Over the past three decades, everywhere in the English-speaking world, the number of pagan novels for children has increased exponentially. Not surprisingly, in view of the popularity of book shops and internet sites that feature displays of books and other material on witches and wizards, earth goddesses, poltergeists, and the like, occult works for the young have sold in the tens of thousands.
Parents have good reason to be concerned about this cultural phenomenon and because I am a parent and grandparent, I am painfully aware of the size of this concern. But because I am also a literary critic, I am acutely conscious of the fact that there is an immediate problem for well-intentioned adults without solid literary training anxious to make the informed judgments that will allow their progeny to experience fine literature anchored in Judaeo-Christian values.
How, without such training, can parents know whether a given work is likely to be nourishing or harmful? How can they respond in an enlightened way to the conventions governing literary structure, imagery, and diction? What basis have they for appreciating the highly sophisticated practices of gifted writers like J.K. Rowling — or, for that matter, the Catholic writer of genius, Flannery O’Connor?
What would permit them to distinguish between the language of fantasy and the occult, or the language of the typical offerings in New Age shops and the language of serious imaginative literature?
Alas: making informed judgments of this kind without a long and solid grounding in the linguistic and moral principles that have shaped the serious writing and teaching of literature for centuries is well nigh impossible. This is why respected contemporary thinkers like William Kilpatrick have worked with critics to produce texts for parents like Books That Build Character. Educators of Kilpatrick’s stature know that reading books with or for children is very different from writing about literature for publication. They also know that because literary critics can make large errors, their moral responsibility is a heavy one.
Over the last few years, bearing this difficulty and the related difficulty of the Harry Potter craze in mind, countless parents have asked me whether literature containing magic is bad for children. Because I have a strong professional interest in children’s books, I’m expected to answer this question — and, up to a point, I can.
There are patterns in fiction that signal the probable effects of individual works on readers, though nobody can foresee all of the ways in which a single book will influence a particular child. Some imaginative, highly intelligent eleven-year-olds find Tolkien’s Mordor terrifying, and some eight-year-olds of comparable acuteness don’t. Humour, instinctive spiritual maturity, and detachment have a lot to do with this. But, unfortunately, these traits of character don’t always function reliably.
The patterns that parents need to know something about when they are making decisions about books like Rowling’s (or Tolkien’s) are those commonly found in works of fantasy and works of the occult: most obviously, because in both genres magic is centrally important — in significantly different ways.
The surface of traditional fantasy, characteristically, is unreal. In an extraordinary world, the laws of nature are suspended: cars fly through the air, children walk through wardrobes or magical train station barriers admitting them to amazing realms, and ferocious three-headed dogs are rendered temporarily powerless by music.
Fantasy’s depths, in contrast, are real: they disclose basic, balanced truths about people and life. Often, through brilliantly satirical, farcical, or grave thrusts directed at ordinary human weakness, these works delight and teach at the same time — as Renaissance poet Sir Philip Sidney believed all fine literature is meant to do.
Typically in fantasy, spells are cast and broken. People become beasts, witches melt, and princesses are awakened from a winter’s sleep by a kiss. Magical items, such as potions, rings, stones, swords, and cloaks, abound. Moving from the ordinary to the magical realm and back again, the major characters contend with and, where possible, transform evil so that order can be restored to a basically harmonious world. Even though the beings they fight are cruel and treacherous, they rely on moral means to achieve this end. On spiritual terrain, their choices are delineated with vividness and care.
The ambience of fantasy is similar to that of allegory and romance (eg, the late plays of Shakespeare). Authors draw on folk lore—myth, fable, fairy tale—which is in key respects preposterous, and which children immediately recognise to be larger than life, “unreal”, and therefore fictional. In general, the main characters do not possess supernatural powers—though subsidiary characters who help or hinder them often do. If they find that they themselves have such powers during crises, they use them sparingly for the sake of the good. Villains rely on disguise to achieve self-interested ends; heroes don’t, though they may dissemble during crises whose immediate features they have no means of making fully intelligible to well-wishers.
Although the source of magic in fantasy is often undisclosed, its expression is linked with the operations of Dark Powers. These Powers exert a temporary but frightening influence in an otherwise secure and orderly world by seizing control of others through clever, morally unacceptable, means. In the end, the Dark Powers are defeated.
Christian symbols (eg, a Christ-like figure such as Aslan in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series) may or may not figure prominently in the story, but virtue and vice are clearly distinguished in the course of the telling. There is normally at least one trustworthy adult in a position of authority—though, often, there can be more than one.
In occult literature—especially, in the more extreme examples of the genre, which strongly resemble Dirty Realism—the surface is real. In the ordinary world, terrifying phenomena impinge and take over. Occult literature’s depths, however, are unreal: they falsify through an unbalanced, biased, concentration on the power of evil. Strange and fearful events predominate, and normality is non-existent. The protagonists adopt expedient means to alter wicked conditions. Wonder, delight, and high-spirited, unmalicious humour are rare or non-existent.
