Editor’s Note: Admittedly, this has become a bit of a controversial series, both because of the books themselves, but also because of the subsequent development of the Harry Potter brand. Please note the following. First, we take the books as we find them on the shelf. Second, our review of Harry Potter does not in any way indicate our views of any related sequels (in book or film form), which some avid Potter fans justifiably view as too dark and explicitly intertwined with the occult. Are we surprised that the powers of the purse may have twisted a good thing?
All that aside, enjoy this review by Mr. Joe Breslin.
J.K. Rowling’s seven-book Harry Potter series deserves every bit of its historic success, but I was the last person on earth to discover it. Having read the first three novels in my teens, I somehow put them aside and went on to other things. What an unexpected surprise it was to read all seven for the first time as an adult, and to be dying to discuss this scene or that moment with anyone who would listen. Naturally, I’ve recently been subjected to many versions of, “Wait! You mean this is the first time you’ve read them all?!”
But how to review a series with so many important secrets and twists, including some, the premature revelation of which could only be justly punished by burning at the stake? Indeed, I am greatly indebted to decades worth of discrete readers who never spoiled the books for me. On the other hand, so many know the story that a review might seem superfluous. There appears to be only one way to go about it, and that is to attempt to approach the series through some of its most defining themes. Without plot-spoilers, I offer the reader eight elements that set this series apart from other contemporary fantasy series: characters, gravity, the question of trust, excellent plotting, powerful moments, war and the question of death, the natures of good and evil, and the triumph of agape love. At the end I will briefly address a few of common criticisms.
Rowling invests each of her characters with a delightful individuality, a vitality in speech, appearance, and behavior that makes them leap off the page as three-dimensional beings. Though at first a bit caricature-like, they deepen as the stories deepen, becoming our old friends. There seemed something Dahlish or Dickensish about her characterization, yet at the same time it feels very original, very modern. How does she achieve this classic/contemporary feel? I really don’t know.
What’s interesting is that this lively characterization applies not only to the handful of main characters, but to second- and third-tier characters, and even to characters who appear only in flashback. Like a skilled chef, Rowling knows how to add just the right ingredients, and just enough seasoning to achieve very distinct flavors, and she lets these play off each other, enriching and defining the experience over time.
Interestingly, Harry’s personality is less immediately distinctive, taking all seven books to develop. This is partly a function of the demands of the narrative. Harry remains, for the reader, the outsider continually stepping through the magic door. There are times when Harry’s actions seem erratic, unpredictable, or unjust. In the fifth book, he’s often infuriating and obnoxious. Dumbledore praises Harry’s bravery, but Potter is at least as rash as he is brave. One begins to suspect that Snape may not be wholly unjustified in his dislike for Harry. In another author’s hands, this might indicate uneven characterization, but at length it becomes clear that Harry’s unevenness is just like that of a real boy, muddling through those confusing years from late boyhood to late youth. He’s not yet a white knight, but he’s heading in the right direction. Indeed, it’s part of the series’ strength that, in some sense, Harry himself is not really the center of everything. Precisely because Harry has a kind of destiny or vocation to greatness, his personal choices to accept the weight of that destiny, rather than his personality or his individual quirks, are what really matter to the story’s resolution.
The third book introduces characters who are morally complex, and who the reader senses will need to make some hard choices of their own if they wish to remain on the side of good. It’s not that good or evil are muddy or unclear, but rather that some good characters are only “goodish,” and will have to become better. Likewise, the progress of the series reveals that some evil characters may yet have a chance at redemption.
Among the most distinct and enduring of Rowling’s characters is Albus Dumbledore. Every scene he’s in pulses with energy, and even offstage, the weight of his presence is everywhere. In Dumbledore, Rowling gives us a character who seems every bit as formidable as his reputation within the narrative suggests, and yet human for all that. We love this character, and come to rely on him just as Harry does. In many ways, benevolent old Dumbledore acts as the moral compass of the series, and so it is with some trepidation that we begin to detect tension between him and the established powers of good. This tension explodes in a verbal confrontation at the end of the fourth book, a confrontation that marks the definitive shift from something that is largely a children’s series, to a story that feels a great deal more weighty.
