Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Fantasy Fundamentalism

Over Holy Week some strange force caused the Harry Potter controversy to suddenly break out (like the story of the villagers of Eyam, subjected to a delayed-action outbreak of the Plague when a bolt of cloth carrying the fleas was brought out of storage) on our local Catholic homeschooler email list.

These discussions always seem to have two parts, first an explanation of how reading stories in which characters perform magic tempts children to occult practices, than an apologia for Tolkien and Lewis in which it is explained how these authors were Good Christians and their books are deeply Christian because: Aslan is God, good characters never do magic (unless they're not human characters, at which point it doesn't count), Galadrial is really Mary, the elves' lembas is the Eucharist, etc.

Two things annoy me about this whole set of arguments. The first is what strikes me as a Secret Decoder Ring Christianity approach to interpreting the meaning of fiction: It's always bad if main characters use magic, unless it's Gandalf, or Aragorn or Galadriel, because the main character won't identify with them and think they can do magic. And Dr. Cornelius in Prince Caspian is a half dwarf, so that doesn't count, and when Lucy does several spells out of a wizard's book in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, that doesn't violate the principle either, because... Well, for some reason.

And Lord of the Rings is really Catholic because Galadrial is Mary (Have these folks read the Silmarillion? Who would have pictured Our Lady as having such a dark past!) and because lembas is the Eucharist and so on.

Oh, and dragons are always the devil, so any book where you befriend dragons is right out.

All of these rely on tiresomely direct equivalences which do not strike me as at all how one is meant to read fiction. Yes, Tolkien's work is deeply Christian, but not because he has direct correlaries for the Virgin Mary and the Eucharist in his story, but rather because Middle Earth works in the way the way that Catholics see the real world as working in certain key ways. Much of the Silmarillion is an extended meditation on the Fall. Now there are other key differences. There is no revelation in Middle Earth, and no organized religion to speak of. And Middle Earth includes elements which do not, to our knowledge, exist in the real world, such as the elves. However at a moral and theological level, Tolkien's world is recognizably Christian.

My second major beef with this whole line of argument is that it is, so far as I can tell, usually made by people who don't like reading genre science fiction and fantasy anyway. They accept Lewis and Tolkien and classic fairy tales because they've heard through Christian media that these are okay -- and they are blissfully unaware of what most mainstream Tolkien fans are like. (If you think Harry Potter fans are unusually prone to the occult and neo-paganism, spend some time hanging out on a Lord of the Rings fan board for a while. There's little difference.) But aside from the two blessed masters, a fair amount of the Harry Potter criticism strikes me as coming down to, "We don't like stories about imaginary worlds that work differently than ours."

Now, one is certainly entitled to not like fantasy, but I must admit that even though I've pretty much fallen away from the genre (at this point I only track the new books coming out from a few favorite authors) I continue to resent people who clearly don't like the genre as a genre -- indeed, don't like the very idea of the genre -- laying down precise schemas of rules according to which fantasy must be written lest it be of the devil.

The Harry Potter books are far from being the best fantasy or children's fantasy books out there. You or your children would not suffer greatly if you never read them. (Though they are rollicking good reads, and contain some genuinely powerful themes and images.) But I wish we could get away from this curiously dogmatic approach to how-fantasy-must-be-written which seems to have sprung up in some Catholic circles. It's an oddly fundamentalist viewpoint to take root among Catholics, and it really is quite unnecessary.


Foxfier said...

Given that I love much of the alternate symbolic possible in dragons-- as something older, wiser, greater than (whatever characters one is able to relate to personally in the story), I've never understood the "all dragons are Satan" way of thinking.

At least my grandmother was consistent-- she didn't like any fantasy, sci fi or even most fairy tales. Only reality type books for her-- and preferably historical ones, if possible.
Apparently she use to read tea leaves, until the readings became far, far too accurate for her taste.

Hallie @ Moxie Wife said...

I tend to agree with you. My only concern is that two different well-known exorcists have cautioned people against reading the Harry Potter books. What are your thoughts on that? I have to say, when an exorcist says that I should I avoid something, I listen. ;)

BettyDuffy said...

