Baltimore City Paper: NEWS
Search now!

CURRENT ISSUE
NEWS+FEATURES
COLUMNS
COMICS
FILM
MUSIC
ARTS
EVENTS CALENDAR
EAT GUIDE
CLUBS
CLASSIFIED
ADVERTISING
ABOUT US
SEARCH ARCHIVES
SPECIAL ISSUES
BEST OF BALTIMORE
BLOG

7/12/2000 email this story 

Feature
The Trouble with Harry
A Ringing Dissent to Pottermania

By Mark Gauvreau Judge

It's probably unwise--perhaps even criminal, considering the hype and hysteria surrounding the impending release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire--to criticize Harry and his astounding success. Still, as much of a Muggle as it may make me, here goes:

Stop comparing Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings.

It may seem like it, but this is no small thing. In conversations with friends and family, newspaper and magazine articles, even the pages of intellectual journals, it's proclaimed (invariably with delight) that J.K. Rowling's Potter books have ushered in not only a return to reading among children, but a renaissance of the fantasy novel a la J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy (a film version of which is due out next year). The proclaimers miss a couple of crucial points: Rowling's series is elitist kiddie fare that serves to make modern American children even more narcissistic than they are, and Tolkien's is a masterpiece and--this is crucial--a completely adult tragedy with profound moral and religious implications.

The most representative example of elevating Potter to Tolkien's eminence came a couple months ago in First Things, a very serious "monthly journal of religion and public life." In a piece titled "Harry Potter's Magic," Wheaton College English professor Alan Jacobs recounts Tolkien's ideas about the creation of a mythical other world--it must resemble our world but not be our world; it must have its own logic and laws, as binding as those in our world--and credits Rowling with "that mysterious gift, so prized among storytellers . . . of world-making."

Jacobs' essay elicited a published response from one M.L. Condic, who gets to the nub of what's the matter with Harry: Unlike Tolkien, Rowling has not created a separate mythical world apart from our reality; she has conjured a place that is parallel to our world, existing at the same time. Harry and the other wizards--who are, it should at least be noted, fully rounded characters--fly around on brooms and learn their wizardry while us "Muggles"--who are usually depicted, as Condic notes, as "oafish, cruel, [and] stupid"--trudge through our world like some lesser form of animal. Of course this perception of the world is going to appeal to children, especially the spoiled and self-regarding children of these boom-boom economic times.

Tolkien is something altogether different. Leaving aside the bare fact that he was a prose master and Rowling is not, let's look at Tolkien's signature story. The Lord of the Rings takes place in a world called Middle-Earth and recalls the attempt of a small humanlike creature called a Hobbit to destroy a magical Ring. The Ring--it's always capitalized in the trilogy--can only be destroyed in the fires of a volcanic mountain in Mordor, a version of hell. When it is destroyed, all magic in Middle-Earth, both good and evil, will disappear and a new age will begin--the age of man, when humans take over and the world as we know it begins. If the Ring is not destroyed, it will slowly rot the mind and soul of its bearer, turning him into a physically repellent, avaricious whelp bound to return it to its evil master, Sauron, who with it will take over the world.

On the surface it doesn't sound like anything Harry Potter couldn't handle. But for Tolkien geeks, the power of The Lord of the Rings is the heavy undercurrent of tragedy and loss that runs through the story. Tolkien's masterwork is about growing up, the loss of enchantment, and the Christian paradox of salvation through suffering and painful death. (Tolkien referred to it as "a Catholic book," which might not go over well in these times.)

These themes are expressed in the trilogy's central conundrum: If Hobbit Frodo, thrust by circumstance into the role of Ring-Bearer, fails in his mission, evil overwhelms the world. If he succeeds, he unravels his own world. As the angelic Elf Queen Galadriel tells him, "Do you not see wherefore your coming to us is the footstep of doom? For if you fail, then we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and [our kingdom] will fade, and the time and tides will sweep it away."

In other words, like mortal life, this Ring business is a no-win situation. Indeed, the heroic Ring-Bearer never recovers from his mission. "I have been too deeply hurt," Frodo tells his best friend, Sam, before being taken by Gandalf the wizard to die. Not exactly a happy ending. But not a sad one either. Frodo sacrifices everything for the world because he answered to the higher calling of conscience and duty, even if that meant enduring the slings and arrows of the world's Muggles. Would Harry and his pals do the same?

More info
Click for more info

Recently in
Feature

A River of Trouble
7/5/2000
A Revitalization Has Much of Essex and Middle River Fighting Mad--And Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger Fighting for His Politcal Life

One Broken Body
6/28/2000
In Church Halls and Convention Halls, the Nation's Mainline Protestants Debate--and Divide--Over Gay Rights

Past Imperfect
6/28/2000
Why Americans Still Think History Is Bunk

Go to
Feature
Archives


More Stories by
Mark Gauvreau Judge

Return to Sender
5/31/2000
What We Lost When We Went Online

A Boy and His Dogma
7/15/1998
Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate the Left

HOME | NEWS & FEATURES | COLUMNS | COMICS | FILM | MUSIC | EVENTS | EAT GUIDE | CLUBS | WEB EXCLUSIVES: BLOG | CPTV
BEST OF BALTIMORE | SPECIAL ISSUES | ARCHIVES | CLASSIFIED | PLACE CLASSIFIED AD | PERSONALS | WILD SIDE
CONTACT CP | ADVERTISING INFO | ABOUT US | CP EVENTS | WORK HERE | STAFF DIRECTORY
2005 Baltimore City Paper