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Rings runs circles around Rowling: Christian in its worldview, Tolkien's lord of the Rings is a literary masterpiece far superior to Rowling's occult-laden, morally ambiguous Harry Potter series. (Cultural Currents).

There's no accounting for taste. To read the reviews of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (the movie, that is), one would think director Chris Columbus had brought us an eye-candied, fantasy equivalent of Gone With the Wind. The film version of the first of J.K. Rowling's Potter series provoked -- to use the current buzz word in reviewers circles -- frissons of excitement among viewers on both sides of the Atlantic. "Richly envisioned" and "inventive," oozed the Chicago Tribune. "Truly ... a wizard show," enthused the London Daily Mail. And Potter didn't disappoint at the box office, either, raking in over $280 million in the U.S. market by December's end.

The awful truth, though, is that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is little more than a hypertrophied Saturday morning cartoon, with the mawkish mayhem of Scooby Doo and the commercialized feel of an animated spinoff like Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or other kiddie fare created to market toys and other consumer products. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone has its moments, like the life-or-death chess game and the spooky encounter with Lord Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest. But overall, the movie is a lot of digital effects and gimmickry signifying little.

For six long weeks, Potter ruled the cinematic roost, until December 19th arrived and the younger generation learned why it is that we 30-plus aficionados of the fantasy genre have always regarded J.K. Rowling as a pretender. Peter Jackson's screen adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, judging from the first of three installments, is everything that Potter isn't. Where Potter is episodic and disjointed, LOTR flows. Where Potter drags, LOTR pauses for breath. Where Potter lives and dies by special effects alone, special effects in LOTR support, not occlude, the plot. (Memo to younger readers: Compared with Chris Columbus' rubbery, cartoonish troll in the lavatory, Peter Jackson's s menacing cave troll really kicks!). And while Potter focuses primarily on recreating the mood, rather than the thematic content, of the book, LOTR is a movie with a message; it very deftly presents the timeless themes (see page 30) that Tolkien wove into his classic work.

Study in Contrasts

All of this is not to imply that the Potter books hold their own against Tolkien's masterpiece any better than the Potter movie; they don't. Both Potter and LOTR, it's true, deal with the eternal struggle of good versus evil, and both are the richer for the florid imaginations of their respective creators. But all similarity ends there. For starters, there's the setting: Whereas Tolkien created an entire imaginary land and time, Middle-Earth, Rowling sets Potter in modern-day England. Thus, while the Tolkien setting is essentially mythological, Rowling's Harry Potter inhabits a hybrid world of muggles (non-magical folk like us, living in decidedly pedestrian settings) and magicians, which intersect in a familiar yet often disconcerting fashion. The Potter books read in places like diatribes against the modern middle class, especially whenever Harry confronts his ludicrously dysfunctional and downright abusive adopted family, the Dursleys.

Potter and LOTR are often compared on the basis of their supposedly common theme, the struggle between good and evil. But here, too, the two series bear only surface resemblances. For while in LOTR the line dividing good and evil is always clear and well-defined, it is muddled -- deliberately, one senses -- in Harry Potter. Claims of this kind inevitably invite indignant responses from diehard Potter devotees, but many similar characters and motifs in the two series allow a fairly close comparison.

For starters, consider Tolkien's Black Riders, also known as the Nazgul or Ring-wraiths. These terrifying creatures are the first enemies to appear in LOTR. Cloaked, hooded specters that hunt Frodo, the protagonist, and his companions on black horses to try to reclaim the One Ring that Frodo carries, the Ringwraiths with their awful aura cause terror and even madness in anyone unfortunate enough to be near them. They are in many ways the most powerful embodiment of evil in all of Tolkien's works, and there is never any doubt of their intentions or their allegiance.

Obviously inspired by the ring-wraiths are Rowling's Dementors, also cloaked, hooded beings with dreadful auras that inspire uncontrollable depression and ultimately, as their name implies, insanity. The dementors, in their search for the "prisoner of Azkaban" in the third novel, terrify and even attack Harry and his friends. But there's a twist: The dementors are on the side of the "good guys," so to speak. They are, we learn, used to guard the infamous wizard prison, Azkaban, sooner or later driving all prisoners insane by their very presence.

Potter's Azkaban itself, though run by supposedly good wizards, is a place of unspeakable torment -- like Sauron's fortress of Barad-dur in LOTR, where, we are told, the Ringwraiths intend to take Frodo if they ever catch him.

