Dark Material Indeed

Brandon Watson of Siris posted a nice essay on Friday about the Rowling and Pullman books. His comments on both were interesting and enlightening, and they got me to thinking. I confess that I have not been as swept away by these sets of books as others have, though I did read them, and in the case of the Potter books I also enjoyed watching some of the movies. But I can't say that I have any dogs in the race over whether these books are any of the good or bad things that their friends and enemies are saying that they are.

The Pullman books, obviously, are hostile to religion in general and Christianity in particular, but their "attack" on religion, such as it is, is so inept as to be easily ignored in favor of just enjoying what is otherwise a ripping good yarn (well, until the last book, anyway, where it suddenly and irrevocably becomes the tedious celebration of adolescent hormonal activity that seems to be the cri de coeur of our age). I think Brandon is right that Pullman is the better stylist, but because the movie version of his oeuvre is not due out until December he has garnered nearly the attention, either positive or negative, that Rowling has.

The Rowling books, by contrast, have managed to attract massive amounts of attention, both good and bad, in spite of the fact that the books are simplistic, episodic, plot-driven vignettes that read like--surprise!--screenplays. In light of the intensity with which both fans and detractors have at it with one another I suppose it should come as no surprise that both sides would start looking around for authoritative endorsements of one kind or another. In my view the most embarrassing of these attempts was the one undertaken a few years ago to get then Cardinal Ratzinger to condemn the books as unchristian. You can still find in the blogosphere links to a letter he wrote in reply to a query from some hand-wringing moron in which he makes it about as clear as clear could be that he has never read any of the books and knows nothing about them beyond what one could learn from tendentious sources such as the meanderings of hand-wringing morons. This is actually a good thing in a way, because it would be a frightening prospect to learn that the future Pontiff thought that he had the kind of time to waste that would allow him to read literally thousands of pages of second-rate children's' literature. The downside, however, is that we now have many other hand-wringing morons out there who think that this worthless document constitutes some kind of valid moral advice about the Rowling books.

The principle complaint seems to focus on what these people regard as the glorification of witchcraft in the Rowling books. In making this complaint they simultaneously make a number of very different but very ignorant mistakes.

First, they confuse the sort of "witchcraft" portrayed in the Potter stories with the sort of "witchcraft" that people in the middle ages believed to exist out there in the world as a kind of assault on objective goodness. Even if the latter sort ever existed (it didn't) it is clearly not the same thing as what is portrayed in the Potter stories, which is magic indeed but magic employed in the service of the good, not as an assault against objective goodness itself. Writers have compared the magic of the Potter stories to the magic that is condemned in the Bible, but that is the sloppiest sort of literary criticism; it's like saying that the Ancient Greeks were opposed to birth control because they fought against the Trojans.

Second, they mistake literary portrayal for didactic purposes with literal endorsement. This is a particularly annoying mistake, since some of the people who attack the Rowling books are, at the same time, huge fans of Tolkien, Lewis, and other Christian writers who fill their stories with magic of all kinds, good and bad, as a device for portraying in a metaphorical way such concepts as power, submission to authority, control over natural processes, order amidst chaos, and plenty of other themes that are no more hostile as such to Christianity than the stories of exorcism in the New Testament are.

Third, these sorts of readers seem incapable of understanding the overarching theme of the Potter stories, which has nothing at all to do with Wicca, medieval assaults on goodness, glorification of the material, or any of the other things that are pointed to as "dangerous", and everything to do with friendship, loyalty, courage, compassion, and the triumph of good over evil. In short, most of the folks who attack the Potter stories as "dangerous" appear to be incapable of reading literature to begin with, let alone critiquing it.

Finally, consider the following charge. One writer has said that "from a Christian perspective, children immersing themselves in Harry Potter are being desensitized to the dangers of spiritual practices explicitly condemned and forbidden by Holy Scripture." This is the sort of magical thinking that one ordinarily finds only among the most ignorant literalist fundamentalists, and yet I've seen this very idea endorsed by intelligent, well-educated Roman Catholics. Are we supposed to imagine our children running out into the woodshed to draw pentagrams on the floor and start conjuring up Voldemort only to find that they have accidentally conjured up Ol' Scratch himself by mistake, and that they are now doomed for all eternity? If I may borrow from my fine pagan friend, Cicero, O tempora! O mores! In qua urbe vivimus? You would have to know virtually nothing about Christianity to believe such a thing possible.

With folks such as this standing at the front of the queue in the Culture Wars it's no wonder that people like Philip Pullman look at organized religion and shake their heads. The only dark materials we need to worry about are the ignorance and superstitions of a bygone era that Christian intellectuals such as Erasmus, Thomas More, Newman, and others worked so hard to eradicate. Why go back?


Sophocles said…

I have wanted to say "Hello" for quite some time now. I have your other blog address:


and I have been unable to get through to comment or to just wish you well. I saw this link(to this present site) on my "Referrers" link and discovered this site.

Sorry it took me so long to say hello.

I hope you are well.
I had a long day and just checked my own blog so I did not read this post, but I will.
John Farrell said…
Well said, Scott. I too find Rowling's prose flat. Very much enjoyed Pullman's first novel in the series, Golden Compass, but don't feel the urge to read the rest, mostly, as you say, because I've read too many reviewers on how heavy-handed he becomes in the later books.

Lately I've been rediscovering Robert E. Howard's original Conan stories, which I think are more enjoyable than either Rowling or Pullman.
CrimsonCatholic said…
Lately I've been rediscovering Robert E. Howard's original Conan stories, which I think are more enjoyable than either Rowling or Pullman.

"Sword and sorcery" is really a separate genre from "fantasy." While I would certainly take Howard, Moorcock, Leiber, or Zelazny over any current "fantasy" author, that might have more to do with the sword-and-sorcery genre becoming a lost art. Steven Brust is practically the only one left who takes that art seriously, which is why I always buy his books, but everybody else is in this mealy-mouthed "fantasy" genre that has more or less the characteristics of Rowling's writing that Scott described. There are good fantasy novels, but it's practically a case where the writer has to succeed despite the limitations of the genre (see, e.g., Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana). For a fantasy author, Rowling is on the good side, but that isn't much of a compliment.

And it's just wistful nostalgia to try to read the Christian allegorical fantasies into the contemporary genre. Like sword-and-sorcery, that genre is dead for all intents and purposes, and I suppose it is only the Christian hope that inspires the persistent desire to resurrect it!
Anonymous said…
"Writers have compared the magic of the Potter stories to the magic that is condemned in the Bible, but that is the sloppiest sort of literary criticism; it's like saying that the Ancient Greeks were opposed to birth control because they fought against the Trojans."

What a great line! I haven't laughed so hard in quite a while!

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