Why the Harry Potter Books are Better


“Professor Strand, which is your favorite Harry Potter movie?” a student asked recently as class began.

“I’m sorry,” I replied, “did you ask, ‘which is my favorite Harry Potter BOOK?’”

“Oh, yeah, right. Which book,” she said, unfazed. A few students murmured their understanding of her error, but most simply waited to see how much class time the question would chew up (a favorite pastime of my students: baiting instructor into digressive pop culture conversation).

I wasn’t altogether surprised by her phrasing, as I had encountered the same movies-as-primary attitude in a college-aged Potter fan just a few weeks before, as I attended a collegiate Muggle Quidditch tournament. Seeking an understanding of the viability of Quidditch on its own terms, I had asked one of the players if everyone on her Quidditch team was a Harry Potter fan, or if some players simply played for love of the sport. She informed me most were indeed big Potter fans, but there were one or two players who, she said, despairing of their poor taste, “haven’t seen any of the movies!” (Their attention to the books: not mentioned.) [Read more…]

Popular Culture and the Deep Past 2017: The World of Harry Potter (A conference report)

PCDP-HP flyer jpegOn February 24-25, I was privileged to participate in The Ohio State University’s Popular Culture and the Deep Past 2017 conference, hosted by the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. This year’s focus was “The World of Harry Potter,” and though it was a local conference for me, it brought together a far-flung set of Potter scholars, as well as thoughtful fans (some in period attire!) with engaging questions and contributions to the conference.

The conference’s call for papers asked for submissions that would IMG_1631“explore historical and cultural strands that tie the Potter world to its medieval and early-modern antecedents,” while “exploring the interface between the past and the present.” This resulted in a conference which investigated fruitfully what is “medieval” about Harry Potter (short answer: a lot) and how our favorite books appropriate and reinterpret medieval elements, themes, motifs and history to spin their epic tale. After the jump, I’ll provide a brief sampling of the most delectable dishes from this Potter thought-feast. (A list of all the talks with links to longer descriptions of each can be found here.) [Read more…]

Rogue One and the Paschal Mystery

[WARNING: Rogue One spoilers abound!]

rogueone_posterMany classic stories have a component of self-sacrifice for the greater good: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the original Star Wars. Heck, even Frozen has its “Paschal Mystery moment,” when Anna throws herself between her sister and the enemy’s blade. This notion of loving self-sacrifice that brings profound, new hope – which Christians call the Paschal Mystery – gets far more than a moment in Rogue One; its treatment is thorough-going, multi-faceted and reconsidered for modern audiences. The film’s ensemble cast shows there is more than one path toward a life of relinquishment, lived in deference to the greater good. Each member of the Rogue band is a pilgrim of sorts, on a distinctive path toward the same end, providing his or her own particular insight into what living the Paschal Mystery requires. For Chirrut, Cassian and Jyn, those insights can be summed up in the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love.

Faith: Chirrut Îmwe

“May the Force of Others be with you!” shouts Chirrut Îmwe, a blind Temple guardian, in the streets of NiJedha. Star Wars uber-nerds did little happy dances in their seats when they heard the Force referred to here by its original full name, found in Lucas’ penultimate drafts of the original movie. Chirrut’s faith in the Force of Others – in the collective power of all living things, knitted together by the vast web of our shared being – draws us in, just as it draws Jyn. Can there be a Force of Others? Are we really bound together, surrounded and penetrated by the energy of all the living?

Chirrut answers these questions with a miraculous display of “sight,” mauling half a dozen Stormtroopers chirrut-imwewith only a staff and his faith that “all is as the Force wills it.” More than mere display, it is a sacrifice on Jyn and Cassian’s behalf he needn’t have made. It leaves an impression; blind faith is not foolish or helpless.

Later, Chirrut’s faith in the Force of Others is distinguished sharply from Cassian’s willingness to follow orders he knows to be wrong on Eadu. Chirrut rejects Cassian’s path, instead choosing to follow Jyn, whose “path is clear.” Pretty observant for a blind guy. And while Cassian, in his desperation, had planned to take out one Imperial (Jyn’s father), Chirrut, in faith, uses the Force to shoot down a TIE fighter, nearly taking out the entire Imperial operation on Eadu.

