Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter

So, I've been avoiding most of the articles about Harry Potter, first in order to avoid the inevitable spoilers and then because, once I'd read the book, there didn't seem to be much point. But a brief piece in last week's TIME rather stumped me. The author, Lev Grossman, argues that Rowling's work is a radical departure from the mainstream tradition of fantasy because it's not Christian, like the work of "her literary forebears", JRRT and C.S.L., concluding that "Rowling has more in common with celebrity atheists like Christopher Hitchens than she has with Tolkien and Lewis". [TIME, July 23 2007, page 15]

Well, I don't think she derives all that much directly from Tolkien or Lewis, but she's definitely in the fantasy tradition. The idea that this tradition had been predominantly Xian before the first Harry Potter book, however, strikes me as decidedly odd. Granted, George McDonald was a former preacher (until his congregation sacked him) and his piety is deeply ingrained in all his work. But Wm Morris was anything but orthodox; Lord Dunsany sometimes used Xian imagery in sentimental fashion (e.g., at the end of "The Highwayman") but ended one of his novels with the 'happy ending' of having a priest convert to paganism and preside at a ritual sacrifice; E. R. Eddison was himself pagan, a devout worshipper of Aphrodite; Cabell might have been an old-school Episcopalian but you'd never know it from JURGAN et al; and so forth. If most of the famous fantasy writers of the past were Xian, they certainly kept it out of their work, to the extent that L. Sprague de Camp (not the most perceptive of men) openly wondered how a Christian like Tolkien could write fantasy.

The same applies if we think of the Potter series as children's literature: you'd never know from reading ALICE IN WONDERLAND that "Lewis Carroll" was actually Rev. Charles Dodgson; the only god to show up in THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS is Pan, not Christ; Doctor Doolittle never goes to church in any of the Hugh Lofting books that I can recall; there's no Xianity, explicit or implicit, in the Hundred Acre Wood (despite C.J.L. Culpepper's hilarious essay to the contrary in THE POOH PERPLEX); if there's a church or graveyard in Oz, I missed it. There have been talented Christians working in the field, like L'Engle and Lewis himself, but they stand out because they're a minority, not the mainstream.

So why does the piece in TIME think otherwise? Is it as simple as Grossman's never having read any fantasy except Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling, and concluding 'one of these things is not like the others'? Have to admit that seems the likeliest explanation to me.

--JDR

1 comment:

Johanna said...

The journalist's argument is wrong headed for other reasons, too: I don't think that Harry Potter is any less Christian than 'Lord of the Rings', whatever Rowling's beliefs. Harry saves everyone in the end by allowing Voldemort to kill him. True, there's no mention of anyone going to church (except that Harry has a godfather, and both his parents' grave and the grave of Dumbleore's family have Biblical inscriptions), but then there's no mention of anyone going to church in the Chronicles of Narnia, either! Not that I'm arguing that HP is a Christian allegory in the same way that Narnian is - I just don't see the atheism.