Harry vs. Gandalf: the Issue with Magic

So I’ve been kicking around this question in my head for some time now. I have seen the The Hobbit trilogy as well as The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Haven’t read the books. I know – I can hear the gasps of disbelief. You, a fantasy writer, have never read JRR Tolkien?! I’ll be honest with you: I tried reading Fellowship of the Ring and after at least ten pages of descriptions of the Shire, I was done. Where was the movement? Where were the characters? Okay, ten pages might’ve been a stretch, but those of you who have read those books have to agree – Tolkien describes everything to the nth degree. That’s not really my thing. I care more about how characters are moving and learning and interacting than what the grass and trees all look like. My own writing is pretty light on descriptions. I give you just enough to see where we are, and then I get on with the lives of the characters.

But the abundance of description in those books isn’t what I wanted to talk about. No, it’s the magic. Magic plays a big part in the Tolkien books. And it’s not just Gandalf’s light magic, either – there’s dark and powerful magic in there, too. Who can forget Gandalf fighting off the demon Balrog? That’s pretty dark. Yeah, the great wizard wins, but he’s still fighting off a force of great evil. A demonic force, no less. And I know plenty of Christians who have read those books and seen the movies, and LOVE them, even with all those dark forces at play, which is great. They are great movies (I’m sure the books are – I’ll take your word for it).

These fans, if asked about reading and watching something with such great evil in it, will usually answer, “Well, the good magic wins.” And so it does. But you know what? There’s another great series, of which I’m only just now reading the very first of (I know, I know), and that’s the Harry Potter books. What, you say? You can’t lump that in with Tolkien’s master work! Why, Tolkien was a Christian himself! Yeah, he was. But he also wrote about the forces of good and evil – the exact same thing that JK Rowling does. The good wins in that series too, I’m assuming. I have to assume, you see – only reading book one. But I have seen the first three movies.

What gets me is that these same people (not all of them, just some of them) will rail on about Gandalf and the good magic, but mention Harry Potter and his own sense of good magic and they turn an about-face and rant about it being a dark series, and that it brings evil to those who read it. We all remember the massive book burnings down in Texas, right? Baptist churches “ridding the world of Harry Potter?” Well, I do, anyway. And it made me sick. It still does. I am a Christian. But I also believe you should be allowed to read whatever you want. I’m a librarian too – we’re kinda big on the whole banned books thing here. I am a Stephen King fan – gasp! I don’t read a lot of his work, because it scares me, which is the point of the books. I don’t think someone should be able to tell me I can’t read them.

But back to the main discussion: why is it the Tolkien books, with their dark and evil magic, along with the good, are so revered, and the Harry Potter books, which also have good and dark magic, are not? Are actually reviled by some? Rowling is an excellent writer. You can argue against that all day long, but the fact remains: that woman is an amazing writer. So what does it really come down to? The magic? Why? Why shouldn’t you read both series? If the magic gets you all riled up against Harry, then get rid of those Tolkien books, too, while you’re at it. I know Tolkien was a Christian, and those books were written from that perspective. That’s totally terrific. And no, I don’t know what religion Rowling sways to, if any. But really, what does that have to do with the books? With the stories? The characters in the Tolkien books aren’t Christians (if I’m wrong, please feel free to let me know, in a pleasant manner). I sure didn’t see any evidence of them going to church or reading the Middle Earth version of a Bible in the movies.

So if those characters aren’t Christian, and they’re still involved in magic, how is that any different than the Potter characters? I’m quite confused by the whole “I love Tolkien and hate Rowling” thing. Really, I am. Mystified, actually. Because to me, those books are just about characters moving in their world and some of those characters use magic. Someone made the comment to me that they didn’t like the Rowling books because there were “good witches and bad witches.” Yeah, so? There are good wizards and bad wizards in the Tolkien books. But yet this person LOVES them. So what’s the difference? You could argue that of course the good magic will win in the LotR books, because Tolkien was a Christian. I could argue back that any sane person, who loves their main characters, isn’t going to let the darkness beat them. Harry Potter and Co. beat the darkness. It might take some doing, but they get it done. I do know that there are Christians who love the Harry Potter books – quite a few of them go to my church, and have no problem with Rowling not being a Christian writer.

This is probably one of those arguments that will never have a clear winner, so I guess I’ll wrap this up now. I love fantasy books, and that includes the urban fantasy genre. And fantasy books have magic. So I guess you either have to decide to only read the Christian ones, or realize that hey, magic isn’t real, so it’s okay for you to read non-Christian fantasy books, too. That could be a whole new discussion, right? Maybe a couple of new ones. So: I don’t get why people revere Tolkien and revile Rowling, and I never will. But I’m going to enjoy Harry and Co., and cheer when they, too, beat the dark forces of magic they face. Wizards they be, and good they are.

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