What We’ve Learned from Harry (Part 2): The Fantasy Tradition

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“Harry Potter is a Hobbit.” That was the title of a 2004 article by Dr. Amy H. Sturgis, friend and scholar. It was the thesis that captured my imagination about Harry more than any other. Rowling’s relationship to Tolkien is fascinating: Harry Potter is quite distinct from Tolkien, and also quite similar. It is distinct, in that you don’t see Tolkien’s direct influence all over the Hogwarts saga. In other words, apart from some superficial similarities, no one is going to read Harry and say, “Oh this is just a Tolkien knock-off.” It’s not.

But she is writing in the same tradition of Faerie stories. That is Amy’s thesis, and it’s the heart of what I tried to do with Harry Potter and Imagination. It’s a tradition that can be traced back through great writers like L’Engle, Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, and MacDonald, and that great stream finds its source in the thinking of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I’m not going all the way back to Coleridge in this post (though I hope to give him some serious attention here in the future). I’m going to summarize, as briefly as I can, this fantasy tradition, with reference to the five authors noted above. At the heart of it all is this: the imagination is a way of knowing.

George MacDonald wrote that fairy tales are “new embodiments of old truth.” This comes straight out of Coleridge, who defines true poetry as that which “rescues admitted truth from neglect caused by the very circumstance of their universal admission.” We nod and accept certain things to be true, but we tend to neglect the weight of that truth until it is set before our eyes in something new and beautiful: a magical castle, the enacting of deeper magic, a humble hobbit, a Horcrux destroyed, a romp with a lion. Fairy tales tell the truth and open our eyes to its stunning reality – and to how much we’ve neglected it. We find this new embodiment of old truth in Albus Dumbledore’s lesson that love is the strongest form of magic. And we see how love transcends all magic played out before our eyes in Harry’s story.

G.K. Chesteron believed that “the world is wild,” and that the philosophy of the fairy tale was far closer to truth than “realism.” We enter our mundane Muggle worlds each day with all the predictable things that bore us. We walk through our routines in a stupor, accepting the world as it is and failing to see it as the untamed playground God made it. When we walk into Hogwarts and find the paintings talking to us, the staircases moving, and ghosts popping up through the dinner tables, we’ve entered a wild world. And if we let Harry’s world affect us, we remember to look for the wildness that exists in our own.

J.R.R. Tolkien called fantasy fiction the highest form of art, because it involves subcreation – the weaving of brand new worlds that have to be as consistent and believable as our own. Tolkien wrote, in “On Fairy Stories,” one of the most sophisticated defenses of the idea that we create because we are made in the image of a creator, and that our creative work is a fundamental part of who we are. Tolkien argued that in “escaping” to the world of Faerie, we often encounter truth in a more potent way than in non-fiction or in works of “realistic” fiction. As an example from Potter, perhaps it’s been hard for you to authentically address, in your own life, issues of racism and relating to the downtrodden in our world. You enter Harry’s world. You’ve never met a house-elf. You don’t know any in “real life.” But before you know it, you’re swept into the debate over house-elves, find yourself loving them and sympathizing with their plight, and you join Harry and Ron as they begin to understand the reasons for their oppression. Now, come back to your primary world; there are house-elves here, too.

C.S. Lewis believed that in fairy tales, our imaginations allow us to grasp important truth about spiritual reality that our intellect alone, through reason and propositions, cannot fathom. Consider the long-standing, complicated issue of fate and free will, which has been endlessly debated in systematics and caused harsh and violent lines to be drawn between Christian groups. Now, watch the way events unfold in Oedipus Rex, or in MacBeth, or in Harry Potter, where free will and prophecy fulfillment interact and intersect and weave in and out of each other. The issue, in story form, produces mystery and wonder, whereas in our theological propositions, it tends to produce argument and frustration. Fairy tales give us imaginative access to truth in places our religion textbooks cannot go.

Madeleine L’Engle is another writer whose literary “magic” got her in trouble in some circles. She criticized the idea that the “real world” was only found in “instructive books,” and wrote that “The world of fairy tale, fantasy, myth…is interested not in limited laboratory proofs but in truth.” She drives this point home when the divine teacher in A Wind in the Door challenges Meg’s idea that something is “just a dream” (and therefore not real) with the simple, repeated question: “What is real?” Proginoskes, the cherubim, follows up the Teacher’s question: “I’m real, and most earthlings can bear very little reality.” Rowling asks the same question and challenges the same laboratory-proof view of reality when Harry asks Dumbledore, “Is this real, or is it happening in my head?” And Dumbledore replies: “Of course it’s happening in your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it isn’t real?”

