The Wisdom of Harry Potter
by Edmund Kern
Since the 1997 release of J. K. Rowling's first novel - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - no series of children's books has been more incredibly popular or widely influential. How do we explain the enormous appeal of these stories to children? Should parents welcome this new interest in reading among their kids or worry, along with the critics, that the books encourage either moral complacency or a perverse interest in witchcraft and the occult?
In this original interpretation of the Harry Potter sensation, Edmund M. Kern argues that the attraction of these stories to children comes not only from the fantastical elements embedded in the plots, but also from their underlying moral messages. Children genuinely desire to follow Harry, as he confronts a host of challenges in an uncertain world, because of his desire to do the right thing. Harry's coherent yet flexible approach to dealing with evil reflects an updated form of Stoicism, says Kern. He argues that Rowling's great accomplishment in these books is to have combined imaginative fun and moral seriousness.
Kern's comprehensive evaluation of the Harry Potter stories in terms of ethical questions reveals the importance of uncertainty and ambiguity in Rowling's imaginative world and highlights her call to meet them with typically Stoic virtues: constancy, endurance, perseverance, self-discipline, reason, solidarity, empathy, and sacrifice. Children comprehend that growing up entails some perplexity and pain, that they cannot entirely avoid problems, and that they can remain constant in circumstances beyond their control. In essence, Harry shows them how to work through their problems, rather than seek ways around them. Despite the fantastical settings and events of Harry's adventures, children are quick to realize that they are just a weird reflection of the confusing and disturbing circumstances found in the real world.
Kern also shows adults how much they can gain by discussing with children the moral conundrums faced by Harry and other characters. The author outlines the central morals of each book, explains the Stoic principles found in the stories, considers the common critiques of the books, discusses Rowling's skillful blend of history, legend, and myth, and provides important questions for guiding children through Harry's adventures.
This fresh, instructive, and upbeat guide to Harry Potter will give parents many useful and educational suggestions for discussing the moral implications of this continuously popular series of books with their children.
Edmund M. Kern (Appleton, WI) is associate professor of history at Lawrence University.