Cultural Phenomena: Dumbledore's Message

Back when the Harry Potter books first reached America,
the righteous were ready: Conservative Christians called for a ban on the little
wizard. Focus on the Family, a conservative religious group, cautioned that
" directly denounced in scripture." Evangelical preachers pounded
Harry Potter as "the work of the devil." Harry flattened the preachers, of
course--the tally now stands at 114 million books sold and still counting. My
next-door neighbor, Laura Walker (age 13), blasted through the most recent
book--the 734-page Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire--in two summer
days, then flipped back to the beginning and started again. With the whole wired
generation barging into bookstores, conservatives fussing over witchcraft never
stood a chance.

By the time the first Harry Potter movie landed, the kids were ready. So, of
course, was the all-American hype machine. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's
the long, loud, big-budget film, broke every box-office record on its
first weekend. For Harry Potter fans, it's a spectacular show. And yet most
critics think that something got lost in Warner Bros.' moneyed embrace. No one's
quite put a finger on the missing ingredient: Whimsy? Spunk? Lightness?
Originality? Not exactly.

The movie is a triumph of fire-breathing dragons, flying broomsticks, and
slobbering trolls. But it is clueless about a deeper, more subversive magic. So,
for that matter, are we. The Harry Potter books challenge our attitudes about
kids and schools. Discipline? Forget that. Magical headmaster Albus Dumbledore
practically awards bonus points for breaking rules. Zero-tolerance policies?
Harry would be expelled from most American schools by Monday afternoon. Hogwarts
School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is unruly, even slightly anarchic. And that's
what Warner Bros. couldn't bring itself to celebrate on the big screen.

Surely you've done the assigned reading. An orphan baby lands
with his appalling Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon. The Dursleys are Very Normal
and do not truck with stuff like imagination. Harry suffers the classic
wicked-stepparent treatment--the boy sleeps in a closet, never celebrates his
birthday, and constantly catches hell.

But strange things happen. The first time Harry visits a zoo, for example,
he feels sorry for the bored boa constrictor. The poor thing has never been out
of its pen. In a flash, the glass wall of the snake's cage vanishes. "Thankss
Amigo," hisses the boa as it slithers to freedom.

On Harry's 11th birthday, the glass imprisoning his own life suddenly
vanishes. An admission letter from Hogwarts (the finest magic school in the
world) bolts out of the blue. Behind an invisible barrier at King's Cross Station
lies our portal into author J.K. Rowling's magical realm.

It's a world where the people in photos wave and wink. Paintings spring to
life. Chess pieces shout advice: "Don't send me there, can't you see his knight?
Send him, we can afford to lose him." (In the movie, the chess
pieces have no voices and just smash one another's brains out.) Hogwarts is in an
ancient castle bursting with surprises--staircases go somewhere else on Fridays.
In the magic world, the background is alive. Inanimate objects think and talk and
move. The whole universe hums.

Each novel follows Harry through a school year. The plots turn on the most
evil wizard of modern times: Lord Voldemort. Voldemort killed Harry's parents,
but when he tried to do in baby Harry, the dark spell shot back at the wicked
wizard and grievously weakened him. In each book, Harry battles the shadow of
Voldemort or his minions.

But here's the iconoclastic twist: Harry always does precisely whatever the
adults warn him not to do. He positively lives in hot water. He and his friends
flout every rule--yet in the end, they save the day. The books cheerfully
celebrate a kind of children's chaos.

The series' manifesto might be "Hey, you can't respect every regulation."
Harry's classmate Hermione "had become a bit more relaxed about breaking the
rules," writes Rowling near the end of Sorcerer's Stone, "and she was much
nicer for it." In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third and
best book in the series, the adults all sternly warn Harry not to leave the
school grounds. Naturally, he scampers out through a forbidden passage. By the
end of the tale, we learn that Harry's father was one of the great
mischief-makers in Hogwarts history. "[Your dad] would have been highly
disappointed if his son had never found any of the secret passages out of the
castle," winks one friendly professor.

"I seem to remember telling you that I would have to expel you if you broke
any more school rules," says Dumbledore after another episode. Before Harry can
protest, the headmaster continues: "--which only goes to show that the best of us
must sometimes eat our words." Forget punishment. These kids break the rules,
save the day, and get rewarded for bravery.

It's a far cry from our own world of tough love. Oklahoma recently legislated
a green light for parents who wish to "paddle, spank and switch" their kids.
Indiana decided that teens could not pierce their navels without a note from Mom.
Louisiana requires teenagers to "sir" and "ma'am" their teachers. Some Texans
propose getting the execution age down to 11. Kids in any state face big trouble
for butter knives in their knapsacks.

