Saturday, July 16, 2011

Myth, Harry Potter, the Canon and Morality Tales

This weekend, I saw the final film installment of the Harry Potter franchise. I have long been a fan of J. K. Rowling's books and of the films based on them. The reasons for my support of them are manifold. As a teacher, I applaud that Rowling has brought so many young people and adults to the written word, and the films have introduced the public to a host of talented young and veteran actors who have given the books life. Several talented directors also should be credited for their vision. What dismays me is that parents and various conservative groups deride the Potter series because it deals with witches and magic. Others denigrate Rowling's series because it is new and not in the sanctioned canon. For many of these people, literature written after 1899, or at the latest 1940, is of no value. Literature written by minorities or other non-privileged groups also is verboten, according to these fonts of purity and wisdom. What these people don't realize is that the central theme of the books has its roots in the depths of ancient myth and biblical literature. The Potter series deals with a young hero who must battle evil, thereby saving his world from destruction. Such a battle has been fought by Moses, Jesus, Odysseus, Aeneas, and King Arthur. Now, before my religious friends are offended, let me say that I'm not saying figures like Odysseus rank with Jesus, but these ancient tales share many of the same admirable traits. (By the way, I'm also religious.)

Biblical figures and ancient characters often fight the forces of evil through God-inspired power. Moses spoke with God, deriving a power from the Holy Word that would allow him to part a sea. Jesus turned water into wine and consulted with long-departed prophets. In so doing, Jesus unites his message of goodness with the ancient traditions of His people. In ancient literature, Odysseus conferred with the dead to gain their wisdom and find his path. Again, I'm not saying that Odysseus equals Christ, but all of these heroic figures from the past share certain important traits. I find it very ironic that the very people who criticize Potter on the grounds that it is non-canonical praise tales like the Odyssey, the Aenid, the tales of Arthur, or the Lord of the Rings; the Potter books deal with many of the same issues as do these heroic tales.

Rowling definitely builds on ancient myth and biblical precedent. Like the young Arthur, Harry is chosen to fulfill a prophecy and to lead others to greatness. Like Arthur who is drawn to a sword meant only for him, Harry has his special wand that will help him defeat evil. Like Odysseus and Aeneas, Harry must travel far to claim his place in a world that is at times dangerous and even deadly. Like the young Arthur, Harry learns that the world is not always what it seems. People betray and disappoint. Arthur is betrayed by his queen and his first knight. Harry learns that his parents and his teachers are human, prone to frailty and pettiness as well as courage. Like Tolkien's hobbit heroes and their band of warriors, Harry and his friends must face the enemy and forge their destiny. Each of us is set on a path with pitfalls and battles to be faced. Harry and his friends also are an unlikely band of warriors. They are wizards, but they are also kids wearing jeans and T-shirts. Kids identify with them because they are Everyman, armed with magic. Many have read Tolkien's work as a metaphor for his own experiences in the Great War. The young people who fought that conflict, like the hobbits, were also unlikely heroes, but they, too, faced the enemy with courage.

What I say to skeptical parents is that Harry Potter follows an ancient tradition that hopefully will ignite their children's imaginations, encouraging them to read the source material from which it derives. Because of Little Women, I read German philosophers like Kant and Fichte. Because of the Beatles' lyrics, I read King Lear and Lewis Carroll. Because of Godspell, I read the Bible. The Harry Potter books stand on their own, but they also can send children on a treasure hunt in which they discover the source of the magic. Don't discount "popular culture."


  1. I couldn't agree with you more.

    Jo Rowling has done a tremendous job of crafting a lively and interesting universe that has a wide appeal.

    I don't understand the people that burned or banned her book. Her books are wonderful. Kids fighting the good fight. Good virus evil. What's wrong with that?

    My daughter has read the whole series and has the movie. We took her and her BF to the last movie on Friday.


  2. Janice, wasn't that final movie great?