I do wonder if the exorcists who warned about the books have read them. I know that there was an interview on EWTN with an exorcist who mentioned Harry Potter recently which probably spawned the homeschool debate. But I have to agree with you, Darwin. The Harry Potter debate reminds me of the Creation debate, where uninformed Catholics, feeling a need to take sides, and not wanting to side with the secularists, side with fundamentalists.

The Wilkins Lad said...

Soundbites from Pope Benedict and (exorcist) Fr Amorth notwithstanding, I feel that Harry Potter has become a whipping boy of late. Singled out because of their anomalous popularity, the danger I see in Rowlings' books is that danger which is intrinsic to the genre. Fr Amorth says as much in interviews--the main beef is that these books make magic appealing and they set up a false category of "white" magic. Granted the occult and Satanism proper are noticeably more popular in Italy than in the 'States, but I suppose that making the demonic neutral or beneficial (even for "artistic" reasons) is bad in any culture.

Pullman's "Dark Materials" trilogy is blatantly anti-Christian, Stroud's "Bartimaeus Trilogy" casts [some] demons as sympathetic characters, and Nix's "Old Kingdom" series makes both magic and necromancy appealing. We could add many popular titles to this list... but what I see as a common theme in childrens'/young-adult fantasy-- from Meyer's "Twilight" to Colfer's "Artemis Fowl"-- is the old gnostic mantra wrapped in the language of modernist rebellion: the individual can control fantastic [supernatural] powers with just a little arcane knowledge and a healthy disdain for [adult] authority.

Magic is an excellent literary symbol for individual agency... so if, for a moment, we suspend the arguments of Fr Amorth and focus on the what these texts are saying about agency, do we still have much cause for alarm? Almost unanimously, these books sow seeds of rebellion by promoting acts of defiance against [adult] authority figures.

Even within the rules of their own literary environments, magic in these novels is often taboo or subversive.

We need to recognize that while this particular genre more readily lends itself to promoting the humanist myth of self-actualized [preternatural] power, the hyper-individualism in nearly all fiction can be a real obstacle to the growth of virtue. It's not for nothing that men and women of faith have historically held such entertainments at arm's length.

As both a man of faith and a literary criticism scholar, I caution anyone from dismissing fiction as innocuous. What we feed ourselves is either beneficial or detrimental because in such hostile cultural waters, neutrality is not really an option. So if we are to shift or gaze from Mr. Potter, I think it must be to take in the entire literary landscape and then be willing to let conscience really weigh the merits of each and every book we consume.

John Farrell said...

Excellent post. I'm turned off by the cottage industry of 'criticism' books hell bent on turning Tolkien into a completely parochial author.

rose said...

I'm not sure one can fairly call Nix's books an apology for necromancy--the heroes use their powers to stop the dead from invading the world, not to call them up and use them as slaves.

Andrew the Sinner said...

Great post, and I love all of the aforementioned books. Really the most truly evil thing to come out of the Harry Potter world of late is the fact that Warner Bros. has decided to turn the last book into two movies (those soulless, money-grubbing...),0,7162166.story

Darwin said...

I suspect that The Wilkins Lad successfully identifies what the exorcists who have written about Harry Potter are concerned about.

However, I guess I'd see fiction as dangerous in the sense that wine is dangerous: It can be bad for you if you allow it to take up more of your life than it ought, but it can also be deeply enriching.

Indeed, I've known several people who specifically came to Catholicism through coming to understand the Catholic worldview by reading fiction written by Catholics. While on the one hand fiction holds out the danger of offering a place people can go in order to escape the real world -- it also offers a distilled view of the world which can often make it more clear how the world works that life itself does.

So while I wouldn't say fiction is without danger, I would also say it is an incredibly valuable treasure which I would never want to give up or warn Christians en masse away from.

Foxfier said...

*Little lightbulb*
Fiction is dangerous for the same reason anything else that moves folks is-- it has power over people, or people listen to it, or however to phrase it.

