Harry Potter: A Good or Bad Influence?

Updated 2004-06-11

Contents of this document:

The trio joking around

Introduction

Harry writting at a desk The Harry Potter series of books tells the tales of Harry's trek through adolescence at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. With the incredible success of these books their content has gone under a great deal of scrutiny. Some groups have raised concerns that the Harry Potter novels may not be suitible for children because of the major theme of witchcraft in the books.  Further, they draw on the author's use of numbers in the book to further prove that books are indeed evil.

With this in mind, I have divided this document in two two sections. The first, Numerology in Harry Potter, looks at the supposed evil symbols. The second, Witchcraft in Harry Potter, looks at how the domain of mystics is portrayed.

Finally, I sum everything up Afterwards to look at what this may mean for a parent or guardian who is debating if they should bring Harry Potter and his friends to their children.

Numerology in Harry Potter

In many cirlces the belief that numbers can be inheriently good or inheriently evil, or has some specific meaning, is the pervailing wisdom.  In general, such beliefs are based on numerology.

Four

Harry Potter lives with his aunt and uncle, who live on 4 Privy Dr. Apparently 4 is a satanic number, and as such is believed by some to be cause for concern. I cannot explain why the author choose four for the house number, but I do doubt that is was to promote these so-called evil numbers. The only thing that I would mention is that in the books/movies, Harry does everything possible to escape his uncaring, almost Cinderella style adoptive family, and their house hold. In his time spent living on 4 Privy Dr. he was neglected, malnurist, and suffered several human rights violations. Thus, perhaps she choose the number with care and decided to have Harry to to escape the 'fourness' (read: evil) of this house. It is very possible, however, that the number 4 was chosen almost randomly.  However, it should also be pointed out that just about every number is considered by some group to be an 'evil' number.

As a math student, let me also say that, according to the theory of probability, the number 4 has just as much of a chance as any 'good' number has of showing up. It has also been noted that there are many 'good' uses of fours: 4 seasons, 4 quarters make a dollar, the 4th of July, plus it normally appears between 3 and 5 when numbering anything.

Eleven

Harry Potter gets his acceptance to the Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry when he turns eleven years old. Was this number chosen for its evil significance? It turns out that in the UK there are three main sectors of education: school education, further education, and higher education. 'School education' goes from ages 4 or 5 to 16. However, 'School Education' is further divided, in the UK, between  Primary and Secondary education. As it turns out Secondary school starts at the age 11 in the UK.  Since the author, J. K. Rowling, lives in the UK and the books are based on characters who live in the UK, it only makes sense that she would follow this schooling system. Clearly, Harry begins his secondary schooling at Hogwarts at the appropriate age.

Six hundred sixty six

Nicholas Flemel This number has obvious biblical references to the evil 'Number of the Beast' from Revelations 13:18. In the book/movie The Philosopher's Stone [or the Sorcer's Stone in the USA] Nicolas Flamel, who we never meet, has a special stone that allows him to live forever, so long as he uses it to create the elixir of life. Nicholas Flamel, it turns out, was an alchemist, who, in their time, were seen as almost religious men who basically attempted to turn metals into gold. Gold was considered to be the purest substance at this time, hence, the relation between alchemy and being 'religious': The process was mirrored by attempts to reach spiritual purity. The myth of the Philosopher's Stone is also linked to this, which is something Flamel was believed to have worked on for much of his life. Needless to say, there was a mystic view that people held about alchemists. By the end of the movie Nicolas Flamel had agreed to destroy the stone, because it could be misuse it. He dies at the age of 666. Is this an obvious jab at Christianity?  Or is this proof of their being evil in Harry Potter? It turns out that Nicholas Flamel was born around the year 1330. While J.K. Rowling was working on her first book, in 1996, Nicolas Flamel was born six hundred and sixty six years before. Further, the author was aware that some people may take offence to this number, so instead of saying that he will die at the age of 666 she says that when he is 665 it will be he last year.

