When it comes to bestselling books and authors, it is sometimes easy to feel that you have missed the wave. A literary phenomenon occurs and critical acclaim soars to unknown heights, but for a variety of reasons you are left behind. For more than twenty years this has been the case for me with regard to Harry Potter.
When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (Sorcerer’s) Stone was first published in 1997 I was working as a bookseller in Belfast, Northern Ireland. These novels by a hitherto unknown author arrived on our shelves with no small amount of kerfuffle, chiefly owing to the fact that there was simultaneously a children’s and an adult binding, each containing exactly the same text block. This had been unknown up to this point, at least to our circle of bookselling colleagues. Critical and popular acclaim quickly followed for J. K. Rowling, and the movies and the mania were not far behind.
Even with all of this rolling hype, I struggled to get on board the Hogwarts Express. The first novel felt a little too young for me and by the time I got around to reading Harry Potter and Chamber of Secrets the film adaptations were beginning their steady stream. I made the mistake of mixing media too early, spoiling the plot lines of novels in the series that I hadn’t read. Time passed, Potter faded, and I concluded that these books were not for me.
Fast forward twenty-four years, and my wife and I are living with two daughters who are voracious readers. Their appetite for being allowed to read the Potter novels reached crisis point, and this year our youngest set herself on a journey to complete the whole series, following hot on the heels of our eldest. I initially re-approached the novels from the perspective of Dad-Duty, checking in advance if the narratives were age-appropriate for our younger daughter. That decision has led me to read the entire series this year, beginning in summer and concluding in autumn. My youngest daughter overtook me when I was lumbering through Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and my pretext of pseudo-censor was lost irretrievably—I was now reading them for their sheer joy and magic.
Arriving late to the Potter party undoubtedly has its disadvantages, but there has been much to commend it. The following three things have pressed on my heart and conscience as I have journeyed through these remarkable texts—lessons that are related to the world of wizards, witches, and wands, but that are applicable across all kinds of texts.
Some texts must wait until the right time
The world of reading is not immune from the widespread FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) that characterises our culture. To not plug into the zeitgeist, to not be reading the latest or most recently rediscovered texts can make one feel that they have tipped off the literary highway, away from the bright lights and fast pace. The truth is that some texts are not right for us when they are for others. The factors around the Potter novels were unique to me and the moment in which the books emerged, making them impenetrable and unappealing, rendering me powerless to progress through them with any appetite or real interest over twenty years ago.
To acknowledge this allows us to be kinder to ourselves. Not relating to what others find relatable is perfectly acceptable. Social media has persuaded us that the adulation of good things should always be a community experience. If Paul Simon could say in the 1980s that ‘every generation throws a hero up the pop charts,’ our boast (or lament) is that we produce and dispose of heroes at a much quicker pace than that. To remain unplugged should not be a source of guilt, but an acknowledgement that we are not all the same and that we are not universally ready for things at the same time.
It should also encourage us to be kinder to the creative work of others. Critical assessments are often burdened with all kinds of subjectivity, some of which is a guilty displacing of our own disappointment that a work has not pressed our buttons. The results can be ugly if we are not careful around our own responses, blaming an author or work for not reaching us as we expected them to (‘we played the flute for you and you did not dance’). If we must demure from what others are currently enjoying, we can do so without dismissing the wider interest, or the worth of the work in question. J. K. Rowling made no alterations to her novels in the twenty-four years that I managed to avoid them, but my place in life has changed to an incredible degree in that time. I was ready for Harry Potter this year, and not ready in other years. That is no reflection on the works in question.
Evangelical hot-takes are seldom just or accurate
As an adult reader one of my strongest feelings while working through the Harry Potter series was revulsion at the evangelical subculture’s interaction with the books upon their first publication. Coming from a very conservative background, the voices among my own tribe who were denouncing the books for their promotion of witchcraft were loud and clear. To the outside world such declamations had all of the transparency of Parseltongue, but for many of us within the evangelical world, picking up Potter felt like indulging a dangerous temptation.
Reading now, with all of the personal and social changes that have passed under the bridge, it seems incredible to me that such claims were ever made by any reputable source. Many of the judgements made on the books related to their earliest volumes, but the strength of reaction among Christians had the force of a moral panic. Since Potter-gate, the proclivities and eccentricities of evangelical subculture have been played out on the world stage, reaching political and social discourse with unabashed ferocity. The Potter books gave us fair warning of how expectations of fair-mindedness from evangelicals are often just vain hopes.
J. K. Rowling’s prose is among the most redemptive I have ever read (more below), meaning that not only was the hype around children being drawn into the occult overblown but it was contrary to the entire meaning of the books themselves. If adverse personal responses to texts can be damaging, public declamations of literature and other media without proper engagement with content or intent are a horrible breach of the 9th commandment. When we propagandise and protest with no foundation of truth, we are bearing false witness, slandering and libelling the work and intentions of others.
The Potter novels provide some of the most touching treatments of grieving and death that I have ever encountered, but these are realised in a world bent on redemption, an environment where love, friendship, and fidelity are transformative realities.Andrew Roycroft
Creative work is prone to this defamation precisely because of its creativity. J. K. Rowling’s work forged its own shape in the literary world in more ways than occupying two spaces in bookshops. Her story arc was long thought through, and the component parts of each novel fed into it with breathtaking skill. The themes which she managed to touch on, the depths she managed to plumb, the heights she managed to scale, meant that certain conventions and conceptions had to be overturned in the effort. This is what genuine creativity does: it unseats certainty to build it a better throne, it throws our co-ordinates in order to recalibrate us to true North again, and that is painful work, prone to misunderstanding. A blunt edged, literalistic view of life and literature (as was true of my upbringing and background) fears the flux and controlled freefall of what imagination does when it refocuses belief and understanding.
It is hard to feel that anything has changed in the evangelical subculture on this score, but it should at least authorise thoughtful people to dissent with confidence from the denunciations and shibboleths that hysteria often insists on screaming in our faces.
Redemption is a big story
My overwhelming response to the Harry Potter series is one of immense gratitude. Without indulging in ruining the plot for prospective readers, the redemptive curve of the stories is astonishingly well conceived and executed. J. K. Rowling’s skill is the creation of an entire world which awaits redemption and makes the reader long for the same. Evil is neither glorified, exaggerated, nor minimised—it is with us in the world and can cause even trusted people to buckle at points of weakness. The unmitigated horror of certain scenes in the novels will remain with me for a long time. Wickedness sees the world through the prism of self and ambition, and there is something of that spirit in all of us. The logical conclusions of evil are entertained in the Potter series in unnerving and unsettling ways, reminiscent of how the Scriptures often draw us up short in our understanding of just how destructive sin is. This is a bitter grace, and darker providence from Rowling’s pen, which we should be grateful for.
Redemption is the real story, though. The Potter novels provide some of the most touching treatments of grieving and death that I have ever encountered, but these are realised in a world bent on redemption, an environment where love, friendship, and fidelity are transformative realities. Sections of the Potter novels reduced me to tears of joy, and Rowling’s ownership of her Christian themes grounds the action of these wonderful books in self-giving love and a King’s cross. I am grateful to have read these books after twenty-four more years of acknowledging that the world is broken, that I am broken, and that redemption of heart and cosmos are our most pressing need.
I arrived late at the Potter party, but there was a place for me at the table—and I am grateful for that. Reading from The Philosopher’s Stone to The Deathly Hallows has ploughed up the ground of my adult reader’s heart. These novels have given me perspective on my own reaction to the creativity of others, renewed scepticism about Christian subculture’s critical senses, and room for redemptive talk with my daughters rooted in a story they love which points to the Story of God’s love.