Friday, July 15, 2005

Regarding Harry...

Just a few more hours until Melissa and I can pick our copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and we're pretty excited about it. Should we snobbishly hold ourselves above the hype? Of course not! Being opposed to commercialism doesn't mean that we are obliged to swim against the tide of everything and anything that the culture decides to commercialize, especially if it just happens to be something as wondrously fun as J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books.

Over the last couple of days, this old post of mine has gotten a fair amount of attention, thanks to this link from my fellow Times and Seasons co-blogger Gordon Smith, who was kind enough to share the results of my snooping with the world. You can expect a review of Half-Blood Prince soon, probably by late Sunday evening. In the meantime, a couple of Potter-related reflections:

1) Back in that old post, I talked about how Pottermania descended upon our home last year, when over the summer I read the first three books to our oldest daughter, Megan (now almost nine). It was a wonderful summer of joint reading and imagining, one that I hope can perhaps be repeated with our other children someday. Unfortunately it'll have to be with different books, since Megan has shared most of the secrets of Rowling's world with her five-year-old sister. (I suppose she'll still want to read them someday, but it won't be with the kind of thrill and self-discovery that attended Megan's and my journey through the books, I'm afraid.) In fact, containing Megan's excitement has actually become something of a running battle in the Fox household. We stopped at the third book last year; she bought her own copies and read and re-read them to death, and desperately wanted to go on. Melissa and I both thought that Goblet of Fire, with Cedric Digory's death and with its cliff-hanger ending which drives you right into Order of the Phoenix, was something we needed to keep her away from for a while. And we tried...but ultimately to no avail. She picked up details from friends, teachers, cousins, and stray comments from Melissa and I. She obsessively pestered us with questions, and crowed with joy at every little detail she was able to discover about who died or what the Triwizard tournament was and so forth. Finally, after several months of standing firm, introducing her to many other books, and telling her to be patient, a school librarian gave her a copy of Book 4, telling her she was more than ready for it, and all our plans fell apart. Melissa in particular was put out, but we didn't want to Megan into the situation of feeling guilty for responding to a friendly librarian's well-intended act. And so we allowed her to finish the book (she'd already absorbed several chapters by the time she somewhat shamefacedly told us what was in her bookbag).

As it turned out, Melissa and I know our daughter pretty well--she did read all of Goblet of Fire, but not without some terrors. At about 10pm that night, she came out into the living room, scared but putting up a brave front: she couldn't bear to put down the book (she'd gotten to the final climactic encounter with the resurrected Voldemort), but was almost paralyzed by what she was reading. I took her into our room, and read the rest of the chapter to her, with her hugging my side. Then I talked to her until she fell asleep. It was a sweet reminder of the our experience the previous year, but probably my last one. She's off into the wide world of literature on her own now, and losing that closeness was inevitable. We haven't let her read Order of Phoenix yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if she does so by Christmas; when she does, she'll encounter new terrors and wonders, and I suspect this time she won't need me at all. (Good girl, he says with a sniff.)

2) Pope Benedict's condemnation of the Harry Potter books made "The Daily Show" last night, so I suppose most anyone who cares has heard about it by now. Given my own religious commitments, the pronouncements of this pontiff, as much as I respected his predecessor, don't weigh on me authoritatively. Plus, to be frank, going off what little I know about how large organizations respond to cultural events, I dare say that if Pope Benedict could demonstrate to me that he, personally, has in fact read so much as a single word of any of the Harry Potter books, much less Rowling's whole oeuvre, I'd eat my hat. (Or better, his.) This news event has a lot more to do with the agenda of crusaders like Michael O'Brien than anything else.

That said, there is something to consider here. Much of the stuff out there about Harry Potter and Christian attacks on the series is just groundless and silly, either trumped up out of nothing or clearly emerging from some bizarre evangelical margin. But there is, at the same time, a core of Christian parents who have genuine and legitimate concerns about introducing only morally-uplifting and faith-affirming (or at least not faith-denigrating) literature to their children. Clearly, Harry Potter isn't The Chronicles of Narnia; Rowling's adventures take place in the modern world, and her heroes and villains interact against, and are thematically shaped by, the essentially secular background presumptions of modernity. But that hardly means that they are bereft of moral worth, or inappropriate for even the most committed New Pantagruel-reading antimodern. Regina Taylor, a Christian fantasy author who speaks directly to this audience, makes the the case for Harry Potter here (link via the always insightful Caelum et Terra blog). I think everything she has to say deserves close consideration, especially the way she smartly shows how critics of Harry Potter have greatly overdrawn the supposed moral differences between Rowling's "magic" and those who employ it, and the situation of magic in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy (points 1 and 2), as well as how Rowling actually employs a consistent and admirable moral imagery throughout the books (points 4 and 5). I really couldn't add anything more to all that. But insofar as the complaint that Harry Potter himself, as a character, is just another banal modern boy, offering nothing insofar as moral aspiration goes, let me make one point.

Yes, in the course of his adventures Harry Potter lies, defies authority figures, breaks rules, and generally is presented as a figure for whom progress is tied to individual development and a celebration of his "true" self. He has to find his own way, his own heart must be his guide, he must break with tradition and discover the truth, etc., etc.--the same old liberal pieties, right? Well, yes. But it is much too easy to think you can leave things off there. If you're a committed antiliberal, and are going to attack Harry Potter as a species of the literature of modernity, as being flat and empty and open, without any reflection of the actual (from a religious point of view) created moral universe, let's be clear on what you're attacking. Among examples too numerous to list, you're attacking The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn--another story of a boy who is cast out (or casts himself out) onto a wide, open, flat world, which flows past him without guideposts and within which he is nonetheless called by the lives and actions of others (first and foremost Jim) to make, with only his own soul as a resource, judgments about right and wrong. If you insist on saying that Harry Potter's manifest goodness and courage is compromised by its being part of a banal and individualistic, rather than a richly detailed and naturally determined, moral universe, well, more power to you--but I think you're greatly underestimating the degree to which the divine order depends upon an original interiority, an acceptance that morality, and the world it subsequently shapes, is larger on the inside than on the outside. Harry Potter isn't a Christian hero, any more than is Huckleberry Finn, but the modern world they inhabit is not essentially lacking as a route to the recognition of truth than anything by C.S. Lewis. Even on the most shrunked moral stage a noble heart can beat out a path to a larger world. It's a path my oldest daughter plainly discerns in Rowling's books, though she couldn't articulate it that way; and to the extent other children are having the same experience, I would have to say that world is a better place for the fact that so very many children haven't paid much attention to over-enthusiastic interpreters of Pope Benedict's counsel like O'Brien, and apparently have no intention of doing so anytime soon.


Anonymous said...

Arrrgghhh! I sent the latest version of the manuscript off a month ago, back when the Catholic Church was okay with Potter.... Nice post, by the way. 

Posted by Dan Nexon

Anonymous said...

Francis Bridger's book  on Harry Potter is also a well-articulated exploration of the sophistication of Rowling's moral universe. 

Posted by amcorrea