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July 2, 2012 / CB

Book Review: From Homer to Harry Potter

Disclaimer: If you don’t possess a powerful love of literature and a tendency to geek out over words, turn back now, for here there be dragons.

Okay, so maybe that’s a touch melodramatic, but I do think this book will challenge anyone without those two particular predilections.  It is a well written, philosophical look at classical literature and its influence on a selection of modern fantasy authors.  That said, I do think the title is a trifle misleading, as the author’s focus large sections of the text to neither Homer nor Harry Potter.  All the same, I found a great many parts enlightening, and it opened me  up to new literature as well as new ways of thinking about literature I already know well (as a matter of fact, I’ve done a couple posts about this book already: here & here).

From the get-go, it is clear that the authors are both inspired and influenced by two writers: C.S. Lewis & J.R.R. Tolkien.  Initially, I was a little taken aback by this.  They seemed to be starting in the middle of the continuum suggested by the title.  Dickerson & O’Hara are quite unapologetic, however, even going so far as to say that they didn’t devote a chapter to either author because they viewed the work of Tolkien and Lewis as so influential that they would simply keep referring to them throughout the discussion.  While I have no problem with that attitude in and of itself, this declaration did leave me feeling a bit duped.  If the work of these two authors is the driving force in the book, then they ought to be represented in the title.  Using Harry Potter smacks of opportunism, especially given that the book was first published in 2007, right before Rowling released her final book.  In fact, I would have been more likely to pick the book up had Lewis and Tolkien been mentioned on the cover, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Once I got past this psychological hurdle, I was able to settle down to read what turned out to be a fascinating musing over the nature and power of myth.  I was especially intrigued by the idea that we Christians should embrace the Bible’s mythic nature and not shy away from speaking of it as such.  Despite its modern usage (i.e. that something is false), the word “myth” is actually descended from the Greek “muthos” which simply meant “word” or “speech”.  What’s more, “muthos” was a close synonym for “logos”, the forerunner of “logic” AND the word John uses to describe Jesus in the opening lines of his gospel.  Over time, the two words diverged, with “logos” meaning truth by reason and “muthos” meaning truth by story.  Thus, the Bible really is a myth, because it is the greatest truth told through a series of stories.  All myths strive to reveal some kind of truth, but only one ever got it right.  Taken from another angle, this is absolutely the right way to look at the Bible, since Jesus himself did so much teaching, revealing the truth of God’s kingdom, through stories.

As the book moves forward, the authors use this idea as a backdrop for talking about the various sorts of fantastic stories selected for review.  They discuss both the inspiration behind major story types and the inspirational effects sent forward in time.  Especially with the modern works, they also analyze how the tales stack up to the Biblical truths discussed early on.  Indeed, I wish they had done more of this, as they make a rather succinct and solid argument for why Christians should not hate Harry Potter (or any fantasy):

The presence of magic in any book “should not be cause for alarm to the Christian, anymore than the presence of chemistry or pharmaceutics or just plain herb lore in any other type of novel should be cause for alarm.  The question is what the author does with it….if [bad things] happen [through magic], but are shown to be evil, or if heroes use their knowledge of potions to heal, then the underlying moral message of the tale is completely consistent with Christian teaching” (p.242).

In other words, it’s not so much what tools the heroes use to accomplish their given task, but rather the nature of the task itself and how that is portrayed by narrator and author.  A book about thieves stealing from good people, which makes thieves look good, is probably  cause for alarm.  A book about Robin Hood robbing from the oppressive rich to give to the humble poor, however, could very much jive with Christian teaching (see under Stephen Lawhead’s King Raven Trilogy).

What I liked most about From Homer to Harry Potter is its unwavering belief in the power of story.  For time beyond measure, tales have not only entertained, but enlightened and guided as well.  As Christians, we should not reject this idea, but remember that it is at the bedrock of our faith.  We are, after all, a People of the Book.  All that we know of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit has been given to us through stories.  Fantastic literature does not always point the way to The Truth, neither I nor the authors believe that, but in the right hands, magic can do more than change a prince into a toad.  It can remind us that there is more to our existence than the race of everyday life.

“Mythic and fantastic literature, perhaps more than any other literature, reminds us of the relevance of our moral decision making.  Our attention is focused on what transcends our mundane experience of brute action in the world.  We are reminded that the world is shot through with significance, that we ourselves are significant, no matter who we are” (p.260).

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2 Comments

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  1. Brian in Baltimore / Jul 2 2012 4:31 pm

    Good review, Chris. On a related note, I once heard John Granger of hogwartsprofessor.com give a speech on the Christian themes of Rowling. Having not read the Potter series I was only take in so little of it, but it was a good lecture nonetheless. (by the way, Time magazine dubbed Granger the “dean of Potter scholars”, not that Time knows best or anything, but he has written some good and deep stuff on good Christian fantasy writing)

    • CB / Jul 4 2012 1:24 pm

      Thanks, Brian! I’ve heard of Granger before and even read some of his pieces. I didn’t know about the website, though. Is it just me, or is the irony in his last name a little too over the top?

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