Besides being a rattling good read, the Harry Potter novels may also help reduce prejudice towards gays, immigrants and refugees among readers, according to new research.
The Potter stories are littered with groups who suffer discrimination, from "mudbloods" (with no magical parents) to elves, goblins and "half-giants". Much of the action revolves around Harry and his friends standing up for these minorities.
"Harry has meaningful contact with characters belonging to stigmatised groups," say the researchers from a group of Italian universities. "He tries to understand and appreciate their difficulties ... and fights for a world free of social inequalities."
Setting out to test whether Harry's epic battles against Voldemort - whose beliefs have frequently been compared to Nazism - might have a positive impact on Potter fans, the academics conducted three studies.
In the first, for six weeks they read selected excerpts from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to 34 fifth-grade children. They tested the youngsters' attitudes to immigrants, before and after the sessions, and noted a significant reduction in prejudice.
In the other studies they surveyed high school and university students about their attitudes towards gays and refugees. There was a correlation between the number of Harry Potter books they had read and their degree of tolerance.
"Reading the novels of Harry Potter is associated with improved attitudes towards a stigmatised group such as homosexuals," concludes the report, which also revealed more positive attitudes towards refugees among Potter fans.
However, unsurprisingly, researchers also found the effect was much less among the small number of readers who identified with Voldemort rather than Harry.
In the past, author JK Rowling has denied that the Potter books come with anything as heavy handed as a message.
"I've never set out to teach anyone anything," she said in 2003. "It's been more of an expression of my views and feelings than sitting down and deciding 'What is today's message?'"
However, she has also called the books "a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry", adding: "I think it's one of the reasons that some people don't like the books, but I think that it's a very healthy message to pass on to younger people that you should question authority and you should not assume that the establishment or the press tells you all of the truth."
In 2007 Rowling caused a stir among Potter fans and beyond with her comment that she had "always thought of" Dumbledore as gay.
- Sydney Morning Herald