Michael O'Brien, well-known Canadian icon painter and novelist, has written this serious reflection on the Harry
Potter phenomenon. It is a brave exercise, well worth reading if only to make readers think harder about a subject
they would rather not engage with. On the one hand there is a global army of Rowling supporters, glad that their
children are reading anything, and convinced that the seven books of the series are imaginative, harmless fun;
on the other is an American Bible Belt backlash, which regards the series as dangerous occult literature. Into
this fiercely polarised argument comes O'Brien's own measured voice.
In his preface, the author points out that 'we are living in a vast, multi-dimensional
war zone, a good deal of which is invisible to our eyes.' I think no writer on spiritual
themes would disagree with this. Again, O'Brien reminds us that the development of a moral imagination 'demands self-restraint', i.e. that intellectual freedom for a
Christian is different from the haphazard morality displayed by secular writers. His fundamental charge against
Rowling is her use of symbolism: "We must never lose sight of the
truth that symbols are among the most potent of human languages", he says. What
Rowling does is to mix together good and toxic symbols, setting up confusion for young readers; consciously, they
know it is all make-believe, "but on the sub-conscious level they
have absorbed it as experience."
What is dangerous is this hybrid quality of the stories; they combine heroic elements with anti-heroic elements-often
employing evil means to overcome evil on the grounds that the end justifies the means.
O'Brien acknowledges that the books provide an intoxicating mixture of excitement, imaginative
display and ingenuity but makes the analogy with junk food: addictive to eat but providing no substantial nourishment.
Why is Rowling so different from Tolkien or CS Lewis, the author's critics might ask. O'Brien, who is steeped in
children's fantasy literature and who has written an earlier book, Landscape with Dragons, about the importance of the 'baptised imagination' (Tolkien's phrase), suggests that these authors 'knew that witchcraft
and sorcery were powerful, always treacherous and often deadly'. The problem is not the
presence of magic in children's literature, but how this magic is presented. Is its use faithful to the moral order
of the universe or not? If not, how does this adversely affect children?
O'Brien would agree that for children brought up within a strong Christian moral framework, and whose reading diet
includes Narnia and The Lord of the
Rings, the risks of reading Rowling are negligible. But almost all her youthful readers
have no imaginative boundaries at all; thus the demonstration of magical or supernatural powers will not underline
their childish understanding of the power that belongs to God alone; it will strengthen a subconscious acceptance
of a wholly pagan world,
where good is often compromised and weakened and where there is no appeal to an ultimate wise authority.
The author makes perceptive comparisons between Harry Potter and Frodo and between Gandalf and Professor Dumbledore.
He also discusses other modern potent examples of the genre, such as the Philip Pullman trilogy and the Twilight series of Stephenie Meyer. Quoting the critic Russell Kirk he points
out that when culture is deprived of an authentic moral vision, there is a resulting rise of the 'diabolic imagination.' Naturally this can be delightfully disguised.