From Homer to Harry PotterFrom Homer to Harry Potter
Matthew Dickerson, David O'Hara

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Is fantasy literature harmless or a gateway to the occult? From Homer to Harry Potter provides the historical background needed to understand this timeless genre of literature. It explores the influence of biblical narrative, Greek mythology, and Arthurian legend on modern fantasy and reveals how the fantastic can offer profound insights into the truth. Drawing on a Christian viewpoint informed by Lewis and Tolkien, Dickerson and O'Hara also assess modern authors such as Philip Pullman, Walter Wangerin, and J. K. Rowling.

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Matthew Dickerson is professor at Middlebury College in Vermont where he is in the department of computer science and the program of environmental studies, and is also the director of the New England Young Writers Conference at Bread Loaf. He is the author of several books including Following Gandalf (Brazos Press), Hammers and Nails: The Life and Music of Mark Heard (Cornerstone Press) and Ents, Elves, And Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien (University Press of Kentucky). Matthew currently resides in Vermont with his wife and three children. He enjoys fishing, hiking, and outdoor recreation. And, of course, reading great stories. Please take a moment to tell what inspired you to write From Homer to Harry Potter.

Matthew Dickerson: Matthew Dickerson: Several things, really. Some of the most important works of western literature are in the mythic and fantastic genre (Homer's Iliad and Odyssey come to mind as obvious examples), as are some of the most popular and influential works of the past half century—in particular the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and more recently J.K. Rowling. So writing this book gave us a chance to read, reread, or think about some really great and important works of literature. It's also literature that has personally inspired us, as authors. So we thought it would be both a fun book to write, but also a challenging book that would spur our own learning on. It's a book I'd have wanted to read. You have divided your book into two parts: The Literature of Faërie and the Roots of Modern Fantasy and Modern Works of Fantasy. The second part covering modern works primarily discusses literature from the general market. Many Christians today who enjoy fiction choose to read from the Christian market. Were there any authors on the Christian market (Walter Wangerin aside) whom you believe exemplify some of your points? Do you believe Christians have difficulty grasping certain kinds of fantasy or sci-fi outside of the "Christian fiction" market, or perhaps choose to avoid the secular brands of these genres out of fear?

Matthew Dickerson: Well most of the authors we wrote about in the first part of the book were Christians or Jews, and all of the writers in the second part—even those hostile to Christianity—were writing out of an environment and tradition shaped by Christianity. Of all the modern writers in the genre of Faërie or fantasy whom we had to leave out of our book for reasons of space, and who most reflect a Christian worldview, I'd say that Madeleine L'Engle is the one we'd most like to have written a chapter about. (I think that goes for both my co-author David and myself.) Her "Time Quartet" beginning with A Wrinkle in Time is very worthwhile. She's not only excellent at her craft, but her writing is spiritually moving and significant; it is full of truth at many levels. I think we easily could have written about Stephen Lawhead also.

As to our omissions… we didn't necessarily choose the authors we choose because they are the best at their craft, or because they best portray some underlying truth, but because they illustrate some particular aspect of fantasy literature (either good or bad) that we felt the need to discuss. Philip Pullman (The Golden Compass, etc.) is the primary example. I'd much rather have written about L'Engle, whose works are both far truer, and far better written than those of Pullman. But we wanted to suggest to our readers how to understand Pullman's trilogy, and how to identify exactly what makes them such less-than-worthwhile books, especially as they are being made into films soon to be released.

I agree that there is a certain amount of fear among Christians, sometimes justified and well-intentioned, but at times also mis-led. Certainly, as the previous comment suggests, there are plenty of writers of fantasy—some very skilled at their craft, and some not—whose writing stems from a worldview very contrary to Christianity, and it is evident in their writing. But this is true of any genre, not just fantasy.

