Ashenden Mentions Rowling in Review of King Charles’ Christmas Speech

Dr Gavin Ashenden is a scholar of Inkling writing, whose exegesis of the literary alchemy of Charles Williams in Alchemy and Integration is a landmark study, and a devout Roman Catholic. He was once an Anglican bishop and Chaplain to the Queen before he swam the Tiber. He works currently as an Associate Editor at The Catholic Herald. He wrote a review of the King’s 2022 Christmas message this week called, ‘The Christmas speech that defines the King as a ‘defender of faiths.’ In the role of Christian gadfly to the body politic, Dr Ashenden is the closest thing to C. S. Lewis, social critic, that the 21st Century has on offer.

I thought it worth noting, then, that he thought it important to mention J. K. Rowling in his review of the new king’s first Christmas message to his subjects in the United Kingdom. Ashenden thinks the king has made a mistaken political move, one he signals in the speech on Sunday, to appease the Woke establishment and media mob in hopes of protecting the monarchy. It is a mistake, he argues, because the Left always devours its own; he offers Rowling as a recent ‘for instance’ of this phenomenon:

The monarchy is already much more fragile than it looks. In fact its fragility may be inversely proportional to the successful choreography of pageant that it is sublimely capable of on dramatic public occasions. It is deeply out of step with the progressive culture that has captured our infantilised popular imagination. There is no less “inclusive, diverse or equal” an institution the world over. True, it is trying to hide this philosophical dissonance behind an energetic and very public adoption of causes beloved by the media-fed junkie public. It broadcasts its green and ecological passions with devotion and regularity. But will this be enough to save an institution that has become so at odds with its own roots, identity and integrity?

Second-wave Feminism might have a word of advice to offer. It was at the vanguard of our progressive culture until the sudden and not wholly predictable swerve into trans rights. Suddenly celebratory feminists like Germaine Greer, Suzanne Moore and JK Rowling who had ridden the crest of a powerful and popular revolution became public enemies overnight.

The revolution always eats its own tail.

The only constituency that can save the monarchy if progressive politics shifts any further towards the values of the Montecito sans-cullottes Meghan and Harry, will be the Christian constituency.

But in this country Christianity is buckling under the relentless daily assault that an increasingly hostile secularism is directing towards it. Today, you can be arrested on suspicion of praying in the environs of a closed abortion facility by the thought and now prayer police.

The King has chosen to look the other way. There is of course no such thing a “multi-faith”. It is a cosmetic shibboleth designed to hide the predatory intentions of one kind of philosophical absolutism against another.  It is a mechanism for undermining the distinctive and absolutist claims of non-relative religious movements so that they can be rendered increasingly irrelevant by an uncompromising secular rationalism.

If, while the King looks the other way, observant Christians are increasingly marginalised, ridiculed, persecuted and prosecuted in his multi-faith realm, when the next crisis comes that threatens to derail monarchy, the one group in his realm who might have fought for him and defended him, will have been rendered silent and impotent.

In abandoning the Faith that conceived, defined and sustained the concept of monarchy, King Charles may just have sown the seeds of the destruction of the House of Windsor.

Ashenden knows what the Marxist left is capable of courtesy of his being captured and interrogated by the KGB while smuggling Bibles to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, an experience he shared in an interview below:

Rowling has recently, like Charles III, taken on a new role per Beira’s Place. Hers is not as Queen but that of “campaigner,” a mantle she adds to her lives as “author” and “philanthropist.” She campaigns for the rights of women and she gives generously to charities for women victims of violence, for children without families, and for various medical research projects, especially those seeking a cure and palliative treatments for Multiple Sclerosis.

She is a “campaigner,” not a “crusader.” Though a Christian by confession, she has never to my knowledge spoken up for Christians anywhere at any time despite the global persecution of the faithful nor has she taken stands with orthodox believers against the desacralization of marriage or for the rights of unborn children to life. Quite the opposite, she has consistently described Christians who do as “fundamentalists,” a colloquial synonym for “bigots” and “hateful ideologues.” Her faith, consequently, might be described best as “nominalist” or “notional” rather than traditional.

It may be a stretch to connect Ashenden’s critique of the signature Windsor calculation to protect the monarchy with Rowling’s disavowal of any alliance with orthodox Christians in her fight to protect women’s safe spaces and transgressive over-reach, but there is a superficial resemblance in their shared disregard for Christian believers. Rowling has no dynastic inheritance to protect, of course; her calculation seems to be based purely on a desire for public and visible distance between her and those she finds repugnant.

