Secular criticism of Harry Potter

boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2003/09/24/dumbing_down_american_readers/

what do you think?

He said “curriculums.”

The article was more about the dumbing down of literature in general rather than an extended critique of Harry Potter. I’ve heard similar criticisms before about her lack of writing ability. :shrug:

Well, from what the article said I think this gentleman based his opinion just on the prose itself. Not to mention, his opinion was formed solely on a single book (the first) in the series. So, he has no information at all on the complexity of JK Rowling’s expert storytelling through the course of the seven books. This is an amazingly detailed and rich series that has inspired a great deal of imagination in the form of fanfiction and role play, not to mention avid theorizing and analysis of almost any aspect of the story imaginable. The fact that so many people were so interested, inspired, and able to do this sort of tremendously in-depth critical analysis of her work speaks volumes about the quality of her Harry Potter series.

I haven’t read any books from the Harry Potter series so I can’t comment specifically on the writing talent of the author.

The reading comprehension ability of our primary school students does seem to be diminishing. I heard a story from here about how the students from a Grade 6 class became reading buddies for either Grade 1 or 2 students. The volunteer assisting with this program was shocked when most of the Grade 6 students had trouble reading to the younger students.

Now since I have not read any of the Harry Potter books I’m not sure if they’ve been “dumbed down” per say. Books for a younger audience need language that will reflect their abilities.

I think the author of the article is upset that people seem content with the quality of writing that these authors are providing. But people have different tastes. And based on the above poster it seems that the quality of the Harry Potter series is quite good. Again this may just be a difference of tastes.

I do think that is a very valid criticism of Harry Potter. People seem to praise the books for “getting kids into reading”. Thats a load of baloney. The only reason so many kids read Harry Potter is because it basically reads like a tv show/movie. In other words, it is heavy on stimuli, light on themes, character development, etc. Most kids that read Harry Potter are not going to go on and read profound literature, more likely they will just complain because other books aren’t as entertaining as Harry Potter.

Dear fantasy forever,

Re Harold Bloom’s article

Mr. Blooms appraisals of contemporary literature, and specifically King and Rowling, are surely bang on target and incontrovertible. It is indeed correct to state that modern literature and the arts generally have intentionally sought to reduce the intellectual content and quality of both the printed page and film. Moreover the concessions to political correctness are legion and references to explicit sex or deviant sexual lifestyles are all too frequent and are employed by the modern authors/film directors* ad nauseam*, no doubt as a consequence of their decidedly irreligious standpoint and their abberrational tendencies. These people are responsible for corrupting the minds of our youth and causing them to develop an interest in that which is clearly unwholesome and unholy, in the case of R.K. Rowling witches and wizards. As for King, he appears to pride himself in his ability to shock people with grotesque acts of violence and a fare of vicious brutality.

As Catholics we should denounce such worthless and poor quality material in the strongest terms as it is polluting the minds of our young peoople and debasing public morals. The pressing need of the hour is for schools, colleges and universities to promote an appreciation and study of the great literary classical authors, such as those which Mr. Bloom cites. This will surely help in raising the moral tone of society thus making it a more pleasant and intellectually cultured place to live for us and our children’s children. Let us hear what St. Paul says:

“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philipp. 4: 8, emphasis mine).

What more can one add, this passage speaks for itself.

Warmest good wishes,

Portrait

I don’t know, though. Bloom raises up Thomas Pynchon as one of the four greatest contemporary American novelists. To me that calls into question Bloom’s credibility. “The Crying of Lot 49” was just weird. :stuck_out_tongue:

Anyway, I’m usually the first to jump on the “this-person-is-a-literary-hack” bandwagon, but I will say that I think “quality of writing” and “quality of imagination” are two different components of literature that often get conflated in these types of discussions.

Rowling and King may not be the greatest caliber of writers in terms of style, but I think they both have very vivid imaginations. The fact that they can write stories that captivate millions of people is a talent. It might not be the same type of talent as the literary greats, but it is still a talent nonetheless.

Dear Joe 5859,

Not being an American, I’m afraid you have the advantage over me as I am not familiar with Thomas Pynchon and therefore cannot possibly comment upon his work. However in so far as Mr. Bloom pays tribute to the all-time literary worthies, Wordsworth, Pym, Blake and Shakespeare and the like, I do, no doubt along with many others, rejoice exceedingly. They will be remembered long after the likes of Rowling and King.

