O’Connor, Shelley, and Interpreting Beyond Intentio Auctoris

I am on the road again for a few days, this time to a C. S. Lewis conference in Wake Forest, NC. Before I leave, I rush to post two interesting comments in re the events of the past week and our discussion here for your reflection and comments.

The first is from Dr. Arthur Remillard, adjunct faculty at St. Francis University, on Ms. Rowling’s situation and a famous exchange between Flanerry O’Connor and a person asking her what one of her symbols meant. Ms. O’Connor seemed to resent being asked if her drawing of a horse was a horse….

In one of our recent e-mail exchanges, John mentioned the hubbub over J.K. Rowling’s “outing” of one of her characters. Admittedly, I have not read the Potter books (I have a 6 month old son, so this will likely change). Nevertheless, after looking at John’s discussion of the importance of an author’s intent, I had two thoughts. First, I imagine that the anti-Potter/anti-gay masses are gathering on rooftops shouting, “These Books Will Make Children GAY!!!” Does this mean they’re members of the “author’s have the final word” camp? I doubt it. Despite her insistence that the books are a modern rendering of the Christian narrative, I’m confident that many within this group will keep shouting, “These Books Will Make Children DEVIL WORSHIPERS!!!” As my imagined bipolar anti-Potter proclamations suggest, people will continue interpreting the books however they want, no matter what she says, and no matter how (in)valid such conclusions are.

This leads to my second and hopefully more insightful point, which concerns the great Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor. When asked by a teacher if the black hat worn by “the Misfit,” a character in her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” symbolized his evil nature, O’Connor responded plainly, “most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats.” The questioner pressed the issue, prompting her to snap back that the hat’s only purpose was “to cover his head.” For those unfamiliar with this story, the Misfit is a rather dark character. With assistance from his gang, he murders an entire family on a dusty Georgia road. So I wonder: How unreasonable was the teacher’s question? After all, anyone who has watched a cowboy movie knows that, black hat=bad guy/white hat=good guy. Perhaps O’Connor’s response was more representative of her infamous contempt for academia (who can blame her). Or perhaps she was being perfectly honest. I don’t think it matters. The color black has evil connotations in both cowboy movies and elsewhere (i.e. “the prince of darkness”).

My point is that good fiction is (pun intended) an open book, even when a reader’s conclusions don’t match the author’s original intent. Consider that O’Connor’s Wise Blood, written in 1949, was never intended as a critique of the electronic age—but I think it is. The book’s main character, Hazel Motes (founder of “The Church of Christ Without Christ”) enters “the city” and notices its blinding lights and commercial appeal. The author’s narrative describes this frenetic environment, and observes, “No one was paying any attention to the sky.” In other words, the things of material culture had become an imperfect replacement for eternity. Hazel Motes would only find frustration here, and his inevitable path toward redemption took him far away from the city lights. Reading Wise Blood makes me think about our “plugged in” culture. Our various electronic devices keep us looking downward at a screen, oblivious to the sky above. It’s little wonder that so many desperately seek “happiness” in a time when every other television commercial promises contentment through some drug, diet plan, or cleaning product.

So, indeed, when a story becomes a vehicle to investigate and assess our own lives and the world around us, we discover the great reward of fiction. The author’s intent may be important, and even intriguing, but the discussion of a good story should never end there.

In case you missed the reference to Miss O’Connor’s disdain for academics referenced above, here it is in plain sight:

In many letters O’Connor referred in a deprecating tone to academics in general and English teachers in particular. She answered one professor’s questions about her story, “Greenleaf”: “Thank you for your note. I’m sorry I can’t answer it more fully but I am in the hospital and not up to literary questions. . . . As for Mrs. May, I must have named her that because I knew some English teacher would write and ask me why. I think you folks sometime strain the soup too thin” (p. 582). She threw up her hands at one well-known literary critic, wondering, “Can it be possible that a man with this much learning knows so little about Christianity?” (p. 411). That was the problem she faced every time she published. She was writing for an audience to whom the incarnation had little meaning, and yet her fiction repeatedly showed common people encountering the terror, mystery and beauty of the Word made flesh. She might have predicted that many of her readers would be mildly puzzled, if not completely confounded.