I think there are two or three central mysteries in the life and work of J. K. Rowling.

The one we talk about most here is the curious correspondence between the Harry Potter novels and their apposite numbers in the Cormoran Strike mysteries, when the latter series, according to the author, will be ten books long. Does that mean Strike7 will echo Deathly Hallows the way the other novels in the series have their equivalent numbers in the Hogwarts Saga? What will the next three books be about if that is the case? And regardless, why is she playing this remarkable game of parallelism?

Today my reflections on Ashenden’s essay reminds me of another Rowling mystery.

How can an author suffuse her works with implicitly traditional Christian content as profound as she has in The Christmas Pig, Harry Potter, and Cormoran Strike and still publicly take stands as contrary and in magna voce as she has to that of Christian orthodoxy? I am confident that we will know the answer to the enigma of the Strike-Potter correspondences long before we do that of her faith-in-work and faith-in-life divide.

Today I’m thinking that she has elected to take the path of the Radical Reformation Anabaptists at least with respect to their belief that the institutional church is by definition not the Ekklesia of the New Testament, the Mystical Body of Christ. Individual conscience and noetic discernment, in this view, leaving aside the Anabaptists’ dependence on and adherence to scripture, is the only dependable guide in the real-world odyssey of the soul towards perfection in the Spirit. Hence her celebration of ‘Seekers’ and extra-ecclesial alchemists as psychomachian heroes and her portraits of men-without-mothers as spiritually naive or skeptics.

All of which is necessarily and shamelessly speculative, as in ‘none of my business.’ In my defense, however, as ‘Dean of Harry Potter Scholars,’ I am obliged to point out the mysteries and contradictions, even the hypocrisy of The Presence, at least all those touching on the artistry and meaning of her work. As the World celebrates the twelve days of Christmas and the Orthodox prepare for Nativity, I offer you Ashenden’s reflections about the new king’s apostacy from Anglican Christianity to multi-faith relativism as valuable in themselves and as a jumping off point for Rowling meditations. Cheers!


  1. Mr. Granger,

    I may have found part of the answer to a lot of the questions you raise in the article above. It comes from a statement written by none other than Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. The statement itself is a short missive calling for unity among the Anglican community. That last word appears to be important, as it hints at the crux of the issue Williams is addressing. I bring up an old writing from the year 2006, because of the way I think it helps shed light on the nature of Rowling’s Anglicanism, and her own expressions of that faith. I think the best way to address that is to listen to the way in which Williams outlines the nature of the chosen Church of both Lewis and Dorothy Sayers.

    The whole point of Williams’ public address is what he refers to as “fault lines of division” within Anglicanism itself over various matters. This includes LGBT causes, which turns out to be the impetus for the former Archbishop’s missive. So it places his words in a telling light next to that of Rowling. The important points that need stressing is that a careful reading of his words throws a remarkable amount of light on the nature of Anglicanism as it is practiced in Rowling’s day, and what kind of place she has in it. In order to make this clearer, it’s best to let Williams’ words speak for themselves:

    “But let’s suppose that there isn’t that level of clarity about the significance of some divisive issue. If we do still believe that unity is generally a way of coming closer to revealed truth (‘only the whole Church knows the whole Truth’ as someone put it), we now face some choices about what kind of Church we as Anglicans are or want to be. Some speak as if it would be perfectly simple – and indeed desirable – to dissolve the international relationships, so that every local Church could do what it thought right. This may be tempting, but it ignores two things at least.

    “First, it fails to see that the same problems and the same principles apply within local Churches as between Churches. The divisions don’t run just between national bodies at a distance, they are at work in each locality, and pose the same question: are we prepared to work at a common life which doesn’t just reflect the interests and beliefs of one group but tries to find something that could be in everyone’s interest – recognizing that this involves different sorts of costs for everyone involved? It may be tempting to say, ‘let each local church go its own way’; but once you’ve lost the idea that you need to try to remain together in order to find the fullest possible truth, what do you appeal to in the local situation when serious division threatens?

    “Second, it ignores the degree to which we are already bound in with each other’s life through a vast network of informal contacts and exchanges. These are not the same as the formal relations of ecclesiastical communion, but they are real and deep, and they would be a lot weaker and a lot more casual without those more formal structures. They mean that no local Church and no group within a local Church can just settle down complacently with what it or its surrounding society finds comfortable. The Church worldwide is not simply the sum total of local communities. It has a cross-cultural dimension that is vital to its health and it is naïve to think that this can survive without some structures to make it possible. An isolated local Church is less than a complete Church”.

