Harry casts a spell on students

HE has been accused of promoting devil-worship and denounced for trivialising some of Britain's most ancient traditions.

To millions of young readers, he is simply the boy wizard whose fate they are eager to discover when JK Rowling's final Harry Potter novel hits the shelves this summer.

But across the world he is taking on a bewildering range of images, cast as villain or hero by a growing number of religious and semi- religious groups.

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Now Edinburgh University is launching a course on The Magic of Harry Potter, which explores the international phenomena that the Edinburgh writer's creation has become.

Students will examine the religious controversy which has surrounded the young wizard ever since the publication of the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, in 1997.

The evening class will use the series as a "springboard" to discuss a variety of topics ranging from myth, magic, morality and spirituality, to philosophy and socio-political issues.

The religious arguments which have raged over Rowling's books will feature heavily in the course, which has been created by the university's Dr Geo Trevarthen.

The Celtic culture expert, who lives in Selkirk with her husband and two young children, is fascinated by Harry's dual role as both hero and villain to Christians and Pagans.

The 42-year-old, who describes herself as coming from a family of Scottish healers, said: "While many Christians respond to the stories just as literature like the general public, some Christians, particularly evangelical groups in America, have viewed the books as recruiting for witchcraft.

"By contrast, a vocal minority and some religious authors, again mainly in America, have claimed Harry as a Christian and religious hero.

"The fact that Harry was saved by his mother's sacrifice and protected by her blood is why some Christians have claimed Harry as their hero.

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"I understand their perspective but still think it's a bit strange given the church's historical treatment of witches and wizards.

"Other Christians have claimed that Harry recruits children to practising magic. They all see magic as satanic.

"Pagans have had a less organised response to the books. While some Pagans love the books as a positive depiction of witches and wizards, others are against popular consumer culture as a whole and see the books as a trivialisation of ancient traditions.

"I think that JK Rowling has skilfully created a secular magical universe where one can imagine witches and wizards being of any - or no - religion."

The ten-week Magic of Harry Potter course, provided through the university's Office of Lifelong Learning, is believed to be the first academic study of the novels in Ms Rowling's adopted home city.

Richard Bizley, deputy director of the Office of Lifelong Learning, said: "We encourage a wide range of interests which include popular culture, but what we like to do, where ever possible, is link to other themes.

"This is taking a philosophical view of the narrative of the books and films and tracing back the roots to myths, legends and ideas of magic and spirituality and gives people the chance to discuss the literary and cultural significance.

"We did a course recently on the Da Vinci Code and we would anticipate this will be just as popular given the interest in Harry Potter.

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She said she plans to take at least one class in the Elephant House, one of the cafes where JK Rowling reputedly wrote the stories. She added that the course, which starts on April 17, will be discussion-based and will not include formal assignments.

She said: "It's not about trying to work out what JK Rowling meant when she wrote certain things in her books. There will be a lot of room for people to share their own experiences about the books and what they take from them."