Ms. Rowling’s comments last week about how “obvious” she thought the Christian parallels and meaning in her books seems to echo Miss O’Connor’s frustration.

And this from a web site called “Toddled Dredge,” where a reader named Amanda, after reading a HogPro post was reminded of something Shelley wrote about poets writing wel beyond the limits of their understanding and comprehension (echoing Socrates’ experience of the poets a few years earlier). Amanda writes:

I just read Hogwarts Professor, and it is excellent. There was an interesting point made about finding a Christian meaning in both Harry Potter and in Pinnochio. When I read that, I was reminded of something written by Percy Bysshe Shelley in In Defence of Poetry.

Shelly writes, “At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature. The persons in whom this power resides, may often, as far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, the Power which is seated upon the throne of their own soul. It is impossible to read without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations, for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present, the words which express what they understood not…”

Anyone familiar with the arc of Shelley’s personal life and his politics in addition to his poetry will especially appreciate the situation in which Ms. Rowling finds herself at the end of her Open Book Tour.

Your prayers, please, for my safe travel this weekend, for my daughter’s run in the Big South Conference Cross Country Championships, this Saturday, and for Ms. Rowling as she returns home after a very long and controversial ten day tour. I will be able to check in several times while away to post your comments and corrections, so please share what you’re thinking.


  1. I really like that Shelley quote! I remember having this same conversation with a friend over the Beatles song Let it Be. The Mary in the song, according to McCartney, is his mother, however, I and everyone else I know thought it was about The Blessed Virgin Mary!

    Does knowing the truth about who he wrote the song about change the way I interperet the song? No, not at all. As a matter of fact, when I hear the song I am moved to pray for Paul McCartney and all those “who have ears but don’t hear” etc.

  2. Oh bother! I didn’t mean to post my reply without finishing my thought!

    Anyway, Rowling (and McCartney et al) may be writing with certain ideas they want to present but I believe that “even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, the Power which is seated upon the throne of their own soul.” The Holy Spirit prompts in them (and in us the readers) a truer, deeper understanding than what was originally intended by the author.

    Thanks for the very eloquent quote John.

  3. An interesting take on the matter. So JKR may have thought of Dumbledore as gay, but most of her readers don’t see him that way. Or, at least, they recognized that he was quite infatuated with GG, but their mutual attraction appeared to be based on control mania (a variety of obsessive-compulsive disorder?), hubris, and vainglory. Their is no evidence in the text of any sexual attraction or sexual relationship.

    Again, I say her comment is no big deal. We have seen for ourselves what DD was. and what he strived to be. He remains a role model of Christian conduct, though not a faultless one. What mortal is?

    Gasp! I also like the song “Let It Be.” And some even interpret Mother Mary as being marijuana!

    So the Shelley quote was very nice. Indeed, though he purported to be anti-Christian, along with the avant-garde of the time, he seemed to grasp the source of his inspiration: the One who “enlighteneth every man who comes into the world.” However, far from railing against Christ, JKR has avowed that she is a Christian, and that her faith has influenced her work. If we’re going to take her statement about DD at face value, let’s take this statement the same way. Give her the benefit of the doubt. Anyone can make a goof.

    Poor woman! I wonder if she realizes how extreme is the situation in our US culture, as opposed to British culture. I don’t know, but I somehow doubt that they are as polarized as some Americans. (I stand outside this war and take neither side.)

    P.S.1-Before I read this post, I was just thinking of Flannery O’Connor as a Christian writer. I suspect that Those Who Must Not Be Named would most probably be horrified by such works as “Wise Blood,” “The Violent Bear it Away,” and even–or especially–“Parker’s Back.” Christian literature is not Goody Two-Shoes.

    P.S.2-As of Monday morning, or Tuesday a.m. at the latest, Rita Skeeter announced on CNN and msn.com that “Dumbledore is gay.” Hmm. I wonder why she didn’t report that JKR stated that she is a Christian?

  4. It is amazing that the Christian themes in HP are ignored by the media, but a sound byte about a character’s backstory, not mentioned in the books, gets a huge amount of press.

