Monday, August 23, 2010

Father Thomas Euteneuer on Harry Potter

The Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog Tour is currently on, and this post will actually prove relevant to it.  Really.

In a recent post at Conversion Diary, Jennifer Fulwiller interviews Fr. Thomas Euteneuer about exorcism and the conversation stumbles into the subject of fantasy literature, so it seemed good to me to quote him at length and offer some comments.

I would encourage anyone who [enjoys the Harry Potter seriest] to read the articles by Michael O'Brien on Harry Potter and other occult phenomena. The best one is "Harry Potter and the Paganization of Children’s Culture." He has recently come out with a book of a similar name. He holds that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling writes out of a completely pagan worldview, and even though there may be some points of contact between paganism and Christianity (some basic notions of good and evil, for example), the totally pagan mindset of the Harry Potter 400-million-book-onslaught is what is dangerous.

The Harry Potter series will not make a person demon possessed; it will, rather, normalize the existence of demons and infuse the occult language and imagery that celebrates them into the minds of the young. It is absolutely not true to say that this stuff doesn’t get people involved in the occult. Go and look at the Harry Potter section in Barnes and Noble and see what occult and witchcraft phenomena this series has spawned for our youth.

It is also my contention that the vampire craze is a direct result of a decade of Harry. Pretty soon the Harry Potter generation, who are now a decade older, get bored with the childish "Hogwart School of Witchcraft and Wizardry" and spell casting, and they need a little more "mature" form of occult entertainment.


Tolkein's and Lewis's works come entirely out of a Christian worldview, despite the use of magic and some occult powers. In Lewis and Tolkein, the use of these preternatural powers is not ambiguous like it is in the Harry Potter series, and the figures who use them are either totally good and Christ-like (Gandalf, for example, becomes a Christ figure in his use of power to heal and protect people from evil) or they are totally evil and use power like demons do to harm and control (i.e., Saruman and Sauron).  [more...]

Michael D. O'Brien's writings on fantasy, which Fr. Euteneuer offers as his only sources here, are filled with self-contradictions and factual errors.  I've discussed O'Brien' before, here and here, particularly.  But we need not discuss O'Brien now; now, I want to focus specifically on Fr. Euteneuer's comments.

First, the vampire craze does not grow directly out of Harry Potter, or at least, it would be difficult to demonstrate a direct relationship.  I suppose Harry and vampires may be related in that Harry Potter increased the interest in fantasy books generally, but the popularity of vampire romance grows largely out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which draws on the works of Anne Rice, except reinvigorated with elements from ye olde Dracula.

If we're speaking of one series in particular, from what I've read, the "occult powers" in Twilight are quite minimal.  Twilight is about super-powered bishie boys, not about witchcraft.  Although the popularity of Twilight is indeed something of a mystery, it probably has more to do with the beefcake protagonist who doesn't treat his girlfriend like dirt than with a hunger for "occult entertainment."  Influenced by the thought of John C. Wright and L. Jagi Lamplighter, I would also add that the interest in vampire romance has arisen out of a complicated set of factors, including the increased disregard for marriage, the dislike many have for strong male protagonists in fiction, and the loss of inhibitions and prohibitions related to sexual activity.  These things make good romance impossible; vampires, with their powers and the prohibitions and taboos and what-not surrounding them, make romance possible again, but only in a profoundly distorted way.  Meyer probably deserves more credit than she usually gets for the Twilight series, which I interpret as an attempt to "baptize" vampire romance and introduce elements of chastity and chivalry to it.  I think Meyer failed, and I'm unconvinced that such a project could ever be successful, but I might add that for many, Twilight might be the closest thing they have ever seen to a chaste romance, and it might get some of its readers thinking in the right direction.  I suspect many of us Christian critics, myself included, may one day discovered that in bashing Meyer's work we were unknowingly attacking our allies.

