Flights of Fancy

Author: James M. Lang ’91 and Anthony F. Lang Jr. ’90

Illustration by Sterling Hundley

In 2003, a German author named Gabriele Kuby published Harry Potter: Gut oder Bose? or Harry Potter: Good or Bad? She sent the book to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), in the hopes of obtaining the Vatican’s approval of her argument, which was that J.K. Rowling’s popular series of novels had the potential to corrupt the souls of young readers.

Cardinal Ratzinger was serving at that time as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a position charged by the Vatican to “promote and safeguard the doctrine on the faith and morals throughout the Catholic world.” The future Pope Benedict found time to read Kuby’s book and sent her a brief commendatory note in response.

“It is good that you enlighten us on the Harry Potter matter,” Ratzinger responded, “for these are subtle seductions that are barely noticeable, and precisely because of that have a deep effect and corrupt the Christian faith in souls even before it could properly grow.”

Pope Benedict’s statement to Kuby about the seductive dangers of Harry Potter — which he agreed to make public, at Kuby’s request — echoes the anxieties of many concerned Christians who fear that these seemingly innocuous novels and films, with their wholesome trio of protagonists, may have a sinister effect on the souls of young readers.

Lev Grossman, fantasy novelist and book critic for Time magazine, published an essay in the magazine’s July 2007 issue that articulated the most common religious criticism of Rowling’s novels: “Harry Potter,” Grossman claims, “lives in a world free of any religion or spirituality of any kind. He lives surrounded by ghosts but has no one to pray to, even if he were so inclined, which he isn’t.” As a substitute for God and religion, Grossman argues, Harry and his companions have love.

Love may seem innocuous enough — but not so, argues Grossman. The substitution of love for God represents a massive symbolic shift in our consciousness: “In the new millennium, magic comes not from God or nature or anything grander or more mystical than a mere human emotion. In choosing Rowling as the reigning dreamer of our era, we have chosen a writer who dreams of a secular, bureaucratized, all-too-human sorcery, in which psychology and technology have superseded the sacred.”

In August of that same year, novelist Michael O’Brien took up the thread of Grossman’s argument, again hammering away at the notion that Rowling’s fantastic world reserves no place for God or real religion. O’Brien describes the series as “a kind of anti-Gospel, a dramatized manifesto for behavior and belief embodied by loveable, at times admirable, fictional characters who live out the modern ethos of secular humanism to its maximum parameters.”

O’Brien also has made the argument that Rowling’s novels, with their “admirable” characters, might serve as a gateway drug for more dangerous fantasy literature: “When [a child] has finished reading the Potter series,” O’Brien asks, “what will he turn to? There is a vast industry turning out sinister material for the young that will feed their growing appetites. In the wake of likable young Harry’s adventures, not-so-likable characters will appear, and they will become role models or, at the very least, images of alternative ways of living.”

It would be foolish to argue with at least one aspect of O’Brien’s claim — that Harry Potter has unleashed an explosion of fantasy heroes and villains in both children’s and adult literature, and that many of these other works have a much darker undercurrent than Rowling’s boy hero. The current rage for vampire novels and films, for instance, suggests a growing interest in the more macabre elements of the fantasy genre.

Gabriele Kuby, Pope Benedict, Lev Grossman and Michael O’Brien are all posing questions we think are worth answering: Should Catholics and Christians fear the seductive dangers of fantasy novels and films like Harry Potter? Will the innocent heroes of Rowling’s novels lead our children to more obviously corrupting novels of fantasy? Most fundamentally, should we be concerned that novels and films of the fantastic might teach impressionable young minds that wizards and vampires, warlocks and werewolves are more interesting, exciting — and perhaps even more real — than the Father, Son and Holy Spirit of our faith?

One way to begin answering that question may be to gain some historical perspective on it by looking at a different kind of fantasy book — a fairy story written more than 300 years ago by an obscure Scottish minister, a story that still captures the imagination of devotees of fantasy literature today.

