When Harry Met Frodo

By now, most of the civilized world has seen the film adaptations of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment of Peter Jackson's magnificent three-part screen adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. This leaves Catholic parents puzzled by how to navigate in the fantasy worlds they create.

On the one hand there are many voices in the Christian community who urgently condemn all fantasy, and particularly fantasy containing magic, as necessarily anti-Christian and "occult". Others, somewhat more discriminating, tend to distinguish between the work of Rowling and the vastly superior work of Tolkien. But this leaves them confused when somebody says "Hey! They both are about magic, so what the difference?" Still others see no problem with either book and think that Christian concerns about Harry are simply baseless. What to do?

My own perspective is that of a frank fan of both Harry and Frodo, but one who believes there are some problematic elements in the world of Harry Potter which Tolkien has managed to avoid.

I think the hysteria among some Christians about the alleged "occultic" nature of Harry Potter is quite wrong-headed. I think a kid who comes to believe in magic or traffic with demons because of these books is a comment on the quality of catechesis in his home, not on these books. Dittos for the films. As I have maintained all along, Rowling's vision of magic is essentially that of a whimsical "alternative technology". We have cars, they have brooms. We play soccer, they play Quidditch. We have Hershey's Kisses, they have Every Flavor Beans. It reflects exactly the point that C.S. Lewis made long ago about Science and Magic as the twins of the 16th century. Each was an attempt to control nature and exploit it, but we stuck with Science because it worked and Magic didn't. In Rowling's world, the one slight tweak to history is that--for some people at least--Magic does work.

Before talking about what's wrong with Harry I think it's important to talk about what's right. First off, the film (a magnificently envisioned rendering of the book which is, excepting a few minor points, extremely faithful to the book) is simply a cracking good story well acted by all involved (though not for small kids due to the scarier elements). More than this, it is a story which, like all good fantasy, exists in a moral universe which largely has its head screwed on right. Both evil and good are recognizable there and the heroes and villains are, in the end, commended for being heroes and condemned for being villains. Character traits like loyalty, fidelity, courage, and love are honored. Evil is portrayed as evil, not cleverly deconstructed and explained away as some of the truly evil servants of Voldemort who work in colleges around the world prefer to do.

And this leads to the problem with Harry. If there is anything that Christian parents should pay attention to, it is the curious way in which Harry's universe manages to be magical but not really supernatural. That's not bad, it's just not good enough.

What I mean is this: all the Harry Potter novels, like the film, confront Harry with real choices between good and evil and Harry, like all good protagonists, always manages to struggle through to choosing good in the end. But Harry seems to be aware only of what Catholic theology would call the "natural virtues" of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. He makes (generally) prudent choices, he hates injustice (although he sometimes tells lies and breaks rules), he restrains the impulse to take the sort of vengeance creeps like Draco Malfoy deserve, and he shows real courage when he should. These things are real virtues and Catholic parents should get down on their knees and thank God that a film which takes these virtues seriously is currently interesting kids. But it is also vital for Catholic parents to recognize that these virtues are only natural virtues and that a fully formed human person cannot live on bread alone. What is necessary (and what the Lord of the Rings manages to embody so successfully) is the mysterious reality of the need for grace.

This is not to say that The Fellowship of the Ring is a Christian, much less a Catholic, film. Tolkien, unlike Lewis, did not set out to write a Christian allegory. Indeed, Tolkien disliked allegory and consciously refused to allow his characters to "really" be Christ or Judas or whoever. But Tolkien's Catholic worldview has a profound impact on the story nonetheless and the world of the Lord of the Rings is aware of a world beyond itself in a way that Harry Potter's world is not. Imperfect characters are helped by a Providence and the Grace of the Valar while imperfect characters in Harry's world have simply their own pluck and a little homespun wisdom from Dumbledore to rely on. Harry's world, for all its magic, is a curiously one-floor universe, as much a product of Rowling's secular United Kingdom worldview as Tolkien's is of his Catholic and English background.

Because of this Harry Potter introduces our children, not to a truly supernatural world, but to a basically moral one that is, in fact, not supernatural enough. The struggle between Harry and Voldemort is a struggle of Nice vs. Evil, while the War of the Ring is a truly epic contest between real Good and Evil. Harry Potter is decent, but the Lord of the Rings is great.

Copyright 2002 - Mark P. Shea