Books, culture, fishing, and other games

August 05, 2003

Fundamental Potter

With Baptist missionary parents, I have in my circle of acquaintances those who consider the Herry Potter books from the extreme fundamentalist perspective. To them the books promote witchcraft. Or as those who think more than feel (thinking by "feeling" is a common fault, the path between is very narrow and easy from which to stray) might say, the books desensitize us to the real threat of evil that exists in the practice of witchcraft. These are almost opposite stances, but both end up against the books.

With the recent publication of yet another in the myriadology, I spent some time thinking on the merit, or lack of merit, in these positions. Rowling is, it is said by at least one critic, of the Inkling school of writers. This is a group of English writers with a stated goal of producing "Christian fiction." Included in its roster are such names as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein. I have done little biographical study of the authors themselves and only very light reading of criticism, but I have read a fair number of their works. From my reading I would say that they lean towards the writing of fanasy that "teaches" (in the sense of Horace's dictum) Christian philosophy including sacrifice, redemption, and generally fighting the good fight even when victory appears impossible. In these works evil is the turning away from good, a clear analogue to the Christian teaching that sin is the turning away from God.

With this in mind, I first re-read Tolkein's great trilogy. I would have been hesitant to employ that adjective before this last reading (my third or fourth). Since the prior reading I have completed a B.A. and an M.A. in English, and while now even more sparing in my use of "great," after delving deeply into the canon I feel more comfortable that I have read what lies at both extremes of the qualitative spectrum. Tolkein's trilogy must rank with only a short list of works for its quality of writing and content. This isn't meant to be a critical work on Tolkein, however, I simply wished to establish my regard for his work so that I might use it as a measuring stick.

I then read the first three Potter novels. They are well-written. They are great fun. It was a second or third read.

Before I say more, I wish to bracket them with yet another fantasy work, one with which few will be familiar. Steven Brust is in my opinion another superb writer of fantasy. There are good storytellers, and good writers, and some who are both. I treat the two separately as much as possible, as that explains how I can wince at the writing in a book which I cannot put down. If the story is compelling enough, I forgive laxity in the writing. If the writing is beautiful and compelling enough, I forgive lapses in the storytelling. For a work to push its author up into the ranks of the few, both must be present. Five Hundred Years After achieves this. Again, my intent here is simply to establish some poles for reference, for myself as much as for you, as I needed to help myself place the Potter books.

Five Hundred Years After is not written (to my knowledge) by one seeking to join the ranks of Inklings. It certainly enthrones some virtues for their own sake, but it is more secularist and pragmatic in general feel. Characters often display selfish motives and whether those produce what might be called good results or bad results is ambiguous. Brust's interest is removed from that aspect. In fact, his interest is more in the posturing of his fictional author, whose voice dominates the telling and the tale. This "author" is writing a work of history. This is actually analagous to Tolkein, since the trilogy is being written by Bilbo, Frodo, and finally Sam as the story progresses. The voices of those fictional authors in The Lord of the Rings are not prominent in the "writing," however. The voice we hear is Tolkein's.

Here we have a significant difference between Tolkein and Brust's works on the one hand, and Rowling's on the other. Rowling's work is simpler in structure. It is straightforward narrative. It is also more in the mystery genre than are the others. It depends for much of its effect on surprise and knowledge withheld (through appropriate use of point of view) from the reader (and the protagonist). As one who loves the layered complexity of Hamlet or the self-conscious parody and posturing of Don Quijote, I cannot help but deduct literary points from Rowling. But I admit the love of literary complexity is an acquired taste. It matters less to a general audience than to a critic.

Rowling sticks to a third-person narrator, as does Tolkien. Both use a limited narrator. What the narrator tells us is what the point-of-view character (of the moment) knows. This form of narrator is fairly ubiquitous in modern fiction. The chief failing of a writer in this form is to slip and have the narrator withhold knowledge the point-of-view character has available, or its opposite, to tell something that character does not know. Either is what I call "cheating." Rowling does no glarling cheating that I see.

Rowling's storytelling is rolicking good fun. Though her target audience is made up of adolescents, adults read her also for the delight in her plot twists, her over-the-top (almost campy) characters, and even her expert (and fun) use of language herself. And her target audience reads her. Anything (almost anything, at least) that gets kids, especially young boys, to read is A Good Thing in my eyes. But it's that "almost anything" aside that is the driving question.

Rowling's work has literary merit, more than most other works published. It cannot be dismissed as "trash" in that sense, as some might wish. The writing goes beyond what is needed to relate the tale itself, though not as far as my measuring sticks above. She also creates her own parallel world which she populates with imaginary things and beings, some borrowed, others not. Her world impinges on the "real world," however. While her task is more complicated than that of the writer of a mystery and manners novel set today in today's world, it is less so than that of Tolkein or Brust, who create whole new worlds with no real linkage to ours. Her world inhabits an analogous world to Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth, in which ghosts and witches are real beings, and magic does work.

It is that point, that of magic working, that raises the objections to the works in the more Fundamentalist circles. It's odd that Shakespeare mostly escapes condemnation on the same charge. And Tolkein ("Who's Brust?" they would ask.) I was visiting with my parents this weekend past and discussed this with them.

My first question to any who condemn is "have you read any of the books?" Once we have established that I have, and they haven't, we can go on to discuss their objections which are mostly based on fallacious information. Hearsay is a weak position from which to argue.

With the few Fundamentalists who have read any Potter at all... well, that's a pleasant fantasy to date. I haven't found one. I know they exist and I'd love the chance to discuss with them their criticism. Since I haven't been able, I have to postulate their side for them.

