Friday, October 17, 2014

Chesterton and Harry Potter

I'm a longtime Harry Potter hater, having once waged an unsuccessful mini-crusade to keep the series out of my kid's Catholic school. I haven't thought about Potter much in the last few years, but I've recently been reading In Defense of Sanity, a collection of Chesterton essays compiled by Dale Ahlquist, Joseph Pierce and Aidan Mackey for Ignatius Press.

One of the more frustrating aspects of being both a Potter hater and a Chesterton fan was the - to me - perplexing affection some Chestertonians had and still have for Harry Potter. One of the primary reasons for my Potter hatred, and one of the qualities of the series that struck me almost immediately on reading it, was its anti-Chesterton imaginative cast. I never could understand how anyone who read deeply of Chesterton could stomach Harry Potter.

My anti-Potter jihad is long over (and failed), so it is too late that I stumbled across the essay "Magic and Mystery in Fiction" in the Ignatius Press collection. The essay includes a passage relevant to what Chesterton's view of Harry Potter might have been:
In contrast with this, it will be noted that the good miracles, the acts of the saints and heroes, are always acts of restoration. They give the victim back his personality; and it is a normal and not a super-normal personality. The miracle gives back his legs to the lame man; but it does not turn him into a large centipede. It gives eyes to the blind; but only a regular and respectable number of eyes. The paralytic is told to stretch forth his hands, which is the gesture of liberation from fetters; but not to spread himself as a sort of Briarean octopus radiating in all directions and losing the human form. There runs through the whole tradition the idea that black magic is that which blots out or disguise the true form of a thing; while white magic, in the good sense, restores it to its own form and not another.
In these terms, the magic in Harry Potter is all black magic, whether used by Harry himself or Voldemort, for it bears no relation to form. What it does bear relation to is will - the will of the wizard himself and his desire to impose himself on the world. Thus the beginning magic classes in Hogwarts feature students turning small items arbitrarily into other small items, precisely what is of no consequence, since the goal is not to respect the form of the thing but to develop the power of the wizard. For the point isn't what it is with Christian miracles (or the genuinely good magic in Lord of the Rings), which is to restore things to the forms originally intended for them by the Creator, but to practice the technique of forcing things to be what you want them to be, whatever that might be.

The key to understanding the Harry Potter universe is to understand that it is a world without a Creator. A world with a Creator is a world made in the light of transcendent intelligence, in which everything is brought into being according to a pattern of wisdom that includes both the forms of things themselves as well as their relationships to each other. The wisdom of the creature is measured by the extent to which he knows, respects and conforms himself to the Divine Wisdom. "Magic" in such a world - another world for which is "miracle" - is really just another name for a specific act of Divine Grace. The great saint who has submitted himself extraordinarily to the Divine Will also becomes an extraordinary channel of Divine Grace, and so may appear "magical" to the ordinary man when, of course, he is no more magical than anyone else. He is simply more in tune with the way things really are, like the Elves in the Lord of the Rings. Sam Gamgee, on being presented with the gift of an Elvish cloak, asks if it is magical, a question that puzzles his Elvish benefactor. The Elves simply understand and conform themselves to nature to such an extent that they can produce from nature things that others, less consonant with nature than they are, can only interpret in terms of magic.

A world without a Creator is a world that does not express any deep wisdom in its origin; a being in this world has no assurance that his own nature is intelligible or that he necessarily bears any intelligible relation to anything else. Such a world is chaotic. It is chaotic not just in the relationships of things to each other, but in the relationships of things to themselves. Thus Hogwarts is populated with ugly, distorted and disproportionate things, like ghosts with half-severed heads and plants that have babies for roots, the cry of whom is dangerous. Why would a plant have a baby for its roots? Who knows? It's not a question anyone at Hogwarts, teacher or student, is interested in asking. In a chaotic world, questions of form are not worth asking since they don't have answers. Only questions of expediency matter, which is why the students concentrate on the most practical way to handle the Mandrake plant (that's the one with babies for roots) without getting injured. It's also why the students practice seemingly trivial exercises like making a pineapple dance across a desk or turning a beetle into a button. Why would one do either of those things? Again, that is not a relevant question at Hogwarts since beetles and pineapples are not created things with a nature and end informed by the Divine Wisdom, but merely random items that are grist for the will of the wizard.

The point is that the Harry Potter world, not being a created world informed by Divine Wisdom, is not an imaginatively Catholic world; and for Chesterton, this would have been a fatal flaw. Chesterton loved the children's literature of the Western tradition because it made us all imaginative Christians whether or not we ever became confessing ones. The fact that we no longer instinctively recoil from a story in which the "good" magic is less than a metaphor for grace, and is not restricted to creatures like Gandalf with the nature and wisdom to wield it, but is instead distinguished from "bad" magic only in the supposed moral character of those who wield it, should tell how deteriorated our cultural imagination has already become.

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