Lewis, C.S.


I have great respect for much of what J.K. Rowling has done:

  • succeeding as a first-time published author;
  • weaving a complex plot;
  • selling gazillions of books;
  • getting kids (girls & boys) and adults excited to read;
  • possessing the sheer courage of committing to 7 books.

But . . . I have problems with the series. My concerns aren’t that of a fan, who enjoys (legitimately!) every scrap of info, every paragraph (strong or weak), doesn’t want the series to end (ever), etc.

My concerns are how good the series is in overall quality. Especially when held up to other comparable series by great authors such as Ursula Le Guin (Earthsea), C.S. Lewis (Narnia), etc.

Frankly, in my opinion, the Harry Potter series started off strong. But the latter books suffered in the writing quality. Drawbacks:

1. The small group of main characters and settings.

Perhaps the series suffered from the weight of the author’s bold commitment to write a series of 7 books, following Harry through each year at Hogwarts. The pace, trying for 1 per year, was daunting. And Rowling decided to focus the 7 novels on the same main characters, following them from beginning to end. And she used the same settings, and the same overarching threat from Lord Voldemort and his minions, more or less. (Other great series writers – Le Guin and Lewis, for instance – did similar numbers of books but varied the settings and characters.)

By the second half of the series, less of Rowling’s immense creativity, storytelling ability, and humor comes forth. The latter books are bloated in length and dragged down by the demands of the complex plot.

Personally, as a reader, I found myself losing interest in the repeated scenes within Hogwarts; with the Dursleys, the similar conversations amongst Harry, Hermione, and Ron; the creeping around with the cloak of invisibility, etc.

Perhaps the series could have been better had it been done in fewer volumes, and had the second half of the series been done in shorter books instead of the mammoth doorstops that they became.

2. The complexity of the plot.

Like a grand tournament between chess masters, with move and countermove, stratagem and defense, ruse and revelation, game after game, the Harry Potter series is densely plotted, with all sorts of twists, turns, surprises, connections. The problem: it requires so much to spin it all out. By the last book, there are pages and pages and yet more pages of characters explaining to each other what really happened.

By the end of Book 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows . . . sure, it’s fascinating how J.K. Rowling ties everything up as an intellectual challenge. But it just wasn’t as well-told as the first books in the series. The plot with all its puzzles has become an albatross, along with, perhaps, all the distractions of fan speculation, and the movies, and all the hoopla about what was going to happen next to whom, instead of just letting Rowling focus on writing a good story.

3. Huge plot holes.

Book 7 has some of the worst clunkers, holes big enough to drive a Gringotts armored truck through them. The most extreme occurs midway, when Harry & Hermione & Ron have taken off on their own, hiding out and moving constantly around the English countryside, camping in an invisible tent. Unfortunately, they have cut all ties with everyone else, and don’t know what to do next or where to go.

They are mystified . . . until finally Rowling has to create a fishing party of acquaintances who show up (amazing coincidence) to go fishing in the middle of nowhere right next to the (invisible) tent; they proceed to talk loudly about what’s up, so that H, H, and R can overhear the needed clue about what to do next.

Okay, that’s just lame, plot-wise . . . and suggests to me that Rowling had written herself into a corner, and came up with this desperate deus ex machina device to move her story forward.

As an editor, I wouldn’t let a new author get away with it. But Rowling was beyond reproach, or perhaps just under a tight deadline, and she and her editors were confident (and correct) that this would not affect sales, fan appeal, etc.

Sure, many fictional stories benefit from some luck, but that was a bit far-fetched. England is a big country, and the chances of hearing the needed clue while sitting inside your tent are pretty slim. You can’t let a plot depend on some random people showing up in the middle of nowhere to tell the protagonists what they need to know.

If this were the only instance . . . but other similar too-lucky or convenient magical things happen time and again, bailing out the plot. The explanations don’t really hold water, even given all the magic involved.

