A conversation with Travis Prinzi
The Paradoxes Mr. Pond continues our discussion with Potter Pundit, author, critic, and cardiologist Travis Prinzi.
PARADOXES: You’re saying J. K. Rowling’s writing in very much an English tradition, very much an Anglican tradition, very much a Christian symbolic tradition. I heard you reference in one of the conversations at the Hog’s Head someone commenting that you get a lot of diverse opinions and ideas there—just a lot of interesting folk. How does the broad base of opinion that you see in the conversations at Hog’s Head contribute to our understanding of an author, of a text, that comes from a fairly narrow literary tradition?
TRAVIS PRINZI: Some of the bigger brawls at the Hog’s Head have been because of that very thing. I’ve watched, and unfortunately at times participated in some really harsh discussions (I mean, not really harsh—the Hog’s Head keeps it pretty calm) about criticism, textual criticism. Different types of criticism approaching books from a reader response point of view, or a new criticism point of view, or an iconological point of view. The postmodern folks will say every view has some sort of validity and that it is a tool to use in understanding a text and that kind of thing Then you get the iconological folks who come in and say, no, those are all sort of silly ways to look at a text, this is the way you should do it. And you’ve got the new critics who come in and say the text alone is all that matters.
You begin to peel all that away and begin to realize, we’re not so much arguing about different types of literary criticism as we are arguing about epistemology, different ways of viewing the world. Of course the iconological critic and the reader response critic aren’t going to get along. The reader response critic takes as an assumption that there are spiritual things that are just absolutely unknowable, that the idea of grass being the big picture of what reality is, is in fact an arrogant claim, and an oppressive claim. Whereas an iconological critic will say, no, spiritual knowledge is all we can really know, and everything else is built on that. It’s a different view of reality.
What you end up finding though is, underneath all of that, everybody is impacted by Dobby’s death, everybody is impacted by Harry’s love for his friends, everybody wants to see—at least most people want to see—Harry win and Voldemort lose. We have arguments about some things with the characters. But we tend to, at least, have very similar emotional responses to the things we’re supposed to be having emotional responses to—love and sacrifice and loyalty to what’s good, that kind of thing.
It reminds me of the way Tolkien talked about fairy tales, in that he says they’re the imaginative satisfaction of ancient human desires. Now, Tolkien was a very adamant Roman Catholic and a Christian, but he didn’t say ancient Christian desires. He said ancient human desires. I think there’s something to that. Even the atheist H.P. Lovecraft could make the statement about fear that it is the oldest and strongest human emotion.
So you don’t necessarily need to all agree on the same belief to realize that we as humans have very, very similar desires, and some of those are good and some of those are bad, that the desire to rise to power at any cost, including the cost of other human life, is bad, and the desire to lay down your life for your friends, and be willing to sacrifice yourself for them is good.
When when we’re arguing about how to read a text, we tend to come together still on those ancient human desires. And so that’s what makes it really fascinating for me.
J. K. Rowling said in an interview that Hogwarts is a multi-faith school.
Yeah, I remember that.
You have the Hog’s Head Forum being a multi-faith, multi perspective discussion. How do you take this multi-faith element in Rowling and in the readership into consideration in your criticism and discussion of her works?
I don’t think that’s hard to do, for the simple reason that, by and large, apart from a few references here and there—and vague references—she leaves explicit religion out of the text. Not quite to the extent that, say, Tolkien recommended. Tolkien believed that ultimately the Arthur tales failed because they adopted explicit reference to Christian religion. Which is a funny thing for Tolkien to say, but that’s the way he thought about fairytales.
To a large extent, Rowling takes the same point of view on what she’s going to do with religion in the text. We know that Harry has a godfather, so there’s some sort of a Christian right there. We know that there’s a church and that there’s singing around Christmas Eve in Godric’s Hollow. We know the wizarding world is aware of the Scriptures because of the tombstones. But we get the impression that that is what it is because that’s simply the way England and Scotland are.
In saying Hogwarts is a multi-faith school, she doesn’t introduce us to a bunch of faiths all getting along. She just ignores the whole question of what religion people are following, and lets the symbolism of the story communicate a religious message.
So I don’t think it’s that hard to deal with, her statement about the multi-faith school of Hogwarts. I think that, more than anything, what she’s saying there is—it’s not a Christian boarding school.
To read the rest of the conversation:
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.