I hope you’re beginning to see where I’m going with this. Reality is bigger and deeper and wider than what we can perceive with the senses, prove with testing and logic, and document with footnotes. Christians who write fairy tales have, for years, been protesting a wonder-less, nominalistic view of truth by writing fairy tales. L’Engle dismissed the idea that stories were just distraction, and argued that story was part of survival in this world.

J.K. Rowling stands in this Coleridgean tradition that flows down through these five authors. She’s a unique and quirky addition, to be sure. But I’m glad she’s there. She re-ignited in me a love for these five, and I have a seven-volume stack of Coleridge on the shelf that I intend to learn well. All because of a boy wizard and some chocolate frogs.


23 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Travis, awe-some. You make me want to dig into Coleridge, which I’ve never done (Spock, I’m not a scholar, dammit! I’m a banjo player!). But the other writers I’ve read, especially Lewis, MacDonald, and then some Chesterton, L’Engle.

    “Fairy tales give us imaginative access to truth in places our religion textbooks cannot go.” Love that. It is easy to want to quantify everything, because we think to categorize and systematize theology as an exact science will mean control. Just show me what to do rather than giving me all this ethereal “trust in Christ” stuff about having an inner relationship with God.

    Your statement, “Madeleine L’Engle is another writer whose literary ‘magic’ got her in trouble in some circles. She criticized the idea that the ‘real world’ was only found in ‘instructive books’ reminds me of Eustace liking books if they were books of information, and both Uncle Andrew and Jadis being “dreadfully practical” with no sense of wonder or joy. You can see in fairy tales that as people become more dead to good, they are also becoming dead to wonder and joy (one reason I think “Jadis especially appropriate for her, due to the word “jaded”).

    The truth and beauty that comes to me through fiction is like no other medium.

  2. JJ

    Just finished reading/skimming through the comments on Pt. 1. I’m exhausted. Glad Pt. 2 is up.

    I’ve also been reading the comments on various other sites since HP7-2 has come out and it grieves me (and admittedly angers me a bit) that some Christians hold this series with such contempt on little or no actual evidence other than a word and the real world definition of it (which as you stated in the other article does not mean the same in Harry’s world). I don’t want to retread that ground but let’s just say I find the RR a refreshing reprieve from some of the other sites out there full of venom towards this series. There is so much more to this series than what most HP discussions spiral in to.

    Reading articles like this one make me realize how little I know about literature and its history. I simply know what kinds of books I like and read them. My discernment isn’t turned off, I just know that I have freedom in Christ to decide for myself what I want to read. Harry Potter taught me greatly that I need to inform myself before rushing to judgment (although I still reserve the right to judge a certain vampire series having never read a single book). The RR has definitely opened my mind to different types of literature though, and for that I’m grateful. And even at 36 years old, if it wasn’t for Harry, I probably wouldn’t be as big of a reader as I am today. I may not have read Lord of the Rings or Narnia in full, or branched out to try Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (I finished book 4, Wizard and Glass, a few weeks ago and despite some issues I love that series). I likely never would have checked out Bram Stoker or Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes is the greatest detective ever, period). All thanks to an 11 year old boy wizard.

    My point is, like you Travis, through Harry Potter Rowling has encouraged me to read other great writers. And has helped me to see beauty in places I never would have looked before.

  3. kelli

    Brilliant, Travis!

    This post makes me giddy and causes me to feel a bit Tookish…not for physical adventure but it whets my appetite for a wild journey in a good fantasy.

    I have not read much Coleridge either, but I plan to now.

    There is nothing like good fantasy to teach us truth. My 10 year-old daughter was praying last night, and as she was she mentioned Aslan and said, “And You know, he’s not real, but he’s like Jesus, and he sacrificed himself on the Stone Table to save us.” (Notice the switch from “them to us.”)

    Truth prevails, and does so magically through story.

    Can’t wait to hear more from you on this!

  4. JJ

    I don’t remember where I got the link (maybe a comment in Pt. 1 of this series) but an article I just read had this great quote at the end:

    “My four-year-old daughter is also on the bed, watching “The Wizard of Oz” for about the gazillionth time. Oddly enough, she has not yet attempted to find her way to Oz to become a witch or an apple-throwing tree or a flying monkey — or a scarecrow, for that matter. I will likely introduce her to Harry and his friends, and send her on imaginary adventures at England’s only school of witchcraft and wizardry. I will also introduce her to Aslan, Gandalf, Bilbo Baggins, and Lucy, Susan, Edmund, Peter, and Digory. But I won’t be surprised when she does not try to steal Bilbo’s ring, become invisible, ride a lion to the train station, hop the Hogwarts Express to Narnia, and eat the White Witch’s enchanted Turkish Delight. It’s called fiction.”