The first thing that strikes a reader is the tone of the writing. It is humorous. It is hyperbolic. People aren't just fat; they are so fat they overlap their chairs. People aren't just cruel; they are so cruel that they make young, orphaned boys (our protagonist!) live in a closet ("cupboard") under the stairs with spiders. The tone, to any moderately skilled reader, clearly shouts "this is fiction, this is all made up, it's like a fairy tale!" Those who haven't read any Potter, of course, don't read this intralinear message. I called the tone "near-camp" in my conversation with my parents. Then I had to explain "camp."

I argue that this tone establishes that the trappings, which are treated hyperbolically, and which include magic, wizards, witches, are meant to be taken unseriously. They are used for fun effects. If they are not taken seriously by the author (as to my eye they clearly are not), surely she cannot mean for her audience to take them seriously. Yes, we enter the nebulous realm of authorial intent. But there is no contradiction here to any spoken word of the living author, or the appraisal of literary critics. From what evidence we have available, her use of wizardry and witchcraft is not meant be in any way suggestive that magic works, or that one should take it seriously, or, most importantly, that one should try to do it. So those who claim Rowling in advocating witchcraft are simply wrong.

But to some, that is not quite the problem. They would argue that witchcraft is, and is evil. It is condemned by the Bible. Books such as the Potter books, they would say, are problematic because they make a real evil seem to be nothing, a game. This is a more interesting argument, but not a compelling one. If someone insists on holding to this line they presumably also do not read Shakespear, who by their standard must de-evilize fornication, adultery, and other acts that are clearly designated as unacceptable behavior in the Bible. They also must avoid all but the news on television, watch nothing Hollywood produces, avoid most or all fiction, and... live lives detached from day-to-day life in this world God created. That is an extreme stance, one extrapolated from certain excised portions of the Bible, but hardly modeled on Jesus's example. Jesus got out and rubbed elbows with the world, though he did not become as the world. Whether he would or would not read fiction as we know it, or write it, is another whole subject. He did speak in parables, which certainly are a sort of fiction. They conveyed Truth, while playing freely with facts. That is the historical claim of fiction.

Wizardry and witchcraft, as portrayed in the Potter books is not "real" and is not, per se, "evil." If there might be some harm in this (in their point of view), I would argue it is overwhelmed by the good.

The good, as I see it, in the Potter books is that they are encouraging a wave of reading. The very ethic, on which most of Fundamentalist education is based, is that education is good and necessary. Since we have free will to choose good or evil, it is necessary and important that we educate ourselves sufficiently well (can we ever be sufficiently well educated?) to know good from evil to make the proper choices. To those who would argue all they need is The Bible I can only say they are fortunate. While it is the foundation, it is impossible to operate effectively in this world without more knowledge and education. The Bible gives no practical guidance on how to drive a car, brush one's teeth, or type on a keyboard. But, I admit, the reading of fiction isn't often a large help in these areas either. Why we read anything other than how-to works is a whole other subject.

The way to learn to read is to read. The more one reads, the better one reads. Reading anything is better than reading nothing, as far as polishing one's reading skill goes. Reading better writing is better exercise. Reading things that make one think, rather than just watch the narrative unravel is even better. Reading lies presented as facts (as opposed to as fiction) might hone one's skill at reading, (and at recognizing lies... if one does), but can certainly introduce problems (be wary of newspapers!) Of course there must be balance.

To overprotect children from the world is to leave them unprepared for the world. I was not raised isolated from the world. My parents did exert some control over what I read and saw on television, who my friends were, and what I did or did not do. But my parents mostly spent their time trying to teach me how to judge things on their merits. To do that I needed both information, and training in how to evaluate information. My parents did observe many of my choices, and they sometimes questioned me on them. But they mostly allowed (and sometimes forced) me to make my own decisions, and to live with the consequences in some fashion.

Aside from other literary merit, I find the "teaching" of Potter fuzzy. Before allowing this to appear as some sort of condemnation, most modern fiction shares this attribute. What's more, I consider the greatest literature to perfect it. By not quite taking a position, or by presenting alternate positions, the choice is left to the reader. This allows, or forces, the reader to exercise choice. Exercise is how we build strength. Consumption alone produces fat; only by both consuming and exercising do we build muscle, whether physical or mental. So I do not consider Potter's fuzziness a bad thing, though it's not clearly as good a thing as in the greatest literature.

Rowling's characters break the rules often, and while there are sometimes negative consenquences, the breaking of rules is often justified by the results. I can make argument that she is Jesuitical in her thinking: the ends justify the means. (This is a fallacious correlary of "by their fruits shall ye know them," snce all acts are "fruits," not just the end results.) On the other hand loyalty is elevated, as is, to some degree, sacrifice. This produces some fuzzy ethics in areas where they come into conflict. It could be used to produce some instructive thought and discussions. Rather than seek to ban the Potter books, concerned parents would serve their children better by reading the book to or with them. If there is something with which they disagree, they can explain why. They might themselves learn from that exercise as they did so.

Few today are learning that reading is fun. Few today read for enjoyment at all. Yet reading is the best method of continuing learning once formal schooling is done. The spoken word is far less considered and perfected than is the written word. This is why formal speech is usually read from pre-written text. The practice of reading (and it takes practice) is of utmost importance to the development of educated minds. To discourage kids form reading something they want to read for fun is the greater evil.

There is indeed magic in any words that kids want to read, good magic. If we had more such wizards of words we wouldn't have to fight to teach kids to read.

Posted by dan at August 5, 2003 02:49 AM
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