Thursday, November 14, 2002

Some Critics Miss the Points About J. K. Rawlings and J. R. R. Tolkien

It’s that time once again. The next installment in the Disneyesque filmed versions of the popular Harry Potter children's fantasy novels by J. K. Rawlings –and the key word here is “fantasy”—is due to be released in theatres around the country tomorrow. The next installment of the classy and classical Lord of the Rings comparatively adult-level fantasy series will follow soon thereafter.

And once again, both –but especially the former-- will be met with a barrage of protests by many (especially amongst Protestant and Catholics) who seem ill-acquainted with Western literature save, perhaps, the local newspaper and the Bible, and likewise oddly unable to discern the difference between fact and fiction; not to mention those who seem to see a Global Satanic New Age Conspiracy behind the most innocuous presentations of myth-and-magic, no matter how hodge-podge and implausible (Harry Potter) even for one who believes in the supernatural and the demonic, or no matter how thought-provoking and invocative of Western Christianity (Rings). Granted, most Christians familiar with Tolkien’s work recognize the latter fact and place it in the same category as C. S. Lewis’ Narnia fantasies. Too many, however, especially in the upper far-right choirs of Christendom, do not and, in fact, look askance even at Lewis, whose fantasy works are more overtly Christian than Tolkien's.

In any case, whether one reads the novels of Rowlings or Tolkien (or even Lewis) --or views films based on those works-- one does so for their primary purpose: To be entertained. This rather salient fact seems to have been lost on both Tolkien's and Rowlings' critics. Moreover, the fact remains that the fairy tale versions of "magic" and Disney-style forms of "sorcery" (as in the famous Mickey Mouse cartoon, The Sorceror's Apprentice) depicted in Harry Potter bear no resemblance whatever to real-life Satanism or witchcraft (especially a la the modern, contrived "religion" of Wicca, created mostly out of whole cloth by occultist Gerald Gardner), or occult practice in general:

For example, nowhere in Harry Potter do the protagonists invoke Astaroth or Beelzebub; or summon demons; or conduct seances; or worship nature or "the Goddess"; or sacrifice animals to Satan; or dance in "magic circles" skyclad (i.e., naked). Instead, what one sees in Harry Potter is a smorgasboard of purely fictional elements and fantasy characters borrowed from all forms of Western folklore and legend. Even the scene in the movie of Harry and his friends learning to fly on broomsticks is based not on real occult practices, but on popular folklore, and Harry's magic wand is an echo of Disney "sorceror" Mickey Mouse, not Rosemary's Baby or even Merlin. Harry Potter no more teaches kids how to be practitioners of Wicca, or Satanism, or Necromancy, or Voo-Doo than Leggos teaches them how to construct office buildings, or Star Trek teaches them how to pilot a spaceship to the Moon.

Rather than some kind of imagined covert attempt by Hollywood in cahoots with the New Age movement to indoctrinate children into the nearest witches’ coven (which proves little more than that too many Harry Potter critics have entered the Twilight Zone) the only real problem with the Harry Potter series –unlike J. R. R. Tokein’s masterful work of political metaphor and symbolic Christian [i]didactica[/i] in the form of myth-and-magic story-telling-- lies elsewhere: As does the majority of contemporary Western secular fiction (and, for that matter, much of contemporary modern Western Christian fiction), the Harry Potter series seems shallow in how it deals with moral issues and with character development, especially in terms of teaching children to distinguish the differences between virtue and vice and to pursue the former.

In all fairness to Rowlings, however, her books are intended to entertain children, not teach them ethics. The very popular and enormously entertaining Veggie Tales videos are much better suited to that task.

In Tolkien’s story, Frodo, the lead character in the first installment of The Lord of the Rings must undertake dangerous tasks as well as overcome ongoing and great temptations as he seeks to destroy a demonic ring whose bearer would be given absolute power were he or she to choose to employ the ring. Added to that is the ring’s increasingly corrupting influence over the one who merely carries it without using it at all. Thus Frodo’s struggle is both temporal (overcome an evil force seeking to possess the ring in order to destroy the world) and spiritual (overcome both his imperfect nature and the ring’s morally debilitating effects upon his moral fortitude). The Lord of the Rings --written by Tolkein with the warring nations of the WW2 conflict and the then-new atom bomb in mind-- is nothing less than a wonderfully entertaining homily and epic-level parable against the dangers of absolute power and its tendency to corrupt absolutely as well as to destroy.

But nothing so high-minded can be discerned in the Harry Potter series, at least not in the first installment of the film version: The only reason the lead character, Harry, undertakes a dangerous mission to retrieve a magically powerful artifact from his friends’ arch-enemy is, well, the latter is his friends’ arch-enemy, and because the SOB murdered his parents when he was a baby. Beyond a vague appeal to “justice,” there is simply no moral element to Harry’s struggle to overcome both his foes and his weaknesses, the latter of which (unlike Frodo's) are less of a moral nature than a physical or mental one. Like much of what passes for "thinking" in modern Western liberal secularism (especially in politics and religion as well as in culture), the first Harry Potter story is about power versus powerlessness, not virtue versus vice, or even good versus evil --two concepts which seem hopelessly vague and empty of any real content in Harry Potter.

Other than a comic-book-level treatment of good and evil, this lack of moral clarity and depth is the only potential problem with the Potter series, at least last year's film version. Yet its most vehement critics ignore this very central aspect of Harry Potter, and aim instead at the wrong target --a target largely of their own collective imagining.

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