Today marks fifteen years since Scholastic's 1998 U.S. release of J.K. Rowling's first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. To date there are more than 150 million Harry Potter books in print in the United States alone, with the series regularly hitting the bestseller lists.
How many Harry Potter books have sold worldwide? 450 million!
Because of the subject matter of "witchcraft and wizardry," many Christian parents have concerns about the Harry Potter series. Are you one of those parents who is unsure of these books about a boy wizard?
After the first four Harry Potter books were published, my Dad, Fr. Peter Gillquist (of blessed memory) - an Orthodox priest as well as a writer and editor of Christian books - was often approached by Christian parents who were conflicted about whether these books about magic made "good" reading for their children.
It became obvious that "the Harry Potter books" could not be ignored, so my father wrote an article for AGAIN Magazine in 2001 (Vol. 23, Issue 1, Ancient Faith Publishing), titled "Take a Lesson From Harry Potter". He began the article by addressing many of the parents' questions, asking,
Why is Rowling touching such a nerve with her books? What attracts her loyal young readers? More importantly, can we gain some insights from this Harry Potter phenomenon to help us better communicate Christ to those around us, and especially to a generation of young people who are growing up reading these mysteries?
My dad went on to site three areas in which kids relate Harry Potter: they identify and connect with his family, moral, and supernatural "worlds". I've attempted to quickly outline Dad's points below...
First of all, there is Harry Potter's family world. Like Harry, many kids today are lonely and want one-on-one time with their parents. They may not be orphaned or live in a "Cupboard Under the Stairs", but kids and teens today are aware that there are lots of things competing for their busy parents' attention.
Regarding Harry's moral world, Dad wrote, "Though a wizard, Harry is into doing what's right." Kids really do want to do the right thing, and they can identify with the difficult choices Harry has to make. But don't just take my dad's word for it; I read an excellent Wall Street Journal article (2011) that said this:
Harry is a Dickensian archetype, a child of cruelty who inspires in us an urge to make a better world. Alongside Oliver Twist, he is the most celebrated orphan in world literature. Oliver is altogether too perfect, untouched by the evil around him. Harry, more credibly, wrestles with forces of darkness and commands our sympathies.
Lastly, my dad took a look at Harry's supernatural world: "What kid in America, even in an Orthodox [or Christian] home, doesn't at one time or another wish he could just fly off with his friends and do something else?...We need another kingdom [world]. That's why kids are picking up on Harry Potter." Dad went on to talk about how we all yearn for another world, and for Christians that will be the Kingdom of God (heaven) someday. Dad closed out the article with this admonishment:
Moms, make your home a place your children love to be. Dads: be lovers, be guardians, be leaders. Experience the life of the mysteries of God together as a family...Morally set the mark high on the wall with your children. If you love them, major strongly in both righteousness and mercy..."But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you" (Matthew 6:33). Harry Potter should have had it so good!
I will acknowledge that the series gets darker as it goes on (7 books in all). Our family was lucky - my kids were in junior high when the first book was published, so I didn't have to make a judgement call about the age they were when they started reading the books. I had heard both positive and negative things about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. So I read it first. I loved it, and could hardly wait for my kids to dive in. They grew up right along with Harry, Hermione, and Ron!
Looking for a fun critical study of Harry Potter? I highly recommend John Granger's books. From HogwartsProfessor.com: "John Granger’s contribution to the crowded world of Harry Potter thinking since 2002 has been his insistence that Harry’s adventures be read as any other very good book rather than dissected as a sui generis phenomenon. This perspective has allowed him to explain how the magic of the books is not a departure from the traditions of English fantasy and, mirabile dictu, is even edifying Christian reading."
To end my post today, I'd like to say that I learned a lot about having hope from my Dad and Harry Potter. My Dad would be the first to say that he could never have made it so far on his life journey (especially his struggle with cancer) had it not been for God's mercy and the prayers of family and friends. And in our church tradition, our friends include the saints of God...
This Christian tradition of patron saints goes back to the time of the early church. Our saints are chosen from among the holy men and women who have gone before us and are now in God's presence, part of that "great cloud of witnesses" described in Hebrews. Who better to intercede on our behalf?
Does this tradition of patron saints remind any of you of something from the Harry Potter books? The word patron, which means "defender" or protector", has its origin in the Latin word pater, or "father".
I have to believe J.K. Rowling was inspired by this etymology when she came up with the Patronus idea for the books! If you recall, she has Harry use an expecto patronum ("awaiting a protector") charm to conjure up a magical shield of hopeful, happy feelings as protection from the Dementors and other dark forces.
Harry teaches his friends who make up "Dumbledore's Army" about the Patronus Charm. He tells them to use "a powerful memory, the happiest you can remember. Allow it to fill you up...just remember, your Patronus can only protect you as long as you stay focused...think of the happiest thing you can."
So I really do think there is a lot we can learn from Harry Potter - about having hope, and relying on the help of our loved ones who are here, as well as those who have gone on before us.
And we have J.K. Rowling to thank for bringing us this literary world of muggles and magic, with an imperfect hero who struggles for hope and chooses good, while looking forward to being reunited with those gone before.
You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble?
-Albus Dumbledore to Harry Potter
from The Prisoner of Azkaban
This post is dedicated to the memory of my father. Love you, Dad!
This post is dedicated to the memory of my father. Love you, Dad!