Values of Harry Potter

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my book, Values of Harry Potter: Lessons for Muggles. It’s a 112-page work of literary criticism; you can read the introduction at the book’s web page.

As the back cover notes, the book “explores the complex themes of J. K. Rowling’s beloved novels, illuminating the heroic fight for life-promoting values, the hero’s need for independence, and the role of choice in virtue. Drawing on the ideas of Aristotle and Ayn Rand, Armstrong then critiques the Christian elements of self-sacrifice and immortality, arguing that they ultimately clash with the essential nature of the hero as exemplified by Harry Potter and his allies.”

I’m pleased with the project, and, thanks to the design of my wife Jennifer, it’s beautiful. Perhaps my favorite material is from the last chapter, where I analyze the Horcrux, an object created through horrific evil. I explain how the Horcrux combines three aspects of evil that drive Rowling’s villains, then I discuss Rowling’s apparently intended contrast between the Horcrux and the Christian cross.

The earlier chapters deal with courage, independence, and free will.

The book is intended for readers of Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. So if you’ve read them, check out my book and let me know what you think. If you haven’t read the novels, I highly recommend them. If you hurry, you can still read all the novels plus my book before the next movie comes out!

Notes on the Harry Potter Movies

I just watched the third Harry Potter film again. While the fifth book (The Order of the Phoenix) remains my favorite, the third movie (The Prisoner of Azkaban) is the finest of the series so far. The first two films are enjoyable companions to the books. But the third movie is a stand-alone artwork. The timing in the first two films is awkward and distracting. The third movie is impeccably timed. Moreover, the the use of lighting, camera movement, and transitions, as well as the creative visual interpretations of the book, place the third movie a step above. I was thrilled to find that the fifth movie is also quite good; it takes a close second, in my book.

I see that the sixth film is “in production.” The director is David Yates, who also directed Phoenix. So that’s encouraging.

I hope that the producers of the films consider splitting the seventh book — The Deathly Hallows — into two movies. There is simply too much material in the book to allow for a single movie of reasonable length. Besides, there’s a perfect place the split the movie: Chapter 24. Specifically, page 481. I think readers of the book will understand what I mean. Ending the movie there would be a fitting tribute to the character who fills that page. Then the eighth movie could be called, Harry Potter and the Battle of Hogwarts. Obviously, they should film both movies during the same period to save costs and maintain better continuity. Splitting the final book into two movies would make the studio a lot more money as well as please fans.

Harry Potter’s Success

The Harry Potter books have been phenomenally successful. CNN reports, “The last installment of the Harry Potter series sold a record-breaking 11.5 million copies in the U.S. in the first 10 days on sale… To date, more than 350 million copies of the seven books in the Harry Potter series have been sold worldwide.”

And Potter is very much an international phenomenon. The Guardian reports:

Publisher Bloomsbury [of Britain] revealed [on September 18, 2007] that its English-language version of the boy wizard’s final tale has sold as many copies overseas as in the UK. In Germany alone [one million] copies were sold in the last month. Pre-orders in China were more than 200% higher than those of the previous book…. [T]he untranslated Harry Potters have seen huge demand from impatient fans who want the books as soon as they come out.

The books have sold so well in part because they are very well written fantasy stories with richly drawn characters. Even though Harry and his friends can do amazing things, it’s easy to imagine living in their world while reading the books. But part of the reason the books have sold so well is that Rowling presents a strong moral message of courage and strong character that children are obviously hungry for.

Rowling’s sales figures are indeed impressive. By way of comparison, Ayn Rand wrote some of the most influential novels of the 20th Century. Yet, according to a biography from 1995, “Every book by Ayn Rand published in her lifetime is still in print, and hundreds of thousands of copies are sold each year, so far totalling more than twenty million.” Even assuming robust sales since then, Rand’s books have sold less than ten percent the numbers of Rowling’s books. (No doubt sales of Atlas Shrugged will get a boost when and if the movie ever reaches the screen.)

But numbers don’t mean that much. What will be the lasting cultural influence of, for example, The Da Vinci Code? The reason that Rand’s books have had such influence is that they present in dramatic form philosophic ideas of profound personal importance to the reader. The Harry Potter books present some important ideas, but they are not as profound, as original, or as integrated into the story.

The main reason that Rowling has had and will continue to have such profound cultural influence is that she is reaching millions of children when they are first exploring ideas and first thinking about moral choices. Harry and his best friends belong to the school house of Gryffindor, the house of the brave, and Rowling presents an inspiring image of moral courage. (I’ll have more to say about Rowling’s themes at a later time.)

But perhaps the best thing about Rowling’s books is that they have encouraged children to grapple with a complex story and difficult themes. The children who have graduated from those books will be prepared to read — and eager to find — other great and inspiring works of literature, such as Rand’s novels.