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.
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).
Rowling simply has fun with the idea of a world in which (for some of us at least) magic does work. And so her canvas is populated with everything from Nimbus 2000 flying brooms (used by students to play their favorite game, Quidditch, which is something like aerial soccer) to Every Flavor Beans (which range in flavor from steak to chocolate to earwax) to zillions of other throwaway ideas.
If there is anything that Christian parents should pay attention to, it is the curious way in which Harry's universe manages to be magical while never attaining to the truly supernatural, as Christians understand the term. This is not bad, but neither is it quite good enough.
What I mean is this: All the Harry Potter novels confront Harry with real choices between good and evil, and Harry, like all good protagonists, always manages to struggle through to choosing good in the end. But he seems to be aware only of what Catholic theology would call the "natural virtues" of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. These are real virtues, and Catholic parents should get down on their knees and thank God that a series of books that takes these virtues seriously are currently inspiring children to shut off the boob tube and wolf down these tales the way starving kids eat bread.
But it is also vital for Catholic parents to recognize that these virtues are only natural virtues and that a fully formed human person cannot live on bread alone. Therefore, we must finish the job Harry Potter begins--by introducing our children to a truly supernatural world, not of magic, but of grace and, in particular, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Harry's universe simply knows nothing of these things, nor do religious questions or the reality of God ever enter into the picture, with the unfortunate consequence that Harry is likable but not a light whose brightness is equal to the magnetically frightening black hole of Voldemort's evil.
A secular universe--even one filled with magic--cannot summon the human spirit to its full potential. So after Harry, don't forget to introduce your children to other Christian writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who can take your child "further up and further in." And above all, don't forget to point them to the truly supernatural Person of Christ, who is not only a greater source of wonder than Harry Potter, but is real.