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Saturday, August 28, 2004

Teaching Science Fiction and Fantasy

There has been a balancing act going on for many years between a lack of parent involvement in schools and parents who wish to run the school. Some parents refuse to be involved in their child’s education even to the point of ignoring the needs of the child. Other parents feel right at home making decisions for their children and some even try to make decisions for teachers. The most pronounced and visible cases of this come in the form of book censorship. This has become a focus for the media in the last year because of the undeniable success and controversy that surrounds J. K. Rowlings Harry Potter series. The Harry Potter series, according to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, was named the most challenged on the list of top ten most challenged books in 1999 (Oder).

J. K. Rowlings is a British author so it might seem odd that I am focusing on her in a project for an American literature survey class. The controversy, though, is happening in America. I am not sure where the first contention came from but it is clearly a big issue from the number of articles I found on the debate. Many different people and groups give many different warnings about Harry Potter. One, Family Friendly Libraries (FFL), warns that the "Harry Potter books are not appropriate for the public school classroom, because of occult themes, violent content, and antifamily bias" (Rogers). Of course, anytime there are such a large number of people yelling so loudly about one topic their arguments tend to come from all sides. The FFL criticizes Harry Potter because the books present an "antifamily bias." Christine Schoefer says that Harry Potter supports a strong a patriarchy. While not being exactly on opposite sides of the fence these two arguments certainly don’t concur.

There is also a more intellectual argument against books like Harry Potter. Some say that the loss of "the classics" in the classroom is why so many people are turned off to and cannot understand literature. One such protestor is Francine Prose (specifically from her article, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read"). While not specifically addressing Harry Potter (she does talk about other sci-fi and fantasy works), Prose’s distrust of anything other than a classic work would probably cause her to respond to such works similarly. Her argument is that teaching contemporary works that were written with no concern for the intricacies of language cause these books to be taught with no emphasis on close reading (line by line interpretation).
The largest united front against Harry Potter has come from Christianity. The magic and "occult" images in the books has conservative Christians thumping their Bibles and pointing fingers. And some of the religious opposition comes from the students themselves. Third grader Jean-Paul goes to the library during reading time because of Harry Potter; he says, "In the Bible it says not to do witchcraft" (Keim). Even with all this opposition I don’t think that Harry Potter will be banned from any school.

As I said earlier it is very difficult for such a large opposition to be united. This is also true of the Christian argument that the books support cult activity. An article in the Christian Science Monitor even praises Harry Potter:

"When Harry was in trouble, he had to remember something that made him happy. Prayer often goes a lot deeper than just remembering something that makes us happy. But it always puts us on line with God. I noticed that Harry did have to have complete concentration. He couldn’t think happy thoughts and fearful thoughts at the same time. And it’s that way with prayer as well." (C.S.M.)

And the presence of wizards and magic do not automatically mean that a work of literature is supporting anti-Christian beliefs. A supervisor of Cult activity, Bob Waldrep says, "I don’t think it’s a strong enough case to say a book should be pulled because it has witches and wizards and violence in it. Based on those criteria, how many books would be in the schools?" (Keim). And that is probably the most important reason why Harry Potter and similar books will remain in the schools.

If we look at what would be viewed as perfectly acceptable pieces of literature to teach, you would find stories like Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and many other stories (like all the Arthurian legends) that use magic and "occult" themes and ideas. "Wizardry has played an acceptable role in British literature for centuries. The Arthurian legend gave a preeminent place to Merlin, the beneficent court magician, and to the evil sorceress Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s sister and rival for his throne" (Ballard).

There have been many modern books that contain elements of fantasy that have not been ridiculed; the Oz books, and The Chronicles of Narnia are just a few (Ballard). Many of Shakespeare’s plays are filled with criticisms and doubts about the Christian faith yet I doubt anybody would argue that they shouldn’t be taught in the high school. Prose’s concern over the lack of classical works being taught is a little more serious. I, however, do not agree with her belief that modern literature is unconcerned with the function of language and therefore cannot and is not read closely. As with everything though I believe that it is important to strike a balance between. Students should be exposed to a wide range of literature from different times, cultures, and beliefs.


Ballard, S.B. "Thoughts on Harry Potter: Wizardry, Good and Evil." Anglican Theological Review. Winter 2000: 173-175.

"Does Harry Potter Know How to Pray." Christian Science Monitor. 5 October 1999: 19.

In Time of Emergency: a Citizen’s Handbook on Nuclear Attack and Natural Disasters. Department of Defense: Office of Civil Defense, 1968.

Keim, David. "Parents Push for Wizard-Free Reading." Christianity Today. 10 January 2000: 23.

Le Guin, Ursula K. A Wizard fo Earthsea. New York: Bantam Books, 1968.

Moukheiber, Zina and Pappas Ben. "The Geeks have Inherited the Earth." Forbes. 14 (1997): 348-355.

Neill, Derrick. "When Censorship Gets Personal." NEA Today. April 1999: 41.

Oder, Norman. "Harry Potter Most Challenged." Library Journal. 1 March 2000: 19.

Patrouch, Joe. "Some Thoughts on American SF." Extrapolation. Spring 1997: 5-14.

Prose, Francine. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read." Harper’s. September 1999: 76-84.

Rogers, Norman and Oder, Norman. "FFL, Others Target ‘Harry Potter.’" Library Journal. 15 November 1999: 14-15.

Sanders, William. "The Undiscovered." The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Fifteenth Annual Collection. Ed. Gardner Dozois. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. 224-244.

Schoefer, Christine. "Harry Potter and the Magical World of Patriarchy." New Moon Network. March-April 2000: 10-11.

Silverberg, Robert. "There Was an Old Woman." Not of Woman Born. Ed. Constance Ash. New York: Penquin Putnam, 1999. 140-154.

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