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why fundamentalists hated Harry (hint: it wasn't the magic)

harry potter

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published when I was ten years old. I was not really aware of it– never really heard about it, really, until the first movie was released when I was fourteen. My first encounter with Harry Potter was in World Magazine, which my mother subscribed to for my “current events” papers I had to write for school. It’s a conservative Christian news source, and much like the textbooks we were using, ABeka, it markets itself based on its “Christian worldview.” I read an article by Roberta Ahmanson about the first book, where she said this:

Ms. Rowling has created a character who truly goes where fairy tales have never gone before: Harry, the character every child reader identifies with, the character every child internalizes, is a sorcerer.

Other World Magazine writers, especially Susan Olasky, wrote other reviews as the books and movies released. There was a common thread throughout these reviews, and nearly everyone agreed– Harry Potter books were dangerous, but not necessarily because of the witchcraft, although that was problematic. No, the real problem was that “moral ambiguity and alienation of youth are strong themes.”

Hmm. Moral ambiguity? Did you read the books? Oh, right– what you’re probably talking about is the scene where Harry Potter gets to ride a broom for the first time. Neville Longbottom breaks his arm, and while the professor takes him to the nurse, she tells the remaining students that if any of them try to ride while she’s gone, they’ll be kicked out “faster than you can say Quidditch.” Draco Malfoy grabs Neville’s remembral and flies off with it– Harry chases him down and gets the remembral back. When Professor McGonagall catches him, she rewards him by making him Gryffindor’s “seeker,” a position on the Quidditch team.

And that, my friend, is “moral ambiguity and alienation of youth.” Moral ambiguity because, when Harry defends his friend, another boy who was being bullied, and stands up to the rich and powerful oppressor– he is rewarded. Oh. My. Word. How horrible.

Fundamentalists are incapable of seeing it that way, though. In their head, Harry Potter disobeyed a direct order and he should have been punished. Harry showed initiative, and courage, and he did the morally right thing even though it might have gotten him in trouble– and that is “morally ambiguous.” Harry Potter is teaching our children that it’s ok if they disobey us! They’ll even get rewarded for it! This is terrible! It must be stopped! Several parents said this in a school board meeting when they claimed that the books have a “serious tone of death, hate, lack of respect, and sheer evil.” To many parents, the problem wasn’t the witchcraft– although an entire documentary was made about how the books made witchcraft “look innocent,” and there were tons of others crying out against it as some sort of gateway magic–no, the problem was that it encouraged independence, free thinking, initiative, courage, friendship, and doing what you know is right even when authority figures (like Dolores Umbridge) think you’re wrong– even when you’re a child. That was the real problem. Not our children wanting to become warlocks and wizards– the real terror was that our children might start thinking for themselves.

(side note: when Umbridge takes over Hogwarts and stars implementing all her “crazy” and “insane” rules . . . nearly all of those were actual rulesย at my fundamentalist college)

And that was when it started. Suddenly, every parent I knew was worried about the books their children were reading. Any book marketed for teenagers, even if it was from a Christian publishing house, was suspect. What is it teaching our youth? Is it teaching them that rebellion (which is as the sin of witcraft) is ok? Does someone break a rule and not get punished for it? Is immorality ever rewarded? Does the out-of-wedlock pregnant teen girl get a boyfriend in the end? Does a girl sneak out at night and never get caught? Does she ever back-talk her mother without being reprimanded?

By the time I got to college, many of my friends had given up reading. Some of us would only read non-fiction and considered fiction a “waste of time.” Fiction books, to teenagers growing up in heavy-handed fundamentalist environments, were a waste of time, because any book that made it through the filter was probably not worth reading. I managed alright– the pastor’s wife had given me an entire set of Reader’s Digest abridged classics because she wouldn’t let her children read them. We went to the library every week, and I could read all the Nancy Drew books my heart could desire– the old yellow ones, mind you. Not the new ones where Nancy jokes and laughs with her father. Those were disrespectful. I read the Boxcar Children books by the bucket load . . . but I wanted more.I managed to read the Jedi Apprentice series, theย Chronicles of Narnia, and the Lord of the Rings by sneaking them out of the library, hiding them under the bathroom sink, and reading them a few pages at a time.

When I was in my late teens, the initial reaction was over for most of us. The parents I knew started relaxing . . . but it was too late for those of us who’d been children when Harry Potter came out. Most of us grew up reading nothing except missionary biographies and one-hundred-year-old devotional texts. I was lucky, because I was plucky enough– and loved reading enough– that I persisted even when my authority figures outright forbade me from reading them. I got in trouble a few times when I told fairy tales when I was babysitting. Most of us, however, have been robbed of our rich literary and cultural heritage. We were denied magic, myth, folklore, and faerie. We never got to read books with breadth and scope, that depicted an honest– and sometimes raw– understanding of human nature. Our books, and as a consequence our imagination, were sterilized and then locked in a box.

