Morals and Messages from Harry Potter: Lesson Learned

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by Sammi Vanderstok

Sammi VanderstokWhen I was in college, I took an English course titled “Harry Potter and Global Society” that opened my eyes to the power of literature. I had taken previous English courses and read great works of many authors such as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Joyce.  But these famous pieces of literature were placed on an ivory pedestal.  Although I knew books could impact culture, I never figured that literature itself could shape my culture or the modern world I lived in.

The fact that we studied such a generationally relevant book that was not only a part of my world and everyday life but also of every other student in that class, made the overarching lessons of literature and its power hit home.

The Harry Potter books are the number one selling book series ever published. The Harry Potter movies are the highest grossing film series of all time. As of last November, total Harry Potter book and movie sales topped $24 billion. Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling is the first author ever to become a billionaire.

I believe her use of myth and folklore is the underlying reason why her Harry Potter series is so wildly successful. Rowling touched a need within the audience for guidance and care and provided it by creating a fantastical world that intersected and interacted with our own.

Myths and folklore are figurative stories about how people within different cultures deal with universal life issues. Every culture possesses them, and they profoundly influence how societies see the world and understand themselves.

Joseph Campbell, a scholar of mythology and specifically of the “hero-quest,” argues that “myths are [the] clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life. [They show] what we’re capable of knowing and experiencing within.” He says myths “have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over a millennia, [they] have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage.”

Rowling uses the language of myth and folklore rather than history to communicate her message. In doing so, she is indicating that moral messages gained through folklore impact people at a deeper level and are more important than the actual history of a society.

In 2008 there was a survey done by a local British newspaper asking which English figures, such as Winston Churchill and Sherlock Holmes, were real and which were fictitious. Surprisingly, the survey revealed that over 50% of the people believed that Sherlock Holmes was real and almost 25% believed that Churchill was mythical. There was also an equal amount of confusion between the real kings of British history, like Richard the Lionheart, and fictitious kings, like King Arthur. This raises the interesting question of how the English, or any other people for that matter, view their own past.

England, of course, is the backdrop for the Harry Potter series. British history, like that of almost every nation, is a mixture of good governance and tyrannical rulers, of national progression and the brutal conquest of foreign lands, and of national identity mixed in with the repression of other cultures. Although there are of course noteworthy characters in England’s past, like Sir Isaac Newton, William Wilberforce (English politician who led the abolition of the slave trade) and William Shakespeare, there are also countless examples of immoral leaders who used their power to a negative effect.

If, for example, a parent was faced with having to use a British historical figure as a role model for their child, how many of them would ever tell their child to be like King Henry VIII? If they did, they would be encouraging violence as a means of control, the misuse of women, and the execution of whoever you don’t like. In many ways, it is much easier to glean life lessons from British legends than to try to find the heroic deeds of past British rulers.

In trying to guide the future generations to make honorable and selfless choices, it would be easier to point youth to myths like the legend of King Arthur and his adventures to create the British Empire than any one historical ruler. One source of  Harry Potter’s appeal is that he can be seen as a modernized King Arthur. The Arthurian Legend with a young protagonist assisted by siblings or friends, a quest to acquire magical artifacts, a supernatural guide, a confrontation between good and evil in which the child plays a crucial role, sounds almost exactly like the story line of the Harry Potter series.

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I believe that Rowling’s Harry Potter series in some ways is filling the need for moral education of today’s youth. The series’ run-away success cannot simply be attributed to her use of magical wands and interesting characters. Rowling created a fantastical world in her Harry Potter series, complete with locations, history, and cultural nuances. She gave depth to that world by having her characters face issues that people today struggle with. How to co-exist with the “other” (in this case, the non-magical “Muggle” world) and how to purge evils within form the backdrop for the entire Harry Potter series.

People overlook the power of literature, especially children’s literature, and its messages for society. They assume if a book was written for children it must not have much depth or content. This type of thinking has led to oversights not only about the content that the parents are letting their children read, but also about the impact Harry Potter and other youth literature has had on the current generation. J.K. Rowling has deeply influenced the shapers of tomorrow’s culture, yet her series has not received the accolades other influences have had.

Unificationists need to recognize that myths and folklore, expressive of universal truths, are more culture-forming than social inputs. They speak the language of the heart and address the original mind. Applied Unificationism should take into account not just data and the world of the intellect. Transformative social and political policy needs to be infused with an intuitive dimension that informs public thinking.♦

Sammi Vanderstok currently works for an investment bank and plans to use her skills to help non-profit organizations and youth programs. She has presented her work on literature and Harry Potter at several conferences and taught a class on the subject during the 3-Day University at Barrytown

Illustrations by woshibbdou.

5 thoughts on “Morals and Messages from Harry Potter: Lesson Learned

  1. The power (emotional, intellectual and physical) generated by any interaction centered on accomplishing or fulfilling the purpose of the whole community is always greater than the energy derived from any activity that serves only one individual. For these reasons, there is clear evidence that the discussion of a value theory that can serve the purpose, and benefit the whole global society, will receive a great deal of interest and power.

