Saturday, June 10, 2006

Harry Potter II An Interview with John Granger

Here's more from the Logres Hall site:

John Granger, author of Looking for God in Harry Potter, engaged in an email conversation with me on the Harry Potter stories. Thanks, John! For a wonderful array of articles on the Harry Potter books, please visit John's website: I also highly recommend his book, Looking for God in Harry Potter. As I told John beforehand, I am, to some extent, playing Devil's Advocate with these questions, though I am genuinely curious.

Chad: You have made what I consider an excellent case for the distinction between incantational and invocational magic in Looking for God in Harry Potter, and for the fact that the good characters in the Potter books make use of the former, not the latter. But is there another distinction to be made? Symbols of good and symbols of evil? What of the use of the witch—a traditional fairy-tale symbol for evil— as a symbol of good? Certainly Hermione is not the White Witch and Harry is not Faustus: Rowling has taken care to recast traditional witches in a better light. But older writers seemed to take the traditional symbolism for granted. George MacDonald, for example, wrote the following: ‘For the power of the fairies they have by nature; whereas a witch gets her power by wickedness’ (At the Back of the North Wind); also, this: ‘In some countries she would have been called a witch, but that would have been a mistake, for she never did anything wicked, and had more power than any witch could have (The Wise Woman, emphasis mine). Or one thinks of Lewis’s Peter asking, ‘Aren’t they [Robins] on the right side in all the stories?’ Are Rowling’s good witches a confusion of symbols? Even if we can say that Rowling has taken enough care to make the contrasts obvious, is it not at least a misstep on her part, especially given your argument that she is ultimately writing Christian fiction?

John: Ms. Rowling is a Postmodern writer, and, as such, she not only combines genres with remarkable flair (there are at least 10 working simultaneously in the books), she certainly doesn’t give a rip about conventional mental categories or ‘metanarratives,’ something like ‘evil’ to her and the bulk of her readers. ‘Good witch,’ consequently, is not the ‘square circle’ it is to those readers trying their bearings exclusively from the Levitical texts (and applying them selectively…).

Chad: A follow-up: if the inversion of symbols in this instance is acceptable, is there anywhere we should draw the line in terms of preserving the symbolic norms of traditional fairy stories? Is it OK to use a traditional Christ-symbol (a stag or a phoenix) as a symbol for Satan? Can a demon be used as a good character?

John: Symbols work or they don’t. Inverting them is nonsensical, at least in the examples you suggest. A symbol of the resurrection like a stag’s antlers regenerating or a phoenix’s rebirth doesn’t transfer to a psychic, fallen reality but to a spiritual and contranatural one.

Chad: Tolkien described with disdain ‘the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific magician’. One also thinks of a quote from the Harry Potter series: ‘Many witches and wizards, talented though they are in the area of loud bangs and smells and sudden disappearings, are yet unable to penetrate the veiled mysteries of the future.’ Much of the Potter magic seems to be the ‘laborious, scientific’ sort: ‘loud bangs and smells’, though there seem to be recent indicators that a deeper sort of magic (sans potions and wands) exists. Given this, and given your assertion that Rowling is writing in the tradition of Tolkien, Lewis, and the other Inklings, what do you think Tolkien would have made of the Potter stories? And why does Rowling focus so much on the cauldron-brewing, spell-casting, ‘scientific’ kind of magic?

John: I’m a little slow but you’ve lost me here. There are Potions that are involved but far and away most of the magic is done by mechanical voice command in spells and charms. This is incantational, ‘harmonizing’ magic with the fabric of the created world (i.e., with the Creative Word) – nothing laborious or scientific about it. If anything it is a contrast with technology and science.

Chad: Even given the incantational/invocational distinction, how do you reconcile the use of Divination with the Bible’s flat prohibition of it by name (Deuteronomy 18:9-12)? Are there incantational and invocational types of Divination? Or does the answer lie in the scepticism of some of the major Potter characters (i.e., Hermione, Dumbledore) towards Divination? If so, how can we reconcile this with the fact that Professor Trelawney does seem to possess something of a prophetic gift? Should she be considered a sort of Balaam-character: a true prophet, but one with serious flaws and problems?

John: Ms. Rowling is simultaneously laughing at New Age divination types and allowing that there is more to the world (including understanding of time and space) than is dreamt of in worldly philosophies, Horatio. Even risible characters like Trelawney have their moments and the story is wonderfully nuanced this way; again, qua Postmodern, she is fighting any sort of pigeon holing and easy categorization and dismissal.

