The Power of Harry Potter and the Necessity for Romance

I just finished The Deathly Hallows again, this time taking the time to read more closely than during my first rush through it. Some initial reflections:

Harry Potter continues a tradition that goes back to ancient mythology through medieval legends and early modern fairy tales and 20th century fantasy that will last as long as humans sit around campfires or university campuses and tell stories to each other. The tradition includes ghost stories, but goes far beyond that. It contains magical stories, stories about beings with supernatural powers, heroes who lay down their lives to save others from evil, creatures who bridge the space between the human soul and nature. Perhaps the best title for it is the romance.

Humans cannot be understood without this tradition because it speaks of and sings for the deepest longings in the human soul: honor, meaning, civility, purpose, the hope that something matters and is worth living and dying for.

To prevent children from participating in this tradition is to undercut the healthy development of their souls. That is one reason Tolkien and Lewis were so shockingly successful in the hyper-rational modernist landscape.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about why I’ve always cherished this sort of writing and why lately I’ve come to see it as morally indispensable. Why is it so important?

Simply, because it arouses within us a desire for what matters a great deal more than any materialist worldview can offer us.

Some Christians fear Harry Potter and I understand that fear. The Bible is not obscure about witchcraft and some feel that Rowling celebrates witchcraft in this series. I think she was probably naive at a certain level, but it matters a great deal less today than it did when, say, Baum suggested the possibility of a good witch in the Wizard of Oz. Baum was semi-educated and didn’t know what he was doing, but the age absorbed it. I don’t believe a witch should be treated as a metaphor of something positive and on this count I think Rowling erred. That merits more attention elsewhere.

But this series is of enormous literary, which is to say psychological, social, philosophical, historical importance. Harold Bloom seems to despise it, but I don’t know if he’s read the last three volumes. Even so, any literary critic who scoffs at this set needs to get beyond the cliches and occasional empty adverbs. The critic needs to ask why this series has sold so well without hiding behind the solution that it was so well marketed.

It was, that’s why The Sorcerer’s Stone is the ninth best selling book in the history of the human race. But it’s only one reason. After all, it’d be hard to argue that Stephen King, Dan Brown, or Danielle Steele are poorly marketed. You can market hamburgers to death, but without service at the counter and something more than edible cardboard, fast food burgers would not have taken over the nation’s arteries.

Why has it succeeded so magnificently. Again, I believe the primary reason is that it arouses desires in our souls that our “culture” simply leaves desperately unsatisfied. Information about life after death is one of the more obvious, but Rowling takes it a step further. She never gives the jejeune cliche answer to these questions. She makes you think. She drops hints. She takes you further in. She doesn’t just suggest what might happen when we die, she makes us want to die well.

By arousing these “primal”, which is to say, deeply human, desires, she arouses the questions that flow from them. She drives her reader to Pascal (though arrival might occur 15 years later), she points you to Aristotle’s Categories, she makes you want to know how to be virtuous and courageous. She makes you want to know how to be human by presenting portraits of people who struggle with their desires every moment of their lives and yet do something that matters.

It’s not  a new charm. That’s why it works.

That’s also why, when you read a book like Harry Potter or a Fairy Tale to children, you shouldn’t engage in analysis. Let the child’s soul interact with the images in the book. Living ideas in living books make living children.

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More on teaching great books

We’ll be sending out a CiRCE Paper (our E-magazine) tomorrow with an article about how to teach The Iliad when you haven’t read it. As with any hopefully useful article, not everything I wrote made it. So here are some deletions (by the way, if you don’t receive The CiRCE Papers and would like to, click here and you can sign up for free and you’ll receive our free E-book too):

When you read a great book, you are standing beside the ocean. You could learn a lot by getting a bucket, filling it with water, and studying the drops in that bucket for the rest of your life. But you’d learn more about the ocean itself if you stood there and just looked, just taking in all you can see and feel and smell for a little while (and by the way, nobody has ever seen the whole thing). Maybe then you could swim in it, get in a boat and sail, even go fishing. You should experience it during different times and seasons as well.

 

So it with Homer. Don’t focus all your energy on studying the drops of water you can get in your bucket just because they’re more easily measurable. Focus on the big ideas. Every great book expresses one or two great ideas. In the Iliad, it could be justice. In the Odyssey, wisdom.

