Harrycane: a sign of the times
by Father Lazare de la Mere de Dieu, F.J.

reprinted with permission from Dec. 2001 Catholic Insight magazine, http://www.catholicinsight.com/

Father Lazare de la Mère de Dieu, F.J., decided that as a priest he wanted to give a conference on a literary figure. He said, "As a priest I would consider it personally irresponsible were I not willing to take a close look at the Harry Potter books, and the things currently being said about them. I certainly consider the tremendous enthusiasm which these books have generated all over the world to have reached such gargantuan proportions that this constitutes a veritable sign of the times." He calls this literary hurricane Harrycane. The following is condensed from a much larger, footnoted,

A very damaged little boy

When we encounter Harry, he is an orphan who has lived ten years with the Dursley family, his very cruel uncle and aunt and their hateful son Dudley. Shortly after his eleventh birthday, he receives a letter via an owl that informs him he is in fact a famous wizard and has won a place in the prestigious Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Harry is a very wounded little boy who has a number of real character flaws, but is decidedly altruistic to the point of risking his life for others. There are few clues as to what happened to him and his parents. He has a tiny scar but he is not allowed to ask about it or his past. He is forced to live in a cubbyhole under the stairs, frequently punished, never allowed to celebrate his birthday, and given dog food as a Christmas present. The only place Harry is ever happy is when he is far away from his aunt and uncle at Hogwarts, his school for wizards.

Inside, Harry is utterly empty, often on the verge of depression. Nothing has meaning for him and nothing seems to succeed. He is a very sad and touching figure with no future, until that fateful day when the owl arrives. Harry's other faults are that he lies, cheats, steals, and likes to hurt people, with scant concern for authority. On the other hand he is quite capable of risking his life to save endangered human beings. He refuses to kill an enemy who played a major role in the murder of his parents even when he has this enemy fully in his power.

Harry never gives up, no matter what happens, not even when his own life is at stake. Even though he's only eleven, his life is in danger and he must constantly face the fact that there is someone lurking out there who has it in for him; but he is brave to the point of never giving up. The fact that he is damaged is the trait which is most pronounced. The root wound is that Harry knows nothing about his parents.

His parents

He is on an obsessive search to know more about his parents and discover what happened but no one is willing to tell him. He finds out eventually that they were wizards killed by an evil dark wizard and, to his amazement, he discovers that his father did everything he could to save him, and in fact his mother died trying to save him. Henceforth, the fire of love impregnates his whole being and his love protects him.

Harry's discovery of his roots is a theme that is developed more deeply in each of the four volumes. Pediatricians and psychiatrists specializing in the treatment of children have taken a close look at this fact. Comments actually given by children from all over the world, when asked why they read about Harry Potter and what attracts them, make it apparent that his appeal to children is in good part because so many of them have had a terrible experience not unlike his. The major reason for Harry's popularity is that our present society is one in which there are innumerable broken homes. Indeed one young girl likes reading Harry over and over again because she too has scars carved into parts of her body, the fruit of physical abuse.

My conclusion is that children identify with the figure of Harry in good measure because there are so many children in our society who are hurting and wounded by the absence of one or both of their parents. Joanne Kathleen Rowling is very much aware of this and says it very bluntly—this little boy is a mirror of their souls. Reading about Harry lets such children understand themselves better; these books act as a catharsis, to let children come to terms as much as possible with what is missing in their lives.

Listening to the Holy Spirit

This is the point where we are to have the ears of our hearts open to listen to the Holy Spirit speaking to us. The message of Harrycane is so forceful that a great deal of explanation is hardly necessary. Research has shown that the average child living today in North America has a higher level of anxiety than most psychiatric patients did in the 1950s. Such anxiety, these studies indicate, is directly related to the dissolution of families, the rapid increase of young parents seeking divorce, and the fact that children have limited access to really caring adults.

Surely it can safely be said that the Holy Spirit in and through Harrycane is asking us to take stock of these facts. At the parish level, are we sufficiently aware of the number of children who are traumatized, who are troubled because of the absence of a parent? Do we need to strengthen our focus on the needs of the family and those of our children? Should we be more concerned about the fact that there are so few young people at Sunday Masses? As a Catholic priest, I know that few of our parishes have active youth programs or a ministry addressing young peoples' problems on the level that other denominations do. They seem to be reacting in a manner which is more realistic than ours and often very innovative. We need the courage to look at these issues and seek valid answers.

