Hunting Down Harry Potter: An Exploration of Religious Concerns about Children’s Literature

“Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” (Dumbledore, Hogwarts headmaster, page 298, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)

“For I was my father’s son, tender and only beloved in the sight of my mother. He taught me also, and said unto me, Let thine heart retain my words: keep my commandments, and live.” (Proverbs 4:3–4, Holy Bible, King James Version)

rowling harry potter and the sorcerers stone Hunting Down Harry Potter: An Exploration of Religious Concerns about Children’s LiteratureTo those with a passion for excellent children’s literature, particularly librarians and teachers, it can be exceedingly disconcerting to see a parent strongly criticize a book that many children (and adults) thoroughly enjoy. Yet for parents with conservative Christian beliefs, the view is considerably different. Imagine seeing your child run into the street, directly into the path of a huge tractor-trailer truck barreling swiftly toward him. The natural parental reaction would likely be to scream, to try to warn your child, probably even to run after him and pull him out of harm’s way. For conservative Christian parents, books dealing with the occult (including Harry Potter) are that deadly truck, and naturally those parents must do what they can to protect their children from danger.

For many librarians, teachers, and parents, the world of children’s literature and that of the Bible represent different kingdoms whose border continues to be debated as parents and others raise questions about the appropriateness of certain titles. This is a passionate issue: few things stir the heart like one’s true faith or one’s love for sharing books with children.

I speak as one who lives in both kingdoms. I am an avid reader and have been since the age of two. Reading was as natural to me as flying is to Harry Potter when he first rises on that broomstick to retrieve the Remembrall from Malfoy. At the same time, like Harry, I grew up in a Muggle — i.e., a “nonoccult/nonmagic” — environment. I was raised as a fifth-generation member of a conservative Christian church, and since leaving home have joined an Assemblies of God church.

The foundation of my church is the Holy Bible, both Old and New Testaments (although there are innumerable versions of the Protestant Bible available, references cited in this article are taken from the King James Version). This book forms the underlying basis for all our beliefs. Two very important beliefs concern children and the occult. In our faith, the spiritual education of children is considered crucial. This stems largely from attention to Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Because those of my faith believe that casual exposure to the occult through media sources such as television, movies, games, and books can desensitize a Christian to the sinful nature of such beliefs and practices, any exposure is commonly prohibited. This includes reading books that portray the occult in a positive light.

Séances and witches are one thing if you believe they are “just pretend”; they’re quite another if you believe they’re real. Despite the fact that we agree with others on such points as the horror of the Salem witchcraft trials, we bring a different view to the table: believing that innocent people were unjustly persecuted, tortured, and killed does not belie the fact that we believe witches are real. Not that anyone’s ready to start drowning and hanging anyone, of course — but witchcraft is as real to us as any other religion. Consequently, one of the most antagonizing responses one can give in responding to a challenge based on these beliefs is to say, “But they (demons, witches, etc.) aren’t real!” They may be very real to the person who is challenging the material.

Most criticisms for the occult in fiction have their basis in Deuteronomy 18:9–12: “When thou art come into the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord: and because of these abominations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee.” Numerous other scriptures also forbid the practice of witchcraft or consultation with mediums or diviners (Leviticus 19:31, 20:6, 27; Isaiah 8:19, 19:3; Galatians 5:19–21; Revelation 21:8), and several specifically mention wizards (in addition to many of the above, 2 Kings 21:6, 23:24; 2 Chronicles 33:6).

This is the primary reason parents might challenge a book with any hint of occult or Satanic practices — they are concerned that their children may learn to see them as acceptable, whether it be one character teaching another how to become a witch in E. L. Konigsburg’s Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth; or one threatening another with occult powers, as in Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Headless Cupid. Once again: when you believe that witches and occult practices are real, and contrary to God’s laws, those books are quite different from what the authors probably intended.

Individuals as well as denominations vary on how strictly they apply their beliefs to children’s reading. Some believe that any portrayal is too much and should not be read by children. Others feel that context is key: is a witch portrayed positively, negatively, or ambivalently? Is the practice shown as an acceptable or enjoyable thing to do, or as something stupid or dangerous?

Let me share some particular applications from those key Deuteronomy verses:

There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire . . .

In some cultures during Old Testament times, children were sacrificed to gods, either killed deliberately or placed in situations where they had a high likelihood of death — such as walking through fire. This is thought to have been one of the major differences between the Hebrews and the pagans: human sacrifice was not the Hebrew practice; animals were used. Consequently, any initiation ceremonies that seem to hint at occult practices may be viewed with dismay by parents. One book that comes to mind is Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover, a novel that incorporates several activities prohibited in Deuteronomy and other scriptures: Laura Chant, a “sensitive,” seeks assistance from another teen, a boy, whom she recognizes as a witch after her young brother becomes ill, consumed by an evil spirit. The boy’s mother and grandmother, witches as well, invite Laura to undergo a changeover, to become a witch: “As you know, you’re what we call a sensitive, my dear. You stand on the threshold of our condition, and we can invite you in. . . . We could help you to make a witch of yourself. Common nature, which trembles a little before you now, would let you in.” Laura’s acceptance and the ensuing events, including an initiation ceremony aided by fasting and the fact that she is a virgin, may disturb some parents.

The Changeover also touches on another area where parents may be concerned. Some Christians believe that the idea of “sensitives” — individuals with uniquely strong supernatural “radar” — is quite true. Sometimes certain people are described as being “more sensitive to the Holy Spirit,” meaning that the person is more in tune with such supernatural guidance. Among those who feel this is true, some also consider such individuals more susceptible to unholy spiritual influences, such as the realm of the occult. Basically, the idea is that sensitives might thrive in either arena — either as Christians who serve God or as those who serve the darkness. Consequently, many parents would be especially concerned about the influences of books with strong occult ties for these children, as they may be more likely to develop a serious interest in (and talent for) those areas.

. . . or that useth divination . . .

Divination may take many forms — standard fortune-telling, Tarot cards, “Magic 8 Balls,” throwing apple peels over your shoulder to learn whom you will marry, and other practices with similar intent. This is why certain books of folklore have been challenged — which is rather interesting since some of the apple-peel kinds of things actually were absorbed into much of conservative Christian culture in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America. The methods perceived as more “supernatural” — such as fortune-telling, Tarot card reading, or Ouija board use — are those which most often set off warning bells for parents. References to divination are not uncommon in juvenile literature — Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s companion novels The Egypt Game and The Gypsy Game both contain references to using an oracle or palmistry as part of a game. Betty Ren Wright’s thriller The Dollhouse Murders also includes fortune-telling as a pivotal point of the novel. Many parents feel that even pretend fortune-telling risks desensitizing children to the dangers of actual divination practices; thus it is often considered too risky.

. . . or an observer of times . . .

Similar to divination, this term is usually interpreted as referring to astrology. Some parents object to mentions of astrology because of this part of scripture; they teach their children to look to God, not the stars, to guide their futures and tell them what will happen in their lives if He sees fit to do so. Prophecy was important in biblical times, and for many of us it remains so today. For many Christians, spiritual gifts such as prophecy are real and sent by God. Consequently, it is considered a given that children in these faiths need to learn early on how to distinguish God’s voice from other voices. There are mimics, but only one truth, and mimicking prophecy or foreknowledge is extremely dangerous. Mental telepathy is often considered to be a form of divination as well — divination of another’s thoughts. This tends to be problematic as well, and is one reason why Madeleine L’Engle’s work has been challenged: some parents consider “kything” (as in A Wind in the Door) too similar to mental telepathy.

. . . or a consulter with familiar spirits . . .

Consulting with familiar spirits might be a picture-book witch consulting her supernaturally empowered cat; a series-fiction séance at a slumber party; or even simply a depiction of playing with a Ouija board. These are all considered forms of communication with spirits, and are all viewed as wrong and dangerous. Books in which children play with Ouija boards or hold séances, however slumber-party/summer-camp style they may be, are generally forbidden, even if the séance or the Ouija board doesn’t work. Portraying something that we consider to be dangerous as harmless or ineffective is conceptually as perilous as saying it is good or efficacious, if not more so.

. . . or a wizard . . .

Here is of course where many of the objections to Harry Potter originate, but even a casual portrayal of a witch is a common reason for book challenges, as in Tomie dePaola’s Strega Nona books, Patricia Coombs’s Dorrie books, or the Oz books.