 

Ask your students, in language they can relate to, is Agamemnon fair? Is Achilles? Do Neptune and Kalypso treat Odyesseus justly? Is Odysseus wise? Were the Phaeacians wise to host Odysseus? Was Agamemnon a wise leader?

 

These are questions that can be asked about almost any book worth reading. And they can lead to incredibly profitable discussions!

Make these commitments:

Commitment 1: I will listen to the book

Instead of letting a curriculum guide you, let Homer guide you

Commitment 2: I will teach my students how to read and think

Instead of introducing them to yet another book, teach them the skills of active reading

Read by asking questions

Read purposefully

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Too often the questions we ask are rooted, not in our interest in the text, but in our distrust of the students. We ask them if they know so and so because if they don’t they didn’t read carefully.
In my opinion, that is not a fair assumption and it leads to a hunted feeling among students.

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Here’s something to be careful about: when you are teaching, an outline can be very helpful. So can a few notes on key ideas developed in the text.
However, they will be a lot more helpful for you than they will be for the student. We teachers can easily fall into what I call the analytic fallacy. That’s the idea that because you and I want to understand the text in an adult way, therefore our students do too.
It ain’t so.
First, just let them read the story. Don’t insist they like it. Then raise some very basic questions. That’s the key right there. If the students are asking questions, these tools that you have found helpful can be helpful for them too.

But don’t give them outlines until they help answer a question. And don’t give a lecture about a key idea until it will help your students answer a question.

By the way, that should be a question they are actively asking. If the discussion is driven by questions, you’ll be amazed how much you can teach your students about reading and thinking just by reading and thinking about what they are reading.

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The great benefit of teaching through a great question is that it causes you to focus on the right things.
Instead of focusing on details, focus on the big ideas.

 

Shakespeare’s Language and the Evolution of Human Intelligence

I was watching a bit of Brannagh’s Hamlet tonight and luxuriating in the language (some of which I understood) when my dear wife asked me for my opinion. “Do you think the groundlings actually understood what was going on in those plays?”

To which I answered yes, but the reasons are probably another blog post.

Then she asked for another opionion. Why do you think people today can’t understand it?

I must warn you, I’m about to say something that will sound caustic. You probably want to cover your children’s ears while you read this.

The reason we can’t understand Shakespeare or read the King James Version of the Bible or grapple with Milton or almost any poetry is because we systematically school children in our culture to become increasingly stupid. Charlotte Mason uses the term “stultify” to describe what we do.

 I understand that sounds very harsh, so I need to defend the position.

First let me say that this problem is systemic and cannot be blamed on any particular teacher or parent. Those who govern American education at the highest level are highly irresponsible, do not understand the effect of systems on education, and bear primary responsibility for this folly. In addition, text book publishers have profited immeasurably from poor theory, so they bear high responsibility as well.

What then is the problem?

It’s the way we teach reading. I can and will approach this from many angles over the next little while, but today I want to express one simple point. When we teach reading, we treat the child like she is a mechanism learning a process. We do not teach it like she is a person interacting with ideas.

The notion of a child as a mechanism learning a process arises from Dewey’s theory of instrumentalism or pragmatism, which I haven’t the time to develop right now but there are scads of resources explaining it on the internet. In short, it reduces humans to mechanisms, knowledge to a process, and learning to a technique. The person is displaced.

But to read is not simply to decode symbols (i.e. sound out letters or translate pictures into words). To read is to be a person interacting with ideas (usually embodied in metaphors, sometimes, for older people, expressed as abstractions). That’s what pre-school children do when you read a fairy tale to them while they sit on your lap.

The pre-school child handles complex syntax with little trouble. He cuts through it to the tensions and questions and actions of the main actors. It’s a human instinct to do so. Then we get them to school and we only let them read what they can sound out. In fact, and this is the FATAL mistake: even the books we read TO them have to be at what we call “their level” by which we mean what they can sound out.

This is silly. Children can understand and interpret texts far beyond anything they can sound out. But Victorian cuteness and sentimentality have overtaken the classroom, and the child’s mind and moral development suffer for it.

As a result, we undercut the development of the child’s mind by interfering with it. In kindergarten we limit our oral reading to texts with a syntax no moron would need by the time he is three. See Dick Run! Why? Why would I want to see Dick run when I can listen to something like this:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and movement how express and admirable; in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.

When my child is 12, what good will it have done him to have had to read something as inane, as jejune, as ridiculous, as empty, as stultifying, as stupidifying, as “see Dick run”? On the other hand, the passage above will feed the child’s soul to the day he dies. It will help him know who he is, his place in the cosmos, his likeness to God, his obligations. It will provide comfort in dark hours.

