In Middle Earth

I try to make the best of business travel.  I had all-day obligations this time around, but fortunately my hotel was next to a place of some renown.  The house where J. R. R. Tolkien lived was practically right next door.  This is the place where the Lord of the Rings came into the world.  I have always tried to visit sites of literary significance when in new places.  When we were more able to do so, my family would take such literary pilgrimages annually, especially in the autumn.  Being a believer in the confluence of science and spirit, I can’t help but think there’s something sacred about the place where great literature was born.  Of course, in Oxford you can find sites for Lewis Carroll and C. S. Lewis, as well, among many others.  These days everyone seems to associate the place with Harry Potter, although J. K. Rowling started that particular series in Edinburgh.

Tolkien has become a deity in his own right, I suspect, for creating an entire world to which millions of fantasy fans come.  His actual house, however, is privately owned.  Besides, I’m here on business.  Still, falling asleep so close to where Tolkien dreamed his Middle Earth dreams is akin to inspiration.  Writing as an avocation makes such encounters almost worshipful.  I read the Ring trilogy and The Hobbit many years ago.  I haven’t seen any of the movies, however, since my own imagination seems sufficient for me.  Tolkien took me, for many hours, into another world.  Somewhat like work has done this week, I guess.  Were it not for business, Oxford could be a magical place.  Living in a location where imagination is valued and encouraged makes a huge difference, I expect.

Years ago, Edinburgh was an inspirational place to reside.  Although my main writing output at the time was a 300-page doctoral dissertation, it was a place that has inspired much of my fiction.  Tolkien, in truth, was just as human as the rest of us.  His work was largely based on ancient Germanic traditions that were also reflected in Wagner’s Ring cycle.  We are all borrowers, in some sense.  Adapters.  Oxford is one of those places with a long sense of continuity with the past, in a singular tradition.  It has become modern in parts, but with medieval streets.  There are cars parked along Northmoor Road, and nobody else seems to be here for a pilgrimage today.  Perhaps it’s for the best; how could the workaday world possibly improve for the use of imagination?

Diggers, Ranters, and Muggles

Great Britain, despite its relative secularity today, has historically been the Petri dish in which many religions have been cultured. A large part of this phenomenon derives, I suspect, from the relative indecision during a crucial period of what the official religion should be. It is quite possible for a state to dictate a religion, and historically religions have often served the purposes of the state. Governments support the religion that serves them best. Beginning with Henry VIII, however, Britain had a difficult time making up its royal mind. The Church (in Rome) had decreed divorce immoral, and the interests of patriarchy run deep in some men’s souls. In the flip-flopping between Protestant and Catholic that took place, many new groups emerged from the froth. The True Levellers, popularly known as “Diggers,” were one such group. Taking the book of Acts literally, they believed true Christians should have everything in common. They formed farming communities (digging the soil) to support themselves as dissenters. As with most utopian communities, however, this kind of radical sharing just didn’t last. After only two years the Diggers had disbanded.

Around the same time another sect known as the Ranters abounded. The Ranters, early rivals to the Quakers, held ideas well beyond the simple communism of the Diggers. Pantheists in an age of omnipotence, they didn’t really stand a chance of survival. They didn’t trust the authority of the church, and being Christians, as well as pantheists, they urged their English compatriots to listen to the Jesus inside instead of the one proclaimed in a limited way by the church and the Bible. Their antinomianism led to the perception that they were a threat to the social order. Interestingly, there seems to be evidence that the movement was somewhat widespread in the seventeenth century. Eventually they disappeared, absorbed into the Quaker movement or simply losing their cohesiveness by dint of their native antipathy to order.

Mr. Muggleton, I presume

One of those influenced by the teaching of the Ranters was Lodowicke Muggleton. Technically a tailor, Muggleton is remembered as a religious thinker (a rarity in itself) largely because of his writings and Muggletonianism, which he founded (and which lasted until 1979). Apart from the Ranters, he also rejected the Quakers. Muggleton believed only in that which could be physically embodied, denying many aspects of an early modern world still alive with miracles and superstition. Even angels were beings of pure reason. Tracing the origins of fictional concepts may be a fool’s errand—and if so I am well qualified—but I wonder if J. K. Rowling’s “Muggles” derive from the name of this former Ranter who came to see life as having no magic. Muggleton’s world had no place for witches, magic, or divine intervention, yet it was profoundly religious. Once religion enters the public domain, it is sculpted to the satisfaction of individuals in search of their own meaning. Some of those searchers will be Muggles and others will be Ranters and a few may remain Diggers. Without any of them, the fabric begins to unravel.

