Horst Kornberger on Harry Potter and Narnia


Horst Kornberger offers the following opinion on Harry Potter (I haven’t decided what I think about his comments yet, but it’s one opinion!):

“I am in two minds about Rowling’s creation,” Kornberger writes, “particularly as literature for young children. I think the books and films are often encountered too [-p.143] early. Harry Potter is great fantasy, but a certain foundation of soul needs to be established before a child enters the gothic labyrinth of Hogwarts.
The Potter books are based on the mystery novel and the emotional suspense created by this genre. In most mystery novels we do not know who the murderer is until the very end. In the Harry Potter books, the murder is yet to come. Though we know it is the Dark Lord who is attempting to kill Harry, we do not know under which mask he is hiding. This makes the books even more harrowing for the soul than conventional mysteries.
The dark forces in the Harry Potter series are hidden and unscrupulous, and ever more brilliant as the books progress. The portrayal of evil echoes the racial ethos of the Nazi regime and procedures of black magic. All this may be exciting and highly stimulating reading for the imagination-deprived teenager, but it is not appropriate for younger readers, who need to know who is good and who is bad so they can morally orientate themselves in a story.
In fairytales, evil and cruelty are dealt with imaginatively. The wolf that devours Red Riding Hood spills no blood and the child is soon revived. But the killing in Harry Potter is real and irreversible. The blood that is spilled is ‘real’ blood that will leave a mark on a young child’s soul. The cruelty of a sinister figure like Voldemort is too convincing to be digested before a child is equipped to face him. Too young, they may fall prey to his schemes – and as the book tells you, he is eager to kill then as young as he can.
I recommend you to the advice of the world expert in all matters concerning Harry Potter and the care of the magical and endangered child: Albertus Dumbledore, Director of Hogwarts School of Magic. The wise Professor protected Harry from all contact with the shady and dangerous world of magic until he had reached the age of eleven. I take this as the story’s own explicit advice for its appropriate use: children should reach this age before being admitted to the school of sorcery.
I have said I am in two minds about Harry Potter. While I am concerned about its premature use, it nevertheless provides a good dose of fantasy for teenage consumption. It also speaks directly to contemporary myth – its popularity shows that the stories answer a dire need in our culture:  the story deprivation of contemporary childhood.
Children recognise themselves in Harry. Like the modern child he starts off deprived of imagination and magic, denied his birthright to be an adventurer in any realm other than this world. Like the modern [-p.144] child he is endowed with imaginal gifts and has been brought up by parents who are ‘muggles’ – totally unmagical folk. Most parents are ‘Dursleys,’ not only lacking imagination, they suppress it with any means at their disposal.
The imaginal part in every modern child is as maltreated by parents and education as Harry Potter is by the Dursleys, while the child’s conventional and unmagical part is as spoiled as his stepbrother Dudley – who is the very kind of insensitive and competitive bully our world seems to reward while the Harrys are locked in closets and punished for who they are.
Harry Potter exemplifies the drama of the imaginative child. This is what makes his story a modern myth. He is the hero who escapes the prison of convention, breaking though the brick walls of King’s Cross Station into a new dimension of imaginal adventure. Harry is a symbol for the imaginal child and her adventures in this world and the next – but for a young child there are smoother ways to break the brick walls of convention. A new dimension may be more easily entered through an old wardrobe hung with fur coats.”  (pp.142-144)

Harry vs The Chronicles of Narnia

Interestingly, Kornberger also compares Harry to The Chronicles of Narnia:

“C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are a masterpiece of children’s literature. A nine year old can appreciate the imaginative treasures this series contains, and there is no need to censor their use, for the stories have a purity that will protect them from misuse. The children who are the heroes of many of the Narnia tales are aged between seven and twelve, and that seems a good indication of their age-appropriateness.” (p.144)

“Harry Potter is fantasy with mythological elements. The Chronicles of Narnia are much stronger myth, a product of exact imagination, revealing realities beyond the apparently real. The Narnia stories meet the soul on its own home ground. They speak the imaginative language of the heart and carry the power of transformation that only this language can provide.
It is this transformative capacity that Harry Potter lacks. He is a likeable hero and remains so, even as he becomes more adept in magic. He is protected by the love of his mother, but he is not touched by the love that changes the heart. He remains a somewhat superficial hero, the master of outer accomplishment and victories. He is Superboy equipped with magical powers and all the gadgets of the trade: owls and broomsticks, invisibility cloak and miraculous maps.” (p.145)

Again, I’m not yet sure what I think of these last comments, but I do find them interesting.