In the end, Chirrut’s radical faith, represented in his mantra “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me,” allows him to perform the miraculous act that makes the mission a success, even if he doesn’t survive it. He walks unscathed through a shower of blasterfire toward his goal, chanting his mantra. The faith of Chirrut is no bigger than a mustard seed next to the power of the vast Galactic Empire, but it is enough to move mountains, or in this case, the all-important Master Switch. He dies victorious, passing  the mantra to the more skeptical Baze Malbus, who carries it forward toward his own heroic end.

Hope: Cassian Andor

In Cassian Andor, Star Wars fans are presented with an uncomfortable moral conundrum. Aren’t the Rebels supposed to be the good guys? Yet here is one who kills his panicking informant at the trading cassianpost, presumably to ensure his own escape from Imperial soldiers. When we meet Cassian, he is down a deep hole, both physically and morally, and must climb out as the film progresses.

Still, on Jedha, he plants the notion that “rebellions are built on hope” in Jyn’s mind – a notion that will carry the Rogue band to the very end. Cassian is an ambivalent character who has let “the cause” rob him of his humanity and his hope. In the prison cell in Saw Gerrera’s lair, Chirrut Îmwe calls him out, not for his lack of faith, but for becoming a slave to his noble ambitions, creating for himself a prison of inhumanity to carry with him everywhere he goes.

The triumph of Cassian’s pragmatism is on display when he responds to Îmwe that he is starting to think he and the Force have “different priorities.” What are the Force’s priorities, but the peaceful union of all living things? So what have Cassian’s priorities become, if they differ? In the face of a peace that seems too far off to hope for, Cassian the cold strategist has won out. We’ve seen this triumph of pragmatism before in Star Wars; Mace Windu compromised his Jedi commitments to due process and the use of violence as a last resort in his attempt to execute Palpatine in Revenge of the Sith – an act which played an essential role in the vilification and destruction of the Jedi Order. Cassian knows rebellions are built on hope, but if hope is the foundation for his own actions, it is a one that has nearly worn away.

Cassian’s insight into the Paschal Mystery is one that seems to interpret this ancient theme anew for modern audiences, who live in a world where suicide bombers routinely blow up women and children along with themselves, “for the cause.” Cassian straddles the space between the Rebel Alliance (clearly the good guys) and Saw Gerrera’s insurgents, whose tactics are rejected as “extreme.” Cassian has sacrificed for the cause since he was six years old, he tells Jyn. He knows what it means. Or does he? Not all forms of self-sacrifice are inherently good, especially when the sacrifice robs one of one’s humanity. Jyn, full of the hope Cassian himself has inspired in her, corrects him: “you might as well be a Stormtrooper.”

Ph: Jonathan Olley ©Lucasfilm LFL 2016.

But that’s not who Cassian is. Hope gets the better of him, and he can’t pull the trigger to assassinate Jyn’s father. When Jyn’s proposed mission to steal the Death Star plans is labeled too risky by the Rebel Council, Cassian comes to hear his own words (“Rebellions are built on hope!”) more clearly. The speech he gives while offering Jyn his assistance sums up his realization that, for all his life of sacrifice, it has not been enough:

“Some of us — most of us — we’ve all done terrible things on behalf of the Rebellion. Spies, saboteurs, assassins. Every thing I did, I did for the Rebellion. And every time I walked away from something I wanted to forget, I told myself it was for a cause I believed in. A cause that was worth it. Without that, we’re lost. Everything we’ve done would have been for nothing. I couldn’t face myself if I gave up now. None of us could…”

The burden of Cassian’s past in the Rebellion had robbed him of hope. But he now realizes he must play the long game, sowing seeds he will not reap. Cassian’s new-found sense of hope will purify his actions, as in the first letter of John (3:3): “Everyone who has this hope based on [God] makes himself pure, as he is pure.” The ancient historian and Christian apologist Tertullian famously said “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” But great acts take time, and sacrifice – not of one’s humanity, but sometimes of onthebeachone’s whole person. Cassian will make his final sacrifice on a beach lit up by what looks much like the sun rising on a new day of hope for his beloved Rebellion.