But, today, I am excited for when I have my own children, that they will get to read. That I will tell them fairy tales as their bed time stories. That I will encourage them to believe in a world that has magic. I am thrilled that my children will grow up in a world where Harry, Percy, Frodo,ย  and Lucy can be their friends.

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  • I guess I was lucky. We didn’t get library trips but my Grandad sent me books, all classic literature. I was reading Treasure Island and Tom Sawyer and Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairy tales (so I got the violent and dark orginal stuff, but I didn’t get the Disney version, lol!), and I read a Charles Dickens anthology and stuff by Willa Cather and a Tale of Two Cities and Gullivers Travels and even The Hobbit.

    I also read a book called “Riders of the Purple Sage” by Zane Gray. That one changed my world. It was a western about a Mormon woman saved from a life of fundamentalist servitude and polygamy after she questioned that way of life and ran away with a gun-toting cowboy. I can’t tell you how many times I washed dishes and daydreamed I was her…

    • I did get all of those, even in the condensed form. Thank goodness. I don’t know what I would have done.

      And OH MY GOODNESS I READ THAT BOOK AND HAD THE SAME FANTASY. Every day, sometimes. I gave it to my pastor’s daughter but never got it back because she said it was “wicked” and she had thrown it away. Wow. I’d actually forgotten about that. Wow.

      • Riders of the Purple Sage? Are you serious? Omg…

        I still have my copy. I’m looking at it on my shelf now, one of the few I didn’t lose in hurricane Katrina. Silly pastor’s daughter. It’s like the most classic western in the world. I’ve thought about writing a blog post on that book. Maybe we should write up something on it together then? Yeah, it just tapped into something I didn’t even have words for back then. I think it was the pattern that her questioning took that felt most real to me.

        • It is a classic. And wow, I haven’t read it in …. over ten years, I think. I will read it again. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • I am so thankful that my parents at least avoided the book censorship. (Not that I didn’t read a few they didn’t know about too…) Particularly before we got involved with ATI, my mother used to encourage me to read books that made me question the status quo. If she had stayed that way, we would undoubtedly have a better relationship today.

    • The funny thing is, when I was little, reading was such a huge part of my life, and I could read anything I wanted. That all changed when I hit my tweens, though, because suddenly censorship became a really big deal. I was still a reader– at one point, I had 500+ books — but they were all “approved,” and any book that had a slight hint of inappropriate content came with a warning about “discernment.”

      I’m happy I retained my love of reading, and I’m really happy I was allowed to read more liberally when I was in my late teens, but sometimes it can be difficult for me not to fall back into “having discernment” (i.e.: rejecting a book if there’s something in it an IFB would condemn as immoral).

  • Maura

    I think a restricted reading selection is partially why I love YA novels as an adult.

    • I still love reading children’s literature. I just finished reading all of Rick Riordan’s books, and eagerly waiting for “House of Hades” in October. I keep going back for more, too– The Peculiar, The Rithmatist, the Ranger series… all so good.

      What books do you like in YA? Twilight and all its ilk turned me off to that age grouping . . .

      • Maura

        Well, I loved the Hunger Games, and I also enjoyed the Abhorsen series. Not sure if the following are YA or children, but I also liked Inkheart, Skulduggery Pleasant, and The Higher Power of Lucky.

        • I did enjoy the Hunger Games. Her use of present tense was fascinating to me, the grammarian. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’ve heard of the Abhoresen, but haven’t read them. Inkheart was such an interesting concept– I am pretty much a sucker for any fantasy novel that has some form of “words = magic”.

      • Tamora Pierce – you are in for a world of magical joy. She’s a better writer then JKR, even though I like HP. Her first four books some twenty years ago where the Lioness series:
        Alanna the first adventure
        In the hand of the Goddess
        The Woman who rides like a Man
        Lioness Rampant

        Seriously – google her, check out these books, and all the other ones she wrote. We’re talking serious feminist mult-cultural YA fantasy here. Both sex-posititive and age appropriate.

  • Little Magpie

    forgedimagination – do, do, do read the Abhorsen books, if you can. They are quite wonderful.. though I must say I read them as an adult; I suspect they might be a bit dark for some YA readers… but hey, we’re talking about *you* reading them. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Great article. You know this reminds me of the first two Avantasia albums about how religion tries to lock away the imaginations God gave us. I love Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Narnia. I myself am an aspiring author of conceptual science fiction and fantasy.

  • A recent YA book I read that really stuck with me for weeks afterwards is “Code Name Verity” by Elizabeth Wein. Her previous books are YA fantasy, IIRC, but this one is historical fiction. I highly recommend it.

  • I know this post is older, but I hope you’re still reviewing comments from it. Your blog is amazing and occasionally moves me to tears. I’m playing catch-up and working my way through your older posts chronologically at the moment. Given what you’ve said here about reading and wondering about YA that isn’t Twilight junk, I really recommend Kristin Cashore’s “Graceling” for you. It’s fantasy with some strong feminist themes. It sounds like you’d identify with the main character, a young woman who has been brainwashed to think horrible, degrading things about herself, but fights to find a different way of thinking and a different kind of life. I hope you get a chance to try it sometime!

