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.

53 Responses to Fantasy Fundamentalism

  • Just want to subscribe to follow comments. ^.^

  • DarwinCatholic,

    There’s a big difference between Christian Allegory, where one can see such the correlation between elements of the Christian Faith (in fact, that is why allegory was quite useful in teaching children the faith in certain cultures) as opposed to something that may actually foster a curiosity for and even a devotion to the occult.

    And, on another note, to those who would actually deny the Catholic Allegorical Theme of The Lord of the Rings (contra even Tolkien himself):

    “…But, at the end of the day, we may, with Tolkien’s approval, speak of the saga as a Catholic masterpiece. A postscript to this might be the observation that no Protestant could conceivably have written this saga, since it is profoundly “sacramental”. That is, redemption is achieved wholly via physical means — cf The Incarnation, Golgotha, the Resurrection, and the Ascension — and the tale is sprinkled with “sacramentals” such as lembas, athelas, Galadriel’s phial of light, mithril, etc.”

    Link:
    Does it make sense to speak of The Lord of the Rings as a “Catholic Masterpiece”?

  • Thing is, Harry Potter’s world does have a lot of Christian symbols in it– enough that there’s a Catholic priest making a podcast on the subject:
    http://www.talkshoe.com/talkshoe/web/talkCast.jsp?masterId=10516&cmd=tc

    Sad to say, Middle Earth has been used to foster occult devotion; often by folks who would deny the symbols if you did point them out.
    http://mepagans.proboards.com/index.cgi?
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Middle-Earth_Pagans/summary
    https://www.penelopebokhandel.no/vare.php?ean=9780738715360
    All they see is elves, magic and dragons.

    It’s sad, because what I think they’re hungry for is what the Church offers, at her best– but they never see it, never taste the rich stories, never feel the symbols twine around their minds and emotions or smell the incense while a candle warms their hand at midnight Mass.

  • Foxfier,

    Now that’s weird — although I can’t say I’m surprised.

    Such erratic devotion concerning things as that such as even Dungeons & Dragons was actually the subject of an earlier film of Tom Hanks that attempted to wrestle with an issue as serious (not to mention, psychologically disturbing) as that.

    It’s sadly tragic.

  • The movie was “Rona Jaffe’s Mazes and Monsters”. The title was chosen to avoid lawsuits by TSR, the owner of Dungeon and Dragons. It was a poor movie and demonstrated a lack of understanding of the hobby. It has become a cult classic at gaming conventions. I have been involved in boardgames and roleplaying games for over 30 years, although my wife is the true roleplaying expert. Roleplaying games are basically harmless although like most hobbies there are nut fringe elements. A good lighthearted look at the hobby is contained in every issue of Knights of the Dinner Table:

    http://www.kenzerco.com/

  • …You’re not talking about Mazes and Monsters?!

    Looking to Mazes and Monsters for a look at the “issue” of D&D or even RPGs is like looking at a Dan Brown novel for insight to the Catholic Church’s history.

    That movie was written like someone had done research by sending letters to the Jack Chick subscriber’s list… besides the fact that D&D isn’t LARP (live action role-play).

    That piece of garbage caused several folks I know to turn away from the folks’ faith, because the flat-out lies it offered caused well meaning relatives to go utterly psychotic about kids playing a role playing game.
    I am not kidding about “psychotic”– a chaplain on the Essex also tried to get one of the guys assigned to do her paperwork kicked out of the Navy, entirely, because he played D&D.
    The Captain said no.
    (odd how she didn’t mind committing adultery with the XO, openly… guess a world with strict moral alignments where actions at odds with your morality can have quick, huge effects just didn’t sit well with her)

    The poor kid the movie is based on– James Dallas Egbert III– was royally screwed up. Here’s his story, minus Hollywood:
    http://members.pcug.org.au/~davidjw/tavspecs/maint/d_master.htm
    He was 15, on college, decided he was gay and tried to commit suicide. When that didn’t work, he when and hid with boyfriends.
    News saw paintings done by the SCA and decided it was D&D based.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zng5kRle4FA is a classic, funny but kinda accurate D&D game….minus that the guy did it with funky character models.

