June 19, 2003

Alphabet soup, alphabet stew, fried alphabet--

When I was a child I went through life happily unaware that there was any such thing as a "researcher in children's literature," though I am sure that there must have been. I think reading something like the statements in this article would have killed my enjoyment of several favorite works. Here's a sample (the subject is the Harry Potter books):

A literary icon develops the power of myth, generating meanings beyond the immediate narrative.

Oh god, I feel my brain going numb already. Must... click... back... button...

The whole rest of it is a bunch of back-of-the-book-jacket clichés. ("...his characters achieve an imaginative reality." "... narrative twists and turns..." "...dazzling allure." "...marketing has indisputably endowed him with cult status." Feh.) Via The Onering.net.

And on that note -- Harry Potter is a conservative plot! (Cue shrieking Psycho violins.) Do tell:

Despite all of the books' gestures to multiculturalism and gender equality, Harry Potter is a conservative. A paternalistic, One-Nation Tory, perhaps, but a Tory nonetheless.

Har. Get this:

Hogwarts' curriculum doesn't include teaching foreign languages, geography or overseas trips, despite the ease of magical travel.

And there aren't any Diversity Guidelines posted in the Hogwarts hallways!

Hogwarts celebrates Christmas and Halloween, but there are no feasts for Rosh Hashanah or Diwali. This is not so much multiculturalism as naive monoculturalism.

Oh come on, Adams, you can't be serious. I wonder if this is some sort of inept attempt at satire. If this article were anywhere but in the Groaning Wad, I'd be sure of it.

Here comes the March of the Class Strugglers:

The Dursleys are Rowling's epitome of the modern middle class: crass, mean-spirited and grasping, living in a detached house in the suburb of Little Whinging. Vernon works in middle management while Petunia is a curtain-twitching housewife.

The Dursleys read the Daily Mail, support capital punishment and lavish video games and junk food on their spoilt son Dudley. They dream of bigger company cars and holidays in Spain, rather than traditional Tory visions of warm beer and village greens. The Dursleys, not Voldemort, are the real villains.

This looks more like projection. Rowland's portrayal of the Dursleys is satirical, but it is quite clear to someone who hasn't read the books through a Marxist haze that Voldemort is the real villain. The Dursleys, unpleasant though they are, are merely pathetic and buffoonish. But to a Activist of the People™ villains such as Voldemort are not the enemy -- rather they are to be admired for their "individuality" and ruthlessness at attaining their goals. It is the hapless Dursleys of the world, materialistic and compromised (and too much like one's own clueless, middle-class family), who are the true enemy.

(Via Steven Chapman.)

Update: Trevelyan has a few things to say to Richard Adams.

Posted by Andrea Harris at June 19, 2003 02:00 AM

I'm still chuckling over the argument that Hogwarts' failure to celebrate Diwali and provide foreign language tuition shores up Tory monoculturalism. Diwali? Hindus would surely be as mystified by widespread celebrations celebrating Diwali (for the full five days and including throwing open windows to welcome Laksmi the goddess of wealth) by non-Hindus in Britain as I would be by non-Christian Chinese celebrating Christmas (including Christmas pudding, turkey and opening presents). Trust me on this: I've 'celebrated' Christmas in the mainland with non-Christian Chinese and it was a surreal experience (enjoyable, but bearing almost no similarity to what I think of as Christmas). Interestingly, the Chinese simply celebrated Christmas as a gesture of friendship and goodwill for the foreigners studying Chinese, not as part of some mulitcultural vision to embrace my very being.

I've also been reading the first Harry Potter book in Chinese (the mainland version - i.e., simplified characters) and I've noticed its one of the most popular books young women read on the bus (although they're reading the Hong Kong version). Perhaps students at Hogwarts don't need to learn other languages because they have spells to understand them.

Adams is the worst sort of killjoy: he has no imagination.

Posted by: Preston Whip at June 19, 2003 at 04:42 AM


Voldemort would have free human shields if he were a muggle.

Posted by: jkrank at June 19, 2003 at 09:09 AM

"...Harry Potter is a conservative. A paternalistic, One-Nation Tory, perhaps, but a Tory nonetheless."

Fascinating. In effect, "A one-world, knee-jerk liberal, but a conservative nonetheless".

Reminds me of that Italian woman (writer? politician? hell, I can't remember) who called some politician a fascist: "But it's a different kind of fascism. It's a fascism of extreme personal freedom."

Posted by: Ken Summers at June 19, 2003 at 09:10 AM

Dear Lord. Where do these "B" Ark, multiculturalist, identity politics goons come from? Certainly not any known reality. Is this finally real proof of alternate universes?

Posted by: Yahmdallah at June 19, 2003 at 10:43 AM


We build these goons, in Britain and in the United States, in our English Lit graduate programs. The line, "Hogwarts celebrates Christmas and Halloween, but there are no feasts for Rosh Hashanah or Diwali. This is not so much multiculturalism as naive monoculturalism" really is what passes for serious, acceptable, literary criticism these days.

It's why I decided I'd rather chew tinfoil than be an English major.

