Monday, July 25, 2011
With the release of the last film in the Harry Potter series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2,” Americans have once again focused on the extraordinary impact of author JK Rowling on modern culture. Like its cousins "The Lord of the Rings" and “The Chronicles of Narnia,” the Harry Potter series describes a fantasy world where good and evil contest each other in the form of characters and forces outside the experience of anything in our own world. But the resemblance between the three most notable children’s authors of the last century is only superficial. The reality is that a world of difference exists between them.
The Oxford professor CS Lewis was the force behind the Narnia cycle, a seven-book series, three of which were made into mediocre films. The story is engaging and Narnia itself is a triumph of imagination, complete with its own history, geography and unique inhabitants (including mythical creatures and talking animals). But the most compelling feature of all is Aslan the lion.
Much more than just another talking animal, Aslan is the most powerful force in the land, the one who controls the outcome off all events. He’s the son of the Emperor-over-the-Sea who created Narnia in the distant past. The central feature of Lewis’ story is how the Christ figure Aslan offers his life to the evil witch in order that Narnia might be redeemed. Indeed, the entire series is an allegory portraying the core convictions of the Christian faith.
Lewis' colleague and friend. J.R.R. Tolkien, was also a writer of children's literature. His trilogy of books, "The Lord of the Rings," while a compelling story of war, hope and the nature of the conflict between good and evil, is somehow much more. The books actually create an entire world, one that Tolkien called "Middle Earth." As Peter Berger points out, Middle Earth has always been there; Tolkien was just the one who discovered it. The books were converted to films and became some of the most popular movies of all time. Although not overtly a Christian story, Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" does include the great Christian themes of the seductive nature of evil, the power of good and the value of personal sacrifice.
J.K. Rowling seems at first glance to fall into the same category. Her "Harry Potter" books, also written for children, tell the story of a young boy who, along with his friends, grows toward adulthood through a variety of adventures. The Harry Potter books caught on like wildfire and sold hundreds of millions of copies. The films made from each successive book have likewise done well, with this latest and last installment promising to earn not only huge box office receipts but also admiration as a fine film in its own right.
Like Tolkien and Lewis, Rowling has been widely praised for creating a world all her own. The world of Harry Potter, while not exactly like our own, is consistent within itself. A place of magic, of memorable characters and of fabulous beasts it is, within the bounds of the story, a believable location, which is in many respects the highest literary achievement. But after their obvious literary skill and the superficial similarities in their stories, the resemblance between these three authors diminishes very quickly. Rowling is in fact a much inferior writer to her two British colleagues. The reason for that is religious: she has no understanding of holiness.
Holiness is a hard concept to grasp, especially in our secular world. Rudolph Otto, in his classic book on the subject, "The Idea of the Holy," said that behind all religious experience is the sense of awe and majesty that he called the numinous. This sense isn't an ordinary feeling that's simply intensified; rather, it's something that stands alone and is experienced only when we encounter the divine. We realize we're in the presence of something not just quantitavely larger than us but, more importantly, qualitatively different from us.
The sense of the holy permeates both Narnia and Middle Earth and is the source of the wonder and delight we feel when visiting both places. In Narnia, Aslan is clearly a type of Christ and stands out as the central figure in the story. The other figures in Narnia respond to his holiness either in reverence or in fear. For Tolkien, the quality of holiness is contained especially in the wizard Gandalf and the elves. Both have about them a purity and light only partially glimpsed but lying at the heart of their characters. That characteristic sets them apart from the other characters in Middle Earth, especially the evil enemy Sauron.
Rowling, on the other hand, has no such sensibility in her books. There is no numinous, no sense of the holy. Instead there’s a curious flatness to her good characters; they exist on the same moral level as we do. The good witches and wizards are like everyone else, just a little better. Dumbledore himself, the leader of the Hogwarts School and a good wizard, is like Harry himself, only older and more experienced.
Rowling's evil characters, on the other hand, have much more emotional depth. Harry’s arch-enemy Voldmort, for example, acts in dark and sinister ways outside our experience or understanding. The Death Eaters who follow him do so out of reasons that we cannot comprehend. Despite the fact that the hero wins in the end, we're confronted, in Rowling's world, with the disconcerting moral situation that evil is more interesting than good. For a children's book, that's particularly troubling.
In a recent interview, in fact, Rowling tacitly acknowledged this fundamental theme when she noted how her main theme in the Harry Potter series is death. While neither Lewis nor Tolkien ever really spoke to the issue (their generation was much less celebrity driven than our own), you can’t come away from reading either author with any impression other than how they were focused on life.
Both Lewis and Tolkien were devout Christians. Their stories of Narnia and Middle Earth, while obviously different from our own lives in many particulars, got the basics right: the world is a fundamentally moral place where the presence of the divine can be experienced. Rowling has no such faith. She’s a story-teller, an imaginative author, and a very rich woman. But her world is finally a bleak and empty place. A place with no hint of the divine and no place for God.