Comparisons between Rowling's Lord Voldemort and Tolkien's Dark Lord Sauron are unavoidable. Sauron, we learn, was once vanquished in battle, but his spirit survived and, after long centuries of exile, took shape once again in the forbidding forest of Mirkwood. After building his strength, Sauron re-establishes himself in the evil land of Mordor, rebuilding his fortress, Barad-dur, and gathering his armies of orcs (goblins), trolls, and barbarians in preparation for a climactic confrontation with the forces of good. We never actually meet Sauron in person in LOTR (here, Jackson's movie takes dramatic license, by the way); aside from a few visions of his all-seeing Lidless Eye, Frodo and the others get acquainted with Sauron only through his emissaries which include the Ringwraiths, orcs, giant spiders, and even the "Mouth of Sauron," an evil mortal who has become "the Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dur." Sauron himself remains in the background, a brooding, malevolent -- if none-too-bright -- overseer.

Voldemort, like Sauron, was vanquished but survived, his spirit taking refuge deep in the forests of Albania for many years before recovering his former strength. But unlike Sauron, Voldemort is a very visible presence in the Potter books. In the first book, as almost everybody knows by now, Harry Potter meets Voldemort face to face -- the latter is manifested as a face on the back of one of Harry's teacher's heads. Book two has a similar climactic moment, with Harry Potter confronted by a sort of ghost of Voldemort as a boy, while book four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, concludes with the full-blown resurrection of Voldemort in the presence of Harry Potter. The evil Voldemort murders Harry's friend, and then fights a magical duel with Harry in which the boy barely escapes to warn his friends at Hogwarts that Voldemort as returned.

LOTR is punctuated with beautiful, otherworldly havens of peace and repose -- Tom Bombadil's house, Rivendell, Lothlorien, Ithilien, and so forth -- where the forces of evil are excluded. By way of contrast, the Potter refuge -- Hogwarts -- is a grim and frightening place, harboring poltergeists, menacing ghosts like the Bloody Baron, basilisks, duplicitous wizards, three-headed hellhounds, and a creepy night watchman, among others, and set amidst forests teeming with threatening monsters. None of Harry's teachers, except perhaps the unflappable Dumbledore, can be fully trusted. Almost without exception, the villains turn out to be people we thought were on Harry's side and, conversely, many of the more menacing characters, like Harry's teacher Severus Snape, are in fact "good guys," after a fashion.

In Tolkien's work, on the other hand, villains and heroes are always well-defined; even those who switch sides are never ambiguous, like traitors Saruman and Wormtongue, or the pitiable Boromir, who is overcome by the temptation of the ring before sacrificing his life in a redemptive act. The treachery of Saruman is clearly signaled early in the story, while the temptation of Boromir is foreshadowed by his proud and suspicious demeanor.

Such factors cause the overall mood of the two stories to differ sharply. Tolkien is by turns soaring, whimsical and gloomy, but always enlightening, never trivial. Rowling, despite a measure of whimsy, is almost unremittingly grim, brooding, and morally ambiguous.

Always a vexing matter with the fantasy genre is the use of potentially occult imagery, though both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis used fantasy settings to communicate Christian themes. But Tolkien wasn't interested in creating a full-blown allegory along the lines of Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, but in telling a myth from which would emerge important Christian themes. And they're there, in spades: the weak vanquishing the strong; the corrupting influence of power; the utter subservience of evil to good; the power of mercy; and many others.

Against such a backdrop, the occasional instances of "magic" are indispensable symbols that advance the narrative. For instance, Gandalf's glowing staff, as well as the phial of Galadriel, become indispensable as lights in "dark places, when all other lights go out." The palantirs or seeing-stones allow Saruman to communicate with Sauron, but also permit members of the Fellowship of the Ring to call his bluff. And on one occasion when Gandalf does resort to magical mumbo-jumbo, before the unyielding gates of Moria, the password turns out to be simply the Elvish word for "friend."

Potter, by contrast, often reads like a litany of occult activities, with chapter after chapter serving little purpose other than to introduce some new spell or magical art. The plots tend be very thinly stretched over an endless parade of magical beasts, exotic spells, and clever incantations spun from Rowling's seemingly limitless imagination. Their primary purpose, Potter fans claim, is to entertain and amuse rather than to represent any great ideas.

Not that there's anything wrong with escapist reading and moviegoing, but comparing Harry Potter to Tolkien's masterpiece is akin to likening the Beatles to Beethoven.

For a fuller description of the Potter books, see Mr. Bonta's "Harry Potter's Hocus Pocus" in the August 28, 2000 issue of TNA. This article is available at (click on "back issues").
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Article Details
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Author:Bonta, Steve
Publication:The New American
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Jan 28, 2002
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