A conversation with Travis Prinzi
Welcome to the final third of Mr. Pond’s interview with Potter Pundit Travis Prinzi. This time, we’re discussing the weird connections between fairytale and theology, the past and the future, the perilous realm and the desert, the holiness of sacraments and the greenness of grass.
PARADOXES: Shifting the focus of the questions slightly. On your bio page at Letters from the Perilous Realm, you describe yourself as ‘a Calvinist who’s trying to become Paleo-orthodox.’
TRAVIS PRINZI: (laughing) Yeah.
Yeah, let’s start with that—what is Paleo-orthodoxy?
Somebody recently quoted me on paleo-orthodoxy. And I thought, boy, I really said that well! I’d like to just quote what I wrote, if I can. Okay, here’s what I wrote, a few years ago:
The position is really quite simple. Go read and learn the early church fathers, the great theologians of the faith who laid down the essentials in the midst of great persecution, controversy, debate, and heresy during the first several hundred years following Jesus. Learn the decisions of the first several ecumenical councils. Return to the church’s classic creeds—the Apostle’s creed, the Nicene creed—and focus on those things that have been held by all Christians in all places at all times. In his classic book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton called tradition the democracy of the dead. Paleo-orthodox theology is the way of giving the dead their vote.
The reason paleo-orthodoxy is so fascinating to me is because I was raised in a tradition that said, basically by the second century the whole church had fallen into heresy, and did not recover from it until the Baptists came along. I morphed from there into what I call the Cage Stage of Calvinism, where you get excited about the five points of Calvinism, and you really should just be locked into a cage until you get over yourself. Then I went to seminary, and we had a lot of paleo-orthodox readings. It made me realize just how narrow this one tradition that I was hammering away at is in the broad context of a two thousand year conversation in theology.
It was my desire to move away from sort of a rigid sectarian view of Christianity, but not abandon the classical Christian faith all together. Paleo-orthodoxy was a great way to begin exploring that.
Now, there’s a bit of an inherent tension in discussing the Church Fathers by and large, and looking at it from a Calvinistic framework. In what sense has that tension of personal, spiritual, theological influenced or enriched your literary study?
I think that (and it’s probably not fair to say of Calvin himself) it was in the Reformation and shortly after that a sacramental worldview began to fade. Because you get the Anabaptists, the Zwinglians, you get the Calvinists heading in that direction. It moved toward a more memorialist worldview, that I find problematic.
Rediscovering a sacramental worldview from prior to the Reformation, all the way back to early church fathers, is what made me realize that literature can be more than a story. It can be a work of art that points to a greater reality—not like the bread and the wine are, but in a sense sacramental, pointing to greater things.
I realized the rigidity of [saying] if I can match up this word right here in Harry Potter with this word in the Bible, and that word’s in a negative context, well then, this Harry Potter book must be dangerous for me. When that kind of very rigid, linear, non-realistic thinking fell away, and I returned more toward a sacramental worldview, I was more able to appreciate great books for what they are—what Russell Kirk said they were. The end of great book is ethical, they teach us how to be more human. Literature can serve in a sacramental way.
Well, also apparent is not only your interest in Harry Potter, but your interest in fairytales. So, tell me about fairytales.
Fairytales—I’ll tell you two things about fairytales. One is that I’m no expert in fairytales. And two is that I want to be.
What has intrigued me is Tolkien’s and MacDonald’s and Chesterton’s view of the fairytale.That meshes very well with everything I just said about literature being a window to what Tolkien would call more permanent things. But you got to love Chesterton on this, who says, Tommy opens the door at three years old, and is excited that the door opened, and that’s it. Twelve-year-old Tommy needs to be there was a dragon there to be excited about the door opening.
The fairytale is the thing that reminds us, he says, that the world is wild. You go into a fairytale, and find that the grass is blue. And that’s shocking to you. But you’ve forgotten that the first saw time you saw the grass was green, that shocked you in the same way. You become bored with the world and forget that it’s a wild and startling place, he says. The fairytale is, he says, is more necessary for the adult than it is for the child. A three-year-old child, he says, is probably the only person who can really appreciate a realistic novel. The rest of us need fairytales to get back to a view of the world.
It’s a philosophy of the fairytale that comes out of Chesterton that has driven me toward thinking about and reading and revisiting fairytales. I say fairytales, everyone thinks ‘The Princess and the Frog’, and Grimm, and those are great. I loved the Beedle tales for that reason. But I tend to be speaking of fairytales in the way Tolkien did. We’re talking about sub-creation fantasy fiction that is believable, and creates secondary world where you can go and have those ancient human desires addressed and satisfied.
I want to tie these threads together, in terms of paleo-orthodoxy and fairytales. On the one hand you have Tolkien’s description of the Perilous Realm—the shadowy border between, the mythic face toward nature, where we are encountering and meeting other travellers, other worlds. On the other, buttress this against the writings of the Desert Fathers—seeing the desert as this place of travail, where we go out, where we go to confront ourselves, where we go to really meet with the other world, to discover. So there’s this connection, almost possible, between the desert and the perilous realm. I just wonder if you could comment on that?
It’s a great connection. I’m not as familiar with the desert fathers as I should be, or at least perhaps as I once was, from back in my seminary days. I’d make the same connection, and Lewis does, with communion. We’re talking back about sacramental things, and encountering the other world. Lewis said the time that the veil between heaven and earth is thinnest is in the sacraments.
I think that you’re getting the same sort of experience, when you’re thinking about the desert fathers, and the desert as a place to go where that veil is thin. If you think about that in terms of fairytales, you think about every entry into another world, every painting that people go into, or a wardrobe or even—obviously—King’s Cross.
That’s one of the things I love about fantasy fiction. You step, in a sense, beyond the veil and into a new world. And that’s why I think Tolkien believed that fantasy fiction was the highest form of art. It’s the one that reminds us there’s another world. It’s the one that reminds us of the world we live in, where there is a heavenly realm, or a more magical realm than the one we see every day, and sometimes it gets very, very close. Lewis would say it’s in the sacraments, and the desert fathers would say it’s out in the desert. I think it’s a great parallel to make.
What’s ahead for Travis Prinzi? Where do you go from here?
I am currently working on a book called I Want to be Harry Potter, which is a book of character studies. And intentionally less heady than Harry Potter and Imagination, intentionally accessible. I’m attempting to be funny throughout it, and take a fun and witty look at the characters we all love. The advantage to this is, in all likelihood—unless your favourite character is Argus Filch for whatever reason— there’s going to be a chapter on your favourite character. There’s twenty chapters planned right now. I’m plugging away, and hope to have that done by Inifitus, which is the conference this summer.
Then I’m touring with a couple other Harry Potter book ideas before I put the Potter thing to rest and move on to other writing. I did an essay for the Hog’s Head conversations book on the moral imagination, and I’d really like to expand that into a book. I’d also like to expand on the politics stuff that I started in Harry Potter and Imagination and do something longer and a bit more involved on that. Those are books I do hope to get out in the next year or two. I’m going to continue a yearly collection of Hog’s Head conversations. Volume two I intend to have out I think it time for the first Deathly Hallows movie.
I don’t know how I’ll get all this writing done when a full-time job and doing everything else that I do, but those are my goals.
Well, thank you Travis.
No problem at all. I appreciate the opportunity do an interview and be posted on your site.
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.