Chad: While there are many moments of true beauty and high nobility in the Potter stories, one notices that even Rowling’s good kids bear a remarkable resemblance to the hip, pop-culture-saturated teenagers of modern/post-modern society. Crass humour, dating dilemmas, swearing, obsession with celebrities—the Hogwarts kids are not immune to these temptations to a sub-Christian lifestyle/worldview. In personal correspondence, Brad Birzer, author of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, told me that he likes the Potter books, but believes they are not for children. You have said these are great books for teaching virtue to children. Is there any danger in children having what older generations might have labelled ‘worldly’ kids as their heroes?

John: I’d differ with you first on ‘many moments of true beauty and high nobility;’ that’s a bit of a stretch. More to the point of your question, though, I wonder if the reason Ms. Rowling’s books enjoy the success they do, isn’t because their heroic, magical characters – sacrificial, faithful, and loving – are not so much like their readers are. Tolkien is magisterial, but he isn’t especially accessible, is he, except in the Jackson screen translation?

Chad: On the same issue: is it somehow inauthentic or unrealistic to have truly noble characters in stories—characters (though admittedly imperfect) without glaring moral flaws? Characters who don’t fall in with the goose-stepping individualism of pop-culture? Harry and his friends are certainly noble with respect to virtues like loyalty and courage, though it could be argued that they are a lot like the MTV generation in other ways. Are characters like Peter Pevensie, or MacDonald’s Diamond or Curdie, hopelessly out of touch with the lives of today’s jaded, cynical youth?

John: Story orders lives, especially disordered lives, something like what Liturgy does, as a friend pointed out to me recently. My children like Lewis, Tolkien, and MacDonald; they love Harry Potter – and they are not a cynical, MTV crowd. Nobody farts or tells Uranus jokes in Narnia or Middle Earth, which because they are renovations of Fairie and Myth, respectively, for moderns (not postmoderns), makes sense. Rowling is renovating a slew of literary genres from alchemical drama to morals and manners fiction a la Austen for a postmodern audience and criticizing aspects of postmodernity (much as the modernist writers in the Inklings did the same for their period). She is more inviting and more in touch with readers today than Oxford dons from the trenches of WWI. Should we be surprised at this?

Chad: You have played the role of Hogwarts futurist over the course of the last several books. What has been your best prediction, and, on the other side of the coin, what has been your biggest surprise?

John: Calling the death of Dumbledore as the climax of the ‘white stage’ of the alchemical drama was my best call (and detailing everything from the weather to the color of Luna’s dress in the last book). Assuming the white book was due in HP5, which turned out to be the Black book featuring the death of Sirius Black was my greatest blunder. I also am terrible with ‘shipping’ questions; unfortunately, this robs me of any authority with a large part of Fandom which equates ‘shipping’ profundity and focus with genius and right understanding.

Chad: Have the Harry Potter movies remained sufficiently faithful to the books? Are there any major errors of omission or addition that you would like to address?

John: The only purpose the movies serve, in my bookish position, is that they seem to create more interest in the books both among current readers and new readers. Certainly the movies more than any argument I made are more responsible for the quieting of Christian objections to the stories. Christians went to or rented the movies – and found the stories to be edifying or at least anything but the advent of the anti-Christ.

Chad: Besides Harry Potter, what are some other contemporary examples of great children’s literature (or, at least, literature that children would do well to read)?

John: My three youngest children have an insatiable appetite for Brian Jacques’ Redwall stories. They’re really violent in spots for talking animal stories, at least (this ain’t The Wind in the Willows) and many of the characters seem to move from book to book – a Foremole, a heroic mouse or squirrel, etc. But this man can tell a great yarn and tell variations of it again and again and never put you to sleep. We love them.

I like Ralph Moody’s Little Britches novels, too, if they are anything but ‘fantastic’ in being fantasy tales. They are the tales of a boy growing up at the turn of the last century in the West and in the Eastern parts of the US. Engaging, challenging, fun. Little House books for boys with a lot more variety in scenery and occupations.

And don’t neglect The Children's Homer: The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy by Padraic Colum, Willy Pogany (Illustrator). Our family’s favorite…

Chad: What are your future writing plans?

John: I’m working on a book called Harry Meets Hamlet and Scrooge: The Serious Reader’s Guide to Harry Potter in which I tour the ten genres Ms. Rowling 'rowls' together in her books seamlessly. I hope to put together a short book on Half-Blood Prince with what I think happened just off-screen in this book (which we miss because of the author’s masterful use of narrative misdirection). I’m also working on a Bible memory text book for longer passages of scripture, a 'trot' for the Latin translation of HP1, and a cookbook for a sacramental idea of food and eating

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