I think the big fear relating to fantasy is due to the presence of enchantment, or magic, which is central to the literature of Faërie—even that of the beloved Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, who has both good and evil magicians in his work. I certainly believe that the practice of magic in our world, or anything to do with the occult, is both evil and very dangerous. But the presence of magic as a symbolic device in a literary work does not mean that magic is being promoted in our world, any more than Jesus telling a parable in which a dishonest steward is given symbolically as a model of some aspect of wisdom is meant to suggest that Christians are supposed to be dishonest stewards. Magic is often used symbolically in literature to represent things like technology, or the power of language, etc. And there are also many different types and sources of literary magic, that should be understood in different ways. What led you to select the specific works you chose to discuss in your book (Homer, Beowulf, MacDonald, etc.)? Were there any other pieces of classic literature you wished to include but chose to leave out?

Matthew Dickerson: There were a few factors at work, but our biggest consideration in our choice of which earlier pre-20th Century works to discuss was finding the most influential works or ideas in shaping the modern fantasy genre—and thus in influencing later popular authors like Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, L'Engle, Lawhead, etc.. Again, I guess our big point—and our motivation for how we approached the book—is that heroic fantasy is not really a modern genre at all, but part of a longstanding tradition relating to myth, and fairy, and medieval romance, and that to understand the "modern" genre we need to understand its roots in these earlier forms. Lewis, for example, got a degree in Greek classics at Oxford before he studied English literature, and the influence of Greek myths is evident even in his Narnia stories. Tolkien and Lewis both loved Norse myth. Please tell us the meaning behind the word "Faërie." Could you describe its meaning, it's origin and how we are to properly understand this term today?

Matthew Dickerson: The word Fairy, or Faërie, comes from two words Fay and Re, meaning the "Fay Realm", or "the Realm of the Fey". Here "Fey", in its older meaning, suggests "supernatural" or "enchanted" (and not "foolish" or "crazy"). We use the variant form "Faërie", following Tolkien (in his essay "On Fairy-Stories") to describe a broad class of literature that includes not only traditional fairy tales (such as those collected by the Brothers Grimm, or written by George MacDonald or Hans Christian Andersen) but also myth, medieval romance, and modern fantasy. It is the literature of enchantment—which is to say, literature that takes place in enchanted worlds, or in our world when it is in contact with worlds of enchantment (or of the fey). Narnia is an enchanted world. Middle-earth is an enchanted world. The seas traveled by Odysseus were enchanted. The literature starts with the assumption that the physical, material world is not all there is. In seeing the enchanted trees of Middle-earth and Narnia — Tolkien's Ents and Huorns or Lewis's dryads, for example — we come to see our own world with new eyes. In your introduction you provide a spectrum picturing the Literature of Faërie. It spans from Myth on the one side to Fairy Tale on the other, and includes Fantasy and Heroic Romance in the middle. Please provide for us the main differences between Myth, Fairy Tale, and the Literature which falls between these two.

Matthew Dickerson: There are many differences including especially 1. the historic or temporal scope, 2. the level of significance, and 3. the cast of characters. Let me look at the first of these three as one example. The temporal scope of myth is often a broad swath of history. It can take place over decades or even centuries. What is one hundred years to the elves? Or the gods? Or God? Stories of fantasy and heroic romance might take place over the course of several months or a few years. Fairy tales might take just a few days or weeks. Even in fairy-tales like Sleeping Beauty, where a century may pass between the beginning and the end, the actual "action" of the story more or less takes place in just three days: the day of the christening, the day Rose falls into an enchanted sleep, and the day she is awakened.

Of course these are not three discrete categories, but a continuous range. For example The Odyssey contains mythic elements, but most of the story falls closer to the heroic romance and fantasy—indeed, epic. Tolkien's The Silmarillion begins as Myth, but then later—especially in the stories of Beren and Luthien, and of Turin—moves toward heroic fantasy. While The Hobbit starts at the opposite end, namely fairy tale, and moves slowly toward heroic fantasy as the tale progresses. What is the correlation between Myth and Fairy Tale to truth and allegory? Is it satisfactory to let some stories of this nature, simply be story?