Surely the quality of a writers imagination will necessarily shape and colour the quality of his writing - in the words of our Lord, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of his treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (St. Matt. 12: 34-35). Notwithstanding a “vivid imagination”, if an author’s mind is a centre of depravity and he is thus influenced by immorality, brutality and irreligion, that will ipso facto have a profound impact on the tone of his writing and his mode of expression. That is simply an ineluctable deduction based not only on sound theory but upon empirical evidence. Hence even if people do fuse these two elements, it is really of no consequence because they are inextricably bound up with one another anyway. However it cuts both ways; so for example, in the case of a Christian author his Christian world view will inevitably inform his imagination, which in turn will influence the tone of his writing, C.S. Lewis is a classic example of this.

As for King and Rowling “captivating millions”, this really only serves to underscore the patently obvious fact that there is a lowered public opinion that urgently needs to be raised. It is a sad reflection of the times that these writers are deemed to have talent and in Rowling’s case to be worthy of critical analysis, Alas, people are not aqainted with anything of greater stature and quality with which to compare this tripe.

Warmest good wishes,

Portrait

I was being a tad facetious with regards to my comment on Pynchon. I found the one book of Pynchon’s that I read to be quite bizarre, but I don’t really doubt Bloom’s credentials.

I’m somewhat torn on the issue myself. On the one hand, the intellectual in me hates the thought that our society is being “dumbed down” or the fact that our entertainment seems to necessarily cater to the lowest common denominator (not to mention the moral depravity). But, on the other hand, the catechist in me wants to seize any opportunity to utilize popular art and media as a springboard to comment on those lofty issues that are pertinent to us all, even if it is in a “dumbed down” way. I guess it’s the tension between wanting to work towards something better for the future and wanting to make the best of what we have in the present.

As a culture, I think we do tend to overanalyze our popular fiction. The fact that a whole market can spring up and sustain itself financially simply by commenting on Harry Potter is somewhat incredible. There are websites all over the internet that analyze and pick apart these works of popular fiction. We do the same thing with TV shows (like LOST or The Simpsons).

Maybe it makes us feel smart to play the role of “literary critic.” Certainly it’s much easier to sound intelligent critiquing the themes of Harry Potter than Shakespeare. You can’t fake your way through an intelligent analysis of Shakespeare.

In drawing the distinction between style and imagination, I was simply attempting to head off the debate I have seen several times before in regards to Potter. Some people will post saying that she’s a poor writer, while others will say that they think she’s a great writer. This distinction was my attempt to articulate why I think this divide appears. I think some people are not as sensitive as others to poor style (such as the liberal use of clichés). For those who defend Rowling as being a good writer, I think what they see in her books is not so much the quality of style as the imaginative fictional universe she has created.

I certainly wouldn’t advocate that imagination and style are two completely separate entities. They are absolutely connected. You need imagination to come up with metaphors and phrases that aren’t cliché. :slight_smile:

Dear Joe 5859,

Without wishing to sound incorrigibly negative about the contemporary scene, I think that the whole Harry Potter phenomena and TV shows like the detestable Simpsons sit very comfortably with our frivilous society and its anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment code of honour. Why, we have stooped so low that we now make a luminary of a chap like Timothy Leary; only a morally bankrupt society could regard such an individual as a source of intellectual light and inspiration.

Quite prevalent nowadays is a sort of psuedo-intellectuallism with its own esoteric vocabulary and jargon, which on the surface sounds plausible and smart but in reality is vacuous inane twaddle. What is so lamentable is that people, especially the young, actually believe it to be very erudite stuff. My point is that it is hardly surprising that Harry Potter etal is so well received by the public world-wide; they are complete strangers to the classical works of fiction and couldn’t engage with them even if they tried. Thus because they have no discernment they content themselves with third-rate material that in former times would be rejected as peurile nonsense.

Another reason for the popularity of Potter is that it is essentially about a world of fantasy and escapism - a world that so many of our young people, Catholics included, like to inhabit. They like to hide away in that “imaginative fictional universe” of which you speak, rather than engage with the harsh realities of life.

Yes I suppose we can employ all of this to build bridges to our contemporary culture and use it as an impetus to address the various social probelms with which our we are beset. However I would add one important proviso: we must ensure that in so doing we “keep ourselves unspotted from the world”, to quote St. James, and not compromise our convictions. We must denounce that which is undermining the stability of society, be it literature, film or anything else for that matter. That of course calls for courage - “but the people who know their God shall stand firm and take action” (Daniel 11: 32).

Warmest good wishes,

Portrait

Oh boy, not this again. I’m all open for intellectual literary criticism of books but this claim that tries to connect Harry Potter with the promotion of witchcraft is, frankly, just plain stupid. You might as well say the same thing about the Wizard of Oz.

