Literature of the Hidden and Fantastic: Michael Ward and John Granger Keynotes at University of Arkansas (FS)

planet-narniaNext weekend I travel across the eastern border of Oklahoma for an academic conference, ‘Literature of the Hidden and Fantastic,’ at the University of Arkansas, Ft. Smith (UAFS). The woman in charge, Carly Darling, Conference Chair, has put together a remarkable gathering of scholars to discuss “all aspects of fantasy, magic realism, fairy tales and folk tales, and in particular, their more arcane or enigmatic qualities and/or structures.” To that end, she invited both the Rev Dr Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia and expert on the esoteric artistry of C. S. Lewis, and me to give the conference’s two Keynote lectures. My talk is called ‘Writing in Rings: The Literary Alchemy and Inkling Artistry of Harry Potter.’

ringI have heard Michael Ward’s talk on the astrological symbolism of Lewis’ Narniad twice and traveled significant distances to do so. My copy of Planet Narnia is almost unreadable because of the highlighting, underlining, and marginalia; very few books of literary criticism have been as helpful to me as has Ward’s. If you haven’t heard him speak or if you want to ask him questions about his magisterial work on Lewis’ oeuvre, I hope I will see you there. It’s an experience worth the trip for all serious readers, believe me, not just Narniacs.

f36912486In addition to his talk and mine, there will be more than 20 other talks about authors covering the spectrum from Lewis and Rowling to Sartre, Stiefvater, Tolkien, and O’Connor. Really into the Hogwarts Saga? Seven of these talks explore the artistry and meaning of Harry’s adventures, one by the Rev Dr Danielle Tumminio, author of God and Harry Potter at Yale. Check out the schedule and slate of speakers here — then sign up at the conference’s registration page!

The Features Editor at The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sent me five questions this morning about what I’ll talking about at the conference and about imaginative literature in general. My answers are after the jump. Please introduce yourself at the conference or just say hello if an old friend — and let me know where I went wrong with my answers, there or in the comment boxes!

“Authors like C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and certainly J.K. Rowling have become major cultural and artistic influences worldwide, but scholars and academics don’t always treat them as they do other authors,” Dr. Siler said in his press release. If you agree, what needs to change in the way we treat these authors? And why?
f36945510There has been a divide maintained by cultural gatekeepers, in our time the professoriate and book reviewers, between popular and serious or literary writing. This has been true since the Georgian and Victorian periods when Austen and Dickens were back benchers to those in the know because of their popularity and arguably we can see the divide as far back as Shakespeare. James Thomas at Pepperdine has famously said about Harry Potter that the “real Deathly Hallows” causing the neglect or casual dismissal of Rowling’s work by scholars and critics are that they are “too current, too popular, and too juvenile.” The same might be said about the appraisal of Tolkien’s Middle earth epic and Lewis’ Narniad.

What needs to change, frankly, is already changing, however slowly. There is a growing awareness that so-called “literary novels” are, contrary to the reigning prejudice among academics, just another genre rather than the only ‘non-genre’ type of fiction. Serious writers are writing mysteries, fantasy, even romance fiction with plots and great genre writers of the past are now being published in the Library of America. The magisterial scholarship of Tom Shippey about Tolkien and Michael Ward about Lewis, too, have all but forced reconsideration of their work by English readers and teachers everywhere.

What this work did is what continues to be necessary, namely, clearing the hurdle of prejudice against popular, contemporary, and at least superficially juvenile or YA fiction to take seriously the artistry and meaning that drive its popularity. Though much of the critical work today remains analysis of any work as ‘cultural artifact’ rather than ‘vehicle for transformative meaning,’ we’re making real progress.

What made you think the Harry Potter series was more than just fun for kids?

f39174246By happy accident I was compelled in 2000 to read the first four books  in quick succession to myself, then aloud to my children, and then to listen to recordings on a trans continental drive. At the end of this drive I was asked by a group of C. S. Lewis readers to explain Potter Mania. That immersive experience followed by an invitation to share my thoughts allowed, even forced me to see what most people miss on first reading, Rowling’s light-handed but profound structural and symbolic artistry.

