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.