The ‘Dean of Harry Potter Scholars’ Visits the University of Louisville

Author John Granger was displeased to find his daughter sneaking around with the likes of Harry Potter. As a devout Christian, he wasn’t sure about the magical themes presented in the popular series of books by J.K. Rowling. But since that time, he’s been dubbed,  “the dean of Harry Potter scholars” by Time magazine.

Granger was in Louisville, Ky., last week to deliver his lecture titled “Harry Potter Unlocked” as a segment of the University of Louisville McConnell Center’s Spring Public Lecture Series.

After confiscating his daughter’s copy of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” Granger read the book in one night. The next day, he relinquished the text to his daughter with one condition: She had to finish it as well.

Granger was amazed to find the book’s content more profound than it appears on the surface. He said Rowling’s novels are not only swarming with Christian undertones, but they also have become this generation’s “shared texts.”  He was able to see beyond the witchcraft and wizardry to notice the Christian symbolism hidden between the lines.

In an attempt to counteract the hullabaloo surrounding Rowling’s works, Granger delivered a series of lectures around the country titled, “Taking Harry Seriously.” He has spoken at prestigious academic institutions like Princeton and Yale, as well as written numerous books about the intersection of faith and culture in the Harry Potter series.

Previous cultures viewed the Bible not only as a means for spiritual nourishment but also for learning about literature and morality. Since secularism is a prevailing attribute of current culture, Granger believes it has adopted the Harry Potter novels to serve the same purposes as the Bible did in the past. Essentially, upon reading these novels, people’s core spiritual beliefs are subconsciously confirmed: Evil is everywhere, but love can defeat it.

John Granger giving lecture at University of Louisville

Even the most seemingly inconsequential details of the novels convey meaning, Granger points out. For instance, Rowling writes her novels in a third-person-limited point of view in which a narrator tells the story through the eyes of one person, which in this case is Harry Potter. Due to the third-person perspective, readers feel as though they’re receiving an objective account of what happened. However, they’re actually getting Potter’s account. Because Potter often gets misguided by his own prejudices, readers soon learn to be critical of their personal thoughts.

According to Granger, in addition to becoming well-versed in postmodern morality, readers of Harry Potter novels, albeit unknowingly, become well-versed in English literature also. Rowling is a Jane Austen fanatic, so her writing contains Austen’s influence. Granger claims that by reading and understanding Rowling’s works, one can better understand Austen’s works,too. “˜Harry Potter’ is informed speech,” he said. “It’s a portal into conversations about previous literature.”

Granger deems Rowling “drop dead brilliant” for her being able to combine over ten different genres in her novels. They range  from gothic fiction to a classic schoolboy genre, which she defied and expanded by adding Hermione, a central female character. “Once you’ve read “˜Harry Potter,’ you feel at home with any of these genres,” Granger said.

Similar to the works of William Shakespeare, literary alchemy is a predominant feature of Rowling’s novels, he added. Each character represents an element. For example, unpredictable Hermione represents mercury, one of the most volatile elements.

Stephenie Meyer has followed Rowling’s footsteps to also include literary alchemy in her widely read “Twilight” series. Both Rowling and Meyer are successful in writing novels that have in effect become “shared texts,” which allow readers to share a common vocabulary and imaginative experience. According to Granger, no text has achieved this in Western culture since the Bible.

Prior to Granger’s lecture at U of L on Friday, he went out to lunch with a colleague who disagreed with him on the importance of the Harry Potter novels. Their server arrived at the perfect moment to help Granger win his argument. Her entire arm was covered in Harry Potter tattoos. “That kind of identification and involvement with the story is not unusual,” Granger said.

According to him, Rowling’s novels about witches, wizards and magic provide members of a secular culture with “a transcendent experience through symbolism and story structure.”

The lesson he has learned and continues to impart? Don’t judge a book by its cover.

(Published in The Voice-Tribune Feb. 24, 2011)

 

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