In examining Deuteronomy 18:9–12 and similar scriptures, we can see the precise reasons why some people are concerned about the potential influences on children of Harry Potter and his friends. Since the above-referenced section of Deuteronomy specifically states that witches and wizards are an abomination unto the Lord that will be driven out, one can see why someone who firmly believes this scripture might not want his or her child reading Harry Potter. In these books, witchcraft and wizardry are generally portrayed as having many positive aspects. Hogwarts is absolutely enchanting — after reading these books, one might well think how nice it might be if it were actually possible to visit such a place, or perhaps even to be a student there. Hard work, yes; dangerous, in many cases, yes. And of course there are those who exercise power in an evil way (i.e., Voldemort) versus those who exercise power in a good way (i.e., Dumbledore and many others, including our protagonist, Harry). But the overall framework is one that suggests that the study of witchcraft/wizardry is something special and desirable. Thus, in the book’s framework, Harry is not doing anything “wrong” by studying wizardry. (He does thoroughly annoy the Dursleys, of course, but that’s another matter entirely!) This portrayal naturally concerns those who do not wish their children to become avidly interested in learning practices that they believe are an abomination to God.

There are many red flags in the Harry Potter books. One of these is the role of divination in Book Three (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban): Hogwarts provides a divination course (albeit one that some of the students and faculty find nebulous in authenticity). It is certainly logical that a young student witch or wizard would study divination; the problem is that the practice is expressly forbidden in Deuteronomy. The reference (in Book Three) to the Egyptian wizards and the potential educational value of a visit to Egypt offers an interestingly arcane — if you’ll permit me the word — challenge to Christian belief: Hermione comments, “Did you see that picture of Ron and his family a week ago? I bet he’s learning loads. I’m really jealous — the ancient Egyptian wizards were fascinating.” At home, Christian children are learning a very different story about the Egyptian magicians, in Exodus 7:8–13, where the Egyptian magicians attempt to demonstrate their powers as superior to those of God as exercised through Moses and Aaron. When the Egyptian magicians react to the transformation of Aaron’s rod into a serpent by doing the same with their rods, God provides once again, and Aaron’s rod-serpent swallows theirs. This is a very important story in some faiths, including most conservative Christian sects, and some parents may feel that Hermione’s commentary indicates approval of the Egyptian magicians’ work. It might also concern them that the link indicates similarities between what the Egyptian magicians did and what Harry, Hermione, and Ron are learning to do: these students are, in some ways, the educational heirs to the Egyptian magicians.

Another significant plot point that deserves note within Harry Potter is the way Voldemort controls Ginny Weasley in Book Two, “possessing” her through her reading of his diary and using her to open the Chamber of Secrets, unleashing the basilisk. Although this is the most obvious example, there are other incidents where a possession state seems to occur, such as in Book Three, when Divination Professor Trelawney suddenly goes into a trance in which a voice completely unlike her own predicts the “Dark Lord’s” (presumably Voldemort’s, of course) return. Because of the numerous occasions in the New Testament where Jesus cast demons out of individuals, parents are likely to find any references to demonic possession, even when portrayed as negatively as it is in the Harry Potter books, decidedly distasteful.

A final issue in Harry Potter is the portrayal of Muggles — nonmagical people, including not only the dreadful Dursleys (Harry’s aunt, uncle, and cousin) but also all the other “ordinary” people. While Harry does answer Ron’s inquiry about what Muggles are like with the qualified “horrible — well, not all of them,” there remains a tone suggesting more or less overtly that Muggles do not understand magic and that their fear of witches/ wizards stems from ignorance or spite rather than sincere and positive faith in a belief system. For example, within the first few pages of Book Three we read, “Non-magic people (more commonly known as Muggles) were particularly afraid of magic in medieval times, but not very good at recognizing it. On the rare occasion that they did catch a real witch or wizard, burning had no effect whatsoever. . . . [The Dursleys] were Muggles, and they had a very medieval attitude toward magic.” For many Christian readers, these passages may be hard not to take personally. Perhaps we aren’t “enlightened” in some people’s eyes, but it isn’t that we feel other views should be stifled; we are simply concerned about the negative portrayal of non-witches/wizards painted in such sharp contrast to the more positive view of those supernaturally endowed.

My own feelings? Well . . . I don’t find it difficult to sympathize with Harry’s overwhelming emotional confusion over simultaneously learning what a special and renowned person he is — and that the greatest evil imaginable has already attempted to kill him and is looking for a way to finish the job! As a librarian and a reader, I believe that reading whatever we like is a freedom we should not take lightly. As a conservative Christian, I believe that there are certain lines I should not cross, and one of them is opening a door to a world where witchcraft is the “cool” thing and everyone disparages those who don’t agree. Books that may lead children into what we consider to be an unhealthy interest in the occult are often considered “door-openers,” as Karen Jo Gounaud of Family Friendly Libraries calls them. Yet many parents are willing to participate in open discussions of these issues, realizing that this may be a valuable opportunity to share our faith with others. Harry Potter is obviously here to stay, at least for a while, and we all have to live in the same world. Muggles and wizards can’t spend their time shouting insults at each other; it would blind them to the true evil (Voldemort in their world, Satan in mine).

