Harry Potter Letters
Editorial letters from Kenneth S. McCormick 1 2 3parental warning label, but the Daily Local's front-page story on "Pottermania" gave only a scant hint of any sort of a problem with the "Harry Potter" books. I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone because it was required reading in my daughter's 5th grade class in the Owen J. Roberts district, and something about it seemed to be bothering her. Apparently, what was bothering her was that the book represents a complete inversion of all the values I have tried to instill in my kids.
June 29, 2000
Daily Local News
West Chester, PA
To the editor:
The new series of much-ballyhooed children's books ought to come with a
After briefly noting that "Christians and evangelists" object to the popularization of witchcraft, the Daily Local goes on to note others' praise for the books' purported heroic deeds, search for truth, and emphasis on personal choices.
"Truth?" "Personal choices?" Has everybody gone nuts? Parents ought to take an objective look at the "personal choices" these books encourage. For example, Harry and his friends choose to lie frequently. The lies produce no negative consequences and no guilt on the part of the "heroic" liars.
Many of Harry's friends choose to steal. The stealing is presented as just a cute peccadillo, and charming rather than problematic. Harry chooses to hate a number of people, who also choose to hate him. All this hating is not examined or resolved, but just presented as a fact of life. I guess that's the author's version of "truth."
More disturbingly, Harry and his friends choose to take revenge on various people. Revenge and resentment are a major theme of the wholeseries, but it's all done in a seductively cute and light-hearted manner.
Then there are the murders. When are parents going to wake up to thepossibility that the oft-noted problem of violent behavior in young people just might have something to do with the fascination with murder and violence in our popular culture?
I found, beneath the mantle of cuteness in Harry Potter, a current of very deep nastiness. I am appalled that educators are using these books to teach our children not only in my public school, but even in private, religious schools. I would urge parents to check these books out carefully, and to discuss them with their children. I would also urge educators to stop and think.
Yours very truly,
K e n n e t h S. M c C o r m i c k
July 19, 2000
Daily Local News
250 N. Bradford Ave.
West Chester, PA 19382
To the editor:
Since the Daily Local News published my letter questioning the appropriateness of the ‘Harry Potter' books for young children, potterheads have been popping out of the woodwork on all sides, wantingto give me pieces of their minds. They have called me a "book-burner" (actually, I never once advocated putting a match to the books, only thinking and talking about them), and also another name referring to a portion of the human anatomy that is best left unmentioned in a family newspaper, and this is only what people have said to my face.
At least the writer who came to the defense of young Harry in the DailyLocal's July 16th issue ("Critics of ‘Harry Potter' are off base") was polite. I am not at all surprised that that writer found nothing objectionable in the books. Even the majority of critics have failed to note any moral shortcomings therein. That is precisely what I find so disturbing.
The writer said she could find no instances of stealing in the first book of the series. For the record, instances of stealing may be foundon pages 64, 227, and 299. She could find only three instances of lying. There are more, but it is not the number of lies that is the issue; it is the way stealing, lies, hate, revenge, and even murder are presented in a complete absence of moral conflict. Lying exists, of course, in the plots of many children's books, but there is normally an at least tacit recognition that lying is a moral problem of some sort. Anyone who will thoughtfully examine the instances of lying in the first Potter book, especially the climactic one on page 292 which my recent editorial page critic managed to overlook, will see that lying is not only not presented as a moral problem, but may actually be interpreted as a virtue.
Part of the genius of the author of the Potter books is the ability toprovide excuses in the plot lines that can make the unacceptable appear acceptable, perhaps even charming or cute. The result is sugar-coated poison that goes down so easily that most people, sensibilities deadened by long exposure to violent and amoral popular entertainment and to the real-life bad behavior of public figures, don't even notice.
The Harry Potter books are written for children, and that is why wemust hold them to a higher standard than adult literature. So listen up, all you potterheads out there, I'm only going to say this once: lying is lying and stealing is stealing, no matter how small the lie or how cute the theft, and it will be a sad world in which parents fail to convey these simple truths to their kids.
I'm glad my letter to the Daily Local caused many people to go back andre-examine the first book of the series, even if many people still don't agree with me. Potterheads might find it instructive to keep a running tally of the body count as they read the recently-released fourth book of the series. I counted three murders in the first book. Maybe we could form a pool to see who can guess what the final body count will be
by the conclusion of the series.
Anyone who wants to comment or who would like to read a fullerdescription of what is wrong with these books is invited to write to me at email@example.com.
I once watched a few scenes from a Nazi propaganda film. It was a drama with excellent cinematic qualities, good acting, and an engaging plot. If one knew very little of the world, that is, if one were like a child, one would probably come away from viewing this film with the impression that Nazis were decent, idealistic folk, and that Polish people were stupid, vicious, slavering sub-humans who would richly deserve whatever bad thing might befall them. Fiction has the ability to set up an artificial reality like this, in which black becomes white, and white becomes black, and in which the whole world may be turned on its head, and we do tend to be influenced by fiction, although we rarely acknowledge that influence.
Businesses spend billions of dollars every year to present one-minute fictional dramas on television, in the belief that viewers' behavior will be influenced by those fictions. They spend millions to have their products just briefly placed in view in Hollywood movies, knowing that sales will go up as a result of that exposure in a work of fiction.
I remember reading about a Santaría voodoo cult which operated in the Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico area, and which specialized in both drug running and human sacrifice. One of the ring-leaders, when finally arrested, stated that the main recruiting tool for their group was a Hollywood movie featuring Santaría entitled The Believers, which starred Martin Sheen. Here is an example where a work of fiction may have actually contributed to people's deaths. So I always am annoyed by the fatuous argument that the books and movies and TV shows people are exposed to have no effect because they are only fiction. Most people would probably agree that because of the power of fiction, we should carefully select the books and movies and TV shows we present to our children.
When I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the first volume of the much-ballyhooed Harry Potter series of books for kids, I felt sort of like I was watching the Nazi propaganda film again. I had borrowed the book from the library because my daughter had been reading it with her 5th grade class at the local elementary school, and something about the book seemed to be bothering her. It would not be the theme of magic in the book that bothered her, because I had read her C. S. Lewis' "Narnia" series, which also features magic, although magic is not used in the same way there that it is in Harry Potter.
I think I know now what was bothering her. The problem is that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone models behaviors that are the absolute antithesis of everything I have tried to teach my children about life. I am disturbed that the educators I had trusted to act in loco parentis apparently see nothing wrong with this book. I am appalled that the book is a runaway best seller, has received rave reviews, and won awards. Has everyone gone nuts? Am I the only person who has a problem with this book? Either I am missing something, or the millions of people who approve of the Potter books are missing something. I know I'm really flying in the face of public sentiment here, but I suspect that it is the latter case. I suspect that like Harry Potter's "muggles," that is, people who do not practice sorcery and witchcraft, many people in the real world are practicing a curious sort of denial in refusing to acknowledge the strange events that are going on right before their eyes.
In my opinion, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is sugar-coated poison. Perhaps I have misunderstood the book. Let's take off the sugar coating and look at a few incidents in the book objectively, and if I have got something wrong, here, I hope someone will take the trouble to explain it to me. First, there is the incident in which Harry magically sics a huge boa constrictor on two boys who had been bullying him earlier. This strikes me as not exactly what in less politically-correct times would have been called "Christian forgiveness," but heck, nobody's perfect, it's not your job to teach religious concepts like not taking revenge on people, and anyway, the two bullies are depicted as stupid, vicious, slavering sub-humans who richly deserve to be attacked by a boa constrictor.
What bothered me quite a bit more was the incident in which Harry's friend Hagrid, one of the "good guys" in the book, becomes annoyed with a man and so casts a magic spell to permanently transform the man's child into a pig. The spell is not entirely successful, and the child only sprouts a pig's tail. Hagrid then remarks that he supposed the child was so much like a pig to begin with that there wasn't much left to do. Is it just me, or is this whole supposedly humorous episode really rather nasty? To me, it seems so deeply nasty that I from this point on in the book, and here we are only at page 59, would not trust the author to tell a decent story to my kids. But you apparently still do trust the author's judgement. What am I missing, here?Hagrid then steals a boat from Harry's relatives, apparently leaving them stranded on a small, wind-swept island with no food or fuel. This is the sort of thing one of the villains might do in a standard children's story, but Hagrid is one of the "good guys."
On page 79, Harry lies to Hagrid for no particular reason. This is not the sort of incident which in more old-fashioned children's books would have provided a moral lesson in depicting the consequences which result from the lie. In Harry Potter, lies do not produce bad consequences. The author just presents the lie matter-of-factly:
"What's up?" said Hagrid
"Nothing," Harry lied.
Not "said" or "replied" or "retorted," but "lied;" just a normal mode of intercourse in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. As a matter of fact, the author seems to just be easing the reader into the idea of lying, because it develops later that all the kids at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry lie like rugs. As a matter of fact, the climax of the book occurs when Harry must successfully lie in order to save his own life. So it seems like a fair interpretation to say that lying may even be good, at least in the Harry Potter series.
Now, my kids are no angels, and they do tell lies. Most kids lie. Maybe all kids lie. But at least my kids know that it is wrong to lie, and I think they experience a sense of guilt when they lie. This, I think, is healthy. Lying without guilt as seems to occur in Harry Potter is not healthy.
