Wednesday, October 30, 2002

The Lion, the Warlock and Middle Earth-Commenters on the Harry Potter/supernatural media post wanted to compare Harry to the Narnia series of C.S. Lewis and the Middle Earth series (Lord of the Rings being the best known) of Tolkien. First of all, lest anyone wants to make me out to be some crazed Bible-thumping Potter-basher, I have very little animosity towards the Potter series. It seems to be fairly innocent fun once you get past the magical milieu, and is far better on a moral basis than most of secular youth fiction these days. That doesn't mean I'm recommending it, but reading the books are fairly far down the list of things to chew someone out about. Ideajoy's Dave King recommended this Mike Hertenstein article on the issue, which defends Potter against such contrasts.
J. K. Rowling has lately become associated in the public mind with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien: all are British fantasists, appeal to a similar readership, and use initials for names. Some judge their works of comparable literary quality. Our first concern is that all three, in their stories, depict magic and marvels. Some people just don't like this sort of thing, and, indeed, a few go so far as to suggest fantasy is morally inferior to realism. For those who deem Harry Potter unacceptable, the easiest course is to condemn fantasy literature in toto. But many religious critics of Harry Potter look upon Lewis and Tolkien, both admitted Christians, with too much family pride to be able do so.
In other parts of the article, Hertenstein points out the escapist nature of science fiction as a similar outlet for the urge to fantasize. Such efforts aren't unbiblical in and of themselves, as long as they contribute to drawing people closer to God. The Veggie Tales people have a space-opera3-2-1-Penguins series out, so that tradition continues in evangelical media.
Stated plainly then, such a critic's problem is to make the case that Rowling should be condemned for her use of magic, marvels and pagan references in a way that not also render illegitimate the use of same by their favorite Christian authors. Generally, one finds the critics' instincts (for disliking Harry Potter) outrun their abilities to explain.
Generally. I'll try to be an exception.
Here's a common argument: magical powers in Lewis' Narnia series are depicted as submitted to the rule of Aslan (the God figure), and therefore acceptable, while in the Potter books magic is a trade that must be learned, ergo, "there is no source that defines morality, only instinct and personal preference." Talk about personal preference! This argument only proves that the person making it prefers allegory, with its straight-forward correspondences (Aslan = God) to myth. The fact that J. K Rowling doesn't have a God figure in her stories doesn't make her stories godless; it makes them non-allegorical.
I want to drop back five yards and look at the idea of it being non-allegorical. Allegory is defined as " the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence." Some stories have a bigger message intended, holding "universal truths" as reviewers often say. Even if Harry Potter isn't some overarching stereotype of boyhood, some messages do flow from the books. Some of these messages Ms. Rowling intended, some she didn't. Having to fight evil in an a-theistic setting, a possible side message is that a good person can defeat evil without God's help. You can imply God's help or not imply it at all.
I don't recall any historic controversy over the source that defines morality for Cinderella's Fairy Godmother! Indeed, if a ruling supernatural personality is unnecessary for the magic in Potter, that only proves magic in that world is a mechanical, not an organic, metaphor, functioning much closer to technology than to religion. The learning of magical spells in Harry Potter is the fantasy equivalent of space fiction's scientific or pseudo-scientific technique: on par with Star Trek's making the bad guy disappear with a systematic recalibrating of the whatzit deflector scrims.
No, people didn't gripe much about Cinderella, but I listed it in my first post in how magic is commonplace in the movies. He's hitting upon another danger spot. If you look at magic as merely manipulating the mana in the universe, magic becomes merely applied physics and is no more evil than starting a car's engine. It is often a technique that New Age type practices can try and sneak around theological barriers; if it's simply natural, how can God complain? God could complain by noting that people should be turning to Him for empowerment rather than magic, whatever the source of it. Given the warning against magic in the Bible, working with anything supernatural that doesn't have God's handprint on it is a no-go zone. In the Narnia series (it's been a decade since I read them, so feel free to correct me) the lines between good and evil were more clearly drawn, as Aslan was written as a Jesus-analog. In the Middle Earth series (here we're talking two decades of rust), the world is at best pre-biblical, creating a magical good-versus-evil that transcended traditional theology. My exposure to Tolkien came in my pre-Christian, Dungeons-and-Dragons undergrad era, while I read the Narnia books while running Cedar Campus' bookstore, so I'm still a bit leery of Tolkien; a combination of its pre-Christian universe coupled with the RPG milieu I associate it with makes me less conformable with the allegories. In the Potter series, the magic doesn't have as much of a G-vs-E feel to it, nor does the forces of good have as much of a coherent sense to it. That would make it less allegorical, but the absence of that organized force of good makes necessary for the heroes to go it more-or-less alone, creating a de-facto allegory of its own. Modern fiction is less allegorical, for there is less of an emphasis on clinging to the good and rejecting evil. However, such lack of message of good and evil sends its own message of amorality. To Rowling's credit, Harry and his buddies are good kids who eventually do the right things, so there is more allegory there than Hertenstein would like to admit. However, such a subdued, less moralistic, message can get lost in the magic. I'm not against fantasy or sci-fi as classes, but like my fiction to be edifying.

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