The major aim in occult works is not to restore order in a world that is basically secure, but (godlike) to create a new world that will replace a vicious and oppressive one. As the main characters battle on, nothing and nobody can be counted on for help or comfort. Adults in positions of total or near-total control (in, for example, the works of Isobelle Carmody or Christopher Pike) abuse their power in shocking respects. Nastiness and vengefulness are common. Personal isolation is the rule.
Supernatural soliciting by way of chants and other ritual practices easily copied by readers is considered desirable. Indeed, it often plays a continuing role in the story—notably, in the protagonists’ efforts to escape from the consequences of sin. Occult authors draw, not on folk lore, but on the belief that shocking powers, practices, and beliefs exert major influence in a godless world and must be overcome by any available means. Children who are susceptible to this world view do not suspend disbelief as they spontaneously do when they read fantasy. Rather, they accede to the power of suggestion.
• Its surface is unreal: in an extraordinary world, the laws of nature are suspended.
• Its depths are real: they disclose basic, balanced truths about people and life.
• Spells are cast and broken: eg, people become beasts, beasts are restored to human form, witches melt, princesses are awakened from a long sleep by a kiss. Magical items (eg, rings, stones, swords, cloaks, potions) abound. The major characters contend with and, when possible, transform evil in order to restore order to a basically good and harmonious world. Characters move from the ordinary to the magical realm and back again. The protagonists rely on moral means to achieve their ends, even though the beings they fight are usually cruel and treacherous.
• In general, the protagonists do not possess supernatural powers. If they find that they have such powers during crises, they use them sparingly for the sake of the good. In general, characters with supernatural powers help or hinder the protagonists: they are not usually the protagonists.
• The general ambience of fantasy is similar to what is found in allegory or romance. The author draws on folk lore (eg, myth, fable, fairy tale) which is in key respects literally untrue (or preposterous), and which children immediately recognise to be larger than life, “unreal”, and therefore fictional.
• The ultimate source of magic is often undisclosed, but typically magic is associated with the operations of Dark Powers. These Powers exert a temporary but frightening influence in an otherwise orderly world by taking illicit control of others through diverse and morally unacceptable means. In the end, the Dark Powers are defeated. Christian symbolism may or may not figure prominently in the language of the story; but virtue and vice are clearly distinguished in the course of the telling, and there is normally at least one trustworthy adult in a position of authority, ready and able to help at critical moments (indeed, often there is more than one trusted authority figure).
• Its surface is real: in the ordinary world, terrifying phenomena impinge and take over.
• Its depths are unreal: they falsify through an unbalanced, biased concentration on the power of evil.
• Strange and terrifying events predominate, and “normality” is virtually non-existent. The protagonists adopt whatever means are most expedient to alter evil conditions created by powers in “total control”. Their major aim is not to restore order in a world that is basically good and harmonious, but – Godlike – to create a new world that will replace a vicious one. In general, what they are up against is abhorrent and oppressive. There is little or nothing to count on for help or comfort as they battle on.
• The protagonists are obstructed by powerful beings. Often, to defeat these beings, they rely more heavily on supernatural power than on their own strength of mind and will. Unlimited use of supernatural power is seen as desirable; indeed, it plays a major, continuing role in the story – notably, in their efforts to escape from the consequences of their own moral errors and weaknesses and their despairing sense of helplessness.
• The general ambience of occult literature is similar to what is found in “Dirty Realism”. The use of supernatural power by the protagonists is seen as essential. The author draws not on folk lore but on the belief that shocking powers, practices, and beliefs exert major influence and control in a godless world and must be overcome with whatever means are required.
• Children and youth, meeting this world view, do not suspend disbelief as they spontaneously do when they read fantasy. Rather, they accede to the power of suggestion. Nothing in the world that they meet is seen to be trustworthy. Adults in positions of authority abuse their power. Other young people are treacherous. Nastiness and malice are common. Personal isolation is the rule.
In the terms that I have just outlined, the Harry Potter series falls almost entirely within the purview of fantasy—not the purview of the occult. It’s the “not entirely” aspect of this scenario that is worrying—though I don’t believe the worry is large enough to merit sweeping Stay Away injunctions. Material which encourages the belief that people are things, and that authority, by its inevitably abusive nature, merits a thumbs down—and there’s been a lot of it about since the 60s—seems to me to pose the gravest danger to the young.
At the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where the Potter novels are set, adult authority at the top is wise and benevolent. All of Rowling’s child protagonists respect it. Differences between worthy and unworthy adults or children are, in the end, unmistakable. Elaborate rules govern the behaviour of the main characters—and, especially, their use of the magic that is for them a species of technology in need of regular updating. In lessons, average teachers have almost as much trouble as pupils because their pyrotechnics are subject to mysterious viruses that appear out of nowhere. Significantly, the Divination teacher gets things as ridiculously wrong as astrologers do.
As if in answer to the arrogant claim made by the witch in C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, namely, that witches must be creatures with royal blood, J.K. Rowling has created a fantastic universe in which all the central figures are witches and wizards. Her most unpleasant characters attack ordinary folk without magical powers—called Muggles—for reasons commonly deployed by racists. Famous names in the history of enchantment, from Merlin to Circe to Daedalus, figure prominently in the books’ comings and goings. The nomenclature that identifies characters is linguistically telling: hence a teacher named Lupin turns out to be a werewolf, and the names of Rowling’s most threatening creatures are associated with evil and death.
