Thursday, October 08, 2015

From the Vault: Harry Potter and the Attack of the Critics

I am still asked what I think of the Harry Potter books, and, in fact, was just asked about this again recently. This is my article from the Spring, 2008 Classical Teacher magazine addressing this question:

It was Christmas time at number four Privet Drive, and Harry Potter found himself alone in his room, wondering whether anything could be worse than another yuletide spent in the home of the Dursleys. Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, whose idea of a yuletide celebration never seemed to include actually giving Harry anything, had already informed him in the harshest tones that the gift he had asked for, the thing he wanted the most, was absolutely unacceptable. These kinds of judgments usually applied only to him, and not to their son Dudley, who almost always got what he wanted.

In fact, Dudley had asked for the same thing this Christmas as Harry: a copy of the newest in a series of books by a British author about a boy whose parents have been killed and is living with his unsympathetic aunt and uncle, and who, it turns out, has magical powers which he is not supposed to use outside school--a boy, in fact, just like him.

But even Dudley would not be getting his wish this Christmas, since the Dursleys were like many other parents on their block: conflicted about whether such books--books about young boys who use witchcraft, but who nevertheless engage in seemingly noble acts, should be so terribly popular--and read by their children.

...Well, you see where all this is going, don’t you?

That the greatest publishing event in history should turn out to have been a children’s book about an English orphan boy in training to be wizard has, depending on who you are, been a cause for celebration--or a matter of concern. For the parents whose children wait for months for the next in the series--and who are likely to disappear for a day or two in their rooms after they arrive, it is fact that either delights or horrifies you.

The Harry Potter books are indeed terribly popular, and many parents wonder what they should think of them. Generally speaking, there are two basic questions abour the Harry Potter books: First, are they bad? Second, if they’re not bad, are they good?

By “bad”, of course, could mean a number of things. Some people think the books are positively dangerous, since they use positive images of witchcraft to tell their story, and there is a concern that this could have a detrimental influence on children. Others think they are simply not good literature.

Let’s first address the first question: are the Harry Potter books dangerous? And the answer, of course, is “yes.” But there is a another, related question that naturally follows this one: Does that mean that the books should not be read? After all, it would seem to naturally follow that, if a book is dangerous it should not be read. All books that are dangerous should not be read; the Harry Potter books are dangerous; therefore they should not be read. Quod est demonstrandum ("It has been demonstrated).

But is it that simple?

When I am asked by a parent whether the Harry Potter books are dangerous, my answer is, “Absolutely.” “In fact,” I point out, “all literature is dangerous.”

Many parents of my generation will remember the fellow students they ran into in college 1970’s and 80’s who were hijacked by the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. These were people who left home and came to college, where they encountered Rand’s novels the Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged, and were overcome and captured by Rand’s egoistic ideology. Why were they so swept away? For one reason: they hadn’t read anything else. By and large, these were people who were not well-read in the first place. They were ignorant of the great books, and so, in encountering Rand, they mistakenly concluded that they had come face to face with great thinking. They were not used to ideas, and so, to use G. K. Chesterton’s words, the one idea went to their heads like “one glass of wine to a starving man.”

“Literature,” says Chesterton, “classic and enduring literature, does its best work in reminding us perpetually of the whole round of truth and balancing other and older ideas against the ideas to which we might for a moment be prone ... You can find all the new ideas in the old books; only there you will find them balanced, kept in their place, and sometimes contradicted and overcome by other and better ideas.”

To a child who is not well-read, Harry Potter is dangerous--and so is any other book he or she may read.

The best defense against one idea is not fewer ideas, but more of them, and the best defense against one book is a whole host of them. Being widely read, in other words, is the best innoculation against the dangers of literature. Being familiar with a lot of ideas is the best way to protect yourself against one bad one. Being widely read enables a person to not only see an idea, but, as Chesterton pointed out, to see through it.

Literature is dangerous--except when taken in large doses.

If my theory is right, then the Harry Potter books are only dangerous to children who are not well-read. But what about the witchcraft? It would seem here that the critics have a point. But let us think about this a little further.

I think there are two responses to the concerns over witchcraft in Harry Potter. The first is to ask whether the so-called “witchcraft” in these books of the same kind as that prohibited in the Scriptures (it is usually Christians who have this concern). I have my doubts about whether what is discussed in Scripture--namely necromancy--is really what is going on here, or whether what we have in the Harry Potter books is what I have called “fairy tale magic”. Waving wands and exploding birds just don’t seem to be the same kind of thing as calling up the spirits of the dead for purposes of prophesying, as in the case of the Witch of Endor.