As many authors have said, especially in fantasy, the magic needs rules and limits, believable enough to create the proper dramatic tension, so that the good characters face real challenges. It’s a problem when magic (with its ability to produce the revealing conversation, letter, clue, homing device, secret weapon, or whatever) bails them out, time and again.

Rowling just goes to the well too often, coming up with fantastic ways that things work out. After a while, like watching a stage magician, we tend not to get too emotionally involved, suspecting that if trouble brews, the author will just pull another rabbit out of the hat.

4. Harry’s likability.

As the series progresses, Harry becomes more and more a chess piece, moved around by others, by greater and greater powers, by the grand struggle between good and evil, and by his own loose emotions.

Most of all, he undermines his own likability by getting angry, over and over, at his closest friends, Ron & Hermione, and at his likable mentor, Dumbledore. In Book 4, Harry is just angry a lot of the time, acting irritated and often mean to his friends.

In Book 7, he is still angry and argumentative. And he lets it get the best of him. He wants “the truth,” which means he doesn’t always seem to care if things do or don’t work out well. And he doesn’t always care about the trouble he gets his friends into. In fact, he does a number of fairly stupid things that gets them into major trouble, even when they are supposedly working together as a team. And when those excursions don’t work out well, and bad things happen like Hermione is tortured and cut by a knife-wielding maniac, Harry never really acknowledges what an idiot he was to give way to his personal anger and interests, and he doesn’t apologize.

I found myself feeling sorry for Harry. Sure, I hoped things worked out. But I stopped really rooting for him to get what he wanted. Instead, I began to identify with Ron and Hermione, who are so patient, and supportive, and truly kind, and in Hermione’s case, far more sensible.

Crossword Puzzles, Cricket Matches, and a Fantasy Series that Was Stretched Too Long

So in the end, I read all the books, and enjoyed many parts: the page-turning dense plot, the early humor, the wonderful place of Hogwarts. In the end, though, while at first a fan, I drifted away from true enthusiasm as the series progressed. For me, the series didn’t really live up to its earlier promise of grand appeal.

By the final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that book, and the overall series, wasn’t exactly something I’d recommend to others.

It was more like how I enjoy a bit of chess, or the occasional crossword puzzle . . . or watching baseball or other games like tennis without time limits, back and forth, back and forth, appreciating the skills and athleticism . . . but in the end, being bored by the repetitive game happening over and over on the same court.

In length, the Harry Potter series is like a cricket tournament. Intriguing, but it goes on far too long, to the point of being interesting mostly to its true fans.

As an editor, I think Rowling would have had a better series, had it been tightened into four, maybe five volumes. Seven books focused on the same characters and the same struggle was excessive. And the length of the latter books . . . ho, boy. The excessive length was probably connected to tight deadlines (“If I’d had more time, I would have written something shorter,” as a famous author said).

So, while commercially successful – a gigantic fan phenomenon, and all power to Rowling for that – the series slid downhill in quality over time, in my opinion.

All this may undermine how enthusiastically the series is recommended, and revered, by new readers a decade from now, let along in forty or fifty years . . . as is true of the novels of Le Guin (first Earthsea book in 1968), or C.S. Lewis (first Narnia book in 1950), or the books of Madeleine L’Engle or Lloyd Alexander, who also wrote high-quality fantasy series but more succinctly, with far more variety, more literary appeal, and (I suspect), a more lasting readership.

Time will tell. That’s just my guess, based on what I know about good writing and fantasy literature.

[Part 2 to come]

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

The Inklings, of course, is the name for the now-famous group of writers and thinkers hosted by C.S. Lewis in his rooms at Magdalen College at Oxford – rooms that might be called shabby chic, with worn, comfortable armchairs and a big sofa. Attendees included Lewis’s good friend J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and others. They would brew a pot of strong tea, light their pipes, and have at it, first reading excerpts from a work-in-progress and then letting the assembled company “sit in judgement upon it.”