Matthew Dickerson: We need to distinguish allegory from imagery or symbolism. Symbolism is present in all good stories. This is certainly true of fantasy literature. Something in a fairy-tale — a person, or a place, or even an inanimate object — may cause us to think about something or someone in our primary world. It may reflect some idea, or point to something we know, and thus help us to better understand a person or even a type of person in our own world by seeing it in a new light or in a new way. When something in a tale points to something else, or provides an image of some aspect of something else, that is symbolism. Or more broadly (and to use a term I prefer) "imagery". Immersion in baptism, for example, is in part an image of death. Good imagery works at many levels, and often in different ways at different times for different people. Aslan certainly points us to aspects of Christ. For that matter, so do Gandalf, and Aragorn, and Frodo, in different ways and at different times.

Allegory, or allegory in the stricter sense, is more confined. In a strict allegory, all the symbolism is exact and one-for-one. Object A in the story stands exactly for object B in the real world, and for nothing else. The Giant Despair in the story stands only for the feeling of despair in our world.

In my mind, a lot of the richness of imagery is lost in allegory. It doesn't really require the reader to think. It doesn't come back to you and hit you at multiple levels. When Gandalf dies for his friends, and then is resurrected, he points us toward something Christ-like. But he isn't Christ. For one thing, he isn't divine. He also isn't perfect (morally or in his judgement.) So if you say he is an allegory for Christ, then you lessen the story; you miss out on how much you can really appreciate from his character because you've boxed him in with a nice little mathematical formula (and a false one at that!) Good literature doesn't work in formulas. It works on the imagination. I think the same is true of Aslan. Certainly Aslan comes closer to an an allegorical interpretation than does Gandalf, but you would lose a lot of the depth and richness of Lewis's tale if you just put it all into a simplistic equation. Would you say that there are essential components about Myth or Fairy Tale that Christians must understand in order to enjoy the great works of Lewis and Tolkien?

Matthew Dickerson: Well perhaps the most important point is that God designed us to learn not only by reason, but by imagination. (Why do you think Jesus tells so many stories, as does the Bible, most often without trying to summarize them or explain the "interpretation"?) Reason works through proposition and science. Imagination works through art and imagery. (That imagination and imagery have the same root word is not an accident.) And while reason is certainly important, and a good gift, I think imagination in many ways is a more powerful capacity for making sense of the world. At least it seems to be more motivating in shaping our actions. What do you think impacts a person's behavior more, an abstract moral principle, or imitation of their favorite heroes who have captured their imagination? (That's why our heroes are so important.) So to understand and enjoy the great works of a very imaginative tradition, we must engage the imagination, and trust it.

Underlying this, of course, is the idea that myths and fairy-tales do speak truth. They are full of important truths. And here it can help to think through what these truths are and how the reach us. (That's a big reason why we wrote our book.)

I could put this another way, I suppose—or get at another aspect of it. Ultimately, to enjoy literature you simply need to read it and like it, and a good deal of that is a matter of taste. Not every reader will like the literature of Faërie, just as not everybody wants to read the plays of Shakespeare or the novels of Dostoyevsky, no matter how well written or profound they are. And not everybody should. But neither should fantasy be dismissed as a merely escapism. We think that many readers today have lost contact with a rich Christian tradition of reading mythic and fantastic literature, and so we wrote our book to re-connect people to that tradition and to help them to read the literature profitably. In your chapter on the works of Homer you write, that "The influence of Greek myth runs deeper and pertains to all of modern thought - especially the ideas that run deepest through much or most of modern fantasy, for isn't all of the discussion of heroism in the Homeric epics shot through by Faërie?" Are we to understand from this statement that elements of Faërie and fantasy are interwoven into Homer's historical epic?

Matthew Dickerson: Absolutely. Homer's work is shot through with enchantment and myth. In The Odyssey, for example, there is no aspect of Odysseus' quest that is devoid of the fantastic. The gods are very present, as are all sorts of other creatures of Faërie. In chapter five it appears that J.R.R. Tolkien, a great student of Germanic and Norse legend, wrote the Lord of the Rings with heavy influence from the Old English poem Beowulf. As Beowulf is soon to be a major motion picture, what similarities might fans of Tolkien be looking for in the story? Did Tolkien ever use a Beowulf figure in his work?

