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Problems in the Harry Potter series

by Michael D. O' Brien

Condensed by the author from: Harry Potter and the Paganization of Children' s CultureCatholic World Report April, 2001.

There are several serious defects in the Harry Potter books that can influence young readers in developing harmful attitudes leading to destructive behavior. Four major categories of negative elements are immediately obvious, though several other problems are interwoven with them. First, the four major negative messages:

1) These books consistently present classical occult activities (activities condemned by God, the Scriptures, and the Church) as powers that can be used for good. This is the central theme of the four novels published so far. It is a dangerous falsehood, and especially so because this kind of spiritual activity is readily available in most regions. In fact it is very active in our area. Some young people in our area (even in our parish) have been badly hurt by involvement in occult activity. Recovery from it, in cases where recovery takes place, can be a long and painful process.

2) The central character, Harry, is basically a nice boy, an attractive role model for young people. This invites children to imitate his behavior and to consider how they too might obtain his powers (if not all his powers, at least something like them). Such powers are being offered to youth in the real world through various occult, New Age, "Wiccan" (witchcraft and sorcery) and overtly Satanic individuals and groups. During the past year, media reports have appeared that confirm the Harry Potter connection. These books have proved to be a bridge between normal readers and the occult world. Time and Newsweek magazines and the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, plus independent studies by occult organizations themselves, have reported a new influx of young people getting involved in occult organizations as a direct result of reading the Harry Potter series.

This phenomenon is due to children' s natural fascination with the mysterious, their need for adventure and exciting challenges, and to explore their personal identity. At a time of history and in the midst of a social crisis where the family is weakened, young people generally have a more difficult process of learning who they are, and how they can find their place in the world. Many are hurting, confused, lacking good role models. Occultism offers a sense of belonging to an exciting in-group, an identity, a "family", a meaning for their lives.

The stories are well-told, fast-paced, stimulating, and present a glamorous, enticing, false picture of the nature of such activities. Adolescence is a time of life when the young are searching for role models to show them how to move beyond the confines of family, to show them how to grow up, to find the great adventure of life. Cults and other negative social influences tap into this basically good instinct and bend it to their own purposes.

3) A constantly repeated message throughout the stories is that "the end justifies the means." Harry frequently uses evil means to bring about a supposed good objective. He lies, he steals, he deceives in many ways, he seeks vengeance, he disobeys, he "hates" his enemies. All of this is presented as necessary for Harry to achieve the defeat of the arch-evil enemy. The author weaves some good characteristics into Harry' s personality, along with some attempt at morality. But the morality is very weak and based on no discernible moral order. The overwhelming message is not morality; it is the lure of power and secret knowledge (this is a classic occult method).

4) A fourth element in the stories is not as grave as the first three, but it is so dominant throughout the books that it should be noted, because it reinforces the others: The "heroic" characters in the stories have some good qualities to be sure. Yet they are repeatedly indoctrinated in the culture of ugliness and disgusting details. Details such as vomiting slugs, eating repulsive materials, cutting up live babies to use in magic potions, using insulting and crude language - these are presented as normal activities, as good things. The author depicts as utterly vile anyone who opposes Harry. Overweight or unattractive people are mocked repeatedly. Anyone who disapproves of magic is presented as a vicious abuser and unspeakably ignorant. The entire effect is to throw contempt on the dignity of the human person - and this is done on several levels, through plot, characterization, dialogue, and countless minor details that flesh out the stories. Basic Christian principles of human behavior are overturned again and again, and this is presented as right, as good.

There are other issues too numerous to mention in a short summation as this. The total of printed pages in the four books now numbers in the thousands, containing dozens of subplots and a very big cast of characters. Throughout it all, the author has succeeded in capturing the imagination of readers because she has written a complex and interesting tale packed with exciting stimuli. She has paid lip service to "values" (very little it should be noted), and in this way has managed to bypass the objections that might have been raised by normal parental and educational discernment.

It is true that no work of fiction is perfect. But if we accept the belief that good reading for the young should at least have a good foundation, even if a story is flawed in some details, then we have to assess the Harry Potter series with serious concern. Its foundation, its attitude to human dignity, to the war between good and evil, to the nature of moral action, to the nature of diabolical deception, are all radically disordered. Moreover, this disorder is presented in a very attractive light, especially to the young reader who at this stage of his life is highly impressionable, vulnerable to being deformed in his sense of truth, of right and wrong.

Reasonable Christian parents would not permit their children to read a series of enthralling books depicting the rites and adventures of likable young people involved in drug-dealing, or premarital sex, or sadism. We are still capable of recognizing the falsehood in glamorizing torture, because physical pain is a reality in everyone' s life and anyone unjustly inflicting pain is instantly recognized for what he is - an enemy. We would not give our children fiction in which a group of "good fornicators" struggled against a set of "bad fornicators", because we know that the power of disordered sexual impulse is an abiding problem in human affairs, the negative effects of which we can see all around us. Why, then, have we accepted a set of books which glamorize and normalize occult activity, even though it is every bit as deadly to the soul as sexual sin, if not more so? Is it because we have not yet awakened to the fact that occultism is in fact a clear and present danger?

For more arguments against Harry Potter:

  • A collection of articles examining the Potter phenomenon is available at the web site of St. Joseph's Covenant Keepers, a large international organization for Catholic fathers.
  • If you want to consider some in-depth arguments about the nature of the new paganization of children's culture, see the Ignatius Press internet web site where an entire section is devoted to what well-known Catholic authors think of the Potter series.
  • See also the highly recommended Catholic Educator's Resource Center, which has a section dealing with the Potter phenomenon.

For discussions in favour of Harry Potter, see: "The Moral Messages of "Harry Potter" by Doug McManaman.

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