talking Potter, part 1 of 3

A conversation with Travis Prinzi

tprinzIn a new mad adventure, over the coming months we’re going to be introducing you—our virtual readers—to writers, thinkers, musicians, and other weird animals who share our interests.  But not always our views.  The first most obvious choice to begin this discussion was Travis Prinzi, Harry Potter Pundit and host of The Hog’s Head.  It was enlightening just chatting with him—about fantasy and theology and, of course, Harry Potter.

PARADOXES: Tell me a bit of who you are, and what you do.

TRAVIS PRINZI: Well, I’m kind of a weird animal. I started off intending to be an English teacher in High School, but two years in I got distracted by about six years of theology studies, and came around after six years of theology studies to wanting to come right back to do English again. So actually I have graduate degrees in theology and English education, and for all that I am the supervisor in a cardiology lab at the University of Rochester Medical Center. So—bit of a confused person. But in the meantime I’m writing as much as I can.

So, why Harry Potter? What was it about that that started pushing you in that direction?

I was the interim pastor of a small church, and leading their youth group. There were of course big questions about Harry Potter at the time. I began with something of a fundamentalist response, having not read the books, and thought, I’m not going to go near these, because from what I heard it’s all witchcraft, and it’s dangerous. But the questions became too much, and people wanted to know. I decided first of all one night—when I was probably procrastinating and not writing my sermon—to watch the first movie. I got through two movies and said, ‘This is what people are upset about?’ and figured, well, I’d better read the books.  So I actually saw the first two movies before reading any of the books, but then blew through the five available books at the time quite quickly. Then I got into John Granger’s work, and from that point on I was writing about Harry Potter all the time.

How did you get from being a youth pastor interested in Harry Potter to what you’re doing now with Harry Potter and Imagination, and with ‘The Hog’s Head’?

I was doing much what you’re doing now. I had a blog which was my writing platform, and had started writing for a few sites. After reading the sixth book, when that came out, I realized that my blog was being completely dominated by Harry Potter posts. I looked around and I realized there were big fan sites but there was no such thing at the time as a dedicated, academic fanblog for Harry Potter. And so I decided, well, I’m going to do one. So that’s how that all got started. I’m going to keep writing on Harry Potter as long as it’s something people are paying attention to, and then hopefully use that as bridge to writing sort of bigger idea books about Christian interaction with fiction and fairytales.

Do you see Harry Potter not necessarily as your primary focus as much as your primary touch point for discussing your true focus?

The way it all worked out for me and literature and theology is that Harry Potter opened doors to considering them both at the same time in a way I hadn’t before. I talk about my experience as sort of being in Hogwarts Castle, and all of a sudden there’s all these windows and doors and paintings that you’re interacting with. Harry Potter, for me, is like a window back to those other worlds of theology and literature.

Part of this is because I got writing about Harry Potter. Simple practicality. I hadn’t planned to pitch a book about anything anytime soon, and then Zossima Press came up to me and asked me to write. And as long as that opportunity’s there to do something with Harry Potter, people are paying attention to it, then I’m going to stick with Harry Potter.

I’m trying to shape the Hog’s Head in such a way that as this time comes where, in the cultural mindset, Harry Potter is fading, we can move on and discuss broader concepts of literature, and newer series that come out, and of course go backward to older classic series as well.

So, it’s a present focus. It won’t be my lifetime focus.

You mentioned the connections between theology and literature. Can you unpack some of those for me?

J. K. Rowling writes in a tradition that is just jam-packed with connections between literature and theology, in that she’s writing in this very Anglican tradition. Think about who I put as her predecessors in my book—George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis. Tolkien of course was Catholic but [there are] a lot of commonalities in those traditions—a sacramental worldview where symbols point to a greater reality.

J. K Rowling is aware of that tradition and deliberately taps into it with classic Christian symbols and Christ-figures. I just recently did a talk on Arthurian stuff in Harry Potter, and eyes were popping open as I talked about the white stag in Harry Potter, and then the white stag in C. S. Lewis, in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the white stag that Sir Gawain follows into the forest. Of course you trace that tradition right back to the Middle Ages, where the white stag was a Christ-figure. And she does that over and over and over again in the series.

So she’s tapping into a tradition that believes that story tells us something about reality. It’s not an escape from the world, it’s an escape to greater reality, and into truth that you can’t test in the laboratory. You can only find it in Story. Clyde Kilby, who was a student of C. S. Lewis’s, says the imagination is the way we get at reality. We attempt two different ways of knowing. We try to form statements about reality, and we begin to abstract reality. And then we try to systematize those statements so they all make sense together. We’re trying to grasp what reality really is like and we’re trying to get at Truth, and we continue to abstract reality.