Fundamentally, the Harry Potter books are stories of moral intrigue and spiritual warfare. The spiritual dimension has little to do with the magic itself, which is only a story device, but instead revolves around characters’ choices, to be faithful to friends, or not to be faithful, and to engage or not engage in battle with the evils around them. These choices have the power to shape the greater moral and political landscape, and, as the series progresses, must often be made without the benefit of social acceptance, the pleasant mantle of respectability.
Beginning like a fairy tale, with good guys very clearly in the commanding position, the balance begins to shift, and the battle becomes uneven, with small or imperfect characters pitted against a very oppressive evil, all the more disturbing because of the way it makes use of traditional organs of good. Voldemort works in lies and by sowing division and distrust, isolating and silencing his opponents. He’s aided not just by evil men and women, but especially by the cowardly or self-serving behavior of respectable people who would never dream of overtly aiding his cause. The last three books contain moments of darkness that make the evil in the first three novels seem cartoonish by comparison.
Rowling has taken the fairy tale formula and deepened it, but not by “revolutionizing” or liberalizing it. Contrary to what some critics have said, Rowling is a traditionalist down to her toes. She leaves the traditional narrative and iconography of good and evil mostly intact, while adding in layers of realism that should strike a chord with any modern person. Here we see the ugliness of politics, the bias of the press, the absurd movements of bureaucracy — structures that exist to serve the common good, but which all too easily serve themselves. Such big things can never defeat Voldemort; their very bigness makes them more susceptible to his influence.
He cannot be defeated by techniques, but only by persons. Families, friendships, brave individuals — networks of trust and love: these alone can oppose Voldemort, because he does not understand them. This is what gives Harry Potter an unexpected gravity and moral seriousness.
A Question of Trust
Among the books’ deeper themes, trust was perhaps the most striking. Though not as obvious a factor in the first three books, it becomes central in the last four. It would give too much away to discuss this matter in great detail, but suffice to say that every major character has his trust tried, and in the latter books, Harry is forced to confront the reality that trust is a choice. The forces that can defeat Voldemort are personal relationships, and the fruit of personal relationships. Such networks depend utterly on trust, and to trust is to make oneself vulnerable.
Voldemort himself trusts no one; indeed, distrust is his defining characteristic. Distrust seems to be the thing that warped him, and, consequently, trust must be a particular strength in the one who overcomes him. But is it reasonable for Harry to trust? What is the cost of trust? Suppose all the evidence tells against trusting? What if the worst were to happen — what if that trust were betrayed? Wouldn’t that vindicate Voldemort’s self-reliance, his obsession with control? This question is worked out to a wonderfully satisfactory answer in the course of a superb, seven-book plot arc.
Both singly and as a series, the Harry Potter books are extremely well-plotted. A good plot is at once unguessable, and, in the end, inevitable. An excellent plot achieves this not primarily by ad hoc events that force the story along, but by the unexpected resolutions of the combined weight of its characters’ choices. When the characters are well drawn, and their choices believable, the effect is, well, magical. Yet a truly great degree of plotting is achieved when, having satisfied the previous criteria, the plot’s movement and resolution manifest and reveal themes that were always present and, indeed, woven into every layer of the story, and present in each of its parts.
Generally, the plotting in Harry Potter ranges from excellent to great, occasionally dipping down to the level of good. On a personal note, I rarely have the experience of being genuinely fooled or surprised by a novel or film, and that’s especially true of most of the young adult literature I’ve had the opportunity to read. J.K. Rowling’s stories are made out of better substance. True, there are places in the fourth and seventh book where the story drags a bit, but as far as the plot movement and sheer storytelling are concerned, she is masterful. Even when the ultimate direction of the story became clear, the surprises never ceased. Indeed, what truly strikes the reader about this series, what lingers in the mind and heart, is not its unguessable plot twists, but its powerful dramatic moments.
