A Christian perspective on fantasy literature
Another way to judge a story is to look at the morality taught by characters and events. There many not be any specific "moral lessons" articulated at the end, but throughout the story the author is presenting his or her ideas about what is good and what is bad.
As Bettleheim says in The Uses of Enchantment, children need a "moral education" that is not
abstract but concrete. "(T)he inner and outer struggles of the hero imprint morality on
(the child)." (op.
cit., p. 9)
"The question for the child is not, 'Do I want to be good,' but 'Who do I want to be like? . . . If this fairy-tale figure is a very good person, then the child decides that he wants to be very good, too." (pp. 9-10)
Tolkien in his essay "On Fairy-Stories" agrees. Children do ask about a story, "Is it true?"
(But) "Far more often they have asked me: 'Was he good? Was he wicked?' That is, they were more concerned to get the Right side and the Wrong side clear. For that is a question equally important in History and in Faerie."(op. cit., p. )
1. Moral Absolutes vs. Moral Relativism
Lord of the Rings presents a clear example of moral absolutes. Good and bad are clearly defined as is the line between the two.
Harry Potter reflects the moral relativism (or situational ethics) of our modern age. Good and bad are not clearly separate. What matters are intentions.
We see clearly see this differences between the two stories in how the villain is defined: In Lord of the Rings the dark Lord Sauron has stolen power that belongs only to God. He uses it to enslave everyone and everything to his will. No one can use that power. NO ONE. Not Gandalf, not Galadrel, not Frodo, not Sam. No one, no matter how good they may be or how good their intentions, dares to use the ring of power.
By contrast, Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter is merely another wizard except that he will use his power for evil. But how is he really different from all the "good" witches and wizards? They want power as well. Yet they are to be trusted and he is not? What is the difference between the two? When is it wrong to use this power? Where is the line? It is never clearly stated. Voldemort represents "The dark side," but what is the light side? In the world of Harry Potter, good intentions mean everything. As long as you mean well, any behavior is acceptable.
What separates Harry from Voldemort? The direction of the story would suggest that Harry is destined to be the next king wizard. Therefore, Voldemort's only crime is that he wants the job, too. But why does Harry deserve to be king? Simply because he is a sympathetic character? Sympathetic characters can do much harm. Is Voldemort evil because he kills? Yet Harry kills, too. At the end of The Sorcerer's Stone, Harry's hands murder professor Queril (although the professor is not at fault, he is merely the dupe of the evil Voldemort). Harry experiences no negative consequences or remorse for this murder. In the film, the headmaster Albus Dumbledore actually tells Harry that it was "the power of love" that gave him the ability to murder with just his touch. The power of love leads to murder? What kind of a moral universe is this?
2. Deferred Gratification vs. Instant Gratification
We see this difference clearly exemplified in how the two stories define a hero.
In Lord of the Rings Frodo accomplishes his quest through self-sacrifice. He realizes he may never return, yet he decides to accept the call on his life. There is no guarantee of success. This is a dramatic example of deferred gratification.
Harry Potter, on the other hand, gains wealth, popularity and power overnight all by virtue of his birth. He goes to school to gain even more power. As a witch Harry enjoys the ultimate in instant gratification. Everything is his at a wave of the magic wand. At school, he does not have to wait like other children for the chance to have a broom or to play on the Quidditch team. Harry gets it all as soon as he wants it.
3. Actions and Consequences
In Lord of the Rings negative actions such as lying, stealing or disobedience bring negative consequences:
In stark contrast, Harry Potter seldom if ever suffers negative consequences for his bad behavior. In fact, he is often rewarded for it.
Now, there is nothing wrong with a character in juvenile fiction who gets in trouble. That is a common thread throughout literature from Huck Finn to Anne of Green Gables. But what does the character learn about life? Harry learns no lessons in these sJtories. He is never confronted with his own bad behavior or wrong opinions about people. He never has to apologize or admit he was wrong. Even when he accuses Professor Snapes of being in league with Voldemort, he never apologizes when he learns otherwise. Harry always gets away with murder. Literally.
4. The author's attitude toward his/her own characters
Lord of the Rings presents a world of Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves, Men and more and all are treated with equal respect by the author. Even the loathsome Gollum has a sense of humor, a motivation for his behavior and a chance to redeem himself.
The Harry Potter books are mean-spirited, elitist and offer no hope of redemption for any of the negative characters.
Copyright © 2002 by Stephen Mark Spence