As for detailing violence, what’s wrong with that? I may not be a huge fan of King but I definitely like describing/choreographing fights involving my characters. The challenge of molding and linking transitions in movement, details of certain objects/attacks, and a big flashy finisher. :cool:

Anyways back on topic. I would admit though that writers should balance action and detail with depth, good plot, and characterization.

I’d bet the end result would be really thick though. >.>;;

All excellent points. I wish I was more educated in the classics than I am, and I would like that for my children as well.

To sum up my point (and put it less eloquently than you did), I think we need to both reach people where they’re at and lift them up to higher ground.

Portrait, I have a question for you. Have you read the Harry Potter novels? I don’t mean, have you quickly skimmed the first volume, or seen one of the films. I mean, have you *really *read the books, from the first to the last, with an open mind and careful attention to detail?

Just wondering.

“The Simpsons” “detestable” ? I beg to differ :slight_smile:

Having seen some of the criticisms made of C.S. Lewis by Christians, I’m not sure that the Bible is a good standard for what is appropriate in writing by a Christian; & so far in this thread, many of the criticisms made of J.K. Rowling - of whom I have read only 40 pages BTW - sound very like those made of Tolkien: the writing is bad, there are wizards, & so on. If an aesthetic theory can’t do justice to Tolkien, or to Lewis, something is wrong with the theory. As Tolkien pointed out almost 70 years ago, there is nothing wrong with escapism - it is an entirely legitimate pursuit. In fact, an “escapist” tale of magic & wizards & monsters may be in certain respects better at picturing reality than a “realistic” fiction. Both are fully legitimate, and neither is the only mode of depicting reality; they complete one another. So neither - certainly not tales of magic & wonder - is a denial of the harshness of life: tales of magic & wonder are a way of dealing with such things, not directly, but indirectly. They are fully valid in any case - they do not not need to be of practical use to be justified by so-called “practical” tests; even though they can be. But read Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-Stories:
[LIST]
]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Fairy-Stories
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* -** he says what needs saying. Neither Lewis nor Tolkien was a "strange[r] to “the classical works of fiction” - yet Lewis greatly admired The Lord of the Rings. He taught English Literature his whole academic life. Tolkien is remembered for his edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a mediaeval poem which whatever else it may be is not a realistic fiction. How either of them could be called “pseudo-intellectuals”, is not clear. That itself is a story in the Arthurian cycle - the treason of Mordred is as evil within the “Death of Arthur” as the adultery of Lancelot & Guinevere is evil: neither is morally different from adulteries & treasons that are really committed, for being fictitious. That the mortally-wounded Arthur is said to have been taken to the Isle of Avalon for healing, does not make kings fictitious; it certainly does not mean that wounds are any less wounding in reality for being told of in tales.

“Realistic fiction” are two words that do not describe the Epic of Gilgamesh: yet it contains lessons about the human condition that are as true now as they were 35 centuries ago when it was written down. The Odyssey is full of magic & marvels & of things not possible to man; yet it standsat the head of the European literary tradition - as does Beowulf at that of the tradition of English literature. If such works of fiction are somehow wrong or illegitimate, why has man been given the imagination with which to construct such tales ?

You do realize that some of your “realities” are not only harsh but also inevitable and unsolvable right (e.g. poverty, crime, corruption)? If so, why force people to linger on things they cannot remedy? As long as humans exist, so do these harsh invincible realities. It’s the curse of our fallen nature. You’d be surprised at the good escapism can do when taken in safe, healthy doses. It can ease people’s anxieties, get their minds off things, and sometimes even allow them to let loose their frustrations (role-playing fantasy games can do this).

And if it means anything, religious people can be accused of escapism as well when they dream of heaven in order to take their minds of the misery and squalor around them. Why aren’t you charging them the same way you’re charging the readers of Harry Potter?

J.R.R. Tolkien once said something like:

Who is most worried about others escaping?

Jailers!

Dear Forum Users,

May I just take this opportunity to thank * all * of you for your responses to my earlier posting. Please accept my apologies for the delay in replying, I was not intentionally ignoring anyone but I have been winding up a debate elsewhere on CAF. Now that this is concluded I can give my undivided attention to this thread. With those preliminaries out of the way I will make some remarks and give a critque of the Harry Potter novels.

