From the Mailbag: Letter of the Month

As you’ve probably noticed, HogwartsProfessor is ‘under renovation.’ In addition to the retro look, if you’re writing me at john at HogwartsProfessor dot com, I’m not receiving your mail today (try john at zossima dot com). Thank you for your patience while the house-elves work their digital magic.

I don’t know whether I can post during reconstruction but here is something I hope you will enjoy. I get two or three letters a week from serious readers who take the time to tell me they have read my books. Often times, they write to share mistakes they’ve found, which is a great help, thank you very much. Not as often, maybe once or twice a year, I get chewed out; last week a mom wrote me to say she had just read Looking for God in Harry Potter and she was still convinced Harry was evil (cue passages from Leviticus). It turns out she had read Looking and watched the first three movies. Oh, well. Orson Scott Card said, in response to Mark Twain’s comment that the Book of Mormon was “chloroform in print,” that “no book can survive a hostile reading.” Certainly that is true of Looking and Harry Potter.

Every once in a while, though, I get a letter that makes me laugh out loud or blush. Yesterday I received one that made me do both. It was so flattering and humorous that I have to suspect it is a prank; remember when it used to be Ivy League sport to write outrageous, fictional letters about Jerry Springeresque personal situations to Dear Abby to see if she’d answer with advice in print? A testimony like this one, forgive me, made me think the guy was pulling my leg. Anyway, I got his permission to post it. You decide.

Suffer, dear sir, a rather lengthy post, so that I may properly express my appreciation for your absorbing work on the Harry Potter series. After all, I bought all of your books, so you owe me.

I came by Harry quite by chance, if not by the Imperious Curse. At the time of my introduction to Potter’s world, Rowling’s romp through the literary community was progressing with the force of an imploding Red Dwarf. Untold millions of victims littered her six volume swath, and the globe was stirred to near-apocalyptic hysteria as the release of volume seven approached. I, however, looked upon the mania with the smugness of one who “knew better.”

There were several reasons for my antipathy towards Harry. One, I take literature seriously, consume only top-shelf stuff, believe that many popular writers should be blindfolded and shot (time of day is of no consequence, so long as they’re shot), so the boy wizard seemed beneath me. Why read Rowling when I could read…a host of “worthy” authors. Two, I generally find popular hysteria abhorrent, because popular interests are usually at odds with my interests, which brings us to the third reason why I resisted Harry: I am a conservative Christian—not a snake-handler-type conservative, but an anti-instrumental-music-during-worship-type conservative, to give you some idea of where I am coming from. Indeed, my ancestors burned witches and wizards at the stake, so I avoided Rowling’s work as a first-century Jew would avoid a leper.

The curse struck as I was pursuing an undergraduate degree in English. It happened during the first week of History of English. Students were instructed to choose two fictional works from a list of ten, read the works during the course, and then write a research paper that incorporated both. The list included such heavyweights as the Bronte sisters, Chaucer, Pope, and Shakespeare—writers one would expect to be included on university reading lists.

But much to my chagrin, stuck there in the middle of the list, like a booger dangling from a supermodel’s nose, was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I was dumbfounded. “Harry Potter!” I spat with the malevolence of Draco Malfoy. “In a college class!” Surely, I reasoned, a professorial faux pas. My lecturer, however, assured me that she had not mistakenly given the class her children’s summer reading list. As a natural progression of deductive reasoning, I determined the professor had taken leave of her senses.

But as I pondered the list, I became intrigued. I relish the humorous essay, and Harry Potter among all those scribbling geniuses begged for a witty exposition. Accordingly, I chose The Sorcerer’s Stone and Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. The gist of my pseudo-exposé was that The Stone was not actually about Harry’s heroic attempt to defeat evil, as Rowling had so deceptively led her fans to believe, but rather Ron Weasley’s attempt to tame the shrew Hermione Granger, just as Petruchio set about to tame the “wild-cat” Kate. My professor was none too pleased with my tongue-in-cheek foray, humor in the scholarly essay for her being tantamount to literary blasphemy, but that is another story.

I bought The Stone, and as I read that remarkable work, the Imperious Curse struck. I was enchanted. I fell in love with the story, bought the rest of the volumes then in print, sequestered myself in my bedroom—much to my consort’s annoyance—devoured the lot with the relish of a turkey buzzard consuming putrefying flesh, and then stood frothing at the mouth waiting for Deathly Hallows to be released like every other bewitched Potterite in the world.

Indeed, I can not remember when, if ever, a work of fiction affected me so. It had to be the curse, you see, for I was so predisposed to despise the work. Everything in my background and in my haughty literary mind screamed that I would resist the mania sweeping the world, but, alas, I was hooked, swept along in Rowling’s juggernaut like every other “juvenile” reader on the planet. I began to suspect the Imperious Curse when I could not explain why the books affected me so.

