Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Hermeneutics and Fantasy Literature

Another blogger has kicked the coals, stirred the fire in the old debate surrounding wizadry, magic, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and (of course) Narnia. I put in my two-cents' worth. Again. I have come to the conclusion that some conversations just don't need to happen, knowwhutImean?

What can I say? I'm a slow learner.

The sides range thusly:

CON: Christians should have absolutely nothing to do with Lewis/Rowling/Tolkien;
PRO: Christians may enjoy Lewis/Rowling/Tolkien;
MIDDLE CON: Lewis/Tolkien may be handled, but not Rowling.
(so-called) POSTMODERN: Whatever.

When it comes down to it, the arguments are fueled more by individual interest with little or no concern for facts. This is why the arguments continue.

A couple of years ago I a neighbor that saw no difference between the three stories. I tried to talk to him and explain the literary background and differences in story, but to no avail. The family could not understand there was a difference because primarily they only watched movies and do not read. Couple that together with lack of discernment (the were an unsaved family), there was just no interest—they could only see that Christians couldn’t tell that all three stories (read: movies) were the same. This I can deal with. This I can understand. But when I hear Christians say the same kinds of things, and I wonder where the discernment went.

Are all three stories the same? Are Tolkien's and Lewis’s wizards the same as Rowlings'? Is magic all the same to all three writers? Is the world viewed the same by all three?

There are so may other questions we could ask: purpose for writing, intended audience, genre, etc. But I will not attempt to reproduce what so many others have already said in answer to these and yet more questions. A little research would reveal the answers. In other words, the practice of a little literary hermeneutics would be appropriate.

The Christian community, honestly, doesn’t know what to think. As I talk and listen and read, I find few who are heard on the negative side, many poor rationalizations to support to positive and the loudest voices from those who don’t read but watch movies (thus my generalizations above). Sadly, when the discussion comes up, folks get mad. Don’t get mad. Think.

At this point, let me address the questions I have already proposed:

“Are all three stories the same?” No. Genre is the dead give-away. Lewis gave us allegory. Tolkien gave us myth[i]. Rowling gives us blatant narrative. True, all are the same when you go the bookstore and find them under “fiction”, but they are fundamentally not the same.

“Are Tolkien's and Lewis’s wizards and witches the same as Rowlings'?” No. Tolkien’s wizards have a range of practice and sadly, only Gandalf is the oft-mentioned and more confused of them all. Gandalf was a wizard. What does Tolkien mean by this? Simply put, Gandalf never refers to himself as one as this is a label applied by another character. Gandalf was a pyromaniac—he was known for his fireworks[ii]. He conjured nothing. He was no manipulator of power nor a necromancer. The other wizards (being evil) practiced these other habits[iii]. Gandalf is one of three Christ-figures in Tolkien (Prophet/humanity of Christ = hobbits; Priest = Gandalf; King= Aragorn).

Lewis, using allegory, took a different approach. The witch is blatantly identified as Satan kept captive in the sea of ice in Dante’s Inferno. [iv]

What does Rowling intend? There is no deep meaning, as they are only surface characters. This does violence to anything good.

Here the Christian community can be heard to retort: “But Daniel of the exile was Chief of court magicians. He was a wizard. And what about the witch of Endor?” Two things: first, just because magicians and witches are mentioned in the Bible does not mean that the Christian community must embrace them, even in literature. Second, this is backward thinking. Primarily speaking, the Bible says that a witchcraft is forbidden as is necromancy and other baalistic practices. (see Deut. 18:9-14; Isaiah 40 for example)

Why does Tolkien use witches if they are not allowed in the Bible? Well, did you notice that the Witch King was dead and lived the living @#!*% as a Nazgul? Did you notice that Lewis’ witch was a person of no life? Did you notice that Aragon did no necromancy, but descended into the lower parts of the earth and led captive a host of captives?