    What these three paragraphs provide is an outline of a Church of England which sounds very much as if its current tendency is to become mere “Churches”. In other words, Williams exposes that there is such a shifting and differing level of opinion about what the Faith itself is within Anglicanism, that he finds himself compelled to address it in a public statement. As a result, he finds himself asking: ‘Are we joining together in one act of Holy Communion, one Eucharist, throughout the world, or are we just celebrating our local identities and our personal preferences?’ He tries to remedy this by providing a working definition of the Anglican Identity.

    “The reason Anglicanism is worth bothering with is because it has tried to find a way of being a Church that is neither tightly centralized nor just a loose federation of essentially independent bodies – a Church that is seeking to be a coherent family of communities meeting to hear the Bible read, to break bread and share wine as guests of Jesus Christ, and to celebrate a unity in worldwide mission and ministry. That is what the word ‘Communion’ means for Anglicans, and it is a vision that has taken clearer shape in many of our ecumenical dialogues.

    “Of course, it is possible to produce a self-deceiving, self-important account of our worldwide identity, to pretend that we were a completely international and universal institution like the Roman Catholic Church. We’re not. But we have tried to be a family of Churches willing to learn from each other across cultural divides, not assuming that European (or American or African) wisdom is what settles everything, opening up the lives of Christians here to the realities of Christian experience elsewhere. And we have seen these links not primarily in a bureaucratic way but in relation to the common patterns of ministry and worship – the community gathered around Scripture and sacraments; a ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, a biblically-centered form of common prayer, a focus on the Holy Communion. These are the signs that we are not just a human organization but a community trying to respond to the action and the invitation of God that is made real for us in ministry and Bible and sacraments. We believe we have useful and necessary questions to explore with Roman Catholicism because of its centralized understanding of jurisdiction and some of its historic attitudes to the Bible. We believe we have some equally necessary questions to propose to classical European Protestantism, to fundamentalism, and to liberal Protestant pluralism. There is an identity here, however fragile and however provisional.

    “But what our Communion lacks is a set of adequately developed structures which is able to cope with the diversity of views that will inevitably arise in a world of rapid global communication and huge cultural variety. The tacit conventions between us need spelling out – not for the sake of some central mechanism of control but so that we have ways of being sure we’re still talking the same language, aware of belonging to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ. It is becoming urgent to work at what adequate structures for decision-making might look like. We need ways of translating this underlying sacramental communion into a more effective institutional reality, so that we don’t compromise or embarrass each other in ways that get in the way of our local and our universal mission, but learn how to share responsibility”.

    What all these words spell out is a picture of the British Establishment Church whose contemporary nature is far different than it was in the days of C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Agatha Christie, or Dorothy Sayers. Compared to the way those authors knew it, this modern version seems almost ill-defined, with a broader scope allowed for not just one, but rather what appears to be a myriad number of approaches to the Creed and its contents. I’ll have to admit I wasn’t expecting this. Then again, I think the reason why is that my focus has never really been on Anglicanism itself, merely its most famous names. This may have resulted in a slightly lop-sided idea of their shared sect. All of the older writers listed above describe their sect in terms that paint the picture of this homogenized monolith that acts as a genuine counterpart to Catholicism. Or at least this is the way many Inkling fans have tended to read whatever descriptions of the Church of England can be found in their writings. For all we now know, this could turn out to be one long misreading on our part.

    Whatever the case, the inescapable fact is this, the current nature of the Anglican Church is perhaps best described as a strange, mixed brew. It contains an admixture of elements, both High, Low, and Broad, and within each of these subsections of the sect, there’s apparently enough room left over for people like Rowling. Turns out the Church of England really is just the sort of place for people who are compelled, or called, towards an allegiance toward the Creed, while also holding to ideas that would otherwise seem incompatible. The fact is, if you go and read the essay in the link provided above, you’ll come away with the impression of a religious mind whose own views seem eerily close to that of Rowling herself. Then it hits you that this isn’t just a face in the crowd. It’s the former head of the English Church who is proclaiming all of this, more or less assuring that she fits right in with the flock.

