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True Sorcery

Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry that Harry and his cohort attend, cannot ensure that people will use their powers wisely, responsibly and for the common good. According to the literary critic Alan Jacobs, writing in the journal First Things, the educational quandary for the school's revered headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, "is how to train students not just in the 'technology' of magic, but also in the moral discernment necessary to avoid the continual reproduction of the few great Dark Lords like Voldemort and their multitudinous followers."

Indeed, Harry is tortured by the question of why the Sorting Hat, which searches the souls of incoming students to determine which house or faction they belong in,takes so long to group him with the brave and true of Gryffindor, rather than putting him in Slytherin among the careerists, the manipulators, the power-hungry and the just plain nasty, where he could achieve greatness.

" 'It only put me in Gryffindor,' said Harry in a defeated voice, 'because I asked not to go in Slytherin.' 'Exactly,' said Dumbledore, beaming once more. 'Which makes you very different'" from the supremely evil wizard Voldemort who threatens all of civilization. " 'It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.' Harry sat motionless in his chair, stunned."

Harry realizes for the first time, according to Jacobs, that his confusion has been wrongheaded from the start. He has been asking the question "Who am I at heart?" when he needed to be asking the question "What should I do in order to become what I should be?"

The technologies that our children will develop offer powers exponentially greater than those of Dumbledore and Voldemort. Yet through these books, our children are learning very old lessons about love and community and how to be human in the face of overwhelming magic. And by providing a means of coping with the inexplicable and magical, the Harry Potter books provide a code for coping with real life. Our children recognize their own technological age in this magical place.

What our children absorb most of all is character -- the humanity that overcomes the mysterious. The more mature Harry and his friends become, the more explicitly that point is made. In the last volume, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," Harry's intellectually acute friend Hermione tells him that the time has come for them to seize the day, defending against the dark arts directly:

" 'It's about preparing ourselves . . . for what's out there,' " she says. " 'We've gone past the stage where we can just learn things out of books. . . . We need a teacher, a proper one, who can show us.'

" 'Who then?' said Harry, frowning at her.

" 'Isn't it obvious?' she said. 'I'm talking about you, Harry.' "

Harry protests his lack of fitness, but Hermione asks who else should confront the enormous task: "Look what you've done."

This is the turning point of the entire series. Hermione and their third musketeer, Ron, make that abundantly clear by recapping Harry's astounding triumphs over Voldemort's evil in the previous four books.

But Harry by now is apoplectic. " ' You don't know what it's like! You -- neither of you -- you've never had to face him, have you! . . . There's nothing between you and dying except your own -- your own brain or guts or whatever -- . . . They've never taught us that in their classes, what it's like to deal with things like that -- and you two sit there acting like I'm a clever little boy to be standing here, alive.' "

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