The Secret Commonwealth

In 1815, Sir Walter Scott, the Scottish author of works such as Ivanhoe and Rob Roy, helped shepherd into publication a book called The Secret Commonwealth. Based on a manuscript dated from 1691, the book described the world of fairies, magical peoples living among humans who did both good and harm to the “terrestrial” inhabitants of rural Scotland.

The author of this strange little tome was Robert Kirk, a 17th century Episcopalian minister who lived and worked in small villages of the Scottish highlands. Kirk was best known during his lifetime for a translation of the Psalter into Gaelic and the beginnings of a Gaelic Bible. The son of a minister, he studied theology at the universities of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, and served as the minister of two different parishes during his life. He was, in other words, very much a Christian.

No one is sure why Kirk wrote The Secret Commonwealth. What we do know is that he refused to publish it during his lifetime, and that he died just one year after it appears to have been completed (one legend says he didn’t die but was “taken” by the fairy folk for delving too deeply into their world). His personal papers, now in Edinburgh University’s library, offer little evidence for why he might have composed the book. Some doodles in his student notebooks look like witches, but nothing exists that would really explain why a Christian minister would write a book describing the world of fairies.

The Secret Commonwealth offers no argument for belief in fairies. Instead, it provides an account of them in all of their material and social reality, with detailed descriptions of everything from their habitations to their diets and their weaponry. The book includes lengthy discussions of the politics of the fairy world — not a politics of kings and queens but something closer to the commonwealth that was emerging in England and Scotland during Kirk’s lifetime. The fairies themselves are presented as creatures composed of congealed air that suck the sap from corn stalks without being seen by farmers. All in all, the book reads like a journalist’s report of a distant land.

Although no evidence survives that would help us understand why Kirk wrote the book, we can make some guesses based on the world in which he lived. The 17th century was a time of intellectual, religious and political upheaval, particularly in Scotland and England. The civil wars that eventually led to the execution of one king, the creation of a Puritan commonwealth, the restoration of another king, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 were driven by conflicts between Protestant and Catholic forces, and then between Anglicans and Puritans. In other words, these were conflicts about faith and belief.

At the same time, partly led by scientific discoveries such as those of Isaac Newton, rapid changes were taking place in how people understood their own beliefs, including challenges to traditional religious faith that led many in both Scotland and England to abandon any pretense of belief in Christianity. David Hume, the great intellectual light of 18th century Scotland, was a leading critic of all churches and the mysticism surrounding such things as miracles.

Kirk lived, in other words, during a time when intellectual and political revolutions were being driven by challenges to established forms of belief. We can surmise that a minister living among simple farmers who had for hundreds of years seen their Celtic and Christian beliefs melded into overlapping narratives might see the world of fairies as a way to reinforce belief in a moment of intellectual and political crisis.

Perhaps, Kirk might have reasoned, the best means for him to promote and sustain belief in the largest spiritual realities of the universe — Father, Son and the Holy Spirit — was to cultivate belief in smaller, more local fantastic creatures, even if they were not “real” in the same sense as the Creator. Perhaps in his age of spiritual crisis, belief in magical or fantastic creatures could pave the road back to belief in God.

Two hundred and fifty years later, the devil would make the same argument.

The devil speaks

Not the devil, we should say — a devil, by whom we mean Screwtape, the eponymous hero of C.S. Lewis’ imagined series of letters between a senior devil and a “junior tempter.” The Screwtape Letters appeared in England in 1942, in the midst of another political European crisis, and in a country that would witness an unprecedented loss of religious belief among its intellectual classes over the next two decades.

The movement toward ultimate disbelief seemed so inevitable that the English poet Philip Larkin wondered, in his famous 1955 poem “Church Going,” what would happen to all of those churches dotting the English landscape when religious “superstition” finally died out.

Screwtape addresses this issue early in his correspondence with his nephew Wormwood, designed to help the junior devil successfully tempt a young English man into damnation. We see only half of their correspondence; we never see any letters from Wormwood back to his uncle. Most letters, though, open with Screwtape summarizing or commenting upon a question or statement by his nephew, so we have some sense of Wormwood’s concerns. One of those concerns seems to be whether or not Wormwood should reveal himself to his young man — should the young human be made to know, in other words, of the existence of devils?