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Horst Kornberger (2008) The Power of Stories: Nurturing Children’s Imagination and Consciousness. Floris Books: Edinburgh

The Age of Clandestinity


Introducing their book, The Spy Story, in 1987, John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg wrote:

We live in a time that has become deeply obsessed with espionage, conspiracy, and other forms of clandestinity. What Edward Shils called ‘the torment of secrecy’ has pervaded our national life, as the exposure of the Watergate cover-up revealed. But Watergate was only one in a series of developments in American culture that had their roots in the aftermath of World War II. That conflict thrust America into a new global position where our potential vulnerability to the economic and military strengths of other countries came to seem more threatening than ever before. With their anxieties intensified by the fear of atomic weapons, political leaders and ordinary citizens became deeply concerned about secret conspiracies, both at home and abroad. While such obsessions have often appeared in the aftermath of wars – both the Civil War and World War I left a disturbing legacy of suspicion and suspension of due process in the attempt to counter secret conspiracies – it was only after World War II that Americans institutionalized clandestinity on a large and permanent scale. Our generation has harvested the first fruits of that major cultural change.” (p.1)

Those in power and a substantial segment of the public have come to believe that clandestine operations are indispensable to the security of a modern nation. This belief, and the institutions, attitudes, and actions to which it gives rise, have had a profound cultural impact. Though we desperately need to understand the processes of clandestinity more fully, this is difficult because much of the necessary evidence remains buried in secret archives. Even if the historical data are available, to evaluate the actual impact of clandestine operations is very difficult and has become a subject of considerable controversy among historians. Some believe that such clandestine coups as British and American codebreaking during World War II made the difference between defeat and victory, while others assert that much information gleaned by espionage has been useless and largely ignored by commanders in the field. Manifold ambiguities cluster around the subject of historical espionage. What does one say about the terrible fate of those thousands who perished in agony during the destruction of Coventry because Churchill feared that to give advance warning of the bombing would reveal that the British had broken the German code? On the other hand, could the Allied invasion of Europe have succeeded without those clandestine operations designed to mislead German intelligence about the actual site of the landings?
Whatever the actual military, economic, and political importance of espionage, the twentieth century has become in many ways the Age of Clandestinity. One symptom of the pervasiveness of secret operations in our lives is the fact that the spy story has become one of the major popular genres of our time. The secret agent protagonist is now one of our favorite mythical heroes….” (p.2)

“…in spite of the long and fascinating history of spying, it was not until the twentieth century that the secret agent became the heroic protagonist of a major form of popular narrative. As the century progressed into the 1980s, the spy hero became still more important, increasingly replacing earlier popular heroic figures like the cowboy and the hardboiled detective.” (p.3)

John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg define the spy story “as a story whose protagonist has some primary connection with espionage. Clearly,” they elaborate, “there are many stories of which this is true which one would hesitate to call spy stories, and usually for good reasons. One example is Conrad’s The Secret Agent, which figures deservedly in almost any discussion of the spy story. However, other interests in The Secret Agent are as important as the protagonists’ involvement with espionage. Verloc is a pathetically comic figure, for one thing, and the real protagonist of the novel is the more tragic figure of his wife, Winnie. Spy thrillers, however gloomy and cynical, are not usually tragedies, as we can see if we [-p.6] compare the most glum of John le Carré’s stories of betrayal and corruption with a tragic novel involving espionage such as The Secret Agent. Though Alec Leamas, of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, is shot along with the woman he has come to love, there is a kind of moral triumph at the end. Leamas now understands the corrupt and evil nature of the forces he is involved with; he has learned how to differentiate between good and evil and to have the moral courage too reject a life of further servitude to these evil principles. Thus, his death is both a positive moral action and a symbolic stand against the perverted means used in fighting the Cold War. Leamas begins in apparent moral decay but his death at the Berlin Wall is a heroic as well as despairing rejection of the corrupt world of power politics.
In Conrad’s Secret Agent, however, there is no heroism and no meaningful conflict between good and evil. The true protagonist, Winnie Verloc, is not even involved in espionage, and her inexorable descent to murder and suicide is grimly unrelieved by any sort of spiritual triumph. The world of The Secret Agent is one in which no group of characters has a moral advantage over the others. With the sole exception of the mad anarchist professor, everyone is in pursuit of some kind of personal advantage. Even Winnie, the most selfless character in the novel, is in many ways a betrayer.” (pp.5-6)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg (1987) The Spy Story. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London

