Of Lions, Witches, and Noseless Demons

Two of the top-grossing movies in the world right now are The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire . Strange, isn't it, that these huge, loud, public spectacles began life as small, quiet, private children's books, suitable for bedtime reading?

Bedtime stories lead to dreams, though, and these dreams are now shared by millions. So perhaps it's worth asking whether there's any substance to the squabble over the role of magic in Harry Potter versus the allegorical Christianity in Narnia.

The Judeo-Christian objection to sorcery and the occult goes back to Deuteronomy, so it's hardly surprising that orthodox believers would object to the Harry Potter trope of brilliant lovable youngsters escaping the dull bourgeois world of non-magical humanity ("Muggles") for the fantastically exciting Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

But are the Harry Potter stories really about magic in this traditional sense? They revel entertainingly in its lore and trappings, to be sure. But the real source of the stories' emotional resonance is their vivid portrayal of a generation growing up amid an only slightly more fantastic version of 21st-century technology ( especially the extraordinarily transformative powers of digital electronic media as displayed in the films themselves!).

Like Harry, young people are better at commanding these powers than their elders. But unless they are studying micro-electronics, they have only a weak grasp of how their wonderful toys work. Hence the need for a few aging mentors who understand the origins and secrets of the magic they teach. (It is no accident that Hogwarts itself should resemble a pipe dream of Oxbridge.) But this creates a problem: these mentors are also supposed to impart great wisdom, not to mention an ethical code. And at this, they are pretty poor.

So while I admire the Potter books and (especially) films, I also think their religious critics have a point. Does the world of Hogwarts have a moral compass, apart from the vague benevolence of senior-citizen witches and wizards? The question matters in the real world, not just the fantasy one, and becomes more urgent as the films make the Faustian journey toward ever more malign magic. To judge by the raves of critics whose vocabulary extends from D (for "dark") to E (for "edgy"), these frail counselors may not be able to hold out against the fabulous noseless hideousness of Voltemort.

Meanwhile, Narnia has the opposite problem. The richly animated Aslan is a wonder, even before he starts growling in Liam Neeson's mellow baritone. But here the evil isn't vivid enough. The White Witch may satisfy religious viewers who grasp the symbolism of white witchcraft being just as bad as black. But to a generation raised on state-of-the-art bitchcraft, how scary are those frozen dreadlocks?

Moreover, Narnia lacks the contemporary resonance of Potter. Its human characters command no magic, being instead at the mercy of the unknown forces that transport them to and fro. They aren't passive, and the moral transformation of Edmund is more sophisticated than any lesson offered in Harry Potter. But compared with the students at Hogwarts, what do these kids actually get to do?

They get to wage a picturesque medieval war against the wrong sort of demons, in order to become the rightful rulers of the kingdom. Excuse me, but this is 2005, and it is hard to imagine a saga based on the divine right of kings packing the same emotional wallop as one about state-of-the-art wizardry being employed for evil purposes.

December 22, 2005 6:42 PM |



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This page contains a single entry by Martha Bayles published on December 22, 2005 6:42 PM.

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