Love: Jyn Erso

When we talk about Jyn, we must speak also of her parents, Galen and Lyra, because their sacrifices in the beginning of the film provide Jyn formative examples of living the Paschal Mystery. Many Star Wars fans felt rattled by the filmmakers choice not to employ the “opening crawl” in Rogue One. (For laypeople, the “crawl” is the text which rises before the audience as Star Wars films open, supplying the needed context for a story that always begins in media res.) But I say: don’t get stuck in the mold, Star Wars fans. Rogue One does something more powerful in its opening scenes, from a storytelling point of view: it shows instead of tells. It shows both of Jyn’s parents sacrificing themselves in different ways for the protection of their daughter and of the galaxy. This sort of thing would certainly have lost impact, squeezed into a 75-word crawl.

Jyn’s parents have prepared meticulously for the day when the Empire will come to takegalen Galen, a brilliant scientist, to complete the design of its superweapon. When the Empire arrives to collect him in the film’s first scenes, Galen makes up lies to feign his cooperation. He plays the long game, though his ultimate plan to subvert the project may, like the Death Star, not yet be fully developed. But Galen seems to know, where there’s life, there’s hope.

Lyra’s action on behalf of galactic justice is not like her husband’s – it is bold and rash. In an act both foolish and brave, she defies the Empire openly, giving her life to stand up for the family’s principles. Her death is a statement made on the heels of another essential act: giving Jyn her Kyber crystal necklace and lyra-ersotelling her to “Trust in the Force.” Lyra passes the gift of faith to Jyn, as if faith is a finite commodity in a galaxy terrorized by the Empire. Without it, Lyra can’t survive; her defiance seems suicidal. But as she goes down, Lyra fires her blaster, hitting Krennic in the shoulder. It may not equal the shot that will soon bring the Empire to its knees, but as Krennic himself says, “you have to start somewhere.”

Despite these gifts of hope and faith from her parents, Jyn is lacking an essential virtue: love. Fifteen years later, she has become a cynical young woman who doesn’t hold political opinions, refusing to see the “big picture” for which her parents sacrificed themselves. She is alone, friendless and deeply skeptical of people and their “causes.” Yet she wears the necklace her mother gave her, and though she “prefers” to jynerso2think of her father as dead, we get the sense she hopes otherwise. But without love, this hope is difficult to sustain.

“We’re not here to make friends,” Cassian says to her, when she feels drawn toward Chirrut’s blind understanding on Jedha. But Jyn is here to make friends, for hers is a journey of love, the kind of love Jesus commanded: the greatest kind, that lays down its life for a friend (John 15:13). This love is at the heart of the Paschal Mystery; Benedict XVI calls it “love in its most radical form.” It is the kind of love her parents, with their own sacrifices, planted in her heart like a seed.

The seed begins to grow when Jyn instinctively risks her life to pull a screaming toddler out of a fire fight on Jedha. Then, confronted with her father’s holographic message, Jyn breaks down, succumbing to the love she feels for him, and allowing it to fan in her the faith and hope her parents exampled. When her second father, Saw Gerrera, goes down with his ship on Jedha, Jyn knows Saw’s hope-less path is not for her. She must deliver her father’s message – and deliver her father, if she can.

Even when she fails to rescue him, Jyn’s love for Galen is rekindled now, and it gives her the moral vision to call Cassian out for acting like a Stormtrooper. This love steels her for the Rogue mission, ignoring the Rebellion’s cold cynicism. When Cassian joins her, inspired by hope, she’s surprised. “I’m not used to people sticking around when things get rough,” she tells him. His answer is a commitment to a new way of life for them both: “Welcome home.”

jyn-erso-rogue-oneWhen Jyn and Cassian successfully transmit the Death Star plans, he asks her, “Do you think anyone is listening?” “I do,” she says, “someone is out there.” Jyn sees now that she is not alone in the world. The image of Jyn and Cassian’s embrace on the beach as the wave of destruction envelops them is haunting, yet profoundly hopeful. In giving her life for the cause, Jyn has come to understand that most radical form of love which Christians celebrate in the Eucharist: that food by which we are made into one Body in Christ. It is “a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is eaten, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.”