The vampire genre reveals a great deal about our questions and fears


“It is wise to scan popular culture to seek hints of spirituality. There we can discern currents and movements in the collective psyche. The vampire genre, and how it is currently being treated, reveals a great deal about our questions and fears.” (p.204)

Bearing in mind the date of this article’s publication (i.e., 2000 – and so, pre-half-of-the-vampire-literature-currently-on-the-market), Kevin O’Donnell considers the changes in vampire fiction in recent times (and from a theological perspective). He states that vampire fictions “are written or filmed to entertain, first and foremost, and the chill and thrill of being scared and horrified is what makes people pick them up. It’s rather like a roller-coaster ride – it’s exciting to feel something unpleasant, briefly, in hyper-reality. It’s a cheap, superficial brush with the nasty side of life, a ‘time-out’ session that would be worrying if people became obsessed and infatuated with it.
The stories tend to be sexist as well as bloodthirsty, with Dracula’s brides, or Hammer film blonde-haired virgins. There has always been a strong sexuality about the genre, and even Anne Rice’s novels, though written by a woman, have women, usually as the victims, except for the age-old vampire, Maharet, who is cold and calculating. Seduction and the vampiric bite are all of a piece, and the blood drinking is orgasmic for the Undead. A parallel with AIDS has also [-p.205] been made in recent times, an infection through the blood. Vampire tales might seem shallow, nasty, rather tacky, and out of place in a discussion of serious theology, but there are deep issues to be drawn out in modern examples. The tired, old cliches of the genre have given way to new directions and energetic characterization.” (pp.204-205)

“This particular genre of gothic horror has never ceased to enthral since Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897. He reworked simpler, cheaper, gothic tales of vampyres and wraiths into a classic. The timing was cruciaL A. N. Wilson, in his introduction to the Oxford University
Press edition, says:
Since Dracula was written, history has been a catalogue of evils which no amount of hitting with a shovel can obliterate. Stoker, an amusing old rogue who was merely doing his best to write a yarn which would make your hair stand on end, in fact did something much more. He reflects the very bewildered sense, still potent in a world which was (even in 1897) preparing to do without religion, that mysteries can only be fought by mysteries, and that the power of evil in human life is too strong to be defeated by repression, violence, or good behaviour. Virtue avails the characters in Dracula nothing. It is the old magic – wood, garlic, and a crucifix – which are the only effective weapons against the Count’s appalling power.’
Wilson touches on two important themes. First, in the vampire genre, evil is portrayed in the raw. It is condensed, frightening and personaL More than this, it is an apotheosis of virtue, an utterly corrupted individual who treats others as objects in its struggle for survival. This is a projection, a symbol, and provides something of a catharsis for the viewer/reader. It helps us face the darkness of life at a safe distance. It is a deflection, too, for by looking at a fictional evil, totally out there, we avoid what is here and now, around us. Western society does not like talking about evil too much, but we know how real it is within us….” (p.205)

Wilson’s second point is that the vampire tale delves into the depths of mythology, and this primal, unconscious side of our lives sits uneasily with a modem, liberal consciousness. Postmodernism is struck with it, spun round in a dance, and does not know how to take the lead. Vampires are about ancient magic, and the struggle of light and darkness. There is the final fight, as daylight streams into the chamber and a cross robs the vampire of its power. This gives a numinous quality to the genre, as we find, also, with the Gospels. While these are superficially about a holy man set against religious and secular tyrannies in the first century, there is a deeper struggle between light and dark, God and the devil.” (p.206)

