Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In Defense of Fantasy

Recently, my wife began reading the Harry Potter novels of J.K. Rowling. My sister-in-law, a language arts teacher at a local intermediate school (what we used to call "middle school"), is paving the way, reading them and then passing the well-worn paperbacks along to my wife.

In the previous decade, I can remember being on a long drive across the mountainous western region of the United States listening to late-night talk radio because I was desperate for the company. In hushed tones, the D.J. invited listeners to call in with their experiences of witchcraft, demonology, encounters with the devil. In particular, he wanted to hear from anyone who had played Dungeons and Dragons or similar role-playing games, or who had read those sinister Harry Potter novels. Alone in my car, with the silhouette of the Rocky Mountains against the night sky, listening to this evangelical Christian talk show host practically whispering for fear that Satan would hear him and seep into the room like a sickly green vapor, I could taste juvenile terror. ("If we stay up til midnight and stand in front of this mirror and chant 'Bloody Mary' twelve times, the mirror will start to bleed!")

That drive took place during the years that people were trying to ban the novels from school libraries because they allegedly promoted witchcraft. These concerns were a bit overwrought, since stories about magic wands and flying broomsticks bear no resemblance to the Wiccan religion. Anyway, the controversy did not hinge on reason or fact. It was all about fear: fear of stories about magic, fear of pagan imagery, fear of thinking the wrong thoughts.

Harry Potter stories were held to be a gateway to interests in astrology, numerology, fortune telling, and the like. Oh, and Satanism, of course. In Alamogordo, here in New Mexico, an evangelical church organized a book burning in 2001 because the pastor felt these stories would inevitably lead to children studying the occult. There were similar events around the U.S. Polls suggested that among American Christians, this controversy was being fueled by a vocal minority, but there was sufficient activity to prompt suspicion about the content of these fantasy novels.

Why Harry Potter and not, say, MacBeth or Cinderella? In the 2000's, these books were enormously popular, helped along by the series of large-budget films based on the books. In response to this big cultural phenomenon, there were several ideas going on. Here, we will address two of them.

There is a theological idea, shared by some Christians and Muslims, that stories in which children cultivate magic (even the familiar, fairy tale kind of magic exhibited in the Harry Potter stories) are bad because they suggest we can cultivate personal power, as opposed to petitioning God and his son. This is an objection you might hear spoken to this very day about zen meditation, yoga, and even tai chi. It is considered bad to turn inward and use your own resources. Fantasy stories by C.S. Lewis get a pass because of his Christianity, and some have tried to make Christian interpretations of the Harry Potter novels so as to make them "okay."

Another idea is cultural. There is a persistent, fundamentalist idea that religion and culture should never be separate. Beliefs that are intrinsically Christian should dominate the entire culture. If it does not reduce to Jesus, it is not worth discussing or thinking about.

Magic and fantasy are indeed a kind of imaginative language for exploring the human experience -- ideas, fears, hopes, things repressed. So, for that matter, is all of mythology, including the mythology of our various religions. I do not, for instance, literally believe that Shakyamuni Buddha literally came out of his mother's side when he was born and started walking around and talking! It's a story.

I grew up with stories of ghosts and goblins and fighting evil with the aid of hocus-pocus. My father is a writer of horror tales, science-fiction, and fantasy. My childhood was steeped in such stories. I played role-playing games with other children, and in our play we sometimes saddled dragons, cowboys sometimes dueled with swords, animals frequently spoke, and Olivia Newton-John might rise from an ocean to stop a war. (That was Darlene, who lived on Angell Drive. She idolized Olivia Newton-John and would often assume her identity, especially when she was tired of playing war.)

Having grown up here in Deming, my wife recalls reactions among friends and family ranging from wariness to hostility to the popularity of these books. A decade later, she is doing the wisest thing: reading them for herself. And, as it happens, she is enjoying them enormously.

The imagination surely does have its dark corners: not all is sunny and beautiful in the human heart. It can also surprise us, and the unpredictability of our consciousness can be exciting or spooky depending on your disposition.

In 2001, a time when Harry Potter books were spoken of as a Satanic influence and being burned at public events, I taught a theatre day camp for high school students in Lowell, Massachusetts. I designed classes in acting and improvisation deliberately to let them experience the depth and unpredictability of their own imaginations. After several days of exercises in imagining space objects, they had progressed to a point where I could ask them to approach an imaginary bookshelf, pick an imaginary book from the shelf, feel its weight, open its pages, and actually read words on an imaginary page.

What they read came from a level of their imagination that they did not have time to censor (which is sadly what we learn to do without being aware of it). One student read two stanzas of a hauntingly beautiful poem, wise and beautiful beyond what you might expect from a 17 year old girl -- and then she got spooked and quit reading.

(I wrote that poem down furtively as she read, and kept it for years. I grieve that it is lost.)

It was coming from her lips yet it did not feel like "her." Well, it was and it wasn't. This is a dimension of our lives too few of us explore. Doing so might get you labeled as



out of touch with "reality"

childish (because it is "adult" to be out of touch with yourself)

possessed by Satan

A counter-argument to my fundamentalist neighbors is that the imagination is a God-given talent, if you like, a capacity for imagistic and conceptual thinking, a tool we would do well to understand so that we do not live under delusion and fear, but instead use it for expanding our awareness and maturity, enriching our enjoyment of life, soothing our fear and insecurity, waking up to the true ground of our being and loving ourselves and others.

I can't imagine God objecting to that. Nor do I see anything in it that is incompatible with a pious life.


Ji Hyang said...

Thank you for this thoughtful exploration. The mythic level of being has existed before the beginning, like poetry. It nourishes us in a way that is nonlinear and irreplaceable.

It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. --William Carlos Williams

Kelly said...

Good post, Algernon. I take my Christian faith seriously, but could never understand what the problem was with the books. I am a big fan of stories revolving around Merlin and Arthurian legend and couldn't see that the magic there was much different. I've not read the HP books, but it's only because I have too many other books I'd rather read. We do have the boxed set (belonging to my husband) and the time may come.