Matthew Dickerson: Well it's been argued that the feel of LOTR is probably more Norse than Anglo-Saxon—more drawn from Norse myths and stories than from the Old English poem Beowulf—but the influence of Beowulf can certainly be seen in Tolkien's work. The basic story of The Hobbit is drawn largely from the tale of Beowulf. A hero leads 13 companions on a quest to rescue a faraway kingdom from oppression by a monster. In the story, the hero faces three monsters, the third of which is a dragon. The hero is killed by the dragon, but the dragon ends up being killed too when one brave soul refused to run away like everybody else. Which story did I describe? Both. That's a pretty coarse summary, of course, but the point is to draw attention to the similarities. As for the character Beowulf, I have argued that Tolkien (consciously or unconsciously - I don’t know—probably the later) takes three aspects of Beowulf in isolation: his supernatural bear-like strength, his pride, and his moral virtue. He represents these three aspects separately (and respectively) in Beorn, Thorin, and Bilbo. Ultimately, Bilbo is the hero because moral virtue is more important than supernatural strength. Michael Drout has shown how Tolkien does something similar in Lord of the Rings, and provides again several Beowulf-type characters.

A deeper question has to do with underlying themes and ideas. This would take much longer to explore or explain—and we've done so in the book. The Beowulf hero really begins to bring a Christian understanding of moral heroism to Germanic heroism, showing both what is good and what is not so good about that heroic model. Remember that whatever is the origin of the story told in Beowulf, the poem in the form in which we have it certainly comes form a Christian poet. It is a Christian poet looking back on a pre-Christian time, and trying to make some sense of it. Throughout your book you make frequent references to the "Cauldron of Story" or the "Pot of Soup." Please explain for us what is meant by this imagery and how it contributes to, and affects, both myth and fantasy.

Matthew Dickerson: The imagery comes from the notion that writers do not write in a vacuum. No matter how original their work is, writers draw on and are inspired by previous traditions and a whole body of existing works. Modern fantasy writers are drawing from the tradition of myth, epic, saga, heroic romance, and fairy tales. This is the soup. But there are two things to note about the image. One is that the ladling is not blind. At times it may be unconscious, but there certainly is some element of choice; we ladle out parts of the broth that we like the best, and serve it up in our stories. The second thing is that, while drawing from the soup, we are also constantly adding to it. Tolkien and Lewis drew from and built upon many great stories. But then their own unique stories got added to the mix so that later writers could draw from them. And, as Tolkien noted, anything that gets put into this soup gets changed and takes on some of its flavor. Even some historical figures have simmered in there with all the mythic ones, and come out as something new; something historical but maybe more than historical as well. It is an enchanted soup, and it enchants whatever ingredients are stirred in. Many of us today are familiar with the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, though relatively few of us are familiar with the great influence that George MacDonald has had upon their works. How have both the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings been influenced by this great master of fairy tale literature?

Matthew Dickerson: I think Lewis was probably more influenced by MacDonald than was Tolkien. It's hard to pin down exactly what shape that influence takes without being too reductionist; it can be seen in plots, ideas, characters, landscapes, and entire moods. Probably the easiest place to see it is in characters, and maybe a couple examples suffice. Tolkien's Smith (in his short story "Smith of Wootton Major") bears striking resemblance to Anados in G.M.'s Phantastes, and Tolkien's goblins in The Hobbit are drawn heavily upon G.M.'s goblins in The Princess and the Goblin. Later on, though, I think Tolkien needed a darker, more potent creature than mere goblins, and so in The Lord of the Rings his goblins have become Orcs, and these are very different. As for Lewis, I think something of G.M.'s Princess Irene also can be seen in Lucy (from the Narnia stories); in fact, the Professor's argument that Lucy's siblings should believe her story is very much like that of Curdie’s mother that Curdie should believe Irene. You've mentioned Philip Pullman in a previous question and have suggested that his works fall somewhat short of encompassing true fantasy literature and myth. You even state in Chapter 8 of Pullman's works that "Despite some interesting concepts, the books are overall severely flawed." Please take a moment to explain this. What do you find lacking from Pullman's Dark Materials Trilogy?