When he begins to learn formal writing skills, it will sing in his mind as an ideal to be sought for. It will provide examples of schemes and tropes. It will provide a sequence of perfect word choices.

In short, those two lines from Hamlet will feed his soul from the day he first has them read to him through his later encounter with the play in high school through the trials and tests of adulthood (for which, after all, an education is meant to prepare a child – unless we look to Professor Umbridge as our model), to the day he lies on his bed or goes into battle ready to meet his maker.

See Dick run. I’d rather not.

The consequence of our folly is that we habituate students to read and write at absurdly low levels. Then to top it off, we sentimentalize what they read, fearing that they can’t deal with monsters and werewolves.

In all these ways we truly dis-educate our children by teaching them.

What should we do if we want to cultivate our children’s intelligence and moral development (and yes, they go hand in hand)?

We should read to them works that they cannot understand. We should read rich metaphorical works, like fairy tales, folk tales, fables, mythology, legends, Bible stories. We should not ask them to analyze them.

We should just read them. We can discuss them in personal ways, but to transfer this personal activity into an intellectual exercise before 2nd or 3rd grade is counter-productive.

We should teach children to decode phonograms, but we should not convince ourselves that this is reading. It’s a very different intellectual exercise that prepares children for reading. But they do more reading with their ears than with their eyes when they are learning to decode.

Most of all, we should never forget that we are teaching persons, not mechanisms that need to master a process for efficient operations.

Teaching Fairy Tales and Personal Knowledge

I am continually amazed at the power of fairy tales to enliven a boy’s childhood. Fairy tales might be the place where the folly and harm of impersonal knowledge is most easily seen. Here’ Bruno Bettelheim in his magnificent book The Uses of Enchantment:

Like all great art, fairy tales both delight and instruct; their special genius is that they do so in terms which speak directly to children. At the age when these stories are most meaningful to the child, his major problem is to bring some order into the inner chaos of is mind so that he can understand himself better–a necessary preliminary for achieving some congruence between his perceptions and the external world.

“True” stories about the “real” world may provide some interesting and often useful information. but the way these stories unfold is as alien to the way the prepubertal child’s mind functions as the supernatural events of the fairy tale are to the way the mature intellect comprehends the world.

Strictly realistic stories run counter to the child’s inner experiences; he will listen to them and maybe get something out of them, but he cannot extract much personal meaning from them that transcends obvius content. These stories inform wihtout enriching, as is unfortunately also true of much learning in school. Factual knowledge profits the total personality only when it is turned into “personal knowledge.”… A fare of realistic stories only is barren.

Do you see the significance of fairy tales for your children? So often we want common sense to rule the nursery. Well, that common sense is not something that enables the child to manage his world. Heck, it doesn’t even work for us. When I use my common sense, I know that my trials are going to continue, that no fairy godmother is going to come to my rescue, that I’m on my own. I become hopeless. But the fairy tale tells me my fairy godmother is looking out for me.

And that seems like a valuable piece of news. No wonder materialist culture, Christians who take their common sense too far and their anxieties even farther, and rationalists tend to oppose fairy tales.

The great thing about teaching fairy tales is that all you have to do is tell them – or, if necessary, read them. The child’s soul will do the work. If they want them retold, retell them. Over and over, if necessary. They are the means by which we can tend the heart of virtue, to use the title of Vigen Guroian’s fine book on this subject.

Fairy tales are an instance of poetic or personal knowledge, of living ideas.

Harry Potter and sympathetic treatment

As I have blogged twice about Harry Potter, both with qualifications for Rowling’s greatness, I think I should add something that has struck me recently and which I consider one of her great powers: the ability to engage sympathetically with the inner workings of the human mind.

Probably my favorite magical device in the whole series is the brilliantly named Pensieve.  She introduces it perfectly. The tone is set in the gravity and secrecy and soberness of Dumbledore’s office. Harry enters it and is surprised by its function. Then Dumbledore quietly draws Harry out of it and back to his office. The quietness and sensitivity of the scene and the actions shows an inner warmth in Rowling toward the secret workings of the mind: the memories, the challenge of keeping them ordered, the yearning to make them objective and understand them.

Perhaps the best chapter in the fourth book.

