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Archive for March 7, 2013

Topic H: Harry Potter

Opening Note:  In past posts, I wrote about some other “H” topics you might enjoy:  Hummingbirds and Haiku



I have to admit, I love Harry Potter.  No, I do not have kids or grand kids who enticed me into reading the books.  What caught my eye were the kids of the world who just loved the books and then the movies.  It was interesting to see news coverage of kids standing in line to see the opening of one of the Harry Potter movies.  But the impressive part was that most of the kids were carrying the books.  Occasionally one would be asked by a reporter to make a comment.  Invariably, a kid about 10 years old would say something like, “Well, the books are better, but I am excited to see the movie.”  It became obvious that kids—lots and lots of kids—were reading these books that were each 400 pages or more.  I decided I better take a look.

Harry Potter First BookStill, I did not rush out to get a copy and start reading.  I did start hearing that some people want to ban the books because they are anti-Christian and offer enticements into witchcraft.  It seemed unlikely to me that this children’s fantasy series would have such a dire intent, but the concerns were being raised.  An incident in New Mexico even had a minister literally burning copies of Harry Potter books along with other items such as Ouija boards. It was reported, however, that that minister admitted he had not read any of the books. I so hate hearing things like that! I heard the characters are witches, so the books must be a manifesto for Wicca?  Maybe these complainers never watched Bewitched either.

Of course, J. K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, denies that the intent of her stories is to lure young readers into witchcraft.  In an interview in 1999 with CNN, Rowling offered this comment:  “I absolutely did not start writing these books to encourage any child into witchcraft. I’m laughing slightly because to me, the idea is absurd. I have met thousands of children and not even one time has a child come up to me and said, ‘Ms Rowling, I’m so glad I’ve read these books because now I want to be a witch.’”  Of course, I suppose, if she were trying to recruit young readers to witchcraft, she might not admit it.

In response to the complaints about Harry Potter and the move to ban the books at various schools, a website sprang up where young students could have a voice about their first amendment rights. How cool is that? That site has since grown into Kidspeak.org,  “Where kids speak up for free speech.”  One article reported that a fifth grader came up with a good idea when her school was contemplating banning the books for all students.  Her idea was to have children seven or under have written permission from their parents to read the books.  If the parents of children eight or older had complaints, “the principal should just talk to them and tell them that it’s just fantasy.” If kids were actually weighing in on the conversation, I more than ever wanted to read these books.

8 movie setI first just read one book to see how it was—and it was great:  Well drawn characters, fun plot twists as the witches and non-witches (known as Muggles) interacted, and an engaging plot about a young boy growing up.   I also caught one of the movies and enjoyed the adaptation. So finally I read all of the novels in order.  Then I watched the films in order as well.

Photo from Huffington Post Article

Photo from Huffington Post Article

The Books/Movies:

Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone, 1998   (movie: 2001)

Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets, 1999   (movie: 2002)

Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban, 1999   (movie: 2004)

Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire, 2000,   (movie: 2005)

Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix 2003,   (movie: 2007)

Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince, 2005   (movie: 2009)

Harry Potter & the Deathly Gallows, 2007   (movies: Part I, 2010 & Part II, 2011)

It’s an impressive series.  And the kids are right: the books are better than the movies, offering much more complexity, character development, and extended storylines.  But neither avenue made me want to become a witch—and no one I know has kids who are exploring witchcraft after reading the books or seeing the movies. Maybe I just do not know the right people.

At this point, I am not an expert by any means, but I know the Harry Potter series.  I could give detailed summaries of each novel and talk about Gryfindors vs. Slytherins, Dumbledore vs. Voldemort, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Quidditch, and hundreds of other details.  But I am not going to.  If you’ve read the series, you know all that stuff.  If you haven’t yet, part of the fun is being surprised by it all.  Instead, I will simply share what I like about Harry Potter.


1. I really like the author J. K. Rowling.

Rowling was a single mom living on England’s equivalent of welfare, but she kept writing a little at a time.  This story about Harry Potter was in her, yearning to get out!  This seven-book series made her a multi-million dollar author many times over.  She refuses, however, to move herself or her money off shore where she could find a better tax deal.  Her reasons? The system helped her and she wants to pay back, and she wants her kids to have a sense of past and community.  She also explains why she contributes extensively to charities: “I think you have a moral responsibility when you’ve been given far more than you need, to do wise things with it and give intelligently.”

