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. [Read more…]

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).

Gut Reactions to Fantastic Beasts: the Magic is Back (Spoiler-Free)

FB 5by Emily Strand

Just got back from watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them with six other Columbus, OH Potterphiles at the Grandview Theater and Drafthouse. (What a gorgeous, hip, friendly venue – like Studio 35, but fresh from the spa.)

We were thoroughly satisfied with our viewing experience. The film is magic.

Reaction #1: Nifflers are the most adorable fantastic beasts ever. Just give them the shiny things they nifflerdesire, no questions asked. They deserve them.

Reaction #2: I think the name and the character “Credence” are really significant, metaphorically speaking.

Reaction #3: That No-Mag nearly made off with the show, as well as Newt’s case.

Reaction #4: There was a very Tolkienian giant eagle in this movie.

Reaction #5: The film is not always flattering of Americans. But why should it be? And sometimes it is, if you squint and tilt your head.

These were simply gut-reactions. The Hogwarts Professors will be posting full reviews of Fantastic Beasts in the coming days and weeks. Meanwhile, we can’t wait to hear your reactions. Share them (spoiler-free for now, if you please) below.

Follow Emily Strand on Facebook and Twitter: @ekcstrand

How Fantasy Tyrants Rise to Power – Part I: He Who Shall Not Be Named

Voldemort_angryWe all know the story of Voldemort’s rise to power. At Hogwarts, Tom Riddle’s charm, intelligence and good looks won him followers. Then, after securing at least some of his objects of power and secreting his hopes for immortality within them, Riddle re-branded himself “Lord Voldemort”, and began to openly promote his pure-blood agenda: an agenda driven by obsession with his own mixed heritage. But how exactly did this unstable ideologue manage to take over governance of the wizarding world in Great Britain? In this series, I’ll take a close look at what Voldemort did to gain control of the Ministry. Then I’ll turn to other well-known fantasy tyrants (even Grindelwald, who will feature in Fantastic Beasts) to examine exactly how these dark lords seized ultimate power.

One of my favorite aspects of the Harry Potter series is Rowling’s use of the limited third-person omniscient point of view from Harry’s perspective. This refers to the narrative perspective from which the story is told: Harry’s, consistently. Harry almost always has to be in the scene for us to know what is happening and the events, dialogue and reactions of other characters in the scene are filtered through Harry. We see, hear and feel what Harry sees, hears and feels.

Now there are important narrative functions for this point of view, and John Granger has deftly explored them, especially in chapter one of The Deathly Hallows Lectures (see the section entitled “Narrative Misdirection”). But what interests me right now about the narrative point of view in Harry Potter is not the rule but its exceptions: where and why Rowling breaks the narrative away from Harry’s point of view. These exceptions total five, and their function is to build suspense by showing the reader important steps in Voldemort’s rise to power.

