Saturday, June 10, 2006

Harry Potter III Commentary on the John Granger Interview

First, thanks again to John for taking time to engage in this conversation. Here are some additional thoughts inspired by John’s answers. I have told John I would print anything he might like to say in response to these thoughts. John’s words are in bold print, and my answers are in normal type.

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)…A good question for future consideration (by all involved) is whether Rowling is Postmodern in any other ways. I say this because I believe that Postmodernism is, on the whole, a bad thing (for an interesting online discussion of this issue, I would encourage you to click here and start reading from the bottom of the page). ...she certainly doesn’t give a rip about conventional mental categories or ‘metanarratives,’ something like ‘evil’ to her and the bulk of her readers. I assume John is talking about the traditional use of witches as a ‘metanarrative’ of evil, rather than the concept of evil itself. ‘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…). While he has a point here, it’s worth noting that I was appealing, not to the Levitical texts, but to literary history (i.e., George MacDonald).

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.’ I would agree that inverting symbols is often ‘nonsensical’, which is why I am troubled by Rowling’s inversion of the witch-symbol. As I have noted elsewhere, I don’t think this is enough to condemn the Potter stories, but I think the question is at least worth pursuing a little further.

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. In general, I agree, though Rowling does seem to expend a lot of her creativity on things like ear-wax flavoured jelly beans and appearance-altering potions. And the Potions were my primary example of the ‘scientific’ sort of magic. But I do think that there are clues in HBP that seem to suggest that the cauldrons and wands are only for beginners, which may be a good sign.

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. Actually, this is as good an answer as I have heard to this question, though I begin to get edgy at Rowling’s Postmodern refusal to be categorised. Why this fear of forms? Sure, take the form and be creative, original with it, but there’s nothing wrong with conventions: a murder mystery with no one being killed is not a murder mystery, however creative it may seem at the time. But the answer to the divination question is sound enough, though I still think it inadvisable to use such a loaded term as divination when there are so many other ways to go. Tolkien, the anti-modernist, used the word ‘magic’ only with a great deal of reluctance, and only because he knew no other term to use, and he went to a great deal of trouble to qualify the word. Rowling, the postmodernist, seems to use words like ‘divination’ almost cavalierly, even with readily available alternatives (Prophecy? Foresight? Revelation?) and with, seemingly, no attempt at qualification.

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? I wrote back to John, explaining that by ‘beauty and nobility’, I was talking about things like the Patronus charm, Harry's mother's sacrificial love as a protective shield, and the times when Harry or others (Dumbledore in HBP) put their lives on the line for the sake of friends. While not as high and lofty as, say, Sam Gamgee, or St George, these are glimpses of beauty and nobility. At the same time, I am willing to admit I probably over-inflated the language a bit. On reflection, I would probably simply say, ‘there are examples of beauty and nobility’ in the books. As to attributing Rowling’s success to how similar her characters are to her readers (and the implication that such is not the case in Tolkien), I can only say that John is undoubtedly correct. But I hasten to add that this is the very reason I like Tolkien so much better. Frankly, a book where the characters were just like me would be rather boring. Give me the unstained nobility of Aragorn or Faramir (which means skipping Jackson’s vacillating versions) any day. Is it so much for us to believe that such lives are possible? Then we have forgotten Athanasius, Luther, Lee, and TR. But I hesitate even to mention this, because I actually think some of this sort of valour is evident in the Potter stories—it is worth emulating, and Rowling is to be commended for it.

