Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Harry Potter, friend or foe?

Sir Francis Bacon in his essay, Of Studies, wrote, "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested."
I'm one of those who has a tendency to assume that if a book cannot be chewed and digested then it ought not to be even tasted. But this is simply not so! It is easy, I know, to dismiss Harry Potter as “slop” because, as HP admirer James Thomas of Pepperdine University has noted, they strike most academics as “too current, too juvenile and too popular.” However, Narnia was dismissed by Lewis' colleagues for those same reasons. We need to remember what Milton asserted, that we should long for "the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read" ~ widely and broadly, in many fields, with many genres, and on many topics.
Is Harry Potter really worth tasting? worth swallowing? With all of those Great Books waiting to be devoured, is Harry Potter just a waste of time? Sir Philip Sydney (a Christian literary theorist) said that good books both instruct and delight, and thanks to Rowling's years of planning, HP certainly does this, as well as what Neil Postman assumes our reading should do. That is, "teaching us to think in a logically connected way...conditioning us to think in terms of abstract ideas, objective truth, and sustained reflection."

In The Deathly Hallows Lectures, John Granger argues that HP uses,
1. Narrative Misdirection from Miss Jane Austen
2. Literary Alchemy via Shakespeare and Charles Dickens
3. The Hero's Journey, let's say from Homer, Virgil, and Dante
4. Traditional Symbolism a la Messrs. Tolkien and Lewis
5. Postmodern Themes

Looking at number one, Narrative Misdirection, I recall Rowling saying, “The best twist ever in literature is in Jane Austen's Emma. To me she is the target of perfection at which we shoot in vain.” Rowling certainly took some good cues and put JA's genius to work. Just as I was utterly surprised when I learned the truth about Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, I would never have guessed the truth about Snape or even Dumbledore.
Rowling has a talent for descriptions. True, she does employ "novel slang" as JA addresses in a letter to her niece, "Devereux Forrester being ruined by his vanity is very good: but I wish you would not let him plunge into a 'vortex of dissipation.' I do not object to the thing, but I cannot bear the expression: it is such thorough novel slang; and so old that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened."
However, many of Rowling's descriptions hit the nail on the head.

Mr. Weasley gave a maniacal laugh; Mrs. Weasley threw him a look, upon which he became immediately silent and assumed an expression appropriate to the sickbed of a close friend.

"Yes," said Heromine, now turning the fragile pages as if examining rotting entrails...

Ron stared around the room as if he had been bidden to memorize it.
It puts me in mind of Wodehouse. (God bless him!) For example, “Even in this bitter mood of his, when he was feeling like some prophet of Israel judging the sins of the people." And, “He chuckled like the last bit of water going down the waste-pipe in a bath.” Perhaps it's a British talent? For understatement?

Number 2 brings us to Literary Alchemy, which Granger describes as
the science for the perfection or sanctification of the alchemist's soul. This heroic venture is all but impossible today because the way we look at reality, at "things," per se, makes the Great Work itself almost an absurdity. Unlike the medieval alchemists, we moderns and postmoderns see things with a clear subject/object distinction; that is, we believe you and I and the table are entirely different things and between them is there is no connection or relation. The knowing subject is one thing and the observed object is completely 'other.
Granger points out that Rowling shows the achemical transformation in every book.
The resurrection at story’s end each year is the culmination of that year’s cycle and transformation. The cycle then closes with congratulations and explanations from the master alchemist and a return to the Dursleys for another trip through the cycle.” And in the end, “Death is a necessary part of the alchemical work; only in the death of one thing, from the alchemical perspective, is the greater thing born. (Alchemists frequently cited John 12:24 and Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection.25) But Love, the action of contraries and their resolution, transcends death. Love brings life out of death, even eternal life and spiritual perfection. This is a direct match with Rowling’s message about how to understand death and love.

