I remember being on Star Island about ten years ago and noticing that everyone was reading what seemed to be the same book. Everywhere I went I saw them — on the sofas in the lounge, in rocking chairs on the porch, even at the tables in the dining hall — adults as well as youth and children, all of them lost in their reading. Sitting next to one of them, I waited until a suitable moment and asked what he was reading; eyes aglow with the light of imagination, he responded with just two words: “Harry Potter.”
Well, I had already heard of J. K. Rowling’s novels about the famous boy wizard, of course. With each subsequent volume, their popularity grew even more, and Rowling was rapidly becoming one of the best-selling British authors. Her own rags-to-riches story added to the mystique, and there were rumors about the books being made into movies, too. So, I decided to give them a try.
For all that they were characterized as books for “younger readers”, I quickly understood their appeal to readers of all ages. It was easy to sympathize with Harry, and to feel glad for him when he was offered a better life away from his awful relatives, the Dursleys. Going with him to Diagon Alley — hidden behind a disreputable pub in the heart of London — we shared in his first experiences of the world of magic that he was now entering. And traveling with him aboard the express train to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, we enjoyed his instant friendship with Ron, his just-as-instant dislike of Draco, and his bemusement with the smart but rather bossy Hermione. The school itself, with its animated paintings, shifting staircases and energetic ghosts — not to mention a talking hat! — quickly became a place where we wanted to spend more time, far away from the mundane (or “muggle”) world of the town of Little Whinging where Harry had lived until then.
We soon learn, of course, that Harry is famous as “the boy who lived”. For as an infant, an evil, power-hungry wizard — generally referred to as “He-who-must-not-be-named” — had tried to kill him with magic, but the curse somehow rebounded — leaving the baby Harry untouched but for a lightning-bolt-shaped scar on his forehead — and had instead reduced the wizard to a barely living wraith. During the course of the books — seven in all, one for each of the years of school at Hogwarts — Harry repeatedly encounters He-who-must-not-be-named as he regains his power, leading to the inevitable final showdown from which only one of them may emerge alive.
Set amid the grandly sweeping arc of her overall story, Rowling’s books are filled with humor, delightful characters, word play, imaginative ideas and a sympathetic approach to the themes of life and death, fate and free will, and, most of all, love. As Harry, Hermione, Ron and the other teenage protagonists grow up, so too does Rowling’s writing go deeper, taking on a darker tone when appropriate, refusing to shy away from the difficult questions and engaging in genuine mythopoesis, making clear that her novels are mischaracterized as books just for children. (Their effect on young readers is noteworthy, though: a study has found that the books have contributed to the tendencies of the “millennial” generation to be more tolerant, less authoritarian and more politically active.)
It’s not surprising that the Harry Potter stories are so popular, and amongst Unitarian Universalists in particular. In our openness to the sacred in all its forms, we may consider any book to be holy, if holiness can be found amongst its words. If it spins a gripping tale at the same time that it imparts its wisdom to us, then so much the better! Ours is an experiential faith — the first listed source of religious awareness from which Unitarian Universalism draws is “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life” — and that includes the experience of imagination borne of human creativity.
This July you’ll notice that all of our Sunday services, as well as our Children’s RE program throughout the Summer, relate to the Harry Potter stories in some way. Whether you’ve read the books or seen the movies or not, come and experience some of their magic and wonder, and enjoy the new perspectives they give us on our reality, our humanity and the challenges that come with them.