Let me preach to my own choir for a moment. I’m not sure keeping children away from Harry Potter is the answer. This is perhaps best illustrated by the tale “Sleeping Beauty.” When the infant princess is cursed to prick her finger on a spindle and die by her sixteenth birthday, her royal parents immediately order that all spinning wheels and spindles in the kingdom be gathered up and burned. Yet what does the princess, wandering in the castle on the morning of that fateful birthday, discover in a tower room? Despite their best efforts, not even the king and queen could protect their daughter long enough. The same is true today. No parent can protect a child forever, much as they might wish to; as in “Sleeping Beauty,” the taboo object will eventually be discovered. Perhaps if the princess had been told how dangerous spinning would be for her, she might have turned back and averted the event. But, innocent and unknowing, she walks into danger with interest and excitement. Given that Harry Potter and similar books are not likely to disappear, should one allow them to remain an unknown danger — or, instead, a foreseen risk understood by children? My belief is that one can indeed find a way to balance these risks: discuss your family’s beliefs with your child. Rather than simply saying, “You can’t read those things and that’s final,” talk about what you find of concern in these books and why. If a child has a strong interest in these books, parents can use them as a learning experience — adding to the joy of reading for pleasure, an understanding of how to be a thoughtful reader, recognizing what good things one might take from these books as well as the things best left behind. For example, my mother, a teacher, does not purchase books for classroom use that casually portray witches, wizards, or warlocks, and she refuses to own anything with a witch depicted on it. However, she is also the person who used my interest in C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien to spark in-depth discussions of our faith and its significance in these works: I learned to see the incredible allegory that one can extrapolate from Narnia and Middle-Earth, not to mention the extreme pleasure in hours of reading these books, yet I never felt any confusion about witches and wizards. We’d talked about what the Bible says regarding this subject, basing principles on the aforementioned Scriptures, and I always felt comfortable with the idea that reading something in a book should be an active, rather than completely passive, process. In addition to enjoying the story, I should think about its implications: are there things that I can and should apply to my life? How does it relate to what I believe spiritually, if it relates to that at all? She taught me to be a thoughtful reader, and the advice has served me well long past childhood.

The true magic of Harry Potter isn’t the magic taught at Hogwarts — it is the magic that the books bring to a reader’s life. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that we all have some sort of spiritual hunger. People fill this with their own convictions on spiritual matters — Wicca, Paganism, Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, the various Protestant denominations’ beliefs, and so forth — if all of the possibilities were listed, the pages would probably stretch from one side of the United States to the other. Even if their belief is non-belief or agnosticism, people usually have some sort of philosophy that they hold dear. Those of my faith, while believing that there is only one right path, accept that it is the freedom of each individual to choose to believe or not believe. After all, God is the original “freedom of choice” advocate — He created free will rather than “programming” humans to automatically worship Him, and He allows all people to choose whether to accept His gift of salvation. But those of my faith also believe that we have the right to raise our children according to our beliefs, just as others have a right to raise their children according to their beliefs. To one of my faith, the magic of Harry Potter cannot compare to the supernatural power in a true Christian life. For us, the power of God surpasses everything else.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Frodo (leaving his home at the beginning of his quest as Ringbearer) expresses his concern to Gildor, one of the elves he meets early in his travels: “I knew that danger lay ahead, of course; but I did not expect to meet it in our own Shire. Can’t a hobbit walk from the Water to the River in peace?” Gildor’s answer is a striking one — a statement that feels remarkably close to home: “The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out.” We could never fence ourselves completely out from each other, even if we wanted to do so. Yet, just as Frodo in his dark journey finds new friends and new ways of seeing the world, we too may benefit from what seems at first an impossible path. The desire to provide excellent literature for children unites us on certain points, and though we may not always agree as to what constitutes excellence, it may be that on this road we discover one another’s strengths as well as understand one another’s differences.

From the May/June 2000 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. See responses from readers here.

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About Kimbra Wilder Gish

Kimbra Wilder Gish, currently a librarian at Vanderbilt University MedicalCenter, has an M.S. in Information Sciences with a concentration in children's and young adult services from the University of Tennessee.

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