Friday, August 24, 2007

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - Sirius Improvement

After another miserable summer fraught with muggle-trouble, Harry heads back to Hogwarts for his third year. As usual, things start to go wrong even before he gets there. A cold-blooded murderer named Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban, the prison for wayward wizards, and he's out to get Harry. Worse, the enforcers charged with recapturing Black--the joy-draining dementors--are almost more malevolent than he is. But Harry's got an ally in Professor Lupin, the chronically disheveled Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and with the help of his friends Ron and Hermione, a special mischief-maker's map, and a hippogriff named Buckbeak, Harry delves deeper into the mystery of his past and finds an unexpected new protector.

If Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was formulaic and a rehash of Sorcerer's Stone with a few different critters and magical doo-hickeys, The Prisoner of Azkaban is, by contrast, a refreshing change of pace. The overall writing is better, the dialog is more believable and the characters less cardboard. The twisting plot also keeps you guessing which makes for an enjoyable read throughout. And it's a good thing, too. At over 430 pages and a solid two pounds in hardcover, Prisoner of Azkaban is quite the tome.

Rowling introduces the fascinating character of Sirius Black in Prisoner of Azkaban and he is the boogey-man throughout 90% of the book. The best friend of Harry's parents, Black was accused of betraying them to the wicked Voldemort. He was thrown into Azkaban for murdering 13 people, one of whom was Peter Pettigrew, a bungling wizard who chased Black down to avenge his betrayal of the Potters. That, at least, was the official story. The truth, of course, is considerably more complicated.

From my perspective, what is most intriguing about Black is that he is identified as Harry Potter's godfather. Now, some have used this to demonstrate that the Harry Potter books are indeed steeped in a Christian worldview. Why else would Harry have a godfather if he hadn't been baptized? Unfortunately, one doesn't have to do very much web searching to turn up evidence that wiccans do actually have godparents as part of their rituals. Here's an excerpt from a book that I found that clearly indicates the presence of godparents in wicca ritual. There is also the traditional linkage between witchcraft and the notion of the fairy godmother, though I haven't explored that relationship in any great detail. Given this, the argument that Harry is Christian because he has a godfather seems less credible. At the same time, it doesn't positively confirm any linkage between the books and wicca. The use of the term is simply ambiguous.

The major themes in this book are in general agreement with Christian ethic, even if it is not explicitly stated. Good and evil are clearly defined, though it's not always clear who is on which side. The Weasleys, with their large, rambunctious family, are given a central place and are presented very sympathetically. The notions of courage and self-sacrifice are explored in detail, particularly with regard to the love of a mother and father for their child. Harry also shows compassion and mercy, in very much the Christian sense. In one scene, he forbids the killing of Voldemort's creature when he is about to be done in by Harry's protectors.

There are also some hints in the book about an afterlife, though in a form more closely resembling the Star Wars universe than anything Christian. Toward the end of the book, Dumbledore says, "You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don't recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself most plainly when you have need of him" (page 427-8). Kind of like Harry's own Obi-Wan Kenobi. But again, I hesitate to make a call on semi-new-agey stuff like this until I've got a better idea of where it's all going.

Over all, though I enjoyed the writing and the story in Prisoner of Azkaban, I remain conflicted about the series in general, and its suitability for young Catholic readers in particular. I reckon my opinion is going to come down to the wire at the end of Book VII. But I've got to get there first and these books don't seem to get any slimmer as the series progresses. On to Book IV!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Red Falcons of Tremoine -- An excellent story for younger readers

Poor Leo lived as an orphan in the care of St. Michael's Abbey. As far as he knew, he had no relations in this world and no family name. He was mocked by the other boys at St. Michael's for his apparently low birth, and his rebellious nature attracted the frequent reproofs of the his guardians, the monks. But the abbot held a secret that no one else knew--that 15-year-old Leo is the legitimate offspring of an ill-fated couple who married in secret because their families were feuding. As such, Leo is the heir of two baronies--Wardlock and Tremoine--both of which remain locked in a bitter grudge.

