The Disobedient Harry Potter

Earlier this week I said critics of Harry Potter had two main complaints, one being the issues of wizardry and the second being Harry’s disobedience.

It’s true that Harry is not The Perfect Boy, but I wonder about this as a reason not to read the books. As I recall, Tom Sawyer wasn’t the perfect boy either, nor was Huck Finn. Ann Shirley wasn’t the perfect girl and neither was Jo March. To bring the discussion back to fantasy, Edmund Pevensie wasn’t the perfect boy, and his sister Lucy, as lovable as she is, happens to fall sort of being the perfect girl, too.

The point is, if readers are only going to pick books with perfect characters, then we all must stop reading fiction. Stephen Burnett in a post at Spec Faith does a brilliant job deconstructing this argument:

Jesus told parables in which people behave badly, using those to show points about His Kingdom and the natures of those who’ll dwell there…

[Examine this criticism] Harry Potter is a scoundrel. So was King David, the apostle Paul, and every person before Christ saved us (and quite a lot afterward, too!). Even for stories, whence comes this sudden rule that characters must behave perfectly? Jesus did not follow that “rule.” Instead He told stories about ten virgins behaving “selfishly” (Matt. 25: 1-13) and a shrewd money manager (Luke 16: 1-13), not to say “imitate all their behavior” but to say My Kingdom is coming; you’d best respond accordingly. (Anyway, Harry doesn’t stay a scoundrel; he grows, as part of a much bigger story.)

Because Christ Himself in his parables did not follow these “rules” for Christ-figures and moral behavior, why might we expect more of Potter?

Of course there is disobedience that serves to warn and there is disobedience that trumpets rebellion, so one might argue that when books do the latter, they should be shunned.

Does Harry Potter trumpet rebellion? I suppose the answer might be somewhat subjective, but I think I can build a case for the opposite. Harry Potter is not rebellious unless you think standing up to evil is rebellious.

Some of his teachers saw the Big Picture and understood the serious threat that Harry alone was qualified to fight. They counseled him and protected him as best they could, and at times that included extending him mercy. At other times, he faced just punishment. Never was he applauded for disobeying, however.

The overall impression, in my opinion, is that Harry obeyed as best he could.

He was shamefully abused by his uncle and aunt, yet early on he submitted to them. There came a time when he did stand up to them, yet in the end he righted the relationship to the best of his ability. If anything, his relationship with his relatives shows the growth in his character.

Some of the adults in Harry’s life were misguided and some were evil. Some Harry suspected of being evil but didn’t know for sure. Again, as best he could, he obeyed those in authority over him. When he disobeyed, he did so because he believed he was advancing good or standing against evil.

To discuss whether or not he should have made himself the authority to determine who he should or should not obey is similar to a discussion of whether or not Christians should have obeyed the Nazis.

Today the church is fiercely criticized for complying with Hitler’s forces. But I suspect at the time many believed they were doing the right thing to obey the authority over them.

Regardless of a person’s conclusion about Harry Potter’s virtue, I believe the books and movies offer rich opportunities to discuss just such matters. I can’t help but think society is better off if we discuss a topic like obedience after having read Harry Potter rather than something like vampire love after having read a certain set of popular books that escaped the vitriol aimed at the boy wizard.

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Published in: on July 20, 2011 at 6:47 pm  Comments (11)  
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11 Comments

  1. Ooh! I couldn’t pass up commenting on this post, Becky! For one, I refuse to read or watch anything associated with that “certain set of popular books” about vampire love! Ick. Not interested.

    For another, I decided that my older child didn’t need to see the 3rd Star Wars just as he was headed into his teen years, precisely because of the surly, rebellious, sneaky behavior of the main character. I felt that Hollywood had made that attitude look far too attractive for their teen audience’s good, even though the ruin that comes of such an attitude was clearly displayed at the end.

    He’s since seen it, but although I liked the other Star Wars movies, (mostly), I’m still not comfortable with that particular installment, and I’ve continued to make it very clear that I won’t take that attitude from either of my kids.

    Oddly enough, I never felt the need to protect my kids from the Harry Potter movies for that reason! We just don’t care for how dark the series has become.

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  2. I think it would be a poor character that did behave 100% right! The part would have to be played by a robot.

    Interestingly enough, I did not care for the third book in C.S. Lewis’s Trilogy, either,This Present Darkness. I decided then that Christians have a moral obligation to give enough of the answer to evil to outweigh the demonic doom and gloom. As I recall, after finishing that denouement, I was disappointed and downright crabby for weeks!

    However, when I read another book, about a brilliant young Chinese man, who gave his life to save many people, leaving a sweetheart to grieve, although I didn’t like the ending, I felt satisfied.

    I think it is because I knew that evil didn’t really win. Perhaps it doesn’t, in Harry Potter, either, but do I have to wade in murky waters, to know I don’t like the slime?