It is not only Harry who must learn self-sacrifice- even to the point of death- but also James Potter (“Lily, take Harry and go!It's him! Go! Run! I'll hold him off!”), Lily Potter ("Not Harry, please no, take me, kill me instead ---"), Snape ( Don't really need a quote here because it's pretty much his whole adult life.), Dumbledore (“Don't hurt them, please...hurt me instead.”), Ron ("No!" shouted Ron. "You can have me, keep me!"), the list goes on. The theme of sacrifice, of dying to self bobs up over and over and over. It is Voldemort who does not understand this. If he did, as Dumbledore might say, he would not be Voldemort. When Harry tells Voldemort that he (Harry) was saved through love and sacrifice, Voldemort screams, “Accidents!”
Dumbledore tells Harry, "And his knowledge remains woefully incomplete, Harry! That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children's tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth that he has never grasped." (709)
When Harry challenges Voldemort declaring he knows of things that Voldemort doesn't even understand, "Is it love again?" said Voldemort, his snake's face jeering. "Dumbledore's favorite solution, love, which he claimed conquered death, though love did not stop him falling from the tower and breaking like an old waxwork?”
Because Voldemort views the world as his own. Much the same way Satan did when he offered Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world.” DH: "And he walked on, around the edge of the lake, taking in the outlines of the beloved castle, his first kingdom, his birthright..."

Titus Burckhardt noted,
This science (of alchemy) went into precipitous decline and corruption at the end of the Renaissance and especially at the Enlightenment, when it was eclipsed by the materialist view and priorities of modern chemistry. But it was kept alive by writers who found in its imagery and symbolism a powerful way of communicating Christian truth...Shakespeare and Jonson, among others, used alchemical imagery and themes because they understood that the work of the theater in human transformation was parallel if not identical to the work of alchemy in that same transformation. The alchemical work was claimed to be greater than an imaginative experience in the theater, but the idea of purification by identification or correspondence with an object and its transformations was the same in both.

The Hero's Journey, number 3, is a lot of fun for all of us who love the classics. Harry, like all of those great heroes of old is broken down, disillusioned, and bled until everything that he thinks he is is taken away or revealed as a falsehood.
Granger states,
The boundaries of his world collapse; magical enemies come to his home with the Dursleys, and Aunt Petunia knows about them. The Dursleys’ house is no longer a sanctuary, however miserable, and Hogwarts is no longer edifying or any joy to him...But the old and the new man cannot live together in the same person or world—and this is Harry’s war with his doppelganger or twin-in-spirit, Lord Voldemort... Love has overcome death in each of the books...Having completed the circle and achieved the center the seventh time, this last time by sacrificing himself without hope of gain, Harry, in effect, has executed his ego or died to himself, thereby returning to the center or transpersonal self before Voldemort kills him.
Rowling says she was influenced by Charles Dicken's Tale of Two Cities. Especially Carton's “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
Just as Sydney Carton is no saint, neither is Harry a saint. He struggles to believe, just as Rowling struggles, but in the end he chooses the path of obedience and sacrifice. Harry does not die as a savior to the whole world, but he does die to himself. Harry isn't an allegorical Christ, but his choice is the same as Carton's just as it is the same as Christ's.
Mark Shea, in his article, Harry Potter and the Christian Critics, in the magazine First Things answers the critics who object to "Harry lying and bending the rules and gets away with it." He says Harry was granted
Most Favored Damnation status—as though books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn did not exist and were not classics of the English language. Proponents of such arguments seem to really think that a book in which the whole point was the purification of the hero ought to have a hero who did not need purification.

These same people are horrified that Dumbledore is found to have faults- great faults. Though Rowling purposefully shows him as being a deeply flawed hero. In DH all of Dumbledore's mistakes are brought to us in sharp relief. Not only by his brother (who Harry tells, "The night that your brother died, he drank a potion that drove him out of his mind. He started screaming, pleading with someone who wasn't there. 'Don't hurt them, please...hurt me instead.'"), but also by Dumbledore himself at King's Cross station.
Mark Shea says,
Dumbledore's great downfall was doing evil "for the Greater Good"—and that, I think, is the key. Deathly Hallows is the book in which, above all, Dumbledore gives way to Harry as the doubtful and imperfect Baptist gives way to Jesus, as the great but pagan Vergil gives way to Beatrice, as the greatest prophet gives way to the least in the kingdom of heaven.