But the inexpressible joy and contentment I garnered from strolling with Harry on his yearly journeys from Privet Drive to Hogwarts and back again was short lived. The Bible’s strictures against all things wizardry pounded on my conscious like Davey Jones’ Kraken caller. My wife began to give me that Oh-Lord-my-husband-is-going-to-hell look, and my nine-year-old son suggested that I throw the nefarious books away (out of the mouth of babes, right?). I could not bring myself to honor my son’s concerned request, so I hid them in the top of my closet instead.

I was able to resist the curse for a while after Harry’s seclusion in my closet. Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. One thing I’ve learned in life, though, is that adages are like most other things: they are rarely permanent. Something will eventually interfere with one portion of the adage, thus nullifying the effects of the other. Case in point: a few weeks ago I caught sight of the newly released paperback edition of Deathly Hallows while browsing through a Borders bookstore at Boston Logan International Airport. Imperio! Harry Potter was no longer out of mind. I bought the book and consumed it once again. Oh, the delights! Oh, the guilt! I felt like a kid sneaking a cigarette from a worldly uncle.

I came across another book that day. Propped next to Rowling’s masterpiece was a book entitled Harry Potter’s Bookshelf by John Granger. Granger? Oh, no! I thought. Could it be that this man is so thoroughly obsessed with Harry Potter that he is using a pseudonym that incorporates the last name of one of the main characters of the books as an act of obeisance? After all, the guy is a writer; perhaps he identifies with the cerebral capacities of Harry’s intellectual friend and his obsession is such that he could not help himself. Curiosity got the better of me, so I bought the book and began to read.

Once again, Imperio! You should be ashamed of yourself, Mr. Granger, taking advantage of a defenseless Muggle such as myself. And to add insult to injury, you forced me completely against my will to buy the rest of your books! If it were not for Muggle prejudice, sir, which would no doubt lead to my commitment in a rubber room, I would bring you before the bar. At the very least, you should be forced to put a warning label on your books. I suggest the following:

Warning! This book produces the Imperious Curse, which is irresistible to all Muggles. The reading of this book will cause troll-like behavior, cessation of personal hygiene, and threats of familial desertion because of the hours readers will be forced by the curse to spend pouring over its pages!

Indeed, I am consuming your works with the same delight I enjoyed while feasting on Ms. Rowling’s books. I particularly enjoy your work on alchemy. As I stated earlier, I am an English major, and throughout my trek through the halls of higher learning, alchemy was never mentioned. Too bad, too, for a grounding in alchemy would have gone a long way in helping me better understand the works of the English Greats. I have become so intrigued with the subject after reading your works that I intend to delve much deeper into the alchemist’s alembic.

Your treatment of Gothic literature is also enlightening—this, despite an entire semester I spent dedicated to the genre. In fact, I learned more from one chapter of Bookshelf than I did in sixteen weeks of Gothic Literature, and thanks to you, I now understand why I tend to gravitate towards literature that incorporates elements of the alchemical and/or the Gothic, and why Harry Potter has become one of my favorite characters.

It is the transcendence I experience from reading such works; it is the vicarious experience of something bigger than self through the life of characters in superbly written stories. I have tried the works of strictly modern and postmodern authors—Pynchon and Roth come to mind—but I always come away feeling depressed, empty, and, quite frankly, dirty after spending time with them. Is it any wonder that suicide rampages through the ranks of writers possessed with such a worldview?

Indeed, sir, I was once numbered among those who could not “see the spiritual forest for the magical trees” in Harry Potter; this, despite four years of studying the world’s literature. My preoccupation with the magic in the books caused me to miss obvious spiritual truths and blatant Christian themes. Now, thanks to you, I am an enlightened, proud Potterite, and I understand why the books affect me in such a positive way. I look forward to reading and discussing these remarkable works with my children.

You have opened several doors for me, Mr. Granger: a keen interest in literary alchemy, a better understanding of Gothic literature, and guilt-free enjoyment of Harry Potter, just to name a few. I thank you. With that said, from one former Marine to another, from one homeschooling parent to another, yea from one literary geek to another, if I am ever in your neighborhood, I owe you lunch.

If this is a prank, my hat is off to the prankster pulling my self-important leg. Would that all fraternity initiation challenges (“Get your letter published on this website”) were as well done as this one.

Your comments, please. More tomorrow when I can be sure that posts will actually go up.


  1. That might just be the most hilarious letter I’ve ever read. He wasn’t lying when he said he relishes the humorous essay.

    Definitely too brilliant to keep to yourself! I’m glad you shared it. I’m half tempted to pass it on to my writer’s group.

  2. I know Card’s a Mormon, but has he ever read the Book of Mormon? I have read many parts of it, & Twain wasn’t exaggerating. Think of the most boring parts of the Bible & then multiply that by a factor of ten for the Book of Mormon.