Witchcraft in Harry Potter

Setting aside any arguments about the use of numbers in Harry Potter, many groups still protest the use of witchcraft in the novels.  However, the Harry Potter books resemble witchcraft about as much as our modern Christmas celebration represents Christianity: Some people can dig meaning out of a mound of trivia, but most only see the fun involved in the celebrations.  Futher, the fact that all of the characters in Harry Potter celebrate Christmas, but not Chanukah, Ramadan, Yule, Kwanzaa, or Diwali, shows that Christianity is the primary influence in the book.  In fact, the author, J. K. Rowling has stated that she is a Christian. I do not think the book is a "good Christian novel". Seeing as it was written for a predominantly secular audience, I don't think it needs to be. And as for celebrating Christmas, and also Easter, they do it like most people do: By taking a holiday and getting gifts. It does not reflect any Christian morals, and any attempt to put them there is ridiculous. However, it is quite a leap to suggest that the book is evil simply because it fails to live up to the stringent standards of the Christian religion. Christianity, protrayed in this secularized, offhand way is common in modern society. This alone should not be enough to condemn the book: that would require actual evidence of its evil nature.

Witchcraft is the tool most religious fundementalists use to condemn Harry Potter books. However, Harry Potter is not based on the religion of witchcraft in any way, shape, or form. Flying on brooms, using magical wands to cast spells, and turning people in to mice? It is simply a mainstream pop culture product.  Any resemblence between witchcraft and Harry Potter is as superficial as any simularity between Christianity and Harry Potter. Influences, such as Christmas, are just superficially added in to the story.  In the same way, riding on broomsticks and casting spells with wands is not a tradition of witchcraft.

This series of books is indeed a product of its times. In the 'western world' Christianity is the predominate religion. The unmistakeable heritage of Christianity is unmiskable in these novels. These injections of Christiantiy in the novels are as superficial as they are at the department stores. The reason the books catch the imagination of so many young and old is because of the use of magic.  J. K. Rowling used witchcraft to bring magic to Harry's world. It is also easy to see that sufficent research has been done to bring in modern paganism and newage spirituality elements in to the story line.  However, again, these elements are only skin deep.

It's a fun little set of books and a funny little movie. If you banned every thing that had anything to do with magic, sorcery, and unexplainable special talents, you'd have to ban everything from Lord of the Rings (which is considered a 'Christian Book') to Star Trek (which is not seen as Christian at all), along with all Christian holidays from Christmas (Yule) to Easter (Eostar).

Required Readings: Books of Witchcraft?

Just how deep are the arguements that Harry Potter has profound elements of witchcraft in it? Some have suggested that the required readings of Harry Potter as actual books of witchcraft. I decided to list the books that Harry Potter is told are required reading (incomplete):

The trio outside Most of these book titles where chosen for comedic value: notice the use of alliterations on the titles? (Break with a Banshee... Travels with Trolls, etc.) Or the choice of the name of the book and the author's name? (One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi, By Plyllida Spore.) Others, however, may give some to be concerned, such as 'The Standard Book of Spells', but when your consider that they are going to a school of witchcraft and wizardry, that is to be expected, and indeed, the use of the word 'standard' to describe spells is humourous. Some people have noted concerns with all of them. For example, 'Holidays with Hags' has been followed by the argument that "God forbids His people from contacting a witch, a sorceress, and a demon, under the penalty of the Death Penalty!" This argument, however, is too fundamentalist for me to really consider: if you are going to take such a hard line approach to a funny book, then you can stop early on by saying that 'witchcraft is bad, so you shouldn't read the book.' But the book, as noted before this section, is mainly secular in nature.

Other books make their way in to the Harry Potter novel which are books that are used in the lore and history of witchcraft. They may be real books. However, putting in historically accurate information helps to give the immersive feel to story. All the great story tellers have always done this. Books that have done this are the likes of The Lord of the Rings and The Mists of Avalon (which tells of the life of King Aurthur). If you do research in this area it is always funny to hear a mention of something that really does exist, and that is the total value of putting in any information that may be accurate. (For example, see the bit about Nicholas Flamel.)

However, apparently some of the titles are actual books of witchcraft. I assume this is based on books in the new age movement. In recent times, such as since the release of Harry Potter books, these witchcraft books have been selling more and more. But it is important to separate correlation (two things that happen together) with cause and effect (one causing the other). The new age movement has been gaining ground for the last 40 years. I doubt that Harry Potter has very much to do with that. The target audience for Harry Potter, those over 10 years old, are not running out and buying real books about 'witchcraft'.

