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The Half-Wit Pope – Redux

August 23rd, 2009 No comments

Been a very busy month.   In my frenzy to live up to another commitment and finish a project, I was unable to complete a new essay for SU.  My apologies for that.  In place of a new essay, here is an old favorite of mine.

I know the Harry Potter craze is near its end with all the books out a only one more movie to go, but I feel the points I make apply to other works and other authors as well, so feel free to draw your own parallels.

All the best,

Brian Knight

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Harry Potter and the Half-Wit Pope

While researching this essay about the negative buzz that rings through the Writer’s Community (I use the term Writer’s Community for lack of a better one) every time a new Harry Potter book comes along, inevitably breaking every sales record in publishing history, I came across a piece about the new Pontiff’s take on the insanely popular Boy Wizard. So, I’ve decided to widen the scope a bit. After listing the three top reasons I’ve heard other writers give for their not-so-glowing opinions of J.K. Rowling’s wildly successful Harry Potter series, along with my rebuttals, I’ll stick my other foot solidly in my mouth by telling you exactly why I think folks with a religious objection to Harry Potter would do better to just keep their opinions to themselves.

Top three Harry Potter peccadilloes:

#1 – J.K. Rowling’s Love of the Adverb.

I’ll admit that I tend to favor Professor William Strunk Jr’s rule against adverb use in my own writing (though you might have noticed I’ve thrown a few in here just for giggles). I’ve heard counts of up to fifteen per page in the Harry Potter books; a bit excessive, I admit. However, her use of adverbs has never dampened my enjoyment of the Harry Potter books, and I’ll take it from the almost seven million copies of The Half-Blood Prince that sold the first day, that other readers agree with me.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King makes his point against adverbs, taking special care to tell readers how much he dislikes them in speech tags. King later refers to J.K. Rowling as a “Master of Back-story,” but neglects to mention her love of the adverb. While silence does not necessarily mean consent, he evidently didn’t feel her breaking of the no adverb rule was worth commenting on.

#2 – Weak Writing.

Now, I don’t know about that. Rowling’s writing is certainly simple (and I don’t mean that in a bad way) and straight forward, but a lack of poetic and flowery prose does not equal bad writing. I’ve seen her writing improve with each book, and her stories continue to grab me.

Some folks simply don’t like her writing or stories, and I accept that tastes in both style and subject matter do vary, but I don’t accept that she’s a weak writer.

#3 – Harry Potter is Literary Junk Food.

J.K. Rowling is not Marcel Proust. I see her as more of a modern Charles Dickens, remembering the story of a mob of Dickens fans who overcrowded a dock while waiting for a ship to deliver the final installment of The Old Curiosity Shop. Several unlucky fans fell off the dock and drowned.

J.K. Rowling’s work will probably not be studied by scholars, or taught by Literature Professors in a hundred years (except maybe for the pure economic effect it has had on the publishing world – Harry Potter is a 100 megaton nuclear warhead in a field of bottle rockets and firecrackers).

For me, her work is pure addictive fun, and for me that’s enough.

Now on to the Pope.

In a letter sent March of 2003 to Gabriele Kuby, author of Harry Potter – gut oder böse (Harry Potter- good or evil?), a German language book accusing J.K. Rowling’s books of “corrupting the hearts of the young,” then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:

It is good, that you enlighten people about Harry Potter, because those are subtle seductions, which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly.”

See http://www.lifesite.net/ldn/2005/jul/05071301.html (Pope Opposes Harry Potter Novels) for the full story.

Does this viewpoint surprise me?

Not at all. The Harry Potter books have been stigmatized by religious groups and leaders almost from the start.

Does this viewpoint bother me?

Yes, just a little. Harry Potter is, at its core, a story of good vs. evil, and the line between the two is clearly drawn for the most part. Any obscurity can be put down to a Who-Done-It sense of mystery, rather than an attempt at any kind of moral relativism (a recent example of moral relativism being a line from Starwars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, where the newly christened Darth Vader says “from my point of view the Jedi are evil”).

Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter, and The Order of the Phoenix are good guys, Lord Voldemort, Draco Malfoy, and The Death Eaters are bad guys. There it is, crystal clear. You’d think a discerning religious community would appreciate the absence of a sticky middle ground between the two, but apparently, many don’t.

This viewpoint is not universal among the religious, my wife, Shawna, is a Baptist and loves Harry Potter, but she seems to me to be the exception, rather than the rule.

Is the religious community’s constant condemnation of the Harry Potter books as evil productive to their goal, which I assume is to get people not to read them?

Hell no.

My wife and I took our first step into J.K. Rowling’s world of Wizards, Muggles, and Hogwarts because my son wanted to read one, and Shawna was concerned about all of the squawking coming from religious groups who opposed the series. We took it on, more in the spirit of a chore than anything else.

Need I say we became instant and enduring fans?

Yes, I was among the crowd of “Potterheads” hanging out at the bookstore at midnight on the release day. I was the third to grab a copy (two, as a matter of fact) from a pallet of six-hundred that was probably gone within hours.

Stop laughing. At least I wasn’t dressed in Hogwarts school robes.

Do I resent the new Pope’s opinion of J.K. Rowling’s books?

Nope. It is his opinion to have, and many share it. However, had religious objectors kept this opinion a little closer to their vests (or in Ratzinger’s case, his robe), the fire-storm of controversy that brought Harry Potter to the world’s attention might never have happened, and J.K. Rowling might now be a lowly mid-lister, or Scholastic may have even canceled the series by now.

I don’t think the controversy gets full credit for Harry Potter’s success though. J.K. Rowling’s sales might have already been good, I don’t remember that far back, and I’m too tired to research that at one in one o’clock in the damn morning. The bad religious publicity may have put a spotlight on the series, but that spotlight would have burned out quickly if the story itself weren’t so universally loved.

And to clarify, I don’t really think the Pope is a half-wit, but once that line occurred to me, I had to use it.

Brian Knight

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