Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

Taking Harry Potter Seriously: Travis Prinzi Interview

Posted by Randy Hoyt • Sep 1st, 2008

Travis Prinzi is an author, a blogger, a researcher, a student, and even a cardiovascular technician. He has an advanced degree in theology and is currently working on another one in English education. He runs a popular web site and podcast called “The Hog’s Head,” named after a pub in the Harry Potter series, and his first book, Harry Potter & Imagination, should be available from Zossima Press within the next few months.


Randy Hoyt: Tell us about the approach you take to Harry Potter on The Hog’s Head web site and podcast.

Travis Prinzi: Let me step back and mention first James Thomas, a thirty-year literature scholar at Pepperdine University. He argues that the Harry Potter series is better literature than both The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. Now that’s a big statement, a huge statement. I reference that to say that there are people who take literature seriously taking Harry Potter seriously.

At the web site, we’re taking the series seriously as literature. We try to look at it from as many different perspectives as possible. We have a few different contributors: Johnny does a tremendous job looking at the Christian elements in Harry Potter, Dave comes at it as a literature scholar who has a good handle on postmodernism, Matthew nicely blends a serious approach to the series with related pop culture issues, and I bring my theological and literary training to it. My wife has appeared on a podcast, talking about it from a psychological point of view. And the commenters bring a lot of great perspectives as well. We’re trying to open up conversation about the series in as many realms as possible.

RH: Not everyone will be familiar with looking at Harry Potter in this way, thinking instead that it’s just a fun adventure story with no purpose but a brief mindless escape. What are some of the similarities Harry Potter has with great literature? What are some of the great mythic themes it explores?

TP: In an interview, J.K. Rowling made the statement that J.R.R. Tolkien — someone you definitely want to discuss when talking about myth and fantasy — said all the most important stories are about death (source: Spanish original; automated English translation). The most likely candidate for what she was quoting is from a letter in which Tolkien wrote:

[The Lord of the Rings] is not really about Power and Dominion: that only sets the wheels going: it is about Death and the desire for deathlessness. Which is hardly more than to say it is a tale written by a Man. (Letter #203)

That’s one of the most universal human themes right there. The earliest stories explore the theme of death. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest surviving story there is, is about death. Death and the human desire to transcend death is fundamental to all mythology.

Regarding whether or not it is escapist, I would mention what Tolkien describes a “real escape” as leaving something that is less permanent to go into a fairy tale to learn about things that are more permanent (“On Fairy-Stories” 69-70).

RH: You mention fairy tales, which you discuss quite extensively in your forthcoming book, Harry Potter & Imagination. What more can you tell us about the book?

TP: It begins with a defense of the fairy tale. The first two chapters of my book deal with what a fairy tale is and how it works. Why does it matter? What does it provide for the reader? We’re not just a bunch of fringe kook people who are overly obsessed with wizards. There is a reason that people love these stories.

From there I go to one of Rowling’s main themes: fear. The third chapter of my book is all about fear, which has a lot to do with death. Rowling gets really frustrated with people who don’t want kids to experience and resolve fear in a novel, a controlled environment. She writes scary moments into her books and a lot of people say, “Too scary for children,” but she’s looking to give children an opportunity to see their fears on the page and work through them along with Harry.

One of the biggest conflicts I think in the individual characters in the whole story is what do you do with fear. Let’s not pretend it’s not there and let’s not say that it is something that we shouldn’t feel. What do you do with it? You’ve got Voldemort, who is afraid of death and runs from it. That leads to evil and to dehumanization. I think she defines evil as dehumanization in the series, very much in the way that C.S. Lewis did in his Chronicles of Narnia. The talking beasts could end up losing their ability to talk — just as George MacDonald wrote in The Princess and Curdie where Curdie was given the magical ability to see whether or not a person was becoming more and more a beast. Rowling is playing with that same idea with Voldemort. The right response to fear is courage and self-sacrificial love. Those are the next two chapters in my book: courage and self-sacrificial love.

RH: These stories are officially classified as children’s literature. What would you say to someone who doesn’t have time for “children’s literature”?

TP: The categorization is unfortunate. The series has been popular among both children and adults. A recent poll has shown that J.K. Rowling has already become one of the authors best loved by British adults (source). Tolkien opened up his essay “On Fairy-Stories” by describing himself as a wanderer filled with wonder in the land of fairy (27). I think that we are all in a rush to grow up into these enlightened rational beings and we lose our wonder.  Even if we only get that far — as far as being filled with wonder — that’s worth doing. G.K. Chesterton says that the fairy tale teaches us that the world is wild (“Ethics of Elfland”), something most of us do not realize on a daily basis. Most of us spend our days in a mundane reality and never experience any wonder in them. The fairy tale brings us to that place of wonder.

RH: In what ways do you think that reading and meditating on the Harry Potter stories as adults can improve our lives or push us to fulfill our human potential?

TP: Rowling uses an alchemical framework as the basis for her story. Alchemy is something that has been incredibly misunderstood: it wasn’t fake chemistry, it wasn’t pseudo-science. It was a spiritual experience, it was a different point of view. What happens externally, outside the body, has some sort of relationship to what’s happening internally and vice versa. The alchemical process, the purification of the base, happens in the metals and also spiritually within the person. She’s not the only one to make alchemy the basis of a story: Shakespeare did it, C.S. Lewis did it in the Ransom trilogy, a lot of great writers do this. The idea is that we are transformed along with Harry as we experience his figurative and spiritual alchemical process. We learn to go through the dark periods of life, like Order of the Phoenix, then we learn about the purification stage, and then we learn how to become the hero. We’re not just watching Harry have his adventure: the adventure of getting through the story is supposed to transform the reader. I’d recommend that anyone who’s interested in this check out John Granger’s work in Unlocking Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Lectures.

RH: Do children pick up on these deeper themes, or are these themes too complicated for them?

TP: I really think they pick up on these things and learn them. We have a problem in the United States of underestimating children and their capacity for understanding. You see children loving Harry Potter, immersed in it: the adults scoffing at these children could learn a lot from them.


Travis mentioned G.K. Chesterton in this interview, and he will be sharing in an article for the next issue more on what G.K. Chesterton wrote about what fairy tales are and why they are important to us.


References

  • “Interview with J.K. Rowling.” El País. 08 February 2008. (Full text available online: Spanish original; automated English translation.)
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” Tolkien On Fairy-Stories. Ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson. HarperCollins: 2008.
  • “Enid Blyton beats Roald Dahl and JK Rowling to be voted Britain’s best-loved author.” Telegraph. 19 August 2008. (link)
  • Chesterton, G.K. “The Ethics of Elfland.” Orthodoxy. 1908.

Image from Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows cover

2 Responses »

  1. Great stuff! Wonderful interview! I assume this will all be in the book? :) Cause I’m looking forward to it.

  2. Despite your assertion to the contrary, I really enjoyed the interview. I very much agree with Travis, especially on the points of the world being wild and filled with wonder and the American underestimation of the childhood intellect. If everyone were more childlike and looked at the world as through the lenses of a fairy story, we would all be a lot happier, and our education system would be a lot more efficient and effective at raising up children to make the world a better place.