How to Teach Harry Potter

Of course, a lot of people would ask, “Why to teach Harry Potter?” and they’re right to ask. The reason is because kids are reading it. That doesn’t mean you should make kids read it who otherwise wouldn’t (it isn’t THAT good), but for those who are, it would make for good discussion.

There are two big issues with Harry Potter: One, whether it expresses a sound “worldview” and two, whether it is well-written.

Sticking with the chiastic motif, let me reflect on the second question first. It is very unevenly written. Rowling uses tons of cliches, describes things as “oddly” or “strangely” something or other too often, and occasionally becomes too cute. Many people have suggested that she gets better as she proceeds. I agree. The first and second volumes don’t offer much. The third steps up.

The fourth almost does, but she seems to make the same mistake as an author that her readers did as readers. She’s too absorbed in the world she’s created. The story should have been half as long, but she lingers too much on the details of Christmas presents and the way things are mailed. The fourth volume is the most disappointing. A person who hadn’t read the first three and fallen under her spell would be much less likely to find it interesting or compelling as a starting point. You can’t say that about, for example, any of the Narnia Chronicles.

Also, I can’t get past the feeling that the magic is childish in its use. In daily activities or on special occasions, the magicians can do whatever they want. Some of it is explained as the stories develop, like when the house-elves are revealed as providing the food. But it’s too easy, too light, too pleasant. With all the magic, they should never have an inconvenience. I need to reflect more on this point, because it’s important and I’m not ready to draw a conclusion yet, but I know I don’t find the magic so prevelant in my fairy world. Again, it seems childish – a shallow form of wishful thinking.

In the sixth and seventh she’s back to developing a good plot again.

And when it comes to developing a plot, Rowling is brilliant. By book five, she has created a compelling world, developed characters of great variety (some simple caracatures, like the Dursleys, some complex like Harry, some subtle like Dumbledore), and raised enough questions that the reader is swept into Harry’s and Dumbledore’s quest. Harry is not always likable, an important element of his likability. But we want him to grow and to win. He does both, at tremendous cost.

That tremendous cost justifies the whole series. Rowling has wooed an entire generation away from sentimentalism and has added to the call for a more heroic age in which friendship, self-control, and courage replace the cynicism and sentimentality (fraternal twins) of the 20th century.

Which brings up the next issue.

The worldview question is much more complicated. Apparently, Rowling is a practicing Christian in the Church of Scotland, so it’s interesting to speculate on whether she intended to express or even attend to the Christian worldview in her writings. Nobody can do so perfectly, of course, so it would be easy to find areas where she falls short. It would also be valuable to find areas where she represents it well.

But the Christian worldview insists that things be regarded and judged according to what they are (the kind of thing they are), not by whether a given artifact agrees with a series of statements somebody has determined are dogma. So the first worldview question has to be whether Potter succeeds as literature.

Here are some questions I would ask a class to prepare them for a read of Potter (before they know it’s what we’re going to read):

  1. (see the earlier post) If you were writing a fantasy/fairy tale, would you give magical power to humans? Why?
  2. What is the difference between a man and a boy?
  3. Can you write a Christian story without talking about God?

However, if you read the book continually asking whether or not it is “written from a Christian worldview” you won’t be able to answer the question because you won’t be reading the book. First you need to read the story. Of course, if there are immoral actions or vile values exalted, such things stick out pretty quickly, though a really good book could create the appearance of such exaltation and then undercut it. The point is, you have to read the books before you can judge them.

That doesn’t mean, and this is a critical point, that we are somehow bound to read every book and watch every movie before we can make a judgment. For the most part, we aren’t supposed to be spending so much time on empty entertainment (i.e. as watching movies usually is) anyway. So as a practical matter, we need the help of others to decide where to spend our time.

This is just common sense, but I’ve wandered from my point, so I’ll hang up now.

Notes on Teaching Literature

When you are done the corpse must be alive. Lit provides models/types of the virtues in three ways: characters, writers, and texts. The protagonist will almost always model a virtue. The writer might be virtuous in his lifestyle or writing disciplines. The text itself is virtuous if its form and content fulfill the law of propriety.

Therefore
1. Select the best models
2. Encounter these models directly and whole. Don’t moralize.
3. Identify the core question in a text. For example, my son Andrew wanted to know why the Scarlet Pimpernel was rescuing French aristocrats if they were so bad. Great question and one worth a lot of discussion and reading.
4. Explore everything in light of the core question.

Beware of murdering a text in order to dissect it.