In third grade I picked up a book that would become a part of my life in a way that few pieces of the written word have since rivaled: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. A decade later, and more than a year after finishing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I picked up a book that helped me understand why reading Harry Potter had been such a valuable experience: The Values of Harry Potter: Lessons for Muggles, by Ari Armstrong.
Some background for my combined praise of J.K. Rowling’s series and Armstrong’s work of literary criticism will be necessary.
Soon after I started reading Harry Potter, I was assigned my first book report. As I excitedly read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, my mom helped me put together a poster on plot, theme, characters, and my overall opinion of the book. The then limited extent of my vocabulary and literary experience produced such gems as “it makes you feel like you’re in the book!” and “the plot was good” (much later I’d learn why those two realizations are significant). I was thrilled with the final product – a black poster with silver writing and colorful images from a Hogwarts coloring book – and heart-broken when a small amount of water spilled on it, warping one of the corners. Even so, for a long time afterwards, that poster adorned a wall in my room.
That book report was the impetus for my quest to finish the series. My grandma noticed my incessant reading, and probably realizing that it was hugely important to me as a source of pure enjoyment that could help me in my intellectual development, she and my grandpa went to buy each book as soon as it came out. That and the accompanying bubble wrap were among the greatest pleasures of my youth. The movies, of course, were also something to look forward to. With exceptional cinematography they dramatized Rowling’s characters and events almost exactly as I had envisioned them. Each movie combined the sheer pleasure of old Disney movies with the grandeur of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (which was not a terribly important part of my life, I’ll admit, but the comparison, I think, is helpful).
It is significant that in the same year of that book report I began to perceive a battle of ideas when I heard the news of the 9/11 attacks. I had thought evil only existed in fiction, and that no “bigness” – grand plot scales with decades as their background and the whole world as their stage – could happen in the real world.
Years would pass before anything would match the blissful “bigness” of Harry Potter or the shocking “bigness” of 9/11. This is proper for two reasons: that neither the best of the best in literature and all other art forms nor the most world-shaking historical events are common, and that I had always felt that Harry Potter was preparing me for something. It prepared me for the massive undertaking of reading and understanding Atlas Shrugged, the 20th century’s greatest epic and most clairvoyant piece of fiction. Harry Potter showed me how ideas play out between people and over the course of years; 9/11 showed me that there are bad ideas and philosophies with real consequences; Atlas Shruggedestablished the necessary link between the two as it depicted the climax of the political implementation of bad philosophy.
My purpose in presenting such an extensive background is something of an attempt to be literary; I am trying to demonstrate the importance of “bigness”- of an integrated plot, i.e., a plot which consists of carefully interconnected ideas and events. This for me was one of the greatest values of Harry Potter – the sense that I was following an epic and that it had relevance to my life – and one of the first values of Harry Potter that Armstrong discussed. Harry Potter, as he explained, is a series of incredible depth that can be read as one long saga or in separate installments, but either way, it is “a grand epic that…spans decades”. Harry Potter integrates seven different plots into one incredibly complex inter-woven whole, in which nothing is superfluous; all of the happy and seemingly frivolous aspects of the books “are the reasons why the fight against Voldemort matters”.
Another essential aspect of Harry Potter that remarkably relates to the personal development that accompanied my reading is the paramount importance of values. “It is vitally important,” wrote Armstrong, “to understand one’s values, choose the right values, and enact the virtues that make the achievement of values possible.” He later wrote that “values must generally contribute to one’s life, and they must be attainable without destroying the rest of one’s values.” As I read Harry Potter, I was unconsciously discovering values.
A central theme of Harry Potter, then, is the necessity of and dedication to values. Throughout the series, Harry demonstrates free will in dire straights, resilience in the face of hardship, confidence in the face of uncertainty, integrity in the face of temptations, courage in the face of unfavorable odds, and countless other venerable virtues, all of which he chooses, then dedicates himself to.
Armstrong also deals with the ideas of independence, self-esteem (and the consequences of a lack thereof), materialism, and “the clash of love and sacrifice”. This should give the reader an idea of the depth and scope of The Values of Harry Potter.
It is baffling that the most popular – and valuable – literary series in history has been derided as ‘popular fiction’, ‘pop-culture’, and ‘children’s literature’. Ari Armstrong has shown that Harry Potter is of much greater value to the world. It has motivated millions of children (and a great many adults) worldwide to read voraciously, pursue values, appreciate and participate in the battle of ideas, realize that joy is possible and proper to life, and strive for that joy. As a monumental work of fiction and a powerful tribute to values, Harry Potter, despite what Rowling’s intentions in writing it may have been, is hardly a children’s series. It has helped me to become an adult in every important sense of the word and its lessons will stay with me for life. Armstrong’s book helped me to integrate everything I had already learned (including a great deal I didn’t know I had learned) from Harry Potter and lent greater valuable to an incredible experience. The Values of Harry Potter is as entertaining as it is educational and philosophical; in illuminating his analysis with the ideas of Aristotle, Ayn Rand, and other philosophers, Armstrong created a reading experience akin to that of a first time reader of Harry Potteritself. He revealed the full, beautiful meaning of the world’s most loved work of fiction. Anyone who joined me in racing through the magical pages of Rowling’s timeless works, anyone who valued Harry Potter as one of their most important reading experiences, anyone who appreciates “bigness” in life and art, anyone who loves their own life and the values that make it possible, would be remiss not to read The Values of Harry Potter: Lessons for Muggles as a complement and an indispensable companion to the series. If the number of readers is not considered, the slim, enjoyable volume may be properly ranked at the same level of value that Harry Potter has been granted, for showing why J.K. Rowling cast the right spell.