The role of magic in Harry's life

Who is Harry Potter? Harry is a wizard. He not only attends a school for wizards, but he himself has an inborn capacity to engage in magical activity. In fact, magical deeds are part of his normal every-day behaviour, and he is usually portrayed with his wand or his broomstick. Magic is the key to Harry's becoming a fulfilled person; it directs and guides him on his way to happiness, frees him and helps him to break away from the abuse he was subjected to. He finds the solution to his problems through magic.

The wizards are puzzled by the very strange behaviour of those unfortunate human beings who, in fact, are non-magical people. At the Hogwarts school, courses are given for troubled wizard children, to try to explain to them why these very strange non-magical human beings have to use such clumsy contraptions as telephones and electricity. All of this takes a little getting used to, the use of magic, casting of spells, concocting of potions, the use of wands and incantations. Not having magic at your fingertips is deemed abnormal.

When the author of these books is asked whether she herself believes in magic, she is always very cautious in the way she answers. She only says that the way she portrays it in her books it does not exist. So what purpose does this literary device serve? It's basically a question of power, she says. As J.K. Rowling sees it, the sad thing about unfantasized, real-life childhood is that children are usually the underdogs. They are powerless and therefore victims. This is why, in creating the figure of Harry Potter, she wanted to write about a little boy who escapes from the confines of his unhappy childhood through very powerful forces he has within himself.

Is Harry a Christian?

A Christian reader, as he sees Harry facing one absolutely terrifying situation after another, will often ask himself, "Is this little boy [who is, at least nominally, a baptized Christian, because he has a godfather] ever going to pray? In his desperate need will he turn to heaven seeking help? Does he feel the need for Jesus, his saviour? Will God intervene to help him?"

But no, Harry is self-sufficient. As a seasoned analyst from Time magazine put it, the 'moral' of the Potter series is "believe yourself." The most important magic comes from inside each of us. One question then: has magic replaced religion and is it a substitute for the presence and strength of Jesus our saviour?

As J.K. Rowling sees it, "magic is older than religion." Humans first learned to cope with problems of human existence through magical practices. It was only later on that religion replaced the original 'magical' way of living. It would seem then that the underlying philosophy of the Harry Potter series is that the time has come to return to our most ancient belief system, that of magic. The view then that magic has the status of a religion in the Potter books seems to be confirmed. The existence of God is never mentioned in these books in any way.

This is all the more remarkable because the Christmas festivities occupy quite a bit of attention in all four volumes and are described in detail. The beauty of the lavishly decorated Christmas tree, the gift-giving among the children, the wonderful Christmas day banquet, are all spelled out in considerable detail. We wait until the fourth volume for a mention of carol singing at Christmas. The most famous of all carols, "Oh come, all ye faithful...", but lo and behold, no one seems able to remember the proper words of this traditional song, so one of those present improvises lyrics to this melody: quite vulgar lyrics in fact, as boys are wont to do.


Very scary practices survive in this series, at best as a marginal, imprecise memory of no practical value whatsoever. And so it would seem that, in the Potter books, magic replaces traditional mainstream religion. As Rowling puts it, "Magic is given to us to provide solutions to life's problems." She is free to express her opinions in which religious convictions are replaced by magical practices, but this does not mean that Christians are not called on to make a discernment here.

It is my measured conviction that the basic spiritual climate in these books is at great variance with vital Christian beliefs. For Christians, Jesus Christ is "the way, the truth and the life," and no matter what life situations they find themselves in or how difficult the journey, how they cope with it all will be determined by the presence of Jesus in their lives, and His faithful mercy.

The author refers to Harry as an 'old soul,' meaning that he is a little adult even though still a child. At fourteen, Harry is an old soul indeed because he has to carry these terrible burdens and his only consolation is a bit of magic. How very sad; he is forced to rely on no one else but himself as he moves on through life. And so I ask, who in his right mind would ever want to trade places with the little wizard, Harry Potter?

Father Lazare spends most of the year in Francewith an annual return to Hamilton, ON.

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