JUNE 27, 2002
Harry Versus the Hobbit
-- Paul V.M. Flesher
With the recent release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone on video and DVD, it is an apt moment to review the religious reaction to last fall's two major film releases, the Harry Potter movie and the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The key religious issue in both movies is the role magic and witchcraft play in the stories, and the presence of wizards as main characters. Is it acceptable for Christians to enjoy these entertaining stories when the Bible forbids witchcraft and links it to sin and demons?
With regard to Harry Potter, it is not surprising that different Christian groups disagreed. Mainstream Protestants did not think the question was worth addressing; the story was a fantasy, after all, and a fairly innocuous one at that. Evangelicals were divided on the question. A column at the popular religious Web site Beliefnet.com emphasized that Harry was about goodness and love overcoming hatred and evil. The more traditional Christianity Today argued that the story led people toward sin.
It was the fundamentalists who came out solidly against Harry, holding that it encouraged children to think about magic and to incorporate it into their play. This in turn would lead them toward witchcraft and deeper sin. So, it was surprising that some of the most vocal anti-Harry groups came out in favor of Lord of the Rings. Campus Crusade for Christ and Focus on the Family even went so far as to create Web pages to help Christians understand and enjoy the film.
Why the apparent double standard? Both films make extensive use of magic, witchcraft and wizards. Spells, potions and other occult acts appear throughout both stories. Their general plot lines are similar, focusing on evil wizards who want to take over the world, and who are successfully defeated by good wizards.
In his recent essay, "Harry and the Evangelicals," Richard Peace argues that the difference lies not in the stories but in the authors. J.R.R. Tolkein, who wrote The Lord of the Rings, was a committed Catholic whose close friend, C.S. Lewis, was an author popular in religious circles. Tolkein's comment that the book was "a fundamentally religious work" has strengthened the book's Christian credentials. By comparison, J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, is a Presbyterian who has kept her religious beliefs out of the public view. Rumors of Rowling's childhood play at being a witch and making potions with sticks have weighed against her. In the fundamentalist view, Peace states, these clues to each author's character make the difference.
Another difference lies in the intended audience of the two works. Harry Potter appeals to a younger audience that may not understand clearly the boundaries between reality and fantasy, and are thus particularly impressionable. The Lord of the Rings is for a more mature audience that has a stronger understanding that imaginary worlds are simply that, imaginary. Tie to this the observation that Harry lives in "our" world; that Harry, his friends, and even Hogwarts exist in modern-day Great Britain. By contrast, The Lord of the Rings takes place in a totally different time and place with no identifiable links to the real world. Thus the story aimed at the younger audience goes further to confuse the distinction between reality and imagination, while the story for mature audiences reinforces the difference between them.
In the end, however, I think it is Harry Potter's newness that works against his story in conservative and fundamentalist circles. The Lord of the Rings has been around for half a century and has had time to become a "classic." Harry Potter is new -- a fad, perhaps. Given the famously ambivalent relationship fundamentalists of all stripes have with modern society and culture -- embracing their media while rejecting many of their messages -- we should not be surprised to find them rejecting this new fantasy world while embracing Tolkein's old familiar one.
-- Paul V. M. Flesher is director of the Religious Studies Program at the University of Wyoming. This piece appeared in the June 2 edition of the University of Wyoming's weekly e-publication Religion Today.