I first became aware of John Granger a few months ago, thanks to his friend and fellow educator, Amy H. Sturgis. Granger describes his most popular intellectual pursuit at his blog (HogwartsProfessor) as: “… Granger’s contribution to the crowded world of Harry Potter thinking is his insistence the books be read as any other very good book rather than a sui generis phenomenon. This perspective has allowed him to explain how the magic of the books is not a departure from the traditions of English fantasy and, mirabile dictu, is even edifying Christian reading.” Many of Granger’s books on Harry Potter (published by Zossima Press) can be found here. My thanks to Granger for taking the time for this email interview.
Tim O’Shea: As both a homeschooling and non-homeschooling educator yourself, how frustrating is it to read misinformed criticisms of Harry Potter by homeschooling parents threatened by the perceived dangers the works pose to their children.
John Granger: I haven’t read any of it so I have missed the frustration, though that was nothing I did deliberately. I guess I need to get out more or read more stuff by homeschooling parents! Then again, maybe it’s best I don’t if Christian homeschoolers are criticizing Harry. In the polarity that defines that world, school-at-homers (largely Christian) and the unschoolers or “self-directed learners” (SDL), the Grangers, oddly enough have always been on the John Holt SDL side. Being Orthodox Christian in a family where the daughters don’t wear pants and the guys wear collared shirts except for sports and on the predominantly permissive and politically liberal side of the chasm separating homeschoolers is an interesting place to be. This must be how Nat Hentoff, self-described “Jewish atheist,” feels at the pro-life rallies…
O’Shea: Do you ever have people telling you that they feel closer to their religion after reading Potter and/or your analysis of Potter’s work?
Granger: Yes, I do. It’s not an every day thing, certainly, but when I give talks — at Universities, book stores, Harry Potter fan cons, and at churches — it is one of the better parts of those nights when one, sometimes two people introduce themselves by thanking me for re-invigorating their faith or interest in their faith. As often, readers thank me for opening up the world of good reading to them or re-igniting their love of classic novels. I suppose you can guess that this is always gratifying and, frankly, shocking to me. That certainly wasn’t my purpose in writing; I was trying to put out the Abanes fires and smuggle some fascinating ideas into the monophonic discussion of the Potter books way back when (while making some money to keep the kids in shoes). Remember when every news article about Potter mania was about Christians burning books and Ms. Rowling’s Cinderella story? I do.
O’Shea: Are you frustrated when folks assume that you, as a religious person, would object to Dumbledore’s sexual orientation?
Granger: That hasn’t happened to me. Folks assume, if anything, that as Harry’s “Christian apologist,” I am obliged to spin Ms. Rowling’s thoughts about Dumbledore so it will be acceptable to Christian fans of the books. As it is Ms. Rowling’s conception of the character but one that she didn’t think important enough to include anywhere in the novels, it seems an interesting curiousity that only enters understanding of why people like the books or what they are about with non-readers looking for points of attack on the series. These critics as a rule fail to note that Ms. Rowling thought it was important to include in the Godric’s Hollow graveyard scene that “surely [Dumbledore] had chosen” the scriptural quotations that she said in Los Angeles on the Open Book Tour “epitomized the meaning of the whole series.” Dumbledore may or may not be gay, depending what authority you allow an author to amend a text post-publication; Dumbledore certainly is the only wizard we know familiar with and who seems to have found some consolation in the New Testament.
O’Shea: With Rowling’s run on Harry Potter finished, do you see any up and coming authors that might be the next Rowling in terms of appealing to readings with good fiction that happens to convey Christian elements?
Granger: Yes and no. No, I don’t know of any writers that are layering their work with alchemical meaning and Christian symbolism that is as powerful as it is because of its ability to “evade our consciousness” but as Donald Rumsfeld said, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” I’m so wrapped up in Potter studies, I’m not reading very widely or consistently, alas (Brian Jacques’ Redwall books being a read-aloud exception and “must” at home); I assume there are writers as brilliant as Ms. Rowling and C. S. Lewis out there and that I’m just missing them, probably in the naive way that Saganites assume the “billions and billions” of stars out there must mean inhabitable planets.
I rush to add that, in many respects, all postmodern writers, as much as they push “the periphery is the true center” theme, are “conveying Christian elements” in their stories, echoes of “the first will be last, and the last first.” Postmodernism, even in its anti-clericalism and denial of ideology and authority (which, as it has morphed into politically correct authority and ideology, is ironic; I mean how seriously can you take writers whose metanarrative is that there is no valid metanarrative?), is about freeing the enslaved and correcting the oppressor. This can be just egalitarianism unhinged; it can also be social justice, a concept which doesn’t exist in the West except in the wake of Christianity.
O’Shea: Does your daughter ever have a certain amount of pride from the fact you’ve been able to write a few books out of what originally was an effort to debunk a book she was reading?
