Kiss me, I'm Catholic.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Harry Potter and the Half-Baked Pratings

Okay... so when is the dire poisoning of my Christian imagination going to kick in? I have been reading the Harry Potter series since I was 13 years old, yet I remain a perfectly orthodox Catholic, lover of the Latin Mass, and defender of POD'ity everywhere. I am pretty sharp when it comes to smelling rotteness in Denmark, but Harry Potter has never set off my Darkside Detector, despite the model calibration of my imagination's compass.

Michael O'Brien himself could not quibble with my literary upbringing. My mother starting reading to me as soon as my googly infant eyes could focus on a page, and I seldom watched TV. (I still don't and always won't, in saecula saeculorum.) I read Andrew Lang's Red Fairy Book when I was seven (Tolkien also read it as a child), and my mother read me The Hobbit when I was eight. It instantly became my favorite book of all time, and was only supplanted by The Lord of the Rings, which I read at age 12. In between those two Tolkien classics I read the Narnia books, Dickens, Poe, and whatever else I could get my hands on. Some of it was dreck - I am thinking of the endless Baby Sitter Club books I consumed in fifth grade - but most of it was truly good literature.

So how did I become obsessed with Harry Potter when I was in middle school? You can't blame it on the television I never watched and the vacuous pop culture I never immersed myself in. What made me read each successive book in a single gulp, haunt HP messageboards, talk about nothing else with my friends; write esoteric trivia questions, fanfiction, poetry? I lost my obsessive interest in the series after the fourth book, but I remembered it fondly. And two days ago I finally picked up the fifth book - and ended up reading it through the night and finishing as the sun rose the following day. (To be honest, I do that with every book that piques my interest.)

I think I can explain how the Catholic fracas over Harry Potter erupted. It was not in response to the book itself...

Sequence of Events

1. The Harry Potter books became hugely popular among young readers such as myself. This baffled adults who could not comprehend the spectacle of American kids reading long, heavy books of their own volition. There had to be some hidden gimmick!

2. Inevitably, Harry Potter set off the hair-trigger sensibilities of those poor people who think that Halloween was created by devious, Isis-worshipping papists.

3. The media gleefully gave the fundy book-burnings way more coverage than they deserved. There's nothing the media likes better than making Christians look stupid, so this was another obvious development.

4. Here's where it gets hairy (ha ha). The Onion, satirizing the nascent hysteria, put up an article featuring fake "quotes" from children who had supposedly started worshipping Satan after reading HP. The fundies thought it was real, and attacked the books even more fiercely. The media responded with more ridicule. And so the flames rose higher as the fundies and the media bounced off each other. Did I say flames? I should have said smoke: as the brawl intensified, more and more sensible religious people began to think that where there was smoke, there had to be hellfire.

5. Catholics began to take notice of the fracas. They learned of it through the media, and assumed they had seen it all before: some sort of neo-pagan fad being defended by an anti-Christian media. They joined in the condemnations. Being rather more analytical than the mainstream media, they began paging through the books, trying to find the source of the evil craze. Although Harry Potter would not have attracted their suspicions without the media frenzy, they dug up all sorts of sinister things from its pages. Why? Because there was a cloud of smoke and there just had to be fire underneath. The smoke blew across the Atlantic and even Rome smelled something burning. A few statements from important and revered churchmen - who were hearing of the controversy from several removes - confirmed the concerned Catholics in their distrust of Harry Potter. Now they will not be parted from it by a crowbar.

That is what has happened, as far as I can tell. Under all the sound and fury, however, are the books themselves. And the Catholics who are concerned about them have never given them a truly unbiased look.

Why are they so popular? I must confess that until now I have never sat down and asked myself that. Here are a few reasons I like them, and I think that they are pretty widespread reasons.

1. They are just so British. This may seem like an odd thing to go crazy over, but it is true. Think of all the children's literature that comes from England: The Wind in the Willows, The Secret Garden, Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory... and on and on, right up to CS Lewis and Tolkien himself. America may export its movies and television, but the UK sends us their literature. JK Rowling is just the latest shipment. (Well, actually Lemony Snicket is. I have never read A Series of Unfortunate Events, but I expect that a lot of its popularity comes from its Britishness. Philip Pullman - a man I have an immense aversion to - probably trades on it as well.) The Britishisms, the boarding-school scenario... it all seems exotic and yet familiar. The language, too, is a draw: the evocative names and Latin spells appeal to the same part of the mind that is delighted by Hobbiton, Lothlorien, Dwarrowdelf, and O Elbereth Gilthoniel. In short, American kids have always liked English fantasy. It's a tradition of sorts.

2. Harry Potter is this normal boy who finds out that he has special powers and gets whisked away to have adventures. Children like these kind of stories. Period. Of course there is the danger of gnosticism and elitism, but the HP books guide children away from these temptations by downplaying the importance of Harry's natural abilities and heightening the importance of his moral choices. In the fifth book, Harry becomes filled with pride at his accomplishments and anger at the suffering he has experienced. He hurts his friends and makes himself miserable. Slowly and painfully he begins to realize the truth about himself. At the end of the book his pride is definitely humbled, but the anger remains, and he is not yet out of danger. So we worry not only about the dangers to his life, but about the state of his soul. Harry Potter is not a perfect hero; he is not someone who has been a saint from the beginning of the story. He is like us: he is struggling towards perfection. And Rowling is not afraid to show us his struggles.

3. The sheer richness and invention of Rowling's subcreation. It doesn't have the grandeur of Tolkien's subcreation, but it is charming and complex in its own right. Rowling truly creates a seperate world: it must be reached through countless wardrobe-like doorways: a train station, a telephone booth, a hidden alleyway. Inside, one finds a jewel box of creatures, customs and gadgets. Quidditch, invisibility cloaks, portkeys and penseives. Unicorns, dragons, house-elves and centaurs. Butterbeer, the Weasley twins' joke shop, anamagi, Remembralls, phoenixes, talking portraits... It is a world in which a thousand fairytales can rub shoulders in humorous situations.

4. The characters. Hermione of the Eternally Raised Hand and Ready Answer, with her outbursts of righteous anger and a vulnerable side that we rarely see. Dumbledore, obviously inspired by Gandalf, with his wisdom and goodness and slightly alarming whimsy. (Like Gandalf, he has a habbit of disapearing at inconvenient times.) Neville Longbottom, a "small person" who seems lumpish and timid, but who is enduring terrible inner suffering. The walking enigma that is Snape - he seems so villainous, but Dumbledore trusts him. And Harry himself, the Boy Who Lived. You care about him. You worry about him. You get angry at him when he does the wrong thing, and feel proud of him when he does the right thing. In other words, you love him.

That's all there is to it, really. There's no subliminal message, no sinister hypnotic gimmick that makes kids read it and warps their souls. It's just so much better than the horrid, horrid YA novels they made us read in school - those little Newberry Award-stamped paperbacks that wallow in despair and banality. I don't know anyone who liked reading those things.

If you really want to worry about the paganization of children's literature, you can worry about stuff like, oh, this. Or my own personal least favorite, the Anti-Narnia. Why isn't Michael O'Brien attacking the "Atheist CS Lewis?" Harry Potter may not be a full-blown Catholic allegory, but its snakes are where they should be.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Weblog Commenting and Trackback by