  • I’m a writer of mostly fantasy stories and I grew up thinking that there was something fundamentally wrong with me, though I’m not entirely certain where I got the idea. Between Lord of the Rings and ElfQuest, though, I’ve picked up some very interesting ideas about what “should be”. I highly suggest reading ElfQuest. It’s a comic book series/graphic novel series published starting in the late 70’s that pretty well started the whole Indie Comics movement. It is still the most family friendly series I know of and it embraces differences of all types.

    I agree with you about Harry Potter. When I finally broke through the indoctrination and read the books for myself, I found only wonderful things there. People really should take the time to read/watch things for themselves, but that’s one of those things that really proves the idea that “what should be almost never is”.

  • My literary experience was mixed. We bounced from one set of teachings to another every couple of years, so the rules were constantly changing. I did get to read the yellow Nancy Drew books, but (not the new ones). #lol

  • Amanda Morrow

    I remember the great handwringing of ’98… Goosebumps. I had one in a desk drawer under a bunch of stuff that I would read in the same way, just a few pages at a time. Harry Potter, once it came on the scene, was also forbidden. My parents learned in their Bible study how it would teach us kids witchcraft and rebellion. To this day, I haven’t ever read any of them. Maybe I should fix that.

  • Aunna Cecelia James

    I remember watching a video during a Wednesday night service about the evils of Harry Potter. I tried to sneak and read them but experience so much guilt and fear that I was “inviting Satan in” that I never got past the first chapter. But now. Now, they are beloved collection that sits in the most accessible and prominent spot on my shelves. I definitely feel robbed by not being able to experience HP as a child.

  • pl1224

    Were Roman, Greek, Norse, and other national/cultural mythologies off-limits to children in your religious communities? What about Lewis G. Carroll’sAlice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass or Shakespeare or Jane Austen? What sort of literature–novels, drama and poetry–was allowed in Christian fundamentalist secondary-level education?

    • It depends. I was aware of various mythologies in an academic sense– like I knew who the planets were named after and what the various deities represented.

      I was personally familiar with “Jason and the Argonauts” and Bellerophon through a few collections I checked out from the library, but not much else. I read both Carroll’s books, but only because my mother knew they were a result of Carroll’s arguments against imaginary numbers.

      However, some fundamentalist families were strict about any other mythologies, and several I knew didn’t read any sort of fiction whatsoever.

      Generally, though, if the author was dead by 1900, fundamentalists are ok with us reading those. I will note that performances of Shakespeare at PCC are extremely edited to remove the “bawdiness” from his plays; I’m sure you can imagine the butchery that created.

      • B.E. Miller

        Ouch! I can just imagine that. We had an awesome English teacher in high school. (He read The Miller’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales out loud to us, because it wasn’t in our schoolbooks. I’ve since run into other English teachers with teen students who do the same thing.)

        One thing I remember was that Shakespeare knew folks liked bawdy stuff, and he included it on purpose so the audience wouldn’t get too bored.

        I can’t imagine the gaps if you cut out all the bawdy stuff.

  • shucky

    Is it really a good idea to teach kids to routinely disrespect and disobey their parents, their teachers, the police, their employers, etc? In real life, the only thing it will earn them in return is disrespect, if not much worse. Disrespect alone can put you in an early grave. Only people who hate kids and society in general will teach disrespect and disobedience. It has nothing to do with religion, it has to do with a peaceful, prosperous and harmonious society.

    By the way, I’m agnostic. One doesn’t have to even have a religion to be turned off by Harry and Hermione, in particular. If I knew them in real life, I would avoid them. Only in a fictional work will you find people as snarky and disrespectful as they are to be trustworthy and loyal friends. Usually those types are backstabbing frenemies to be avoided or to be wary of.

    Is it any wonder how the teaching profession has become a nightmare, and performance has declined, while Rowling was encouraging the kids to disrespect and disobey their parents and teachers? The whole idea of it was subversive and misanthropic from the beginning.

    Since I don’t profess to be Christian, I don’t feel bound to forgive Rowling for the damage she caused. I can only encourage my son to eschew her poison and those corrupted by it.

    • Oh. Sweetie.

    • MarjoramNewt

      I dunno. I’d prefer my children eventually consider the police, their employers, etc as their peers because I want my children to do well in life. Neither blind obedience or blind disobedience will get you there. Respect is good, though. You should have respect for your bosses, peers, AND subordinates.

      • Beroli

        “Respect” has multiple meanings; it can mean “treat you as an authority” or it can mean “treat you as a person.”

        Unfortunately, a number of people use the valid-on-the-surface construction “if you don’t respect me, I won’t respect you” to mean “if you don’t treat me as an authority, I won’t treat you as a person,” and from that perspective, it makes sense to say it’s horrible for Harry not to defer to even the most blatantly abusive authority figures.