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The gospel according to Harry and Frodo: today's magic bestsellers highlight the struggle for power and the choice between good and evil. Have you met your inner Lord Voldemort? (culture in context).

EVERY SEMESTER I ASK MY UNDERGRADUATE students to pick five childhood tales they would use to homeschool their youngsters on a deserted isle. This January Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings topped the charts of our Swiss Family Robinson reading list, suggesting that J. K. Rowling's legion of fans will soon be reading their dog-eared copies of Harry's magical adventures to a fresh crop of would-be wizards and that J. R. R. Tolkien's epic myth of heroic hobbits is sure to be devoured by yet another generation of halflings.

Calling Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings popular is like calling Bill Gates rich. Rowling, one of Britain's wealthiest authors, should be able to repaper Middle-earth with the royalty checks from the upcoming Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Scholastic). Tolkien's epic quest is still going strong in its sixth decade, and both tales have been translated into film franchises that should make enough gold for a tower of rings.

Youngsters of all ages and backgrounds are enchanted by these fantasies of alternate universes where the mythic struggle between good and evil has taken flesh. Like the conjurers they write about, Rowling and Tolkien have fashioned whole worlds out of their imaginations, and swept up millions of readers into the rollicking adventures and quests of their heroes.

Hobbit--and Pottermania have also spread to the religious realm, where several authors are asking what Christians should make of the plots and success of these bestselling fantasies.

Richard Abanes' Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick (Horizon) warns that Rowling's books advance the cause of necromancy and teach witchcraft to unsuspecting young readers. Connie Neal's What's a Christian to Do with Harry Potter? (Waterbrook) and The Gospel According to Harry Potter (Westminster John Knox) take a more positive approach, acknowledging concerns some Christian parents have about Harry's magic, but finding biblical themes and virtues throughout Rowling's tales. Likewise, Francis Bridger's A Charmed Life: The Spirituality of Potterworld (Image) detects a distinctly Christian outlook in Harry's youthful adventures, and sees Rowling as inheriting many of the same moral and religious ideas found in Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.

Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware are equally convinced of the Christian underpinnings of Tolkien's work, and have written Virtues: Exploring the Spiritual Themes of the Lord of the Rings (Intervarsity) wants us to look deeper into the spirituality of the Ring epic, and Brad Birzer and Joseph Pierce's J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth (Intercollegiate Studies) argues that this entertaining myth is shot through with Catholic sacramentality and sensibility.

LIKE MOST READERS, I THINK OF THE POTTER AND HOBBIT tales as entertaining and enchanting stories, not religious allegories. (Tolkien and Rowling, both practicing Christians, have likewise shied away from such descriptions of their work.) I do not pick them up looking for tales of the Christ or the Antichrist. Nor do I open their pages in search of a spiritual mentor or a guide to the underworld of necromancy.

Still, these books invite us into a world their authors have created, and it's natural for believers to compare the moral and perhaps spiritual universe of Potter and Hobbitville with the one that unfolds in the pages of scripture. Do the tales of Hogwarts and Middle-earth resonate with any of the themes or virtues found in the parables? Do the characters in these entertaining adventures wrestle with any of the same questions bewildering and confounding the disciples of Christ? Perhaps.

Some ado has been made of the perils of Potter magic. I doubt Harry's wizardry will entice children to embrace the satanic arts or lead them to believe in a world without God. Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy have not wreaked such harm. Children love the magic in Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz because it makes them feel powerful in a grown-up world and expresses their awe before a wondrous and mysterious world.

Christians have long believed the Lord protects the meek and that the world is full of the glory of God. In a sense, the magic in Harry Potter expresses a child's faith in God's protective grace and in the thick sacramentality of the universe. There is more to the world than mere Muggles or materialists can see.

In Potterville magic is simply the technology with which the battle between good and evil is waged. There are righteous and villainous wizards, and the difference between them is not their brand of magic, but their sense of virtue, decency, and fair play.

Tolkien, though, is more suspicious of magic, not because it leads necromancy, but because it is a manifestation of arrogance and violence. The wizard Saruman is seduced by the magical power of the ring because it promises to deliver him from the limits of his creatureliness. Magic will allow him, like Milton's Satan, to rule and not to serve others. Magic here is the easy way, the way of violence and domination. Frodo's rejection of the magic of the ring is not unlike the nonviolence and humble service to which Christ calls his disciples.

THE STRUGGLE FOR POWER IS AT THE heart of both the Potter and Hobbit tales, and the villains in each story covet the sort of power that Satan offered Christ in the temptations in the desert, the power of dominion and control.

Harry's archnemesis Lord Voldemort and Frodo's opponent Sauron desire the sort of power that will bend all others to their will, that will enable them to enslave and destroy all their enemies.

This will to power is the central temptation in the New Testament. Christ's disciples are forever looking for some of this power, hoping to secure a place of honor at the table, wishing to be ranked above all others, scandalized by the call to embrace a life of humble service and by the idea of a God who takes the form of a slave. Every honest Christian knows just how terrible this temptation to power is and just how important it is to imitate the one who did not deem equality with God as something to be grasped at.

Both tales also present a moral universe in which each creature must choose between the forces of good or evil, must resist the temptations of various vices, and embrace the virtues that ennoble us.

Rowling's and Tolkien's worlds are not peopled by moral relativists. There is a difference between good and evil in these worlds, and the choices Harry and Frodo and their friends make have consequences for themselves and others.

Scripture, too, introduces us to such a world, and our response to the offer of God's grace and the call of discipleship is critical. How we choose in response to this call will make all the difference.

Still, there is a danger in a superficial reading of these tales. It is the peril of self-righteousness, a flaw that leads inevitably to cruelty and violence. For though the division of good and evil into opposing camps makes for great drama, such simplistic thinking produces very bad humanity and religion.

In our hearts we all know that outside of fiction the forces of evil are hardly ever marshaled so tightly in the camps of our opponents. A good number of villainy's ranks are always to be found sleeping in our own tents. As Christ reminds us, it is too easy to see the axis of evil in our neighbor's eyes, and too hard to acknowledge the monster in our own, but that is what we must do to avoid becoming the worst of villains.

The challenge, then, is to remember that the moral universes Tolkien and Rowling have created are within each of us, that we all have some part of Harry and Frodo and Lord Voldemort and Sauron within ourselves. Then perhaps we will have the pity Frodo shows Gollum, the pity that makes one Christian.

PATRICK McCORMICK, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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