Future glory is something the Rogue One band will never know, in this realm. But Star Wars fans know it in the goosebumps of pride we get now, every time we watch the opening scenes of A New Hope or hear the call sign “Rogue” in Empire Strikes Back. Admiral Raddus articulates our hope that indeed, the Force of Others is with them in death, as it was in life. It can be argued that the Rebellion ultimately succeeds because of these scattered individuals who become “[Rogue] One,” just as the Church grew into One Body out of the sacrifice of Christ, its head. Chirrut’s constant faith and Cassian’s renewed hope were essential to the success of their mission, but in Jyn, the Rogue band was led by love, that greatest of virtues, which “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor. 13:7) And love never fails.

Follow Emily Strand on Facebook and Twitter (@ekcstrand), and please share your own thoughts about Rogue One and the Paschal Mystery in the comments.

Fantastic, Forceful Films: Common elements in Fantastic Beasts and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogue-one-jyn-ersa-geared-up(Some Rogue One spoilers below – clearly marked in ALL CAPS. Fantastic Beasts spoilers too, but seriously, people, you’ve had weeks …)

Ever since I learned to speak Star Wars at the Mythgard Institute a year ago, I’ve been eyeing the places where the Harry Potter and Star Wars franchises seem to intersect, and these places are many. So the fact that Warner Brothers and Disney Studios have, within a month, released film tie-ins to their beloved epics is no great shock. Neither is the fact that the films employ common elements and themes in seeking to delight long-time fans while enticing new ones. Let’s talk about four elements Fantastic Beasts and Rogue One share.

[Read more…]

Mary Lou Barebone the Harry-Hater: More on the Christian Content of Fantastic Beasts

mary-lou-bareboneIn his recent post on the Christian content in Fantastic Beasts, John wrote about the “Culture War”: that is, the ideological conflicts of recent years between those of traditionalist or conservative worldviews, and those with more liberal or progressive ways of looking at the world. John said anyone who doesn’t know about the Culture War is “a fish in water unaware of being wet.” I have a slightly different take; I’d say this so-called Culture War is something you don’t think that much about, if you’re winning it. Now by “winning it”, I simply mean you’re on the more dominant end of society (whether consciously or through the influence of family, culture, academics, media or entertainment) which currently tends toward a more liberal worldview. (Signs this state of affairs may not hold include Brexit and President Trump.)

I don’t wish to discuss the Culture War at any length in this post. I don’t go in for things with “War” in the title (Star Wars being the major exception). But John said something about it that bears repeating. “Oddly enough, [in Fantastic Beasts, J.K. Rowling] seems to be deliberately choosing to excite both sides in the Culture War.” Well-spotted, John. But it isn’t just in Fantastic Beasts that JKR pulls this Culture War double-agency trick. It’s throughout Harry Potter as well. I’m not convinced “exciting both sides” was intentional in Harry Potter, but it may well be in Fantastic Beasts.

In Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling sets a very universal story into a thoroughly magical setting. In this setting, magic is opposed to Muggle, a term synonymous with the mundane. This prominence of witches, wizards, spells and broomsticks in the popular books excited the new-age spiritualists (and anyone who sees the use of magic as a way of thumbing their noses at the Church). In many places, especially in the U.S., in the era of the Potter Panic, it also set the children of the Christian right, often denied the books, well apart from their more “liberal” or non-religious peers, who devoured them. Score a big one for the new agey, secularist folks.

DeathlyHallowsCoverBut then along came John Granger and a few other brave voices, crying out in the wilderness: “Harry is a Christ figure, starring in a Christian story! Look at all the evidence!” And the evidence was incontrovertible. Then enter Deathly Hallows, with its direct references to the New Testament, and Jo’s own comments to MTV soon after publication that the religious parallels had always been obvious to her, but she didn’t want to give away the ending by revealing them. Not even to combat the Harry-Haters. Duh, many of us said to ourselves. Duh, duh, duh.

