Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Failings

Something's missing from J.K. Rowling's otherwise wonderful novels: a sense of the supernatural

This article originally appeared on Beliefnet in 2000

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First things first: I really enjoy the Harry Potter novels, and I think their author, J.K. Rowling, is a genuinely inventive and creative genius. I blasted through all three novels ("Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban") last Christmas and was delighted down to my toes with them all. My deepest sorrow upon finishing them was simply that Rowling's plan to bring the total number of Harry Potter novels to seven is not yet ripe.

As a Catholic, however, I have a problem with the Harry Potter books. It's not a big problem, and it's not the usual problem that some Christians have expressed: that the novels glorify magic and wizardry--occult satanic arts. My problem is that while the books do a wonderful job of teaching children about virtue, they are grounded entirely in the secular world, neglecting to give Harry's struggle against evil forces the supernatural dimension it sorely needs.

Harry is a young boy (he's 11 when the series begins) who discovers that he is not only a wizard with various magical powers but that there is an entire hidden society of wizards whose existence overlaps (somewhat) the world of us non-magical "Muggles," or ordinary people. Harry has lived among Muggles since he was orphaned as an infant, but he comes to discover that he is not only rich but also incredibly famous in the wizard community that is his true home. The reason he is famous is a mystery that envelops all the books: He survived an attack by the evil wizard Voldemort that killed his parents and, in surviving, somehow managed to destroy most (but not all) of Voldemort's powers. Now he is a student at Hogwarts, the academy where all good little magical girls and boys go to study and perfect their magical powers.

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Rowling's gifts are evident everywhere in the books. If you are trying to place her style and imaginative powers, think of her as the long-lost daughter of Roald Dahl, whose spirit hovers like a genie somewhere over her pen.



Like Dahl, she is brilliant at creating truly grotesque comic characters (most especially, the repugnant Dursleys: Harry's Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and their brat, Dudley) as splendid foils for Harry. Like Dickens, Rowling knows that one great secret to a good read is to create a character with whom the audience can identify (like the kindly and long-suffering Harry) and then visit exquisite and unbearable cruelties on him. This makes us root for Harry all the more, of course, but the Dursleys' cruelties are always merely the prelude to the main story, which takes place when Harry departs the company of Muggles and encounters adventures at Hogwarts and other magical locales, such as Diagon Alley in London (a street located just a little to the left of reality, which no Muggle notices or sees).

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