If you're undecided about whether the Potter books are essentially a 'good thing' or not, then the latest instalment, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is unlikely to help you make up your mind. No darker than Potter four or five but much easier to read, it is a funny, engaging tale, full of twists and turns that manage to confound most of J.K Rowling's fans' predictions. Harry does not end up going out with the girl most predicted, nor does Ron. The identity of the half-blood prince took me entirely by surprise and I was completely flabbergasted by the identity of the major character who is cut down by Rowling's magic pen. Furthermore, Rowling's powers of characterisation are, if anything keener than ever and she seems entirely comfortable in the world she has created. The result is arguably the best novel of the series.
Of course, literary skill is not all, but while a number of Christian commentators regard the series as a potential portal to the occult, overall in the USA at least, the intensity of Christian opposition to the series has abated considerably. Indeed, those who were suspicious that Rowling might be intent on slowly reeling children ever closer towards an involvement with the real occult, will no doubt be relieved to see that, unlike Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials, she has not created empathy with her readers in order to make them more open to an expressly anti-church or anti-God message. Indeed, though Rowling's characters may be getting older, the values that underpin the story are entirely consistent with the first novel and, if anything, have been made much more explicit in the last two books.
So just as the first novel celebrates the willingness of three separate individuals to lay down their lives out of love for others – Harry's mother, Flammel and Ron Weasley – so once again another key figure puts Harry's safety before their own, and, in this case, dies. Furthermore, just as it is the power of his mother's blood that protected Harry from Voldemort's attack and kept him safe while he was living with her blood relative, Aunt Petunia, so the love that Harry still has the capacity to feel despite his experiences, remains the most potent defence against the threat of Voldemort, precisely because the Dark Lord so underestimates it.
Consider, for example, this exchange between Dumbledore and Harry:
"But I haven't got uncommon skill and power," said Harry, before he could stop himself.
"Yes, you have," said Dumbledore firmly. "You have a power that Voldemort has never had. You can – "
"I know," said Harry impatiently. "I can love!" It was only with difficulty that he stopped himself adding, "Big deal!"
"Yes, Harry, you can love… which, given everything that has happened to you, is a great and remarkable thing."
"You are protected, in short, by your ability to love!" said Dumbledore loudly. "The only protection that can possibly work against the lure of power like Voldemort's! In spite of all the temptation you have endured, all the suffering, you remain pure of heart, just as pure as you were at the age of eleven… Voldemort never paused to understand the power of a soul that is untarnished and whole." (P477 & 478)
Rowling is quite definitely not writing out of a Christian worldview but it is extremely difficult to deny the compatibility of Dumbledore's wisdom with a number of Jesus' sayings. Similarly, it remains the case, that, despite his growing skills as a wizard, it is not those that rescue him from death but the biblical virtues of courage and loyalty, and the selfless intervention of his friends and teachers. As Snape says of Harry:
"Of course, it became apparent to me very quickly that he has no extraordinary talent at all. He has fought his way out of a number of tight corners by a simple combination of sheer luck and more talented friends. He is mediocre to the last degree, though as obnoxious and self-satisfied as was his father before him."
Not another James Bond
Indeed, despite Harry's obvious centrality to the plot, he is, as heroes go, a long, long way from conforming to the stereotype of the self-sufficient, individualistic superhero of comic books or spy thrillers, whether that be Bond or Alex Rider, Horowitz's splendid 0014 and a half. Furthermore, Rowling handles the characters' emotional development and sexual awakening in a refreshingly wholesome way. Whilst the majority of contemporary teen fiction and teen magazines like Bliss and Sugar are full of explicit discussions about sexual intercourse, there isn't even a hint that this is on anyone's agenda. Again, this is entirely consistent with the rather nostalgic, retro feel of much of the books and Rowling's highly disciplined avoidance of too many time-specific references to the world of Muggles. Indeed, though the book's opening scene is at No 10 Downing Street and the dialogue suggests that we may well be in the presence of a newly elected Tony Blair, the episode nevertheless preserves a refreshing distance from the world of video phones, Nike trainers and Eminem.