Ah, Screwtape sighs in response, this question creates a “cruel dilemma” for the devils of the world: “When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism . . . On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics.”

That last sentence clearly references the growing unbelief of Lewis’ fellow British artists and intellectuals in the mid-20th century: When humans deny the existence of devils, they become “materialists and skeptics,” refusing to acknowledge any realities beyond the physical world. For Lewis, then, belief in devils might play the same role that belief in fairies played for Kirk — they help cultivate a faith in things unseen in a culture gradually losing its grip on faith of that kind.

If Lewis and his devil are right, then we must consider the possibility that belief in fairies and devils — and magical creatures of any kind — has its roots in the same sense of openness to realities beyond the physical, material universe as more conventional religious faith. Historically, both Kirk and Lewis would seem to suggest, there may be times in which cultivating that openness, in whatever form it may appear, is the best we can do for a world in the grips of a crisis of faith.

For Kirk’s confused and frightened parishioners, as for Lewis’ skeptical modern readers, narratives of the fantastic and the magical may have provided an alternative means of keeping faith alive in a troubled world. When the doorway of conventional religious belief was in danger of slamming shut, their fairies and devils helped them to crack open a window.

We may find ourselves yet again in an era in which conventional religious faith is undergoing a new set of challenges. As if the rapidly evolving world of technology and scientific discovery were not difficult enough to absorb into our religious worldview, we have now to contend with the challenges of the “new atheists.” Recent bestselling arguments against belief in God have brought debates about the truth of religion and spirituality back into the intellectual and cultural forecourt.

But it may be premature to assert that today’s revival of fantastic literature will stem this new tide of skeptical materialism, because the nature of popular fantastic literature has undergone an important shift as well. This time around, as fantasy writers were propping up the window of belief in extra-material worlds, a new monster crept in over the sill.

Fantasy and death

In 1976, a lapsed Catholic named Anne Rice published Interview with the Vampire. Followed by nine books in what came to be known as The Vampire Chronicles, Rice helped to create what is today one of the most popular fantasy characters — the attractive, romantic, misunderstood vampire.

Of course, the vampire was not created by Rice. The idea of creatures that suck the life blood from innocent humans and live forever as a result reaches back into the mythology of many cultures. Interest in vampires returned with a vengeance in 18th century Europe, partly led by reports from what are now the countries of Bulgaria and Romania, but reinforced by the already growing Romantic reaction against Enlightenment reason and science, which relegated everything unseen — including religious belief — to the realm of myth and fantasy. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897, brought to perfection the gothic, romantic hero.

Vampires have become popular once again, and now they are competing for the same young adult market that was captured by the Harry Potter novels. In 2005, the novel Twilight appeared. Aimed at a teen audience, Twilight and its sequels created a world of angst-ridden teen vampires and other fantastic creatures. The blockbuster movie made its debut in 2008.

Unlike Kirk’s fairies or Lewis’ devils, vampire mythology inserts itself directly into one of the gaps left by the withdrawal of conventional religious faith: the promise of eternal life. As a result, the vampire story removes one of the primary stings of atheism. To deny the existence of a world beyond this one and to reject the hard morals demanded of us by our religious faith or of judgment in the life to come may seem immensely liberating. This ability to surmount death without the aid of a deeper spirituality makes vampires more dangerous than the fairies of Kirk’s world.

In the mythology, a vampire’s life beyond the grave does not resemble the eternal paradise promised to us by Christian theology. For while vampires may be romantic, they are also tragic characters. In most of this literature, the vampires realize living forever is not what they thought it was, and they often hesitate to turn those they love into vampires. They know that while death seems to be the ultimate evil, perhaps there is something worse. Life without an ending, without a new beginning of some sort, is not a life worth living.

The promise of eternal life may satisfy our desire to escape death. But for the vampire literature, it does not provide, as our religious faith promises us, a movement toward a good.

So in the end. . . .

And that leads us back to our initial question: Is fantasy literature good or bad for our children (and for us)?