    Amen. I wish my son were older so we could start reading him these great books. Obviously I don’t want him growing up too fast. He’s only 2 for goodness sake. Until then it’s repeated readings of Danny and the Dinosaur and Goodnight Gorilla. 🙂

  5. JJ

    Kelli: That quote from your daughter is awesome. It reminds me of my son (who turned 2 in April) who, when I ask him if a boo boo feels better responds with simply, “God”, while nodding his head. When I ask him, “Did God heal your boo boo?” He says, “Yes.” I don’t think he’ll have any problem finding Truth in these stories. 🙂

  6. Loren

    Love this stuff!

    I’ve always loved fantasy for the fact it gives that glimpse into something beyond the here and now; I have a hard time understanding why many people don’t like it, but I’ve learned that once again this is an area where God has created each of us differently. Of course, I won’t give up on trying to win people over!

    Another more recent author who really digs into the “what’s going on behind the scenes” is Karen Hancock, particularly in her Legends of the Guardian King series. Her writing really opened my eyes to how God works and how Christ can live through us. Wonderful!

    @ JJ, that quote is great. It reminds me of stories my husband tells: He’s an MK from Africa, and when he was young and back in the States peers would ask him about life in Africa. He told them that he rode to school on the back of a giant boa constrictor and kids believed him! See what happens when we starve our imaginations? We can’t see the truth of a story when we hear one.

  7. John Granger

    If you’re looking for a place to begin with Coleridge, to join the STC Club along with Travis, F. D. Maurice, and John Cardinal Newman (among others!), I recommend the Bard of Ottery St. Mary’s ‘Aids to Reflection’ (1825). It’s available online, as an ebook, or in print.

  8. Nick and Susan

    I really enjoyed reading that and it is no surprise that those authors share the stage together.

    L’Engle is the only one I’ve given a wide berth to over the years, again because of hearsay about her (I’ve not heard of Coleridge before – though my Amazon wish list will no doubt be getting another bashing this evening. I’m still waiting to visit my dad’s so I can nab his HP collection! Can’t wait to see the look on his face.).

    I’ve seen L’Engle’s books recommended many times by people I love, but have also read many cautions about her too, it is as if someone has draped a silk sheet over her books and woe betide anyone who lifts a corner of it to take a peek.. Such concern, but concern about what? I understand that fantasy fiction is not every one’s cup of tea, but oh how this particular genre breeds such fear.

    Ah, Rabbit Room you keep churning up the soil of my heart, challenging its well trod ground with its thick, hard crust. Oh it hurts a little at first and yet feels strangely good.

    I can’t help but share this quote that I read (again) earlier this week, it compliments this whole thread and I’m sure most readers will recognise it. Some chap who wrote a story about a Lion, a witch and a wardrobe said it. Wise fellow he was too.

    “The Value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity”

    Susan

  9. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Susan, sometimes the Christian’s attitude toward Myth and Fantasy is the same as his attitude toward Grace + Nothing. “Oh, can’t think that! It leads to license! What about the rules!”

    I read a lot of books as a child and teen about magic – Narnia, the Edward Eager books, E. Nesbit, and countless others I can’t even remember. Now, I did have a desire for power, a desire to experience the magical, but that desire didn’t come from reading the books; it came from my turbulent emotional junk from my childhood, where I felt powerless. And since there were really no adults watching out for me in that area, in mid teens I began reading Edgar Cayce, books about astral travel, and whatnot. But the thing is, God always protected me from actually doing anything occultic.

    Eventually this desire for power led me to a deeper searching for it – power for living, for loving others. It led me all the way to finding Christ within myself as that Source.

    So if I have a testimony of what books about magic and wizardry have done for me, I can say without reservation that they have been part of what has drawn me further up and further in. They stirred up and showed me my need for power to reign in life through the One Man, and as I remember my need, I see the Supply. That’s the true magic, the Deep Magic carved into stone tablets, put into our hearts with a continual supply of manna, and Aaron’s dead stick that came to life and budded, inside the Ark. That Ark is inside us.

    The fiction of MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien, L’Engle, doesn’t lull me to sleep in an escapist dreamland; it wakes me up to actual reality. I tell my son, “We are in Star Wars; we are pursued by Orcs we must battle; there is a Voldemort that has already been destroyed by a death and resurrection, but one last Horcrux remains.” The best fiction, the best fantasy, doesn’t give a moral; it shows us actual Reality contained within Story, shows us in a different way so that we once again see it in freshness instead of being dulled by familiarity and the daily grind.