I don’t think Rowling intended, with her Harry Potter saga, to thrust herself directly into the cross-fire of the so-called Culture War. She probably just underestimated the extent to which fear of traditional manifestations of evil like the occult still grips those marginalized by the disenchantment of the social culture, especially in the U.S.

But if her books were meant to have a Christian figure and deliver a Christian message, why would Jo have used magic as her setting for Harry Potter? I see three good reasons. First we have to remember her consistent report of how Harry, the boy who didn’t know he was a wizard, simply “fell into her head”. This sounds like sheer inspiration to me – the kind that comes from some numinous source. I can tell you from experience, when you are graciously given ideas like that, you want to stay as true to them as possible. Secondly, most kids, at least those who have not been fearfully indoctrinated, enjoy magic. It makes for good books. Thirdly, magic in Harry Potter is not just an entertainingly ironic setting for a Christian story. It is part of the message. It’s an extended metaphor for the life of grace.

The metaphor begins to do its work from Philosopher’s Stone’s very first lines: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.” “Nonsense” is a key word here. Think of Luke’s account of Christ’s resurrection. The women who go to anoint Christ’s body are told by the angel that he has been raised, and they “told this to the apostles, but their story seemed like nonsense and [the apostles] did not believe them.” (Luke 24:11) I heard an excellent Easter Vigil homily once which focused on this line as a caution against overly-rational and empiricist approaches to truth. Sometimes the truth, the homilist claimed, is fraught with a mystery that baffles – even frightens – us. And yet, we are called not just to believe, but to proclaim this strange truth, regardless of the consequences of spreading around what, to many, sounds like “nonsense.” People like the Dursleys, of number four Privet Drive will inevitably refuse to hold with such nonsense. This is because, as McGonagall points out a few pages later, “You couldn’t find … people who are less like us.” Less like the magic folk, that is. What she means is, most Muggles don’t believe in magic because it has not been revealed to them. The Dursleys refuse to believe out of stiff-necked pride, or what Jesus referred to in the Gospels as “hardness of heart.”

Then there’s Harry’s eleventh birthday: the day the magic really begins for him. Maybe it’s a funny first-year-baptismcoincidence that eleven is the age at which Jo herself was baptized into the life of Christ. But probably not, given that wonderful baptismal image of Harry and his fellow first-years crossing the lake in what seems to be a one-time initiatory rite for Hogwarts students. (Eleven was also Rowling’s age when the first Star Wars film came out, but I’ll leave that speculation opportunity for another post.)

But don’t forget about Harry’s fabulous wand from Olivander’s. The wand is the essential way of harnessing magic in the wizarding world, which even our inexperienced boy hero knows, for “this was what Harry had been really looking forward to.” (81) But Ollivander wand-chooses-wizardquickly informs Harry that it is the wand that chooses the wizard. Just like grace – a free gift which, in the Christian tradition, humans can not initiate – Harry’s wand must find him, granting him the right to harness its inner power. And what inner power Harry’s wand has! It is an “unusual combination” (84), observes Ollivander: holly wood with a phoenix feather core. For those who know their traditional Christian symbols, the wand’s wood and core pair wondrously. Holly, a popular Christmas adornment, symbolizes the incarnation of Christ (Christmas), while the phoenix feather symbolizes Christ’s resurrection (Easter). Through these powerful symbols, a sublime reading of the scene is possible. Harry’s magical power is the power of Christ: the God-made-Human whom even death cannot destroy.

Given her open use of these potent symbols from the Christian tradition, it must have come as some shock to Rowling when she began to receive hate mail from the Christian right denouncing her books. I know it shocked me, when I received some. In 2009, I was working in full-time ministry at a Catholic University. I had recently been interviewed by the local paper about the Christian themes and symbols in the Harry Potter books, when I received a letter from a concerned grandmother. She enclosed a tract, German in origin, published in 2003 by a small order of women religious, condemning all modern fairy tales for blurring the line between good and evil. According to the tract, images of the occult are giving our children anxiety, behavioral problems and sleep disorders. We can be sure these are straight from the Devil himself. The grandmother in the letter warned me that Harry Potter, and presumably my promotion of it as wholesome literature, is firmly “in the enemy’s territory.” She closed by assuring me I would be in her prayers. Well, how nice.