Also, returning to Fr. Euteneuer's statement, I'm bothered when I see the word occult used loosely.  I realize that interest in the occult, particularly among the youth, is a problem, and it's Fr. Euteneuer's job as an exorcist to be familiar with that problem.  (And I should probably add, too, that I most certainly cannot consider myself familiar with the occult, so I'm in the position of criticizing someone more knowledgeable than myself.)  However, "the occult" is an extremely loose hodgepodge of things ranging from conspiracy theories to minor religious movements to the more unsavory parlor games.  Making a fantasy novel look bad by labeling it "occult" won't do; rather, when criticizing a book, we have to take the time to engage the book's content.  To dismiss the Harry Potter series by calling it "occult entertainment" and to suggest it drives people toward worse "occult entertainment" is to fail to engage with the Harry Potter books, doing disservice to them and their author.

Notice Fr. Euteneuer's comments about Lewis and Tolkien and the "occult powers":  "...the characters who use them are either totally good...or they are totally evil."  It is my experience that the enemies of the Harry Potter series are inevitably the enemies of good character-building as well; for some reason, fantasy heroes are not allowed to have weaknesses, and fantasy villains are not allowed to have virtues, a rule that doesn't limit other genres.  Moralists have probably attempted to lay down this rule because they confuse giving a good character flaws or a bad character positive attributes with nihilism or some kind of moral corruption, but this is not the case.  Allowing a hero to have flaws is not the same thing as calling good evil, and if done well it can even call a reader to self-examination.  Creating flawed heroes is also a regular part of good writing.  Besides this, Fr. Euteneuer is wrong; Saruman is not totally evil, but a good man who becomes corrupted, and Gandalf has character flaws that make his own corruption a possibility.  Lucy in the Narnia books uses magic, and she is a simple human; in fact, her own flaws become most starkly obvious when she finds herself in possession of the power of magic.  The point in both series is that good people can be tempted to evil by the promise of power; the good characters are good not because they are "totally good" in and of themselves as Fr. Euteneneur suggests, but because they overcome their tendencies to evil.

Third, Harry Potter does not have a "totally pagan mindset."  On the contrary, I would go so far as to say the Harry Potter novels are books in which superstition is mocked and Christianity is championed.  The magic of Harry Potter is always presented comically.  When Rowling borrows real lore, especially in the case of the mandrakes appearing in the second novel, she always turns it into a parody.  She does not expect the reader to take mandrake lore, or any other magical mummery, seriously.  Indeed, all the magical world of Harry Potter is based on the Christian, or even the post-Christian, celebration of Halloween, in which silly ghosts and goblins and candy-snarfing children in pointy hats roam the streets and jabber; any squeals of fright quickly turn to laughter because the monsters of Halloween have no power to produce lasting dread.  They have no power because nobody believes in them anymore; the twin forces of Christianity and reason banished them.

Christian themes, however, are abundant in Harry Potter and treated with reverence.  The Bible gets quoted.  All belief in an afterlife is referred back to Christianity.  In the world to come, the good are rewarded and the evil punished.  Death and wickedness are overcome by love.  Parents should have freedom to homeschool.  Harry finds the key to his salvation, which is shaped like a cross, when he is baptized.  Innocence is powerful.  Eternal life sought through artificial means is abominable.  Harry brings healing to the masses by dying and rising from the dead.  And so on.  Harry Potter isn't anything like "totally pagan."

If anything, it's not pagan enough.  J. K. Rowling presents herself as a nominal Christian, and it appears to me that she wrote nominally Christian books.  This is evident both in the numerous Christian elements of the series, but also evident in the very real moral failings.  Harry Potter's seven-volume meditation on death is still too wishy-washy, too accommodating:  there's probably an afterlife, but we can't say for sure, and it's probably best to be a good person just in case, but who knows?  If Harry Potter were really pagan, it could be more forceful.  If it were stoical pagan, it would deny any tomfoolery about an afterlife, but it would demand virtue and nobility of soul as necessary to the preparation for death; its characters would look death in the face unperturbed, going to their inevitable destruction with passions thoroughly mastered by intellect.  If it were Norse pagan, the characters would fight the long, hard, good fight, knowing they are destined to be destroyed in the end, but standing for good nonetheless because it's the right thing do to.