  • There’s a big difference between Christian Allegory, where one can see such the correlation between elements of the Christian Faith (in fact, that is why allegory was quite useful in teaching children the faith in certain cultures) as opposed to something that may actually foster a curiosity for and even a devotion to the occult.

    I’d certainly agree that there’s a big difference between those two things. It’s just that I wouldn’t necessarily agree either that Tolkien wrote Christian allegory (Lewis clearly was, but Tolkien insisted that he hated allegory and didn’t mean LotR to be an allegory) or that HP particularly fosters devotion to the occult (any more so than any other children’s novel set in an imaginary world.)

    There is, I think, a certain danger present in any clearly imaginary world that people may decide they like the idea of trying to live in that world better than trying to live a good life in the real one. Escapism is one of the ways that the devil tempts us to channel our energies into something other than cultivating real virtue.

    Now, there are fantasy authors that I’d keep my kids away from until their mid teens, both because I don’t think they’re very good and because I think they have problematic worldviews (Marion Zimmer Bradley and Anne McCaffery spring to mind), but overall I would not see fantasy as a genre as being overly a temptation to the occult.

    I confess to curiosity as to what some of those who worry about Harry Potter would make of novels such as The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams (a good friend of Lewis and Tolkien) or Last Call by Tim Powers, a devoutly Catholic fantasy author, but perhaps it’s better not to go there.

  • (Guest comment from Don’s wife Cathy): I GM role-playing games for 2 of our 3 kids; however, we are very selective about which published modules we play — fall of Constaninople YES, secret Satanic cult at a monastery in Glastonbury NO, f. ex.. In modules with less historical settings, we tend to downplay the polytheism — but keep almost everything else. The kids prefer fighting monsters in dungeons and the wilderness, while I prefer mystery-themed urban adventures requiring talking to NPCs most of the time (but I’m usually the GM, so I get to pick!). With those provisos (and no evil-aligned PCs, by mutual consent), we manage to have lots of enthralling fun without getting obsessed (we aren’t generally able to make enough time to game to have time to get obsessed about it!).

  • Oh my gosh, what a blast from the past — Tom Hanks in “Mazes and Monsters”! I remember when this movie came out. I was just out of high school and dating a guy who was a big D & D player (and a practicing Catholic; we met through Teens Encounter Christ). I watched it and found it actually pretty laughable. His mom belonged to a charismatic prayer group at the time, and took some flak from some of her friends for letting her son play such an “evil” game. Didn’t seem to hurt him any though. The last I heard he was married, had a couple of kids and a nice job in the computer industry. I guess “Mazes and Monsters” has become the “Reefer Madness” of role playing games :)

    I also read “The Dungeonmaster” book some years ago. I thought it was a very good book that did NOT in any way sensationalize role playing games. It provided a very intriguing look into the life of a private detective, as well as the troubled life of Dallas Egbert — who did, tragically, commit suicide within a year after his disappearance. Dallas had an extremely high, genius level IQ (he was attending Michigan State full-time at age 16) and had trouble relating to others his age; he may very well have had Asperger Syndrome (a high-functioning form of autism, often associated with high IQs and “geeky” personalities) on top of his other problems.

    Gaming addiction has been around for years, probably generations, and takes various forms. In the 70s and 80s the big thing was D & D; today it’s Second Life and World of Warcraft. I participate in Second Life occasionally and could write quite a bit about that topic, but I’ll save it for another day.

  • I’m a Final Fantasy man myself.

    I like Warhammer too.

    And the Elder Scrolls universe is also interesting in that it actually has an organized Church that isn’t supposed to be evil, but good. Only they have nine “divines” instead of one.

    Fantasy is a good way to present perennial human issues as archetypes and symbols. It is a little silly to think that fictional “magic” is anything like the ritual magic practiced by actual pagans.