There are moments in this series that have taken up permanent residence in my imagination. They linger there, like squatters, and show no signs of departing. Some of these moments were startling revelations. Some, confrontations that crackled with white-hot electricity. Some were quiet and profound, and give me gooseflesh when I think of them now. Indeed, the entire ending sequence of the last novel — at this moment, as I write — is making the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I think of a woman stooping to the ground to ask a single question — and realize I cannot say more without saying too much. One thing is clear, Rowling is able to achieve these moments of wonder, beauty, humor, horror, and high drama, because she has laid the groundwork with good characterization, and because of a powerful thematic backdrop: the war with death.
War and the Question of Death
The last four books unfold in an atmosphere of war. Rowling has stated that her own real life experience with victims of torture and political oppression while at Amnesty International played a role in shaping the novels, and I believe her. There’s a palpable sense of threatening, lurking hatred willing to do violence in order to suppress any opposition, and the general feeling of danger permeates the later books. This creeps in as early as The Prisoner of Azkaban, but the last three books carry a particular sense of dread, and moments of darkness that may make them questionable reading for children younger than about thirteen or fourteen. To be frank, the books are quite nerve-racking.
Behind the threat of war looms the mystery of death. Death is threaded throughout the series. It lingers over Harry’s origins. It floats about the castle in the form of ghosts, and their grimly funny ends. Paradoxically, it is both the mascot and the nemesis of Voldemort’s people, those who live in terror of it. Not until the end do we see that there is a wrong and a right kind of opposition to death: one that fears it as the absolute end, and another that accepts it is a transient reality, looking forward, in hope, to a strange, good power able to absorb its effects, and yet overcome it.
The Natures of Good and Evil
Goodness is varied and wonderful in the world of Harry Potter. It is particular, unique, beautiful, and interesting. Each good character shows forth one of its secrets, and each has something unique to contribute to the good of all. Goodness is a deeply personal, endlessly new thing, a force of life and laughter, able to exist cheerfully alongside imperfection, even within the same person. Evil is uniform, boring, and ugly. Gray, drab, violent, and sneaky, evil displays no perfections in this series but the power to destroy, torture, deceive, bully, and cleverly manipulate. Snakes, dragons, and spiders, though not portrayed as evil beings per se, remain symbols of that which cannot be trusted, and closely associated with evil. This is in stark contrast to many contemporary fantasies, which tend to portray dragons as misunderstood, enlightened creatures.
Rowling never makes evil attractive, interesting, or desirable. Her images of evil are disgusting or frightening, and sometimes surprisingly stark and realistic, but they’re never beautiful, fascinating, or wise. She’s a subtle enough writer and thinker to understand that a snake, for example, though an excellent symbol of evil, is not actually evil, yet she consistently pays homage to traditional western iconography. She holds out the hope that a werewolf might be reformed and redeemed, yet she leaves no doubt about the general wickedness of werewolves. In this, and in many other ways, Rowling manifests an intellectual subtlety and dexterousness that makes her tower over her contemporaries.
Along these lines, consider the difference between Voldemort “the man,” and Voldemort’s works. His works are clever, frightening, devious, confusing, and testify to a high degree of intellectual power. And yet, in person, he is cowardly, cruel, and obvious, his mind shattered and thinned, and somehow insubstantial. At the bottom of Voldemort there is no great secret, no forbidden mystery. There is only hate and distrust. There is nothing. Perhaps that is why, while others fear even to speak his name, Dumbledore encourages Harry always to clearly name his enemy.
Dumbledore, in contrast to Voldemort, is bubbling over with substance, an image of substantiality and fullness of life. He seems privy to some secret joy, radiates peace and strength wherever he goes, and draws forth the best in people. There is something extremely edifying about the loyalty he inspires in others, and their willingness to trust his judgment, even when the facts seem to tell against it. This would be impossible to pull off had Rowling not written a character in whom goodness seems to burn like a secret fire. In Dumbledore, and, gradually, in Harry, Rowling shows us that goodness is an embodied, personal reality; something that is beautiful, exciting, and more powerful than any magic. But the personalism of Harry Potter is not restricted to good individuals, or even to good friendships, but extends to a very wholesome vision of the family.
