The Harry Potter series may be an unprecedented publishing phenomenon, but its magic doesn’t work for everyone. Ever since the saga first hit the stores with Bloomsbury’s publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997, J.K. Rowling’s readership has grown and grown. But along with it, the anti-Potter movement has grown with it.
The trouble with Harry
Can millions of book-buyers be wrong? Quite a few people think they can. Prize-winning British novelist and academic A.S. Byatt is one of J.K. Rowling’s more high-profile critics. Writing in the New York Times last July, Byatt dismissed the Harry Potter books as “written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated mirror worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip.”
In her forthright opinion, the main reason adults read Potter is because the books let them regress to childhood. Rowling, Byatt says, “speaks to an adult generation that hasn’t known, and doesn’t care about, mystery”. She cites children’s authors such as Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Ursula K. Le Guin as better options, because their books contain “a real sense of mystery, powerful forces, dangerous creatures in dark forests”.
Church leaders, on the other hand, think the books contain altogether too much mystery. Christian groups campaign against the fledgling magician because they think it will encourage children to practice witchcraft and explore the dark arts.
J. K. Rowling herself rejects the accusations, saying her books are “very moral” in their view of the struggle between good and evil.
Good or Evil?
In Germany, the Christian Fe-Medienverlag has published an impassioned anti-Potter tome by religious sociologist Gabriele Kuby, with the title Harry Potter – Good or Evil?
Kuby subscribes to the conspiracy-theory school of literary criticism, describing Rowling’s cult series as a “global, long-term project to change the face of culture.” She sees the world Harry Potter inhabits as one in which “evil presides, and is depicted as a value to aspire to.”
She also objects to Rowling’s penchant for subverting religious symbols and rituals - such as when a poltergeist appears in Harry’s school at Christmas bellowing obscene songs.
Harry’s moral fibre may be debatable, but no one can argue that the books are frequently downright disgusting. There’s as much blood and guts split during an average day at Hogwarts boarding school as in a Quentin Tarantino movie.
In one book, Harry becomes possessed by his arch enemy, the evil Lord Voldemort, who’s drunk a potion made of Harry’s blood, the severed arm of a servant and a stewed baby. Is this the sort of thing children should be reading at bedtime?
The Hogwarts Headache
Reinhard Franzke, pedagogics professor at Hanover University, thinks not. “The horror scenes violate childish minds,” he says. “They could make sensitive children psychologically ill, trigger depression and nightmares, and affect their reading and learning abilities.”
He believes that,if it continues, Potter-mania will eventually mean that “the number of patients admitted to psychiatric wards will explode, health care contributions will rocket and there’ll be a rise in the number of unexplained murders and suicides.”
A U.S. doctor, meanwhile, has made the claim that reading too much Harry Potter can be physically dangerous.
Howard J. Bennett, a pediatrician in Washington, D.C., said that he recently treated young patients suffering from symptoms including headaches, neck and wrist pain. Further questioning revealed the children had been spending too many hours bent over heavy copies of the new book, the fifth installment in the series.
Many have argued that Rowling deserves praise simply for getting children reading in an age of video games and visual entertainment.
And after all, as theologian Mark Achilles pointed out in an interview with Christian newspaper Sonntagsblatt in June, Rowling describes a very realistic world, in which “people can decide themselves to embrace evil or not.”