    I truly wish she’d not given this information, although I think both the press and some of the public are blowing it a bit out of proportion.

    Which leads to my problem with the Potter books. The marketing and press.

    I’ve never had a major problem with the books themselves (although I’ve never felt they are children’s books). I think the books have tremendous depth, and they are suitable to read when the child is ready to read other adult literature.

    But I have had from the start, a huge problem with the marketing. It’s irritated me in part that much of the Christian community just accepted the press and marketing, instead of taking the lead and countering it.

    Ah well… time will prove where wisdom lies.

  5. Dr. Arthur Remillard writes:
    “…As my imagined bipolar anti-Potter proclamations suggest, people will continue interpreting the books however they want, no matter what she says, and no matter how (in)valid such conclusions are. ”

    Hear, Hear!!!! Thank you, Dr. Remillard, for stating so eloquently what many of us are feeling right now.

    And thank you, John, for bringing Dr. Remillard’s expertise to the forum. I immediately thought of a recent discussion with a family member over the interpretation of scripture; she was adament about each person having the right to interpret scripture as they saw fit. I could see the fallacy in her argument,, but did not wish to exacerbate the situation, deferring my counterview for a more neutral time after a season of study on my part. Elmtree01 is spot-on when writing that “time will prove where wisdom lies.”

    John, what news do you have from the C.S. Lewis conference that might translate into our discussions here? It is obvious from your examples above that post-publishing debates are the norm—are they more vicious when Christian references are involved?

  6. Arabella Figg says

    Karen’s reference to McCartney’s Let It Be reminded me of many cryptic songs of the late ’60s.

    For a song that sprang to an odd life beyond itself, we can look to Mellow Yellow by Donovan (McCartney on backup vocals). Mellow Yellow, a spacy metaphoric paen to marijuana, included the cryptic lines at the end, “Electrical banana, bound to be a sudden craze; electrical banana, bound to be the very next phase.”

    During this hippie period of LSD and other mind-altering drugs, an alarmed hue and cry arose–the kids are going to be smoking banana peels! The next thing you know, one had to be 21 to buy bananas. Donovan and McCartney must have laughed hysterically (in a sort of hazy, mellow way).

    Was the song intended as a hidden message about smoking banana peels to get high? Unlikely. The song “got away” from the author in a way completely unintended.

    Did Rowling intend to write a “gay manifesto” through one character’s backstory? No. Does she intend to the focus to be Dumbledore’s sexuality? No. Is that what’s happening? Yes. My guess is she’s perplexed by the upheaval.

    She did intend, clearly stating so, to write the great Christian redemption themes, which permeate and shine through all seven books. Yet the press is silent. No hysteria over “our kids will become Christians!”

    Bananas get the headlines; Christianity is ignored. Typical. Maybe there’s a lesson for us here.

    “Quite rightly.”

    Uh-oh, little Flako has discovered catnip…

  7. Even so interpreting, you can’t make anyone happy!

    Outing Dumbledore

    But his let’s the secularists who proclaimed that god is dead was the message of JKR off the hook of acknowledging their errors.

    Never underestimate the power of a good distraction. It is the essence of the “magic” of stage shows and journalism!

  8. Arabella- I love your “Electrical Bananas” analogy. Something tells me that I might have found you wandering around the corner of Haight and Ashbury back in the summer of ’67, had I been alive at the time. (Oh, and by the way, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was definitely about LSD, despite protestations to the contrary!)

    I agree that Ms. Rowling’s statements at Carnegie Hall, read in context, appear to be a simple statement of fact rather than a manifesto. At a time when Philip Pullman’s explicitly anti-religious trilogy is beginning to make inroads, we need to focus on who our friends are, and JK Rowling is still one of them. Go reread chapters 16, 34, 35 and 36 of Deathly Hallows if you have any doubts about this.

    P.S. Arabella, I tried your 8-gallon wastebasket amusement park ride on my kitty, and he did not thank me for it! Your cats must be particularly adventuresome.

  9. ^Mary, I agree. And objections to Pullman will probably be ignored since folks went so batty about Harry Potter… sort of a boy who cried wolf affect.

