A Month of Reflection | 7 | The Harry Potters Audio Version

by Glenn on November 8, 2018

It’s hard to believe that Harry Potter is now a 20-year phenomenon. The first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published in 1998. (The British edition, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997.) I’ll admit I was late to the HP party, but once I showed up had (and am still having) a great time. My reluctance to read Harry Potter was based on the assumption that something so popular surely can’t be that good. It turns out, these books were both good and popular.

Perhaps the ability of a book to remain popular not just in a moment but over the years is a signal to its worth. There was a lot of excitement over the Twilight series (which I haven’t read) when it came out, but my sense is that it has lost some of its charm. For a time, we (as a culture, not including me) went crazy for a vampire and a werewolf and a girl (at least that’s what I think these books are about) and then we moved on to other things. We (myself included this time) continue to be crazy for Harry Potter.

The turning point for my interest in these books came when I watched a high school student with learning disabilities and poor reading comprehension became a voracious reader, beginning with these books. I wondered what it was about the story that could get a person, for whom reading was a struggle, to work through that struggle. My answer is that it’s a great story, impressive because each of the seven books is its own thing, but that taken together they comprise an epic adventure.

This was my third (possibly fourth?) complete trip through the series. (And I am just the last three books through an additional complete reading.) I took advantage of the hours of drive time I have throughout the week and listened to audio versions during September and October.

The first thing to say is that Jim Dale, the narrator, is exceptional. The books are worth listening to just to hear his voice and what he does with the characters. His ability to give different and consistent voices to each of the characters is remarkable, although there are so many characters in the book that complete and precise differentiation among them becomes impossible, witness a few Hagrid-ish-sounding characters. His narration is a real tour de force, with two small quibbles. One, is it possible that somewhere along the line (I think in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) Voldemort with a French pronunciation (silent “t”) becomes Voldemort with a “t” at the end? Second, during one of the books (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban?), I think the poor guy had a cold for a good portion of the reading. Couldn’t they have given him a little time to recuperate? Otherwise, I am stunned by the way that Jim Dale’s Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall sound so much like Richard Harris and Maggie Smith. It’s uncanny.

I suppose I’ve been somewhat careful about where and when I talk about Harry Potter. At the school I worked at when these books were first being published, people looked askance at you if you weren’t reading them, but in Christian circles you needed to be careful who you said what to. The books and subsequent films were divisive. Some Christians loved all things Harry Potter and joined you in your obsession, including midnight book release parties and midnight showings of the films. Others, some more vocal than others, had serious problems with the book and might have something to say to you or to your pastor, your wife’s boss.

Some Christians have rejected the books (and, presumably, the movies) because they are about wizards and witches. For those who avoid Harry Potter out of honest conviction, I have no problem. Deuteronomy 18:9–14 is pretty clear:

“When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the Lord your God.” [New International Version]

I had some qualms when I first approached these books, thinking I better keep my guard up. As I started reading I discovered there is a difference between books that teach witchcraft and wizardry (off limits) and books that use magic in the course of telling a story (okay in this case). To the extent that I am explaining and not rationalizing, I offer this:

The Harry Potter books belong in the same genre of books as The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. If someone rejects Harry Potter they should also reject all fantasy literature that contain witches and wizards. Some want to make a distinction between the Harry Potter books and the others, but I don’t see it.

Harry Potter lives in an imaginary world. There is the normal world that you and I live in, and then there is the wizarding world of the Harry Potter stories. People from the normal world are for the most part kept out of the wizarding world.

In these books you cannot learn to be a witch or a wizard. You either are one or you are not, though if you are, then there are things to learn. In this sense, the characters in Harry Potter are more like superheroes learning to use their powers for good. As an adult. there is nothing in these books that draws me to witchcraft.

The books certainly contain witchcraft as does the Bible, though I find it interesting that some of the practices in the list from Deuteronomy are actually frowned upon in the Harry Potter books. Divination, for example, is viewed as suspect, imprecise as best. Ultimately, though, these books are not about witchcraft. These books are about going away to boarding school where you have to learn to make friends, study hard, and face the challenges of growing up.

Additionally, these books do some important things:

1. They remind us that there is a world that we cannot see. Harry Potter’s world is not the place where God dwells, but I like a book that teaches that what we see is not all there is. These books allow for the possibility of the supernatural.

2. These stories embody values, the most important of which are courage and hope. They also teach the value of loyalty, friendship, learning, honesty, and choosing between good and evil.

3. The books are about coming to terms with death. It’s quite a moment when Harry comes to his parents grave and finds the words, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”