Harry, the anti-hero

Harry, the anti-hero

As if the Medjugroje discussions weren’t heated enough, I’m now going to be bringing up another sacred cow. Specifically, I’m going to point you to a post on Melanie’s blog that asks the question whether Harry Potter is an anti-hero. Now before you all fly off at the keyboard, read the post. Don’t forget that Melanie has read at least some of the books and enjoyed them for what they are. However, we’ve both expressed reservations as to whether we’d put them in our kids’ hands without a lot of maturity and preparation. I would do the same for other books I love, such as the Horatio Hornblower or Aubrey-Maturin (i.e. Master & Commander) series because of the incidence of adultery that pops up in both.

As for Harry, the anti-hero tag comes from his penchant for breaking the rules all the time without any sort of consequences. What separates Harry from Voldemort? Harry lies, cheats, and steals. Voldemort lies, cheats, and steals. But when Harry does it, it’s for a good cause. In other words, in the world of Harry Potter, the end often justifies the means. Melanie quotes a great question originally posed by the Llama Butchers that illustrates this point brilliantly and succintly:

If he could obtain it, would Harry use The Ring [i.e. the One Ring of the Lord of the Rings] to defeat Voldemort?

Melanie and I both agree that this is a very good question because it goes to the crux of the difference between HP and LOTR and Chronicles of Narnia. The fact is that Harry is loved by all because of his notoriety. He isn’t especially good at magic, Hermione is better. He’s no more courageous than Ron Weasely. And his vaunted prowess at quidditch is not earned or developed through long years of hard work, but is simply innate. Harry’s one great accomplishment was surviving Voldemort’s attack and even that had more to do with his mother than his own actions.

Contrast that with Bilbo and Frodo and Sam and the other hobbits. They were the Everyman, as Melanie says. Tolkien very deliberately cast them in the mold of simple English folk, people who appeared as nothing special in every day life, but when faced with a great challenge, whether it be the destruction of the One Ring, in the case of the hobbits, or World War I for the English people, rose to the challenge beyond all expectations. The same with Lewis’s Pevensie children who were nothing at all special, even in Narnia, except they happened to be human, i.e. Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve. Yet it was the courage and self-sacrifice that they showed that made them heroes, traits that are part of human nature as Lewis would argue in other venues.

Again, this isn’t meant to say that Harry Potter is bad fiction or that it shouldn’t be read, but that if you’re going to let children read it, you should be very careful in explaining the moral concepts that they will encounter and why perhaps Harry shouldn’t be their role model.

Before you comment read Melanie’s post first! You have been warned.

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  • The ring question is brilliant.  And yes, I have long agreed that Harry’s ends justify the means mentality (Dumbledore always lets him get away with it, and those who want to punish him for it are always portrayed as bad) was worse for kids thant he witchcraft.

  • I’ve added a new post to my blog in which I reframe the debate: Is Harry Potter for kids?

    It seems to me in all the HP wars, this basic assumption is made by HP critics and ignored by HP defenders: children’s literature should be held to different standards than literature for adults.

    All the pro HPers I’ve seen love HP on an adult level. All the anti-HPers I’ve seen argue it’s inappropriate for kids. Each side talks past the other because they are in essence reading a different book.

  • Maureen,
    It is true that many children stop reading when they come across inappropriate material. But there is an element in which the child’s diet shapes his taste; what he reads can help to determine what he likes. Some kids are attracted to material that is not appropriate for them to be reading. Think teenaged boys and sexually explicit material.

    Just as many children have a sweet tooth and need to be cajoled to eat their vegetables, many children get stuck reading easy books and need to be pushed to read more challenging fare. How many kids get stuck reading the wildly popular Goosebumps series, which I do not consider wholesome material?

    Books form the imagination as well as feeding it.  Which is why it is important for a parent to play a role in feeding children the right kind of books. The goal of education is to inculcate a taste for good books, to tach a child to ask for himslef the kinds of questions that help him determine the morality of a situation.

    While we do have an innate sense of right an d wrong, a conscience, the Catholic Church has always taught that the conscience needs to be trained. Otherwise kids would never hit each other or take each other’s toys or want what they shouldn’t have.

    The same goes for morals in the world of books. Some kids will stop when they fell uncomfortable, but some kids may well develop a taste for the unsavory.

  • Maureen: You were obviously well-formed as a child and had parents who did exactly what Melanie and I are saying parents should do.

    Children don’t learn to stop reading inappropriate material on their own. They must be raised to know when to stop. This is why I have said that parents must be very careful about allowing their kids to read Harry Potter.

    Children don’t raise themselves; parents do.