Same reason that politics, religion, emotion are all dangerous-- and powerful.

Anonymous said...

If you are appalled by the stupidity of some Catholic literary criticism, you should hear what Evangelicals have to say.

Trust me, you're lucky in this.


lissla lissar said...

Yeah. Evangelicals tend to be less cool with story and allegory and fiction than Catholics.

Off the top of my head- most good sf and fantasy I've read is exploratory: if we posit a world with a different set of rules, how would people be different? What would be right to do if the Dead invaded, magic was an inborn skill, dragons could be controlled by their names, or the Dark came rising? Bad sf is about how cool it would be to have power, and to bend the world to your will. In good sf/fantasy, magic always has consequences.

Darwin said...

In good sf/fantasy, magic always has consequences.Agreed. Speculative fiction in which the science/magic is simply habitual window dressing or a get-out-of-trouble-free card tends to be tiresome.


No argument from me there.

The Wilkins Lad said...

So the Nix books are not an explicit "apology for necromancy" but they do what many of these other texts do--they set up a false category of "good" magic. The character of the Abhorsen, after all, must use the necromancer's skills to challenge the actions of the necromancers. He is fighting fire with fire. I think this is exactly the kind of thing that Fr Amorth would condemn.

I agree that fiction is like wine... that it can be good when consumed responsibly. I have read these fantasy novels I listed and I'd be the first to admit that I enjoyed many of them. My point was that being responsible here means more than merely exercising caution about the role of magic. We need to also be aware of the (significantly more insidious) humanistic & anti-authority messages in young adult fantasy.

Darwin said...

My point was that being responsible here means more than merely exercising caution about the role of magic.That I definitely agree with -- though in part because I don't think that exercising caution about the role of magic is important at all.

We need to also be aware of the (significantly more insidious) humanistic & anti-authority messages in young adult fantasy.Partly agreed.

I'd certainly agree that one needs to look out for the worldview implicit in fiction -- especially when handing it over to young minds. Some novels present some highly problematic views of the world, and because well written fiction can provide one with a prism through which to look at the world, one has to be careful about what prisms one chooses to look through.

However, again in line with my beef with "fiction fundamentalism", I am put off by those who get worked up simply because a young character in a book breaks school rules, or the book includes adult characters who don't understand what is going on, or what have you. Some of these are entirely normal and innocent elements of a story primarily about young characters.

Foxfier said...

Kids shouldn't be taught to follow authority brainlessly-- but the wrongful disregard of authority having major consequences is also important.

Say, like getting a father-figure killed?

Darwin said...

Indeed. Sometimes I think that Tom Brown's Schooldays, the quintessential boys book if there ever was one, would not live up to the authority-respecting demands of some.

There are books which are seriously subversive, and then there are simply books that are about realistic child characters.

Say, like getting a father-figure killed?Wow. Rough stuff. Surely only a heavily moralistic book would impose such a heavy penalty on a character for thinking he could go off on his own the challenge the world...

lissla lissar said...

We're having a conversation here right now about this discussion (me, my husband, and a good friend), and the good friend has pointed out that in a lot of YA fantasy, or really in YA fiction at all, the point of the story is coming of age- that is, not arrogant challenge to adult authority, but a gradually assumption of adult authority.

I disliked the Harry Potter books not because I have any problem with magic in stories but because I thought that Harry's actions didn't have appropriate consequences. And because the magic didn't have any real cost. I like mystery in magic.

The quote about magic always having consequences is actually from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Spike says it. Magic is thoroughly explored in that series as a metaphor for all sorts of power struggles and addictions.

Foxfier said...

What are some examples of the stuff that bugged you in Potter?

Daddio said...

Darwin, I'd like your thoughts on Fr. Euteneuer's comments re: Harry Potter. I suspect he's the exorcist who started this little spark with a recent, very brief comment on EWTN's The World Over.

lissla lissar said...