Stoker’s Dracula was a rather two-dimensional character […]. The Count was a creepy gothic horror with little charm, depth or personality. He was little more than a spook, a shadow, which took over people’s lives. This was played out in the feature film versions, and despite the power of Lugosi’s stare, and the energy of Christopher Lee, they were not real characters. This was overturned in a new breed of vampire writing with the novels of Anne Rice, ‘The Vampire Chronicles‘, about the vampire Lestat and his associates.” (p.206)

Rice humanized her monsters, giving them feelings, personal agonies, and longings. They feel repulsion and guilt….” (p.207)

Ref: Kevin O’Donnell Fall, Redemption and Immortality in the Vampire Mythos. Theology 2000 103: 204

The Myth of Evil


Just came across a book that looks interesting: The Myth of Evil, by Philip Cole…. Reviewing The Myth of Evil, Niall Scott writes:

The Myth of Evil does not just concern the words in the title, but is a sophisticated treatment of evil in general, focussing strongly upon both the coherence of the concept and the attribution of the description ‘evil’ to phenomena and human behaviour. Cole’s aim throughout the book is to show that evil is a myth, that as a concept it is neither philosophical nor psychological, nor religious, which is quite a challenge. Although he argues that we would be better off without the concept of evil altogether, flying his flag in this way from the outset does not diminish how serious he takes the discourse of evil to be. This is evident in his willingness to recognise how the term and associated adjectives are used. In his introductory chapters, he provides a truly illuminating history of the devil, and challenges what is meant in descriptions of human behaviours as diabolical or demonic.
Although predominantly a politico/philosophical enquiry, the book offers much more than this. It is an argument drawing upon literature, history, and popular visual culture, and as a result it speaks to a range of disciplines. Cole addresses contemporary questions that have arisen around the multi-faceted concept of evil, such as fear and horror. This is also a political work that does not just provide a treatment of evil as a myth. It engages directly and importantly with the now frequently encountered political discourses regarding the holocaust, terrorism, Iraq, and the Bush and Blair administrations’ participation in disseminating discourses of fear and (in)security. These use the terminology of evil, the demonic, and the monstrous in contemporary conflicts, and the frequent occurrence of ‘evil’ functions as an explanatory device in the justification of appalling human behaviour. Cole provides four possible ways of conceptualising theories of evil. They are: (1) a monstrous conception, (2) a pure conception, (3) an impure conception, and (4) a psychological conception.” (Scott, p.97)

Apparently, Cole’s “concluding chapter presents a challenge to the reader where it addresses the contemporary state of world politics in the context of discourses of evil, with a detailed analysis of terror, terrorism, and violence. Cole spends time laying out the Iraqi problem, drawing parallels between the language of terror and fear and the phenomenon of witch trials and the eastern European vampire myths dealt with earlier in the book. Cole’s strategy is again seductive. At times, he tempts the reader into agreeing with the description of, for example, the western regimes and the terrorist as monstrous and demonic. However, it is clear that if one has paid any attention to his preceding argument, such very understandable, but simplistic assessments of terrible and horrific human actions require a more responsible treatment. So he refers to the sheer monstrous arbitrariness of terrorist victims in recent terrorist activities, and rhetorically asks that ‘Surely this arbitrariness fits the model of Monstrous evil?’ (234). But it is this very description that he challenges. We can move beyond evil in our understanding of such events and come to a position that even the arbitrariness is not without significance, and this reminds us that literary monsters have a history of grievance and need not be characterised in terms of a model of monstrous evil.” (p.100)

Ref: Niall Scott (2009) Has Evil Run its Course? Phillip Cole, The Myth of Evil, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2006, 256 pp. [Review] Res Publica (2009) 15:97–101 DOI 10.1007/s11158-008-9062-2

fighting evil, being good? – the Slayer


“Like evil, the vampire is a force that must be struggled with and overcome, and he thus represents [-p.3] only a single pole in a moral dyad. Whether or not we choose to label the vampire’s antagonist ‘good,’ there is not much of a story if the violence and destruction wrought by the vampire goes unchecked. While it is rare that a vampire tale or a treatment of the vampire legend does not include an episode in which the vampire is destroyed or banished by some agency, little attention has been paid to the history and character of the vampire’s personal nemesis, now popularly known as the vampire slayer.