Granger: I wrote to her at VMI and asked. She wrote back: “I think it was a fantastic lesson to me, and all of us, when you were able to do an entire 180 degree turn in your original opinion on the books. Sometimes your first impression isn’t what it’s always about, and then that you took it to this level, really was a great example to us. Although it does take a whole lot of bravery and support from your family. I hope I have someone like mom to back me up if I ever decided to take a jump like that in my life. I am proud of it. Going against the grain. even when it’s your own grain that you’re going against.” She wrote that the day she learned “Resurrection Week” was beginning, the run-up to VMI’s break-out from the ratline, so she might have been overheated emotionally in anticipation of the trials right before her (“one Hungarian Horntail, coming up!”). But I certainly enjoyed reading it.
O’Shea: Unless I’m mistaken, one or two of your books have already been revised and had updated editions released. What kind of revisions did you do?
Granger: Looking for God in Harry Potter was updated after Half-Blood Prince was published; that involved adding a chapter about the new book and updating the other chapters. That book, now that we have Deathly Hallows, has been re-titled and recast as How Harry Cast His Spell: The Meaning Behind the Mania. I just finished the changes and the five new chapters that transform the old, almost devotional text into a more universal and inclusive book about the spirituality and Christian content of the series. Looking for God was originally written in 2002 as Hidden Key to Harry Potter and it was largely a response to the absurdity of the Abanes critique of the books. Very few people are unaware of the Christian content of the books now (as they were then) and even fewer can take Abanes’ books seriously, especially after Deathly Hallows. How Harry Cast His Spell, consequently, can ask and answer a different set of questions for a much wider audience than “Christians with Harry Fears.” I don’t neglect the Christian content even Ms. Rowling now says is “obvious,” but I am able to explain how the books are not evangelical and why they appeal, despite their pronounced Christian elements, to those who are “”spiritual, not religious,” of other faiths than Christianity, even to those who are Christ-o-phobic. I have started the revisions to Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader, too, and that is a bigger challenge, really. So much of the 2007 Unlocking was speculative; I have to replace all that with Deathly Hallows content. The good thing is that I have been lecturing and writing on just these subjects since last July so I am pretty sure of the things I’ll be writing. Tyndale will be publishing How Harry Cast His Spell in November to coincide with the sixth movie release; Zossima Press should have the new Unlocking out in March, God allowing.
O’Shea: How did you become interested in alchemy in literature?
Granger: A high school English class, a college mentor, and eating a Macrobiotic Diet. The English class was Exeter’s Shakespeare Intensive, only open to second semester seniors with Mr. Henry Ploegstra’s permission. We read every play and watched more than half. A veritable Elizabethan firehose… Anyway, Mr. Ploegstra made us read Tillyard’s Elizabethan World Picture before we started and it stunned me. I’d never been confronted, chronological snob that I was, with the idea that another age, a previous age, could have had a coherent and more profound world view than my own. I’m sure it was Mr. Ploegstra who pointed out in class discussions the hermetic angle within this picture. I was intrigued. A graduate student mentor (and my best man years later) introduced me to the traditionalists one afternoon by saying as an aside one afternoon in a bookstore that Prof. Nathan Tarcov was almost certainly wrong in thinking that Solzhenitsyn was the most profound writer of the 20th century; Guenon was that writer. Through Guenon and Schuon, I met Martin Lings, James Cutsinger, and many other life changing writers, among which, of course, was Titus Burckhardt, whose Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul, though not much longer than Tillyard’s very short book, completely captivated me. Especially when that same mentor introduced me (by letter) to the Shoku Yo Do tradition of Japan (‘Macrobiotics’ in the US and Europe). This was in essence “food alchemy” in observing traditional Taoist and Four Element physics in pursuit of the “resolution of contraries;” certainly the recovery I experienced myself after eating this way and the transformations I saw in others could be called “magical” if not “miraculous.” Reading Harry Potter after fifteen years of eating this way and reading about western alchemy made the connections pretty easy; I was studying the subject at breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day.
O’Shea: I may have just overlooked it, but have you ever analyzed the Dark Material (aka Golden Compass) series by Philip Pullman?
Granger: I haven’t read the books. I have written about the Golden Compass movie controversy on HogwartsProfessor, my blog, but, not having read the books, it’s best to say little.
O’Shea: What’s your next book going to cover? Are there any other projects or aspects you would like to discuss?
Granger: Beyond the revisions to Unlocking, I want to finish the food/cookbook set my wife and I have been working on for close to twenty years. I have quite a bit of the English Major’s Guide to Harry Potter (aka Harry Meets Hamlet and Scrooge) written and I would like to get that finished, It would make an excellent introduction to English literature for school classrooms and SDLs of all ages because, like it or not, the Potter books are the shared text of three living generations of readers. Today, I’m excited about Mozart’s Magic Flute as an alchemical allegory and ideas I’ve picked up from listening to and reading Dr. Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia. Tomorrow, who knows? Thank you for the pleasant interview, your patience with me as I struggled with deadlines to show up here for it, and for introducing me to your readers. I hope they’ll join in the conversation at HogwartsProfessor or write me after reading one of my books!