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). I do hope this is so, for Postmodernism has a face just waiting to be slapped around. 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? Perhaps not. It is understandable, in a way, that someone from our own time would be more ‘in touch’ with contemporary readers. Perhaps Lewis was thinking of his own posthumous self (nah) when he wrote that ‘It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.’ Why is this? All of us, Lewis wrote, ‘need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.’ In fact, Lewis went so far as to write, ‘if [a reader] must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light.’ Huh. I wonder how many Harry Potter fans read anything old while waiting for Rowling’s latest? By the way, these are just thoughts and observations, not an answer to anything John wrote. As a teacher of the great books himself, John is one of those out there encouraging the reading of old books. But as I look around at the Harry Potter world, I wonder how many will be encouraged to go on from there to read Spenser or Malory. Or even Tolkien and Lewis. Perhaps some will—Rowling certainly includes elements of an older world, a world that is certainly at war with the modern world in many ways—and yet I wonder if the very elements that make Rowling so accessible to the Postmoderns will only increase her readers’ immunity to the glories of the old books. As John himself noted (see below), many Potter fans are only interested in questions of ‘shipping’ (the dating/romantic relationships between the various characters: Harry and Hermione? Or Ron and Hermione? Harry and Ginny?), and who have thus reduced the books to a sort of mythopoeic soap opera (an unwarranted reduction, I’ll admit). Still, it’s worth remembering Lewis’s words, especially in light of the fact that the Harry Potter books have not had time to ‘be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and [to have] all its hidden implications…brought to light.’ In fact, even Lewis and Tolkien are too contemporary by this standard, though we do have a little historical space in which to evaluate them. But even these great authors need the correction of older books, as Lewis himself admitted: ‘Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself. Now this seems to me topsy-turvy.’

John and I engaged in a bit of email banter on the question of 'accessibility'. Here is that brief exchange:

Chad: As to your question about whether Tolkien is accessible beyond Jackson's movies, 100 million readers would seem to say yes, would they not?

John: 100 million divided by 3 divided by 50 is JRRT's per year of sale rate (I doubt he was anywhere near 100 million, too, before the movies). Go ahead and compare that to Ms. Rowling's figures similarly calculated and that none of her books have been used in classrooms or have multiple critical editions(300 million divided by 6 divided by 7) and I think you have an accessibility quotient. Tolkien is to Rowling as Sophocles is to Shakespeare - there's very little for the groundlings in Tolkien.

Chad: No argument on the sales: everyone knows that Rowling is a record-breaking author. The reasons for that are complex, and you have hit on some of them, I believe. My only point is that Tolkien has also survived as one of the most widely-read authors in history, and that this would probably not have happened had there been 'very little for the groundlings'. We've all heard the 'Author of the Century' accolades piled on this Anglo-Saxon professor, and I can testify to having first read The Lord of the Rings (and gotten a lot out of it) as a child. Tolkien, in his Letters, wrote that he had heard of children reading The Lord of the Rings, or having it read to them, and that he hoped it would increase their vocabularies. This raises an additional point: Tolkien is more complex, and therefore harder to read (though not objectively hard, I would say) than Rowling. But, as someone once said, raking leaves is easier than digging for diamonds, though you only end up with leaves - which is not to say that Rowling only offers leaves, but that there is more to be gained from reading Tolkien. This should be self-evident, given the extent of Tolkien's sub-creative efforts with Middle-earth. However, Rowling has certainly engaged in a good bit of sub-creation as well, though not to the same extent, and I think this aspect of her work is one that Tolkien certainly would have appreciated. So, accessibility is an important, but not the most important, factor - Britney Spears is much more accessible than Bach! (Again, not to say that Rowling is like Britney Spears.)

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. If Lewis is right that books may be judged, in part, by the type of readers who read them (see An Experiment in Criticism), then John’s answer here bodes ill for the Potter stories. However, this is not an absolute: one thinks of the drug-hazed flower children that embraced The Lord of the Rings as a sort of hippie-Bible. The difference, I would say, is that Potter, in some ways, invites the ‘shippers’ to indulge in their vicarious romantic entanglements, while the hippies’ love of Tolkien was based on a misunderstanding of the nature of those books. Still, those who care about nothing but whether Hermione ends up with Ron or Harry have missed a good deal of what the Harry Potter stories are all about.

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. This is undoubtedly true, particularly, I think, in the case of the first two movies.

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… As I said earlier, John encourages children to read the older books. Though they are newer versions, books like this are a good way to introduce children to classic stories, better preparing them to read the older versions some day.

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 mis 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. Looking forward to these, John, especially Harry Meets Hamlet and Scrooge, the book on Bible memory, and the cookbook. Thanks for all your work, and for taking time to engage in this conversation.

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