The Personal Heresy Afoot at Hogwarts

As the school break affords some time for getting up some long-overdue posts, I had been planning a few, but I’ve shunted those to the backburner, with hopes of pulling them forward before I must return toImage result for the personal heresy grading, preaching the virtues of the Oxford comma, and catching incompetent plagiarizers. Instead, I find myself having to do something rather odd, defend J.K. Rowling, but not against the usual antagonists: misguided Puritans, well-meaning but overprotective parents, and the sad horde of people whose imaginations were apparently damaged or removed in some sort of unfortunate childhood accident. Now, I’m defending her against the “fans” who are presently foaming at the mouth over a tweet she refuses to recant despite their most petulant whines and threats. The controversy and the subsequent venom of some members of the once-loyal fandom likely come as no surprise to the savvy Rowling, whose own work predicts just this sort of thing, but it is also reflective of a phenomenon rampant in a number of fandoms these days, a phenomenon C.S. Lewis foresaw with his brilliant examination of what he called “the Personal Heresy.” Join me after the jump for some thoughts on this phenomenon as it is playing out in Potterdom.(If you’ve been under a rock, catch up here and here.)

The Concept of “The Personal Heresy”
Originally published in 1939, the collection of essays known as The Personal Heresy is centered around the Image result for c.s. lewisdebate between Lewis and E.M.W. Tillyard, a debate on the degree to which an author’s personal life should or should not be a factor in the critical reception and analysis of his or her work. Lewis is widely regarded as having handily won the debate with his contention that, as readers, we have no business trying to psychoanalyze authors based on their writing. Nor, he maintains, does any knowledge that we do have of the author’s thought life have any business infiltrating critical analysis of the text. Lewis maintained that while historical or cultural understanding of an author’s context was, of course, vital to a full understanding, trying to “put the author on the couch” so to speak, was bad scholarship, inappropriate, and often intrusive. He also warned of the dangers of “scholarship” strategies that use the individual reader’s responses, reactions, and feelings as tools in literary criticism.

Lewis’s caution against the dangers of the personal heresy continues to be relevant. Every semester, I must remind students that they can, and should, be aware of an author’s context, but they must avoid making assumptions about an author’s state of mind or drawing conclusions about the author as a person. In addition, I must remind them that it is nice if they enjoy what we read and, in fact, it is fantastic if some of the literature we read moves and inspires them. However, their personal reactions to texts are not valid critical methods. Every semester, I have to steer them away from sentences like “Poe must have been really disturbed to write this,” “Whitman did a really good job on this poem,” or “This is a good poem because it makes me feel happy.”

Recently, I witnessed Lewis himself being the target of this misinterpretation. One of my acquaintances on facebook had posted a story about how a professor he knew had dismissed the Harry Potter books, demonstrating the kind of snobbery Lewis cautioned against in An Experiment in Criticism. I had replied with a suggestion to my friend to check out Lewis’s work in literary criticism, particularly his deconstruction of the “highbrow” attitude that prevents many readers from enjoying texts that they think are insufficiently cerebral (Lewis was famously not a snob, enjoying H. Ridder Haggard novels alongside Milton and Spenser). Strangely enough, someone I don’t actually know replied to my comment by bashing Lewis for “plagiarizing” Jesus, equating him with Mohammad. It was an odd comment, but one I found particularly humorous considering Lewis’s own awareness of the dangerous practice of attacking or supporting authors’ personalities instead of their work.

Fans—the Paragons of Personal Heretics
Perhaps no group is more prone to the temptations of the personal heresy as is a fan club. Whether they follow sports, music, movies, or the adventures of a certain boy wizard, some fans become more concerned with the personalities of those they follow than with their game-winning goals, guitar licks, acting skills, or literary merits. These folks are Image result for gilderoy lockhartliving examples of one of the few truly intelligent statements ever made by Gilderoy Lockhart: “Fame is a fickle friend.” While they may, at one point, hero-worship the object of their fascination, any deviation from their expectations can cause them to turn savage, brutalizing actors, writers, and musicians with that terrifying two-edged sword of social media. Rowling is far too savvy to have been surprised by all the recent rancor from those who once fawned at her feet; she did, after all, put that salient little sentence into the vapidly smiling mouth that won Witch Weekly’s Most Charming Smile Award a record five times. She is also a student of history, of literature, and of human beings. She knows that the crowd that shouts acclamation one day calls for their erstwhile hero’s head the next.

She is also doubtless aware that she is not alone in having abuse heaped on her by those who claim to love her work. Star Wars fans are legendary for the way many of them hate what they claim to love, fans of punk rock bands often vilify musicians who garner any degree of commercial success, and people who live for the next episode of some show spend the following week griping about everything that was wrong with it.

Image may contain: 2 people, textWhile we certainly would not expect readers, music fans, or show fans to blindly love every book, song, or episode, there is a difference between thoughtful, objective analysis of a text, song’s, or show’s strengths and weaknesses and merely hating for hate’s sake. Quite often, that hate is rooted in the need of fans not for a quality work of art, but for a fulfillment of their own personal needs and expectations.