The Red Falcons of Tremoine is the story of how young Leo becomes aware of his parentage and his subsequent struggle as a bone of contention between his father's family at Wardlock and his mother's family at Tremoine. His humble and elderly grandfather, Maurice of Wardlock, embraces Leo and takes him in as his heir. But the scheming and violent Rolf of Tremoine wants his nephew for his own heir is is willing to go to any length to achieve that end.

The Red Falcons of Tremoine starts out slow, but the persevering reader is well rewarded. The characters are very well drawn, and the action is brisk and in no way predictible--until near the end. I particularly enjoyed the complex character of Rainald, the cold but loyal squire of Baron Rolf. Leo is also an excellent character--good hearted, spirited, and honest, but by no means perfect. Baron Rolf is an exceptional villain whose motivations and internal anguish are made clear. While he is somewhat sympathetic in his complexity, the author by no means excuses the wicked things he does and he comes off as more of a tragic figure, rather than truly evil.

I would heartily recommend this book to older kids above the age of 11 or so. Parents will likely enjoy reading along themselves. The author's historical knowledge is good and one really gets a feel for the life and times of 12th century England. If this kind of excellent historical fiction appeals to you, I would recommend Belisarius: The First Shall Be Last and Big John's Secret (Living History Library) as well.

Posting more reviews...

As long as I'm posting my Harry Potter reviews here, I figured I'd post my reviews of other young-adult fiction as well. Unless otherwise noted, none of these books pose any potential danger to the Catholic formation of young readers. Indeed, most of them are as educational as they are fun to read.


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – More of the same

Having read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I dove into Book 2, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets anxious to see where J. K. Rowling was going to take the story. I also wanted to see if my criticisms of the first book would stand up or get flattened as the story progressed.

Well, as for the story line, it really wasn’t a whole lot different from the first book. A mystery is introduced: the Chamber of Secrets has been opened by the mysterious Heir of Slytherin and whatever was locked in the Chamber has been attacking, but not killing, certain students who are not of pure magical blood. Harry and his friends sleuth around to figure out the mystery, breaking a myriad of school rules in the process and nearly (of course) getting expelled. When Hermione is attacked, Hogwarts is on the point of shutting down for good. It’s up to Harry, Ron, and the famous but useless Professor Gilderoy Lockhart to discover where the Chamber of Secrets is located and defeat the evil that lurks within.

I have to say I enjoyed reading this installment in the series quite a bit less than the previous book. The character of the self-promoting Gilderoy Lockhart, while resonating with the publisher in me, was too overdone to be funny--like a Monty Python skit that is shown over and over again until all the humor is thoroughly beaten out of it. Also in this category was the scene with Ron vomiting up slugs. Several pages of such imagery is more than enough for even the most scatologically-inclined juvenile reader.

On the other hand, I did like the character of Ginny Weasley, Ron's younger sister. In fact, I think that a lot of homeschool families would find the Weasleys very sympathetic. They've got seven kids--six boys and a girl. They're poor, so they're forced to make due with hand-me-down robes and second-hand wands. And they're ridiculed by their social "betters" for their financial straits. That Ron and his brothers are quick to resort to fisticuffs rather than hear their family demeaned may also resonate with some.

One thing that particularly irritated me about The Chamber of Secrets was the introduction of some alternate history taken directly from wicca 101. "Hogwarts was founded over a thousand years ago by the four greatest witches and wizards of the time," the ghost of Professor Binns lectures. "They built this castle together, far from prying Muggle eyes, for it was an age when magic was feared by common people, and witches and wizards suffered much persecution" (pg. 150). I've heard similar nonsense bandied about by real, modern, historically-challenged wiccans, so when I saw this, I just shook my head. Not good. To my eye, this looked like a seed planted by Rowling and it seemed to substantiate Amy Welborn's observation:
"There's only one reason the Harry Potter books are in the least bit controversial. Just one. Wicca. That's it. If we didn't have this ridiculous little "religion" bustling around, forming "covens" in dorm rooms and getting army chaplains, I doubt one parent in a million would even think to waste even a minute being concerned about these books."
But it is a concern. For the record, there is an excellent article in the Catholic Encyclopedia that gives a capsule scholarly history of witchcraft from the Catholic perspective and it is very effective in debunking wicca and its ridiculous alternate history. I hope that the future books in the series do not contain other such seeds--I'll certainly be looking for them.

The Chamber of Secrets also elaborates upon the differences between the magically inclined and those poor benighted creatures known as Muggles--that is, anyone who is "normal" and non-magical. In Rowling's world, there are those among the magical who despise the "Mudbloods"--anyone who is magical but from a Muggle family--and those good magic-users who are tolerant of Muggles, no matter how awful and nasty they may be. There seems to be an obvious intent on Rowling's part to make this a lesson in tolerance somehow, but it seems peculiarly elitist to me. Even the magical beings who tolerate the Muggles still, for them most part, look down on them as curious and generally pathetic creatures in need of study. One could easily imagine a book of poetry in the Hogwart's library containing "The Magical Man's Burden." I'm curious to see where this tangent ends up in the future books.

The climax of the book was also subpar. The horrible creature in the Chamber of Secrets is fairly inept. It kills no one (and the reasons given for this are ludicrous) and is eventually destroyed almost by accident. Though Harry is the hero, he seems to survive his deadly encounters almost completely by luck and the intervention of an "eye-in-the-sky"--all of which makes you wonder why the "eye-in-the-sky" didn't just deal with the problem in the first place.

I've heard it said that Chamber of Secrets is the weakest of the Potter books. Having read only the previous one, I can't comment on that, yet. However, it was certainly weaker than Sorcerer's Stone. The book also did little to quell my criticisms of the original book. Indeed, it enhanced them and added a few new ones. We'll see where all this leads in book three.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - Escapism and a bit more

As a youth, fantasy lit was for me a way of making a seemingly mundane life more interesting. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is the kind of book that would have intrigued me at age 12 or there abouts--a young boy who's something of a misfit in his everyday life, suddenly discovers that he's actually much more. There's something secret, special, and interesting about him that nobody dared guess.

As far as this theme goes, the book is one of many, nothing special. Heck, for a while, almost every Disney movie carried exactly this trope. What makes Harry Potter stand out is the creativity of J. K. Rowling. Is she a prose-master? Not exactly. But as fantasy lit for kids goes, the writing is intelligent, yet fast-paced and readable. The characters, both major and minor, are vivid, sympathetic, and brilliantly developed. Rowling's world-building skills are also incredibly good. The profusion of funny incidental items she introduces into the story, from the Nimbus 2000 flying broom to Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans help add a certain quirkiness that is undeniably charming.

However, my opinion of the value of mainly escapist fantasy literature has changed substantially in the 25-odd years since I was 12. In the interim, I have realized that life itself is interesting enough and that if you're easily bored with it, it's most likely because you're a boring person. Therefore, for a book of this sort to have some real value--especially for younger readers--it needs to teach them something good and noble about real life outside of Hogwarts Academy. It is on this point that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone stumbles. My main criticism of the book can be summed up in one sentence:
"Hermione had become a bit more relaxed about breaking the rules since Harry and Ron had saved her from the mountain troll, and she was much nicer for it." (pg. 181)
Upon finishing the book, it was that sentence that stuck with me. To paraphrase the apparent message: rules are for stuck-up prigs, and if you want to get anywhere and have people like you, you need to break 'em with abandon, even if you lack the experience necessary to fathom why the rules are there in the first place. Again, this is a standard Disney-style trope that I have always hated. And to make matters worse, Harry and his friends are rewarded repeatedly in the aftermath of their rule-breaking. It was a disappointment to me (and a literary mistake, if I may be so bold) at the end that Harry and Gryffindor were awarded enough points at the last possible second to give them the House Cup. It actually made me feel bad for Slytherin--as a Philadelphia sports fan, I know that feeling of being ripped off by the officials all too well.

