Vol. 2 No. 4 - Holy Cross 2007
Pulp Fiction isn't Christian Epic
"The child who has been educated in good literature... will not easily become an addict of contemporary movies and television programs and cheap novels that devastate the soul and take it away from the Christian path." - Father Seraphim Rose, His Life and Works
As latest pulp fiction fad by J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter series, crashes to a stop amid a gargantuan pile of revenues, the tired debate over the merits of the series is also drawing to a close - proof that while all good things must come to a end, hopelessly trivial and unedifying things never seem to come to their end soon enough.
To a certain extent, one can humour the less than literate secular parent who sees in this series a certain excitement that can entice little Johnny to read: this is a goal divorced from its content of effect, free from any spiritual or moral filter. It reminds one of the joke decades ago that young men actually read dirty magazines for the articles.
One might even excuse those in the mainstream culture who can overlook the omnipresent content of black magic, occultism, and the plethora of authentic witchcraft references throughout both the books and the movies in this popular series. Those who have no experience with the occult and its effects, no familiarity with the teachings of the Church about the cultivation of curiosity in such subjects, or the real life pastoral impact in the lives of those who take these matters seriously - perhaps the ignorant can be forgiven.
The last ten years have seen the growth among a certain segment of Christians - even Orthodox Christians - of a kind of Harry Potter fan club, focusing on two basic ideas. The first argues that the Harry Potter series is a piece of quality literature, with great capacity to engage its readers in the fundamental questions of good and evil. The second point argues that Harry Potter can be read as a Christian epic analogy, in a way which bolsters the traditional Christian life.
The popular press has proven eager to take up the first cause, but there are exceptions. As writer A. S. Byatt in the New York Times pointed out, Rowling's universe forms a "secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children's literature … Written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip". Another reviewer suggested, "Rowling's mind is so governed by cliches and dead metaphors that she has no other style of writing." Yet another comment decried, "the Potter saga (is)... very conservative... dispiritingly nostalgic for a bygone Britain,".
Far be it from me to be hard on any book for undertaking the noble task of harkening back to a bygone Britain. Yet this is not what Harry Potter does. The authentic inheritance of Britain - its Orthodox Christian essence - is entirely displaced in the novels and films, replaced with the titillation of a modernized, materialistic world without God. The shreds of Orthodoxy still extant in Britain today are carefully filtered out by Rowling. The very things which could and should make these novels appealing to Orthodox Christians are missing, replaced with things that are very spiritually disturbing indeed.
In the case of Orthodox Christian admirers of the Harry Potter series, one can also detect something of the elements of an ethnic ghetto. Just as certain cultural preoccupations afflict Greek, Serbian, Russian or Ukrainian communities, Orthodox Christians with Anglo roots or preferences often share certain tastes. This goes for Anglophiles in general, too. Harry Potter fills the void for literary Anglophiles who yearn for the Anglo-Christian epics of bygone days. This is perhaps part of the reason Russians and Greeks don't seem to be running around in a flurry anticipating Harry Potter plot twists, while many (but not all) Anglo-Canadian and American converts are doing just that.
Which brings us to the argument that the Potter stories can be approached as Christian epic analogies. Harry Potter fans often draw comparisons between the series and such classics as The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein, and the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien - a committed and conscientiously Christian writer - purposefully attempts to reconstruct a mythical world based on the inheritance of Anglo-Saxon Orthodox England. Tolkien further takes the clear steps to base his plotlines on the idea that evil is evil, and that the use of power - particularly magical power - has an inherently self-destructive quality, which enslaves the soul, leading it away from Truth, into demonic slavery. Magic is presented as a dangerous force, and even those virtuous characters who deal with it - such as elves and the wizard Gandalf - do so with great personal caution and restraint, much like the restraint one sees demonstrated in the life of the Orthodox Church. By contrast, the disciples of Hogwarts school are not offered this lesson: it is assumed in the Rowling's books that magic is a resource to be learned and exploited: power is in itself a neutral thing, and the difference between good and evil tends to be more a matter of whether one tries to trespass on the souls of other people.
Tolkien presents an epic which intentionally depicts the Christian struggle against the corrupting influences of the personalized use of supernatural power, in which humility is the key to spiritual freedom, and the end game is one of being rid of the burden of supernatural power. Unlike Tolkein, Rowling knits together a mere caricature of mythological history. Tolkein's is an intentional analogy of the Christian struggle against sin and death; Rowling's is an intentional analogy of occult libertarianism, crafted for a modern market, and those who read into it a Christian analogy are finding in it what they want to find - not that which the author has planted there. This approach in itself is a rejection of the traditional approach to literature, which seeks the lessons the author has to offer. Orthodox Christian readers should know better than to fall into this imaginative and speculative game.
The works of J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis are fantasy literature with an explicitly Christian purpose, which have stood the test of time, and which draw on the mythology of once living Orthodox Christian cultures - yet even these qualities do not make these books required reading for Orthodox Christians, young or old. They may compliment the Orthodox life, but they are not central to it.
The Harry Potter series offers far less than these classic Christian sagas, offering the vague impressions of modernity and sprinklings of the occult as a caricature of a mythical English culture, stripped of its Orthodox Christian qualities. It, too, is not required reading for Orthodox Christians, yet for those who would choose to read it, it offers many elements which do not compliment or support the struggle to live the Orthodox life, and at least a few elements which are very real stumbling blocks to the formation of an Orthodox view of the world.
For Orthodox Christians, the biggest threat of the Harry Potter phenomenon is not something as simple as the popularization of the occult: it is the forgetfulness of the mind of the Church, the Orthodox inheritance as it is and was, intentionally expressed in cultures past and present. For Orthodox Christians bombarded by the deluge of modern pop culture, perhaps it is time to take refuge in that traditional inheritance once again - and leave Harry and Hogwarts out in the dustbin.
Father Geoffrey Korz, (Holy Cross, 2007)
© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.