In the elaborate heroic tales found in epics, the central theme is ordinarily the hero’s transformation in the struggle against evil (in the form, say, of a dragon) or oppression. In most vampire motifs, however, the ostensible forces of good who would identify, oppose, and destroy vampires tend to be nameless and often incidental to the narrative. In fact, it is only fairly recently that the vampire slayer has had anything like a leading role: Abraham van Helsing, in Dracula (1897), is arguably the first significant self-professed vampire slayer in a tradition that culminates in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003).” (pp.2-3)

“The heroic nature of the vampire slayer is predicated on his ability to identify the force that saps the energy from the life of the community. Something unnatural, unholy, invades and disturbs the natural order of things, and through this puncture in the tissue of everyday existence, something – is it a certain trust in the impermeability of that which separates us from the dead? – drains out. Yet because this intruder is invisible or, at the very least, unnoticeable – he is one of us, after all – only those with a special understanding of his nature are able to intervene and stop the hemorrhage. Like the vampire, the slayer must be marked – externally, by some sign of birth or accident; internally, by his symbolic connection to the world of the dead.

The nature of this bipolar relationship between the vampire and his adversary, the hunter or slayer, and the ways in which this connection becomes manifest and changes over several hundred years have not been adequately investigated. An examination of early Balkan folklore reveals that the vampire slayer, whose perceptive powers transcend those permitted ordinary Christian villagers, is the vampire’s true mirror image. The slayer is the heroic and opposing reflection that is curiously, but necessarily, generated by the presence of evil, and he is as closely bound to evil as a reflection is to its original. If the vampire is a dangerous and antihuman replica of the human, the seer or slayer is the rejector or suppressor of the replica, who restores order by allowing the community to differentiate the authentic from the false. This critical difficulty in distinguishing the true from the false, the beneficent from the treacherous, is, as we shall see, also the basis of the conflict between early Christianity and paganism and heresy. Historically, it was out of that conflict as it was played out in the Balkans that the folkloric meaning of the vampire arose.

Contemporary culture-based interpretations of the vampire ‘myth’ have great value in explaining our apparent need to continually retell the vampire story, with all its attendant variations.” (p.7)

“The linkage between the literary vampire and the folkloric one is a topic beginning to receive a great deal of attention. However, most scholars in this area take the modern vampire, especially as it has been configured since Dracula and its immediate precursors, as their starting point. They then go back into the folklore only as far as the literature itself allows, glossing over the significance of the enormous lacunae in the knowledge of vampire folklore drawn on by those earliest investigators into the subject.” (p.9)

“While folklore about vampires seems to be dying out in the Balkans as a result of the inexorable processes of westernization and urbanization, it is not clear whether the literary and cinematic vampire theme is likewise cooling down. More precisely, it is not yet clear, as of this writing, whether we are witnessing a return of the hero within the popular vampire narrative. Certainly, the success of Buffy, which makes of the slayer a complicated superhero in a fantastic suburban universe, would seem to indicate that we are becoming more interested in making the heroic primary and the vampiric evil secondary. (In Buffy, for example, almost all of the vampires and demons that are killed are more or less nameless and unsympathetic). But the low U.S. attendance figures for universal’s high-budget Van Helsing (Universal Pictures, 2004) suggest that stories of monolithic, violent vanquishers of one-dimensional monsters cannot sustain interest and in fact miss the central point of the dual nature of the vampire-slayer pair. These days, the evil that walks among us unrecognized is more often played by the sociopathic serial or mass killer, while the hero who is intuitively connected to that disturbed orientation takes the form of a forensic psychologist, or profiler. It may be that solving the problem of real evil with real (human) agents in today’s world has surpassed any need to dally with the purely imaginary.” (p.14)

Ref: (italics in original) Bruce A. McClelland (2006) Slayers and Their Vampires : A Cultural History of Killing the Dead. Ann Arbor, MI, USA: University of Michigan Press