    None of this is something I was expecting to find out, by the way. I was just galvanized into looking around in order to see if there were any answers to the questions provided in the article above. I seem to have stumbled across someone else’s reply, and that just opened a whole can I apparently never knew was there. If nothing else, it tells me Rowling readers might have to start paying closer attention to the history of the Church of England going forward, in order to get a better idea of where she’s at.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says


    “And we have seen these links not primarily in a bureaucratic way” seems one of the sadly many disingenuous things in these excerpts from the speech by Rowan Williams while Archbishop of Canterbury 16 years ago. It is worth looking up at least the excerpt on YouTube from the episode of the BBC series Yes, Prime Minister, “The Bishop’s Gambit”, aired two decades earlier (20 February 1986): it is entitled “Choosing a New Bishop | Yes, Prime Minister | BBC Comedy Greats” – or, better yet, the whole episode if you can manage to find it somewhere somehow. Rowan Williams was inescapable in the same way a ‘political’ and ‘bureaucratic’ appointment by Tony Blair, then Prime Minister – the scuttlebutt has it that the rejected alternate choice then was Michael Nazir-Ali. But the Church of England functions internally in an equally – perhaps even “primarily […] bureaucratic way”. For one example, this is how Dr. Ashenden ceased to be one of the Chaplains to the Queen.

    The “fat ghost with the cultured voice” which “seemed to be wearing gaiters” in Lewis’s Great Divorce and Straik in That Hideous Strength suggest that the Church of England was plagued in similar ways in the 1940s to those Yes, Prime Minister suggests it was in the 1980s and to those seen in it now, which is not to say things have not gotten progressively worse. And Dr. Ashenden is well aware that has not escaped similar problems by entering Communion with the Holy See. My impression is that the Orthodox Churches are in a similar situation.

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    On this Feast of the Holy Innocents, Elizabeth Gouge’s short story about them, ‘By the Waters of Babylon’, came to mind. (I know it from a 1947 edition of the collection The Ikon on the Wall and other Stories: the Elizabeth Goudge Society website lists the first publication of that volume as 1943.) I cannot remember whether I have commented about it before, to ask if we know if JKR knows it, or even acknowledges interacting with it. Without too many spoilers, I note that a central character is Iras, an exiled fifteen-year-old Egyptian girl who, at 12, was rescued near Bethlehem from robbers by the Centurion Lucius, and made slave to his wife Claudia, and who comes to have a striking, transforming experience “in the heart of sorrow”. It is, in any case, an interesting story by (so to put it) a boldly imaginative but orthodox Anglican writer to compare and contrast with the works of JKR/KG. (Some of the boldness here is the use Goudge makes of “the song that the Pharaoh Aknaton had written in praise of the God Who is One”.)

  4. D.L. Dodds,

    In regards to the satirical aspects of the “fat ghost” from TGD, and the figure of Straik from THS, all I can say is thank you for providing us with aspects of each of those that I’ll swear seem to have escaped a great many of even the most devoted Lewis readers here across the pond. In fact, you might have just given us Yanks a potentially vital clue. Which leads me to the next point.

    Mr. Granger,

    I’d like to advance the idea that what Prof. Dodds, has given his first comment above is another piece of the puzzle that can help us solve the nature of Rowling’s seeming ambivalence about the Church. What these overlooked aspects of Lewis’s satires suggest is that perhaps it’s possible both he and Mrs. Murray have more in common in their thoughts about Church of England politics than has been previously realized. Let’s put if this way, what if her occasional barbs are aimed at what she regards as the failings (right or wrong) about the “institutional” aspects the COE? In fact, let’s take it further, by bringing things all the way back to the beginning. In “The Hidden Key to Harry Potter”, you pointed out a very good acronym of the Ministry of Magic, i.e. “M.O.M”. It doesn’t take long for the mind to conjure such phrases as “Big Mother is Watching You” out of concepts like that. If this was Rowling’s stance in the Potter books, what if concerns about the Church being reduced to a mere handmaiden of the state has always been part and parcel of that satire? It seems to have been part of “That Hideous Strength”.

    Now, bear in mind, if it seems like things have wandered right back to the start, let me explain the vantage point I’m trying to make a bit further. Rather than resting in the idea that JKR is an Anabaptist in Anglican’s clothing, I’m instead casting further afield. In addition to Prof. Dodds’ insight about Lewis’s own concerns about the COE hierarchy, I’d now like to add another of Rowling’s key sources to the mix. The question is whether its possible that Charles Dickens might now offer some further insight into what appears to be shaping into a surprise shared strain between Jack and Jo? I’d contend that he just might be of some assistance here. A good way of stating the matter would be to claim that if Lewis and Rowling voiced critical concerns about the British Church, then old Charlie Boz makes each of them look like young amateurs. In his book-length study, “Dickens, Christianity, and The Life of Our Lord”, scholar Gary Colledge raises the same type of concerns you mention about Joanne Murray, except they are directed at the question of Dickens’ relation to the Faith. Here is how Colledge puts the whole matter:

