Harry Potter had just triumphed in another face-to-face showdown with the forces of evil -- represented, logically enough, by a gigantic serpent.
But the young wizard also discovered darkness, as well as light, in his own soul. His ordeal in the Chamber of Secrets revealed that he truly was free to have embraced evil and the house of Salazar Slytherin, rather than the noble house of Godric Gryffindor.
"It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities," says Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
This kind of scene is typical of the vaguely moral, "good versus evil" plots in many fantasy novels, said literary critic Kathryn Lindskoog, who is best known for her books about the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. Yet the Harry Potter books also specifically address the complex and confusing world of modern childhood. The characters are tempted to do what is wrong, as well as challenged to do what they know is right. They face real choices.
"The Harry Potter books are cute and naughty in that us-versus-them sort of way that kids like so much and I guess it is true that they contain some moral ambiguities," said Lindskoog. "Welcome to the real world. The question is whether these books tell children that they are supposed to choose good over evil. It seems to me that, so far, they are doing just that."
One thing is certain: millions of people are choosing to invite Harry Potter and his friends into their homes. "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Harry Potter and the Secret Chamber" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" recently grabbed the top three slots on the U.S. hardback fiction bestseller lists at the same time. British author Joanne Kathleen Rowling has promised four more books in the series.
The books have their critics. Some worry that they are too violent and, since Rowling has said future volumes will be darker and more complex, they are likely to become bloodier and more distressing. Others believe that the books may popularize witchcraft, in an era in which the principalities and powers of public education and popular culture would certainly reject, let's say, "Harry Potter and the Rock of Ages."
Nevertheless, evangelical activist Charles Colson and his radio-commentary researchers have concluded, "the magic in these books is purely mechanical, as opposed to occultic. That is, Harry and his friends cast spells, read crystal balls and turn themselves into animals -- but they don't make contact with a supernatural world." Meanwhile, the characters learn "courage, loyalty and a willingness to sacrifice for one another -- even at the risk of their lives. Not bad lessons, in a self-centered world."
Fantasy fiction often causes controversy, stressed Lindskoog, because it blends powerful emotions and messages with symbols and stories that are wide open to different interpretations. But there are common themes that grace the classic fantasy novels. In an updated edition of her book "How to Grow a Young Reader" - which surveys 1,800 works of children's literature -- Lindskoog and co-author Ranelda Mack Hunsicker note that these works consistently:
* Emphasize the importance of personal choices.
* Focus on the "heroic thoughts and deeds of seemingly ordinary characters."
* Recognize the "presence of evil in the world and the need for vigilance on the part of those who love truth."
* Help the reader achieve a "clearer understanding of oneself and society without resorting to preaching."
* Provide a sense of hope.
The jury remains out on Harry Potter, said Lindskoog. But this frenzy is typical of the media fads that sweep through youth culture, including children's literature. Meanwhile, researchers continue to find increasing numbers of adolescents with cable-era television and VCRs in their rooms and, in 1998, 66 percent of American movies were rated R or worse.
"There is real evil out there and parents need to stay on guard," said Lindskoog. "So I hope parents are out there reading the Harry Potter books for themselves and discussing them with their kids. Anything that pushes parents to get more involved in the lives of their children can't be all bad."