Dumbledore admits his failings (even to the point of comparing himself with Voldemort) to Harry at King's Cross station, what he does with power, his longing for the Resurrection Stone, and his neglect of his sister. All of which Rowling shows us- and Harry- so that he may make the proper adjustments to his pride and assumptions before dueling Voldemort.
Dumbledore is, like Vergil, a "great man" (in the words of Hagrid). But he himself acknowledges that Harry is the "better man." Harry can do what Dumbledore could not. That's not because Harry has mastered secret knowledge. It's because Harry is the recipient of grace. Dumbledore's death is marked by the sin that marred Dumbledore's life: He does evil "for the greater good." And the plan he hatches "for the greater good" is fruitless. The Elder Wand he aimed to give to Snape goes to Draco. But, in the mystery of grace, his failure is redeemed by Harry's response to grace.
Dumbledore tells Harry, "You are the true master of death, because the true master does not seek to run away from Death." (720)

Number 4, Traditional Symbolism, is great! Although Rowling falls short of Lewis and Tolkien, she is excellent at the “magic of story and myth” using imagery and symbols from the Christian tradition. I would also argue that HP fits into the category of mythopoeia ("myth-making"). This meaning of the word mythopoeia follows its use by J. R. R. Tolkien in the 1930s. The authors in this genre integrate traditional mythological themes and archetypes into fiction.
In Deathly Hallows, where the mysteries are made clear, we learn that the whole of the myth turns on the interpretation of the symbols. We get a glimpse of this when Dumbledore is telling Snape about the connection between Voldemort and Harry. Snape responds, "Souls? We are talking of minds!" (685)
Granger writes,
Understanding their superficial, moral, allegorical, and mythic or anagogical meanings requires some appreciation of English literature and symbolism...An authentic symbol is a means of passage and of grace between the shadow-world of time and space in which we live and what is real.
This is demonstrated most effectively when Harry asks Dumbledore at King's Cross if their conversation was real or just inside his head. To which Dumbledore responds, "Of course it is all happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?" (723)
Rowling uses symbolism to demonstrate Harry's change after burying Dobby through alchemical colors, "Dawn was breaking over the horizon, shell pink and faintly gold."

In DH Harry's transformation, I believe, happens acutely when he is digging the grave for hobbit-like Dobby. "I want to do it properly," were the first words of which Harry was fully conscious of speaking. "Not by magic. Have you got a spade?" (478)

“He dug with a kind of fury, relishing the manual work, glorying in the non-magic of it, for every drop of his sweat and every blister felt like a gift to the elf who had saved their lives.”

"Just as Voldemort had not been able to possess Harry while Harry was consumed with grief for Sirius, so his thoughts could not penetrate Harry now, while he mourned Dobby. Grief, it seemed, drove Voldemort out... though Dumbledore, of course, would've said it was love..."
Finally, he has chosen to trust Dumbledore and gained control of his connection with Voldemort. "...the lightning scar on Harry's forehead prickled, but he ignored it, refusing to acknowledge its pain or invitation." (488)

Number 5, Postmodern Themes, is concerned with the ideas prevalent to everyone living in this historical time period. One of those ideas being, we may even call it a 'postmodern religion', fundamentalism=bad. When Rowling speaks of fundamentalism she is meaning ignorant, prejudiced people, but misses that this definition is the same one which the Death Eaters hold in regards to Muggles.
If you want legalism, go for a Progressive society. Justice alone matters. Equality. Tolerance. Etc. But you will find no sacrifice. The sins of traditional societies are forgiven for one reason- the blood. Blood is a scandal to enlightened man. Only Christians can dare recognize the bestial element, without either shame, despair, or contradiction.
Although Rowling is postmodern, she does recognize this. As Granger points out,
She has succeeded in smuggling in a great deal of traditional, even transcendent, material and themes into these stories—including her Christian beliefs—in answer to these questions and concerns. The “religious undertones,” as she has said, are “obvious” to anyone who hasn’t been immunized to this possibility... If there is one message that postmodern readers do not, perhaps cannot hear, it is that they will be judged in the afterlife for their thoughts, words, and deeds. Ms. Rowling in King's Cross presents this 'judgment' in such a way that it seems anything but the work of an angry God. Rather our condition in eternity will be the consequences of our choices and our capacity for love - and there will be no helping those who enter God's Glory with atrophied spirits and darkened hearts.