    “Because of Dickens’s lack of connection to the Church by way of attendance, worship, and involvement, talk of his Christian conviction is too often met with more than a little skepticism…Dickens’s lack of enthusiasm towards the Church, however, should not be construed as indifference or cynicism toward Christianity. As Andrew Sanders has observed, Dickens’s ‘professions of faith are both constant and, it would seem, heartfelt’ and his ‘religion was both vital and pervasive (“Resurrectionist”: x). Dickens undoubtedly thought of himself as a Christian and likely as one having keen insight into what being a Christian really meant. He was never convinced, however, that being a part of the Church had much to do with being a Christian.

    “In the midst of this, Dickens saw differently and thought differently. His concerns weren’t those of the partisan groups. In many ways, his concerns seemed to transcend those of the Church parties. His thinking was directed toward an understanding of the very essence of the Christian faith and how it came to bear on life apart from and without concern for the meager ambitions of the self-absorbed Church and its feuding parties. That Dickens was a Churchman, at least in the broadest sense of the term, may be conceded. But he was a reluctant churchman, at best, and never really finding comfortable quarter in the Church.

    “Dickens could be brutal in his censure of the Church, but we never get the sense of him standing apart from and outside of it. That is, his ranting against the Church seems to be that of a critical churchman rather than the hostility of a sworn adversary. Dickens expected the Church to live up to what he understood to be its calling, and as such, he may have been one of its harshest critics when it failed to do so; though he never embraced the course of dissent or the cause of disestablishment. His relationship, then, with the Church was an uneasy one (138-39)”.

    The parallels between “Bobbi Galbraith” and “Boz” Dickens are (no pun intended) striking enough to merit further consideration. And the addition of a similar note in Lewis’s works just goes to raise the possible links and connections between the three. We seem to be looking at a shared strand of devout anti-clericalism, or sorts. And then I just realized the obvious. The stakes get real interesting if bring in someone like William Blake.

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says


    Re. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters invite rereading about the Church of the 1940s, too.

    I am not sure what time of year it was published – whether tying in explicitly with the ‘Christmas ghost story’ tradition to which Dickens contributed often, and most famously with A Christmas Carol, or not – but in 1870 the active and devout clergyman, Sabine Baring-Gould, published a fascinating short pseudonymous satirical novel, Only a Ghost!, as if written by the ghost of Irenaeus the Deacon. There is a scan by the Hathi Trust which I accessed via WorldCat – and, apparently a Google Books one which I could not get to load (!) – the Internet Archive scan is defective – but the story can be easily and (to my mind) enjoyably heard at LibriVox.

    In The Warden (1855), Anthony Trollope includes a fascinating little satire on how he thought Dickens might be likely to depict the events taking place in the cathedral town of Barchester. There is a delightful 1982 BBC adaptation of this book and its sequel as Chronicles of Barchester, starring, among others, Alan Rickman (but it does not include the satire on Dickens as Church-critic).

    In haste, but with good wishes!

  6. D.L. Dodds,

    Of all the satirical elements that anyone could forget about Lewis’s work, the figure of Fr. Spike, and the targets he might represent has to be one of them. I’m starting to wonder if that oversight should start being used as a yardstick against which to measure readers who are alert, and those who fall into a sort of complacency. If it comes to it, it helps others to point out how you speak from an entire set of differing cultural experiences from those of American Christians. It therefore makes sense to keep in mind that someone criticizing the Church in England might not always mean the same thing as someone in the States. It’s a necessary yet often overlooked factor to keep in mind when comparing notes. Perhaps this also has to include someone like Rowling, as much as it does Dickens or William Blake.

    A good example of this is your highlighting of both the Trollope and Baring-Gould pieces. Based on the basic description provided, each of them sounds like works written in what might be termed the “Dickensian Tradition”. The key thing to note is how it sounds as if each work is addressing a shared circumstance that, while perhaps still common in the Isles, is also something that America detached itself from long ago, leaving contemporary audiences without the same shared frame of reference.

    What the combined proofs offered by Williams, Dickens, and Lewis all tell me so far is that apparently a problem was tackled thinking it was a simple matter. Instead, it turned into just the tip of a much larger iceberg. All of that just leaves the words “Proceed with Caution” flashing like red light in my mind. It might not be much, yet it’s the best policy I can find to adopt to the whole, tangled, can of worms that are being uncovered (no offense meant there, by the way, Professor). One last thing that makes me want to start treading lightly on all of this is stumbling upon two sources on the socio-political thought of one further Rowling source. This one is pretty important, too, considering its Samuel Coleridge.