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  3. This reminds me of something G. K. Chesterton wrote in defense of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones:

    “We have grown to associate morality in a book with a kind of optimism and prettiness; according to us, a moral book is a book about moral people. But the old idea was almost exactly the opposite; a moral book was a book about immoral people…
    Men spoke of the sinner breaking the law; but it was rather the law that broke him. And what modern people call the foulness and freedom of Fielding is generally the severity and moral stringency of Fielding. He would not have thought that he was serving morality at all if he had written a book all about nice people… Telling the truth about the terrible struggle of the human soul is surely a very elementary part of the ethics of honesty. If the characters are not wicked, the book is.

    The fuller context may be read here: http://platitudesundone.blogspot.com/2011/05/if-characters-are-not-wicked-book-is.html

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  4. It was not Harry’s behavior that bothered me so much as the fact the adults never came through with the punishment–so we could see Harry grow through accepting the consequences of his choices.

    OTOH, as the books continued, he certainly had to deal with a lot of negative consequences from his choices . . .

    This bothered me as PARENT. As a reader, I had to keep cheering Harry along . . .

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  5. Awesome post, Becky. Truly. I agree wholeheartedly that you have to look at the big picture. Harry did do the wrong thing at times, but generally for the right reasons. Sometimes not–like allowing Hermione to “help” a bit too much with his homework. But the fact is, kids make mistakes, and we can’t show them being perfect little angels–it’s just not realistic. And kids need to be shown others doing wrong and getting away with it, so they learn how to differentiate.

    What I mean is, in life, people do wrong and get away with it, both “good” people and “bad” people. There isn’t always a direct punishment. Sometimes you just don’t get caught. When books show that every good deed is praised and every bad deed is punished, they are enforcing the idea that if no punishment comes, the deed is not bad.

    Most kids are going to see that Harry Potter did some wrong things. And they are going to say, “Hey, he shouldn’t let Hermoine write that paper for him!” And that reinforces THEIR sense of what is right and what is wrong. And they also learn to forgive–because they do forgive Harry his misdeeds when they see the big picture.

    I want my kids reading books with things that aren’t squeaky-clean, because it offers us a chance to discuss issues like right and wrong, bad deeds going unpunished, forgiveness and mercy, understanding motivations, etc. If every kids’ book is black-and-white, they won’t get a chance to think and question and learn about the real world without having to be thrust into it.

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  6. I posted on Harry today, too, because I realized yesterday that I love abused orphans more than any other character and I’ve never loved Harry. I loved the books–the first three in particular–but I never loved Harry.

    I also realize that while I loved the first books in the Hunger Games series, I wasn’t particularly attached to Katniss. I am not in love with Tris from Divergent, either. I wonder if this is a new trend for me–fast-paced page-turners I love with characters I like but don’t love.

    I don’t mind that Harry was bad, it’s the kind of bad that bothered me. He always felt angry to me.

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  7. I thought Harry Potter was quite endearing. I am going to read the books, but the movies are still great. Did anyone get the Hypocrite character and how long that dialogue went on it (how to approach a hypocrite?)? I just noticed it in watching Harry Potter reruns…there’s a great lesson in the description in the movie.

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  8. Sally Apokedak wrote: I don’t mind that Harry was bad, it’s the kind of bad that bothered me. He always felt angry to me.

    Interesting, that it’s not badness that bothers you but the type of badness. If there are some kinds of badness that are worse than others, doesn’t that make other types of badness—well—not so bad? Doesn’t that make some sins more acceptable/respectable than others? I think it is dangerous to place values on sin, because it inevitably leads us to think some sins are actually, in the bigger scheme of things, okay.

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  9. Great discussion! Krysti, I think it’s particularly interesting that your reaction to Harry Potter was so different from the others you mentioned.

    do I have to wade in murky waters, to know I don’t like the slime?

    Peggy, I’ve asked that question about other books known to be “dark” (primarily Christian horror). Some refer to the last four Potter books as being dark, but I found them truthful. The forces of evil were growing stronger and the forces of good, more and more disenfranchised. Yet there was hope. That is what I need — the spark of hope that I can believe will one day fan the flame that will dispatch the darkness.

    Becky

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  10. Amy, I am sure my husband looked lustfully at woman and that’s not OK, but I’m glad he stopped himself before he actually had an affair. I’d rather my son think, “I hate her,” than that he pick up a gun and shoot me dead. Lust and hatred, from my perspective, are not as bad as adultery and murder.

    This does not mean that lust and hatred don’t come from the same sinful pride that drives adultery and murder. It does not mean that lust and hatred don’t offend God and earn hell for us.

    All sin is rebellion against God and deserves death.

    From a reading perspective, I like flawed heroes. But some flaws turn me off. Arrogant heroes are not people I want to spend a lot of time with. Feminists turn me off as do people who hate God and Christians, and men and women who are unfaithful and who commit adultery.

    I’m not a fan of angry teenagers, either. If Harry had dished out what he thought was justice, even if he’d been wrong, I would have liked him better than the way he kind of accidentally got back at Dudley, but did it on account of anger that he never dealt with.

    I don’t mean to say that God is OK with some sin and not with others. I’m saying that I, being human, have some sins I can accept and relate to better than others.

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  11. Thanks, I understand where you are coming from now! I have pet peeves about certain types of characters and sins too, now that I come to think about it.

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