The magic in the Harry Potter books seems mostly to be a sort of natural magic, used to manipulate things to do what we want them to do. If this is the case, then we might well ask how it differs fundamentally from science and technology, which do the same thing with processes that, to most of us (with the exception of a few magicians we call scientists) are just as mysterious as what happens when Harry Potter waves his wand.

The twentieth century science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once said that "any technology, when sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic." I think he was right. But if you doubt it, then think about any one of the numerous uses to which you put technology every day and explain how they work to manipulate the word around you: the microwave, the garage door opener, your cellphone, or, for that matter, your car. By the same criteria that we would condemn the kind of magic used in Harry Potter, we would also have to condemn the technological devices that we use numerous times every day.

But even if the “magic” in Harry Potter posed a problem, there is something to be said for it being out in the open. In fact, if there are problems with the Harry Potter books, they hit us right in the face: the better we may see and assess them. How much better than a book in which the problems are underneath the surface, and that pass into our mind unnoticed. For this reason I am much more comfortable with my children reading Harry Potter, than, say Lois Lenski’s The Giver, or Katherine Paterson’s, Bridge to Teribithia, whose subtle messages are an undertow that cannot be seen on the surface.

Another charge thrown against the Harry Potter books is that they are not great literature. Harold Bloom, one of the great literary critics of our time, leveled this charge against the books in an article in the New York Times. After it ran, the editors called and told Bloom that they had never seen anything like it: they had received 400 negative response letters and only one positive one, and the latter they said they suspected he had written himself!

But those who think that the Harry Potter books are dangerous should be less concerned, not more, by the thought that they are not great literature. Why? Because not only is literature dangerous, but the better a piece of literature, the more dangerous it is. This may seem like a paradox, but it is really just common sense. Anything that captures your heart (and the better a piece of literature is, the more it will do this), can propel you in the right direction--or the wrong one.

There is a famous Latin phrase: Corruptio optimi pessima (“The corruption of the best is the worst”) In his “Screwtape Letters,” C. S. Lewis applies this principle by pointing out that the great saints and the great sinners are made of the same stuff.

Valdemort is very, very bad--but only because he could have been very, very good if he had not gone wrong.

In the case of Harry Potter, the books cannot be that bad because they are not that great. There is a difference between great literature and good literature, and they both have their place. When it comes to fiction, a great book is not only a book that you read again and again, or that speaks some great truth: it is a book that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a book in which there is something behind what you initially see--a book in which there is more than meets the eye.

There have been many criticisms of the Harry Potter books, but for my money the most insightful remark anyone has made about them was that made by Medelaine L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time and several other classic stories. In a May, 2008 interview in Newsweek magazine, L’Engle made an interesting observation: “It’s a nice story,” she said of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, “but there’s nothing underneath it.”

There’s nothing underneath it. That is the difference between a great book and a merely good one. Great books have something underneath them.

There are many things to commend the Potter books as reading material. I happen to think that her characters are well-drawn and compelling. In fact, they remind me very much of some of Dicken’s characters: they have the same vividness, they have the same reality and fundamentally comic nature--even the bad ones. She even gives them names that express something about their character: Bathsheba Babbling, Bathilda Bagshot, and Severus Snape are not that far from Josiah Bounderby, Mr. Bumble, or Ebeneezer Scrooge in descriptiveness and propriety.

And yet there is something different. Dickens’s characters often tell us something fundamental about human nature itself. His stories do this too. There is something “underneath” Dickens’ stories in a way that there is not in the Harry Potter books. While Rowling’s stories are about what they are about, Dickens’ stories are about more than what they are about. Chesterton once said that the aim of good prose words is to mean what they say, while the aim of good poetic words is to mean what they do not say. There is a poetry about great books that is missing from merely good ones.

In his book The Death of Christian Culture, John Senior makes a distinction between what he calls the 100 great books and 1,000 good books. He makes the distinction not to dismiss the good books, but only to put them in their proper place. In fact, he says, it is important to be familiar with the 1,000 good books before even attempting the 100 great books.

To say that the Harry Potter books are not great literature is not an argument against reading them; it is only an argument against the misconception that they are great. Because a book is only good and not great is not a reason for not reading it: it is only a reason for not misunderstanding its place.

In some sense, there is no arguing with success. There is something to be said for the argument that J. K. Rowling’s creation must have something to it for it to have been so successful. In fact, she spins an exciting yarn. As good books go, it is a pretty good good book. But second things, said C. S. Lewis, suffer when put first. He didn’t say what their fate was when put last. But neither mistake does the books--or ourselves--any favors.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Martin, Thanks for reviving this post....I missed it the first time around! One correction though...Lois Lowry wrote The Giver, NOT Lois Lenski!