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"Harry Potter vs. The Secret Garden"

An Essay by Andrea V.

"Do you believe in Magic?" asked Colin. "I do hope you do."

[This is a response to a post over at bibliophyles, about the use of magic in The Secret Garden.]

When I read ruhamah's post on bibliophyles last night, I was glad to see that someone else had the same concerns I had had on my rereading of The Secret Garden. I didn't have time to respond, so I waited till this morning when I discovered that a bunch of people had already responded and suddenly there was a whole lot more I wanted to say. Hence this post :)

I was surprised by the number of people who said they considered The Secret Garden less dangerous to Christian children than the Harry Potter books. As I was reading The Secret Garden I found myself wondering why anyone even raises an eyebrow at HP when something like this has been around for ages and is considered a 'classic' and a must-read for kids.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's a lovely story, I've loved it since the first time I read it when I was 12, and with the right parental guidance it can teach children some very good life lessons (the power of positive thinking, a healthy lifestyle and friendship, for example). But I think it's much more likely to lead a young impressionable child spiritually astray than Harry Potter is. I understand that it's considered good in some Christian circles to be anti-HP, but I wonder how many of those people have actually taken the time to read the books or to think objectively about the way magic is presented in them.

Quite simply the 'innocence' of TSG is the problem, in my mind. The magic in HP is so obviously make-believe, fairytale magic, so clearly over-the-top – no intelligent child is ever going to believe that there's really a place called Hogwarts where you can fly around on broomsticks and turn mice into teacups. Kids might wish for Hogwarts-magic to be real but deep down inside they know it's just a story. (If any child over the age of 10 told me in all seriousness that he wanted to be a wizard 'just like Harry Potter', I'd be more concerned about his IQ than his spiritual well-being.)

In TSG, however, you're given three very realistic children in a very realistic setting, doing a very mundane and normal thing – gardening. The basic plot of TSG has no make-believe whatsoever. The Magic is inserted into the story in such a way ('innocently') that it becomes part of this realistic world, and both the characters and the narrator treat it as just as obviously real as everything else. The Magic is seen as a normal part of life. There is no separation between the 'real' world and the 'magic' world, as there is in HP. It is very convincingly 'of this world' and much more believable than anything JK Rowling has ever written.

Additionally, anyone can access this magic, if they believe and open themselves up to it. Again, very different from HP, where only those who are born to it can practice magic. A child who has passed the age of eleven and still hasn't received his owl from Hogwarts simply has to accept that he's a Muggle and will never be able to learn magic – no amount of studying or training will ever enable him to do things that Harry and his friends and enemies can do. It's just not possible for Muggles to learn this stuff. In The Secret Garden, however, even the most normal kid can believe that he can 'do' magic, or more accurately that he can make magic work for him.

Not only do the children call on the Magic to help them, but, to all intents and purposes, it actually responds to their requests! It is treated as an entity that can hear their pleas and will do their bidding if only they ask nicely enough or believe strongly enough. Even worse – in a sense they worship it – something which never, ever happens in HP. In HP, magic exists in the same way that electricity exists in our world (in fact, electricity isn't used at all in the Wizarding World, because magic functions to them as electricity does to us 'Muggles') – it's there around them, they harness it and use it for their own purposes, but they don't treat it as an entity to be interacted with and certainly not to be worshipped. That would be as ridiculous as someone talking to or worshipping an electric wire!

Of course all of this is taking the Magic of The Secret Garden much more seriously than it was intended. You're not really supposed to believe that the 'Magic' in TSG is what is actually making Mary and Colin better - you're should realise that it's fresh air, activity and good company. You're also not supposed to think that you yourself could use 'Magic' in the same way. So getting all upset about magic in TSG is really missing the point of the story. But I think that the 'magic' in HP is also taken too seriously and people keep missing the point of that story too. The HP books aren't about magic any more than TSG is - magic is simply a vehicle for a very deep story about friendship, choices and personal growth (this misunderstanding is one reason why the HP movies keep getting it so horribly wrong, but that's a whole other post ^_^)

So, nervous as I am about one potential message of TSG, I wouldn't stop my future children from reading it. It really is a beautiful story, with a lot of (potentially) good messages. But, as with the HP books, I would read it with them. The operative term here is parental guidance – without it just about any book or movie can teach the wrong lessons (including HP), but with it I think most stories can be used for good (again, including HP!). Personally, I found the Doxology scene to be one of the most positive – this is where an actively-involved parent could jump in and say “See, Mary and Colin had it wrong – it wasn't 'magic' making the garden grow – it was God!”.

I'm not for banning any books from the household (okay, maybe one or two), even if I don't agree with everything in them. You can't protect your children by sheltering them from potentially dangerous stuff - you protect them by given them the tools of Biblical knowledge and discernment and showing them how to use them.

ETA: Of course none of this even begins to cover Mary's very confident belief that what they practice is harmless "white magic", whatever that is. If ever there was cause for concern, that would be it!

Andrea has asked that comments be directed to her livejournal

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