Raised by the waspish, materialistic, and selfish Durselys, there is something combative, distrustful, and sarcastic about the orphan Harry. Having never met his real parents, who sacrificed their lives to save his, Harry is deeply in need of familial love, and he finds it in the Weasleys. In contrast to the Dursleys, who have one pampered child, and who constantly obsess about material success and worldly respect, the Weasleys are a joyful, chaotic family of nine. The father works in a stable government job that puts food on the table, but not much more. The mother is a homemaker devoted entirely to the welfare of her seven children, and, whenever possible, to Harry’s. Despite their simple means, they are happy and generous, introducing Harry to the ordinary realities of wizarding life, and expressing fascination and respect for the (to them) strange but wonderful world of non-magical people. In many ways, the Weasleys ground Harry, providing him the parents and siblings of which he was deprived by the self-centeredness of others. The Weasleys, along with Dumbledore, Hermione Granger, and certain Hogwarts professors, are the hills, trees, and valleys that compose Rowling’s landscape of love. And it’s a love that is stronger than death.
It’s notoriously difficult to write goodness, and much easier to imagine wickedness. To write goodness, an author must first see it well enough herself to be able to wander within its ever-surprising landscape, and she must understand it well enough to make it both believable and attractive. While the Harry Potter series certainly puts its readers through moments of darkness, the really surprising thing is how much more powerful and interesting are its images and moments of goodness.
It’s one thing to say that the love of Harry’s parents has a special power; it is quite another to show this power growing to a beautiful fruition. It’s one thing to say that there is a love particular to families that is wonderful in its mysterious ordinariness; it is another to see that power work in the hearts of characters, good and bad. It is one thing to say, in a vague and non-specific way, that trust, love, family, friendship, and sacrifice have something to do with the logic of a higher form of love — everyone who is not insane knows these things as mere facts. But to write a story that illustrates, by its own natural logic, the logic and working of agape love is a feat realized in very few popular modern stories for children. Tolkien achieved this in a grand literary way in The Lord of the Rings. I would argue that even the original Star Wars films do this in a popular, but still meaningful way. Harry Potter does it in its own way — perhaps not perfectly, perhaps without great literary prose, but powerfully nonetheless.
Its greatest lesson, to return to an earlier point, is its meditation on the relationship between trust and love. So much in this story depends upon networks of human trust — families, friendships, one’s given word — these fragile unions that are yet strong. Love itself, a force that Rowling shows to transcend any power on earth, natural or preternatural, can neither live nor be maintained without the risk of trust. Agape love — not some secret, magical gnosis (as one mistaken critic asserts) — is the central, distinguishing, unifying theme of these novels. Love is the common quality found in the novels’ good characters. It is Voldemort who trusts no one but himself, and who trusts in nothing but his own technical skill, his private gnosis. Refusing to trust, he refuses to be open to goodness, and so cannot even conceive of the terrible vulnerability of love. In trying to make himself more powerful than death by means other than love, he is fragmented and insubstantial; meanwhile those who are willing to give all that they are for love, trusting that somehow the Good will triumph, are thereby made even more human and personal. This is a fundamentally human, and fundamentally Christian view of reality.
Response to Critics
None of this means that the books are above criticism, though they’re innocent of the worst charges against them. From their first appearance, the books have been subjected to continual challenges from critics of evangelical or traditionalist Catholic backgrounds. The charges these critics make sound very serious: the books promote witchcraft, or divination, or Gnosticism. They subvert a traditional western worldview and promote neopaganism. They normalize or promote immoral behavior, such as lying, hating one’s enemies, teenage romantic shenanigans, and vulgarity. They undermine authority, and (worst of all, apparently), Harry’s disobedience goes unpunished!
Let me state clearly: the claims above are mostly overstated, and in some cases, flatly (and incomprehensibly) false. There are also a few that are half-truths or lacking in context, and, in my opinion, only one that has real merit: Harry tells lies.
Harry lies many times throughout the series, sometimes to his own detriment, and sometimes without any clear consequence. To my memory, when Harry lies, it’s generally in one of the following scenarios: he distrusts his interlocutor (sometimes with good reason), he’s attempting to escape the consequences of his rule breaking (and these are rules that he’s sometimes right to have broken), or he’s trying not to offend in an awkward situation. Taking the view that any statement one makes that is intentionally and deliberately contrary to the truth — regardless of a desired just outcome — is a lie, and that such actions are wrongs, we must admit that Harry commits many wrongs. Furthermore, it’s reasonable to think that some young readers will imitate this behavior, or discount its moral importance.
