Thursday, August 16, 2007

Her Patronus is an Ibis: the Safe Middle Road

Nancy Brown's The Mystery of Harry Potter
Reviewed by Peter J. Floriani, Ph.D. (to whom I am grateful-Ed.)

J.K. Rowling's seven books of Harry Potter are complete. All its mysteries are now explained - or at least revealed, for sometimes even things in broad daylight remain mysterious: "The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid."[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:231]

In the end, of course, no one but God knows the design, the inner intentions of the author - she may not know herself. It may be, as Gandalf explained to Frodo about Bilbo's finding of the Ring, that the story was planned, and not by its author. Sometimes, in the writing of certain great stories, the true Author of the Story steps in and takes action, as GKC reveals in his play "The Surprise."

Yes, "by their fruits you will know them" [Mt 7:16] - but someone needs to taste the fruit. There are those who are curious about Harry, and wish to know the quality of Rowling's fruits. To assist these, Catholics and parents in particular, Nancy Brown has provided a short guide, The Mystery of Harry Potter: A Catholic Family Guide.

Brown's book takes a classical view of the HP sequence, the view Aquinas took of Aristotle: "I believe that there is a middle field of facts which are given by the senses to be the subject matter of the reason; and that in that field the reason has a right to rule, as the representative of God in Man. ...what man has done man may do; and if an antiquated old heathen called Aristotle can help me to do it I will thank him in all humility." [GKC, St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:429, emphasis added] Hence, Nancy Brown says: "if a fantasy of teenage children attending a school of magic can help reveal more about my faith and how I ought to live, I will use it, and be thankful."

It is quite clear that Brown does not urge this book as to supplant standard texts, nor even as an innovative augmentation. It is simply a popular story, by means of which significantly deeper, useful, and inspiring topics can be addressed. Any book might be so used - indeed, any book, no matter how holy its author, can contain complexities which can confuse or even misguide. One must take the safest approach, which is most often the middle ground. The saints often talked about "moderation in all things" - even the Romans had a epigram: "medio tutissimus ibis" which has nothing to do with the bird called "ibis" - it means "You will go more safely in the middle." Hence Chesterton pointed out "Unless that sagacious bird is allowed to be in the middle, there will be no place for the pelican of charity, the owl of wisdom, or the dove of peace." [GKC, ILN Jan 20 1912]

Ibis-like, Nancy Brown's book neither inordinately praises nor unthinkingly condemns the Potter saga. It has, like any compelling story, a danger of absorbing its reader and distracting from his duties, even from the truth. But because of its attractive treatment of real problems in an interesting and humourous setting, it provokes thought, and suggests contemplation of one's own actions - it can lead to renewed zeal, and the strengthening of the will against evil. True, these dangers and advantages are found in Doyle, in Verne, in Chesterton, in any book - but your child, your nephew, your cousin, you - want to know about Harry Potter now. Here is a place for you to learn - and without spoiling the clever detective-story surprises.

In reading MHP, as in reading HP, one has the sense of a much larger structure, a high and hidden framework. It is a curious coincidence that the author of the Harry Potter books, J. K. Rowling, lives in Edinburgh, about which GKC once said "it is sometimes difficult for a man to shake off the suggestion that each road is a bridge over the other roads, as if he were really rising by continual stages higher and higher through the air. He fancies he is on some open scaffolding of streets, scaling the sky.... The motto of Edinburgh, as you may still see it, I think, carved over the old Castle gate is, 'Sic Itur ad Astra': 'This Way to the Stars'." [GKC Lunacy and Letters 76] Such high bridges can be exceedingly useful as well as dangerous, and it is well to have a guide when facing them. Nancy Brown's book, which fittingly originated within her "Flying Stars" blog, reveals how the Harry Potter books, Edinburgh-like, can also scale the sky.


  1. Sorry I have not had time to submit my own posting for today, but I see the gap has been bridged... (hee hee) And now I find I have to say something anyway.

    Having read HP7 on July 21, I re-read MHP recently, and was struck by the strong resonance between them - even though (as I happen to know) Nancy Brown did not have access to HP7 when she wrote hers! In particular I noted how we see Harry as "full of remorse" (p. 109) and also her mention of the choice of "King's Cross" a real railway station. (p. 115) The use of a railway station as a symbol for a - er - after-life transport nexus also occurs in Tolkien's short story "Leaf by Niggle".