Rowling exalts and makes heroes of the forbidden, while Tolkien and Lewis kept them in their place. Besides, if Daniel was chief of court magicians, does that mean he practiced the forbidden arts? Shouldn’t he have killed himself or been killed for not keeping the law, as he is noted for actually honoring? God used Daniel, God exalted Daniel and the only place men could find to put him was in that position. The witch of Endor is not an exalted person, but despised. God used that situation in the same manner as Balaam’s donkey.

Take it a step further: if Shakespeare uses witches, does this mean we must reject classical literature? Well, what did Shakespeare actually DO with them? What role did they play (pardon the pun). Contrast this against other classics as Greek mythological witches, or even discover what Nathaniel Hawthorne was communicating through that fatal night of Young Goodman Brown. Should we close the door when Charlie Brown and Lucy put on their costumes leaving Linus to philosophize on Great Pumpkins? I saw recently a book (I can’t remember the name or the author) published about Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West and how she came to be all nasty—fictionalized blameshifting garbage. DOROTHY, IT WAS’NT HER FAULT, YOU MONSTER! (sorry, I got off subject).

“Is magic all the same to all three writers?” No. Tolkien does something interesting here. There is no spiritual realm in Middle Earth. He gives us the spiritual and physical all bound together—no compartmentalization of the sacred and the secular. Everything is magic. Did you know that only westerners make the distinction between the sacred and secular? The rest of the world sees the sacred and secular as one. Does the Bible make a distinction? No, the two are very much intertwined. I don’t like Carl Sagan much, but his explanation of the 4th Dimension really applies well here.[v]

Lewis draws two lines pertaining to magic, the first being the line one crosses from the real world into Narnia. This is his separation of the sacred from the secular, or the spiritual from the physical, rather. In Narnia all is magic in the Tolkien-ish sense. But Narnia itself is interfused with deeper magic. Deeper magic is best explained in Aslan Himself. The best way I can explain it would be to refer to Eph. 1:3-23, note verse 10.

Rowling gives us magic as blatant manipulation of power. My African friends could look at the movies or books and say, “yes, we have people who do this at home.” I’ve heard and seen comments from Christians who claim to have spoken with people in the black arts and occult and come up with a wide range of answers concerning this. Wiccans and others say, “no, no, we don’t do that kind of stuff.” And the Christian goes off and says, “well it must be another group, so it can’t be all bad.” The problem is: 1) I’ve not heard any one person who has talked with a person involved in witchcraft and received a negative answer go find another person to ask and another and another until he discovered which one actually does these kinds of things; 2) do you seriously think for one minute that the follower of the Father of Lies will tell the truth?

“Is the world viewed the same by all three?” No. I’ve already touched on this in the last topic. It is clear this is not the case. Tolkien delivers his story as one history, Middle Earth as part of our own real history. Part of the reason for this is rooted in his purpose for writing: (short version) he created a language and wanted to give it a heritage. This was his true life work. Both Tolkien and Lewis saw the world as being in trouble in dire need of rescue and they gave us a solution. Rowling gives us, what, a confused and quivering mass of uncertainty—perfect for the unthinking, undiscerning (so-called) post-modern crowd.

Bottom line: three humans wrote a story, none of which are perfect. Two of those three had experienced a life-change in Christ Jesus. One has not. On that basis: 1 Corinthians 6:14-18.

glitter graphics

[i] Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories” Essays Presented to Charles Williams. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966. see also Bettridge, William. “Tolkien’s ‘New’ Mythology.” Mythlore. No. 62, Summer, 1990.
[ii] See, The Hobbit.
[iii] Dowie, William. “The Gospel of Middle Earth.” J.R.R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam. London: Cornell, 1979. see also Treloar, John. “Tolkien and Christian Concepts of Evil.” Mythlore. Vol. 56, Winter, 1988.
[iv] Patterson, Nancy-Lou. “Always Winter and Never Christmas: Symbols of Time in Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.” Mythlore. No. 67, Autumn, 1991.
[v] See, Cosmos—don’t waste too much time reading the book, just find the diagram and have a nice day.

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