Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Values of Harry Potter: Lessons for Muggles

The Values of Harry Potter: Lessons for Muggles (expanded edition)
by Ari Armstrong
Ember Publishing, Denver, CO - 2011

Warning:  If you have not read all the books, there are major plot spoilers, so you might want to at least see the movies first if you prefer to be surprised; that will also help to fully understand all the points made in this book.

Much as I hate to admit it, when the Harry Potter books came out, I had my nose deep into hard sci-fi books, and was steadfastly ignoring anything that could have been classed as “fantasy.” For me, the first mention of Harry Potter was in the trailer for the first movie. The books “from across the pond” were wildly popular in England, and even before the movie was in theaters here, fantasy fans in the US were out there standing in long lines at the bookstores whenever a new book arrived.

Everyone loves heroes. Maybe it's just that we want to know that someone will step up when the time comes, to face down the bad guys and save us, or maybe we see ourselves as those heroes, and want to hear more about how to do a better job of it when our time comes. Either way, the children who turn into young adults in the Harry Potter series have captured the imagination not only of the younger generation, but of their parents and grandparents as well.

In “The Values of Harry Potter” we get a closer view of what it is that draws us to these compelling characters. They are repositories of all the most treasured human values, and they stay true to them. Sure, they are tempted, abused, misunderstood, denigrated, and sometimes don't get it right the first time, but they always end up doing the right things for the right reasons, and we have a tremendous amount of respect for that.

Armstrong goes into an explanation of the “first-hand” and “second-hand” archetypes: the first-handers are those who use first-hand experience to make their decisions. They draw on their own cranial resources and ethical awareness to assess the situations in which they find themselves, rather than accepting whatever “prevailing wisdom” dictates, or worrying about what other people think of them. Second-handers use that prevailing wisdom not only to raise their image in the eyes of others, but to control those around them. In Harry Potter, the bad guys are the “second-handers.” The terms come from Ayn Rand's “The Fountainhead,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fountainhead but are a convenient framework for understanding the Potter universe.

For a body of work that has been so incredibly popular, it's interesting to see how many different perspectives its readers have of it. While many readers (and critics) see religious and moral themes, (Christian love and self-sacrifice), as prime motivators and core aims of the author, others claim Harry Potter is wholly about sorcery in the satanic sense. Armstrong argues that both fall short of the mark. “The overriding theme of the Harry Potter books is the heroic, courageous, fight for values. Harry loves his life, loves his friends, loves the magical world in which he lives – and refuses to let go of those values without fighting with all of his strength and resolution...Harry and his allies...rise to defend what is important in their lives.” Values are the things that make life worth living, and heroes defend them.

Armstrong takes the time to look at various elements of the behaviour of all of the characters, heroes and villains (and those who try but cannot resist going to the dark side), showing us the places where they either defend or deny values, and how that leads to success or defeat. Other related issues are also looked at: Independence, Free Will, Immortality, Materialism, with focus on their psychology. Harry Potter (and his friends) are examples of what heroes look like, how they act, and what they can accomplish against all odds.

He makes the point that if all you've seen are the movies, you've probably missed a lot, because the books are darker and more emotionally charged than the movies making the heroism and the dangers even clearer (although given the darkness in some of the movies, that's really saying something). I'm afraid I'm one of those, so I'm going to be heading back to the bookstore to read the books, because even though I've seen some spoilers (in the books but not in the movies) in reading Armstrong's book, I want to read them for myself, given this new perspective. 

If Ari Armstrong's “take” on Harry Potter, is true, this may be one of the most important book series in our lifetime. When there is so much economic adversity, when many are looking for heroes, if “what would Harry Potter do?” is a question that we will start asking, when we fear we are losing life-enhancing values, we may find that more of us are willing to take the risk to fight for them.


  1. After thinking about this post and what you say about the values we learn from the books, I am wondering if "What a Wonderful Life" became such an iconic movie for the same reason the Harry Potter series is so popular. It is all about, deep down, what we want to be like whether it is being the hero, having faith to our values or it is believing our life, no matter how mundane or how many goals we did not accomplish, really means something and somewhere we are still the hero.


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