Examples for children

Up until now this document has been concerned primarily with 'evils' found within the pages of Harry Potter. In order to give full coverage to this issue, which is basically about whether or not Harry Potter is good for children, this next section is, I believe, important for parents to read over.  What is discussed here is if Harry Potter promotes good lessons for children.

Lying

One founded criticism about this book is the fact that in just about ever adventure Harry Potter embarks on his friends and he, himself, usually end up lying to their professors and the head of the school. I, personally, believe this brings a bad message to the children viewing the movies, because Harry and his friends rarely are punished for these lies. In fact, they are usually not found out.

However, I believe that this could be turned in to a valuable lesson for youngsters, since they will almost inevitably lie at some point in their life, and they themselves may not be found out. After a close analysis and plot dissections of the stories I have come to the conclusion that if the trio of characters had told the truth to their professors almost always no trouble would have befallen them: In fact, had they told the truth, they may very well of made their lives easier on themselves. Consider the following scenarios.

In The Philosopher's Stone Harmonie's feelings are badly hurt, and she runs to the girls washroom to cry (adolescent boys can be very mean). When Harry and Ron discover that a troll is loose in that area, they immediate run to get her. Between the three of them they manage to defeat the troll on sheer stupid luck. Course of events: Harmonie is innocently in the washroom, Ron and Harry come to get her away from danger. Harmonie, however, lies, telling her professors that she went to 'take on the troll' herself, and Ron and Harry rescued her. I honestly don't see the difference between these two stories.  One gets her in trouble.
In The Chamber of Secrets Harry told Professor Dumbledore, who has the up most respect for Harry and has proven to be a friend, that he had no idea what was going on, or who was responsible. Had he trusted Dumbledore, they may have succeeded in capturing the creature who was on the lose in the school.

If you read these books with your children, or watch the movies with them, and point out these facts, and discuss it, you will find that it will probably have twice the effect of helping, rather than having any normal bad effect.

It should also be noted, however, that all kid's movies tend to involve lying, any many times they are not found out. This is by no means specific to Harry Potter.

Friendship

The trio doing work The Harry Potter books have been said to show friendship and loyalty as one of the many fine points about the series. Though this is true, there is one point about friendship that links up with the above lying section. As mentioned, Hermione lies to keep everyone--but herself--out of trouble. Until she did this she was an outcast and not a particularily close friend. If we accept this, there is an effect that I find questionable: Hermione cannot be there friend until she lies to her teacher. This seems to me to be a poor way of choosing friends.

Rules

The books also encourage disobedience. Harry is always trying to get away with some scheme forbidden by his guardians, or teachers. He spends a lot of time figuring out how to do something that he is not supposed to do instead of, say, finding another way to the same end.

Afterwards

Harry Potter I read and enjoyed all of them. They are like Nancy Drew, or the Hardy Boys, but with magic. (Not that I ever read Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, but you know the type.) Mystery. Humour. Examples of bravery, loyalty, and boyish (or girlish) fun. The examples that anti-Potter advocates cite are there, but are handled wonderfully.  Basically, yes, they are books that are loosely in a world of witchcraft, but they are written for a secular audience and there is no evil injected in to the page of the book.

In conclusion, it seems that these books and movies are no better or worse than any other set of books or movies for children. In fact, they are not as bad as many 'kids' movies that I have been seeing lately. I would recommend these books to anybody with two conditions:

  1. They are meant for older children. (Think over 10.) Younger children have yet to learn to separate fiction from reality and would be frightened.
  2. As with all books or movies, I think these should be read by a supervising adult and discussed with the child to make sure they are properly understood (as fiction, etc, not necessarily the complex themes or author's techniques).

A Joke

The Anti-Potter crowed has some valid points, but over all I find that they tend to be over dramatizing the effect it may have on children. Nothing is a substitute to working with your children through all the influences in their lives. To end off this issue I want to leave you with a joke I got in my email once. I think it illustrates why I am not too concerned about the Harry Potter phenomena.

I know that there was that one incident in Chicago, where a boy turned his teacher in to a toad after watching the Harry Potter movie. The police chief said, on the condition that his head be changed back to its normal size, that it was an isolated incident, and that "The boy did nothing wrong, and it's all just a misunderstanding." The boy was released soon after.

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry