The Five Keys & What Makes a Book “Great”

Eeyore (Pat) wrote after reading my post below on “Postmodernism, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Harry Potter” that:

I understand your point about her being post modern — it makes sense that she is a writer of her times — which is also why it’s always made sense to me that much of the imagery is Christian, because she IS a Christian. I think it would be very difficult for a writer to not let their beliefs or their era influence their writing.

So, how does this all fit in with the Christian message that so many of us see? I’ve thought since HBP that she is not necessarily intending the books to have a Christian, or even religious, point, but that it is there, nonetheless.

I’ll try to answer the question of how Harry Potter can be simultaneously postmodern and Christian by discussing what it means to be a “Great Book” and how the “five keys for the serious reader” work together, to include the keys of Postmodern themes and Traditional Symbolism.

In my experience, all the good literature professors, the ones that are able to get you to see the genius and magic of a book, begin and end the same way, whatever they’re reading with a class. They start out, especially with English books, plays, or poems written a long time ago, by laying out the historical beliefs, prejudices, and concerns of the time period the piece comes from and how the specific writer they’re talking about fit in or did not fit in with these beliefs.

This can be really helpful or it can be a disaster. The disaster is when the teacher decides everyone writing in that period was a homophobe or a racist chauvinist lap-dog and the reading descends into a group judgment of our ignorant ancestors. The helpful part is when the historical part opens up your thinking to an entirely different perspective on the world than the one we all bring to the text, a light that helps with the more obscure ideas in the play the class is reading.

I say “play” because I took a Shakespeare course the spring of my senior year in High School where I had this experience. Our Harkness teacher, Henry Ploegstra, made us read a thin book called The Elizabethan World Picture: A study of the idea of order in the age of Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton by E. M. W. Tillyard. We had to read it before we began reading the plays. We were reading every single Shakespeare play in one semester and I confess to thinking we really didn’t need one more thing to read “to get ready.”

Wow. Was I wrong.

Without Tillyard’s little book, I wouldn’t have understood the little bit of Shakespeare I did understand back then and I certainly wouldn’t be reading and studying the Bard today for pleasure. Tillyard’s book, for example, was the first one I read that discussed the fundamentals of literary alchemy (four elements, four humors, quintessence, etc.). Without the 109 pages of Elizabethan World Picture, I would have been just another reader projecting my conceptions into the text and ignoring whatever didn’t fit.

Historical understanding of worldview is where the good literature professors begin. Common sense tells us it is just as important in unlocking the meaning and artistry of Harry Potter as it is when reading Shakespeare. If anything, though, it’s harder and more important for a contemporary writer.

Understanding our historical period requires, for example, that we acknowledge that we live in an “Age” with its own peculiar beliefs and prejudices, just like the Elizabethans and the Victorians did. Most people in our times, like most people in every time, imagine that they live at the end of time and at the height of progress, which to them means that the way we see things is the way they really are. C. S. Lewis, a contemporary and friend of Tillyard, called this disdain for the past and faith in the present time “chronological snobbery.”

Beyond just acknowledging that we live in a historical period, too, looking at the beliefs of a contemporary author means looking at the predominant beliefs of our time. This is no small trick. Imagine looking at your own eyeballs. Studying postmodernism is learning about the peculiar way we all think and the unexamined myths we share as truth.

The fourth chapter of Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader (pre-publication special: free shipping from Zossima Press at the end of January if ordered now from with the secret code FS1369) is all about looking at our postmodern eyeballs. I think it’s the best chapter in the book. De gustibus, of course. I’ll introduce the ten things you’ll find in almost every postmodern story, book, film, play, or poem – you’ve read three in yesterday’s post – and then we’ll look at Harry Potter as a PoMo myth. I think you’ll be delighted and surprised to see how the world’s favorite books resonate with the predominant concerns and beliefs of our time. I know I was as I wrote that chapter, eyeballs inward.

I said a few paragraphs back that all the really good literature profs start and end the same way. They start with the historical information we need to escape our own historical prison. They end, though, by explaining or discovering with us what is timeless or transcendent in the poem, play, or novel we’re reading, why Buck Rogers of the 21st century should care about what a 17th century poet or a 19th century novelist wrote. I cover this in the fifth chapter of Unlocking by explaining Ms. Rowling’s philosophical realism, evident in her stories’ symbolism, themes, and storyline. This is where she breaks with more orthodox postmoderns — and wins our hearts completely.

It makes sense that a great book has to be an artifact of its historical period if its author is human while simultaneously lifting its readers out of and above that age by answering questions human beings have about our existence regardless of the time and place in which we live. Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov probably meant something more to Russian readers of Ruskii Vestnik, the newspaper in which both appeared, because they are “period pieces” in addition to being “flawless as a work of art” (what Dostoevsky said of Karenina). For great popularity that continues for generations, a book must have both topical and timeless meaning for readers.

The problem with Harry Potter, though, as Eeyore (Pat) points out, is that postmodernism per se is, in the popular mind, at least, about the “death of God,” the non-existence of objective knowledge and meaning, and a melange of relativism, nihilism, and “secular” values. How does a postmodern writer put together a story embodying the concerns and godless beliefs of this historical period that also has transcendent, timeless meaning? Rowling says she is a Christian, and, if you’ve read Looking for God in Harry Potter, you know her books are stuffed with traditional Christian symbols, themes, even theological points. How does she pull-off an epic that is at once “postmodern” and “spiritually edifying”?

Good question.

When I first started speaking about Harry Potter at schools, stores, and churches, my talk was about what makes a book a “Great Book.” I said there were four qualities a “Great Book” had: popularity over several generations, themes addressing the big questions of human existence, artistry that made a match of the stories and their themes, and, in English literature at least, no little Christian content. As English lit until well into the 20th Century was almost exclusively books written by Christians for other Christians, the “answers” authors gave in the “Great Books” were almost without exception Christian answers. I said in this talk that Ms. Rowling, on the evidence of her first five books, had to be given a score of 75% and I fully expected, given the height of Potter-mania, that future generations would give her a perfect score. Harry Potter has satisfied every test for a “Great Book” other than staying in print for a century or two.

I think the answer to the question of how is it possible for a postmodern to write spiritually edifying books can be found in the “artistry” point of that list. But to get to that you have to understand how it is possible for postmoderns as such to be Christian. That’s pretty straight forward.

One of the contradictions of the postmodern view is that it denounces metanarrative – and especially the Grand Myths of religion and political culture – and this contra-metanarrative, capital “T” Truth-denying position has itself become, oddly enough, the metanarrative of our times. A true postmodern, then, turns on this postmodern metanarrative and deconstructs it as a relativist position born of the anti-colonial wars in North Africa of the 1950’s. In itself, postmodernism is not a “Truth” position and can only rightly be used to be profoundly skeptical of ideologies and fundamentalist viewpoints of both religion and political creeds, not to mention being critical of the vehicles of these metanarratives that breed prejudice and injustice in communities.

Philip Pullman is a postmodern writer who is ideologically postmodern, in the sense that he is politically correct and he loves to kick the dead horse of the “institutional religion” boogey in his fiction. He is a deliverer of the divisive and discriminatory, albeit also postmodern, metanarrative. Joanne Rowling, in contrast, is a postmodern Christian writer. Her faith is not about surety in her verities or trust in bodies of worship. She isn’t an every-Sunday-goes-to-church believer, and “like Graham Greene,” she says, “my faith is sometimes about if my faith will return. It’s important to me.”

Her books, unlike Pullman’s, never bash the church; her preferred targets are schools, government, prisons, and media, the real boogeys that carry destructive metanarrative poison. Given the Sho’ah and Soviet holocaust of Orthodox Christians, how could anyone see religious people as the great persecutors of the twentieth century and the present time when believers have been far and away the victims of the most relentless persecutions, even of genocide?

Christians have said for millenia that the three enemies of those seeking human perfection in Christ are the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. “Flesh” is not the body-despising position of Puritans and Calvinists but the “carnal mindedness” St. Paul says is “death,” as opposed to “spiritual-mindedness” which is “life and peace” (Romans 6:8). The Devil is real and “the God of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4). I don’t mean to diminish the reality or relevance of these obstacles, but to the postmodern Christian, the World has become the more pressing concern. It is our preoccupation with our programming and the difficulty we have in transcending the myths dividing us into factions that keep us from any relationship with Truth, however dimly perceived. We receive booster shots for this programming from school, government, and 24/7 media fostering desire over noetic perception and even over reason.

Postmodernism, then, isn’t anti-Christian if taken to its logical end. Its defense of the minority and disenfranchised position and criticism of the metanarrative and those who deliver and enforce its divisions could be taken straight from the parable of the Good Samaritan. Rowling in this regard, I think, is best understood as a “postmodern realist,” the philosophical position contrary to philosophical nominalism that believes that signifiers have real meaning and symbols even more real, if otherworldly, antecedents.

Which brings us back to her artistry. The stories are heavy with symbols taken from Christian art and literature, ranging from Philosopher’s Stone and White Stag to Unicorn and Griffin/Hippogriff, and traditional literary structures like the Hero’s Journey and Alchemical Work. From these symbols and structures she crafts a story of human transformation that is about transcending the Grand Myth of the Magical World via the power of love. Ms. Rowling deconstructs the metanarrative of faction and prejudice that makes postmodern life a nightmare and offers a metannarrative that cannot create a constitutive other, namely, a worldview that has love as its origin and end.

Too much of a stretch? Look at the five keys and how they act together to work her magic.

Narrative misdirection teaches us how silly we are to think that our limited view is any way comprehensive or omniscient. This, of course, is a postmodern theme and part of her assault on the ideologies and ideologues that divide us into “houses” or factions and foster an unloving spirit in each of us. The literary alchemy, both in (1) its creation of Hogwarts Hermaphrodites who transcend the Gryffindor/Slytherin antagonism by incorporating literally both houses’ qualities in themselves and (2) the revelations in the rubedo of the concealed changes that happened in the albedo HBP, backs-up the lessons of narrative misdirection and the postmodern themes. The repetitions of the Hero’s Journey and Alchemical cycles drive home the point of Harry’s hope of rebirth and transformation in that each story ends with his figurative death and resurrection in the presence of a symbol of Christ, Love Himself, the resolution of all contraries, “neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male oe female” (Galatians 3:28). The Christian symbolism reinforces the anti-metanarrative postmodern message and its answer to the contradictions of postmodernism in a spiritual Grand Myth of love.

The five keys can be explained and understood separately but to really get how they are responsible for the great popularity of Ms. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels you need to see how they work together. These novels are as popular as they are with readers in every country, old and young, because they embody the concerns and many of the beliefs of our age while simultaneously, implicitly and explicitly, answering the questions we have about what it means to be fully human.

That’s a pretty heavy load and an awkward way of arguing these are “Great Books.” As you’d expect, C. S. Lewis had a simpler test that isn’t as hard as juggling five different shaped keys in the air at the same time. George Sayer, a tutorial student and later the close friend of C. S. Lewis, told Mark Koonz that Lewis’ test for a books greatness was much simpler than mine: “Does it make you better, wiser, and happier? And do you like it?” (“George Sayer on C.S. Lewis’ Definition of a Great Book: Excerpts from our Conversation,” Mark Koonz, CSL December, 2006).

I hope we can agree that we like these books and that they make us “better, wiser, and happier” people. I look forward to reading your comments about this post, postmodernism and Christianity, and how the five keys work together.


  1. I’m still internalizing everything I just read here, but may I say sir, I very much wish you had been my Lit professor in college!

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