It is utterly risible to assert that Harry Potter is a “Christian” series in the tradition of The* Chronicles of Narnia* and The Lord of the Rings (By the way I’m not a fan of either). This uninformed claim is beset by a myriad of flaws that can, I think, be distilled down to two principal issues. Firstly, the plainest detached reading of the Potter books reveals that it is not a depiction of anything Christian, but is, on the contrary, a depiction of the magic world view. This is not merely my own opinion but has been confirmed by witches, occultists and neopagans, surely these would know if anyone should? Secondly, none other than Rowling herself has explained both her work and her faith in ways that clearly contradict the assertions being made by the “Harry-Potter-is-really-Christian” exponents. Moreover, Christians of all hues would recognize in classics such as The Wizard of Oz, Sleeping Beauty, Lord of The Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia the good verses evil element as being clearly dilineated. Putting it quite simply evil is evil and good is good, and good is promoted while evil is not. Thus the “battle-between-good-and-evil” argument is hopelessly without merit. In any event this line of defence is irrelevant as the books do not contain any such battle. The war in Rowlings novels is a conflict between a horrific evil (Voldemont and his Death Eaters) and a lesser sort of evil (Harry and the “good” characters who only appear virtuous because it is so much less offensive and frightneing than the greater evil).

The line of demarcation between good and evil is terribly blurred, if not entirely non existent, in the Potter books. Even Rowling has freely admitted that the books contain references to real-world occult symbolism, lore, subjects and practices, hardly suitable reading material for Christian adults let alone children. Again ethics and morality in the series exalt relativism, I mean there is no objective standard of right and wrong. Thus the so called good characters habitually steal, lie, cheat, use unseemly language, break laws, deceive each other, behave hypocritically and have no problem with pursuing revenge - all of which is apparently done with a clear conscience.

What I found most disturbing is reading that in front of a full-house of hardcore Potter fanatics at Carnegie Hall in New York, Rowling announced that the character Dumbledore was a homosexual! The audience is reportedly said to have erupted - well what can one say to all this? It seems perfectly reasonable to infer from this that Rowling does not have an issue with homosexuality and would most certainly not deem it to be an abberrant lifestyle which is a violation of the law of God. It does seem to be going from bad to worse; one cannot help but recall the words of our dear Lord, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (St. Matthew 12: 34). The words of Christ address certain situations with such a force like no other words can.
Sadly because of original sin men and women who are not professing Christians, or only nominal Christians, will compose novels, films, music etc that are unsavoury and unwholsome and sometimes just downright morally bad. In a fallen world such as ours there will always be a maket for such egregious material. However as Christains we have a duty to God to distance ourselves from these reprehensible arts ( I nearly wrote black arts, a freudian slip?) and warn others, especially the young, of the dangers invloved in polluting their minds and possibly causing them to deviate from the path of virtue.

In view of what I have said above I firmly believe that my, and indeed others, disquietude over the Harry Potter novels is not misplaced or based on some irrational fear or hidebound prejudice against all contemporary literature. Although the fact that so much of it is so deplorably bad may make it seem that way sometimes.

With warmest good wishes,

Portrait

That depends if you don’t take into consideration the reader-oriented theories in literary criticism. Even should an author make more effort in inserting a message in his/her story, there will always be someone who will interpret it differently. The author, you see, can have an ideal reader in mind when writing and mold their words in ways they assume would be to said ideal reader’s liking. However, in the real world, not every person who’ll pick up their book will fit their criteria of an ideal reader. Whether this can be done deliberately or unconsciously by readers does not matter. The point is, they can be read differently.

Thus, it’s no surprising that people may be able to find Christian truth in Harry Potter or at least some moral insight because their previous experience has programmed them to see such signs. The same can be said of Neo-pagans, wiccans, etc. Furthermore, it can definitely be said of people such as yourself.

It’s a work of a fiction. The moral ambiguity in Harry Potter is only such because the scenarios and environment make it so. We can’t judge the actions of fictional characters until we immerse ourselves in their universe and put ourselves in their shoes. And by immersing ourselves, I really mean it somewhat. Suggesting things such “Well I would just have prayed blahblahblah” or “My guardian angel suddenly appears” and all other childish nonsense is out of the question.

Take for example this other story I’ve read (well technically it’s a comic book). The title is Death Note and it’s about a young man who finds a notebook that kills whoever has their name written on it (and as long as he recalls their face). The guy then goes on using it to kill criminals all over his country and even the world just by sitting in his room looking up names and news reports. Now, if I were to judge this guy and put myself in his shoes, I of course wouldn’t immediately say I’d get rid of the notebook. I would first deliberate and truly get into the mind of the character, try to understand the motive, the situation, the place he is in. I have to first consider what I could and could not do if I were actually right there, in his place, having the same thoughts and feelings about why criminal vermin are allowed to walk away freely by the incompetent justice system and police department.

It is then I ask the question: What would I do?

That’s pretty much the reason why I don’t judge Harry and his friends with the same harshness as you have. The things they do are reasonable and understandable given their circumstances.

And Lord of the Rings makes similar references to Norse mythology and Anglo-Saxon folklore. Please, let’s not argue about this sort of thing again. You say you’re not fond of Tolkien either but please don’t give me the impression that you’re one of those Catholics who believe anything that makes use of magic as demonic. With all due respect, it’s not a very smart thing to believe in.

In other words you want Catholics to seclude themselves like simpletons who are too cowardly to infiltrate this market and exploit in our favor as well as pretty much just limit themselves to strictly filtered (a.k.a. bland) forms of entertainment and fiction. For your information, the reprehensible arts you seem to be alluding to might actually include classical works such as Dracula, Oliver Twist, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and even our own Bible for all of them (when depicted in a more visual and less literary medium) have elements that you would consider “unsavory and unwholesome”.

Well, of course it’s from a ‘magic’ world view. It’s told from the point of view of the fictional magical world its characters inhabit.

This is not merely my own opinion but has been confirmed by witches, occultists and neopagans, surely these would know if anyone should?

Not necessarily. They’ll read into a text what they want to read into it, just as Christians so often do.

Secondly, none other than Rowling herself has explained both her work and her faith in ways that clearly contradict the assertions being made by the “Harry-Potter-is-really-Christian” exponents.

Have you read what Jo Rowling said about the Christian themes in the books AFTER the last book was published? She said that if she’d talked too much about those themes early on in the series, she’d have tipped her hand. It would have been too obvious as to where she was going with Harry’s story.

If you have carefully read the books, you’ll remember the chapter, “Godric’s Hollow” in Deathly Hallows. In this chapter Harry and Hermione find themselves in front of Harry’s parents’ graves. On their tombstone is written the words of 1 Corinthians 15:26 “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” That is one of the basics of resurrection theology, or life after death. On the nearby tombstone of Albus Dumbledore’s mother and sister is written, 'Where your treasure is, there shall your heart also be." Matthew 6:19, a direct quote from Our Lord himself. Again, if you have read the books with careful thought, you’ll understand that Jo didn’t just slip those verses in there to fool our minds into *thinking *her books are Christian when they really aren’t. You’ll understand that these two verses perfectly reflect Harry’s journey towards adulthood, towards his struggle with his own mortality, and towards acceptance of what he must do in order to triumph over the evil that is represented by Lord Voldemort.

Moreover, Christians of all hues would recognize in classics such as The Wizard of Oz, Sleeping Beauty, Lord of The Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia the good verses evil element as being clearly dilineated. Putting it quite simply evil is evil and good is good, and good is promoted while evil is not. Thus the “battle-between-good-and-evil” argument is hopelessly without merit. In any event this line of defence is irrelevant as the books do not contain any such battle. The war in Rowlings novels is a conflict between a horrific evil (Voldemont and his Death Eaters) and a lesser sort of evil (Harry and the “good” characters who only appear virtuous because it is so much less offensive and frightneing than the greater evil).

But in Jo Rowling’s created world, good and evil are depicted exactly as they are in real life. No one in real life is perfectly good. No one has ever been, except for Our Lord. And no one has ever been completely and utterly Evil, without any hope of redemption, except for Satan. And even Satan, if you’ll recall, started out as an Angel. Voldemort began life as Tom Riddle, a boy who might have grown up to be a perfectly normal, decent adult except for the choices he made while growing up, and except for the fact that he had no love in his life at all. Harry’s own childhood was as bleak and lonely as Tom’s, but his mother’s sacrifice covered him with her love. That, and the choices he made as he grew up, made all the difference. Was he totally good, all the time? Were his friends and classmates? The teachers at Hogwarts, all the other characters who were fighting Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters? Of course not. None of us is. I think that’s what makes Harry and all the other characters in J K Rowling’s world so appealing to so many people. They’re not perfect. They’re human.

The line of demarcation between good and evil is terribly blurred, if not entirely non existent, in the Potter books.

Exactly as it is in the real world. And it’s getting blurrier and blurrier all the time. But the HP novels haven’t contributed to that. Quite the contrary. They’ve shown that no matter how blurry that line might get, evil is still evil and we need to fight it with every fibre of our beings.

*see my next post for the rest of my response…

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