    All that Graham Neville’s “Coleridge and Religious Liberal Thought”, and Charles Richard Sanders’ “Coleridge and the Broad Church Movement” have managed to do is, maybe not complicate things further, so much as they add to the complexity and nuance of the situation. Neville’s book, for instance, maintains that Coleridge’s final thoughts about Anglicanism “involved a rigorous philosophical process of imaginative liberal thinking. Over the last 200 years, that thinking has provided Anglicanism with many valedictory tools as well as a measure of robust self-belief. Offering a major contribution both to religious history and the history of ideas, Graham Neville here charts the particular liberal tradition in British religious thought which stems directly from Coleridge. He shows why Coleridge’s thought remains so significant, and traces the ways in which his subject’s theological ideas profoundly influenced later British writers and scholars like F.D. Maurice…and Thomas Erskine (once called the ‘Scottish Coleridge’). Dr Neville further relates the pioneering ideas of Coleridge to current developments in theology and scientific method”.

    In turn, here is how a contemporary review describes Sanders’ book on STC and the Broad Church. “This volume offers an excellent analysis of the essentials of Coleridge’s philosophy, an evaluation of the type of liberalism which he championed, and a clear presentation of the goals which he defined for a unified, tolerant, and comprehensive church. The influence of Coleridge on later English thought is presented in brief discussions of the impact of his ideas on Arnold of Rugby, J.C. Hare, and Thomas Carlyle. More detailed consideration is given to F.D. Maurice, who is described as the one Englishman who labored most earnestly to translate the theories of Coleridge into actual practice in English life”.

    F.D. Maurice, by the way, was one of the big mentors of George MacDonald, making him a clear link between Lewis’s major influence, and the author of “Kubla Khan”. What all this tells me is that it seems like there are three strands of Anglicanism in the UK: the High, the Broad, and the Low. The first seems to correspond to what I’ve heard described as the one belonging to “The Ruling Class”. This seems to be the church that guys like Blake railed against his whole life. The Low, meanwhile, seems to belong (per Williams) to the Evangelicals. Lewis often seems to get mistakenly lumped into this category by his American readers. The Coleridgean Broad Church, on the other hand, seems to be the one he properly belonged to. In which case he can be said to have joined rank with the likes of Dickens, Maurice, and MacDonald. The term Broad also seems to be an apt description for all those who joined it.

    While each of them shared a Mythopoeic Christian outlook, the interesting thing is the remarkable levels of differing political outlooks that were able to exist with what now looks like a strange ease within this Broad sector of the COE. Maurice, for instance, was a flat out Socialist, while Carlyle often strikes me as downright protofascist. Of course, he never really belonged to the Faith at all. However, Carlyle is worth adding in as an example of the curious ways that Coleridge’s ideas could be taken up and then turned in directions at total variance with what he meant. If you add Rowling into all of this, then her own thought seems a bit more continuous with the strand of Christian thought Coleridge tried to inaugurate in the Isles a long time ago. Her quirks perhaps begin to make a bit more sense and, LGTB stances aside, she comes off as more in agreement with the likes of Dickens and Maurice than previously thought. Perhaps this is the real background context of a lot of her recent statements.

    Food for thought, anyway.

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says


    Again in haste, but thank you for this, and not least the two references new to me, the works by Neville and Sanders. I blush to say, I know far too little about Coleridge. Wondering about possible Coleridge and ‘Oxford Movement’ connections, I find Wikipedia relating “At Oxford, Keble met John Coleridge who introduced him to the writings not only of his uncle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but also of Wordsworth.” Trying a search for “Coleridge and the Oxford Movement”, I find a book by Luke Wright, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Anglican Church, and a book by Robin Schofield, Sara Coleridge and the Oxford Movement: Selected Religious Writings (!)

    Quickly browsing Chesterton’s Autobiography, I find a wealth of glimpses of the complexity of the Church of England around the turn of the century in his experience, and the notable observation that “the Anglo-Catholic party in the Anglican Church […] really had a great deal to do with the beginning of the process by which Bohemian journalists like my brother and myself, were drawn towards the serious consideration of the theory of a Church” (in ch. 7, which bears as chapter-title “The Crime of Orthodoxy”).

