Wise wizards recognize fiction

Well, Evan, our nine-year-old son, is proudly sporting his Harry Potter spectacle frames, courtesy of Barnes & Noble. We did deter him from attending the midnight party at our local bookseller's, which attracted some 400 becloaked Harry Potter look-alikes and other fans of J.K. Rowling's bookathon.

But our copy of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" has arrived, and we've settled in for the nightly reading from the 734-page tome, a marathon reading event unrivaled for me since my consumption of Winston Churchill's six-volume history of World War II.

So the question before us, and a couple of million other parents, is: Are we contributing to our child's intellectual and moral degeneracy by letting him immerse himself in this fanciful world of wizardry?

It is a significant question, being widely discussed, but the answer is: probably not. True, Evan has mused about becoming a wizard 10 years from now. But a few days before that he was planning to become the driver of a local tourist trolley bus.

And the week before that he wanted to be a Navy SEAL. He's also toyed with careers as a football quarterback, a professional basketball player, an Olympic fencing champion, and running a preserve for 20 homeless dogs.

It's all pretty standard daydreaming for children. When my other, now-grown-up son was that age, he was planning to be the police chief on Nantucket, living in a trailer with two Labrador retrievers. As it turned out, he became a successful marketing executive in Philadelphia, living with a wife, a child, and a Bernese mountain dog.

The fact of the matter is that stepping for a while into a fairy-tale world, even with a dash of the occult, may be a lot more wholesome than the alternatives our prevalent culture offers youngsters - the slam-and-bash world of TV cartoons, Nintendo, and Game Boy. Isn't it actually refreshing to find kids lining up to read a book, rather than to see - and be deafened by - some purveyors of crude rock cacophony?

So it doesn't seem to me, as some of our heavy contemporary philosophers suggest, that the Harry Potter craze portends the end of Western civilization as we know it.

The Harry Potter caper is a great yarn. But that's all it is. It's fantasy, not truth. Most children can easily differentiate between the two. As is the key with the impact of all cultural experience on impressionistic young minds, they are best assisted to such conclusions when parents spend time discussing and interpreting these cultural experiences. Good parents monitor (and mentor) their children's reading, TV-viewing, movie-going, and the lyrics that accompany their music-listening.

The beginning chapter of the latest Potter book chronicles an eerie murder and tells of more murder to come from the evil Voldemort. If successive chapters get too bloody, we shall have to curtail our nightly reading, or deliver up selected excerpts. But our son clearly understands from our post-reading discussions that wizards don't really exist and the Potter books are just a vehicle for a rip-roaring tale about the conflict between good and evil.

After all, we have winced together over some of the racial insensitivity in "Huckleberry Finn," been curdled by the blood-letting in "Treasure Island," and shed a few tears together over the cruelty to Jack London's great dog "White Fang," all the while understanding that this is fiction and not the world as it is, or should be.

As someone who has made his living from the written word, and continues to marvel at the majesty of the English language, I revel in the knowledge that J.K. Rowling has caused many thousands of children to read who might otherwise not be reading.

Our evenings begin with Harry Potter, but end with the Bible. Ms. Rowling may be more Dickens than Shakespeare. But who knows what grand literary tastes may develop for the thousands of children now peering through their lens-less Harry Potter spectacles at the printed page?

*John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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