In a word, astounding.
It only took me nine weeks this summer to read the seven Harry Potter books for the first time; last week, I finished book seven. My hesitancy to read the books had frankly been one of ignorance. Like many Christians, I initially dismissed them out of hand because they contained stories about witches, and they were marketed for children. Why would I support a book series that puts witchcraft in a favorable light for kids, right? Even after watching the first few movies (bits and pieces only), I was still very suspicious about the spiritual nature of the books. But something caught my eye in early June as the promotions for the final book were coming out. There appeared to be one question that everyone was asking: “Will Harry Potter die?” Naturally, I wondered what was this all about. After all, I thought he was just a kid, why would he die? More importantly, what happened that people were speculating that he might die? I began poking around for more info, trying not to spoil anything for myself (which should have clued me in that I was probably headed towards reading these books), and I discovered that a cataclysmic battle between good and evil was culminating in the final book. Whoa! Sounded like Lord of the Rings! (And seven books instead of three!) It’s the final book; if I liked the first one, I wouldn’t have to wait for any of them. Uh oh. I’m already a sucker for lore and sagas. After all, The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars were some of my favorite sagas – and they’ve got Wizards and the Force, right? With a bit of trepidation, I embarked on the saga of Harry Potter. I’m happy to say that I’m very glad I did.
I want to first make two things very clear. Number one, I still don’t like the fact that Ms. Rowling chose to use the term “witch” for the female characters. While I’m quite aware that the witchcraft in these books is the fantasy witchcraft that bears almost no resemblance to the Wicca religion, there is still the use of that term that doesn’t sit well with me. (Wiccans call themselves witches, after all.) It’s purely semantics for a fantasy story, perhaps, but in my literary and video game experience, wizards and magicians have tended to represent the side of good, while witches and warlocks have tended to represent the side of evil. Number two, the books do get progressively darker in content (with sometimes disturbing rituals performed by the evil wizards), characters die, and evil grows stronger against Harry and his friends. As such, I strongly caution parents to use good judgment for their children. Harry is 11 in book one, but is it ok for an 11-year old to read book one? I think that depends on the child, and this goes for when it’s appropriate for the child to go on in the series. I encourage family discussion to makes sure children realize that this is fantasy, but there are good principles to be learned.
Now that being said, there is so much I can say about the many positive aspects of the series, but I don’t want to spoil anything! Therefore, I’ll just touch on some general topics that appealed to me.
One thing to note is that the line between good and evil is clearly defined, despite the fact that both sides use the same general magical abilities (think light side and dark side of the Force in Star Wars). Good simply wishes for peace, prosperity, the furthering of knowledge, and the co-existence with non-magical people (muggles). Evil, on the other hand, seeks power over muggles (or their eradication), even power over life and death; their selfish methods of trickery, manipulation and intimidation in their pursuits are all condemned throughout the books.
There have been some criticisms of some of the anti-authority events that occur in the series, specifically the students breaking rules or even forming rebellions against the magic-governing bodies. A vast majority of these events, however, occur in the midst of the fight against the aforementioned evil wizards. Thus, while rules are apparently not as black and white as most Christians may like, the overall fight against evil is the primary concern (think spirit of the law vs. letter of the law).
Probably the most important aspect of the series to me is that redemption and forgiveness are a common theme in all of the books. Many characters have to come to grips with their own flaws and weaknesses and the repercussions of their actions, but there is always grace for forgiveness for those that truly seek to turn their life around. Also, when characters die, it is almost always in the spirit of John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” There are many other Christian themes in the series (Rowling professes to be a Christian), one of which rang home for me profoundly. Harry’s relationship with Dumbledore mirrors how my own relationship with God has at times been: only given part of the story, with other parts for me to figure out, and frustration at what appears to be my blind obedience but ultimately trusting in the wisdom of the One with all the answers.
All in all, J. K. Rowling has created a wonderful fantasy series that is fun and engaging, made page-turning by characters that are so well-developed that the reader is rooting for them constantly. The final book ends perfectly, and is by far my favorite. Highly recommended to all adults – just make sure your children are ready for it.