J-R-R- Tolkien

Final Harry Potter wars? Part I

Harry Potter and his best friend Hermione Granger arrived in the magical town of Godric's Hollow on a snowy Christmas Eve.

Carols drifted out of the village church as they searched its graveyard for the resting place of Lily and James Potter, who were murdered by the dark Lord Voldemort. First, they found the headstone honoring the family of Albus Dumbledore, the late headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The inscription said: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

Then the Potter headstone proclaimed: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." Harry was mystified. Was this about defeating the evil Death Eaters?

"It doesn't mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry," said Hermione, gently. "It means ... you know ... living beyond death. Living after death."

For millions of religious believers who embrace Harry Potter, this pivotal scene in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" -- book seven in J.K. Rowling's giant fantasy puzzle -- offers new evidence that the author is, in fact, a Church of Scotland communicant whose faith has helped shape her work.

The first inscription is from St. Matthew's Gospel and the second -- stating the book's theme -- is a passage in St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians about the meaning of Christ's resurrection. Is this part of what Dumbledore had called an all-powerful "deep magic" built on sacrificial love?

Nevertheless, for millions of Rowling critics the presence of scripture in this final book will not cancel a decade's worth of wizardry, magic and what they believe is vague, New Age spirituality. And besides, Potter clearly didn't recognize the unattributed Bible verses. Right?

Religious battles commenced soon after Rowling released "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone." It didn't help that "Philosopher's Stone" -- a term from medieval alchemy -- was replaced with "Sorcerer's Stone" in U.S. editions. After the sale of 325 million-plus books worldwide, there are now at least three camps of Potter critics in these theological debates and three prominent camps of Potter defenders. The critics include:

* Some who insist these books are secular or subtly anti-religious. Writing in Time, Lev Grossman has argued that Rowling shares more in common with atheists like Christopher Hitchens than with J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, whose books were rooted in Christian faith.

"Look at Rowling's books," says Grossman. "What's missing? If you want to know who dies in Harry Potter, the answer is easy: God. Harry Potter lives in a world free of any religion or spirituality of any kind. He lives surrounded by ghosts but has no one to pray to, even if he were so inclined, which he isn't."

* Conservatives who think Potter-mania can lead to the occult. Some even oppose fantasy novels by Lewis and Tolkien -- which contain references to wizards, magic and demonic powers. The key is a Deuteronomy passage: "There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or daughter pass through fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells. ..."

Focus on the Family's James Dobson responded to "Deathly Hallows" by saying: "Magical characters -- witches, wizards, ghosts, goblins, werewolves, poltergeists and so on -- fill the Harry Potter stories, and given the trend toward witchcraft and New Age ideology ... it's difficult to ignore the effects such stories (albeit imaginary) might have on young, impressionable minds."

* Believers who see mixed signals. Evangelical activist Chuck Colson, for example, praised the books in 1999, noting that they contrasted good and evil, while the main characters displayed courage, loyalty and self-sacrifice. "Not bad lessons in a self-centered world," said the founder of Prison Fellowship.

But Colson's latest statement warned: "Personally, I don?t recommend the Potter books. I?d rather Christian kids not read them."

Soon after that Colson commentary, however, current Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley gently praised Rowling's books and, above all, the role fantasy novels can play for readers numbed by modern life.

"The popularity of these books -- and, yes, even of the Harry Potter series -- reminds us that the yearning for hope, for good to win and evil to be vanquished, is no infantile desire," he said. "Rather, it is one of the deepest and most important parts of our nature, placed in us by the God of all truth."

NEXT WEEK: Believers who embrace Harry Potter.

The visions of Tolkien and Jackson

If J.R.R. Tolkien didn't know the perfect word to describe something he often created his own word or even a completely new language.

The climax of "The Lord of the Rings," he decided, was a "eucatastrophe" -- which calls to mind words such as Eucharist and catastrophe. The scholar of ancient languages defined this as a moment of piercing joy, an unexpected happy ending offering a taste of God's Easter triumph over sin and death. Tolkien thought this sacramental element was at the heart of his new myth.

Thus, Greg Wright of HollywoodJesus.com asked Peter Jackson how members of his team handled this in their movie trilogy. When they wrote the scene in which the one ring of power is destroyed, did they discuss Tolkien's theory of "eucatastrophe"?

"No," replied Jackson. "What's it mean?"

It wasn't a normal Hollywood question, but Wright wasn't involved in normal press-tour interviews. In 2002 and 2003, Jackson and other artists behind the films sat down for roundtable discussions with religion-news specialists and critics from religious media. The questions ranged from the nature of evil to computer-generated monsters, from salvation to elvish poetry.

Now the extended edition of "The Return of the King" is done and the trilogy is complete, at least until some future extended-extended anniversary set. For Wright and others Tolkien experts, it's time to ask how these movies have changed how future generations will perceive these classic books.

Jackson and his co-writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, knew that Tolkien's traditional Catholic faith had deeply influenced "The Lord of the Rings." Their goal was to keep the "spirit of Tolkien" intact, while producing films for modern audiences. They said they had vowed not to introduce new elements into the tale that would clash with Tolkien's vision.

"You would have to say that these are extremely gifted people and that they showed incredible dedication and integrity," said Wright. "But the questions remain: What is the spirit of Tolkien? How well do Jackson, Walsh and Boyens understand the spirit of Tolkien?"

It helps to know that Tolkien never expected these books to reach a mass audience. He thought they would appeal to his friends and scholars -- who would quickly recognize his Catholic images and themes. In his book "Tolkien in Perspective," Wright argues that the author eventually realized that millions of readers were missing the point.

Now, millions and millions of people are seeing what Tolkien called his "fundamentally religious and Catholic work" through the lens of artists who knew the importance of his beliefs, but did not share them. Wright discusses these issues at length in his new book, "Peter Jackson in Perspective."

Take, for example, Tolkien's conviction that all true stories must somehow be rooted in the reality of evil, sin and the "fallenness" of humanity.

Jackson was blunt: "I don't know whether evil exists. You see stuff happening around the world and you believe it probably does. ... I think that evil exists within people. I don't know whether it exists as a force outside of humanity."

Walsh and Boyens emphasized that the books are about faith, hope, charity and some kind of life after death. What about sin?

"You don't fall if you have faith," said Boyens, and true faith is about "holding true to yourself" and "fellowship with your fellow man." The "Lord of the Rings," she said, is about the "enduring power of goodness, that we feel it in ourselves when we perceive it in others in small acts every day. ... That gives you reason to hope that it has significance for all of us as a race, as mankind, that we're evolving and getting better rather than becoming less, diminishing ourselves through hatred and cruelty. We need to believe that."

These noble sentiments do not match the beliefs that inspired Tolkien, said Wright. In these interviews, similar misunderstandings emerged on Tolkien's beliefs about truth, providence, salvation, death, heaven and hell. However, commentaries and documentaries included the final "Rings" DVD set do address some of these issues from Tolkien's perspective -- including that mysterious concept of "eucatastrophe."

"I think that you can find Tolkien's vision is these movies if you already know where to look," said Wright. "But if you don't understand Tolkien's vision on your own, you may or may not get it."