Hobbits and Hogwarts
by Ben Brown
There has been much debate among Christians over the course of the last couple of years about the value, or disvalue, of the amazingly popular Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling. A number of prominent figures have voiced strong objections to the Harry Potter stories, comparing them unfavorably to such Christian classics as The Lord of the Rings (hereafter LR) by J. R. R. Tolkien and The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. Such comparisons have been especially common since the recent releases of cinema versions of the first Rowling and Tolkien books in their respective series. The discussion so far has centered almost entirely on the use of magic in stories, but this has, I think, caused many other more important aspects of the books to be overlooked.
The issue that I want to raise in this article concerns the ethos of a piece of literature, the worldview which is woven into the fabric of its imaginary world. Every story has one, and it is this which provides the context within which to evaluate the use of magic. The ethos of a world is the spirit with which it is imbued, the soul that informs it. And like the human soul, the ethos is intangible; you cannot reach out and grab hold of it. But you can nonetheless know of its existence, feel its presence and discern its character. It manifests itself in very definite ways: the principles by which the world is governed, its physical and spiritual form as described by the author, the kinds of creatures that inhabit it and how they interact with one another, the particular creatures that play a significant role in that world, how they live and die, the things they say and do, and so forth.
The Sorcerer’s Stone (hereafter SS), the first Potter book, seems to me to be informed by a basically good “soul.” Its story and heroes have an underlying solidity and right order that shows itself in various ways throughout the book. There is a definite (though imperfect) sense of right and wrong; of goodness, justice and truth; of the importance of teamwork and friendship. There is also a sense that certain things are worth fighting for, even against one’s friends; that there can be far-reaching consequences for one’s actions; that doing the right thing often involves sacrifice, etc. Every one of these values, however, can also be found in the Hardy Boys series, the Nancy Drew series, and a thousand other books of only modest literary worth. And, of course, they can be found in LR as well. So what’s the difference? What makes Tolkien’s trilogy a classic, while Rowling’s, as I will attempt to show, is not of enduring value?
The answer, I think, lies primarily in what I have called the ethos of a story (though, of course, considerations of language, symbolism, descriptive power, imaginative force, constructive capacity, and the like are important factors as well, in all of which categories LR stands head and shoulders above the Potter books.) The answer is not to be found in the fact that Tolkien has gone to such great lengths to construct an incredibly elaborate world, nor in the moral lessons provided, though such things are certainly a part of the whole. It lies, rather, in the depth and breadth of Tolkien’s inner vision, which shines forth in particular splendid moments, but is almost tangibly present in every leaf of Middle Earth.
What is this vision? I can think of no single word for it, nor even a whole book of words. One finds it expressed in the merrymaking of the elves and hobbits in the face of imminent, deadly peril. It is manifest in the simple, joyful, blissfully ignorant Shire, which Gandalf and Sam so love and so wish to preserve. So central, in fact, is the salvation of the dear little Shire that all of the Ringbearer’s work seems fundamentally ordered to saving it in particular out of all of Middle Earth. We see the soul of LR in the fact that Frodo has inherited the ring with its dangers and must himself dutifully bear its burden as his own assigned task, despite his inferiority to so many others; in the fact that Gandalf is at once gentle and terrible; in the way that Gimli and Legolas are brought to mutual appreciation, then admiration, and finally friendship; in the fact that everything in Middle Earth is marvelously alive and active, even the trees and the rivers; in the fact that Boromir is crazed by his lust for the ring, out of a desire to use it for the good, while for the very same reason Gandalf and Galadriel refuse to even touch it; in the manner of Boromir’s treachery, sorrow, repentance, confession and penance; in the fact that Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas take time to remember, honor, and “bury” Boromir, even while Merry and Pippin are in mortal danger; in the presence of kind, old Tom Bombadil over whom the ring has no power, and who (believe it or not) has more important things to concern himself with than the fate of the world; in the master/servant relationship of Frodo and Sam, which surpasses in depth, beauty and strength any relationship that Frodo could have with such “mere” friends as Merry or Pippin; in the concern for posterity, even at great cost to oneself; in the sense of tradition and its sacred importance; and so much more. (Just think, I have limited myself to examples from the first book of the trilogy).
