Tolkien and Rowling: Common Ground?

MICHAEL O'BRIEN/SANDRA MIESEL

Michael O’Brien’s sweeping and popular critique of the Harry Potter books is criticized in a letter to Catholic World Report by Sandra Miesel of Indianapolis. O’Brien’s response follows.

The following letter, sent to Catholic World Report, is a critical response to Michael O'Brien's popular critique of the Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Paganization of Children's Culture. Michael O'Brien's reply to the criticism follows.

To the editor:

I follow the pronouncements of Michael O'Brien with special interest because I have been a professional in the science fiction and fantasy field for over 30 years. Because there is so much crammed into O'Brien's Essay, I will just address one aspect: magic in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. O'Brien cites Letter #156 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, which identifies Gandalf and his fellow wizards as incarnate angels. Tolkien explains that he calls them "wizards" for the connotative meaning of "those who know."

Note that Gandalf's own magic ring goes unmentioned by O'Brien. And Letter #155, which O'Brien uses with suspicious selectivity, pointedly defends the lawfulness of the magic arts employed by Middle-earth. Speaking of magia (magic) and goetia (sorcery), Tolkien says: "Neither is, in this tale, good or bad per se, but only by motive or purpose or use. Both sides use both, but with different motives." The ability to use magic "is an inherent power" in Middle-earth just as in the secondary universe occupied by Harry Potter's wizards and muggles, not to mention most contemporary genre fantasy.

Some other premises of Tolkien's subcreation that diverge from Catholic teaching include angels that function as "gods," an absence of cultic religion, a different version of the Creation and Fall, death as the Creator's "gift" to men rather than their punishment, and reincarnation for elves.

O'Brien fears that Harry Potter will nudge children toward the occult. But contemporary neo-pagans routinely cite The Lord of the Rings as a work that predisposed them toward witchcraft. (They were also affected by a love of nature. Must we keep Catholic children away from trees lest they become Druids?) So if Tolkien were publishing now, O'Brien should logically have to condemn him in the same breath as J.K. Rowling.

-Sandra Miesel of Indianapolis, Indiana

MICHAEL O'BRIEN REPLIES:

To the editor:

Sandra Miesel raises significant points, though they are not untainted by her own somewhat selective reading of Tolkien's letters.

In letter #156, Tolkien does not call Gandalf and the other Istari incarnate angels, as she suggests. He is careful to put quotation marks around the word "angels" and to explain that its meaning is only in the sense of the root of the word, messenger, as in one who is sent. Gandalf's powers are bestowed on him as a gift from Iluvatar, "the Father of All," Tolkien's mythological representation of God. This is a crucial point: the crucial distinction between Middle-earth and Potter-world. In the latter, all supernatural and preternatural powers are entirely naturalized. Rowling's sub-creation is fundamentally immanentized-it is a glamorized Flatland. By contrast, Tolkien's sub-creation is fundamentally hierarchical, representing a moral order that ascends from the incarnate all the way up to the throne of God Himself.

Regarding Letter #155, Tolkien appears to be grappling with the question of magic (both magia and goeteia) as neutral power, as if he himself has not come to a clear understanding of it: "I have been far too casual about 'magic' and especially the use of the word..." He points out that the good characters in Middle-earth use magia sparingly, and goeteia as a kind of artistic exercise. The decisive point of this letter, however, reinforces my own position, for at its conclusion he says that "magic" (again in quotation marks) is not what we think of as magic in this world, which is obtained by lore or spells (the Gnostic seizing of secret knowledge). Rather, in Middle-earth it is "an inherent power not possessed or attainable by Men as such." In other words it is a faculty of the higher ranks of creatures (Elves and Istari), bestowed on them by Iluvatar as a gift. In addition, it should be added that Middle-earth is a mythological pre-Christian age, and more than once in the epic it is stated that these powers must pass away from the world.

It is important in assessing Tolkien's impact on modern consciousness to situate The Lord of the Rings in the fuller context of the body of the author's writings. The ring trilogy is only entirely comprehensible, and properly understood according to its author's intention, in the light of his foundational work The Silmarillion. With some leeway for imaginative expansion on his themes, Tolkien has given us the "theological" foundation to Middle-earth-one that corresponds in essence to the book of Genesis. It's all there: the Creator, the creation of the universe, the revolt of the fallen angels, Satan, the corruption of Man, the ensuing battle between good and evil in the incarnate world. The names have been changed and the details of the battles enlarged, but this is a dramatic portrayal of reality itself. If New Age devotees have to some degree co-opted Tolkien's writings to their own purposes, this does not negate the author's original intention. The New Age has attempted to! co-opt sacred Scripture as well-the cults are notorious for this-but does this negate the original intention of the Author of the Bible?

What is the context of J.K. Rowling's Potter-world? What are its "theological foundations," if you will? In a word, there are none. The Harry Potter series is a fantasy-projection of materialist man, homo sine deo, man without God, imagining himself to have god-like powers without any reference to the source of those powers, nor to any set of moral absolutes against which he can measure the rightness or wrongness of his thoughts and actions. Witchcraft is not so much about love of nature, as it is about love of control over nature. It is about power-god-like power without accountability to objective standards, without obedience to the Creator of nature. It is about our root sin, pride. It is about rebellion against God's authority.

Sandra Miesel's reductio ad absurdum regarding keeping children from trees is clever, but self-defeating. A tree lives according to God's intention for its ontological value and purpose. Druids and witches do not. The characters in Potter-world do not.

I have read The Lord of the Rings aloud to my children five times over the years, and I hope to read it to my grandchildren some day. A few of my children have gone so far as to purchase copies of the trilogy for themselves, and to read extensively in Tolkien's other writings. While it is true that there are ambiguous elements in his vast and splendid sub-creation, these are minimal, and indeed at times have prompted fascinating discussions in our family. But we do not read Potter here. This is neither parental paranoia nor the ghettoization of the imagination. We know full well that there is no work of fiction that does not in some way fall short of a complete vision of reality. However, there is a great deal of difference between a flawed detail and a flaw in the fundamental vision. A house with a weak window frame is not the same thing as a house built on sand. No matter how beautiful the decor of the latter may be, it is a place I would rather not live. More importantly, it is a place where I will not take my children to live.


Michael O'Brien is a professional artist and the author of a series of novels including his most recent A Cry of Stone, the best selling Father Elijah, and Eclipse of the Sun. In addition, he is the author of A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind which looks at the proper role of children's literature in the forming of character (see sample chapters from this book on the CERC site). O'Brien's articles on faith and culture have appeared in numerous journals throughout the English-speaking world. Michael O'Brien is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center. Visit his web site at: studiobrien.com.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

O'Brien, Michael & Sandra Miesel. "Tolkien and Rowling: Common Ground?" Catholic World Report (July, 2001).

Reprinted with permission of Catholic World Report an international news monthly.

Copyright © 2001 Catholic World Report


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