Oh, lord. I haven't read them in years. I only read the first four, and disliked them enough to give up. I thought that Harry didn't have a stellar personality, although that's not a flaw in his moral structure. I didn't like that magic was a sort of game, a bag of tricks, instead of something taken seriously. I remember being annoyed that Harry got consistently praised and rewarded for no very major struggles- mostly for being himself.

Also, in the first four books at least, not all evil people are fat, but all fat people are evil.

Sorry. It's not very compelling, since it's filtered through about six years and two glasses of wine. I'll look up my earlier criticisms.

Darwin said...


Sorry. It's not very compelling, since it's filtered through about six years and two glasses of wine. I'll look up my earlier criticisms.My goodness! Only two glasses of wine in six years? I'd be pretty jaded myself at that point. Drink up!

I enjoyed the potter books a good deal, though I thought they dipped in quality a bit in books 2-4 and as an older reader I was glad to see them get more serious and darker in 5-7. Also, Rowling is at all times something of a loose writer -- probably the result of people being eager to gobble up every word she wrote starting on her first novel.

So while I do think they're good books, I don't have a beef with those who are unimpressed for reasons internal to the fantasy genre. As fantasy I'd say YA fantasy authors like Ursula LeGuin are definitely better as far as having magic be integral to the world and be something which comes at a cost. In Harry Potter its more like zany chemistry lab stuff, most of the time. (The stuff at the root of Harry and Voldemorte's conflict is arguably deeper and costlier.)

And for those who admire consistency in worldbuilding, Rowling has the notable achievement of being significantly sloppier than Lewis.

And yet somehow its very readable and at times deeply compelling stuff.

Darwin said...


Well, I guess I'd take his opening as rather key:

I am at a bit of a disadvantage to comment on any particulars of the books since I have not read any of them or seen the movies, nor do I intend to—I have an aversion to adolescent fads and not enough time to spend on questionable materials when there is so much excellent fare for the soul out there. Having first stated he knows nothing about them, he goes on to write with authority about what's in the books:

Fundamentally, Harry Potter indoctrinates young souls in the language and mechanics of the occult. The fact that the fake curses and hexes are not able to be reproduced because the “ingredients” are pure fantasy is beside the point. Curses are not pure fantasy.Now, yes, there is stuff called "cursing" and "hexing" in the books at times, but to say that it in any way indoctrinates children into the real occult strikes me as tenuous at best.

There's some basically light hearted stuff, like people accidentally getting turned into frogs or being given potions that make them belch -- and there are fighting curses which are described like any other kind of projectile weapon ala, "Harry ducked just in time for a particularly nasty curse to hurtle over his right shoulder and explode against the wall."

Some of this is given what I suppose some might consider an occult flare with schoolboy Latin words used as spells, such as "expelliamus" being a spell that knocks something out of someone else's hand. But personally I don't see kids running around in capes yelling "expelliamus" or "avadacadabra" at each other being any more likely to cause them to really go into the occult than I'd see them running around with toy guns being likely to cause them to join real gangs.

Basically, it strikes me that the Fr. Euteneuer is taking a well intentioned, "better safe than sorry" approach to the issue, but I don't think he really knows much of anything about the Harry Potter phenomenon or indeed about the fantasy genre in general.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Forgive my late arrival at this party, but did you say, Darwin, that "there is stuff called ... 'hexing' in the books"?

I haven't read the HP series, but this would be very interesting from an American cultural drift POV, especially since I gather there's oblique reference to the non-English custom of Hallowe'en in HP. "Hex" is Pennsylvania Dutch, and doesn't even show up in my OED; I'm pretty sure that as of just a few years ago, it wouldn't have been a word familiar to an English writer.

Don't you wish you could have been homeschooling your kids eight years ago, when "Do you let your kids read Harry Potter?" was the shibboleth of the day, which was used freely to sort out the Right Kind of Homeschoolers from The Wrong. I always had to remember, as I hedged around the question, whether I was being asked by a HFHer or an AAHer.

Foxfier said...

I grew up with a lot of fantasy books, so "hex" seems totally normal as "minor curse" in my world.....

What an interesting background!