Overall, Rowling just seems like a friendly, level-headed person who it would be nice to sit down and chat with.  She seems to like that kids are reading and learning through her books.  She even does not take people to copyright task for parodies and educational uses of her material. In 2008, she was the graduation speaker at Harvard. She talked about the value of failure and the importance of imagination.  Her dominant message: “We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”  Here is a video of her Harvard Graduation Speech:

2.  The Harry Potter books are immensely popular, especially with kids.

Overall, Rowling’s seven books have sold over 400 million copies and have been translated into 67 languages.  One blog notes that in the United States, “over half of all children between the ages of 6 and 17 have read at least one Harry Potter book.” A study in the United Kingdom credits Harry Potter with positive improvements in children’s literacy.  Students, parents and teachers applaud the book because it engages the students, creates a sense of community among the readers, and can be used as a teaching tool and resource in the classroom.

Of course, the concern some parents have about inappropriate themes and messages within the series is still there.  But most seem to agree that for children roughly 10 years old or older, the books are a great reading incentive.  A site called Reading Rocket explores the controversy surrounding and the positive impact of the Harry Potter series, but it also gives parents some tips on checking if the reading level and themes are appropriate for their children.

3.  The Harry Potter series offers good moral lessons for its readers.

The basic plot line through all seven Harry Potter novels is the maturing of Harry Potter and his two side-kicks Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. They age appropriately through the novels, allowing the readers to grow with the characters. These youngsters experience typical childhood problems like bullying and dating and finding one’s own voice and place in the world. The back drop to the characters’ lives and growth is a moral struggle unfolding between good and evil. As the teens age, they must accept the consequences of their actions, decide what they believe in, and show a willingness to act on what they believe. They learn to work together for the betterment of the whole. These are great lessons for the readers to watch play out across the pages.

Other characters and storylines surface in the novels, even if they do not always make it to the films.  Luna and Neville are two characters portrayed in both mediums.  Neville is the clumsy kid in class who can never do things right, but he transforms into a courageous young leader. Luna can seem to be the space cadet or hippie of the group; she sees things that others do not see and does not have the typical social skills needed to fit in. Still, Luna is insightful, gives excellent advice, and becomes a valued member of the group of teens who fight to save their world.  One storyline that does not make it into the films in any detail is Hermione’s efforts to help the House Elves who are treated little better than slaves. Dobby is one house elf we meet, and Harry is instrumental in freeing him from his wicked master.

Throughout all the characters and subplots, one dominant lesson surfaces again and again throughout the novels: it is up to each person to make effective choices.  At one point Harry is told not to worry about any potential similarities he may share with evil-doers; what sets each person apart is the choices he makes. Another character—Sirius Black godfather to Harry—says, “We have all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the power we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”

Some reviewers even note that much of the symbolism presented in the novels might in fact be a Christian allegory—good and light win over evil and darkness. One critic offers this conclusion: “Christian parents ought not to get hung up on the outward packaging of the Harry Potter novels—on the contrary, I think they should enjoy the magical packaging as interesting and fun. Rather, they should grasp the symbolism of the stories for what it is, and enjoy the familiar yet rich theological message that lives beneath the surface.”

4.  The world Rowling created in the Harry Potter series is fun!

Juxtaposing the wizard world against the non-wizard world is a brilliant device used in the Harry Potter novels. Harry, the main character, is a wizard, but he was raised for his first 11 years in the non-wizard world of Muggles.  He becomes the eyes for the readers/Muggles since he constantly has to ask how to walk through walls to find hidden train platforms and how such mysteries as flue-powder and port keys work.  At the same time, the wizards are flummoxed by subway tokens and telephones.  Ron’s father at one time seriously asks Harry to explain rubber duckies.  That everyone needs to learn something about the world they live in makes it okay not to know everything—an attitude that is rather comforting.

Another fun aspect of the novels is the elements of the wizard world that it would be great to have in the real world.  In the Weasley household, we see knitting needles working themselves to create scarves and dishes being washed and put away on their own ala an episode of Bewitched. Mrs. Weasley has a wall clock that shows not the time but the location of all members of the household.  Hermione has a purse that with the right spell can literally hold everything—books and changes of clothes and tents!  And there are many ways to zip from place to place.  Even with these wonders, however, these characters still need to find the courage to ask someone out, worry about being yelled at by parents, feel lonely over the holidays, have to study for finals, and need to make decisions about their futures.  The gadgets do not help.  The characters (and the readers) must find it within themselves to grow up and do the right thing.