If the persistent power of his mother's love is a consistent theme then, by contrast, Rowling's plots have contrived to consistently leave Harry without a father figure. His own father was killed by Voldemort; his uncle Vernon is more jailer than mentor; his godfather Sirius Black is, as far as Harry knows for much of the relevant book, a murderer intent on adding Harry to his list of victims; Lupin who becomes his friend has to leave Hogwarts; and the great father figure that emerges in The Half-Blood Prince is murdered. Similarly, while Mrs Weasley thoroughly mothers Harry, Mr Weasley does not take on any equivalent paternal role. Even Harry's 'housemaster' is a woman. Harry is not bereft of male role models to remember but he is consistently rendered 'fatherless'. This maintains Harry's emotional and physical vulnerability as the threat to Harry and to the stability of the wizarding world rises. Indeed, it emerges that it is only Harry who can kill Voldemort. The destiny of the whole magical world hinges, as far as we know, on which one will survive in Book 7. And we are left fearing for Harry, his teenage bravado ringing hollow in the face of the gargantuan forces ranged against him.
Nevertheless, The Half-Blood Prince is also quite a funny book. There are, as before, a fair number of new bits of magic to amuse but overall the humour primarily emerges from the interactions of the characters themselves with Dumbledore's dry irony particularly appealing:
"'Yes," said Harry. "He (the Minister of Magic) is not very happy with me."
"No," sighed Dumbledore. "He is not very happy with me, either. We must try not to sink beneath our anguish, Harry, but battle on."
Harry grinned. (p334)
Brilliant too is the way that Rowling handles the moral failings of her lead characters. Hermione surreptitiously uses magic to help Ron get picked for the Quidditch team but her guilt is obvious. Harry excels at making potions by using a textbook which is replete with notes by a clearly more advanced student but never acknowledges it to the teacher. Hermione and Ron's disapproval are tangible. Similarly, in the emerging maelstrom of romantic emotions Rowling captures how difficult it can be for teenagers to communicate accurately and we are left with the distinct impression that Ron's snog-some relationship with Lavender Brown has more to do with his inability to find a way to communicate, or perhaps even fully understand his real feelings for another girl than any strong emotional connection to the one he is embracing.
All this generous-hearted but unsentimental characterisation is, of course, entirely consistent with the fame-avoiding, interview-eschewing demeanour of J K Rowling herself. Her level-headed understanding of what she called in her Paxman interview the "completely disproportionate" financial rewards of her work has kept her rather humble and self-effacing.
Of course, neither J K Rowling's agreeable public persona nor the fact that Harry Potter is now an established component of our national life diminish the importance of the questions that her critics pose. Will the series lead some children or indeed adults to an unhealthy interest in witchcraft? Possibly. But only in the same way that the magic in C S Lewis' Narnia might operate. Essentially, as I wrote in an earlier Christianity article, magic in Rowling's fiction operates like high technology in science fiction and superhero powers in comics to create possibilities for the characters that they might not otherwise have. It is essentially a metaphor for power. And the question is: how will that power be used? As Abraham Lincoln said, 'If you really want to test someone's character, give them power.'
How do you judge literature?
Furthermore, as we approach literature, any literature, we need to do so with an eye to its underlying values not simply its setting. Here are four criteria I've been working with:
- Consider whether the material is ' true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, praiseworthy' (Philippians 4:8). In other words, we need to consider whether ultimately the material will edify the individual or undermine them, help them grow in appreciation of humanity and of God or lead them to patterns of thought and behaviour that are evil and self-destructive.
- Recognise that no literature, even literature written by Christians is necessarily doctrinally sound. Not all Christians, for example, would agree with C S Lewis' decision to let Emeth into Aslan's heaven. After all, was not Emeth (the Hebrew for truth) a follower of Tash, even though a sincere seeker after the truth?
- Don't force anyone, including yourself, to engage with the secular arts simply because you think you/they should do so 'to stay in touch with the world.' It may be a fine aim but not if it pollutes or is against their conscience. Some people, as Paul knew, cannot eat meat offered to idols, and some can. (I Corinthians 8:4-9) We need to be 'careful that the exercise of our freedom does not become a stumbling block to' others.
- Consider whether reading this literature or endorsing it will bring the Gospel into disrepute? For Paul, the glory of God and the reputation of the Gospel were of supreme importance and there are clear instances where he seems to prohibit certain practices not because they would be wrong in themselves but because non-believers would regard such practices as immoral.
And of course such criteria can and should be applied not only to J K Rowling's work but also to the literature kids are reading at school. Some of it – nihilist, materialist, existentialist, individualist and explicitly anti-God – is, I suspect, far, far, far more dangerous to their confidence in a Christian worldview than the courage, loyalty, self-less love and sacrificial determination to overcome evil that are the hallmarks of Rowling's heroes and heroines. 'Write on,' I say. Gratefully.