This annoying element is mostly balanced out, however, by the overriding sense of good and evil that is present throughout the book. "There is no good and evil," says the slavish and simpering Professor Quirrell, servant of the evil Voldemort, "only power and those too weak to seek it" (pg. 291). To its credit, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is not a relativistic book. Evil is well defined. Good is also presented, though perhaps a bit more vaguely and occasionally with a Machievellian undercurrent--in the fight against evil, the rules are not all that important. Love, particularly familial and self-sacrificial love, is also extolled.

Having only read the first book in the series, I'll give Rowling the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the rule-breaking stuff. Perhaps she's got a reasonable explanation for it in the future volumes. I'll be looking for it as I read volumes 2 through 7. I must say, though, that there are plenty of fantasy lit books for young people out there that do a much better job of tackling the subject of good and evil than this one, among them Niamh and the Hermit and Dream of Fire.

As for the common criticism that the Harry Potter series is a gateway to the occult, for a well-catechized young person over the age of 13 or 14, this book should cause no problem in that regard. If the reader is an impressionable child of 8 or 9 who is not well-catechized, I would be a lot more cautious. If they must read it, I would strongly encourage a parent to read along with them.

Buried in Potter's Field? A Catholic Homeschooling Father Reads the Harry Potter Series

With the release of the final book in the Harry Potter series, I have finally decided that it's time to break down and read it all start to finish. Why would I do such a thing, you might well ask, when the Pope has warned the faithful about the series, along with Fr. Amorth, the well-known exorcist? The answer is for the same reason I read the noxious and comically ill-written Da Vinci Code. The series has become a cultural phenomenon and I've been asked repeatedly for my opinion of it. Well, if I'm going to comment on it, I should at least have the common courtesy to read it first.

Plus, it has come to my attention that a number of family members and friends, all sterling Catholics, are fans of the series and several well-known Catholic lights have come out in defense of the Potter books (eg. Amy Wellborn and Cardinal Pell of Sydney). Then, there's the recent creation of the "Papists for Potter" Yahoo Group. But the thing that sealed it for me was the rumor that the final volume in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, contained a lot of Christian symbolism and futhermore, that J.K. Rowling is, or at least was, a member of the Chesterton Society.

So I have decided to read and review all of the Potter books from the perspective of a Catholic homeschooling father of five. For the record, none of mine are old enough to read Harry Potter yet--the oldest is five and still working on his phonics. But they're going to grow up in a world where Harry Potter is a cultural phenomenon and the series will, no doubt, eventually become an issue in our house. One way or another, I want to be prepared for it.

I'm also coming from the view-point of a someone who grew up in the 1980s having spent hours-upon-hours playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and a variety of sword-and-sorcery type computer games, such as Gauntlet and Bard's Tale. I was also a heavy consumer of such wholesome musical acts as Guns 'n' Roses and Iron Maiden. In the interest of full-disclosure, I did fall away from the Church for a few years in my late-teens. But this had less to do with metal music and video games than exceedingly poor catechesis in high school, simple adolescent sloth, and the generally hedonistic atmosphere at the formerly Catholic university I attended. I never took D&D, video games, or metal very seriously. However, I did know people who took such things very seriously and this attitude certainly had detrimental effects on their development as mature adult Christians.

That said, I embark on reading and reviewing the Harry Potter series with some trepidation. A wise man does not take lightly warnings from both a famous exorcist and Benedict XVI (admittedly, while he was still "merely" Cardinal Ratzinger). Therefore I begin this series of reviews the same way I begin when sitting down to read the books. With a prayer to St. Michael—just in case:

Sancte Michael Archangel, defende nos in proelio, contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesidium. Imperet illi Deus, supplices deprecamur tuque, Princeps militiae coelestis, Satanam aliosoque malignos, qui ad perditionem animarum pervagantur in mundo, divina virtute, in infernum detrude. Amen.