(Actually, it was nice. Later that week, I received a Facebook message from a scary-looking man who roundly and meanly condemned my comments in the local paper, and suggested I pray in front of a local abortion clinic as a means of reparation. Quickly, my personal Facebook profile became private.)

Honestly, I was more than just shocked by these messages. I was disturbed, hurt and a wee bit afraid. And if they caused this reaction in me, can you imagine how much more shocking, disturbing and fear-inducing being targeted in this way must have been for the author of the books herself?

Enter the Barebone crew from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.barebone-fantastic-beasts-chastity-modesty-credence-mary-lou-850x560

Credence Barebone is a wizard, but his magic is being repressed by his puritanical “mother” Mary Lou. This makes him a potential host for an Obscurus: a parasitical magic force which preys on those who try to suppress their own magic for whatever reason. This unlucky witch or wizard who has so repressed the magic inside them then becomes an Obscurial, one who hosts an Obscurus. Eventually the Obscurus will kill the host, and potentially others in a fit of uncontrollable destruction. No known Obscurial has lived past the age of ten.

Pretty dark stuff.

As John noted in his post, “Credence is from the Latin verb credere, to believe. We get the word ‘creed’ from credere and the active participle is credens, or ‘Believing Person.’” Consider the character name, which is always significant for Rowling. Then consider the age to which a known Obscurial can live: only to ten, never reaching the magical age of eleven. Then, when you place poor Credence in continuity with the metaphorical meaning of magic I’ve laid out above (magic as metaphor for the life of grace, the life of faith as opposed to the mundane life of rational empiricism), he becomes a powerful metaphor for the rise of the kind of religious extremism that fuels hate groups and terror attacks. In her pivotal text on religious extremism, scholar Karen Armstrong says to study these various “fundamentalisms” (a controverted term) is to find they all fit a certain pattern. “They are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis … a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself. … Eventually they fight back and attempt to resacralize an increasingly skeptical world.” (Armstrong, The Battle for God, iv)

With the introduction of Obscurus/Obscurials, the heart of Fantastic Beasts’ message seems to be a warning against the utter secularization of human culture, against the repression and marginalization of faith itself. Seen in this light, Mary Lou Barebone is truly the worst sort of Muggle: narrow-minded, controlling and abusive. In fact, she may be a portrait of the quintessential Harry-Hater who, because of a staunch literal-mindedness, rejected, denounced and even burned the Harry Potter books. These real-life Mary Lous missed the proverbial forest for the trees; they missed the Christianity in Potter because of the ironic package in which it was wrapped. They wished to suppress the magic, without any attempt to understand its meaning or source.

I would be remiss not to add that the dysfunction of the Barebone crew can be seen as a metaphor for, to fb12use John’s words, “Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer identities and Christian beliefs about people who define themselves in these sexual categories.” In that interpretation, the magic being repressed in children like Credence, Modesty and the others is a stand-in for perceived sexual deviancy, which some from traditionalist religious backgrounds (like the Barebones’) find repulsive and reprehensible. Hence the Barebones live in a dilapidated little church, and call themselves the “Second Salemers,” preach in the street, etc. Every gay personal alive has a story about someone who tried their best to repress them for religious and cultural reasons. Every LGBTQ kid unfortunately has or has had a Mary Lou Barebone in their life.

Even if this LGBTQ-sympathetic interpretation of the Barebone storyline is not what fits best with the prolonged metaphor already established in Harry Potter, the author likely approves of this appropriation of her symbols. Perhaps she even massaged that possibility with the homoerotic tone given to the Credence/Graces scenes. After all, this is Jo, who has – whether you agree with her politics or not – made her self an outspoken advocate against any form of human repression, sexual or otherwise.

As always, we welcome you to continue the discussion below. Find Emily Strand on Facebook (you really can) and Twitter (@ekcstrand).