Harry Potter as Star Wars

I’ve been going back and forth with RJ about Harry Potter, and this time I hit her comment size limit, so I’m going to have to put it all here. For those who have missed my other discussions with RJ, I should mention that I don’t consider Tolkien’s works to be “Christian” in any important sense - the category was brought up by RJ and I’m not relying on it when I criticize HP any more than Brin was when he lit into Star Wars (chuckle now if you know Brin). I also don’t believe that children need to be shielded from literature.

In response to RJ’s first entry, I commented:

One difference between HP and your other fantasy examples is that in Tolkien and Lewis, the human/hobbit characters do not have inherent magical powers. HP is more like Star Wars that way than Christian fantasy, and is susceptible to the criticism David Brin once made of the Force, which I linked in my blog back when I saw the first HP movie.

In brief, Brin calls Star Wars a “demigod tale”; analogously, Harry Potter isn’t worshipping another god, he is another god. He is born with powers no one else has, and he and his class despise the general run of mankind - the Muggles. Brin’s main concern was the democracy of equals vs. the depotism of the genetically superior, but I think that the deeper concern for children’s literature is the very concept of the boy born to be king. Most boys are not born to be king.

Frodo is a positive moral example because, like the Narnia children, he was sometimes weak, and paid the price, and ultimately he chose to do good despite the temptation not to get involved. Harry Potter, on the other hand, regularly lies to his family and his teachers. He breaks the rules and is rewarded for it because he is the anointed one. He does good accidentally, as part of his mysterious demigod nature, starting with his defeat of Voldemort while still an infant.

HP certainly is a pagan book, but not because of the magic.

In response to RJ’s comments on the above, I said part of the following:

Harry isn’t the analogue of Anakin Skywalker, but of Luke Skywalker (unless something unexpected happens in the later books). Part of Brin’s point was that Luke was born to be a demigod, and that that is a bad sort of person to star in fiction. His points about Anakin are valid, but irrelevant to HP.

I admit I’ve only read the first two HP books, but it’s not clear to me that anyone else is as powerful as Harry. Other characters constantly reinforce the specialness of Harry and the belief that Harry defeated Voldemort as an infant - and therefore, his unusual power even among wizards. Later revelations won’t negate that initial impression for me. How would you disprove Harry’s superior powers, unless by a faceoff between, say, Snape and Harry? That’s unlikely to happen, and any apparent superior skill among Harry’s elders can be attributed to education and experience rather than innate talent.

It is likewise clear to me that Muggles are, if not to be despised, at least to be pitied. I don’t think you can excuse Harry’s behavior by his bad Muggle parentage - it was the author’s decision to give him bad parents, to put him in that situation, and therefore to glorify his rebellion, however justified, to minors. It’s certainly true that the story of the boy born to be king (with a side of evil stepparent) is quite common - for example, it occurs in Star Wars - but that doesn’t make it an admirable story. I find it morally questionable.

You know I don’t believe in protecting children from literature, so what I’m really questioning is the appeal of HP. I think it’s so popular with children precisely because it tells this fantasy (in the bad sense of the word) of the boy born to be king, who’s the most popular in the school, who’s the most talented at sports, who has the most magical powers, who’s the most oppressed by his clearly evil guardians, and who saves the world in every novel.

Anyway, in real life we don’t see every infraction summarily punished…

Good literature does not copy real life, it idealizes it. What happens in the books expresses the ideals behind them. Especially in a fantasy, you can’t say that the author was just being realistic - that’s not the nature of literature, and certainly not of fairy tales.

So why do we expect anything different from fiction?

Well, the reason I expect more from fiction is that I still remember reading Lewis and Tolkien and Leguin as a child, and you mentioned two of them. When I read HP, I was surprised at how flat it seemed, how little it had in common with the books I remember. Lewis’ and Tolkien’s stories took average characters and put them into difficult situations which they overcame because of their moral qualities (and possibly supernatural aid), not because of native power or birthright. Frodo was the best hobbit in the Shire because of his character, not his parentage or his inheritance of the Ring. At best, with Harry it’s unclear whether his choices or his powers are behind his success, and though that doesn’t make the HP novels particularly evil, it does make them inferior as literature to the others you mentioned.

