Monday, November 28, 2005

Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire

I saw the new Harry Potter movie today. Liked it. It may be the best of the series.

I have to say, this may be the best series of movies -- ever! I mean this: think of movies with sequels/prequels; they tend to be uneven. Think of the Star Wars series, or Indiana Jones, or the Godfather. The Lord of the Rings trilogy would win "best series," except it was three movies; this is four and counting. All goes to show the fluidity of a word like "best."

I won't be spoiling it for anyone to note the quasi-religious qualities of the movie. The gothic architecture, the graveyard sans crosses or angels or Madonnas, the non-chapel chapel, the candlelight, the ritual, and so forth. It's very striking to note a world in which Christianity is but a faint shadow. It certainly fits the England in which it is set, from what we hear. It reminds me of the term Flannery O'Connor used to use, of her beloved Southland: "Christ-haunted."

I don't say this to attack J.K. Rowling; as I haven't read any of her books, for all I know, the books reflect more explicit Christianity, which the moviemakers edit out. For that matter, she writes her novels as she wishes, not as I might wish.

As it is, she always gives a strong endorsement for character and virtue. She usually puts some striking wisdom on the lips of Dumbledore, and this one was no exception: "Dark days lie ahead, Harry -- and we will soon find ourselves forced to choose between what is easy, and what is right."

I seem to recall some criticism of her works, along the lines of claiming that her heroes and heroines did things the villains did -- as if to say, one couldn't tell them apart. Again--I haven't read the books, but, from the movies, I find that odd.


Rich Leonardi said...

I seem to recall some criticism of her works, along the lines of claiming that her heroes and heroines did things the villains did -- as if to say, one couldn't tell them apart. Again--I haven't read the books, but, from the movies, I find that odd.

The usual criticism I hear is that the magic wielded by Harry and his friends is done here in our world, where it is done in another world in Lewis' Chronicles. The argument is that this defect either confuses the message we can take from Rowling's books or that she doesn't really have a message at all.

In any event, my two oldest children (9 and 8) have read many of the books, which seem harmless enough. Though the bit about crossless graveyards and chapel-less chapels does give me pause.

And England is Christ-haunted. You can find traces of Him everywhere, from language ("Bloody" is a truncation of "by Our Lady") to placenames (Blackfriars, Charing Cross) to train stations (St. Pancras Station, bombed by Moslems on 7/7, is named for the a third century Roman martyr in whose name St. Augustine of Canterbury consecrated England's first church).

Fr. Larry Gearhart said...

The chief virtue of the series seems to be in one of its motifs, the role that the sacrificial love of Harry's parents had in protecting him from Voldemort's efforts to kill him.

The chief flaws seem to be other of its motifs, the progressive delegitimizing of civil authority, the progressive resort to magical expertise as the solution to problems, and the progressive resort to acts of subterfuge and vengeance by the hero.

In book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, one of the principal characters is a teacher forced upon the wizardry school by the wizard government, a Dolores Umbridge, who takes "umbrage" at Harry's successes and seeks to break his will with a detention pennance that ammounts to barbaric physical cruelty. Dolores is later seen to be an unwitting accomplice of Voldemort. In the series, virtually every significant intervention by the civil authority in the life of the school has been a negative one. That's the wizard government. The "muggle" government is simply seen as utterly clueless throughout.

Much of Harry's growing reputation among his peers derives from his mastery of defense against the "dark arts." In that growing mastery, he has learned the application of some of that dark art.

As to subterfuge and vengeance, there is a magic map Harry uses, after uttering the incantation, "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good." In combination with his invisibility cloak, he can see where everyone is but no one can see where he is. He generally uses these powers for good, but occasionally he uses them to seek vengeance. He has backed up these powers by a resort to falsehood when confronted by teachers at the school.

These things are not as deeply troubling as the use of torture by a hero of one of Tom Clancy's novels, but they should be of concern to parents, educators and priests.

Anonymous said...