In spite of her Christianity and in spite of her long thinking about it, Rowling doesn't manage to come up with anything on the subject of death as potent and moving as, say, the thoughts on the afterlife that appear in the thoroughly atheist John C. Wright's fantasy series, War of the Dreaming, in which the characters are warned sternly that there is life after death, that they are placed in the world to learn virtue, and that murder is the one crime that will not be forgiven.  Harry Potter isn't pagan or atheist, but weak-tea Christian, and so its worldview is weak-tea Christian.  A good dose of paganism might have done it a world of good.

Speaking of John C. Wright, he has recently posted an essay, at the end of which he quotes a poem from C. S. Lewis, that thoroughly Christian author.  I wish to borrow the poem, for it seems relevant here, and after that I will give a final thought on this matter.

Cliche Came Out of its Cage

by C.S. Lewis


You said ‘The world is going back to Paganism’.
Oh bright Vision! I saw our dynasty in the bar of the House
Spill from their tumblers a libation to the Erinyes,
And Leavis with Lord Russell wreathed in flowers, heralded with flutes,
Leading white bulls to the cathedral of the solemn Muses
To pay where due the glory of their latest theorem.
Hestia’s fire in every flat, rekindled, burned before
The Lardergods. Unmarried daughters with obedient hands
Tended it. By the hearth the white-armd venerable mother
Domum servabat, lanam faciebat. At the hour
Of sacrifice their brothers came, silent, corrected, grave
Before their elders; on their downy cheeks easily the blush
Arose (it is the mark of freemen’s children) as they trooped,
Gleaming with oil, demurely home from the palaestra or the dance.
Walk carefully, do not wake the envy of the happy gods,
Shun Hubris. The middle of the road, the middle sort of men,
Are best. Aidos surpasses gold. Reverence for the aged
Is wholesome as seasonable rain, and for a man to die
Defending the city in battle is a harmonious thing.
Thus with magistral hand the Puritan Sophrosune
Cooled and schooled and tempered our uneasy motions;
Heathendom came again, the circumspection and the holy fears …
You said it. Did you mean it? Oh inordinate liar, stop.


Or did you mean another kind of heathenry?
Think, then, that under heaven-roof the little disc of the earth,
Fortified Midgard, lies encircled by the ravening Worm.
Over its icy bastions faces of giant and troll
Look in, ready to invade it. The Wolf, admittedly, is bound;
But the bond wil1 break, the Beast run free. The weary gods,
Scarred with old wounds the one-eyed Odin, Tyr who has lost a hand,
Will limp to their stations for the Last defence. Make it your hope
To be counted worthy on that day to stand beside them;
For the end of man is to partake of their defeat and die
His second, final death in good company. The stupid, strong
Unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last,
And every man of decent blood is on the losing side.
Take as your model the tall women with yellow hair in plaits
Who walked back into burning houses to die with men,
Or him who as the death spear entered into his vitals
Made critical comments on its workmanship and aim.
Are these the Pagans you spoke of? Know your betters and crouch, dogs;
You that have Vichy water in your veins and worship the event
Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune).

Lewis of course speaks of the nobler parts of paganism, the parts Christianity, of the non-weak-tea kind, absorbed, while the uglier parts she rejected.   Among those uglier parts was the superstitious pagan fear of witches and the violence to which it led.  The Medieval Christians, in love with reason, nearly stamped out that superstition, but when Christendom began to break apart, it came back with a vengeance in the form of the infamous witch-hunts.  Now that we see Western civilization once again collapsing around our ears, it is no surprise that superstition rears its ugly head.  They say that history repeats itself, first as a tragedy and then as a farce:  and so, the first time around, they try innocents as witches and hang or burn them, but the second time around, they cower before a children's book.

Addendum:  Looking back over this essay, I was unhappy with the combative tone I took, which in some places tipped right over into ad hominem.  I've now edited and expanded the essay to make better arguments with less vitriol.
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