4 Responses to “Harry Potter as Star Wars”

  1. liz Says:

    You knew you were going to get an argument from me, right?

    This actually strikes me as the flip side to the arguments I had with my mother, who originally thought the HP novels pagan. After reading the second two novels, she came to the conclusion that the whole series was a Christian allegory (thus suspending the need for overt Christian references in the text, since it’s all in the subtext). At the same time, though, she decided that Harry was the only person with any integrity or strength of character in the series.

    But that’s my mother.

    Firstly, I think we have to take into account the fact that your canon is wrong — it’s Harry’s guardians who are cruel, and Harry has only saved the world once (and that was really his mother’s work, IMHO).

    Harry is an extremely unreliable narrator. JK Rowling takes great delight in misleading Harry, and even more joy in sending her readers off in the wrong theoretical direction all together. So we can’t just assume that anything in the series is concrete until book 7 has been published and analysed to death.

    It is my belief that the HP novels are a different kind of fairy tale — the story of a young man learning to become a hero. So his first triumph is really his mother’s, and his next couple are instinctive. His morals at this stage are untested. He says the right things, but he’s never truly tested.

    By Book 3, we have his moral choices becoming more certain — he chooses not to murder the murderer of his parents, even though this will lead to greater problems in the short-term. This is the climatic scene of the book — Voldemort doesn’t appear at all.

    Book 4 marks the end of an era, the theft of Harry’s innocence. It’s my belief that this is the last time Harry will face Voldemort without full knowledge of his background, and the ability to control his rather extraordinary intincts.

    My point is, it’s really a bit unfair to say that Harry’s less heroic than Frodo or anyone else at this stage. Were the children of the Narnia books heroic? All of them? Peter was incredibly two-dimensional, Susan was short-changed in the end. Of the original four, only Edmund and Lucy struggle for their achievements. Eustace and Jill are far more satisfactory as heroic characters, but their flaws are deep and serious.

    It’s also worth noting that in The Horse and His Boy, Shasta’s theft of the Tarkaan’s horse and his foster-father’s food etc are justified by Lewis on the grounds that Shasta had never been well-treated by the fisherman anyway.

    It’s not yet clear whether or not Harry Potter was born to be a demi-god. He might be a powerful wizard. But at this stage, any attempt to take on, say Dumbledore, would be met with a pat on the head and a detention. Asking us to disprove Harry’s greater powers is asking us to prove a negative with no evidence, which isn’t fair.

  2. Anonymous Reader Says:

    My own question upon reading this deals with Tolkien, not Harry Potter. I accept all that you say about Frodo, but doesn’t Aragorn also fit the same criticized criteria as Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker? How is Tolkien freer of the “boy born to be king” stereotype than the other writers mentioned? Especially in the movie versions (for which, of course, Tolkien himself cannot be held accountable), where Aragorn is, to my eyes, presented as a character of greater importance than Frodo?

  3. R.J. Anderson Says:

    What Liz said (plus what Erica said in the comments of my blog). I’ll only add this:

    It is likewise clear to me that Muggles are, if not to be despised, at least to be pitied.

    Well, only in the same sense that I pity my husband for being colour-blind and tone-deaf. Nevertheless, he functions perfectly well, and has no ambitions whatsoever toward becoming an interior designer or joining a choir, so he’s not suffering. And it seems quite evident to me that’s the way JKR portrays the difference as well. The fact that many wizards either disdain or ignore Muggles (with a few very notable exceptions like Dumbledore and Arthur Weasley) doesn’t prove they’re right to do so — in fact JKR has demonstrated on several occasions already that popular opinion in the wizarding world, like popular opinion in our own, is frequently biased, ill-informed, and unreliable.

    In short, I don’t think there’s any good reason to believe that JKR is setting up the wizards as an inherently superior race, or Harry as uber-mensch, at all.

  4. Jemima Says:

    Aragorn is the king in exile - we don’t see him as a boy and he doesn’t possess supernatural powers of any kind. I’ve discussed his racial superiority (a longer life, better blood predestining him to be good) elsewhere in the blog - it is, in my opinion, a problem of LotR, but it’s not the Skywalker/demigod problem.