As well as having millions of readers the Harry Potter books also have their share of critics, some from a religious angle. Some fervent Christians have seen the books as dangerous because they deal with wizards, witches and magic. It would be good to point out to these critics that a serious ban on witchcraft would end up jettisoning large areas of Western culture: what about fairy tales? Hans Christian Andersen? Fairy Godmothers? Peter Pan? Merlin? Certainly the Harry Potter books deal with magic, but do they make children turn to magic and witchcraft? There seems to be no evidence of this. As the author, J.K. Rowling, said in a television interview, she keeps very close to her readers and not one has said to her that, due to Harry Potter, they have taken up magic or witchcraft.

The books have been immensely popular. Why? Not because of marketing – the first printing was tiny. Sales came from readers passing on the message. Is it just that they are "a good read"? They are certainly that.

A closer reading of the books reveals a panoply of virtues and moral values.

But there is something more. The books are popular because they have a deep humanity as their background. In a recent article, Mary Kenny pointed out that Jane Austen’s novels have become immensely popular in recent years, because they portray all the values people secretly admire but can’t admit to openly for fear of being considered politically incorrect, values like marriage, respect, modesty, politeness… People can get away with their admiration in the case of Jane Austen because she is considered to be "from another age"… Perhaps something similar applies to Harry Potter, where the "another" is the fictional environment of magic.

Our present social climate in the West is in danger of becoming aggressively secularist. By this I mean that today’s popularised values are based on a rejection of religion (as something antiquated, prejudiced, unhealthy and unprogressive). Secularists see religion as a dying but not quite dead phenomenon. They see it as their job to eliminate the last vestiges of religion, especially Christianity, from society.

At first sight, the Harry Potter books have nothing to say on this subject. They make little reference to Christianity. Christmas and Easter are mentioned but no reference is made to the religious content of those feasts. However, in the light of recent attempts in some parts of Britain to turn Christmas into a "winterval", it may be worth mentioning that neither is that religious content rejected or derided in the Harry Potter books. An analogy can be drawn here with Tolkien’s approach in The Lord of the Rings.

I suggest, nevertheless, that a closer reading of the books reveals a panoply of virtues and moral values some of which I will now try to describe. Before I do so, let me utter a word of warning: as I write, we have not yet reached the end of the Harry Potter series. Each time a new novel has come out, I have wondered whether the author will manage to maintain the tone and standards she has set and kept till now. So far, in my opinion, she has passed this test with flying colours – not at all easy to do when she is writing about children in their teens.

In this article I will refer principally to the fourth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Imagine for a moment what these books could have been like. If you read the Arts and Culture pages of today’s newspapers, their reviews of books, plays, television, you get a constant flow of dysfunctional situations. The general message is one of depression at the state of modern society. In Harry Potter you get a completely different world view. Instead of a general mush of gloom and self-indulgence, you have a world of clear cut values. These values are not sugary and naive. The world Rowling depicts is very much a battleground, evil and good are locked in struggle, and often it seems that evil is getting the upper hand. Not a few succumb to its pressures. Or prefer to bury their head in the sand. But good wins out in the end.

We see this world through the eyes of a young orphan. He has a deprived home background (the Dursleys household, where he has been living and treated unlovingly since his parents were murdered shortly after his birth). From this background he has been liberated by being given a place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Here he finds people who understand him and who offer him a home, a double home, both at school and in the holidays (the home of the Weasley family, a large and poor family, parents and seven children, all of whom have been students at Hogwarts).

Friendship

In this situation we see one of the principal attractions of the Harry Potter books: friendship at work. Love between human beings, we are told in moral theology, can be subdivided into the "love of concupiscence", where you are loving for your own benefit; and the "love of benevolence", where you seek primarily the good and profit of the person you love. Where there is this love of benevolence between two persons we call it friendship. For true friendship, three things are required: a mutual (both-ways) love of benevolence; the recognition by both sides of that love; and a certain communication between the two people. Here is a description of friendship from Scripture: "A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter: he that has found one has found a treasure. There is nothing so precious as a faithful friend and no scales can measure his excellence. A faithful friend is an elixir of life; and those who fear the Lord will find him".

Friendship is the relation between the three heroes of the Harry Potter tales, Harry himself, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. Rowling portrays their friendship in a most positive way. In The Goblet of Fire the protagonists are 14 years old. Their friendship started three years previously and it grows and develops through the successive volumes.

Harry and Ron – interrupted friendship

Let’s see some of the aspects of friendship Rowling displays. One of its principal aspects, in this volume, is the temporary break in the friendship between Harry and Ron. This is caused by Ron perceiving a lack of truthfulness from Harry. He thinks Harry has lied to him in denying that he had a part in being selected for the Triwizard competition. Likewise Harry, who though flattered by the selection is also unnerved by it, feels let down by Ron’s not trusting him. After this we read, "the next few days were some of Harry’s worst at Hogwarts". He is without Ron’s support. But he stubbornly refuses to seek it. Neither he nor Ron will take the first step to reconciliation. Interestingly, they can agree on some things (for example, their unjust treatment at Prof Snape’s hands) without the friendship being restored. This break in friendship makes both quite miserable. It is Hermione who tries to restore their friendship, at first without success, because of their stubbornness. Before that, they don’t want to see each other: thus Harry wears his Invisibility Cloak so as not to be seen by Ron at Hogsmeade.

The reconciliation occurs when Ron realises, after Harry has defeated the Horntail dragon, that Harry has been telling the truth all along. The enmity melts: "It was as though the last few weeks had never happened". Hermione bursts into tears at seeing Harry and Ron reunited, and "before either of them could stop, she had given both of them a hug, and dashed away, now positively howling". Harry and Ron’s relief being together again, interestingly, is expressed in Ron’s comment about Hermione’s emotional behaviour. She’s mad: "Barking". Two other comments: Harry now reunited to Ron prizes this far higher than human success: "Ron’s indignation on his behalf was worth about a hundred points to him… his heart felt lighter than air". And three pages later: "Harry couldn’t believe how happy he felt; he had Ron back on his side".

Friendship opens up to others

In all this stage of the friendship, Hermione shows greater maturity, perhaps because she was not directly involved in the quarrel. Her level headedness is shown when she reminds the others that the whole purpose of the Triwizard Tournament is to foster friendship between all three schools of wizardry.

This is a great truth about friendship: when it is genuine, it expands to reach out to other people. Thus Harry is a friend to Cedric, despite the fact that they are rivals in the Tournament. This friendship leads Harry to give Cedric the tip-off about the dragons, a favour which Cedric later returns. Their friendship culminates both in the race to capture the Triwizard Bowl, where they prove that friendship is more valuable to them than victory in the competition. Later, Harry will make a super-human effort to bring Cedric’s body back to his family. Harry’s friendship is not confined to Ron and Hermione. He has numerous other friends: Hagrid, Dumbledore, Miss McGonagall, Moaning Myrtle, Neville, Krum, Dobby the house-elf…

Friendship and love

The relationship between friendship and "love" is also skilfully portrayed by Rowling. Here we use the word "love" in the sense of the relationship between a boy and a girl (or a man and a woman), which can end up with them "falling in love". Modern society (as portrayed by the media, etc.) has tended to forget about the existence of "friendship" and to say that ultimately all relationships between two human beings can be seen as "love". One of the key differences between friendship and love is that love is exclusive (one boy, one girl; one man, one woman), whereas friendship, though personal (it is not a general feeling of good will to all, but something between concrete persons) is open to many. There is of course a degree of truth in the idea that love is at the heart of all good interpersonal relationships. After all, Christianity sums up the duties of man as "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart (…). This is the (…) first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself".

However, by forgetting friendship, modern society turns all these relationships into sexual relationships. This has a double damaging effect: if its views are followed, they end up pushing people into having a physical intimacy, a sexual intimacy, which is inappropriate; and they give no value to simple friendship.

Rowling, by going back to a more "natural" description of how human beings behave, does us a great service. "Love" as a sexual relationship is something very special. It also has elements which are outside our control: we find ourselves "falling in love" without meaning to. "It just happened". This is more or less what happens to Harry with Cho. Also, there is all the question of the Triwizard Ball – and the embarrassment of the boys having to find themselves a girl to invite to dance with them. In this search, Harry and Ron totally overlook Hermione, until they find that she has already been invited by Neville.

Only then do they "discover" that she is a girl. Ron realises: "Hermione, Neville’s right, you are a girl." "Oh, well spotted," she said acidly. She finds herself paired with Viktor Krum, who has been following her for weeks, spending hours in the library which he would not otherwise have done, just to be close to her. Hermione has no special feeling for Krum, but is experimenting what it is like to be attractive to another. Of course, we know that friendship and love are not opposed to each other. And, eventually, in Heaven, where exclusivity, not personality, ceases, they will become totally one.

Friendship and distinguishing between boys and girls

But at this stage in the books, what is more real are the friendships, and this too is an insight we’re grateful to Rowling for. Friendship can develop into love, as we half suspect is happening between Harry and Hermione. What is good is that Rowling keeps the space for friendship "open".

One way of doing this, which is worth pointing out, is the practical separation in Hogwarts school, between boys and girls, giving space for respect to operate. Separate dormitories (though, interestingly, we are never told what goes on in the girls’ dormitories, since the story is told principally from the point of view of Harry). By keeping boys and girls separate in that way, not forcing them, all the time, to be together, Rowling creates space for each of them to be themselves, without having to put on an act (such as we see in the Triwizard Ball, where both boys and girls change, in the presence of the opposite sex: girls become stunningly beautiful, boys awkward and timid). The description of Viktor’s partner reminds us of that of Eliza at the ball in My Fair Lady:

"His [Harry’s] eyes fell instead on the girl next to Krum. His jaw dropped.

It was Hermione.

But she didn’t look like Hermione at all. She had done something with her hair; it was no longer bushy, but sleek and shiny, and twisted up into an elegant knot at the back of her head. She was wearing robes made of a floaty, periwinkle-blue material, and she was holding herself differently, somehow – or maybe it was merely the absence of the twenty or so books she usually had slung over her back. She was also smiling – rather nervously, it was true…".

Love between Harry and Hermione

Perhaps the most beautiful relationship in the book is that between Harry and Hermione. It combines friendship and love but, being an implicit rather than explicit relationship – explicitly, Harry’s best friend is Ron – it can develop quietly and without the exclusive aspects of love.

Let’s see some of the examples in the book. When the Veela dancers appear, sweeping the boys’ hearts away, Hermione is angry with Harry, rather than with Ron, for letting himself get fascinated. This implies that Hermione has a higher regard for Harry. In trouble, Harry speeds to the library to ask Hermione for help. "Hermione, I need you to help me." "What do you think I’ve been trying to do, Harry?" she whispered back: an example of love working away unassumingly in the background. After Harry’s triumph over the Horntail dragon, Hermione and Ron come to see him, "Harry, you were brilliant!" Hermione said squeakily. There were fingernail marks on her face where she had been clutching it in fear. When Ron and Harry are reconciled, Hermione gave both of them a hug, and dashed away; afraid perhaps of having let her feelings get the better of her

At the Yuletide Ball, officially Harry is with Parvati and Hermione with Krum. But instead Harry and Hermione end up together, and relaxed, so much so that Hermione can explain to Harry how she had her hair done: "She confessed to Harry that she had used liberal amounts of Sleekeazys Hair Potion for the ball, ‘but it’s way too much bother to do every day,’ she said matter-of-factly". Hermione can confide in Harry, he’s a friend not a "rival" and there is no "threat".

When it comes to retrieving "the thing people will miss most" from the lake, Harry is asked to retrieve Ron, officially his best friend. However, when Harry gets down there, he finds Hermione tied up as well. The mermen try to prevent Harry from freeing Hermione, but he retorts: "She’s my friend too!". Harry does not let his heart be bamboozled by narrow rules, even if the keepers of the rules penalise him. He saves Hermione and, incidentally, Gabrielle, Fleur’s sister, too. After the event, Krum is disappointed to see Hermione cheering for Harry, rather than for himself.

Rita Skeeter then writes an article in Witch magazine trying to stir things up, saying that Harry’s heartache, Hermione, has left him for Krum. This leads to an ongoing situation in which Harry has to declare several times, and to different people, that Hermione is not his girl friend. However, a different story comes out when Harry has to fight against the Dementor and the secret is "to summon the happiest thought he could" – the thought he summons is that of celebrating with Ron and Hermione. True, the seeking of Cho’s admiration is still in Harry thoughts – he imagines what it would be like to win the Cup and gain her admiration. But the genuine affection is between him and Hermione, who at the end "did something she had never done before, and kissed him on the cheek".

*****

These books are a good read. They are entertaining but they also enhance and enrich us as human beings. And they are open – if we wish to see them so – to Christianity. When we read books we should look for enrichment. Because experience (including that coming from reading) never leaves us untouched. It either enriches or degrades. Literary studies are good for us if we tackle them in this way, seeking enhancement and enrichment.

Andrew Byrne is a Catholic priest in London.

Father Andrew Byrne is chaplain at Grandpont House, a residence for students at the University of Oxford, in England.