    I suppose it could be in some stories, some get quite deeply into the magic, but most of the time we’re dealing with fire balls and lighting bolts, or turning a man into a duck. Most stories have good magic and bad magic, magic associated with virtues that are practically Christian and magic associated with Satanic values.

    Fantasy is a world of imagination, and having magical powers is often a way to have a wider range of imagination. That’s all. It pushes things along, makes certain implausible things more plausible, gives you more options. None of it is meant to pay homage to Satan. Most real Satanists don’t value ritual magic as much as they do the sort of anti-morals promulgated by people such as Anton LeVey. Or Ayn Rand.

  • It goes back to Flannery O’Connor who pointed out how untrained most Catholics are in reading books, and how they will judge a book filled with Christian themes (like Potter) as unChristian.

  • Unless a story offers small, simple and easily digestible prepackaged slices of catechesis, I want nothing to do with it. Now excuse me while I go fight Sephiroth.

  • It goes back to Flannery O’Connor who pointed out how untrained most Catholics are in reading books, and how they will judge a book filled with Christian themes (like Potter) as unChristian.

    And this, as we know, is the spirit of Vox Nova. ;-) More seriously, I meant to apologize to you Henry for not being more circumspect in approaching that post of yours. I still think your wording was very ambiguous, but I should have asked for clarification before criticizing it.

  • John Henry

    I admit I was annoyed by your response, because I find your responses in general tend to be top-notch (even when we disagree). I originally wrote the post to basically highlight quotes I found from Flannery which I liked, but then put them around in a quick exposition to make it so it is more than just random quotes. I think the point I was making still was put up in the first paragraph, but it’s easy to forget the over-arching context in many an argument (just read Balthasar if you want to see that happen in a bad way from time to time). Nonetheless, I was surprised — but it’s in the past, no? As my Easter post quotes from Resurrection Matins– forgive everything, it’s Pascha.

  • It goes back to Flannery O’Connor who pointed out how untrained most Catholics are in reading books, and how they will judge a book filled with Christian themes (like Potter) as unChristian.

    Though I’m not sure that this is Catholics in particular more than people in general. If Catholics have some tendency towards this, Protestants currently have much more so. And frankly, most people aren’t readers.

    I think O’Connor found the criticism of other Catholics particularly frustrating because she was Catholic, but to a great extent she was criticizing average Catholics simply for being rather average.

  • What I find particular troubling is that I’m learning that so many of my Catholic blogging friends are geeks.
    ;-)

  • What *I* find troubling is that this post didn’t stir up any anti-HP lurkers… it’s no fun when there’s broad agreement! :-)

  • I’ve earned my right to be a geek, and I’m proud of it!!!

  • This post is hilarious!

    While I enjoyed reading much of the comments in the thread, it just struck me as spectacularly funny that instead of any substantive discussion dealing with the actual topic of the post concerning Potter or even going so far as provoking the inflamed ire of the HP or even anti-HP camp, we thoroughly went the other direction and indulged ourselves in an enlightening discussion concerning role-playing games, of all things and, for some of us, went to reminisce about former days!

    For those of you still caught up in those role-playing games, didn’t y’all learn something from St. Paul in the scriptural passage that went:

    “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child.”
    (1 Cor 13:11)

    ;^)

  • I think that the whole “occult” worry is really overplayed. Even if a story with dragons and such isn’t a particularly good Christian allegory, I don’t really see it as a serious threat to Christianity. I think much of the worries about the occult come from days when sorcery and such were a viable competitor to Christianity. Nowadays I don’t really think that threat exists.

  • What *I* find troubling is that this post didn’t stir up any anti-HP lurkers…

    I know, poor Foxfier thought he’d get to see some sparks fly when he subsribed above; instead it’s an anti-anti-fantasy echo chamber.

  • e., my guess is that even Saint Paul took some time for recreation. If life is all grind stone and no mirth, it is a poor life indeed.

  • She, actually, although with a ‘nim like mine it’s not always clear.

    I wouldn’t consider bloody smiting of horrific evil all that childish…. *shrug*

    Some folks go bowling; I roll dice.

    I was less interested in sparks than in stopping the stuff I’ve seen hurt my friends. Some folks I dearly love are still estranged from the Church because of the actions of well meaning but wrong folks.

  • Well, if any anti-Potter forces want to swarm the post, we appear to have plenty of people with high hit-points ready to stand to the defense…

    E., [what is the preferred punctuation and capitalization for addressing you?]

    Myself, I could never see the point of video or role playing games (though I do enjoy strategy board games and occasionally play Go and chess on the internet) but I’m not sure one can really sort out the rhyme or reason of what people consider a fun way to spend their leisure hours.

    I can never understand how some people manage to spend hours watching sports, and I’m sure that many would question the maturity of my spending an hour or two each day blogging and commenting.

    So long as people don’t let their avocations overwhelm their vocations, I don’t see any harm in it.

  • She, actually,

    Whoops. Sorry!

  • Call me a geek again and I’ll bash ya with my +5 battle-axe!

  • Here, Kyle, use this.
    *tosses a +5 vorpal sword of reason*

    It works nicely!

    JH– no offense taken– and it puts my mind at ease, actually. I spent a lot of time cropping the icon I’m using to make sure it wouldn’t upset folks. ^.^

  • Foxfier (and others),

    My last comments were made only in jest.

    (On the name though, perhaps ‘Sailorette’ (?) might have been a better name to go by ;^) since Foxfier seems to evoke more of a male persona.)

    I really did like going over the comments and found the ongoing discussion about role-playing games rather enjoyable and, in some cases, even interesting, thanks to the sincere participation of folks here & elsewhere.

    I did have classmates in school though who actually participated in a number of these role-playing modules.

    In fact, they not only had D&D but also (and folks can correct me here if I should happen to refer to any of these in error) included other versions such as Marvel World as well as even Star Trek (complete with schematics as well as the popular alien languages, I believe!)!

    At any rate, I think the comments from Darwin Catholic as well as Mr. McClarey remain the more relevant even insofar as the Potter matter (as well as role-playing games) is concerned — less we descend into some deleterious Walter Mittian condition from which there may be no escape.

  • Jeez,

    I just play Civ III. Haven’t even gotten into Civ IV. Guess I’m getting old.

  • Phillip, get it with all the expansions. There is no finer computer strategy game on the market, with the possible exception of Europa Universalis III (There, I’m sure I have raised the blog’s geek quotient by at least 2% with this comment!)

  • Donald, I’m glad to hear that you and your wife are gamers. My wife and I are, too.

    I’m still playing D&D 20 years after I started, and I get to introduce my kids to it, too.

    As I said on a gaming board (Knights & Knaves Alehouse) some months back: trad gamer, trad Catholic…looks like I’m just a trad.

    LOL!

  • Flambeaux we grognards have to stick together!

  • Haven’t even heard of Europa Universalis I or II let alone III. I think you’ve just pegged the geek meter.

  • Phillip I cannot leave you in the dark on such a vital subject:

    http://pc.ign.com/articles/881/881636p1.html

  • Let’s ask an exorcist.

    A quote from Fr. Thomas Euteneuer, president of Human Life International and an exorcist:

    “I’m very set against Harry Potter,” he said. “It’s pumping into our children’s minds the language and imagery of the occult. It’s extremely spiritually dangerous.”

    http://thebulletin.us/articles/2009/02/03/news/local_state/doc4988101b9f018743172734.txt

    Let’s be prudent and take his advice.

  • If that quotation is accurate, Euteneuer is wrong. End of story.

    I know witchcraft. I practiced witchcraft. And neither Harry Potter nor D&D has anything on real witchcraft.

    Avoid it if you feel you must, but don’t slander it out of ignorance.

  • Thank goodness “set” of an exorcist isn’t binding!

    I rather doubt he’s read the books, or even has any idea about what’s inside of them– since he lumps them with Wicca and New Age practices.

    From the sound of the other select quotes– which can be very easily edited to give a false impression, so who knows what the facts are– he’s of the “It has witches? Bad. It has vampires? Bad. It has dragons? Bad.” school.

  • Donald,

    Looks good. Of course I lived too many years in New England and became quite a Yankee (the cheap kind.) That’s why I’m still on Civ III. So it might take a while before I feel comfortable parting with the cash for Europa. :)

  • Donald,

    I’m honored to be considered a grognard. :D

    If you get a chance, drop by the Alehouse. I use the same handle there as here.

  • A long while back, I got a bit annoyed and went into a D&D spellbook to show folks what the “magic” is like– I think it was some idiot “magik” or “magick” or whatever user claiming that D&D was accurate to reality-based magic.

    http://sailorette.blogspot.com/2006/02/oh-irony.html

    I looked into the augment spell “Bear’s Endurance” and the possibly inflammatory “Augury.”

    I also did a long-winded overview of alignments.

  • Being an exorcist does not in itself make one competent to speak on literature or even on the symbolism of evil in literature.

  • Phillip, imagine the library fine! I hope that I would have been honest enough to return the book, but volume I of Napier’s Peninsular War would have been very tempting to retain!

  • Flambeaux, I’ll drop by the Alehouse sometime. It sounds like fun.

  • Connie

    There’s a worse book for people to study. Here, I have a post all about it: http://vox-nova.com/2007/11/01/beware-the-danger-of-wheelocks-latin-grammar/

    As I point out at the beginning, “Wheelock’s Latin Grammar: just the mere mention of this book should send shivers down the spines of good Catholics everywhere. It’s a deceptive little book, trying to convince good, faithful Catholics into reading pagan literature which glorifies the evil pagan gods of Rome.

    Good Christians died so they didn’t have to praise Jupiter or Pluto. Such worship, they believed, would jeopardize their very souls. And what do we have here? A book which an unsuspecting Catholic might use to teach themselves Latin. It convinces its adherents to write out long, detailed praises to the those gods which we all know were in reality bloodthirsty demons. Christians, the martyrs died so we could abandon the ways of pagan Rome, so why do you go back and fall for this blatant piece of pagan propaganda? If you question the seriousness of this, just look at what kinds of books are put next to it: Virgil’s Aeneid, Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods, or Apuleius’ Golden Ass. Can any good come from a book associated with such evil? Of course not!”

  • I’ve used the Wheelock book to study Latin. It doesn’t strike me as a form of idolatry to translate such texts, but rather the use of what we call classical Latin.

    I’m curious as to what text of quality Latin one would have us translate. The majority of Romans at the time happened to be pagan, therefore, it should show up in their work. I’m not sure that a ‘good Christian’ would be afraid to read the words of a pagan, if the ‘good Christian’ is educated enough in their faith to follow the errors of paganism.

  • Eric

    I suggest you read the post.

  • *big grin* Not quite analogous, but nice.

    It does bring up another point– almost everyone does “world mythology” by fourth grade. For that matter, Stargate: SG1 has a lot of “gods” and powers. (Heck, I even named one of my cats after the worst bad guy!)

    SG1 is also in a similar situation as Harry Potter– it’s a hidden project. Additionally, there’s a lot of rejection of authorty, generally without much of a result.

  • FF, while I’ve seen episodes of SG1 here and there, I just watched the first season in order on Hulu… it’s an enjoyable show (I’m waiting for additional seasons to be posted), but it definitely earns an occasional eyeroll for the various manifestations of the superficial materialism and faith in progress which informs its worldview.

  • Just wait until you get to the Ascended.

  • Darwin:
    “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.”

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! Oh, and I’ll cheerfully take up my husband’s epee (hey, those things can leave some welts!) and help man the barricades against anti-Potterian prejudice.

    e:
    Ditto what Darwin said above: Tolkein denied that his work was Christian allegory. I prefer to think of it as implicitly rather than explicitly Christian.

    Donald:
    Why am I not surprised to learn you’re an ex-RP gamer?

  • Anyone watch the trailer for HBP last night? I’ve been generally happy with the film adaptations, and this one looks to be of the same quality.

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