That's not the Hogwarts approach. The trouble with the movie is that it turns
the magic school into another American academy--the first day of school you get
rules, rules, rules. In the movie, Dumbledore enters as Mr. Discipline: "The
third-floor corridor is out of bounds to everyone who does not wish to die a very
painful death."

In the book, a very different attitude runs with the stern stuff. After the
heavy warning, Dumbledore brightly declares that it's time for the old school
song. Naturally, there's the Hogwarts difference: The kids each get to choose
whatever tune they like. They all finish in their own time and key till everyone
is listening to the Weasely twins sing a slow funeral dirge. "Ah, music," says
Dumbledore when they finish. "A magic beyond all we do here!"

But the deepest magic in the books lies in how this headmaster treats his
students. Sure, there's more than a touch of anarchy when all the students sing
to their own tune. But Rowling imagines something special. In her books, the kids
are the central agents of their own lives. They make choices. Weigh judgments.
Wrestle with freedom. The books crawl with brave kids and bullies, cowards
seeking scapegoats, and stout hearts sticking up for friends. In Rowling's
magical world, the kids--like the paintings and the chessmen--get to think for
themselves. They make their own choices whether or not the adults approve.

If discipline isn't exactly her thing, Rowling still packs her
books with a vivid moral perspective--and it's not one that Focus on the Family
is going to like very much.

First of all, this is no primer on Puritan self-control. The adults
misbehave right alongside the kids. Hagrid, the gentle giant who mentors Harry,
drinks like a fish. He positively staggers through the first four books. In the
real world of American schools, teachers on a trip to France get clobbered if the
kids sneak a nip of demon Beaujolais. Sure enough, Warner Bros. dried up the
movie: not a single sip on the screen.

When Harry arrives at Hogwarts, the magic world is all new to him--a perfect
metaphor for the mysterious transition into young adulthood. Remember that giddy,
uncertain mix of emotions you felt going into junior high school? Harry reminds
you. In the process, the books grapple with a profoundly moral question: What
makes someone good? Like so many teens, Harry is discovering new powers inside
him, and he worries about whether they render him a bad person.

The matter comes to a head when a magic hat sorts new students into school
houses. Villains inevitably wind up in Slytherin. Harry puts the hat on and it
purrs, "Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness."

"Not Slytherin," Harry begs. "Not Slytherin." The hat acquiesces and assigns
him to Gryffindor, house of the brave. But the near miss torments Harry. What
evil did the magic hat see in him?

Finally, at the end of the second novel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of
Harry blurts his fear to Dumbledore, the wise headmaster.

"Professor, the sorting hat told me I...should be in
Slytherin," Harry said, looking desperately into Dumbledore's face. "The sorting
hat could see me and it--"

"Put you in Gryffindor," said Dumbledore calmly.

"It only put me in Gryffindor," said Harry in a defeated voice, "because I
asked not to go in Slytherin."

"Exactly," said Dumbledore, beaming once more...."It is our choices, Harry,
that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." Harry sat motionless,

Harry is stunned because he finally comes to that existential moral truth:
Goodness lies not in who you are but in what you decide, in what you do.

Such existential truths never play well on the hard right, where truths come
down on graven tablets and saving grace flashes from on high. But Dumbledore's
wisdom--goodness lies not in who we are but in what we choose--is Rowling's
favorite theme.

Her world, like ours, is full of bigots. Harry's stepparents despise magic
people. Some magic people, in turn, scorn mixed-bloods ("mudbloods"). In
Prisoner of Azkaban,
a most sympathetic character turns out to be a werewolf.
Even though that disease can be treated, the stigma remains. No one likes
werewolves, no one hires or befriends them. And all this before we get to money;
Harry's best friend gets constant grief for being poor. In every book, Rowling
deftly mocks intolerance based on race (mudbloods) or illness (werewolves) or
class (well, it is an English series).

In our world, of course, choosing good while tolerating differences is
Morality 101--for adults. But for kids, good behavior means toeing the line.

Perhaps Hogwarts offers a better way. Maybe our own teenagers would flourish
with more freedom, greater responsibility, and wider tolerance. It sure works
for Dumbledore. And my guess is that that's just what delights the mobs of kids
who've confounded the education Jeremiahs by falling in love with a book.

Go to the movie with your kids. It's fun. But first read the books. And next
time the question of more discipline comes up at the PTA, hit them with the
Dumbledore attitude!