  10. Jen

    Travis: Love this! I still haven’t read MacDonald, and only barely remember Coleridge from high school, but the rest are some of my favorites. I’ve never seen them all connected like that before, but it makes sense. I’ve always enjoyed “escaping” into another world… and have often been surprised by how much truth and reality I find there. Definitely adding a couple new authors to my “to read” list soon. 🙂

    Susan: It took me a really long time to finally read L’Engle. I didn’t know much about the situation, but I remember there being a little controversy in my small-town Christian school because a kid in my class wanted to read A Wrinkle in Time for a book report. I finally read it as an adult, and could not figure out why in the world it was such a big problem. It’s a delightful, imaginative story. Another great (non-fiction) book of hers is Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. I can’t recommend that one enough!

  11. Goodgame

    This is great. Thanks for connecting those dots for us, Travis. I love all those authors, though I’ve only read one McDonald book. And as former English major, you’ve inspired me to blink the glaze out of my eyes when I see Coleridge’s name. I’ll be looking up John Granger’s reference, for sure. And Loren, the boa constrictor story – that’s just crazy awesome.

  12. Tony Heringer

    Thanks Travis. I love hearing about this tradition and its roots. This begs for a part III. I’m guess that is what the Coleridge post will be though nothing lights up the joint like a good Harry Potter post. 🙂

    Ron: “Spock, I’m not a scholar, dammit! I’m a banjo player!” Thanks for that. It was a nice late afternoon chuckle indeed.

    Cheers!

  13. Nick and Susan

    Jen, thank you for the recommendations, I love hearing about new books to try (now I just need more time).

    Ron, I know you are right. Also, I wholeheartedly agree with you regarding this sort of fiction, that it “Doesn’t lull me to sleep in an escapist dreamland; it wakes me up to actual reality.” And yet that is what a lot of people think, that these stories are just pure escapism. Oh, but they move me so deeply, and stay with me long after I’ve finished the last page (like all good books should). The affect of fantasy fiction on me has been quite profound.

    Susan

  14. Loren

    Sigh! All this talk about L’Engle is stirring up warm, wonderful memories; it’s about time to dust off her books again. I loved her books while I was growing up, though it was kind of funny when I came back to some as an adult and realized there were a number of things I didn’t agree with (e.g. L’Engle’s science is steeped in evolution). However the things that bother me in her books are overwhelmed by so much that is fantastic that they become mere discussion points. It’ll be interesting to see how my kids relate to them when they’re old enough to get into them.

    @ Goodgame, you’d love Kraig’s tales! The true ones are usually crazier than the fiction. (And by the way, we love Slugs & Bugs at our house.)

  15. Beth Brendle

    I love this post, and I love all of you people here. Yes, yes, yes is all I can say.

  16. Janna Barber

    Growing up a in a pastor’s home, I knew this Jesus story from infancy, and even prayed to accept Christ when I was 6years old; but when I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe for the first time at age 23, I understood it in a whole new way. “Jesus loves me” was no longer something I knew in my head, but a feeling I could dare to believe with my heart. And it’s all because of Lucy’s story. Thanks for this reminder of how important true art can be.

  17. Laura Peterson

    Thanks, Travis. I love that Coleridge quote that true poetry is that which “rescues admitted truth from neglect caused by the very circumstance of their universal admission.” I finally started digging into “Harry Potter & Imagination” this week after seeing HP7.2….great stuff so far!

  18. Allison

    As always, Travis, a great article– the authors have all shaped my reading life as well. Looking forward to seeing/hearing more from you in Sept!

    There’s a reason that when I picked out our wedding china pattern, I ultimately chose “Coleridge.” 🙂

    MacDonald is still mostly new to me, though thanks to last year’s Hutchmoot I’ve become enlightened and at least read a few of his fantastical works.

    Tolkien, Chesterton, Lewis, of course, have all been monumental favorites.

    L’Engle, though, transformed my adolescent reading life — I wouldn’t recommend all her books to young children, but to discerning teenagers and adults — most definitely. I think I’ve read everything she’s ever written at least once, including her adult novels. Other than some grown-up themes and perhaps some muddy theological waters that never really bothered me (she tends to stay orthodox on the main things), I thoroughly have enjoyed all of her writings. She mixes the mundane and magical in such a way that everything we do seems diffused with glimpses of the divine, including science. Science! I recently delved into some of her Murray books for a re-read and was pleasantly surprised to find I still enjoyed them all. My absolute favorite of hers, though, will always be “A Ring of Endless Light.”

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