    I might also mention that GKC's Edinburgh gate quote comes from Virgil's Aeneid Book IX, line 631, also translated "This is the way to heaven" or "So man scales the stars"... powerful and inspiring, it has the smell of the famous rhyming couplet by which Dante concludes each part of his structure.

    And when my mother was dying, I wrote it on a little paper, still hanging over me on my bookshelves. Below it, I scribbled "It's a staircase, not an elevator."

    Later: I have had to re-read that ILN essay. It is yet another instance of GKC reviewing long in advance something he could never have guessed would exist - like, say, the books of Harry Potter. In it he mentions magic, heroes, war, dragons, broomsticks, wickedness, saints and sport and science...

    I don't know if it exists out here in the E-cosmos, but I find I shall have to quote some of it for you:

    "Being stupid and wicked above the clouds is the same as being stupid and wicked under them: and there are clouds as well as stars in the very brain of man wherever he may go. If it is not the habit that makes the monk, still less is it the wings that make the angel. Yet the same innocent joy that is felt by a child in seeing "the wheels go round" may well be felt by an angel in seeing the worlds go round. ... It is this clear and stainless pleasure in science, as in a toy as big as the world, that we need rather than any displeasure at it. We can all remember it in the time when we cheered a passing railway-train or first stared at crystals through a microscope. We ought still to be able to cheer the railway-train. We still know that the diamond is beautiful, if the diamond-broker isn't. It was said that the Devil need not have all the good tunes: nor need he even have all the bad smells. Chemistry was as holy as hagiology when we were in the nursery. And in this sense, very different from the current one, there is such a thing as Christian Science."

    [GKC, ILN June 26, 1915 CW30:231 et seq]

    --Dr. Thursday

  2. The choice of "King's Cross" as the place where Harry and Dumbledore meet after Harry's "death" is significant not only for the reasons stated by a number of observers (we must be saved by Christ's Cross to "move on" to heaven, etc.). If one looks at a map of the London Underground, it is a "nexus" where most, if not all, of the lines come together. So it is for Harry, as he finally pulls everything together and truly makes sense of his destiny.

    Needless to say I think it is a superb end to a wonderful series, that I am happy to have been able to experience "live".


  3. The motto of Kansas - "Ad astra per aspera" - to the stars with difficulties (roughness, harshness, severities). Christians might say, "Ad astra per aspersions (slanders, baptismal sprinkling)".

  4. Is that Kevin - "we're off to KILL the wizard" O'Brien? Hee, hee.

    Hermione: "I don't think we're in Kansas any more, Harry."
    Harry: "I just want to know - are you are GOOD witch or a BAD witch?"
    Voldemort: "I'll get you, my precioussss..."

    Hee hee. Talk about cross-pollination.

    Ahem. Back to Kansas: A good correlation, founded on the same inner perceptions. I had to dig up the lexicon to investigate, because of the clash of symbols (and I'm no drummer)... because I was wondering if that word was somehow tied to spero = hope, and we might be coming upon a Chestertonian paradox: "Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all." [Heretics CW1:125] Ad astra per aspera certainly has his alliterative style!

    Well.... I had to resort to the gigantic Lewis and Short lexicon of Latin (for which I am grateful to my boss who got it for me as a very special bonus!) AND BEHOLD...

    While it turns out that the root "asper-" (=rough) has a SHORT e, but the root "spe-" (=hope) has a LONG e. And the pun on sprinkling is about as accidental as JKR's "expecto" which lacks an s (like the English, I expect), because the sprinkle word is "aspergo" (from ad+spargo to strew). And there's that SPE- root again - "exspecto" = "I look out/for".

    BUT YES, L&S says that since "asper" was considered the opposite of "prosper" , the original meaning of this ROUGH word was indeed HOPELESS.

    So Kevin, we really do have an authentic Chestertonian paradox here...

    Say - does this imply that perhaps Dorothy Gale had an uncle named Gabriel? hee hee.

    --Dr. Thursday

  5. I doubt that my comment will be published. As this is the place for Mrs. Brown to promote her book. But I still have yet to see one shred of evidence of the value of HP books. Her book fails in many areas and I found it to be very weak. But go on and brag about it if you must. I pray that you will finally see that you are misleading many parents and children.


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