If there was a single passage or moment that woke me up to the books not being “just for kids,” it was my first reading of Sorcerer’s Stone, a late night reading I did so I could explain to my oldest daughter why “we don’t read garbage like this.” In the chapter that Harry encounters a dying unicorn in the Forbidden Forest and is told by Firenze the Centaur about the power of unicorn blood to save a life and to damn the unworthy, I had an ‘Aha!’ revelation. That and realizing that the ‘Sorcerer’s Stone’ was actually a ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ and Harry’s three days resurrection from near death at story’s end compelled me to see Rowling was delivering some heavy and edifying freight.

Too many serious things to consider, so let me pick one: Could you talk a little about the Christian “content and value” of Harry Potter?

harry-spellTo “talk a little” is the real challenge! Rowling draws on ten different genres in her Hogwarts Saga from the more obvious Schoolboy Novel and Gothic adventure to the relatively esoteric Alchemical Drama and High Fantasy. What is curious about all her traditional sources, though, is that they come from those eras of English letters in which poems, plays, and novels were almost exclusively Christian, that is, writing by Christians for other Christians for their greater life inn Christ, “instructing while delighting: as Lewis said of Spencer. Rowling has said she thought the Christian content of her books, despite the Potter Panic in many Christian communities, was “obvious” (2007) and that she wouldn’t discuss her faith or that content until series end because she was afraid of giving away the ending.

To be as brief as possible, Potter Mania is best explained I think by the the Eliade Thesis. Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane suggested that entertainments, especially books, serve a mythic or religious function in a secular culture. We are designed for self-transcending experience; when the world denies this capacity and deprives it of oxygen, we find it in story, the suspension of disbelief and egocentricity for contact with the noumenal. My corrolary to this thesis is only that the most popular books and stories are those that deliver this experience at the greatest depth and surety. Lewis, Tolkien, and Rowling are the most cited examples of this effect; Collins, Meyer, and L’Engle are as important, I think. (For all the details of Harry’s Christian content, especially the central theme of sacrificial love’s victory over death, see How Harry Cast His Spell.)

About you: Did you grow up a bibliophile? And if so, what were your books of choice?

f39168230I did grow up loving books. While I wish like everyone else my age that I had read more and watched television less, I was sufficiently the nerd of my family that my mother gave me The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, and The Last of the Mohicans for Christmas when I was 15 and no one thought that was an unusual gift or a pretentious reach for me. My favorite reading, though, was superhero comic books and the short stories of Ray Bradbury.

Is it important that we look for deeper meaning in books like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings? Or does some of the deeper meaning just “rub off” on readers?

As Dante wrote to Con Grande, there are four layers to the best writing: the surface, the moral, the allegorical, and the sublime. This is true because these levels correspond to the four ways we as human beings can know: sense perception, opinion, deduction of principle from data, and wisdom, the incarnation of truth.

f39063014Here’s the thing, though. Very few readers are aware of these layers of knowing and how to recognize the meaning they experience in each as they enter into a story. But that’s more than okay. All the layers beneath the story surface are necessarily delivered through the story surface or not at all, i.e., if we are aware of it as read the narrative line, it almost certainly isn’t reaching us where it counts. As C. S. Lewis once commented“an influence which cannot evade our consciousness will not go very deep.”

All that to say, yes, the “deeper meaning” just “rubs off on us” for the most part in the best of books, but, no, this doesn’t make the close study of such work any less important. Unconscious experience is made only that much more powerful when brought to the level of conscious awareness as well.


  1. Dear John: I’m sorry I had to rush off after your talk this noon. I needed to get back to NW Arkansas. But I enjoyed greatly meeting your wife and chatting with her. I am so glad I met you and so enjoyed our visit last evening chatting about various aspects of literature and your work. Today’s presentation was amazing! So comprehensive! I will get your book and digest it some more. You have done such an amazing amount of work. The very best as you pursue further research and studies in Wales. I hope to keep in touch. The conference was such a shot in the arm for me. I’m VERY motivated to keep moving forward on my own book!! Thanks so much!!! God Bless! Jane. P.S. If you email me I’ll give you my FB page address.

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