“Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”—Albus Dumbledore, former Headmaster of Hogwarts
I was 30 when I first walked through the Leaky Caldron Inn and entered the world of Harry Potter. My delayed experience with the books was less because my conservative parents wouldn’t let me read them (though they wouldn’t have even if I had been interested) and more because my young-teenage self didn’t have the attention span to read an 800-page book.
And I’m glad that I didn’t because I had be old enough to appreciate fairy tales again.(1)
Last year it took me four months to read from “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal,” to “All was well.”And now I would fight to the death anyone who claimed that J. K. Rowling’s seven gripping novels aren’t literature—and good literature.
I’m sad, not that so many people took a moral stand against Harry Potter for all those early years, but that they took such an uneducated stand, with acerbic criticisms as, “Sure, the books are getting kids to read—but look at the quality. It’s horrible writing.” This without cracking open the books (2).
The story is a treat, but the language is a feast.
The story and characters are a treat, but the language creating the story is a feast. Laura and I marveled to discover the word play throughout the novels. (Our wonder was further enhanced by Laura’s knowledge of Latin.) In fact, the entire story is about words—the abstract and the literal, the spoken and the figurative.
Through all the books, Rowling incorporates literary, historical, and mythical allusions and creative wordplay. Take, for example, the name Newt Scamander. It sounds like a cross between newt and salamander—perfect for a character who loves fantastic beasts and knows where to find them. Take also Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, an animagus (for you Muggles, that’s a person who can shape shift into an animal). Sirius’s animagous is a big black dog. Sirius is the name of the brightest star in the Canis Major constellation. And Canis, if you don’t recognize it, is where we get our word canine—dog. (See what Rowling did there?)
Have you noticed how all of the Weasley children’s names are characters from medieval history or the legend of Arthur? Did you know the name Hedwig means female warrior and that there was a Hedwig patron saint of orphans? (I mean, how did Rowling know that?)
But in addition to the fantastic writing, throughout the series, readers experience inspiring character attributes such as
- Harry’s courage and passion for truth
- Hermione’s voracity for learning
- Ron’s loyalty
- Dumbledore’s wisdom
- Hagrid’s tenderheartedness
- Snape’s sacrifice
Certainly, along with the good there is plenty to learn from the characters’ flaws:
- Voldemort’s self-sufficiency
- Draco’s deceitful theatrics
- Ron’s jealousy
- Hermione’s sometimes self-serving ambition
- Neville’s fear and timidity
- Harry’s far-too-frequent rebellion against the rules
- Siruius’ recklessness
- Lupin’s self-doubt
- Snape’s insecurity and bitterness
- Dumbledore’s prideful youth and idealism
Readers also learn that the most despicable evil in the world is not the satanic Voldemort type of evil, but the Delores Umbridge and Dursley kind that we recognize in hypocritical smiles and overt nastiness—the kind of evil we are most likely to commit.
None of the abundant themes or lessons speak to me more than that of the power of words. This resonates with me probably because I’ve always wanted the superpower of words—to speak and see results, command and be obeyed.
I’ve always wanted the superpower of words.
Beyond the actual wordsmithery creating the story, the world of Harry Potter is built upon commands (spells), verbal cause and effect. Don’t you love it when Hermoine points her wand at Harry’s broken glasses, utters, “Reparo,” and the glasses mend? And when faced with a boggart (again, Muggles, that’s basically a boogeyman who can transform to look like your greatest fear), isn’t it relieving that the students could speak the word Riddikulus to transform it into something hilariously non-scary?
But when we learn that Bellatrix used the cruciatus (torture) curse to drive Neville’s parents mad, didn’t you cringe from horror? Isn’t it awful to learn that Stanley Shunpike was doing Voldemorte’s bidding beneath the imperio (manipulation) curse? And don’t we all hold our breaths when, in the movie, Bellatrix Lestrange points her wand at Sirius and gleefully screams Avada Kedavra—the dreaded death spell?
In that scene, you realize that Bellatrix didn’t pull a trigger or thrust a knife. She spoke, forever altering the life of another. She used not physical violence or force but the tongue—this is the deadly weapon in the world of Harry Potter.
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”
This concept is a biblical one, repeated in Scripture several times, and encapsulated poignantly in Proverbs 18:21: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”
Maybe that’s why my Hogwarts letter never came.(3) Maybe the Ministry knew I couldn’t handle it, that my critical, judgemental, or angry words combined with my power of the wand would wield unspeakable damage.
I’m thankful that in our world I do not have the power to speak a word, flick a wand, and effect change—for good or evil. And yet I do—how I do! Not with a wand but with my tongue, with my tone, with my superfluous words and even my unspoken words.
In this very unmagical world, there is an almost supernatural power in the ethereal quality of words. And each day I must examine the words and lines I utter.(4)
- Am I speaking the truth in love—or am I just blurting out the raw truth?
- Am I seasoning my words with salt—or is my speech just salty?
- Is the law of kindness in my mouth or the law of judgement?
- Am I praising others and the Creator or praising myself?
- Am I witnessing or bearing false witness?
- Am I turning away wrath or inciting and indulging in it?
- Am I caring or careless with what I say?
- Are the wounds I make faithful and helpful or vicious and devastating?
Instead of speaking harm, manipulation, and death—crucio, imperio, avada kedavera—let’s find the words to bring light, kindness, joy—lumos, reparo, riddikulus—
(For you Muggles that’s—oh, just read the books.)
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(1) C. S. Lewis penned this in the dedication of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
(2) I respect my parents—and any parents—for being wary of Harry Potter. I strongly feel that in the realm of fantasy individual conscience must be applied. (I’ve known people so sensitive that they wouldn’t read even The Chronicles of Narnia. Bravo to them for sticking with what they believe is right.)
However, in these polarizing pop-culture battles, I think it’s wise to know the “enemy” you’re fighting before you engage in a full-scale war; in other words, we should research or read a book or watch a movie before forming our opinion or conscience about it. Or find a reliable full summary and perhaps read differing reviews.
As someone who was initially leery of the Harry Potter books, after giving them a try, I did not find in them anything to offend my conscience and make me stop reading them. They did not incite in me a surge of interest in the occult (though more than once I have wished to accio [summon] a TV remote or cell phone from across the room), but they have only encouraged me toward being a better and braver person while thoroughly entertaining me. Children, often, are not as discriminant, and therefore might need more supervision or interference.
Perhaps on a different note (but perhaps not), I like this quote by Holly Ordway: “Healthy children and adults recognize the difference between fantasy stories and the occult: it is the difference between fresh and spoiled food” (“Once Upon a Time: The Enduring Appeal of Fairy Tales,” Christian Research Journal 38, no. 5 : 51.) Of course we must make sure that we don’t simply enjoy consuming trash.
(3) Realistically, I would have received an Ilvermorny letter, being from North America. But Hogwarts is much cooler. And I didn’t get a letter anyway, so it doesn’t really matter, now does it?
(4) Scripture references alluded to here are as follows: Ephesians 4:15, Colossians 4:6, Proverbs 31:26, Proverbs 27:2, Exodus 20:16, Proverbs 15:1, Matthew 12:36, and Proverbs 27:6.