    In the words of Joseph Campbell, the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and of other bestsellers such as The Power of Myth:

    “The democratic ideal of the self-determining individual, the development of the scientific method of research, the advent of the industrial age, and most recently of the computer age has so transformed human life and society that most of the ancient symbols and the values associated with them have collapsed.”

    In his successful work Campbell tries to point the way for modern man toward a more meaningful future. Campbell, particularly in his work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, tries to indicate the desperate need of leading society to a new revival and maybe toward the creation of a new, global set of spiritual values. In almost all of his works, Campbell tries to lift the reader up to meet the highest moral, ethical, and cosmic questions that have challenged mankind for ages. His answer is not one of a return to the golden age or even a rebirth or renaissance of ancient value systems. What Campbell tried to discover were the values, symbols, and essential elements common to men of all ages. While ancient men tried to find answers through symbols and symbolic stories, modern men have been forced to set aside all those beautiful metaphors and symbolic images and replace them with some “scientific” explanations.

    Naturally, science has not been able to answer all of man’s existential questions. For this reason, our global society is still in a fluid state of transition. What we need today and what Campbell tried to point to the reader of his works is a set of global values, not just symbolic values, but realistic, factual, and essential values around which man can build a new society.

    Modern technology has proven time and again that it has the capacity to fulfill the great majority of the basic physiological needs of the world’s population. Similarly, the great religions of the world, and the messages of past and modern spiritual giants will enable humanity to create, with the help of telecommunications, a harmonious and spiritually rich global family.

    A new system of thought is arising to take up the challenge of global civilization. Unification Thought is a comprehensive ideology able to revitalize and redefine traditional values and principles, and without question, it is the best available catalyst for the harmonization of capitalist economies and values. One of the greatest contributions that the Unification system of thought has brought to both Eastern and Western societies is a new vision of the future, a globally acceptable concept of the values of truth, goodness, beauty, and love, and a revived view of ethics.

  2. I too feel that transformation is sought deeply within our own souls. I also love Joseph Campbell’s portrayal of the Hero’s Journey. Here is a short interview where he talks about the main religious figures.

    The journey Campbell talks about in his books consists of a pattern: the call followed by supernatural aid, mentors and helpers. Then come the challenges, feeling like one is in the abyss. This is the place of death and rebirth that brings about the transformation of consciousness. This is followed with atonement and the return. Out of such an experience, we come back with more wisdom that we can then share with others.

    This journey is not just for famous religious leaders. It is our personal journey also. I believe that is why Harry Potter resonated so strongly with so many. Readers can identify with his quest, his struggles and his triumphs. When “Star Wars” came out, it resonated with many, for the same reason. Here, the late Joseph Campbell talks about the Star Wars phenomenon.

    Life on this earth is like attending school. Each level (grade) has its opportunity, its challenges and rewards. When we look back, at year’s end, we may notice that we have grown from the experiences life presented to us during that period and we may feel enriched from having gone through it. Undoubtedly challenges were part of it as by overcoming them, we grow stronger or are refined.

    Understanding this helps me to find meaning in life and understand that no one is ever alone. That means everyone we meet is on a journey. Everyone is going through something. Each has a story. When we can stop long enough to share our story with someone else and listen to theirs, we form a bond of heart. How precious this is!

  3. Dear Sister Sammi, thank you for your article. From the time the Harry Potter books/films appeared, I have always felt an extreme distaste for them. I cannot claim that they are not good, as they gave inspiration to you, as you indicated. I think the origin of the books, the author, may be the cause, as I think she wasn’t married or religious. There is one thing I disagree with you, though. Besides Henry the 8th, British history is full of real heroes. Look at the discoverers who left home and comfort in service of “queen and country” — they were responsible for large crews, sometimes for years…and in many cases never came back. Look at Lord Nelson, who defeated many aggressively attacking foreign fleets with his own fleet, and all by courage, vision. They had no radio or telephone systems, and the only way they could communicate was by raising, moving different kinds of flags. There were queens Victoria and Elizabeth, who advanced their nation incredibly in a noble and dignified way, etc. Look at William Carey who went to India as a missionary with the determination to never even come back home; David Livingstone, etc.; the list is long. Of course, if one studies the lives of these great people, not to mention the many great stories especially in the OT Bible, “fantasy and myth” comes only as a replacement for these. So, I know there are countless modern youths who do not grow up with this information, so for them the Harry Potter stories may have been very helpful. I just feel sad that many young people are or were not exposed to these stories. I just thought of mentioning this to you, since you are working hard with youth and education. Much success!

  4. Sammi,

    You brought back memories of when I read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings when I was in high school. I read the Lord of the Rings while hiking a 600 mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail with my best friend at the time. Just as you alluded to historical figures who rode to mythical proportions, the boundary between myth and reality became blurred as we met characters who could have jumped out of a novel somewhere and traveled through places not unlike those that Bilbo and his comrades visited: a ridge above the clouds, sunlight breaking through mist in a dense forest. And the veil between imagination and spirituality seemed to open quite frequently. I met my “Higher Power” and felt called to a higher purpose through both the journey on foot and the journey through literature. Harry Potter has certainly kindled the imaginations and awakened the better selves of many people, young and old.

    Now what are you reading?

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