Matthew Dickerson: Pullman is certainly creative at times, and he can tell a fast-paced story—despite some places where his prose is a bit flat or his dialogues unconvincing or unrealistic. I think our criticisms were twofold. One is that he quite didactic; he has a chip on his shoulder, and his stories in many places are thinly veiled sermons, which are usually assaults on Christianity and theism. There are also plenty of inconsistencies on all sorts of levels. Much critical attention has been given to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series from within the Christian community, in particular its abundant use of wizards, witches and magic. Is the kind of magic found in the Harry Potter stories different, or perhaps more sinister, than the types found in Lewis, Tolkien or George MacDonald's fantasy stories?

Matthew Dickerson: By and large, Rowling's use of magic is very consistent with that of Lewis. (I'd say more like Lewis than Tolkien.) This is a pretty short answer, remember; it took us a whole chapter to explore and explain this in the book. But here is a quick outline. The same sorts of uses of magic that are portrayed as evil by Lewis are also portrayed as evil by Rowling—things like conjuring and controlling spirits, or enslaving another person, or just using magic to dominate and manipulate other humans. On the other hand, the use of magic to heal, or to defend against evil attacks, within their imaginary worlds is shown as morally acceptable by both writers. A good starting place (and something both Lewis and Tolkien do frequently) is to think of magic in literature as symbolic of technology in our society. Some technologies seem altogether evil. Others, it seems, could be used for good or for evil. So think about all the things done by magic in these stories, and many of them can be done by technology in our world. Then ask these questions about what sorts of magic or uses of magic are always morally evil and which can be used for good. What might you say to someone who is concerned that Rowling's Harry Potter series might prompt curious young readers to begin experimenting with Witchcraft?

Matthew Dickerson: Well, as I noted earlier, I think that the occult is a real danger; it is evil and it is destructive. I would be wary of anything that I thought was likely to lead somebody into occult practices. In fact, I have three children, all under the age of 18. The reason I read the original Harry Potter book in the first place was so that I could answer that question in my own family—so I could decide wisely and based on Biblical principles whether I should allow my kids to read those books. What I became convinced of is that Rowling's books are consistent with, and draw heavily upon, a Christian worldview. As I considered when she uses magic as a symbolic image to explore, I came to realize that the books are more likely to point kids toward a Christian worldview than away from it.

The real danger for most kids, and for adults, I think, is the lure of power—the power to get what we want, and to enforce our wills on others. (Kids call it "bullying"; adults have other forms.) For some people in the Hogwarts world, magic is a means to power. And I suppose if readers of the story really thought that the practice of magic would get them power, it would be dangerous. But the interesting thing is, the heroes in the Harry Potter stories—Dumbledore especially--consistently turn away from that sort of power. When they do pursue power, the consequences are bad. That’s one of the main "lessons" of the books, if you want to call it that.

I think the lure of money, or social status, or political influence, or even popularity as means to power are far more dangerous temptations for kids today, and the Harry Potter books actually provide very good models in these ways. Which myths or fairy tales have been most influential and meaningful to you personally?

Matthew Dickerson: Well the works of Tolkien and Lewis are at the top of the list for me. The Silmarillion is my favorite piece; the one that is most personally moving for me. Other modern writers I have found influential include Walter Wangerin Jr., Stephen Lawhead (his Arthurian retellings), Madeleine L’Engle, Stephen Donaldson (his Thomas Covenant books), and Lloyd Alexander (the Chronicles of Prydein). I have also enjoyed older Norse and Old English heroic stories, including Beowulf and Parzival (both of which I have gone back to multiple times)--though some some of these Norse tales, like the Niebelungenlied, while beautiful, are pretty stark and hopeless. Our family recently read the Odyssey aloud (in modern English translation, of course). That was fun. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Matthew Dickerson: I think that Christians should be strongly motivated to have their imaginations grow and be fed. The imagination is a great gift, and it needs to be nourished. Remember how often God speaks to us in images! And the sorts of stories we talk about in our book are, I think, among the best and most important for training our imaginations so that these images through which God speaks will make sense. Thank you for taking some free moments to speak with us on the nature of myth, fantasy and folklore, Matthew.  You have a very informative, thoughtful and spectacular book in From Homer to Harry Potter. It is one that any longstanding fan of Lewis and Tolkien should read, and one I will be recommending to friends with similar interest.


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