Friday, November 30, 2012

Belief and Marvel in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien Criticism

“It is at any rate essential to a genuine fairy story...that it should be presented as true”                 - J.R.R Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

 Largely an essay on the origin, qualifications, and readership of fairy stories, J.R.R. Tolkien's On Fairy Stories argues for the legitimacy of fairy stories being read and enjoyed by people of all ages. Yet understanding what Tolkien means by “true” in On Fairy Stories and how the element of truth ultimately makes for a good fairy story, is crucial. Not only is this a key issue in his own essay, but it connects with C.S. Lewis' argument in On Stories, an essay exploring the joy of reading a story. If, as Lewis states, “belief at best is irrelevant” (Lewis, 13), then in order to understand what makes a good and believable story, it is best to understand what similar distinctions are being made by each author between belief and truth.
     For both Lewis and Tolkien a story's truth does not depend on whether or not the events are credible, or as Tolkien states, if “a thing exists or can happen in the real (primary) world” (131). Such belief is unnecessary, not because marvelous or fantastic events should not be believed or are simply not plausible, but rather because a good story does not call for its readers to believe that its events can happen in what Tolkien calls our “primary” world. Mistaking this as the story's purpose can lead to a common misconception: that marvelous or fantastic stories are only enjoyed by children, because after all, it is children that believe that such things are possible. When Lewis frankly states, “Good stories often introduce the marvelous or supernatural, and nothing about Story has been so often misunderstood as this” (13) he refers to the mistake of thinking that it is children's inexperience or ignorance of our world that leads them to more easily believe, and thus enjoy the events of a fantastic story. Children are far from being the majority of those who like being told of impossible things or like reading of the magic of other-worlds. They are also, as Tolkien points out, not even the only type of person with the capability or desire believe in such things (132). For Tolkien and Lewis there is another, greater quality that a good fairy story demands if it is to be enjoyed: that of truth.
     It is belief of a marvelous, but true world that makes reading stories, especially one of fantasy or fairy enjoyable. In order to write a believable fantastical story, it must be drawn upon our own real world to produce the effect of plausibility. The creation of a “Secondary World” (132) as Tolkien calls it, is by its nature based upon the primary world, and can never be wholly distinct from it. But as a creation, a secondary world allows, if not invites, the extraordinary. In order to enjoy entering this new and marvelous world, the reader must be able to believe that it “accords with the laws of that world” (131). Thus it is not the childish belief in the the possibility of the secondary world that the reader takes joy in, but the plausibility that makes entering the story- and staying there- possible. A successfully “true” fairy story will make the act of belief effortless.     It is this effortless belief in a story that Lewis likewise attributes not to childish ignorance, but to the writer's craftsmanship and willingness to “draw from the only real 'other world' we know, that of the spirt” (12). Although more ambiguous than Tolkien's definition of the primary world as simply our real world, Lewis' 'other world' is not wholly distinct from Tolkien's primary world. It recalls the human spirit, certainty a very real sentiment and primary element from our own world that writers must draw upon in order to create “plausible and moving” (12) stories. It is in this spirit and vitality of humanity that writers both draw from and emulate, and in such spirit the reader in turn enjoys the story.

In looking at Lewis' and Tolkien's similar views on the believability of marvelous stories we come out with perhaps the most important and interesting understanding of why, after all, it is important for these secondary worlds to be read. Both Lewis and Tolkien believe strongly and vehemently in the transformative effect that stories have over readers. Most particularly the effect of taking from and placing in reality, the fantastical. For, in creating the most plausible and fantastic world, the writer has based it upon real world objects, events, and routines, but has placed these in a marvelous setting, what Tolkien describes as “simplicities [that] are made all the more luminous by their setting” (147). When the reader is truly immersed in such a world, he absorbs these simplicities in splendor, and thus once out of the world his opinion on ordinary events and objects transforms from the mundane into the marvelous, something Lewis describes as helping “strengthen our relish for life” (15). This is ultimately the imaginative and creative power of reading a story that is both marvelous and true. Through similar arguments Lewis and Tolkien not only to defend fairy stories, but legitimize fantasy stories as illuminating and imaginative fiction.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Hogwarts Sorting Hat: the Struggle of Family Bloodline and Personal Identity in the Chamber of Secrets

      It's no news that the sorting hat in the Harry Potter series is far from perfect. At the very least, it's a considerably more complicated system than what is at first suggested. As it's introduced to us in the Sorcerer's Stone, the sorting hat seemingly- and very clearly- sets the parameters of good and evil. By the end of Deathly Hallows Dumbledore reflects, "perhaps we sort too soon," but 19 years later the hat is still being used to sort new coming students into separate houses. 
What, then, is the larger purpose of the sorting hat? And what can we learn from Harry's experiences with it in one of his most pivotal years at Hogwarts?