  8. D.L. Dodds,

    It is just possible you’ve helped uncover a new source for Rowling’s beliefs and how that applies to her artistry. It could also be one that has remained hidden until now. I might have to brake this whole thing down into two comments, since it’s a lot to unpack. Let’s start with a recap. You brought up the writings of Sara Coleridge in your last comment. Well, here is a brief summary of the book you mentioned: “Sara Coleridge and the Oxford Movement”, by Robin Schofield.

    ‘Sara Coleridge and the Oxford Movement’ presents Sara Coleridge’s religious writings to modern readers for the first time. It includes extracts from her important religious works which have remained unpublished since the 1840s. These writings present a forthright and eloquent challenge to the patriarchal hegemonies of Victorian religion and society. They represent a bold intervention by a woman writer in the public spheres of academia and the Church, in the genre of religious writing which was a masculine preserve (as opposed to the genres of religious fiction and poetry). The religious writings published by Sara Coleridge in the 1840s present the most original and systematic critique of the Tractarian theology developed by John Henry Newman, Edward Pusey, John Keble and their colleagues. Sara Coleridge advances against a theology which she regards as repressive, authoritarian and conceptually flawed, a radical Protestant religion of inward experience and reason, underpinned by a Kantian epistemology. The passages reveal Sara Coleridge’s concerns with the language of religious discourse, which drove her later developments in religious prose.

    ‘Sara Coleridge and the Oxford Movement’ also consists of passages selected from Sara Coleridge’s unpublished masterpiece ‘Dialogues on Regeneration’ (the equivalent of her father’s ‘Opus Maximum’), written in the last two years of her life. This collection of Socratic dialogues is quite remarkable, the most original and innovative religious work of the Tractarian era. Sara Coleridge recognized that the form and language of religious discourse was an essential consideration in determining the character of religious culture. In the period from 1833 to 1850, the monologic forms of treatise, sermon, tract and essay had fostered dogmatic and immoderate styles of expression, which had created conflict and division. Sara Coleridge therefore adopted and developed a form in which opposing views could be heard as well as stated, and which could facilitate dialectical progression towards new understanding: a medium in which division could be resolved. Sara Coleridge’s innovative use of Socratic dialogue is associated with a new ambiguity in her approach to Tractarianism. Through one of her women characters, she presents the devotional and aesthetic ethos of Tractarianism, and its practical, pastoral concerns, with sympathetic sensitivity. The passages from ‘Dialogues on Regeneration’ reveal Sara Coleridge to be a religious writer and thinker of unique originality and range, profoundly sensitive to the pressing needs of her times”.

    With all that in mind, it’s somewhat easy to see how a writer like Rowling could be drawn to all of that. It also doesn’t appear to stop there, either. I’ve just started digging into both Schofield’s edited volume, along with Jeffrey Barbeau’s “Sara Coleridge: Her Life and Thought”. The latter appears to be shaping up as the definitive biography on the subject. What I’ve come away with, so far, is the stunning level of correspondences between the lives of Sara and Jo. Let’s take a few “for instances” as examples.

    We have two women who grew up with strained relations between themselves, and their sometime distant fathers. Rowling has already hinted at her own struggles with “Daddy Dearest”. Sara, meanwhile, comes off as this sort of intriguing, alternate, real-life doppelganger to her 20th/20st century counterpart. You get the sense that Coleridge wanted to be there for his kids, Sara in particular, and yet he could sometimes be his and their own worst enemy. It’s where the poet’s famous history of drug use comes in, and I think it’s telling that his final years were spent in the care of a concerned medical doctor.
    In other words, the history of Sara Coleridge and her famous father present a picture that is made up of literal contrasts. On the one hand, it’s arguable whether Sam Coleridge comes off as a man with even worse personal problems than Peter Rowling.

    On the other, it’s as if he and Sara managed to get lucky in a way that Jo and Pete still haven’t found yet. While there was a lot of distance between them, both father and daughter Coleridge each spent what little time they had together trying to make it up to each other. The funny thing is how it does seem as if some level of reconciliation was reached between them. It’s a strange way to write a real-life happy ending, though I know there’s worse out there.

    In any case, when STC finally passed on, Sara took it upon herself to first collect and preserve her father’s writings (both artistic and theological) for posterity. Barbeau makes a convincing case that it is her that we have to thank for her father’s popular, literary, and spiritual reputation being as alive and thriving as it is to this day. It could never have reached this level of worldwide appeal without her. The way she did it was by carefully releasing both poetical, literary, and religious writings, doled out in such a way that allowed 19th century audiences to get as clear an understanding of Coleridge as both a writer and a thinker. This careful cultivation of her father’s legacy has set the tone for how we think of him up to the present time.