I have concerns about these books and from them the movies. I see anything that leads children toward sorcery of concern. However, it also offers parents the opportunity to point this out to the children. Unfortunately, most parents today see TV and movies as baby sitters and most are not even aware of what their kids are watching or the content. I do think this is a prime opportunity for the Church to step forward with guidance in a much stronger fashion.

Anonymous said...

(With regards to the church stepping forward with guidance) It would only draw more attention to the books/movies. I think sometimes less said the better

Anonymous said...

I find the books sad and empty after reading Tolkien, Lewis, etc. They seemed boring and flat, without depth, and certainly without spiritual depth. I was one of those children who devoured books, and I know that as a child I wouldn't have liked these at all - I would have sensed right away that there was "something missing." There is simply no comparison - in fact, I think there is infinite distance - between the Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter franchise. But I do think the movies are visually stunning.

Mark Anthony said...

"People do not pick figs from thornbushes, nor do they gather grapes from brambles."

The point being, not that something wicked this way comes, but that certain fruit only grows from certain vines. Harry Potter is not anti-Christian, but it is a-Christian. I believe it explicitly avoids religious issues, much as Tolkien's Pre-Christian mythos does. But it has a strong spirituality nonetheless. The witches and wizards celebrate Christmas, exchange gifts, sing Christmas carols, but of their own type. Nonetheless, the "good" wizards possess the same "family values" of any "good" Christian. They honor truth, bravery, self-sacrifice and protection of the weak. The "bad" are really fascists: racist, violent, greedy, and cruel.

The magical world in the Potter books is an "alternate lifestyle", but without the negative moral implications. Their world mirrors ours. The magical government is a full of beaurocrats and reluctant to tackle the hard choices, preferring platitudes to truth. Sound familiar?

As to the criticism that the good people act like that the bad, remember that they are in the midst of a war in the magical world - one against the forces of "magical fascism." We use guns, planes, and bombs - both good and bad. They use spells and wands.

Ultimately, Harry Potter is about growing up in a confused world. It is the journey of a teenager. All teenagers think of themselves as freaks to some degree, even if they do not have a lightning bolt scar. Harry is struggling to come to terms with his parents, his values, his destiny. He does not always choose wisely - does any teen?

I do believe that the final book will force the choice, and I am confident that Harry will continue to be "Dumbledore's man." To do that, he will have to come to terms with the Snapes and Malfoys, although I hold out hope for the ultimate salavation of Severus Snape. Indeed, except for Voldemort, I think one of the great virtues of the books is that no one is completely light or dark. Just like the real world.

As you can tell, I think the books are brillant works of fiction, and filled with chances to engage the young on issues of real importance. True, it requires more thought than the narrow allegories of Narnia (sorry, but those books are, for the most part, childish, not child-like), but if our children ever lived in a world that required the ability to choose what is right, not easy, it is our world today.

Anonymous said...

The HP books may indeed cover all the ground Mark Anthony claims, but they just don't cut the mustard as great literature. Alas, important themes do not necessarily translate into transcendent writing.There is a wonderful piece by A.S. Byatt on the books at

Anonymous said...

Michea O'Brien has written about this topic, and I find his arguments against the Harry Potter series to be very compelling. Fr. Fox, please check that out and tell us if you agree.

O'Brien has also written a book about children's literature called "A Landscape Filled with Dragons". It predates Harry Potter, but covers some of the other popular fantasy works out there, and gives great help for discerning "appropriate", rightly ordered fantasy from "poor" fantasy. At first, I thought he was being a little overly critical, but in the end I agree.

When it comes down to it, pray a lot, and trust your gut. If in doubt, err on the side of caution and choose something that you know to be better.

Anonymous said...

That's Micheal O'Brien, with an L, of course.

Mark Anthony said...