This should begin to give my reader an idea of what I am trying to say. Let me now elaborate on a couple of these points and compare LR with SS.
One of the most beautiful scenes of LR comes at the beginning of the second book (but at the end of the first movie, for those who haven’t read the books). Boromir—though he has, in a fit of lustful madness that had been building for 300 pages, just tried to take the ring for himself—is struck deeply with sorrow, repents of his evil and manifests his good and noble heart by laying down his life to save Pippin and Merry. This every reader can understand, but what happens next is, to my mind, even more profoundly beautiful. I am not referring to the fact that Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, choose to chase after the captured hobbits, despite the seeming desperation of such an act. Everyone who’s seen a war movie has grappled with the principle of not abandoning one’s friends (which I’m happy to see still has life in our efficiency-based culture). What is even more inexplicable and beautiful is the fact that they spend precious hours not only seeing to their dead friend’s body, but grieving over him and singing songs of mourning! Legolas makes it clear that they do this not only out of friendship, but out of a solemn sense of duty. One does not leave one’s companion’s body to be eaten by birds, no matter how desperate the circumstances. (Keep in mind that at this point they think that Frodo and the Ring have been captured!)
Compare the nobility and emotive power of scenes like this to SS. What happens when Harry Potter and his friends get into trouble? Sometimes they act bravely and dutifully, to be sure, but not always, for such things are not deep virtues or principles with them. For example, when faced with punishment, Hermione tells a lie to save Harry and Ron, and the book presents this very much as a good thing. How noble of Hermione to sacrifice her principles (for she never lies) to save her friends! Her lie then becomes the bond that cements her friendship with the boys, according to the author. Three pages later we are told that after this lie, “Hermione had become a bit more relaxed about breaking the rules ... and she was much nicer for it.” Come again!?
Aragorn’s friendship with Pippin means something precisely because he is a man of integrity and commitment; he does not abandon his duties to his friends—ever! Pippin can trust Aragorn to come to his aid precisely because he can trust him to bury Boromir first. But on what basis can Harry trust Hermione to be honest with him if she happens to think that something more important is at stake? Loyalty to principles and loyalty to friends are interwoven beautifully in LR, but have only a flawed coherence in SS.
One could claim that the scene in SS is an anomaly, that the book as a whole has a great deal of principles to which the heroes steadfastly adhere. To this I agree, which is precisely why I do not condemn SS, but instead say only that it is significantly flawed and thus unable to endure as a classic. It embodies a contradiction without even realizing that it is doing so.
Despite the presence of many principles, however, let me also point out that it seems to me that the stronger emphasis in SS is on the side of unprincipledness. Almost every successful endeavor occurs by means of breaking the rules: the troll, the mirror, discovering Fluffy, Harry’s Quidditch position, saving the stone, etc. And on the rare occasion when the heroes are punished for disobeying, the mean, strict Professors McGonagall or Snape are the punishers, whereas good Dumbledore never makes a strict showing. Even worse, it is not as if Harry usually has good reasons to break the rules; in fact, good reasons not to break them are clearly given to him. Instead he too often acts out of pride, anger or some other vice. And in a scene when breaking the letter of the rules is finally legitimate in order to preserve their spirit, Hermione turns around and breaks the rules herself—and for no apparent reason! It’s almost as if Rowling can’t help but incorporate a certain lawlessness into the best scenes.
Let me offer another comparison between LR and SS. At the end of SS Dumbledore, the wise and trustworthy headmaster of Hogwarts, tells Harry to just say the villain’s name: Voldemort! “Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” The idea seems very wise: be brave, don’t fear, and don’t do anything that might increase fear; fear is bad, courage is what is needed. Harry has faced Voldemort and now need no longer fear him, nor should he. In LR, however, there are sundry names that ought not be pronounced. Not only does Tolkien understand the nature and use of language better than Rowling, but more to the point, he knows that there are certain things that ought to be feared, and so we ought to manifest that fear in our language.
Tolkien understands that real courage includes a proper fear of those things that ought to be feared. The courage that Dumbledore advocates is an illusory courage, for it is not grounded on a true knowledge and respect for the natures of things. Dumbledore’s courage is a kind of brazenness—an indiscriminent standing before the whole world and shouting, “I’m not afraid of anything!” Tolkien’s is a grave, considered, deeply rooted, prudent courage that manifests the interconnection of the virtues. Dumbledore’s courage says to Voldemort: “Hah! You’re nothing. I’m not afraid of you!” Tolkien’s says to Sauron: “You are truly powerful and could destroy me. You are truly evil and would torture me first simply for the cruelty of it. But, despite the great evil of which I am rightly afraid, despite the fear that penetrates to my bones, not only will I not serve you, but I will do everything in my power to stop you.” Rowling’s courage is that of the belligerent underdog. Tolkien’s is that of the martyr.
SS gives the impression that evil shouldn’t be feared, whereas LR faces the evilness of evil straight on. One should not thumb one’s nose at it. The Ring was almost the ruin of Boromir and was the bane of both Isildur and Saruman. Even more so, Sauron has destroyed countless good things and wrecked much of the good world. This is not to be taken lightly (although, for Tolkien, this fact is balanced by a very strong sense of Providence, the absence of which in Rowling’s works should have made evil all the more fearsome, though she does not even realize it). But precisely because Tolkien takes evil so seriously, the good is that much more good. Evil is so bad because it harms what is so good.
Despite the serious threat that hangs over the whole of Middle Earth, however, LR is by no means dark or bleak or overpowered by fear. One thing that surprises (or should surprise) most readers is the joy that is so constantly present in the books. (The movie, unfortunately, almost completely misses this element, presenting a very black world.) Many examples can be given: the simple goodness of the Shire which is preserved from Sauron’s corruption, the celebration at Rivendell, the month-long(!) respite at Lothlorien (what could the fellowship have been thinking, when the fate of the world hangs in the balance!), and the party with the elves that Frodo and company have in the Shire, even though the dread black riders are afoot. Foremost, however, is the visit to old Tom Bombadil, a scene of central importance to this theme of the book. Tom has the joy of the world in his heart, a joy which cannot be disturbed even by the greatest of troubles. It is very unfortunate (but perhaps not surprising) that it was left out of the movie.
If the evil that hangs over Middle Earth is going to cause our heroes to stop celebrating the good, then the battle has already been won. If evil is going to snare them into abandoning their principles and leave their friend to be eaten by birds, then they have rescued the hobbits in vain. Nor are the acts of celebration a kind of escapism, for the characters are celebrating a real good that is present to them, even in the midst of evils. Both evil and good are given all the weight that they deserve. Tolkien depicts this beautifully, whereas Rowling’s solution lies in a sort of naive puffing one’s chest out at evil. Tolkien’s depth of insight here is simply beyond Rowling’s horizon. Rowling’s best lines are practically platitudes in comparison with even the simplest aspect of Tolkien’s underlying ethos.
The soul that informs SS is a clearly disordered one, but still one that has got certain things straight and to that extent is not without value. It does not present a unified vision, and so one has to do a good bit of sorting out to get to the valuable part. The soul of Middle Earth, on the other hand, is a saintly soul. Though not without imperfections, you have to look long and hard to spot them, and when you do, they seem overwhelmed by the tide of counter-principles that are welled up against them.
Much more needs to be said, but this should begin to bring to light the difference that I am trying to articulate. Yes, SS depicts goodness and truth, despite its flaws, but LR exudes them from every page. I will conclude with the insight of a well-read mother of seven children. Hardy Boys and their peers (I personally would put Harry Potter one step down), she said, are like candy. They taste good, but they do not substantially nourish the body. And just as children are allowed occasional sweets—and then only when they’ve become healthy by means of substantial food—so too we must take care to nourish their souls with healthy, meaty, substantial literature before providing them with sweets that delight the soul without much cultivating it.
Ben Brown (FUS class of ‘00) is currently working on his PhD in theology at Catholic University of America. He lives in Maryland with his wife Cindy (Ray, ‘99), who is also studying at CUA toward a PhD in philosophy. Their first child is due in January.