    Her achievements don’t end there, however. In addition to preserving her dad’s work, Sara soon found herself using STC’s thought as a jumping off point for her own religious essays. Some of these she kept secret in her lifetime, while other she published as a way of entering the spiritual debates of the Anglican Church in the Victorian Era. These writings do paint Sara as a vocal critic of Anglicanism, yet they also make clear she does it from a very orthodox position. In fact, both Schofield and Barbeau demonstrate that she was taken seriously by the leading philosophic lights of that decade. The people she corresponded and debated with included Mythopoeic figures such as F.D. Maurice, along with some guy by the name of, I think it was, John Henry Newman. The gist of that topic is that it is a possibility that a woman like Sara Coleridge could very well have been instrumental in Newman’s abdication from Anglicanism, and his subsequent conversion to Catholicism. It also doesn’t stop at just that.

  9. D.L. Dodds,

    To pick up where the last comment left off. Also, like Rowling, Sara wrote creatively. Here’s how Inklings scholar Colin Duriez describes this aspect of her life, in his study “A Field Guide to Harry Potter”. “She was a poet but also wrote for children. She composed the first fairy tale novel written in English. It was called “Phantasmion” (1837), drawing upon Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen (1589 – 1596), the sixteenth century poem that was later to be part of the inspiration for C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia (101)”. Furthermore, “The literary historian Dennis Butts describes Phantasmion as a “remarkable pioneering fantasy” and “an extraordinary monument to her talent”. The songs in Phantasmion were much admired in their time by Leigh Hunt and other critics. Some, such as “Sylvan Stag” and “One Face Alone”, are notably graceful and musical and the whole fairy tale has beauty of story and richness of language. Some scholars of the fantasy genre call Phantasmion a possible influence on George MacDonald”.

    For a good analysis of the nature of “Phantasmion”, James Smoker has written a superb introduction to Coleridge’s book, and the nature and themes of its plot. Perhaps the most striking thing about it is that the critic really does make it sound like an alternate, Victorian Era version of the “Harry Potter” story. Just like Rowling, Sara’s fairytale novel concerns the quest of a hero who finds his family taken away by a metaphor for whatever we think about when we talk about death, and the lengths he goes to arrive at more or less the same conclusions that Harry finds at the end of his own narrative. Also, just like the “Hogwarts” saga (albeit in a more compressed fictional timeline) Smoker highlights how Coleridge was using this story to teach herself lessons about the need for faith and trust, in the ultimate senses of both those terms. The correspondences between the two women authors are, in a word, astounding.

    Compiling all of this evidence leads me to just one conclusion. However strange it may sound, once a clearer grasp of the actual history is achieved, it really does become possible to claim that, for better or worse, all Rowling is doing here is little more than being true to her Mythopoeic roots as an artist and woman. Then, as now, writers like Dickens, F.D. Maurice, Blake, Cardinal Newman, even none other than the Coleridge family, and perhaps C.S. Lewis himself are found to be taking jabs at the Anglican Church, if not the Faith itself, for what they believe to be various forms of straying off the path.

    Also, just like in their collective day, whenever an artist or philosopher makes those kinds of statements, controversy is sure to follow. I’ll have to admit there’s a lot more irony here going on than I think I was ever expecting to find. Still, one of the great things about the Rowling maxim, “When in doubt, go to the library”, is that it means you get to encounter the thrill of wading into hidden streams you never knew were there.

    I’ll just close off then with the suggestion that Sara Coleridge might just be the final missing piece of the puzzle. Like with Mrs. Murray, she was a woman from a troubled household who found an outlet in her own creative voice. Also, like “Mr. Galbraith”, Mrs. Coleridge wound up being unafraid, almost seemingly compelled to speak her mind about issues than she felt were important. The interesting thing in Coleridge’s case is that she just might have played a pivotal, though up to now hidden part in shaping the nature of how the Anglican sect practiced its understanding of the Creed. Call it a historical ship of fools or saints, that seems to be the history we’re left with. I’ll therefore make one final suggestion.

    Namely, that Sara Coleridge might be not just a hidden source for Rowling’s art, but also perhaps a carefully hidden role model for how she practices her own faith. Put it all together, and what you get is a composite history and/or picture of an Individual Talent and the Tradition she now works in. Rather than an Anabaptist strain, the better word might be that of a Coleridgean Reformist Anglican. It’s a title that takes into account both the history and strange complexities of Rowling thought in a fuller light.

    At least there’s one possible solution to the whole problem, anyway.

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