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 rules 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, the 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, and Lucy can be their friends.