Thursday, January 19, 2006

WIR -- Looking for God in Harry Potter

Looking for God in Harry Potter
by John Granger

Read it last night. If my article on Harry Potter interests you at all, pick up this book. Same stuff, tons more references, explanations, symbols, etc. Well done, though perhaps overdone. I enjoyed it -- quick read. Might be hard if you haven't read Harry Potter, yet. If you have read it, this book will open your eyes and you'll want to go back and read it again.

Rowling is not a great writer. Her books have become very long and loose. They could easily be tightened up. However, she is a brilliant story writer. I'm convinced that those who oppose Harry must be quite uneducated. Granger points out allusions to Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen and many others. I am not very familiar with these classics, though I probably should be. Anyway, I feel like I'm just rambling because most of what I want to say about the issue is in my article, which, in some ways, is like a condensation of Granger's book (though I wrote my article before I read the book).


Blogger jonponder said...

I have a hard time getting into Harry Potter. Mediocre writing, repetitive plotlines (voldemort again?! didnt see that coming).

Have you ever read the "dark materials" trilogy by Philip Pullman. They're an excellent example of what i WISH the harry potter series was. Thoughtful, well written, and full of beautiful imagery.

The only problem is that Pullman is kind of an anti-C.S. Lewis. I think he's trying to disprove or attack Christianity and support secular humanism through allegory. You should look them up, and tell me what you think.

10:17 AM, January 24, 2006  
Blogger W Sofield said...

I agree with you that Harry Potter is not the best writing. You’re right, “voldemort again?” You’re right on target. What got me excited about Harry Potter was the amazing imagery she uses. The story is almost irrelevant. Actually, HP reminds me of the book of revelation, which is also very repetitive. Similar kinds of layers of meaning.

In HP Rowling alludes to Jane Austin, C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Virginia Woolf, many medieval authors, the Greek and Roman mythologies, and of course the Bible. She makes use of these images in the same way that the Apostle John used the books of the Old Testament throughout Revelation. I began to enjoy Harry much more when I began to understand that the story is not the main point, and that the characters are not meant to be people, but representations of ideals and concepts.

The more I read HP and about Rowling’s work, I see more and more dimensions and layers to the meaning. Not everybody is into that sort of thing, and taken of the surface level, HP is mediocre at best, but why are so many people connecting with it? Is it because HP is such bad writing? Or good writing? I would argue it is good writing if you use non-traditional standards for good and bad.

However, the writing is tedious at times, and could be easily condensed. I would guess that publishers and editors are afraid to touch her work or put any limits on her because of her great success. This, however, is unfortunate. I think her genius is in the master plan, the characters, the broad stories and images, but the actual writing is not so good.

Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials, huh? I’ll have to check it out. Looks interesting. It looks like something I’d like. Thanks.

10:40 AM, January 24, 2006  
Blogger jonponder said...

i think one of my problems with HP is that it's representative of the vast ocean of mediocre literature. HP is probably on the better end of the curve, but in my mind is a little too bland. It just doesnt stand up to the timeless quality of Lewis, Tolkien, or Dickens. But almost every kid i know has read one of the harry potter books, but I know very few kids these days who can even follow C.S. Lewis' Narnia. It's too rich for their palettes. (and keep in mind that Narnia is VERY simple to read.

i think people look too far into HP for meaning and subliminal virtues. If i watched Beavis and Butthead long enough, i could probably write a great article on how they represented humility, courage, and loyalty... but that doesnt make it a 'deep' or moral cartoon.

The thing i find interesting about Pullman is that it's well-written, and remains unpopular. Perhaps it's too rich for the palatte of most young readers. And i dont think it's anti-christian message is keeping him from the popularity. If anything, i would guess his books would be MORE popular for their controversy. Just look at the popularity of "the davinci code".

12:44 PM, January 24, 2006  
Blogger nickg said...

Fellas...fellas...I'm going to have to take issue with your assessment of Ms Rowling's writing. And Jon, I'm glad you mentioned "The Davinci Code" because that serves as a good basis of comparison. That book by Dan Brown would be a much better "representative of the vast ocean of mediocre literature". In comparing the writing of DC and HP, one might say there is a vast ocean of ability between them. The writing of Brown is trite, gimicky, and obvious. Rowling's writing might be described as simple. But that is not a drawback; remember whom she's writing for: pre- and early teens. Her intended readership is not expected to be grappling with the kinds of intricate prose and idiosyncratic style that folks like Dostoyevsky and Toni Morrison and Shakespeare write with. What is more, Rowling is not only writing to young people but she is writing more or less from their perspective. Much of the stories are mediated through young Harry's perspective on the world--of course it is not as mature, complete, and complex a perspective as an adult's. Thus I think it is a testimony to Rowling's ability that she is able to engage so many adults in her tale for children. One gift she shares with Lewis is the ability to refrain from dealing with tough issues in a patronizing manner toward her young audience. And, heresy though this may be, as I'm re-reading through the Narnia books agian, I'm forced to admit that Rowling's world is far more complete and developed and intricate than Lewis's. I honestly believe HP will go down as one of the greatest achievements in children's literature for all time (not just commercially, which it already is, but literarily) even surpassing Narnia, in fact (again, I'm ready for charges of heresy) HP has already outstripped Narnia in a number of ways in my view.

