. Trelawney's foil is a wise and gentle Centaur recruited to handle the stargazing side of Divination. Where she claims knowledge inaccessible to others that she doesn't have and speaks a lot of nonsense, he actually has knowledge but uses it only with the greatest caution. He points out that, while certain patterns may be seen in the stars by those who know how, there are so many variables at play in matters of fate that determining anything useful--except by hindsight--is wellnigh impossible.

Should the Harry Potter books be withheld from kids? I say no. Not that parents shouldn't use their judgement as to their appropriateness for specific children. The later books in particular contain a few references that are not appropriate for children below the middle grades, and sensitive older children might find parts too dark and frightening for their tastes. If there are any serious concerns about an older child's ability to distinguish fantasy from reality, or if a child is already showing signs of obsession with the occult, I would likewise urge caution. I would also urge counselling. In general, however, I believe these books are fundamentally harmless, and better than much other literature available for 'tweens and teens. I also believe in discussing ideas with one's kids. If the occult is unacceptable in your house, tell them--and tell them why.

As I have already indicated, if one is genuinely concerned about "evil" influences a quick reconnaisance of any public middle or high school library will probably turn up plenty of literature for which there is more cause for concern. Singling out a series of books merely because they are wildly popular makes no sense at all. It is patently absurd to state that the books glorify the occult, and would be hard to read them through without concluding that they have many valuable lessons for their readers. Kindness, fairness, loyalty and courage are upheld in the books; strong, supportive families are exalted. The dividing line between good (and what actions make it so) and evil (ditto) is sharply and clearly drawn. I don't know what, if any, religious affiliation Rowling has (I've assumed, for lack of evidence to the contrary, that she's probably lukewarm C. of E.) but it is clear from her writing that she is well acquainted with Christian themes and their mark on her worldview as outlined in the books is evident. A few Christian writers have as a result devised devotional or religious education helps based on them. Oh, did I mention they even celebrate Christmas in the series? Every single book. Not as an explicitly religious holiday (Rowling does capitulate a bit, IMHO, to political correctness)--but it's Christmas, not Yule, nonetheless. There's even a ghostly monk, and a hospital under the patronage of St. Mungo.

While Rowling is not infallible as a writer (should Hon. Son #1 ever set up his own blog and start cranking out book and film reviews instead of just holding forth over dinner, you may get some detail on this point,) she is a good storyteller with a broad base of general knowledge to draw on, great powers of description, a witty way with phrasing, and a brilliant (I would call it Dickensian, but that's already been done) knack for nomenclature. It's hard to read these books without coming away from them just a little bit smarter than you were before. Best of all, they don't insult the reader's intelligence, and are clever enough that adults can enjoy them as well. Choose to read them or not, I say, but don't make a scapegoat of them. The canon of children's literature available in public schools will be much the poorer if the Harry haters have their way.

I have mentioned it before on this blog, but an excellent read for 'tweens and teens on the issue of censorship is Nat Hentoff's The Day they Came to Arrest the Book. If you can find it on video, the ABC Afterschool Special production (starring Anne Meara as the librarian) is also quite good--what I recall of it is, at least--it's been a while. Book censorship--who does it, and why, and what the implications are for freedom and knowledge are discussed against the backdrop of a challenge to Huckleberry Finn from both ends of the political spectrum. For adults, a more thorough (but unfortunately much dryer) account of the history of school censorship in the 20th and 21st century U. S. and its pronounced effects on our education system is Diane Ravitch's The Language Police

ADDENDUM: I posted this at an obscene hour last night, not reflecting on the fact that I have recently fallen out of the habit of tagging my posts with an appropriate verse or quote. This morning it occurred to me that an excerpt from Sunday's Gospel reading was apt, in a roundabout sort of way. Here it is:

There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us. Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.
Mark 9: 40-41



Blogger The unconventional mother said...

Like the title!

Well I have a husband that played D&D once upon a time all though he would never admit it. I wonder is all fantasy off limits or just books that contain the word witch. I know I read many science fiction books but you don't see me trying to beam myself anywhere. A lot of this comes from a place of deep insecurity about ones religion and a misunderstanding of Christianity. As long as children are given choices then I don't understand the problem.

I had Wiccan friends in highschool that would probably be equivalent to the current goths. Interestingly enough they all grew out of that phase...also interesting that none of them did drugs, carried guns or tried to put hexes on anyone.

On the otherhand I knew of some Satan worshipers in high school as well and had the misfortune of finding one of the sites of an animal blood sacfice ceremony complete with pigeon feathers. These young people had truely turned over there lives to evil. There are people out there like about spending some time finding them and getting them help rather than attacking harmless fantasy and science fiction books. The satanists I knew did not even read books...much less children books.

5:35 PM  
Blogger CMinor said...

Would that this lady would dedicate her considerable energy to the real problems of kids growing up with no moral compass and buying into the whole silly witchcraft thing. I'd be more concerned about my kids getting into stuff like the Witchcraft for Girls handbook I ran across at Borders recently, which treated the whole thing seriously.

I've never understood the furor about D&D--it's just a game with fantastic characters, not a black Mass. I suppose it's a problem if you have trouble keeping fantasy and reality separate, but then, so is life in that case.

6:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I myself find it hard to blame Harry Potter for some cult. It is nothing more than a fiction book and it is harmless to children. What are people trying to accomplish? I find this almost as disturbing as taking God out of our schools. I believe we should allow the imaginations of our children to grow. Taking a science fiction book such as this off the shelves is pure stupidity.

8:21 PM  
Blogger CMinor said...

Indeed, Anon. Though I'd classify the series as fantasy, not scifi. For a book to be scifi, it seems to me there has to be an element of real-world plausibility to the setting. The really good scifi authors tend to explain things half to death, but that is to convince you their scenarios are actually possible in some future time and place. Harry Potter makes no such pretense--it's just a disbelief-suspended romp (if a dark one) through a fantasy world.

6:49 AM  
Blogger Nancy C. Brown said...

THanks for this good, thoughtful post.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Enbrethiliel said...


My suspicion regarding school shooters is that you have to be one seriously screwed up pup to do it in the first place.

This reminds me of Wes Craven's observation, so pithily expressed in the first Scream movie: "Movies don't create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative." (In the third installment, another character--a movie director, interestingly--snaps, "So if we stop making scary movies, what? All the psychos in the world will retire?")

So, yeah, I don't blame Harry Potter for anything.

12:55 AM  
Blogger CMinor said...

That and the fact that, except for in the last couple of books when they're under attack, none of the protagonists in the series ever shoot up anything, talk about shooting up anything, or even (that we know of)think about shooting up anything.

Thanks for reading!

6:03 PM  

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