Claudia Riiff Finseth contacted us a while ago offering her articles on Tolkien, here is her second article ‘The Magic of Faerie Stories’.
Riiff Finseth is a freelance writer and author. Among her favorite works of literature is Lord of the Rings, which she has read over twenty times, more than any other book. Name the chapter, and Claudia can tell you what happens in it. Claudia was born in 1954 in Longview, Washington, USA. She studied literature and nursing at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, where she lives today with her husband and their family. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The Magic of Faerie Stories
Claudia Riiff Finseth
‘Tis the season of fantasy. Films two of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter books are both on the big screen.
With them comes the perennial debate on whether fantasy is “safe” for children. Now Christian writer Connie Neal has written books suggesting that, while she has concerns the books “could open readers to spiritual forces of darkness,” she also sees “Bible lessons” in Harry Potter (TNT 11/16.) As a writer of fantasy and a Christian, all of this strikes me as terribly off the mark.
It’s true the Bible and Harry Potter share some themes. But most stories—including biblical ones—are made up of a relatively few themes. It is each story’s unique variation on a theme that makes it wonderful in and of itself.
Take, for instance, these themes in the story of the Garden of Eden: Prohibition and Banishment. In his essay on fantasy, Tolkien wrote: “Thou shalt not—or else thou shalt depart beggared into endless regret. The gentlest ‘nursery-tales’ know it. Even Peter Rabbit was forbidden a garden, lost his blue coat, and took sick. The Locked Door stands as an eternal Temptation.”
That does not mean Peter Rabbit and the Garden of Eden are the same story. Tolkien says, “It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count.”
There is also the subject of symbolism in story. Symbols like floods and famine, light and darkness, hero and villian are in the Bible, yes, and the Koran and Jewish holy writings. Such symbols predate all three and fill contemporary stories. They are symbols as old as the human race, part of the warp and weft of all of story.
On the other hand, the charge that fantasy might corrupt children seems groundless to me. All stories, religious and non-religious, realistic or fantastic, live on the same moral plane. Generally, cold-blooded murder is always wrong. Selfishness and cruelty are always bad, kindness and compassion, good. They have to be. Otherwise, the story will fail to ring true.
The controversy surrounding Harry Potter seems further fueled by the misconception that, because Harry attends a school for wizards, the books encourage the occult, i.e. evil. In the classic witch story from my childhood, The Wizard of Oz, what I learned from the powerfully Wicked Witches East and West was to steer clear of evil, not seek it out. I never once thought, “Gee, that looks fun. Maybe I’ll be a witch when I grow up.” Not even Glenda, the good (and beautiful) witch, interested me in witchcraft. I actually found her rather boring. No, what I related to was the Scarecrow’s desire to Understand Things, the Tin Man’s wish to be Compassionate, the Lion’s hope of finding Courage, and, most of all, Dorothy’s longing for Home.
In the same way, contemporary children relate to such themes in Harry Potter as Loyal Friendship, Finding Confidence, and Fighting Evil. I know this from my elementary and middle school age students at the summer institute where I teach. Hogwarts School of Wizardry is merely the imaginative vehicle, the framework, in which writer J. K. Rawlings explores these themes.
Tolkien the devout Christian wrote: “I do not think I was harmed by the horror in the fairytale setting, out of whatever dark beliefs and practices of the past it may have come. Such stories have now a mythical effect; they open a door on Other Time .…” He went on to say, “I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighbourhood, intruding into my relatively safe world, in which it was, for instance, possible to read stories in peace of mind, free from fear.”
What few critics of fantasy seem to realize is that the villains of Hogwarts and Oz and Middle Earth have their own fears: fears of the light, the good, the hero, fears these things may be more powerful than their own dark powers, which, of course, they are. Good triumphs over evil. This does not go unnoticed by young readers.
Fantasy is related to biblical stories in the same way it is related to folktale and myth and to all story, and in that also is it’s value: it shows us something of the human condition. Afterall, each of us has our own Dragons to Fight.
[This article first appeared in the Tacoma News Tribune, Tacoma, Washington, USA in 2002. Reprinted here by permission of the author.]