Harry Potter and the Witch Hunters: A Social Context for the Attacks on Harry Potter

Article excerpt

The following letter, one of many similar letters, appeared in The Roanoke (Virginia) Times on December 9, 2001: "I don't know if J. K. Rowling is deliberately trying to indoctrinate our children in witchcraft and satanism or whether she's simply a deluded tool herself. However, I urge parents to listen to the voice of God and say no to Harry Potter for their children's spiritual welfare." What is it about Harry Potter? What makes a fundamentalist American reading (or nonreading) public, who never got upset over the magic godmother in Cinderella, or Ghnda the Good Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, or Gandalf the Grey, complete with magic staff and wizard's hat, in The Lord of the Rings, book and films, draw the line at Harry Potter?

One reason may be the popularity. Harry is everywhere. Bookstores stayed open all night to sell the first copies of the penultimate volume in the saga, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and adults and children alike lined up by the hundreds. A handful of hapless Canadians mistakenly allowed to buy the book ahead of its release date were sworn to secrecy and threatened with legal action if they did not return the illicit volumes (Canada Newswire par. 3). Fan sites abound on the Internet, including The Harry Potter Automatic News Aggregator, which offers "Harry Potter News and Rumors -complete Harry Potter coverage collected from various news sources." Considering Harry, Jack Zipes asks, "How is it possible to evaluate a work of literature like a Harry Potter novel when it is so dependent on the market conditions of the culture industry?," and maintains that, "Today the experience of reading for the young is mediated through the mass media and marketing so that the pleasure and meaning of a book will often be pre-scripted or dictated by convention" (171-72). So may also be the deploring of Harry, when the Internet gives his detractors as well as fans as wide a scope as the books themselves.

Another reason may be a recent shift in the focus of censorship efforts from sex to the occult. As Mark West has pointed out, "During the 1980s, most of the censorship cases were anything that pertained to the body, sex, and swear words. [Now], although books like those written by Judy Blume are still under attack, what has taken over is fantasy stones" (qtd. in Dunne par. 4). Complicating this issue is the fact that there are significant differences in what may be considered fantasy from one religion to the next (or between differing denominations of the same religion). As an example, Marjone Taylor and Stephanie M. Carlson studied parents' reactions to the topic of imaginary companions. While mainstream Christian parents regard imaginary friends as harmless or at worst a nuisance, as when their child insists that the friend must have her own place at the dinner table, Taylor and Carlson note that many fundamentalist Christian parents associate them with the devil, particularly if the companion talks back to the child, while in India a child with an imaginary companion is considered to be remembering a previous life (248-54). Plainly, the border between what is real and what is fantasy is a shifting line that is culturally dependent.

In addition, Deborah J. Taub and Heather L. Servaty's study of Harry Potter notes that another prevailing belief among fundamentalist parents is that fantasy equals deceit, that fantasy and storytelling "will lead to lying and other deceitful behavior," and this factor combines with the necessity "to protect their children from evil forces in the fantasy world" (54).

However, a great deal of modern children's literature is fantasy, and it is primarily Harry who seems to be the lightning rod for these fears. A quick cruise through the Internet produces dozens of Web pages devoted to warning parents of the pitfalls awaiting the child who reads Harry Potter. In 2001, exposingsatanism.org saw a satanic "S" in Harry's scar (Shores par. 9), and demonbuster. …