Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Book Review: From Homer to Harry Potter

From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy by Matthew Dickerson and David O’Hara (BrazosPress, Grand Rapids)

I recommend Dickerson and O’Hara’s magnificent work. I picked this up on impulse at our public library and was pleased to find that it is an explicitly Christian work, which I hadn’t guessed from the title, as well as well-informed and intelligently written. In the ongoing and often ludicrous debate over the Harry Potter novels, Dickerson and O’Hara inject a heavy dose of sanity. Whether he ultimately agrees with them or not, the reader will come away with more information and a coherent framework within which to view fantasy literature.

The book functions as more than a Christian defense of Harry Potter. Dickerson and O’Hara use the writings of Lewis and Tolkien as a springboard, but move beyond the thought of those two authors, to apply workable definitions to terms such as fantasy, science fiction, fairy story, legend, and myth. They then move into an erudite discussion of the Bible as myth, followed by essays on Greek mythology, Beowulf and Arthurian romance, and nineteenth-century fairy tale compendia and original stories, always keeping in mind how such works have influenced modern fantasy. Following this review of sources, they discuss four works of modern fantasy: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Walter Wangerin, Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow, and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. It happens that I have read two of these four modern fantasies and a smattering of the earlier works, and I can say that the essays are equally intelligible and enjoyable whether or not the reader knows the original material.

What Dickerson and O'Hara successfully show in their discussion is that Harry Potter is nothing new, that it contains nothing, or at least nothing obvious, that is contradictory to Christianity. They show also that a wholesome and enthusiastic understanding of myth is key to a healthy religious imagination. Perhaps most valuable to the average reader will be the discussion of the three "faces" of imaginative literature, borrowed from Tolkien: the mystic toward the supernatural, the magical toward nature, and "scorn and pity" toward man. The categories that the authors use make sense of the literature. The early chapters create an excellent framework within which the authors are able to intelligently evaluate the four modern fantasies they discuss in the final chapters (though the discussion of The Book of the Dun Cow could have benefited from a little research on basilisk legends).

By the end of the book, the antagonist of Harry Potter simply has nothing left in his arsenal. Although not all fantasy is Christian by any means, fantasy has been a major part of Christian storytelling for a very, very long time. Not only do the authors demonstrate this, but they also interpret the Harry Potter novels in such a way as to demonstrate that they hold up a moral framework compatible with Christian morality, or at least very similar.
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