'From Homer to Harry Potter'
Note: This commentary was delivered by PFM President Mark Earley.
The release of the last book in the Harry Potter series has unleashed a book-buying frenzy unlike anything we have ever seen. The fate of the books’ characters, especially Harry himself, stirred up mass speculation, angst, and even lawsuits when a few early spoilers made their way onto the Internet.
The phenomenon left some scratching their heads. Ron Charles, a senior editor of the Washington Post’s Book World section, called it “a bad case of cultural infantilism.” Charles wrote that what we have been thinking of as a resurgence in reading, caused by this series, may be something else entirely. “Perhaps,” he wrote, “submerging the world in an orgy of marketing hysteria doesn’t encourage the kind of contemplation, independence and solitude that real engagement with books demands. . . . Potter mania . . . trains children and adults to expect . . . a mass-media experience that no other novel can possibly provide.”
Well, I suppose there is something to that, but it seems to me he is missing the bigger picture. He is ignoring the fact that it was not “marketing hysteria” that made the Potter books successful. It was the success of the books that spawned the marketing hysteria. They are a good read. People have found something in the Harry Potter stories that is far more profound and inspiring than just a desire to be a part of the literary in-crowd.
Writers and professors Matthew Dickerson and David O’Hara, in their insightful book From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy, help show us what that “something” is. As they explain it, great myths and fairy tales reach us at a deep level because they contain truth. Far from being escapist, a well-imagined and well-told fantasy is a needed reminder of certain things we know to be true about the world.
For example, the painful things we encounter in the real world—crime, war, betrayal, and other forms of loss and evil—can leave us shaken, confused, and questioning life. But a good fantasy author can remind us of the necessity of sacrifice and the redemption that can come from even the most brutal and senseless acts. They can help restore our faith in goodness—and, yes, sometimes even in God.
Dickerson and O’Hara write, “Muthos [from which we get the word myth] originally meant ‘word’ or ‘speech’ and was a near synonym for logos—a word later used in the Gospel of John to describe Christ. . . . The distinction that eventually arose between the words was that muthos came to mean an account through story, while logos came to mean an account through reason or proposition.”
Great stories are even more closely related to the Gospel than we realize. No wonder that great stories are so enticing.
As Chuck Colson suggested last week, if you and your children are looking for other inspirational myths and fantasies, try C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The popularity of these books—and, yes, even of the Harry Potter series—reminds us that the yearning for hope, for good to win and evil to be vanquished, is no infantile desire. Rather, it is one of the deepest and most important parts of our nature, placed in us by the God of all truth.
"From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy" by Matthew Dickerson and David O’Hara.
Ron Charles, “Harry Potter and the Death of Reading,” Washington Post, 15 July 2007, B01.
Sabaa Saleem Tahir, “Proud to Be a Potterhead,” Washington Post, 15 July 2007, B05.
Jacqueline L. Salmon, “Christian Fantasy Genre Builds Niche without Hogwarts, Muggles or Spells,” Washington Post, 18 July 2007, A01.
John Granger, “The Sacrificial Boy Wizard,” Christianity Today, 10 July 2007.
BreakPoint Commentary No. 070720, “Potter Mania: Should Christian Kids Read ‘Harry Potter’?”
Kim Moreland, “A Dearth of Readers,” The Point, 18 July 2007.
Catherine Claire, “Does Harry Potter Die?” The Point, 19 July 2007.
Diane Singer, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” The Point, 13 July 2007.
Anne Morse, “It’s That Time Again,” The Point, 2 July 2007.
Catherina Hurlburt, “Death to Harry,” The Point, 2 October 2006.
Gina Dalfonzo, “Impoverished Imagination: Why Good Fantasy Must Stem from Reality,” BreakPoint WorldView, March 2004.