Image by DraconisAsh28 on pottermore
    The four houses of Hogwarts come to represent a variety of witch and wizard character traits, but one of the first things Harry learns in the Sorcerer's Stone is to associate certain houses with certain type of people.  Before even stepping foot in a magical community Hagrid tells Harry, “There's not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn't in Slytherin. You-Know-Who was one” (Stone 80). Later on, Hermione likewise states that Gryffindor “sounds by far the best; I hear Dumbledore himself was in it” (Stone 106). The houses are set up as an antithesis of good and evil- a system by which to measure to the very best and the worst of wizarding kind. This is also gives interesting insight into how the wizarding community regards Hogwarts Houses: the Sorting process extends far beyond a witch or wizard's school days. It is not a one time judgement of character, but a continual sign of status that is clearly both shaped by and helps shape reputations of witches and wizards. Because despite graduating Hogwarts long ago, Voldemort and Dumbledore's standing connection to their Hogwarts house show Harry the long term, real world effects of sorting, and gives Harry clear examples of evil and good.

      The house Sorting gets more complicated in The Chamber of Secrets as the role of magical bloodline begins to play a more important and more visible role. The threat of Slytherin's Heir throughout the second novel links bloodline with Hogwarts houses and thus prompts Harry to question how much weight family blood has when it comes to the Housing sorting. Even a quick look at the Weasley family for instance, suggests that family blood and houses are very connected. All the Weasley children are placed in Gryffindor and even the extended Weasley family members (excepting a mysterious Lancelot who "nobody talks about") are as well.  Similarly Just as Draco and his father share the “same pale, pointed face, and identical cold, gray eyes” (50), so too do they share similar Slytherin values. Draco's menacing shout of “ Enemies of the Heir, Beware! You'll be next, Mudbloods”(139) is both a word for word echo of the Slytherin Heir's writing on the wall, as well as an echo of his fathers earlier sentiments of how terrible it is that “wizarding blood is counting for less” (52). Although family blood does not ensure placement in a particular House, Harry believes it has a significant bearing, convincing Hermione, “look at [Draco's] family...the whole lot of them have been in Slytherin; They could easily be Slytherin's descendents. His father's definitely evil enough” (158).

Image from the pensieve
       Harry, however, is unable to learn his family history, so when he discovers he shares the unique talent of speaking Parseltongue with Salazar Slytherin and Voldemort,  he struggles over the Sorting Hat's decision to place him in Gryffindor. Harry questions himself thinking, “Could he be a descendent of Salazar Slytherin? He didn't know anything about his father's family, after all” (197). Harry's fears are fueled by the amount of weight given to wizarding blood this school year and leads him to forget that there is something far more important in determining where he belongs than the hat: his individual choices. Thoughout the whole novel, Harry seems to forget the simple fact that he doesn't want to be in Slyhterin. Instead, Harry's fears of being attached to Slytherin deepen and his very Gryffindor-like actions go unnoticed. Of course, we remember that the only reason Harry discovers he is a parsletongue is because he was trying to save Justin (it doesn't get much more Gryffindor than that). But Harry overlooks this just like he overlooks one of the most obvious things that distinguishes him from the Slytherin: his choices in friends. Apart from Hermione in the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry spends his time in Chamber of Secrets befriending a host of magical beings that many Slytherins would never accept as proper wizards, much less as friends. Harry does so, going out of his way to keep them happy, even if it means offering an awfully loud Dobby a seat at the Dursely household, or attending a Deathday Party despite a growling stomach and the alluring annual Halloween feast. Harry consistatnly makes choices to treat others with empathy and equality; qualities clearly lost on the prejudiced Slytherin's. 

    Harry spends a lot of time in the second book worrying about being "Slytherin". But even when Harry is at his most Slytherin (using Parsletongue, or his polyjuice-induced literal transformation into a Slyhterin) he is also at his most Gryffindor.  For instance, after witnessing Draco sneering at Percy, Harry-as- Goyle “almost said something apologetic to Percy but caught himself just in time” (220). Throughout the series, and most particularly in Chamber of Secrets, Harry also exclusively uses Parseltongue for very Gryffindor-like reasons, not only stopping the snake from attacking Justin, but using it to enter the chamber of secrets and ultimately save Ginny.

   Harry's second year at Hogwarts introduces us to the complicated prejudices and animosities between houses, wizarding blood, and magical creatures. Yet at the end of the novel, despite knowing the eerie similarities between himself and Voldemort, Harry knows he is not destined to be anything like him- not merely because he is in a different Hogwarts house, but because he is more aware of his own actions and choices. When Dumbledore offers Godric Gryffindor's sword to Harry as “proof ...that you belong in Gryffindor” (333), Dumbledore is not just comforting Harry's one time accomplishment of being sorted into Gryffindor, but comforting Harry that is it his consistent “choices ...more than our abilities” (333) that continues to shape who he is. Although Slytherin and Gryffindor respectfully remain representative of evil and good, Harry's struggle within the Chamber of Secrets ultimately broadens our understanding of houses, preparing us for the surprises and betrayals in the likes of Sirius, Regulus, Peter Pettigrew, and Snape in the following novels. 


Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic Press. 1997. Print.
- - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Press. 1999. Print.