    To give a hostile reading of a book, you first have to survive actually reading the book without falling unconscious. 🙂

  3. Thanks for sharing that, John. It was great. I’ve no idea whether he’s sincere or pulling your leg, but it was a wonderful letter, whichever it is.

  4. Steve Morrison says

    He’s read it, all right; “many, many times” according to what he says here!

    I’d better admit I’ve never even tried to read the Book of Mormon, though.

  5. Terrific letter, John! No wonder you enjoyed it! Whether he’s pulling your leg or not, I agree with Eeyore & LibraryLily, too good not to share!

  6. Chapeau to that guy’s style – and no matter if literally true or not (I tend to believe so), it’s definitely “true” in spirit!

  7. I whole heartedly agree with the letter author’s delight in your books. I came to them (and Harry Potter) in a similar fashion – recommended by another Christian mother in response to my questions about Harry’s suitability for my children to read. Right now How Harry Cast His Spell is making it’s rounds at my house and beyond. I read it, then my husband, then I assigned it to my 14 year old for school because she need to read ‘books about books’ to help her get deeper meaning out of what she reads. Now it’s at a friend’s house for her and her 14 year old to read.

    Fundamentally, there must be a reason we all get so absorbed into this story. Thankfully, you have given us and ‘eagle-eye view’ of why that is.

  8. I don’t think he’s pulling your leg. My experience was too similar. I just wouldn’t have been able to state it in such an interesting way! Thanks so much for sharing. I, too, started out reading the first Harry Potter book in a hostile manner, so I could discuss it (and put it down intelligently). Then fell in love with it. Devoured the other books. Felt consumed with guilt. Discovered John’s books…etc., etc.

  9. Fantastic letter!
    Your author can easily prove whether or not he is just pulling your leg by producing the essay on the “Taming of the Shrew” and the “Sorcerer’s Stone.” I would love to read it!

  10. Greetings fellow HogPro students,
    My name is Brett, and I am the author of the aforementioned letter. The only earthly fraternity that I have ever been a member of is the United States Marine Corps, and my initiation into that institution occurred many moons ago and involved things other than writing, so my letter to John served no other purpose than to express my heartfelt appreciation for fascinating material about the Harry Potter series. Not only are his arguments solid and well reasoned the books are flat-out good reads.

    I have sent the essay referenced in the letter to John, as suggested by EStrunk. John has asked me to consider a rewrite with alchemy in mind, but I am hesitant at the moment to begin that task since the “sacred science” is so new to me. I have ordered several of his recommended books, so hopefully I will be fluent in the language soon.

    I do not know how to begin to thank y’all for the kind comments you have expressed about what I wrote. Your praise is at once flattering and humbling. You flatter me because I am not untouched by vanity, and it is always a pleasant thing to have one’s ego stroked. You humble me because it is always a nerve-wracking experience for me to have complete strangers read what I write. It’s like standing in front of the mirror naked. Although I like my naked self, I can’t help wondering what other people will think.

    An aside, John surreptitiously spanked me for committing an unforgivable Potter faux pas. Namely, I called an Unforgivable Curse a “Forbidden Curse.” After rubbing the soreness out of my cheeks and pulling up my pants, I add that I look forward to discussing Harry Potter and other great-reads with the HogPro community.

  11. Arabella Figg says

    Hi Brett, late to comment, but I thought your letter had the ring of authenticity. I read John’s The Hidden Key to Harry Potter when it came out and was so relieved, in the midst of the Christian firestorm, that someone was seeing what my husband and I were…and so much more. I always feel, after reading John’s commentary–did I even read the book(s)? His books sit next to the Potter series on our shelves.

    I’m so glad you’ve fessed up here and look forward to reading your essay. Are you the same Brett that participates at The Hog’s Head?

  12. Thank you Arabella. No, I have never posted at The Hog’s Head.

    I too wonder if I really read Harry Potter after reading John’s books. It is hard to believe that I missed so much. I am convinced my prejudice against some of Rowling’s political beliefs blinded me to some of what I missed. So it would seem that I need to take some of her themes to heart.

  13. brett, if you’d like to learn more about how Rowling worked her political & social views into HP, then Travis Prinzi’s Harry Potter & Imagination is the place to go. He does an excellent job of showing how JKR worked things out in the books. You probably still won’t agree with her views, goodness knows I always don’t, but you’ll have a greater appreciation for how she makes her views work in her world & what she may be trying to accomplish. Just a suggestion. I’m sure Travis would agree that you need to buy his book. 🙂

  14. revgeorge,

    Thanks for the info. I will buy the book, and you can tell the author that he owes you lunch.

  15. Arabella Figg says

    Brett, my error; it’s Brent that participates at the Hog’s Head. I second revgeorge’s rec on Travis’ book. I just finished it, and it’s really wonderful; a great complement to John’s work. It’s going on my Potter bookshelf next to John’s books.

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