Here I would make two points. First, the series, by the author’s apparent intention, is not a simple fable. With the possible exception of Mrs. Weasley, virtually every main character has moral flaws that are tied up in complicated ways with his strengths. We are not supposed to take all of Harry’s actions as normative, and he is never presented as being above criticism. What makes Harry good, in the logic of the story, is his fundamental orientation toward love, loyalty, and courage, despite his flaws, and his continual willingness to become better. Second, Harry generally lies in situations where he cannot tell the precise truth (because his interlocutor isn’t to be trusted), or at least believes he cannot (because of his general distrust that authorities will do the right thing, which results in a tendency to take matters into his own hands.) These moments therefore present parents a number of great opportunities to ask questions like, “How might things have gone better had Harry just told the truth here?” or “What might Harry have said to evil Professor ——- , since he obviously can’t be frank, and yet he also has an obligation not to lie?” The books are rich enough that the plot and characters actually benefit from this kind of critical reading. Even so, we can concede that the books are too casual about lies of convenience, and, along those lines, arguably display moral consequentialism in some places.
One critic also takes umbrage at the books’ occasional vulgarity, expressing shock about a ghost who lives in a toilet’s u-bend, and about magical jelly beans with outlandish flavors, including — for the unlucky — vomit. While this critic sees such vulgarity as a sign of our culture’s steep decline into moral horror, my own professional experience suggests such things would have amused eleven and twelve-year-olds of even some far-gone Golden Age.
Finally, the sixth and seventh books, taking place when Harry and his friends are sixteen and seventeen, contain a number of references to “snogging.” While nothing more than kissing is described, several passages allude to sneaking off to make out. In general, the whole matter is a source of discomfort for the main characters, who are subjected to overly public displays of lip locking, but at least one main character also develops an intense physical (but not clearly sexual) relationship with another character of the opposite sex. I would note, however, that this same character immediately drops the relationship in order to protect the beloved. This character is willing to sacrifice both affections and life for the sake of a higher love. Finally, although Harry does claim to hate certain enemies, his actions tell otherwise.
Unfortunately, refuting the claims about Gnosticism and neopaganism would require a great deal more text than even a long book review can bear. Fortunately, the reviewer has come across two excellent articles — one by a former head of The Heights Lower School, and one by a Catholic novelist — that ably defend the novels against these charges. Those links are here and here. I will therefore restrict myself to a few comments.
As to neopaganism — “real” witchcraft, the occult, dualism, divination, etc., — the books either contain none of it, or, as in the latter case, openly mock it. Characters don’t consult Ouija boards, draw pentagrams, or use spells to manipulate angelic or demonic entities. There are examples of psychic or quasi-spiritual phenomena such as ghosts, human personalities magically retained in picture frames, and magical or quasi-spiritual projections called patronuses, but all of these come across as quite fantastic. The magic of Harry Potter is like the magic in tales collected or told by Andrew Lang, the Brothers Grimm, Oscar Wilde, and Hans Christian Andersen: a whimsical, wonderful, preternatural force, that can be wielded for good or for evil. It is neither spiritual, nor supernatural, but rather preternatural; certainly suggestive of both natural and supernatural wonders, but only by the logic of analogy. For magical beings, spells “operate” magic in much the same way command lines or basic mechanics operate human technology, though it is not a purely mechanical power either, since reason and strength of will are involved. The sole examples of the kind of “magic” Christianity condemns as irrational or wicked are also treated in the novels as irrational (in the case of reading tea leaves, etc), or wicked (in the case of Voldemort’s forbidden magic.)