Story brings us back to symbol, which points to a greater reality. It does things that words alone can’t do, when you’re going through this mythic story with symbols and gestures and rhythms. It evokes emotional and intellectual response that you may not be able to explain propositionally at times.

Lewis talks about stories that hinge on a prophecy. We can spend all day debating about predestination and freewill, and then a story will just lay it out for you in a way that you couldn’t have done by just speaking in statements and systematic thinking.

And of course if you believe in a God, then theology and reality are the same study.

To read the rest of the conversation:

talking Potter, part 2 of 3
talking Potter, part 3 of 3

Travis Prinzi is a popular author and speaker on the intersection of fantasy and politics, myth and culture in Joanne Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. He runs TheHogsHead.org (including the Hog’s Head PubCast) and appears on The Leaky Cauldron’s PotterCast as a “Potter Pundit.” He has been a featured speaker and led panel discussions at five Harry Potter conferences and has lectured on everything from Harry Potter to religion to education to hit TV shows like The Office at university campuses and libraries in the United States and Canada.

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4 thoughts on “talking Potter, part 1 of 3

  1. To me the Potter books appear to be about the fact that children have their own world, one where adults are not exactly welcome. They keep things to themselves, have their own adventures which we know little or nothing about, and often take it upon themselves to deal with some of the thing that may be beneath the notice of their parents and other guardians, but that are important nonetheless. I wouldn’t sum this up as glibly as ‘let the children come unto me,’ a text often interpreted as meaning that youth has its own special contribution to make.

    I’d say that if there is any religious context to the books, it reads ‘against the grain’ of institutions that preach ‘honor thy mother and thy father’ as a rather banal prescription for total obeisance rather than as a cautionary note, not to go too far too fast. Harry and his friends are actually treated quite roughly by Rowling at times, and this is what I like best—there is a worldliness to this view of development, and it suggests a more worldly, and less protective, way of parenting.

    Guidance is one thing, but many parents, and Christian ones in particular, seem set on somehow going through it all for the children, as if anyone could substitute their development for somebody else’s. This is more than over-protectiveness, it seems to suggest something more about the adults—that maybe their own childhood was under-lived as well, and they’re trying to make up for it. Rowling suggests, rather, a bit of good old fashioned common sense: get out of the way, and let the kids fall on their own faces every once in a while.
    TOG

  2. Pingback: Mr. Pond Interviews Travis

  3. In my view, Rowling has sprinkled her books with more hints about Paganism than Christianity. In fact, there is a total absence of the Biblical God and Christian symbols in her book. Even the word god doesn’t appear until the third book of the series, The Prisoner of Azkaban and even there it is uttered by one of the villains of the series, Malfoy. So what signal does it give?

    The world of Rowling is a pretty secular one, sprinkled by pagan references, those references which are not explicitly religious but spiritual in nature. Concluding that it has Christian imagery wouldn’t be quite so right.

    Christianity claims love, friendship, courage to be its values. But every religion does so and ever ethical system does the same. So by the same token, the Harry Potter books can be in those traditions too.

  4. Welcome, Pankaj. Thanks for your thoughts. I think one of the beautiful things in the Harry Potter series is its ability to speak into so many faiths. I’d not thought of your observations in re paganism before, and I suspect Rowling would appreciate them. At the other end of the spectrum, there have been several very interesting and compelling studies done of Judaic and Talumdic themes in Harry Potter.

    The fact remains that Rowling is a confessing Christian, and consciously put Christian imagery in her books. Not, of course, overtly. Harry and Ron don’t get into any discussions about theology, and Biblical Exegesis isn’t offered as a class at Hogwarts. (Who would teach that, I wonder?) But it’s woven into the fabric of the story, the atmosphere. That’s the point Travis is making here. In some places it’s more obvious that others–Godric’s Hollow, for instance. Rowling draws on the long history of Christian fantasy in the West, from Arthur to Spencer to MacDonald, and tells her story from withing that tradition.

    But, as I said, the wonderful thing about these books–about all great literature, really–is the wide diversity of readings they welcome, encourage, and inspire. Travis talks about this in the other parts of the interview, I think. So, this is how I read them–and how I think Rowling wrote them. But other people can them differently. And, as you say, ‘the Harry Potter books can be in those traditions to’.

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