Because It’s All about “Me.”
One of the most frightening aspects of the personal heresy is its egotistical focus. Those who embrace the fashion of idolatry that inevitably turns to demonizing their false gods do so primarily because those gods turned out to be mere mortals: flawed, complex, and sometimes disappointing. One of the most insightful short stories ever written, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown” carries a profound warning about the dangers of a faith revolving around other humans instead of around Christ. Hawthorne’s Puritan protagonist believes he is a Christian, but his “faith” crumbles completely when he sees (or thinks he sees) his church leaders and role models of faith attending what I usually call “the big devil meeting” (because if I say “black Sabbath” out loud in a college class, that qualifies as a musical cue, and there is humming and air guitar for the rest of our class session). Brown believes the Devil’s lie, and it is a very effective lie because it is mixed with truth: human beings are imperfect. That is why we need salvation from Christ and support from our fellow creatures. But Brown, in seeing his heroes as sinners, believes he alone has resisted the devil, that he alone is righteous, and thus, his entire life is blighted.  He lives a lonely, judgmental life, certain that everyone else is a sinner and thus a disappointment to him.

Brown’s real issue is his self focus. Instead of worrying about his friends, neighbors, and leaders who seem to have fallen off the true path, Brown is solely concerned with how they have personally let him down and how he alone has resisted the devil. It is, as they say, “all about me,” and that is part of what makes the personal heresy not just bad for us as readers and critics of literature, but as people. The personal heresy, as Lewis saw in his own experience, could make readers dismiss the brilliant work of an Oxford don or his insightful Christian apologetic writing because the author used tobacco, enjoyed the occasional beer, and was married to a woman who had been divorced. It can also make fans start screaming for an author to change her personal opinions, even her thoughts, because they do not conform to the expectations those fans have created for her.

The personal heresy is a deadly trap, one that destroys both intelligent critical analysis of texts and our personal enjoyment of them. We are certainly within our rights to refrain from reading a certain author if we find him or her unsavory for some reason(Phillip Pullman’s comments about Lewis turned me off reading him, because diving into one of his novels would be, for me, the literary equivalent of signing up for a long road trip with someone who made ugly public comments about my family). However, we are not within our rights to demand that an author change his or her positions, opinions, or thoughts to conform with our own (I didn’t write Pullman and call him names or try to “straighten him out.” He has just as much right to not like Lewis’s work as I do to love it. I just selected something different to read, and I hope those who do enjoy his work continue to do so.) Just as Rowling’s controversial tweet asserts, our rights end where someone else’s begin. As readers, if we don’t want to read something, we are entitled to skip it, but we are not, or at least we should not be, entitled to demand the author change his or her thoughts to suit our own personal expectations.

This, however, is exactly what many fans demand, and in many arenas other than Potterdom. While authors can accede to fans’ reactions, i.e. bringing a beloved character “back from the dead” to comfort devastated fans (I’m looking at you, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), the idea that fans should be able to demand that authors, as people, measure up to their own personal expectations, espousing the beliefs they want to see espoused, and essentially, epitomizing their personal expectations or face consequences, is a dangerous one indeed. In fact, if Lewis is to be believed, it is downright heretical.Image result for j.k. rowling

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the personal heresy and its all-too-common manifestations among readers today.


  1. Great post, but wasn’t the staff at this site fully supportive of the “woke” crowd when they were accusing Rowling of being a Eurocentric cultural appropriator back in 2016?

  2. I’m guessing you’re referring to Rowling’s use of Native American religious fixtures as ‘Fantastic Beasts.’

    If so, count me guilty, though not ‘as charged.’ Rowling was guilty of poor scholarship and remarkably insensitive use of First Nations characters in a boarding school.

    See Dr Amy H Sturgis’ ‘Hogwarts in America’ for the difference.

  3. Brian Basore says

    Someday, perhaps, someone like John will compile The Annotated Harry Potter so the chaos can be tamed somewhat by describing the bits, as was done in the Annotated Alice series.

  4. Brian Basore says

    I think Elizabeth will appreciate that I am not belittling the problem. It is because it is a huge problem that I somewhat hopelessly hope what I said becomes true.

    The first Alice book was published in 1866, and was as big a surprise bestseller as HP was later. The first edition of The Annotated Alice was published in 1960, 94 years later. For a variety of reasons, personal heresy is usual to new LC fans. Tim Burton, of the Disney live Alice films, for example, has professed not to like the Alice books, and a great many fans come to LC from Burton’s movies. The Annotated Alice books have not stopped personal heresy but they’ve helped the fans learn better at the individual fan’s pace.

    The most hope I can offer just now is that the Harry Potter trail is in fact solitary. Harry made it through the seven books, and so will the reader eventually one way or another, with the help of the occasional kindred soul along the way.

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