As to Gnosticism, the series is practically a tract against it. In the books, dark and forbidden knowledge is coveted only by villains. The search for such knowledge is the downfall of two characters, and the near downfall of another. Wizards and witches (the latter being used in the novels simply as the feminine form of “wizard”) are not “enlightened” people who operate outside the lines of traditional religion, and who are filled with resentment about patriarchy and the history of the Christian West. Nor are they wise, misunderstood practitioners of herbal remedies. Rather, they are simply ordinary people, living in a world adjacent to and intertwined with our own, for whom magical power is the day-to-day equivalent to “Muggle” technology. They celebrate Christmas and sing Christmas carols. Churches appear in the novel as ordinary and wholesome things, not houses of the ignorant. Finally, and most importantly, it is precisely the good and healthy characters in the novel who regard non-magical people (Muggles) as fascinating, wonderful, and worthy of protection, and it is precisely the evil characters in the novel who despise Muggles and wish to oppress or dominate them.
I would also ask why Tolkien is allowed to enoble and elevate those half-fallen angels, the medieval embodiments of magical mischief and, sometimes, caprice and seduction— I mean elves, of course — whilst Rowling is not permitted to repurpose and redefine those (almost equally fictional) medieval personages, the witch and the wizard? Some of the criticism of Harry Potter strikes me as so inversely related to the books’ actual content, that it is as if the critic were reading the novels through lenses made of the hobgoblin’s looking glass in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. While it is true that these books merit some caution, I would suggest readers take the more strident criticism with a grain of salt. As with people, so with literature, encounter the thing yourself before believing the worst claims made about it.
Recommended Reading Age
Harry’s career at Hogwarts begins at age eleven, his First Year, and ends at age seventeen, his Seventh Year. Those ages correspond roughly to the best ages at which to read the respective novels. However, this is unrealistic with such a gripping series. I therefore make the following recommendations:
The first three books, and probably the fourth, are safe reading for the average ten- to thirteen-year-old. They are not too dark, and contain nothing objectionable beyond slight vulgarity (vomit jelly beans, etc.), and Harry’s occasional lies of convenience. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth novel, may be too dark for some ten-year-olds.
The fifth book is extremely intense, labyrinthine, and possibly over the head of those younger readers. I can see this book really bothering a sensitive child. Recommended age: fourteen or older.
The sixth and seventh books are best for fifteen or above, even though there will be many thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds who can handle them. My concern here is threefold: elements of these books are dark and disquieting (though satisfactorily resolved), and some of the content is very “kissy” and teenage in orientation. Finally, it is hard to really appreciate how good these books are without a little life experience.
Because the recommended ages vary, I offer fourteen as a safe average age. As the foregoing makes clear, if there’s one contemporary series you should read with your kids, it’s the Harry Potter series. This not only because of the handful of concerns; it’s primarily because the books offer such a delightful and varied reading experience, one that is somehow both simple enough for younger readers, but rich enough to sustain an adult reading. This is the kind of series, which, upon finishing, one wishes to start over again from the beginning, confident that the second reading will be satisfying in its own unique way.
There is something special about Harry Potter and the world he occupies. There’s something unique, and unrepeatable, and alive about it, as if the books were not so much the product of craft, but had been drawn forth, strand-by-golden-strand, from Faerie. Authors often speak of discovering their stories, as opposed to inventing them, of carefully uncovering their stories in the manner of an archaeologist or a conservator. Language like this can sound obnoxious or pedantic if the author happens to be producing formula-written or derivative drivel — though it may well be an accurate account of his own writing experience. In Rowling’s case, such language really seems appropriate. Small wonder the critics fear this lovely, dangerous, beautiful series. After all, how could such a story have come about if not by magic? And though, like its magical namesake, the Harry Potter series has some flaws, it, like him, is fundamentally good — and is destined to endure.
- To lie means to deliberately communicate as true something we know to be contrary to the truth. Can you think of a situation where Harry lied because he couldn’t be frank with his questioner? How could he have avoided lying in this situation?
- Why do you think Harry tends to rely on himself, and on his own judgment?
- Are there ways Harry and Voldemort are similar? What really makes them different?
- In the later books, Harry eventually faces the choice of trusting without being able to know all the facts. Given that people are fallible and imperfect, how can we be justified in placing our trust in them?
- What would be the cost of refusing to trust anyone but oneself?
- Aside from Harry, who is the real hero(ine) of the Harry Potter series?
- Was there a moment in the series that you found particularly funny, sad, frightening, or moving?
- Are there cases in real life where believing a thing actually makes it true, or more likely to become true?