As quoted in Diana Pavlac Glyer‘s fine book, The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, member and older brother of C.S. Lewis, Warren (“Warnie”) Lewis said: “We were no mutual admiration society: praise for good work was unstinted, but censure for bad work – or even not-so-good work – was often brutally frank.”

Glyer’s book documents how they influenced each other in so many ways, as a regular meeting of working writers. In detail, she describes (see p. 104 on) how Lewis helped Tolkien refine the tone of his masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, steering the early drafts of first chapters away from a hobbity, chatty, playful work (first conceived as a sequel to Tolkien’s earlier work for young readers, The Hobbit) and into a more serious work with real “gravity.” It’s a fascinating look into the minds of those two great writers of modern fantasy.

The Company They Keep also brought to my attention the name (see Glyer’s book, p. 3) that Tolkien chose for an earlier version of the Inklings, Kolbítar. It came from an Old Norse/Icelandic word meaning Coal Biters, describing “old cronies” who sat closest to a fire; close enough, as it were, to bite the coal.

What a great image for a literary fellowship, friends huddled around a glowing hearth-fire!

Ever since I heard that term, I’ve also thought of it as a great image for the virtual form: the legions of blog followers, electronic “coal biters,” those of you who bend close to the computer monitor and follow the ethereal musings of bloggers small and mighty. (Today, the term could be “pixel polishers,” but that has so little poetic appeal.)

So welcome, coal-biters all! And be sure to pass on an invitation to others to join us here at Creeping Past Dragons at any time. There’s always a seat at the fire for any and all who might like to squeeze in for a bit of bandying about of all things philosophical and fantastical.

Is Harry Potter a decent person?

Okay, we all know that the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling has been the subject of Christian concern, some criticism, and occasional outright attempts at banning by certain factions.

On that subject, I enjoyed reading and recommend to you this article:

Harry Potter vs. Gandalf: An in-depth analysis of the literary use of magic in the works of J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis
A booklet-length essay by Steven D. Greydanus

The piece is posted on DecentFilms.com, a site of “film appreciation, information, and criticism informed by Christian faith.” It’s run by Mr. Greydanus, film critic for the National Catholic Register. He also writes for Christianity Today Movies and Our Sunday Visitor.

The (long) article compares Harry Potter to C.S Lewis, Tolkien, and modern occult-based stories like the Buffy series, The Craft, etc.

What, then, defines morally acceptable use of good magic in fiction? Where, and how, do we draw the line? How do we distinguish the truly worthwhile (Tolkien and Lewis), the basically harmless (Glinda, Cinderella’s fairy godmother), and the problematic or objectionable (“Buffy,” The Craft)? And where on this continuum does Harry Potter really fall?

The article is fascinating, well-informed, and well-nuanced. Worth reading!

It’s particularly interesting as Greydanus looks at the cautionary limits to magic (what he calls “Seven Hedges”) that Tolkien and C.S. Lewis implanted in their works, as essentially Christian writers. These “hedges” are:

seven specific literary characteristics common to Tolkien’s and Lewis’s fiction — above and beyond the fantasy nature of the magic itself — that have the net effect of limiting and restricting the role of magic in their fantasy worlds, essentially acting as barricades or hedges between magic and the reader, in effect saying: “Magic is not for the likes of us.”

The “hedges” that Greydanus outlines and then examines are things like how open or secret the magic is (more secret in Rowling’s fictional world, less in Tolkien’s or Lewis’s); how central the role of magic is to the main events; how dangerous or corrupting to the users; how much the acquisition of magic is portrayed as a practical process rather than a mysterious one; and so on.

It’s an interesting look at the use of magic in fantasy fiction. I don’t agree with all his assumptions about which is better or worse, but I found the analysis interesting.

Greydanus concludes fairly reasonably that Potter books have fewer “hedges,” and could be “potentially problematic”  . . . but probably aren’t. “The key,” he says rather fairly, “in my judgment, is balance and context. ”

. . . [It isn’t necessary to rewrite who God is in order to imagine a world, like Narnia or Middle-earth, in which the order of creation includes powerful forces, good or neutral in themselves, that some inhabitants of that world are able to engage or control by means of such paraphernalia as incantations or wands — some using this power for good, lawfully, while others for ill, unlawfully.

