The LOR/HP Controversy

Why has the Christian community supported Lord of the Rings while registering mixed or hostile reactions to Harry Potter? *

On the surface the two films share a number of features in common. Both stories are set in an imaginary world where magical powers play an important role. Both depict a dark force threatening to harm the central character, an unlikely, innocent young fellow being raised by an extended family.

Both authors write from a somewhat concealed worldview. Tolkien believed in ‘smuggling truth’ and took C.S. Lewis to task for the ‘overt-ness’ of symbolic characters in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Likewise, J.K. Rowling talks very little about the ideological underpinnings of her series, preferring that readers discover a point of view for themselves. She has said the central issue in the books is death, which interestingly enough, is also a key theme of LOR.

USA Today reproduced a brief comparative chart of LOR/HP as follows (selections):

Magic Powers:
HP — Flies on broomsticks
LOR — Ring that makes Frodo invisible

Handy Accessory:
HP — Invisibility cloak
LOR — Sting, a sword that turns blue when evil is near

HP — Ron and Hermione
LOR — Sam, Pippin and Merry

HP — Lord Voldemort, evil wizard
LOR — Saruman a wizard, corrupted by Sauron, the dark Lord

HP — Albus Dumbledore, Rubeus Hagrid
LOR — Gandalf, Bilbo

HP — Find the sorcerers stone
LOR — Destroy the ring

Unusual Creatures:
HP — Fluffy, 3 headed dog
LOR — Balrog, 40 foot winged demon

Locale of troll attack:
HP — School Bathroom
LOR — Mines of Moria

Given the similarities of HP and LOR, why has the literate Christian community universally embraced LOR but is divided over HP?

–Tolkien was an outspoken Christian whose faith was central to his life and whose witness was influential in the conversion of C.S. Lewis. His pedigree earns him a level of trust not accorded to J.K. Rowling, who, though saying she is a Christian, has not revealed the nature and significance of that religious affiliation. Like many of you, this makes me more comfortable with Tolkien, but also like many of you, I don’t only read Christian authors.
–Tolkien was a classically trained philologist who drew on the full panoply of mythical traditions (Greek, Roman, Nordic, Biblical). John West (author of LOR as a Defense of Western Civilization) commented, “to read Tolkien is to read more than a thousand years of Western literature encapsulated in one tale.” In Tolkien, wizardry is subservient to broader literary conventions and themes. Rowling says she has drawn on British folklore, but according to Allan Zola Kronzek (The Sorcerer’s Companion: A Guide to the Magical World of HP), most of the magic in HP originates in the Middle-East in Babylonia and Mesopotamia. In addition to drawing heavily on various strains of magic and witchcraft, Rowling sets her work in a School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. For Tolkien, wizardry is peripheral and at the service of the story, for Rowling it is the central setting. However, it seems to me unfair to conclude that Rowling is not dealing with broader traditional themes. After all, what ultimately defeats Voldemort is not witchcraft at all. Voldemort is defeated by Harry’s courage, Ron’s good chess playing, Hermione’s cool logic and most importantly, the love of Harry’s mother. So Tolkien is better literature, drawn from a broader and richer tradition, but HP is also an engaging story told well.
–For many, the target audience of the material is a concern. Tolkien’s LOR is serious literature whose primary audience is 12 and over, whereas HP is children’s literature whose primary audience is 12 and under. Also, while Tolkien, and some children’s authors include wizards in their work, Rowling is the first children’s author whose central character is a child who IS ALSO a wizard. This has led some critics to conclude that as children go through the wizardry school with Harry they are actually taking their first steps towards embracing the occult. I think HP provides an ideal opportunity to help our kids understand two things. First, HP is make believe and is not real. Second, there are those for whom witchcraft is both real and a substitute for God. So while HP may deal with the subject lightly, our faith tradition takes it seriously. Certainly HP is not the only literature our kids will read that deals with witches and wizards. The real issue is whether your child is at a stage in cognitive development where he can handle dark themes, make the distinction between make believe and real, and understand the prohibitions against witchcraft in our faith tradition.
–Finally and most significantly, Tolkien’s LOR is a magnificent telling of what Lewis referred to as the one true myth. In Tolkien we see the dramatic revelation of the corruptibility of all humans. We see the price of fallen-ness in lost souls who are neither living nor dead. We are reminded that we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. We are reminded that each of us face a decision regarding whom we will serve. And we sense a hopefulness that ‘there is a light when all other lights go out.’ Behind the darkness we sense there is stronger, good force that will prevail. It is in the symbolism and symmetry of the story itself that LOR finds its strength.

That this is an accurate reading of Tolkien seems clear from the 1953 letter he wrote to his friend, Father Robert Murray: ‘The Lord of the Rings is a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; Unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. It was my desire to stay theologically orthodox that led me to avoid being too specific, despite the biblical parallels in the creation story…That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion,’ to cults or practices, in the imaginary world…For the religious element is absorbed into the story and into the symbolism.’

It would be unfair to reach a definitive conclusion regarding Rowling’s ultimate thematic aims because her series is not finished. But based on what she was written thus far it is difficult to imagine that HP will attain Tolkien’s rich thematic exploration of the one true myth.

* From the nature of the question it should be clear that I am not referring to people who reject BOTH LOR and HP on the grounds of their inclusion of witchcraft, mythical and magical elements. For a variety of reasons they have decided against reading material containing archetypes sometimes found in both children’s literature and serious fiction. They are entitled to choose, a priori, not to read such material, but are not in a position to criticize that which they have not read or seen.

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