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

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

“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.