And this is in fact what’s going on in Tolkien and Lewis, not to mention The Wizard of Oz, Cinderella . . . and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories.

While the article is well-nuanced, I don’t agree in particular with his view of dark fantasy. He tends to object to the dark fantasy of works like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Craft as bad because they are realistic enough to possibly encourage young readers to consider dabbling in actual occult practice. He differentiates between “séances vs. flying broomsticks” (with the latter, or similar magic found in Hogwarts, Narnia, and Middle-earth, being so imaginary as to be impossible and unrewarding to try to implement in real life.)

As I discuss in my own book, A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder and Enchantment, in a chapter titled “Types of Fantasy: Five Rings of Tradition,” dark fantasy and high fantasy are to great degree just different styles of a common genre, with their own interests and approaches. That doesn’t mean that they necessarily believe in different standards of good and evil.

Although some may not see it, dark fantasy doesn’t embrace evil things as good; they are more often just cautionary, scary, often humorous tales. Yes, they focus on those dark powers – their allure and sheer power to scare and grab us . . . physically, emotionally, psychically – and our primal fears of all things dark and different. (Of course, the best dark-fantasy authors do that with more more insight than the hacks in the field . . . as is also true of high fantasy and its weaker vs. stronger works.)

And yes, for fictional power, dark fantasy typically adopts a realistic setting, which high fantasy doesn’t as often.

With dark fantasy, you need to understand the humor and practical catharsis (literally, a purging) implicit in the genre. Stephen King isn’t an evil person. And the Twilight Saga examines issues of real significance (romance, physical attraction, morality, abstinence), in an interesting, fictional way.

And I’ll point out that a blind swallowing of all aspects of high fantasy can lead to a weakness of insight about how easy it is to split the world into black and white, and how goodness will always triumph through conviction and pluckiness and persistence.

In his article, Greydanus concludes:

For my part, I don’t see any one hard and fast answer: no one line in the sand, no one litmus test capable of distinguishing all acceptable uses of good magic in fiction from all unacceptable ones.

I agree with that statement!

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.
— G. K. Chesterton

The name for this blog, Creeping Past Dragons, is a variant of a passage by C.S. Lewis, writing about creativity, the “Fairy Tale” form, and the power of fantasy to “steal past those watchful dragons” of normalcy or dogma in religion, in “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said” (1956, 1966 in Of Other Worlds):

In the Author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story. For me it invariably begins with mental pictures. This ferment leads to nothing unless it is accompanied with the longing for a Form: verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not. When these two things click you have the Author’s impulse complete. It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out. He longs to see that bubbling stuff pouring into that Form as the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar.

Lewis goes on to write how “the Fairy Tale seemed the ideal Form for the stuff I had to say,” and how it occurred to him that stories so clearly made of fantasy, perhaps, “could steal past certain inhibitions which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood.”

But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?

In a 2000 essay from her website, “Here Be Dragons,” Jane Yolen began by noting, with echoes of Chesterton, that:

Ursula Le Guin once remarked during a censorship battle that revolved around fantasy literature that we shouldn’t banish dragons from our stories because then we banish the possibility of St. George.

Yolen added: “I would like to remind us that while dragons are mythical, they are also metaphoric. They stand for something beyond the page and beyond the actual story.”

In her own essay on the subject, “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” (included in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1992), Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, in a critique of American society that tried to reject fantasies with dragons, that nonetheless the dragon:

is alive: terribly alive. . . . It frightens us because it is part of us, and the artist forces us to admit it.

So . . . dare we try to creep past dragons?

Shhhh!

Remember this advice from one who managed to pull it off, just barely:

Never laugh at live dragons, Bilbo, you fool!
— Bilbo Baggins