  1. In chapter 11 of Philosopher’s Stone, instead of being in the air with Harry during the Quidditch hermione-firestartermatch, we’re suddenly in the stands with Ron and Hermione, who notice what appears to be Snape cursing Harry (it is really Quirrelmort trying to kill Harry, with Snape muttering a counter-curse to protect him). In this instance, Harry’s compromised position (hanging for dear life from his Nimbus 2000) proves an obstacle to the narrative point of view. He can’t reasonably see what else is happening, and this blocks the storyteller’s goal of providing us with key information (the illusion of Snape cursing Harry) to drive the plot. So Rowling simply goes around the rule, showing us things from Ron and Hermione’s viewpoint for five odd pages. It works to keep us believing the Snape-as-agent-of-Voldemort theory, and shows us there is more happening on the Quidditch pitch than Quidditch. The Dark Lord is, as they fear, attempting to kill Harry Potter.
  2. In the opening chapter of Goblet of Fire, the point of view shifts far away from Harry, to Little frankbryce2Hangleton where the Riddle house’s caretaker, Frank Bryce overhears snatches of Voldemort’s elaborate plan for regeneration, using Harry. Of course, at the end of the chapter, the perspectival shift is explained away as Harry having a scar-induced dream. (This seems to be a very Tolkienian use of dreams, by the way; Tolkien disdained the use of dreams to explain away fantastic elements (eg. “it was all just a dream”) but himself employed dreams as bridges to other times or places in the narrative.) Harry’s “dream” takes us away from his point of view in order to give the reader some suspense-building information about Voldemort’s current status and plans to take the next step in his bid for power: regaining his physical form.
  3. We depart from Harry’s point of view in two chapters of Half-Blood Prince. First, in chapter one, “The Other Minister,” we step inside the head of the long-suffering Muggle Prime Minister. This shift in perspective shows the reader a view of events they could not possibly get from Harry Potter, which lends urgency to Harry’s mission (soon to be revealed) of gaining essential knowledge under Dumbledore’s tutelage. Specifically we learn that Voldemort’s followers have “moved into the open” (12), threatening a Muggle mass killing if the Minister of Magic is unwilling to step aside; thus control of the Ministry must be part of Voldy’s plans. We meet Fudge’s successor, Rufus Scrimgeour, who expresses concern about the Prime Minister’s safety; control of the Muggle government by Death Eaters may also be in the works. We learn that some agent of Voldemort (not a very talented agent, apparently) has attempted to place an Imperius curse on junior Muggle minister Herbert Chorley. This is important foreshadowing; the next time an agent of Voldemort uses the Imperius curse to infiltrate government it will be at the Ministry of Magic, and it will succeed.
  4. Although the savvy reader may expect to be snapped back to Harry’s point of view in the second chapter of Half-Blood Prince, instead, we Apparate into Snape’s stomping ground, with the LeStrange sisters instead of Harry, visiting Snape’s dingy summer home at Spinner’s End. Here we spinners_endare given a stronger dose of foreshadowing and suspense-building by the author: stronger because it pertains not to the wider world but directly to life at Hogwarts. In addition, we receive many satisfying answers to questions about Snape’s double-agency, questions that deepen our doubts about his loyalty. The narrative point of view allows us to see how it could be both ways with Snape. If the information had been filtered through Harry’s point of view, Harry’s prejudice against Snape would eliminate this compelling sense of doubt. But here there is true ambiguity. And, following my thesis, in this chapter we gain even more insight into the Dark Lord’s plans to seize power, shrouded in mystery and innuendo though those plans may be. But the reader now knows for certain that the catalyst for those plans is Draco Malfoy, and ultimately Snape.
  5. Finally, in Deathly Hallows, we attend a meeting of the Death Eaters, presided over by the Dark Lord himself. In chapter one, “The Dark Lord Ascending,” readers get a chilling glimpse of a cautiously triumphant Voldemort, surrounded by his closest disciples. And we get an important darklordascendingupdate (outside Harry’s point of view) about the Dark Lord’s rise to ultimate power. We learn that Death Eater Yaxley has, “with difficulty, and after great effort” (5), placed an Imperius curse on Pius Thicknesse, who is close to the Minister of Magic. (Poor quacking Chorley in book six must have been his practice run.) It is enough information to keep the reader on the edge of her seat, knowing that the Ministry itself is on a precipice, and that, once it falls, Harry will no longer be able to operate in the open. One could even interpret the prophecy about Harry and Voldemort from book five to suggest that neither Harry nor the Dark Lord can live in the public sphere while the other occupies it. This knife-edge position of the Ministry of Magic sustains the reader’s expectation of its imminent fall through chapter eight, which ends with the chilling message of Kingsley Shacklebolt’s lynx patronus: “The Ministry has fallen. Scrimgeour is dead. They are coming.” (159) Voldemort has moved from the shadow in which he lurked through more than six books, and into the cold light of tyranny through his puppet Minister, Thicknesse.

 

In forthcoming installments of this series, I’ll take a look at a few other fantasy tyrants, including Sauron, the White Witch, Palpatine and Grindelwald, and examine the details of how they seized supremacy. Meanwhile, share your thoughts in the comments below, and connect with me on Facebook and Twitter (@ekcstrand).