Harry tells Voldemort (after seeing his soul at King's Cross), "It's your one last chance," said Harry, "it's all you've got left...I've seen what you'll be otherwise...Be a man...try...Try for some remorse...."
Rowling has compared her faith in God to that of Graham Greene, the Catholic writer. The struggle to believe. “I believe, Lord help my unbelief.” We see Harry struggle with this, especially in DH.
HP is certainly not Evangelical, but is a parable or symbol. Those that reject it on the basis that it's not Christian enough, seem to do so because they fear and/or misunderstand (not because it is, say, too steamy). The idea being: If we are going to read something in the category of not being Christian enough we only read it to censure or scorn (e.g. Darwin).
For those of you watching the movie but not reading the book, don't expect to see overtly Christian themes. Even those making Lewis' Narnia movies have steamrollered over some of his most cherished beliefs. (Don't even get me going on JA movies!) To expect otherwise from Hollywood is mental negligence.
Philippians 4 does not say to read only Christian works. If we are honest, we must admit that some Christian works are not "excellent" or "worthy of praise" or "lovely" or "of good report." Many non-Christian writers are good to read because they unwittingly follow God's aesthetic laws of craftsmanship and because they are honest. Hemingway was no Christian, but when in "Hills Like White Elephants" he imagines a man and woman discussing whether she should get an abortion, he nails the issues—the man's attempt to manipulate and use the woman; her reluctance, her yielding to the pressure, and her guilt—in a way that corresponds to God's moral truth.

Rowling states,"The two groups of people who are constantly thanking me are wiccans (white witches) and boarding schools. And really, don't thank me. I'm not with either of them."
C.S. Lewis writes in his essay, Studies in medieval and Renaissance literature,
Magic sought power over nature; astrology proclaimed nature's power over man. Hence the magician is the ancestor of the modern practicing or 'applied' scientist, the inventor; the astrologer, of the nineteenth-century philosophical materialist. Neither figure, by the way, is specially typical of the Middle Ages. Both flourished as much, if not more, in the ancient and in the renaissance world.

Mark Shea of First Things, says,
The magic of Harry is, as John Granger points out, "incantational," not "invocational," exactly like the magic of Gandalf. Born with the talent for magic, Gandalf says the magic words and fire leaps forth from his staff, just as from Harry's wand. No principalities or powers are invoked in HP. Indeed, if any words are "invocational" they are the prayer to Elbereth and Gilthoniel uttered in Middle Earth. Yet nobody accuses Tolkien of promoting the worship of false gods. That's because we understand Tolkien's fictional subcreation and its rootedness in Christian thought. I suggest Christian critics try to extend Rowling the same charity.

As Lupin said,"...everything for which we are fighting: the triumph of good, the power of innocence, the need to keep resisting." (441)
Gandalf stands before the Balrog and his doom as Gandalf the Grey, forbidding evil ~ “I am a servant of the secret fire. You cannot pass.” Yet upon return from the abyss, he is Gandalf the White.


Lydia said...

Nicely said, E. Gave me goose bumps when I started reading. I like reading your blog for educational purposes, and makes me look smarter at parties ;)

Esther said...

Yes, I certainly know how to kill the conversation at parties.:)

grace said...

I think this was a good article. Of course as soon as it had the warning about a plot spoiler(thank you very much for that by the way), I stopped reading, but it assured me once again that I want to read through them all, and I am convinced that I will love them as dearly as you do:)

Katy said...

That's funny, Grace. I did the same thing. I haven't read them, but one day I'm going to get around to it. I wonder if they'd be good read aloud books for me and the kids during the summer?

Esther said...

Katy, I think that is a great idea! I read the first book to Ahlana last summer, and we are ready to start book 2 (now that we have finished P&P:)).

Bess said...

Katy and E, Um... Definitely get started with the whole reading aloud idea, but by book 5, you may never want to read aloud again. At least, your voice may need a few months to recover. The books get bigger and bigger. All joking aside, the first few would be a great read in the summer. You can also get all of them on cd at the library if you want to also listen in the vehicle or to have the later tomes read for you. Warning Katy, once you start reading them, you may not be able to wait on the nightly reading to the kids. They're hard to put down! E, I am LOVING the article btw. Still reading. My fav quote is by Matthew Smallwood. ;-)

Esther said...

Bess, I agree! I'm hoping Ahlana wanting to read bigger books on her own and me tiring out w/ reading them aloud will dovetail, and she'll be interested enough to want to pick them up on her own. And in encouraging Katy to start reading them aloud "to her kids" I must admit I was hoping she would get hooked too.

Favorite quote? Oh, yes, Matthew Smallwood is a genius isn't he?;)