09 August 2007

Harry Potter

I've not read the final installment in the Harry Potter series, because I've ... well ... not been following the series.

I know, I know.

Back around the time the third book was coming out, I read the first one. It was charming enough, but good golly, when I was a kid and a teen I read a hundred books just like it.. I didn't see what the big deal was.

Then I saw the books get dauntingly long, and life is short. I know I'm a sucker for getting hooked on exactly this kind of thing; when folks around the office are brandishing some horrid new Stephen R. Donaldson series that will inevitably disappoint, and they want to share their misery, I wisely run and hide. So I feel that I've dodged a bullet.

But recent Pottermania has produced some of my favourite bloggers to say some very cool stuff.

Timothy Burke at Easily Distracted uses the success of Harry Potter as a demo of complex systems theory, saying some pretty interesting stuff about Harry Potter on the way.

Let’s take the example of the Harry Potter phenomenon. A lot of the writing I’ve seen in the press about this ever since the first book took off into the sales stratosphere wants to settle on a single overriding explanation. It’s the general quality of the books! It’s cunning marketing! It’s Rowling’s particular flavor of fantasy and school-days pastiche! It’s the triumph of geekery in mass culture! It’s a new generation of shared parent-child culture!

It seems silly to want to settle on any of those as a single or overriding explanation. A complex-systems story isn’t just “it’s all of those and more”, though. That would leave a complex-system story as, “Nothing is explainable, because all events are irreducibly complex and all explanations equal”. In public life, that would leave us with little more to say about any event besides “que sera, sera”.

A good complex-system story, it seems to me, is always a history. It’s a story about how many tributaries flow into a river. Once you’re at the river and you’re looking back at the terrain, then of course it seems inevitable that they would flow as they did. But if you start at the point when one glacier started to melt ...

I had predicted, entirely on the basis of what I see in the movies, that Dumbledore would return in the last book, as Dumbledore the White, which I gather didn't happen. Meanwhile Pagan blogger Jason Pitzl-Waters at The Wild Hunt does a little crowing about having correctly predicted the Christian themes in the final installment.

Perhaps the confusion for so long is that people focused so hard on the witches and wizards in the book that everyone assumed it was downright Pagan in orientation. Some have even themed Pagan money-making enterprises around that conceit. Or it could be that the confusion was caused by Rowling's attempts to (perhaps clumsily) insert Christian themes in a way that wouldn't “give away” the climax of the story.

“Wizards have godfathers, celebrate Christmas, name hospitals after saints and put quotes from the Bible on their grave stones, but they don't have churches, vicars or Christenings and their weddings and funerals are secular affairs.”

Of course, this doesn't change that some humourless Christians have taken a strong dislike to Mr Potter's adventures, as David Neiwert at Orcinus observes, and his blogging collaborator Sara R offers an explanation why.
Harry Potter, like Dungeons & Dragons (disclaimer: Mr. R worked on several D&D games as an employee of the game's original publisher), Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina, Magic: The Gathering, Kiki's Delivery Service (which also got its share of this) or Pokemon pushes some extra buttons that can't be rationalized by a mere desire to avoid all things secular. So, what's that about?

The common thread that runs through all of these is magic. And that, I think, is the real burr that gets under fundamentalist saddles. In fundieland, magic is the most frightening and legitimate of all the competing myth systems—the Devil's own preferred alternative to prayer and submission. Other belief systems (Buddhism, Hinduism, the Greek myths) are viewed as sad and rather pathetically delusional; but anything that smacks of magic is feared as actively Satanic.

Why is magic such a hot button? The reasons go to the heart of fundamentalist theology. At their core, fundamentalists believe that humans are wretched creatures who aren't really even human unless touched by God's grace.
Stories about magic openly defy this whole belief system. Magic-using characters like Harry usurp the supernatural power and prerogatives of God—a sufficient heresy in its own right. But it's worse than that: they're also exercising their own internal authority, and acting out of their own agency. And that's the last thing fundamentalists want their children—or anyone else—learning how to do.

And last, Lance Mannion reads Orcinus and figures that Sara R is probably right about why some folks hate Mr Potter's bildungsroman ... which he calls a very odd sort of misjudgment on their part.

If these Christians actually read the books they might learn something that would make them hate Harry Potter even more.

When all is said and done, Rowling makes one very key point about magic.

It's not important.

Harry does not succeed because he is a great wizard. He is, as it happens, not particularly adept at being a wizard.

Magic isn't what saves the day. To say it does is like saying that the hero's gun saves the day in a Western.

Magic is just the technology of the wizarding world and Rowling makes it clear that putting one's faith in magic is a sign of stupidity (the folks at the Ministry) or inhumanity (Voldemort and his followers). To trust in a tool or a technology is to give up thinking for one's self or to give up one's soul and make a tool of one's self.

To make a belief system out of trusting in tools over people is an insanity.

It isn't hard to make the leap from that to the conclusion that Rowling isn't fond of any belief system that encourages people to put their trust not in their own selves but in the authority of the belief system and its ruling elders.

Dumbledore, the greatest wizard ever, performs very little magic over the course of the first six books, and he teaches Harry very few tricks.

His main, and almost his only lesson, for Harry?

Think, Harry! Think!

That has me wondering if I shouldn't read them after all. But Andrew Rilstone has a much less complimentary view that deters me.

I remember the first time I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. I was on a train to Reading. It passed the time. I enjoyed the silly word play (Diagon Alley, spellotape, the Mirror of Erised). I liked the dotty details about the magical curriculum and the inventive descriptions of the actual lessons. I thought that Quidditch was an impressively bonkers idea. I thought that Draco Malfoy was an eminently dislikeable villain, and that Prof. Dumbledore—much zanier in the early books—was a splendid comic creation. (“What happened down in the dungeons is a complete secret. So naturally, the whole school knows.”) I liked the idea of a world where the oil paintings talk back at you, where the chocolate frogs hop away before you can eat them, and where trains leave from non-existent stations.

I thought that Rowling had cleverly dusted off the old and slightly reactionary genre of the school story and given us permission to enjoy it again.
All this is an awful lot of fun. The problem sets in around volume 4, when Rowling ceases to treat Hogwarts as a literary device and starts treating it as if it was a real educational establishment. The whimsical “Billy Bunter with a magic wand” adventures become subordinate to a painfully derivative fantasy quest story in which Harry is the Chosen One who can defeat the Dark Lord. This creates massive inconsistencies in tone.

And he doesn't like Ms Rowling's prose, not one little bit.

That's not even starting on Megan McArdle's objections to the economics of the Potter universe in the pages of the UK Guardian ...


d a r k c h i l d e said...

I support ANYTHING that allows magick to become more acceptable in the mainstream. I grew up in Ohio, outside the Xtian paradigm, and ALWAYS paid for it growing up in school.

After graduation, I found my way to NOLA (New Orleans) where I found I was able to finally B-R-E-A-T-H. I wasn't a mage wearing a very, very tight moral corset. I could just 'be'.

I enjoyed the books as fiction written by an modern-Brit with a subtle Xtian slant.

That doesn't really bother me much. I really enjoyed getting into my ornate Victorian mage/witch garb and being able to traverse some of our most conservative towns with my wand in hand and my cloaks on and sigils on the outside!


Tori said...

JK, It's amazing to me how many people malign book 4, which I read after living in Iran and found to be an incredibly accurate portrayal of a system breaking under the weight of oppression.

While the series is not a work of literary genius: it does deal with very serious issues of oppression, the rights of minorities, and the way that protective societies can slide into repressive and vicious ones.

Was I reading too much into it? I'm not even a big fan... just keeping up with my nieces and nephews.