The Power of Harry Potter and the Necessity for Romance

I just finished The Deathly Hallows again, this time taking the time to read more closely than during my first rush through it. Some initial reflections:

Harry Potter continues a tradition that goes back to ancient mythology through medieval legends and early modern fairy tales and 20th century fantasy that will last as long as humans sit around campfires or university campuses and tell stories to each other. The tradition includes ghost stories, but goes far beyond that. It contains magical stories, stories about beings with supernatural powers, heroes who lay down their lives to save others from evil, creatures who bridge the space between the human soul and nature. Perhaps the best title for it is the romance.

Humans cannot be understood without this tradition because it speaks of and sings for the deepest longings in the human soul: honor, meaning, civility, purpose, the hope that something matters and is worth living and dying for.

To prevent children from participating in this tradition is to undercut the healthy development of their souls. That is one reason Tolkien and Lewis were so shockingly successful in the hyper-rational modernist landscape.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about why I’ve always cherished this sort of writing and why lately I’ve come to see it as morally indispensable. Why is it so important?

Simply, because it arouses within us a desire for what matters a great deal more than any materialist worldview can offer us.

Some Christians fear Harry Potter and I understand that fear. The Bible is not obscure about witchcraft and some feel that Rowling celebrates witchcraft in this series. I think she was probably naive at a certain level, but it matters a great deal less today than it did when, say, Baum suggested the possibility of a good witch in the Wizard of Oz. Baum was semi-educated and didn’t know what he was doing, but the age absorbed it. I don’t believe a witch should be treated as a metaphor of something positive and on this count I think Rowling erred. That merits more attention elsewhere.

But this series is of enormous literary, which is to say psychological, social, philosophical, historical importance. Harold Bloom seems to despise it, but I don’t know if he’s read the last three volumes. Even so, any literary critic who scoffs at this set needs to get beyond the cliches and occasional empty adverbs. The critic needs to ask why this series has sold so well without hiding behind the solution that it was so well marketed.

It was, that’s why The Sorcerer’s Stone is the ninth best selling book in the history of the human race. But it’s only one reason. After all, it’d be hard to argue that Stephen King, Dan Brown, or Danielle Steele are poorly marketed. You can market hamburgers to death, but without service at the counter and something more than edible cardboard, fast food burgers would not have taken over the nation’s arteries.

Why has it succeeded so magnificently. Again, I believe the primary reason is that it arouses desires in our souls that our “culture” simply leaves desperately unsatisfied. Information about life after death is one of the more obvious, but Rowling takes it a step further. She never gives the jejeune cliche answer to these questions. She makes you think. She drops hints. She takes you further in. She doesn’t just suggest what might happen when we die, she makes us want to die well.

By arousing these “primal”, which is to say, deeply human, desires, she arouses the questions that flow from them. She drives her reader to Pascal (though arrival might occur 15 years later), she points you to Aristotle’s Categories, she makes you want to know how to be virtuous and courageous. She makes you want to know how to be human by presenting portraits of people who struggle with their desires every moment of their lives and yet do something that matters.

It’s not  a new charm. That’s why it works.

That’s also why, when you read a book like Harry Potter or a Fairy Tale to children, you shouldn’t engage in analysis. Let the child’s soul interact with the images in the book. Living ideas in living books make living children.

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