I'm familiar with O'Brien's book, Andrew. In response, I can only give you an untitled poem by Philip Appleman:

O Karma, Dharma, pudding and pie,
gimme a break before I die:
grant me wisdom, will & wit,
purity, probity, pluck & grit.
Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind,
gimme great abs & a steel-trap mind,
and forgive, Ye Gods, some humble advice-
these little blessings would suffice
to beget an earthly paradise:
make the bad people good-
and the good people nice;
and before our world goes over the brink,
teach the believers how to think.

Anonymous said...

So those of us who choose not to read certain books based on advice from a trusted source are not thinking for ourselves... I get really irked when people imply that I have no right to criticize something or withold it from my children when "I haven't even read it."

I happen to agree with O'Brien's philosophy and trust his judgment. There are several other sources that I consulted as well, I just cited O'Brien as one of the best.

When it gets down to it, I simnply don't have the desire or time to proof read every peice of junk that is published.

Also, I feel that the holy spirit has steered me away from this type of subject matter. Maybe I am gullible, or maybe my children are. Whatever the case, I have the authority over my home.

If you choose differently, than congratulations on being so intellectually superior to us sheep.


Mark Anthony said...

Andrew, I apologize. One of my faults is a tendency to snarkiness. The task of parenting is tough, and we all have to do the best we can. I also apologize to Fr. Martin. A guest ought to behave better.

Just as you are irked, though, so am I saddened. Puritanism is a threat to every religious tradition, and we Catholics are not immune. But our faith is broader than visions of "sinners in the hand of an angry God." Openness to the creative inspirations of our world has been a hallmark of Catholicism, from the adaptation of pagan rituals into Christian feasts, the intellectual curiosity of Sts. Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, the embracing of art in the Renaissance, the creativity of missionaries in non-European cultures. It is a freedom described by Tolkien in his writings about Man as a "sub-creator."

Yet there seems to be so much fear in the Church today. A desire to withdraw into a past that never existed - constant, solid and untroubled by change. I'm not saying this is you; I don't know you. But I do know that walling out the world does not work and is not Catholic. Sure there are risks, but the dangers of isolation and puritanical reductionism are greater.

"Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the Kingdom."

Pray for me, and I promise to pray for you.

Anonymous said...

Isolation is dangerous? What about cloistered convents, walled monasteries, hermits? I tend to think of my home as a sanctuary, and I think it's okay to outright avoid certain forms of entertainment. I guess it's a fine line between puritanism and prudence. At a certain age, the kids will be introduced to the pop culture, and I want to be the one to guide them through that, so that they develop a healthy discernment. In the world, but not of the world. I get it.

But I think on the opposite end of the scale, it is very dangerous for people to feel that they are too smart to be affected by things that are just harmless entertainment. Nobody is impervious to this, and the consequences may not even be noticeable. But you are affected by what you consume. Don't overestimate yourself or your children. I believe that is called pride.

I like what you and Tolkien say about being sub-creators. Music, literature, etc, can glorify God, even if the subject matter is not overtly religious. I thoroughly enjoyed Lord of the Rings. I think it would be great for my kids. The symbolism was so clear, the difference between good and evil unmistakable. I understand that Harry Potter is about "mostly virtuous" children, and when they indulge a little revenge on the bad guys, the ends justify the means. And the books try to take the teeth out of certain black magic rituals and make them appear to be safe.

I think the catechsim is pretty clear on this subject. CCC 2117:

"Magic and sorcery, the attempts to tame the occult to gain supernatural powers, are against the virtue of religion, even when used for good purposes. ..."

I do respect your opinion, clearly you are an intellegent and faithful person, and you're not going to start stealing hosts and performing black masses because of Harry Potter.

Anonymous said...

I think it is interesting to explore the Churches reasoning for doing what they do. In every case, I tend to find amazing insight into the human condition when properly explained.

CCC 2117:

"Magic and sorcery, the attempts to tame the occult to gain supernatural powers, are against the virtue of religion, even when used for good purposes. ..."

Could the reason for this be warn man against getting to close to the flame and trying to dance with the devil?