There are other elements of the wizard world that are just fascinating.  One of my favorites is the active nature of pictures, news photos and even trading cards.  We first see this “active” side of these items when Harry opens a packet of candy and finds a trading card.  The picture on the card moves and talks like a little video. When Harry looks at his card a second time, the person pictured on it is gone.  Ron says something like, “You can’t expect him to stand around all the time.”  The same notion has persons in portraits stepping away from their frames and photos in newspapers being animated.  There are disappearing houses, buses that can change shape to get through traffic, and potions that can disguise you as someone else.  Of course, every witch also has a broom and a wand, although their effective use takes learning and practice.  At every turn, there is something new to startle and amaze the reader.

5. There are several Harry Potter gadgets I want!  

The gadgets in the Harry Potter series are numerous.  Of course, it would be a hoot to have a broom and a wand.  But those are not my favorite gadgets.  I have already mentioned Hermione’s purse that can hold everything.  Technically, however, what makes that trait possible is not a gadget—it’s a spell: Undetectable Extension Charm. She uses the spell on her purse, so she can carry everything she needs with her, and Mr. Weasley uses it on the tent when they are camping so there is enough space for everyone.  Being able to use that spell would be terrific.  And some days I really would love dishes that clean themselves.  But those actions again are brought on by a spell.  I am focusing on gadgets, especially the following that I would love to own:

Invisibility Cloak:  Harry receives the Invisibility Cloak as a gift in the first novel, and he makes use of it several times throughout the series to sneak into places he shouldn’t be and to overhear conversations.  He’s a teenager finding ways to get into trouble. Having a cloak that literally makes you invisible to those around you is a great trick.  I do not so much want to go places without being seen to hear things I shouldn’t hear, although knowing what colleagues really think about me and my ideas might be helpful—or crazy making.  Instead, I love the idea of being able to get work done in my office without everyone who wanders by and sees me at my desk stopping in to say hello.  And imagine this:  Sitting at home on the couch for over an hour reading a novel or taking a nap with no one bothering you, even if they are home. Because they do not realize you are home.  Sounds ideal to me!

Time Turner:  The Time Turner looks like a necklace, but in reality allows the wearer to go back in time and repeat an hour or two as needed.  Hermione is given this wondrous gadget by a teacher, so Hermione can take two classes at the same time.  This gadget eventually helps her and Harry actually save a couple lives in the second novel.  I am enamored of it for the simple fact that it would let anyone have more than 24 hours in a day!  You could sleep in and get up on time.  You could go out to dinner with friends and study.  Of course, like Hermione, you could attend two meetings that happen to be going on at the same time, but I would caution not to get too extravagant with its ability to help its user get more work done.

Pensieve:  This gadget is impressive and ties in thematically with the well-known adjective pensive. In the movies it looks like a big bowl (well, I suppose I should say cauldron) filled with a silvery blue liquid that eventually presents words and images much like a movie.  But these “movies” are memories of your own or others captured accurately for later review. Or they could be the concerns and details that tend to drive you crazy as they keep running around in your mind not letting you sleep.  You need a wand for this, but you get to extract those annoyances from your mind and place them in the pensieve for later review.  How great is that?

There would certainly be applications involving the pensieve in courtrooms.  But I am thinking of more personal uses.  You know those arguments you have with loved ones, where you incredulously say, “What do you mean you don’t remember X!?”  Now, you could show them!  I have four older sisters, and I swear we each remember the same incident from our past in different ways; with the pensieve they could see that I am right.  I want one of these!

There are some other “things” in the novels that would be fun to have, but they are enchanted with a spell or are a potion that you have to drink.  The Marauder’s Map lets you see who is wandering around the place, so you could be careful about who to avoid.  There is also Liquid Luck, a potion that makes certain things happen in the best way for you throughout the day.  Of course, when Ron just thinks he has taken the potion he does miraculous things on the playing field all on his own, so maybe confidence and positive expectations would work just as well.

There are also sorting hats that tell you what groups to join, wardrobes you can walk through to get to another location, mirrors to look in to see your heart’s desire, and enchanted journals that let you talk to people from the past, among other things.  But these “things” carry some problems and complications that make them a bit tricky to work with.  So I will just settle for the three gadgets I really, really like.  I do not want to be greedy.

So have you read or watched Harry Potter?  What do you think?  Anything from the series you would like to bring into your life?  And I am dying to ask but it would probably be tacky or at least impolite:  Are you a witch, yet?

I’d love to hear from you.

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