Parry Hotter

With the final Harry Potter movie opening this weekend, it is clear that the brainchild of J. K. Rowling will live forever. When the books first started to gain popularity numerous Christian groups protested that children would be tempted into witchcraft by the appeal of the young protagonists. Ironically, standard Christian teaching denounces the power of witchcraft, although some groups do still acknowledge a very active devil. Now that the series has run its course–all the movie spin-offs of the novels are complete–many are coming to the realization that the message is profoundly ethical if not downright religious. As usual with knee-jerk protests, the message is missed for the medium, and those with fragile faith clamor for a spell of their own to put an end to opposition.

Joining the bandwagon late, I first started reading the Harry Potter books when the third or fourth volume had been published and public interest was riding high. I haven’t kept up with the movies, however, last watching Goblet of Fire at a theatre in Wisconsin while contemplating my own position at a school like Hogwarts, minus the magic. The books, however, convey the message more clearly–the power of evil is real, good is not always what it seems, and institutions can’t save you. The importance of love (the main thrust, many would contend, of the preaching of Jesus) is the driving force behind the story from the moment Lord Voldemort (the Darth Vader of the twenty-first century) failed to kill young Harry Potter. Perhaps the true concern that many religions have with Rowling’s work is that it has trumped the traditional mythology with a bit more style and panache.

As a regular Protestant Christian, Rowling expresses traditional beliefs in her writing. The fantasy of witchcraft, however, has always maintained a lure for those cut out of society’s pathway to wealth, recognition and ease. In the days before Christianity, the early Israelites believed the power to be real to the point of making witchcraft a capital offence. Of course, omnipotence had not yet been invented. Once a deity becomes all-powerful, why should fear remain concerning magic? More likely protests against Harry Potter had less to do with the witchcraft than with the insecurity that many believers feel about God. The plan doesn’t seem to be unfolding as the Pat Robertsons and Timothy LaHayes are saying it should. Doubt is a much more powerful force, it appears, than magic.

Harry Potter and the Evangelical Emperor

There’s a chill in the air this morning that warns of impending winter and the visceral melancholy of autumn’s graceful death. As I try to warm up like a lizard awaiting the ascending sun, I think that maybe I’d better write this post before everyone forgets Harry Potter completely. It is the beginning of the witching season as sometime late tonight fall officially begins and people in temperate climes are permitted to show their fears as the barrier between seasons becomes effaced and the darkness slinks in. A few Harry Potter novels ago, a local town in Wisconsin sponsored a downtown release party for the book with a street-fair sporting a feel of general bonhomme. While sauntering down the incongruously sun-lit streets, enjoying the sense of people just having fun, I spotted this man with a placard across the street.

No caption necessary!

No caption necessary!

The truly scary part of this scenario is that I knew exactly where this fellow was coming from: the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. Black and white. Right and wrong. Good and evil. Strangely enough, there was no such dividing line for fact and fiction. Yes, I knew that the Bible condemns witchcraft, but I also knew that J. K. Rowling was a fiction writer. I had read the Bible enough times to know that it contains no commandments about what genre of fiction is permissible and to know that some biblical heroes were deeply flawed characters. Jonah and his big fish. David and the giant monkey on his back. Hezekiah and his doubts. I can’t pretend not to know the searing sting of needing a clear answer, and yet I had already discovered the infinite shades of gray that reside between pure white and absolute black. Bible covers should all be gray.

That very year a conservative evangelical administration had axed a highly praised job of over a decade’s duration, believing it to be in the name of righteousness. A conservative evangelical president was unleashing hellish terror on a country that had the misfortune of being the victim of a bloodthirsty dictator. And this man with a placard felt he had to underscore that even a flight of fantasy on a broomstick over a quidditch field of imagination was evil incarnate. Once again my mind turned to Molech, the perhaps fictional Canaanite deity who is never satisfied. In the Bible it was enough simply to believe that people were sacrificing their children to the fiery Molech. “White and black,” I could almost hear the tremulous author whispering as he penned his horrid fiction. History tends to paint a different picture, but then, historians make liberal use of the myriad shades of gray.