In his insightful article “Why Harry Potter Is Great Literature,” Brian Brown argues that J.K. Rowling’s “Potter books are in the tradition of the great English novels, deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence, and are easily the most morally and socially insightful works of fantasy published in this generation.”
He explains the basis for this claim:
Fantasy appeals to us, to put it crudely, because of the relationship between magic and morality. An alternate world filled with strange and wonderful things, a world defined by imagination, gives us a setting in which to (consciously or not) engage with moral questions free from the complications and biases with which we engage our own setting. This can be blindingly obvious, as with Lewis’s explicitly allegorical Narnia, or more subtle, as with Tolkien’s stubbornly not allegorical Middle Earth. Fantasy, mythology, and fairy tales allow an author to shape our unconscious ideas about what our own world should be like—without beating us over the head with them or even stating them outright. Fantasy stories can tell you a lot about what a civilization values, and the best fantasy stories help a civilization value the right things.
Rowling does both.
Harry Potter is a welcome respite from the Disney story of the boy (or girl) who sacrifices everything to follow his dream, proving his worth and finding fame in the end. Brown argues that the Potter series, contrary to the Disney template, is profoundly countercultural; its characters find their identity in their choices, loyalties, place, prudence, and families—not by pursuing their dreams and “finding themselves.” For example:
Our choices. It is these, mentor Dumbledore tells an insecure Harry, that show who we truly are. No Aladdin-style “his worth lies far within” nonsense here. Over and over in Harry Potter, good triumphs when somebody who has no business being a hero—dim-witted Neville Longbottom, dumpy mother of seven Mrs. Weasley, most of all Harry—makes a choice to be stupid, to “fight the unbeatable foe,” just because it’s the right thing to do.
The full article is worth reading for the rest of the details. Brown concludes:
In short, Rowling (who must clearly be seen as a danger to modern society) seems to think that children find—make, really—their place in the adult world by the strength of their character, by the structures of their connections with the past and with loved ones, and not by “finding themselves.”
Tellingly, Harry never finds a passion in life, nor does he ever have much of an idea of what he wants to do with his life. The very thing most kids today are told to seek—Harry never finds it or even seriously looks for it. He doesn’t need to. Best of all, in almost Austenian fashion, Rowling sets these stories in a school, where parallels with Harry’s day-to-day battles with classmates and teachers make clear that all the virtues that make good triumph over evil are the same virtues that make the difference in real life.
Harry Potter’s is a reactionary world, a real step back in the march of progress. Families and traditional institutions are central, government experts are viewed with distrust, and the celebrity hero doesn’t want to be a celebrity. And likewise unfashionable is the path by which Harry and his friends seek adulthood. They find meaning in responsibility, learn respect for rightful authority, and sacrifice their individuality and even their lives to preserve a very messy world that seems beyond saving.
If you’re anything like me, you tend to feel a little guilty spending time on novels when you have a stack of “serious” non-fiction to get through. This is a grave mistake. Feeding our moral imagination is part of our education (as Joe Rigney argues here). Goodness, truth, and beauty are worth contemplating in story form, so give yourself permission to partake. If Harry Potter, Middle Earth, and Narnia aren’t your thing, find something else beautiful that is. How about one of these? (More ideas here.)