Love him or hate him, chances are you know who Harry Potter is. You’ve probably read at least one of the books or seen one of the films. JK Rowling could never have anticipated the fantastic success her book about The Boy Who Lived would achieve, or the controversy that would arise from its depictions of witches, wizards and magic.
For those of you just joining us after a 15-year-long nap, Harry Potter was first introduced to the world on the 30th June 1997 in “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. The books have gone on to enjoy worldwide success and critical acclaim, selling over 450 million copies and being translated into 67 different languages.
The main story follows Harry Potter, a young boy orphaned when just a baby and sent to live with his aunt, uncle and cousin. Harry grows up unloved and unwanted, but on his 11th birthday something magical happens; he discovers he is a wizard! From then on his life is changed forever. He attends Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy and, along with his best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, learns how to perform magic.
The other six books in the series are Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (02/07/98), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (08/07/99), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (08/07/00), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (21/06/03), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (16/07/05) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (21/07/07). The final book sold 11 million copies in the first 24 hours it was on sale!
As the series progresses it gets darker in tone as it focusses on Harry’s quest to defeat the dark wizard Voldemort, and his followers the Death Eaters. JK Rowling herself acknowledges that the main theme of the series is death, and later books deal with major character death and issues surrounding Harry’s own mortality. It has been criticised for this, but the people really clamouring to have the book banned are doing so for religious reasons.
Harry Potter has been opposed by Christians and Muslims on the grounds that it contains occult or satanic subtexts. The most vocal opposition tends to come from fundamentalist, Evangelical Christians but they are by no means the sole voice decrying the novels.
The complaints tend to vary only in the exact wording used and the animosity with which they are put forth; the general disapproval is for the depiction of magic, believed by these groups to be the work of the devil. A common objection to the books is simply that ‘they promote witchcraft to children’, with the assumption that the reader will already believe that witchcraft is equal with devil worship! There have been several attempts to have the books banned from schools and more than one public book-burning.
Thankfully these extreme fundamentalists make up only a small minority of the population. There are many religious groups – Christian and otherwise – who praise the books for making a clear distinction between good and evil. They acknowledge that the magic depicted in Harry Potter is purely mechanical; there is no occult, ritual or religious aspect to it which they believe is the kind of magic condemned by the Bible and so they can enjoy it for what it is.
To compare it to Wiccan practises, Potterverse magic doesn’t match up at all. Harry and his friends do magic by waving their wands (with the correct motion!) and saying the words to a spell, charm or hex (eg; “Wingardium Leviosa”). The closest they come to magic as practised in real life might be divination, which many characters write off as a joke, or potions, which is taught by the most feared teacher in the school and is a class that none of the protagonists enjoy.
Despite the differences in actual practises, Harry Potter can be respected for the fact that it portrays magic as a tool which can be used for both good and evil. The characters are judged based on their actions, and the whole series emphasises the fact that discriminating against people because of who they happen to be is wrong.
JK Rowling delighted me when she revealed that Albus Dumbledore, a prominent, respected and well-loved character, was gay. Despite sparking further religious opposition, this was largely well received and appreciated as another example of tolerance in the Potterverse. JK herself said, “It has certainly never been news to me that a brave and brilliant man could love other men.” Kudos Ms. Rowling; perhaps people who criticise her for choosing only to reveal this information after the books were released don’t realise how difficult it can be to get a book published when one of the main characters is homosexual – or disabled for that matter. Authors can often be asked to revise their work since the publishers aren’t willing to take a risk on a book they perceive as being controversial.
To end on a lighter note, you may be pleased to know that JK Rowling was recognised by the Order of the Forest for demanding her publishers around the world use eco-friendly paper, and she even forbade her Finnish publishers from using paper from Finland as it lacked an ecologically-friendly certification. The final book in the series is thought in the publishing industry to be the most environmentally friendly book ever produced.