Hal G. P. Colebatch is an Anglican author and journalist based in Perth (WA). His 'Return of The Heroes: The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Contemporary Culture' was published by the Australian Institute for Public policy in 1990. He also has stories in 'The Man-Kzin Wars' (Baen Books, USA) Vols. VII, VIII and IX.
The Harry Potter stories are basically adventure stories involving magic. So are The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, written by a very devout Catholic. So are the Arthurian legends and so is a huge part of all literature. It may be noted that there are hints of Christianity in Harry Potter: Christmas and Easter are celebrated at Hogwarts, and at Christmastide the suits of armour are enchanted to sing "Oh Come all Ye faithful", a hymn or carol whose lyrics are quite uncompromising in their message.
So is much of the work of Shakespeare - Macbeth, The Tempest - who, there is reason to believe, was also a Catholic and whose work was, overall, a celebration of divine Cosmos. So is Star Wars and much other science-fiction, such as the major work of the late, great Poul Anderson.
These tales do not have the anti-Christianity of the works of Susan Cooper or a recent literary prize-winner whose work I do not intend to publicise further by naming here.
The Lord of The Rings, Harry Potter and Star Wars are all tales that use magic as a device. They are, however, quite unlike the "new age" consciousness which suggests some kind of metaphysical salvation is easily acquired: all turn on the need for courage and sacrifice.
Since both The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars are set in remote pasts, they need not be contained by Christianity as are, for example, the Arthurian romances. However, their Judeo-Christian background is unmistakable. The passage of Frodo through The Lord of the Rings, and of Luke in Star Wars, is reminiscent of a Christian view of the passage of "Everyman" through life to the penultimate encounter with Death, and the final, unexpected victory over it.
I have here attempted a "religious" summary of The Lord of the Rings which could also apply to Star Wars with only changes of names:
Frodo, in the Shire (childhood), is troubled sometimes by "visions of mountains he had never seen" and a vague, undirected yearning towards higher things. The revelation is made to him by his guide Gandalf (the embodiment of traditional values and wisdom) that he is the bearer of a special responsibility and is a person of greater importance than he had guessed (a spiritual being with a unique, immortal soul). He is driven out of the Shire (loss of childhood innocence) and learns that the Enemy (Death) is after him personally. His guide is lost, or at least removed from the immediate scene (maturity and disillusionment). He is wounded. In the final test, after many battles, Frodo must confront the Enemy alone. He fails, but is saved by an unexpected intervention. Good and Evil are NOT equal, and, apparently against all the odds, Good triumphs because it is qualitatively different, in what Tolkien calls a "Eucatastrophe."
This is also not too different from a "religious" summary of Harry Potter, though the sequence of events is not exactly the same.
This is from the heart of traditional Western Christianity. When, in The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf goes to his death in the battle with the Balrog, he says to the dark figure: "You cannot pass." In the practically identical battle between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader in Star Wars, Obi-Wan says: "You can't win, Darth." In these circumstances, the invocation that "Good will triumph" is a promise with paradoxical elements, meant to inspire not hopeful complacency but a determination to ensure that it will triumph indeed.
The great Enemies, enslaved by their own egos, cling to life, however shrivelled and horrible it has become to them, because to them Death is the end and they have no communion with anything beyond it. It is quite consistent, indeed inevitable, that these Enemies both fear Death and are Death. They are in a situation of ultimate horror. This is also a strong theme in Harry Potter. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire the dark Lord Voldemort speaks of: "I who have gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality. You know my goal - to conquer death." Yet a few pages later he identifies himself with death: "Bow to death, Harry."
Plainly these stories do not tackle problems of Christian theology in detail. The Lord of the Rings virtually brushes over the problem of redemption. The Orcs and Trolls are slain in their sins. Even after the destruction of Sauron the possibility of their reform does not seem to arise. The only good character to fall into evil and be saved (at the cost of his life) is Boromir, whose fall is brief and whose motives even at their worst remain mixed. Gollum, Saruman and even the Orcs have elements left in their characters which desire or perceive the good, but this does not save them.
It seems difficult to portray an entirely evil race, since without some admixture of Good, Evil seems merely meaningless, a negation, non-viable. Tolkien appears to have held ultimately what might be called the Boethian position that Evil is largely a mere negation but did not totally discount aspects of the Manichean or dualistic position that Evil is an independent entity. There are evil people and creatures whose evil has nothing to do with the influence of the Ring and in some cases (Shelob and the Balrog, for example) predates its existence.
The case seems similar with Star Wars. The Dark Side of the Force is an external and independent, as it were, pressure or expression of Evil, but the line between Good and Evil also runs, as Solzhenitsyn put it, down every heart. Anakin Skywalker, like Gollum, could not have been corrupted by it if he had not been corruptible. Jabba the Hutt and some other bad characters seem to have little or nothing to do with the Force and their corruption comes from within. In both there are also predatory and carnivorous animals and what might be called natural pain and terror.
As for Star Wars, George Lucas, interviewed in Time magazine of 3 May 1999, said that: "I put the Force into the movie to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people - more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery."
Lucas continued that to him indifference to the question of the existence of God was the worst thing that could happen to a person: "I think there is a God. No question. What that God is or what we know about that God, I'm not sure ... I would hesitate to call the Force God. It's designed primarily to make young people think about the mystery ... what eventual manifestation ... their faith takes, is not the point of the movie."
Perhaps I may introduce a personal note here: my own science-fiction stories, in The Man-Kzin Wars, depend on faster-than-light space-drives and large intelligent cats: effects indistinguishable from magic. However, I do not think any of my readers will be led into thinking they are more than entertainments or that such things really exist. At the same time, they do not contain any message contrary to my own values.
One cannot speak for freaks, psychopaths and the worst products of the contemporary culture war, but normal children who experiment with spells soon grow out of them with any sort of ordinarily good parenting and education.
The Lord of The Rings, Harry Potter and Star Wars are tales of hope, heroism and wonder. Their success is one of the more hopeful signs for our culture and ultimately for our faith, that has emerged for many years and we should be thankful that they are our companions into the new millennium.