    Which gets us back to author’s intent. I’d say it DOES matter. How much it matters depends on how much came across in the book, but it does matter.

    When Tolkien gave backstory for LOTR (much now in published form due to “Letters” and all the Christopher Tolkien published books) it mattered to me… the clear Catholic views and philosophies. But they also came through in the books. Tolkien’s comments expanded and illuminated what was in the books.

    I can’t say that author intent doesn’t matter. I also don’t think we know all that much of JKR’s ‘intent’ and that her story stands as a work whether we know her intent or not (as Tolkien’s did, but knowing his intent helped).

    I also think that an author can intend one thing, but write something that comes out different… which means, probably, another Author had a hand it it, too.:)

    I’m still puzzling out the author intent stuff. And I always think of “Let it Be” as a prayer to the Mary who bore Jesus, not Paul McCartney’s mother Mary (one story says it was originally Mal Evans, his road manager, and he changed the name to Mary… heck, I like the song no matter what).

    I also confess that in the 70s I tried to smoke a banana peel, after learning what “mellow yellow” was supposedly about. Dang thing wouldn’t light. Just as well. I’ve reformed since those days.:)

  10. Arabella Figg says

    Oh, Mary, what a laugh you gave me. I can’t believe you tried The Hammer on your cat! Unbelievably, both cats also enjoy(d) being spun, purring like mad, around on my desk chair and The Centrifuge (my holding wastebasket out and spinning in a circle).

    Sorry to disappoint, but as a suburban teen in a conservative county, I never wore “flowers in my hair,” placed daisies in guns, nor indulged in drugs or bananas. However, I was an early 70s Christian hippie, and briefly visited SF and the combustible “Berserkely” then.

    I too thought of Lucy in the Sky–“the [lads] doth protest too much.” But it didn’t have the hilariously oddball impact of the bananas.

    Kitties spinning, spinning…

  11. Arabella Figg says

    Elmtree01, this is interesting. I’m not Catholic, so Let It Be never had that mother of Jesus meaning to me. I didn’t particularly care for the song, although not for that reason.

    But when I learned the song was about Paul’s own mother, who died of cancer when he was 14, the song suddenly became meaningful and moving to me. Not only for his loss at a young age, but in desiring just such a relationship with my own mother that would never happen. So the author’s original intent had more meaning for me than outside interpretation of his work.

    In light of HP, her Christian theme intent is more meaningful to me than the current “gay pride” interpretations. There will be those who claim either or both camps, but I choose the author’s clear and stronger intent rather than outside interpretations arising from one aspect of the whole.

    The kitties aren’t sure I make sense and I’m not sure either…

  12. I side with John on this one, and believe me I am no gay rights activist. Personally her intent afterwords does not matter to me, it has not ruined the books for me, since we all knew going into it that she was a postmodern. Besides, the Christian content is still there and that will never change. The media is also human and will never change. I expect it nowadays from them, not all of course, to take the extreme left liberal slant. Yes, it makes our jobs harder, but we must keep trying to get the Good News out there. Especially if you compare her to Pullman. Don’t forget the movie The Golden Compass is coming out near Christmas. If that is not an inversion… Of course we know God is not dead, for if he was, what are all of these people who cater to the extreme left fighting? They know it too, just hoping he will I guess. If they let Pullman’s book about killing god and destroying the church into public school reading lists, and they have, then we need to work much harder to convince others to see Rowlings full, real intent. Keep up the good fight.

  13. Thank you, Mary N., for bringing Pullman into the discussion. I have received and sent the snopes.com article about *The Golden Compass* and Pullman’s public declaration to “kill God in the minds of children” through his trilogy to as many people as I can in hopes the word will get out. Here is the link, though you will have to type it in yourself: http://www.snopes.com/politics/religion/compass.asp

    I apologize ahead of time if I’ve managed to bungle the address. A title search under the movie name will get you to the right place at snopes.com

    When you step back and look at the bigger picture, are we surprised at the timing of this anti-Christian movie (Christmas season release)? You may be right, Elmtree01…objections to Pullman may not amount to much. I, for one, will do my part in making sure the truth is told.

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