Lewis and Rowling

This was initially going to appear in the final, C.S. Lewis-themed issue of the Costume Chronicles, but in the end I feared it might be too controversial for our audience, so it was shelved. If one cannot be controversial on one’s blog, however, what good is it? I know some of my friends were looking forward to reading it, and curious to what conclusions I might draw, so without further ado, let’s delve into the similarities and differences between Narnia and Hogwarts, shall we?

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Once in pub there sat a group of men, two of which would become famous for their foray into fantasy. One of them was J.R.R. Tolkien and the other was C.S. Lewis. The topic of conversation was whether or not it was appropriate for Lewis to incorporate the figure of Father Christmas, a figure of our world, into Narnia. Tolkien argued that fantasy should be kept separate from the ‘real’ world, but Lewis, with his typical humility and sense of humor, kept Father Christmas in his book anyway, which went on to become one of the most popular series of our time.

No other children’s fantasy series achieved similar success until J.K. Rowling came along. Her series, Harry Potter, about a boy-wizard and his adventures in defeating the evil Lord Voldemort, became international bestsellers… and raised a huge amount of controversy in Christian households. Some embrace Lewis and not Rowling, others love them both, and still others respect Lewis for his scholastic works but do not approve of his fantasy series. However, it is interesting to note that Rowling and Lewis’ books have some things in common, and indeed, that in her own way, Rowling is paying tribute to her own favorite book series, The Chronicles of Narnia. She told the Daily Mail that, “if there is [one of those books] anywhere in the room, I have to go pick it up.”

What can one learn from Lewis and Rowling and where might the original author fall in the terms of this debate? It is shown in his argument with Tolkien that Lewis did not believe it was wrong to engage aspects of familiar culture in fantasy stories—such as Father Christmas being in Narnia, as a symbol of goodness and pointing to the approach of Aslan, because even in Narnia they have Christmas! (So does Hogwarts.) Lewis also included “magic” in some of his stories, although the children do not much use it—Lucy does recite a spell to free the Dufflepuds from being invisible and meets a Magician. The term “wizard” is never used in Narnia, “Magician” is instead. Lewis set out to write a children’s story and it became an allegory; the same can be said of Rowling. While she drew her inspiration from many different myths and pieces of literature, it is obvious her works reflect those of C.S. Lewis, sometimes in the subtlest of ways.

The insignia for the House of Gryffindor, which is where Harry, Ron, and Hermione are “sorted,” is a great golden lion. Nor do I suspect it is pure chance that their official colors are the same as Aslan’s Army—red and gold. Rowling admits Harry’s journey to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters came to mind while contemplating the way to reach Narnia through a doorway—the Wardrobe—that separates realities. But her books are different, since “Narnia is literally a different world, whereas in [my] books you go into a world within a world that you can see if you happen to belong.” Lewis includes mythical creatures, among them the wise Centaurs, who are capable of reading the stars; at Howarts, “divination” is routinely said to be rubbish except for one true prophecy (Harry’s birth) and only the Centaurs can be trusted to read the stars. At the climax of The Silver Chair, Prince Rillian kills the Great Serpent by striking off its head; in The Deathly Hallows, Neville Longbottom defeats the snake Nagini similarly.

Wherever you tend to fall in the argument, it is undeniable that Rowling incorporates many of the same ideas as Lewis, particularly in terms of Christian symbolism. Harry is a Christ-figure in the series although he is not meant to represent Christ in literal terms (Harry, after all, gets married when he grows up!). He is hailed as the “Chosen One” prophesied to defeat Lord Voldemort, and when it comes down to the epic battle between them, Harry gives his life for his friends. He dies and enters an in-between world, then is permitted to return. Voldemort tries to kill him a second time, but his curse rebounds, ending his own life. Rowling uses other tributes to her faith in her works, perhaps the most blatant of which being the inclusion of two scriptures in her last book, the first on the gravestone of Dumbledore’s sister (“where your heart is, there your treasure will be”) and on Harry’s parents headstone: “the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” These two scriptures “epitomize the whole of the series.” Harry becomes Master of Death, capable of raising the spirits of his beloved fallen family and friends as he goes to his own death (and resurrection). Aslan also has the power to breathe life into the fallen, when he rescues the Statues at the Witch’s Palace.

Rowling said in an interview that to her, the “religious parallels have always been obvious,” but she was reluctant to speak openly about them for fear they would lead her readers to guess the end of the last book.

Where does that leave the discerning reader or even the Lewis fan? Lewis often remarked that children caught on to the deeper meaning in his stories long before adults did. I think it safe to assume he had faith in their ability to discern between reality and fantasy. He also believed all truths in all stories point to the one Great Truth, the Greatest Story of All. He did not seem to mind the inclusion of our world in a fantasy world.

No one can presume to know what Lewis would have thought if he’d had the chance to read Harry Potter, or whether or not he would have approved of it, but the distinction between the two fantasies series is evident: Lewis was a theologian and apologist, and Rowling has yet to show much evidence of a deeper faith outside her literary works. Both have merit, but will only one have everlasting influence?

4 Replies to “Lewis and Rowling”

  1. Ooh, very good thoughts! I don’t know if Rowling’s book will stand the test of time, but they do tell a really good story. I know that when my girls get older, I’ll introduce them to Harry’s world, and I’m sure that there will be many children in generations to come who will explore that world and fall in love with it.

    1. If I ever have children, I look forward to introducing them to Harry’s world… when they are old enough. I am thinking maybe they can start at eleven, since by then they’d be old enough not to be too scared (one can hope) but also appreciate the depth of the stories and handle the deaths.

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