Wednesday, August 22, 2007

harry potter, etc.

A brief break from the regular topics for a word on Potter. At the beginning of the summer I told my daughter if she wants some reading to keep her busy do she might try the Harry Potter series, and I volunteered to read in parallel (for some reason none of my other kids were interested in Potter). She is still going, but I finished book seven yesterday (not quite a siyum because I skipped book one, having read it years ago, and I skipped book five because my daughter and wife were reading it as well and I could not pry it away). First of all, I hate to put it so crudely, but the thought by some that reading books about magic will lead children astray from frumkeit is simply silly, as is the idea that the series has Xstian overtones. If you want Xstian overtones read “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” (arguably better than any book in the Potter series). As for the meat and potatoes of the series: I read the first book years ago and thought it was second rate, and while the series as a whole has many bright patches, nothing has caused me to think of Harry Potter as great literature. The books do get better as the series goes on, but it seems to me that many of the characters are two-dimensional, the morals in the early books seem afterthoughts to the plot, at points the story drags for no reason, and there is a general superficiality to all the themes touched on. I do like the way Rowling manages to tie the plot together in the end, but Potter is too much about plot and not enough about thought and feeling. At one point in watching one of the DVD’s I noticed that there was a Dickensian quality to the Diagnosis Alley set, which left me wishing Rowlings had borrowed more from Dickens and less from Star Wars (was the revenge/control idea at the end of five lifted straight from Return of the Jedi?). Don’t get me wrong – the books are good, they are entertaining; they just fall short of being truly great. I have now seen all the movies as well, and they seem to improve as the series goes on (the critics are way off base on their disappointment with five). Even before hitting book seven (no spoilers for those who haven’t read it) my favorite character was Snape (I think my wife said it has something to do with my personality : ), but it’s not much of a contest – what exactly does Prof McGonagall do that would interest anyone? And aside from popping up at the end to deliver some contrived moral, and appearing all knowing, what makes Dumbledore worthy of our interest in the early books? Oh well – I’ll stop complaining now. Maybe I’ve just outgrown this type stuff (though I have enjoyed what I have read of "A Series of Unfortunate Events"). I haven’t read fantasy or sci fi in ages so I have little to compare Potter to… is Rowling maybe another E Nesbit? I imagine the series is better than much of what is out there, but I still feel that something that gets so much attention should be truly great and not just good or above average. For those who have done the usual (Dahl, Pullman, Sachar, L'Engele, the Potter series, etc.) any recommendations of undiscovered gems that we should read?


  1. In some ways "A Eries of Unfortunate Events" is darker than HP, for there are plenty of evil plan afoot that require no wizardry or magical powers to pull off. Of course, as the series is written by a Jew, there are no Xtian themes, and no suggestion that the children's parents' love for them assures their protection. Love is not the almighty force that will surely prevail in that series. But it does prevail also in L'Engele, also a Xtian. Snickett is probably close to Dahl in his presentation of really evil and harmful adults outwitted by children with particular powers of their own. but he has characters that are really black and white. Both Snickett and Rowling stress toward the end of the series that it is not always so clear what is all bad or all good, particularly when the protagonists find themselves in a situation where they may do others harm.

  2. the thought by some that reading books about magic will lead children astray from frumkeit is simply silly

    Don't get me wrong - I'm a fan of Harry Potter, but I do not think that the aforementioned notion is silly. Exaggerated, perhaps, but not silly.

    It seems to me that the Torah has set up a network of mitzvos to steer us away from superstitious and magical thinking: al tifnu, chukos ha'goyim, kesamim, meonein, mechashef, nichush, chover chaver, lo sasuru acharei levachem, tamim tihyeh.

    The Rambam, after discussing the aspect of meonein which prohibits sleight of hand, says: "The harm caused by this is very severe, for it causes things which are absolutely impossible to become possible in the eyes of the fools, women, and children, and conditions their minds to believe impossibilities and to think that they are possible. Understand this." (Sefer ha'Mitzvos, Lav #32)

    Harry Potter definitely falls into this category, for young children if not adults. Will Harry Potter lead children astray from frumkeit? Probably not. But will it thwart the Torah's primary objective of Tamim Tihyeh Im Adoshem Elokeichem by reinforcing superstitious and magical thinking? Yes.

  3. The magic of Tanach was real according to many Rishonim, or certainly perceived as real by pagans. Sorry, Virginia, but by age 5 kids know the tooth fairy doesn't exist and by the time they can read Potter they know fantasy does not correspond to the real world. It is pure escapism enjoyment.
    See Shu"t Igros Moshe Y.D 4:13 at the end of the tshuvah where he brushes off the idea that children take magic seriously, besides which (me speaking, not the tshuvah) technically the issur is only in watching live magic, not reading a book or watching a movie.

  4. The Harry Potter is series is not the least bit superstitious. In fact, the last books indicate that the "prophecy" was actually made true by the villain's decision to treat as such. But of course, you do have to have the suspension of disbelief for the magical component. That, however, is just in fun. If we would start assuring such works, we would have to ban many other works, including the story of Peter Pan and the Mary Poppins series, not to mention nearly all fairy tales.

    Each work should be considered on the basis of its own merit and the morals espoused. For example, the lesson one can derive from Puss in Boots or Rumpelstilsken is that cheaters do prosper, and lying can help you advance.