In an honourable literary tradition harking back to ancient Greece and Rome, the villains in the Potter series are vain, mean-spirited, self-centred, and vengeful, and the heroes are loyal, diligent, long-suffering, and brave. Her protagonists consider magic dangerous, and those who are children rely on it only when they’re completing major quests or competitions that their teachers are not directly involved in, or when they’re defending themselves against obvious wickedness. If they travel along the school halls at night in an invisible cloak, violating off-bounds policy, or cast illicit spells at forbidden moments, they suffer and are punished—even when they are doing so to protect the innocent from large, unmistakable evils (eg, a monstrous troll).
Bad means do not justify good ends in Rowling’s world, adventures with disobedient features backfire, and Hogwarts’ headmaster knows what Potter and his cronies are up to in their struggle to avert the brutally unjust fate suffered by Harry’s late parents. Harry himself is devoted to the good, and uninterested in petty rivalry. For this reason, more than for the obvious one that he is a star athlete, he excites envy in adults and children whose characters are much less stable and attractive than his is. When they can, these villains do their best to make his life miserable. Their unfair actions typically inspire hatred and fear in readers, just as they do in the lives of the protagonists.
What complicates judgment for parents and teachers who explore Rowling’s adventurous terrain almost as enthusiastically as children do is that her major characters revel in forms of costume design that used to garner kudos at Halloween, and they study such staples of magic as Divination and Potions (though the books contain no spells that can be copied because they have been “spelled out”). Since staples of this kind figure prominently in occult works and other forms of popular culture (especially film, rock music, and television), responsible adults worry that their children will fail to see the large differences between Rowling’s satirical high jinks and the perverse advocacy of occult practice in lesser writers.
Although adults with long experience of fine literature know that the last thing endorsed by J.K. Rowling is “situation ethics” anchored in neutrality about good and evil, they also know that not all readers are discerning or experienced enough to see this. Some readers, indeed, are tone deaf, and unfamiliar with the nuanced sounds of British speech.
What is clear to the many children who have talked to me about their fondness for the Potter series is that “magic” in the books is no more real to them, and no more open to imitation, than the visits to distant planets undertaken in Star Wars. What is real is Rowling’s portraiture. In their bad moments her heroes disobey rules, wilfully mislead adults, quarrel among themselves, and act on blind impulse; but when, inevitably, they are caught out, they accept their punishments with good grace and are grateful for every form of mercy shown to them. With those who wrong them, and with those who don’t, their characteristic responses are generous.
Although school life is more exciting for Rowling’s protagonists than it is for most of her readers, it is simple pleasures that matter the most to them: closeness among friends and family, and the spontaneous rescue of the helpless. When anyone without their talents is bullied, taunted, or physically attacked, they all step in at once to try to set things right. For them, as for their counterparts in real life, the surface features of human nature are often misleading and bewildering; and it takes time for them slowly to discern the truth about people who seem far better or far worse than rumour or superficial observation suggests they are.
What’s to be done, conscientious parents nonetheless ask, about boys and girls who fail to distinguish between the depiction of evil and endorsement of it? There are, alas, many readers who are unfamiliar with the conventions of satire. There are also untold numbers of youngsters who know nothing about the dangers of occult practice, and who uncritically embrace the kind of market hype that has accompanied the publication of Volume 4 in the Potter series. What is to prevent gullible persons of this stamp from jumping to one rash conclusion after another about fictional events whose dangers are clear only to mature minds?
All one can say, in response to these tough questions, is that it is the responsibility of parents to know their own children well enough to foresee the probable effects of works like Rowling’s. A mother I know well whose 11-year-old child is excessively earnest and timid thinks that she would find Voldemort and his wicked companions both frightening and bewildering, so she has told her she must wait to read the Potter series. A remarkably gifted 11-year-old who reads Jane Austen told her parents that she couldn’t stomach Rowling at age 10 because her evil characters were despicable, not simply foolish or moderately vicious, and because she wasn’t entirely sure, as she read along, who was good and who was evil. A year later, influenced by friends who managed the wickedness in the series with suitable critical detachment and penetration, she tried again and loved the books.
No work of literature, however brilliant, is for everybody. My proviso for families whose children are as distressed by vividly concrete renderings of evil as I was at the age of seven, when I fled from the movie theatre showing Snow White after hiding my eyes for as long as I could, is to stay clear of Rowling for the time being. The issue of her popularity, which I don’t have space to elaborate on, is fascinating. So is the issue of the place in her fiction of allusions almost certain to be missed by children but caught by adults, as they are in Tolkien. She’s not, remotely, in Tolkien’s class. No English-speaking author in this century, not even O’Connor, is. But she has a lot to offer readers who are ready for her—chiefly, I think, as a social satirist.
Dr Susan Moore is a retired teacher educator who has published widely on literature, education, religion, and culture. She taught at the Sydney Institute of Education for 14 years and worked for the Institute of Public Affairs as an education consultant. Raised in New Jersey, she has lived in Australia for 39 years.