Then there's the stealing. The kids at Hogwarts steal. The stealing is cute, of course, and harmless. They steal food from the kitchen when they want to celebrate. It must be okay because Harry's father, it turns out, stole food better than anyone else. So, big deal! Again, the author presents the stealing matter-of-factly, almost as if she is daring the reader to say what's wrong with a little harmless stealing:
"Everyone's waiting for you in the common room, we're having a party,
Fred and George stole some cakes and stuff from the kitchens."
If the author were to present us with full-bodied, in-your-face evil, we would recoil and reject the message. The author instead serves up evil lite, and everybody thinks it's just harmless fun.
Hate is okay in Harry Potter, too. Harry's teacher Snape hates Harry. Harry in turn hates Snape, and on page 182, hopes Snape's injured leg is hurting him. Harry hates his cousin Dudley. Harry hates Malfoy. Harry hates Malfoy's friends Goyle and Crabbe. Harry of course hates Voldemort. Harry and his friend Ron sit around trying to think up ways to get Malfoy in trouble because they hate him. All of this hating is not examined or resolved in the book; it is just presented as a fact of life.
Revenge is a major theme and motivator in Harry Potter, too. I've already mentioned the boa constrictor incident. On page 80, Harry peruses a book, Curses and Counter-curses (Bewitch Your Friends and Befuddle Your Enemies with the Latest Revenges: Hair Loss, Jelly-Legs, Tongue-Tying and Much, Much, More in order to find a curse to put on his hated cousin, Dudley, but this is cute, of course, and just another funny incident in a really cute little book. Harmless fun, really. Harry wants revenge on Voldemort for killing his parents. Nothing cute there. At the very end of the story, Harry is planning on terrorizing his mean relatives by threatening them with his newly-gained magical skills. Harry is a sort of a justifiably resentful loser who, instead of getting even by shooting up his school with an AK-47, is fortunate enough to be able to inspire fear and respect by means of his magical powers. It's heart-warming, really. We all like to see the underdog gain power and use that power to grind others into the dust.
Harry and the other kids at Hogwarts turn out to be ethics-challenged when it comes to abiding by the school rules, too. It is not only exciting, but also educational and productive to break the rule against leaving one's dormitory in the middle of the night, or to enter restricted areas of the school at whatever time of day. Hollywood in past years has made great use of the plot device of the protagonist's supposedly liberating experience of smashing all the rules, but here, it seems that half the school is running around at night, spying, breaking in, and stealing, while excitedly dodging the cruel and obnoxious proctors.
So, we have nastiness, lying, stealing, hate, revenge, rule-breaking, and what are we missing? Oh, yes, of course, murder! What would a modern-day children's book be without a few murders? Voldemort kills Harry's parents. Dumbledore kills Quirrel. One of Harry's teachers at Hogwarts attempts to kill Harry by jinxing the broom the kid flies around on so that Harry will fall to his death, and only fails when one of Harry's friends hurls a fireball at the suspected teacher. Hmm... teacher attempts to kill pupil; pupil attacks teacher with fireball... what's wrong with this picture?
It used to be that we thought the issues kids should deal with in their literature involved such things as bullies, questions of right and wrong, questions of competence in meeting the world's demands, and so on, but lately, for some reason, we seem to want to present them with the idea of violent death. I don't understand why this should be a valid concern for children in my school district. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone does spare the reader the gory details for the most part, but why do kids need to read about murders in their literature? Violent death in this book, as in so many others aimed at young readers, such as some of the R. L. Stine books, for example, bears about the same relationship to death in the real world as a Playboy centerfold photo bears to love in the real world. It is ironic that we rightly attempt to shield our children from the pornography of the libido, but then encourage them to wallow in the pornography of death. I recently read a sad complaint from a young writing teacher who has found most high school kids' creative writing she has encountered to center on graphic images of murder and bloodshed. More and more people seem to be realizing that something pertaining to kids and violence has gone very wrong. Perhaps this central element of violent death in some children's entertainment could have something to do with that.On the positive side, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone does model the values of friendship, loyalty, and courage, but I think the inversion of other values I have pointed to above far outweighs the book's positives. Added to this is the author's reported promise that the next four of the seven-volume series will be considerably "darker" than the first. Is this really what our kids need, more darkness? There's plenty more that I didn't mention, too, such as Goyle's being bitten by Ron's pet rat, the supposedly humorous episode of the uncle who trows his young nephew off a pier and later out of a second-story window, and such religious insults as the offer of immortality by the sorcerer's stone, but I want to keep my critique to a manageable length.
The moral problems that I have tried to point out above appear to result from the placement of self-interest at the center of the moral universe, of substituting the dictum "My will be done" in place of the Christian "Thy will be done." In this respect, the numerous critics who have compared the Harry Potter books to the Narnia books of C. S. Lewis and to the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien have completely missed the point, for the works of Lewis and Tolkien are firmly grounded in Christian morality. Parents ought to stop and consider just what brand of morality they would like their children to learn from their books.
Related page: SeeHarry Potter Comments
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Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
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