Fall under Potter's spell: C of C course delves into magical universe

Trish Ward, an English professor at the College of Charleston, teaches a course on Harry Potter books.

College of Charleston English professor Trish Ward teaches a three-credit special topics course on Harry Potter.

With today's release of the first half of the last Harry Potter installment -- "Deathly Hallows" -- around midnight, and the likelihood of a mad rush to theaters, The Post and Courier decided to pose a few questions to Ward in an effort to ascertain just what the big deal is.

Q: What makes the Harry Potter books more than a good fantasy series? What's your rationale for teaching a course dedicated to Harry Potter?

The books are more than just fantasy. Each book is a detective story, with Harry, Ron, and Hermione solving a mystery. They are also boarding school stories. But, yes, they are fantasies. J.K. Rowling has done such a great job of creating a fully developed wizarding world. Since we see just about everything from Harry's point of view, we learn about this world as he does -- about Diagon Alley, the Leaky Cauldron, Gringotts, Hogwarts, the Forbidden Forest, Hogsmeade, etc. Rowling describes these places with great care. She also creates complex characters, some with complicated motivations: Snape comes to mind, as does Dumbledore. Even though the books are fantasy, we know characters like these and can often empathize with them. And the books are funny; Fred and George Weasley are hilarious. Rowling herself said her books had more jokes than Tolkien's.

These are reasons enough for teaching the books. But I have selfish reasons too. They remind me of my childhood experience reading "The Chronicles of Narnia," "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings." This generation of college students grew up with these books, and more than one student has told me that reading these books helped them get through a particularly rough time.

Q: The Harry Potter stories contain elements of universal myth (good vs. evil; interactions between the natural and supernatural worlds; a hero's journey of discovery, etc.) and certain earthbound themes (coming of age; friendship; family troubles; the wisdom of one's elders, etc.). To what extent does the series mirror the real world? To what do you attribute its wide appeal?

I do agree. We talk about all of these themes in my class. I think all the things you mention in your question are elements that attribute to its wide appeal. The series mirrors the real world to a great extent. All of the embarrassment and awkwardness of growing up is depicted so realistically. I reread the Yule Ball chapter in the "Goblet of Fire" recently and felt so embarrassed for Harry and Ron. I think most of us know people like Percy Weasley, the Dursleys and Dolores Umbridge. Even friendship, love and loyalty are depicted realistically much of the time. Harry, Ron and Hermione get mad at each other a lot, but they realize the value of their friendship; they need each other.

Q: How do students react to your course? You make them read all the books, right? What do they take away from the experience?

I don't want to put words in my students' mouths, but I think most of them enjoy it. The classes certainly tend to be very high-energy, and there's no way you could make the course strictly a lecture course. Students want to talk. Many never expected you could have a real English course on Harry Potter. We read and discussed all the books. Students were placed into Hogwarts Houses and did some group discussions and presentations. They took quizzes, wrote several response papers on issues related to the reading, and they wrote a midterm and final exam. We put Severus Snape on trial toward the end of the semester, and students argued for and against him being a noble character. We discussed the ways that other writers influenced Rowling and had reports on the Voldemort/Hitler connection, the hero's journey, and the ways the political unrest in the books seems relevant today. Somehow I always get to the end of the semester and wish I had more time. I hope they finish the course wanting to reread the books and making connections they hadn't seen before.

Q: Some have complained that because J.K. Rowling's books portray the regular use of magic (the "occult"), they are anti-Christian and teach children the wrong values. How do you respond to this?

This is actually a discussion I've had with members of my own family, and several students in my classes were not allowed to read the books in middle and high school. By the last book, it's impossible to miss the biblical themes in the books for example, "Two are better than one" (Ecclesiastes 4:9); "God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong" (1 Corinthians 1:27). Harry's walk into the Forbidden Forest to face Voldemort is very much like Aslan's walk to the stone table to face the White Witch. Harry is pretty much a Christ figure there in his willingness to save others by sacrificing himself. The graves of Harry's parents and Dumbledore's mother and sister are biblical. Over and over again Dumbledore speaks of the power of love as beyond any magic. The power of love is the prevailing message of the series.

Q: Do you think the Harry Potter series qualifies as great literature? Why or why not?

I think it does. Rowling manages to weave together a compelling narrative that moves and delights and makes you want to read the books again.

Jason Coy, associate professor of history at the College of Charleston, researches magic and superstition in early modern Europe. Needless to say, Harry Potter can help.

"Some of the practices that are featured in the Potter books, like alchemy and the philosopher's stone or the divination classes taught at Hogwarts, are actually rooted in historical phenomena," Coy says. "However, magic and witchcraft in early modern society were a part of the everyday fabric of village life, whereas in the Harry Potter novels sorcery and the supernatural are sequestered from the everyday world."

OK, that ought to intrigue.

Coy will be giving a lecture called "The Real Harry Potter: Magic and Witchcraft in Pre-Modern Europe" at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 2, at the Charleston County Public Library (68 Calhoun St.) in the main auditorium. The lecture, offered in conjunction with the American Library Association's "Harry Potter's World" traveling exhibition, will explore the Renaissance-era magical beliefs that inspired the series.

Students in College of Charleston's chemistry honor society will help children learn some of Harry Potter's magic. At 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 22 in the library's main auditorium, chemistry students will lead a set of experiments, making time repeat, causing a slug to glow and spew, and getting acid to bubble and brew.