I am a huge fan of authors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and especially of Tolkien’s epic, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I read Lord of the Rings first in the 1960s, when I was fifteen. It engulfed me as no other literary work ever had. The breadth and depth of it astounded me.
My only complaint when I finished was that I wanted more! Even at 1500 pages in three volumes, it was over too soon.
So What About Harry Potter?
When the first Harry Potter book was published in 1997, I took little notice. The success of the series surprised me. I eventually read them and was both unimpressed and vaguely uneasy. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was troubling, but it didn’t feel right.
As the Harry Potter phenomenon grew, I’ve most often encountered two sorts of parental attitudes. The first says that they want nothing to do with any literature which is concerned with magic, the occult, or the supernatural. I understand parents who have those concerns, but banning all books with witches or wizards in them is, alas, too simplistic a solution. The rule proposed would mean we shouldn’t let our children read the book of 1 Samuel in the Old Testament.
The other frequently encountered attitude is along the lines of “What’s the big deal? It’s a story, a work of fiction. Children know the difference between fiction and reality.” Often this is accompanied by the observation that if you let your kids read The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, isn’t it hypocritical to object to Harry Potter?
I’m one of those odd parents who, while having serious reservations about allowing my children to read Harry Potter, have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series out loud to them several times.
I will try to explain.
What's the Difference?
I share the concerns of many Christian parents about anything which might engender an interest in the occult among our children. These concerns make me very uneasy with many of the elements of the Harry Potter series. But not so much about the fantasy of Lewis and Tolkien.
What is the distinction between The Lord of the Rings (or Narnia), and Harry Potter?
The Harry Potter series does have redeeming qualities. Harry is, in many ways, an admirable figure. He’s a nice kid. He values friendship and loyalty. And he struggles to defeat/thwart enemies who are clearly evil.
What is troubling is precisely the series’ attitude towards and presentation of magic. Harry’s magic powers are presented as morally neutral. The school he attends to master magic skills as just another school for gifted and talented kids. In fact, Harry is a normal kid who “discovers” that he has an aptitude for magic. And Harry, the protagonist, is the figure that the author invites her readers to identify with.The author takes great delight in playing with traditional western symbolism of good and evil. She takes traditional symbols of evil (witches, brooms, black cats, etc.) and inverts them. Her intentions may be playful, but it is very dangerous to present witches (with brooms and familiar spirits) as not necessarily evil, just misunderstood. The unspoken (but powerful) message is a sort of literary moral relativism. The idea that nothing is inherently evil is morally pernicious. This inversion of symbols can be very confusing and potentially dangerous for children.
By contrast, Tolkien’s epic has an entirely different approach to magic, especially its central symbol of magical power, the ring. The ring is very powerful and dangerous. Over and over again we are reminded (and shown) that it is perilous to attempt to use the ring and that anyone who did attempt to do so would inevitably be corrupted by it. Frodo wins, not by mastering the ring, but by resisting the temptation to use it. He must struggle using his natural abilities.
Harry Potter’s magic is powerful and can be harnessed. Tolkien’s ring is powerful and inevitably corrupting.
But what about Gandalf? Is there any difference between Tolkien’s wizards and Rowling’s wizards? I think there is. Gandalf is a much less troubling figure for me than any of the figures in the Potter series. The most important difference is that Gandalf never attempts to recruit or train anyone in how to use magic or spells. Gandalf is the chief adviser who cautions against the use of the ring or of any of the tools of the enemy. Gandalf actually reminds me of the Prophet Samuel or of Moses.
There is no possibility that any of the Hobbits (or any of the men) will become wizards. In Tolkien’s world, wizards are a chosen race, set apart, few in numbers, and more akin to guardian angels than to mortal men, though they do have bodies and can die. And while Gandalf is an important figure in The Lord of the Rings, he is not the protagonist that the author wishes us to identify with. The protagonist is Frodo the Hobbit. Frodo wins by persevering. His dogged obedience and determination (not his mastery of any magical skills) are the central theme of the epic.
Helping Our Children Choose
These are important distinctions. It is important that we talk about these things with our children. Our younger kids have not read the Harry Potter books, not because we’ve had to forbid them, but because there are so many other, better books available to them. I would dissuade my younger kids from reading Harry Potter if they asked. Our older kids (sixteen and up) have read some of the Harry Potter books in order to be able to intelligently critique them (as have I). For the same reason, they’ve read The Hunger Games trilogy, in order to be able to intelligently discuss the issues that they raise. Reading a book is not the same as endorsing a book.
I wish there were a simple rule for selecting books for our children. It’s not simple. One can’t simply say that all books with witches in them are bad. There’s a witch who figures prominently in the book of Samuel. So there must be other, more subtle criteria. Anything which awakens a fascination with magical powers is dangerous. I think Harry Potter potentially does, so I would counsel Christian parents to be cautious and think carefully about letting younger children read them. If your older children want to read them, you might give them permission, but make sure you have some discussion with them before and after.
I like Tolkien’s epic tale more, because it warns against the inherent, inevitable danger in dealing with magic. There are many other virtues taught and portrayed in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: courage, perseverance, self-sacrifice, loyalty, etc. Some of these virtues are present in Harry Potter’s world as well. But, Tolkien’s world is richer, deeper, and more fully developed. It is an adult’s world, not a teenager’s world.
And that, for me, is reason enough to prefer it.