Thus I don't think the writing is tedious at all. It is simply aimed at an audience that we don't happen to fit into. So comparing HP to other pieces of writing that might be considered "great", can only be done if you are comparing apples to apples. Compare Rowling to other children's writing like Lewis and Carrol, rather than to Tolkien (even though they are both fantasy) and Dostoyevsky and Steinbeck. One side note though: to say that Rowling is mediocre because it's not as good as Tolkien or Shakespeare is like saying Albert Pujols is a mediocre baseball player because he is not as good as Babe Ruth. If a once-in-world-history achievement can be our only standard, nothing will ever again be acceptable.

Finally, regarding the plotlines and stories of the books and their alleged repetitiveness. If you think about it, there aren't that many plots available to an author who wants to write a tale that will engage readers. It will basically consist of: introduction, conflict, escalation, climax, resolution, conclusion. The reason people will engage with that plot is that it is the plot of life--both individual lives and the metanarrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation. So, while we might say: "Voldemort again?!" we could look at Tolkien and say, "Sauron again?!" or look at the Bible or our lives and say, "Sin again?!" The wonderful thing about Rowling, like all great writers (yes, I said "great") is that she uses this master-plot framework along with the same characters in each installment to communicate about different themes in every story, and even multiple themes in each story. A lot of children's authors just harp on one idea like: "obey your parents" or "be yourself and everything will be o.k.". But Rowling is covering topics that truly relate to the struggle to live a life of virtue: friendship, loyalty, sacrifice, love, trust, creativity, maturity, integrity, and even (Willy, I'm sure you like these) social status, economic class, and oppression. Though I'm interested to read some of the Granger work on HP, I don't believe it is necessary to discover every use of symbolism in order to find Rowling's writing thoughtful, engaging, and significant. It reminds me of my interaction with Shakespeare in college. I was an English major and I took every Shakespeare class I could. After I became a Christian during my senior year, I wrote a 30-page senior thesis on Shakespeare's use of the biblical allusion. In studying that, I found so much more depth and careful craft in Shakespeare than I had before. But, I could not deny that I found so much of value in S. before I knew about all the biblical allusion he used and its significance. Discovering how careful Rowling has been in applying her craft may help my appreciation of her work, but I would still argue that a careful and fair reader should be able to admit the value and quality of her work without a complete awareness of her use of imagery and allusion.

Wow! That was rather long-winded! On a final note: I have heard of the "dark materials" series, Jon, but I haven't read them. Sounds like I should put them on my list.

5:57 AM, January 26, 2006  
Blogger W Sofield said...

nickg -- fantastic post, thanks. I've never thought about it before, but I would have to completely agree that Rowling's world is far more complex, complete and fascinating than Narnia. However, all the Narnia books could fit into one HP book, easily. There's just not much written on Narnia in comparison.

Rowling writes from a child's world -- excellent point to help evaluate her work.

Tolkien is an unfair comparison for anybody. Good point. Nobody can live up to Tolkien's work. Shakespeare would go in this category, too, but I'm not trying to compare Tolkien with Shakespeare, except to say that nobody should be compared to them.

Finally, I also agree with you that Rowling's work can be well appreciated without knowing all the allusions, just as you enjoyed Shakespeare. I think you would agree that those who do not prefer Rowling (or Shakespeare) must admit that it is good literature when presented with the evidence of thier uncommon ability to use so many (and such diverse) allusions and references appropriately. I don't really like Baseball much, but I must respect Pujols and Ruth when presented with the evidence of their physical achievements. I do not have the option of saying they are not good athletes simply because I am not familiar with their work, enjoy the sport, or support their team.

9:00 AM, January 26, 2006  
Blogger W Sofield said...

jonponder (and others), for your consideration, I think the comparison of Harry Potter to Beavis and Butthead is sad. I'm not real familiar with B&B, but I'm familiar with Mike Judge's work, (Office Space, Milton and King of the Hill).

While you don't have to understand the allusions to Christianity to enjoy the books, the allusions are undeniable. Historic Christian symbols from the first century and throughout the church are numerous and always used appropriately. The Griffin, the unicorn, the phoenix (and his song), the stag, the centaur, the hippogriff, the Philosopher's stone, the Red Lion are all historic symbols of Christ, no one disputes this. Each of these is very important to the HP stories, and each is used completely appropriately and described in such a way as to be consitent with the Christ-meaning, no exceptions. This is just a tiny piece of what Rowling has packed into her stories.

HP is great literature because the further you study, the rewards keep coming.

Rowling is becoming more accepted in academic and Christian circles. You can find articles describing the kinds of things I talk about in Christianity Today,
First Things, Christian Century, etc. And English profs at University of Chicago, Pepperdine University and Belmont University (at least) are speaking out in kind. Many Lewis scholars are beginning to talk about the connections, too.

It's ok not to like Rowling and HP, but I think it is impossible to say Rowling's literature is poor, and any deep meaning comes from the readers, not the writer.

9:25 AM, January 26, 2006  
Blogger jonponder said...

I hope not to imply that rowling's work is mediocre.. but rather that it's only 'good' in amongst horrible.

And perhaps even then i'm being too harsh in my criticisms... I enjoy Narnia tons more than i do HP because it "feels" real, in the way a dream feels real. I make a deeper connection with it (perhaps because all of the strong symbolism). I've read almost all of the narnia books within the past year, and they literally made me cry they were so beautiful.
Upon reading harry potter, i feel much the same as if i were watching television. It feels episodic and impersonal, and in the end it just loses my attention. But maybe that's just me.

11:19 AM, January 26, 2006  

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