To help provide us our final answer, we want to turn to a fantasy author whose influence on the entire genre has been profound. J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, created an immense fantasy world over a lifetime in which he taught literature at Oxford University. For our purposes, though, his most important work may have been “On Fairy Stories,” a lecture he gave at the University of St. Andrews in 1939 — after he had written The Hobbit but before he launched his epic trilogy.

In the lecture Tolkien argued that fairy stories must have happy endings. A fairy story must go through danger, evil, even death — but through a fortuitous turn of events, all turns out well. Tolkien coined a neologism to describe this element of the fairy story — a eucatastrophe. Like a catastrophe, fairy stories have sudden and unexpected endings — but, with the simple addition of eu-, the Greek prefix for goodness, this turn of events is a turn toward the good.

In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s hero Frodo Baggins fails in the most critical moment of the story. When he stands at the rim of the fires of Mount Doom and can finally destroy the Ring of Power that has caused so much evil and destruction in Middle Earth, he instead gives into temptation and decides to keep it for himself. Before he can act upon his decision, though, the evil Gollum bites the Ring from Frodo’s finger and falls into the fiery lake, thus accomplishing what Frodo could not bring himself to do.

So in the end, Frodo is saved by the fact that long ago his uncle Bilbo Baggins had refused to kill Gollum when he had the chance — and it is the evil Gollum who completes the task of destroying the Ring. The world is saved by Bilbo’s act of mercy, one that Frodo thought was foolish (and the reader also might have thought was foolish). But that is precisely the point of the eucatastrophe, the mystery at the heart of a good fairy tale.

When he published his lecture some years later, Tolkien added an epilogue that made a much deeper, theological claim: “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation”

J.K. Rowling’s novels — like Tolkien’s, but unlike the vampire story — follow this model of the good fairy tale. The goal of Rowling’s antagonist, Voldemort, is to cheat death. He splits his very soul into numerous parts in order to never die. The fact that a number of characters in the novels die is perhaps one of Rowling’s most important lessons — we cannot use fantasy to escape death. And yet for Rowling’s characters — and especially for Harry, who longs for the return of his dead parents throughout the entire series — death does not end our story.

And this brings us to what yet may prove to be the most important eucatastrophe of our time: the story of religious faith in the modern world. Perhaps not as profound as Tolkien’s eucatastrophe, but just as important today.

The most recent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in America, reports that only 1.6 percent of Americans describe themselves as atheists — a number that hardly seems to justify the fears articulated by Rowling’s detractors, and other critics of fantasy literature’s role in displacing religious belief today.

But those critics might justifiably point to another key finding in the survey: the largest growing “religion” in the United States in recent years has been the “unaffiliated” category, which includes that tiny percentage of atheists, but mostly consists of those who claim to have some kind of belief in God or a spiritual world but do not count themselves as members of any organized religion. Here we might perhaps find those who would substitute abstractions like “love” — as Lev Grossman claims that J.K. Rowling would have us do — for the more traditional religious deities of their fathers and mothers.

Rather than calling Rowling and her fellow fantasy writers to the carpet for drawing believers away from their religious traditions, we might just as well laud her for following in the grand tradition of fantasy writers, like Scotland’s Robert Kirk, who have helped to keep faith alive in a rapidly secularizing world. That faith may not conform to the standards expected by more traditional believers, but it may play an essential role in maintaining faith in things unseen in a world that looks with increasing skepticism on the orthodoxies of the great world religions.

The rise of the “new atheists” and their dismissal of God, the increasingly confident claims of the scientific world to explain the origin and nature of the universe, and the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church — all of these should leave us wondering not at the loss of religious faith in the West today but at its incredible persistence in the face of so many secularizing pressures.

And if it turns out that we are merely at a low point in this eucatastrophe — if more conventional Catholic and Christian religious traditions begin to thrive once again, and those masses of unaffiliated believers return to their folds — it may be that we have our fantasy writers to thank for playing Gollum to our Frodo, and for keeping the light of faith alive in even the darkest of times.

Anthony and James Lang are brothers and are working on a book about religious faith in the modern world. Anthony is a reader in the School of International Relations at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and director of the Centre for Global Constitutionalism. James is an associate professor of English and director of the Honors Program at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts.