With the final theatrical installment being released worldwide this week, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to discuss THE most banned book (collectively) of the 21st century according to the American Library Association- the Harry Potter series; the first four books are, as a group, at #7 for the most banned books of 1990-2000.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, you’ve at least heard of Harry Potter and his pals at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry.
The series by British author J.K. Rowling began in 1997 and grew into a world-wide phenomenon that includes merchandising in just about any category you can think of.
The novels have received awards around the world and spawned a renewed love of reading in every age group from young children to older adults.
Early in its history, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone received positive reviews- such as in The Scotsman, which said it had “all the makings of a classic.”
But by the release of the fifth volume, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the books began to receive strong criticism from a number of literary scholars.
Yale professor, Harold Bloom, raised criticisms of the books’ literary merits, saying, “Rowling’s mind is so governed by clichés and dead metaphors that she has no other style of writing.”
In a New York Times op-ed article, A. S. Byatt called Rowling’s universe a “secondary world, made up of patch-worked derivative motifs from all sorts of children’s literature written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to cartoons, and the exaggerated mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV, and celebrity gossip.”
Michael Rosen, a novelist and poet laureate, stated that “J. K. Rowling is more of an adult writer;” and advocated the books were not suited for children, who would be unable to grasp the complex themes.
Critic Anthony Holden wrote in The Observer, regarding Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, that the Potter saga was essentially “patronizing, conservative, highly derivative, and dispiritedly nostalgic for a bygone Britain.”
Aside from scholarly debates on its literary merits, perhaps the most notorious criticism comes from fundamentalist American Christian groups contending that the books promote witchcraft, Satanism, and anti-family themes. They also claim that the movies “subconsciously market a new belief system on the viewing public.”
According to the satirical Landover Baptist Church, “True Christians only touch a Harry Potter book when they are throwing it onto a fire.” But the shocking truth is that many extreme fundamentalist groups take this message to heart and the media is peppered with hate speech and demands for the burning of all copies of the series and others of the genre. Any document which does not fit into their rigid, overbearing worldview is but kindling for the flames.
I could quite easily write an entire book just on the banning of Harry Potter. Challenges and out-right banning of the books have occurred here and around the globe since the first novel was released.
These are just a few cases from 2001- Challenged in Bend, Oregon; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Salamanca, New York; Whittier, California; Pace, Florida; Arab, Alabama; Fresno, California; Bristol, New Hampshire; and Ontario, Canada for dealing in “witchcraft, the occult, promoting violence, and being “scary.” The books were also restricted to students with parental permission in Santa Fe, Texas for endorsing witchcraft.
The flames of dissention were not isolated to the United States. The books were banned in Queensland, Australia because they were considered “violent and dangerous.”
Moving on to 2002, The Philosopher’s Stone was burned in New Mexico as “a masterpiece of satanic deception;” and challenged for encouraging “lying, cheating, stealing, and witchcraft.” The photo to the left depicts just such an event.
In 2003, its removal was sought by a teacher’s prayer group at a Russell Springs, Kentucky high school for dealing with ghosts, cults, and witchcraft. It was also challenged in Moscow, Russia, by a Slavic cultural organization that alleged the stories about magic and wizards could entice students into Satanism.
Then, in 2004, a federal judge overturned restricted access to the books after parents of a Cedarville, Arkansas fourth-grader filed a federal lawsuit challenging the school’s restricted-access policy, seeking to have it thrown out completely. The book was originally challenged because it characterized authority as “stupid” and portrayed “good witches and good magic.” It was also challenged, but retained, in the New Haven, Connecticut schools despite claims the series “makes witchcraft and wizardry alluring to children.”
Then, in 2007, the Gwinnett County, Georgia, school board rejected a parent’s pleas to take Harry Potter books out of the school libraries. The Georgia Board of Education ruled on December 14, 2006, that the parent had failed to prove her contention that the series “promotes the Wiccan religion, and therefore that the book’s availability in public schools does not constitute advocacy of a religion.” On May 29, 2007, Superior Court judge Ronnie Batchelor upheld the Georgia Board of Education’s decision. County school board members have said the books are good tools to encourage children to read and to spark creativity and imagination.
Still, that same year, they were removed from the St. Joseph School in Wakefield, Massachusetts, because the themes of witchcraft and sorcery were “inappropriate for a Catholic school.” (I guess they never actually read the Bible, then).
On December, 15, 2010, I wrote an article about a Salvation Army post in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, refusing to take donations of Harry Potter items because they “promote black magic and the occult.”
As this article is approaching the 1,000-word mark, I’ll try to sum it all up.
The books have been banned or challenged all across the United States and around the world. For every positive article in defense of the series, there has been at least one written against it.
Whichever side you may find yourself on regarding Rowling’s series- for, against, or somewhere in the realm of who cares, its impact on world culture is without question.
The final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, became the fastest-selling book in history, selling 11 million units in the first twenty-four hours of release. The word “Muggle” has spread beyond its Harry Potter origins, becoming one of only a few pop culture words to land in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Each individual’s inner voice, mental image, and interpretation of the characters and scenes in a book are unique. It isn’t created for us, as it is with the silver screen. As I said at the beginning- more than anything, it has generated a profound love and renewed interest in reading. That is its greatest accomplishment. In a world of mass media that is so often without substance, the world of imagination that can only come alive by reading the written word found its way out of the shadows of obscurity and into the hearts of millions. That is truly magickal.
Sources: American Library Association, Marshall University, Wikipedia, BBC News, Amazon
© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions