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.