Posted by: Cameron at June 19, 2003 at 10:55 AM

WTF? Harry is multilingual, he speaks parselmouth. Didn't she read the books? And what's with all this going on about the Dursleys, Harry's real family, for all intents and pursposes, is, of course, the Weasleys, who are lower class, level headed, hardworking folk. One of the major themes of the Harry Potter books is the triumph of good old fashioned common sense over bone-headed "establishment" stupidity. Another is flying in the face of priviledge and racism. Thus the interplay between Hermione (mixed race and good) and the Malfoys (pure blooded and bad).

I would ask whether the people at the Guardian were simply idiots with no education, nor sense, nor reasoning abilities but I already know the answer.

Posted by: Robin Goodfellow at June 19, 2003 at 11:11 AM

Very little pisses me off quite so much as someone who reads books in such a cursory, prejudiced manner. Idiots all.

Posted by: trevalyan at June 19, 2003 at 12:06 PM

Oh, the HUMANITY! I should have known that Marxism would not go quietly into that good night! It is dying in horrible agony as the fans of the Great Comrade Marxist Revolution become more shrill and less in touch with the real world.

I don't see the Hurleys killing people like Voldemort does on a whim but we are to believe that the Hurleys are the true villians?

This Leninist critic should go move to Cuba, smoke a lot of Carribean plants and simply relax in Havana, the showcase and vacation spot of the Communist World. If he gets hungry he can spend 2 hours in line to get his dole of Castro's lastest five-year plan and eat that with some mostly eaten 5 week old loaf of moldy bread found in the garbage can in front of a resort for foreigners. Maybe he can get work as a propagandist for the regime. He can pretend to work and they can pretend to pay him with lots of the worthless Cuban currency that he can't spend. Yes, Marxism at its finest!

One day our decendants will look back on the 20th and 21st centuries and wonder why in heck did these leftists think that Marxism would work in the 21st Century when it was an abject failure in the 20th and why in the world would some of them put down law abiding middle class materialists and say little against serial killers and other true evil-doers?

It all makes me wonder sometimes.

Posted by: John Hysmith at June 19, 2003 at 01:45 PM

I love the books, but keep this in mind: J.K. Rowling is quite left-wing. She was a member of Amnesty International. Her bloated, cruel "Aunt Marge" is a slap at Margaret Thatcher. I have no problem believing that the Dursleys are indeed Ms. Rowling's view of the middle-class in a capitalist society.

Equally, though, Ms. Rowling slaps government. The "government" in her books (the Ministry of Magic) is headed by a buffoon (Cornelius Fudge) more interested in advancing his career than in protecting the wizarding (and Muggle) world from Voldemort. E.g., he won't replace the Dementors as guards at Azkaban, even though it is clear they will throw their lot in with Voldemort. He sends Hagrid to Azkaban knowing that Hagrid is innocent, simply because the Ministry must be seen as doing SOMETHING.

You can read these books on a fictive level (bloody good reads), or as an allegory. They are profoundly Christian works. You can do a lot with their interpretation. E.g., the Bible refers to God as a "potter" in at least three places. "Harry" is the diminutive of "Harold." Is Harry the Herald (Harold) of God? Interesting.

Posted by: RJGator at June 19, 2003 at 02:21 PM

You confuse me, RJ. So she's left-wing and "profoundly" Christian? Incidentally, as much as you may dislike AI, it is, or was, one of the more mainstream activist groups out there, and membership hardly makes one "quite left-wing."

Aunt Marge does not seem to be a parody of Margaret Thatcher -- for one thing, she is physically and characteristically quite unlike Thatcher. Aunt Marge seems to be a representative of a standard character type found in English fiction: the rude, brash, prejudiced middle-aged woman. She was often, though not always, unmarried (if married her husband is usually portrayed as an insignificant wisp of a man) and usually kep a large number obnoxious pets, usually what we call here those little "yappy" dogs.

As for the Biblical exegesis, Harry the "potter" can't be god and the "messenger of god" now can he? I'm sorry, you sound as loony as that Adams bloke. Are you trying your own hand at parody?

Posted by: Andrea Harris at June 19, 2003 at 02:39 PM

Talk all ya wanna.

Most readers (millions of 'em) don't analyse the books, they just like them. I think R.G. is closest as to why:

"One of the major themes of the Harry Potter books is the triumph of good old fashioned common sense over bone-headed "establishment" stupidity. Another is flying in the face of priviledge and racism."

IMO these stories are life-affirming. They're new and big threads, along with others, in the warp-and-woof of a changing tapestry. A picture changing from "nothing is anything" to "everything is something." The idea of standards and judgment is coming back.

Posted by: Stephen at June 19, 2003 at 03:00 PM

Well, thanks for the gratuitous slaps in the face, Andrea.

"So she's left-wing and "profoundly" Christian?"

I did not say that. I said she is left-wing. You may consider Amnesty International to be (or to have been) a "mainstream activist group," but if you do, your stream runs to the left of mine. She was also a big supporter of Greenpeace. Is that another mainstream group? She worked for one of the two for a while; I think it was AI.

With respect to Chrisitianity, I did not say she was profoundly Christian: I said her BOOKS are profoundly Christian works. They are, in the tradition of JRR Tolkein and C.S. Lewis.

(As an aside, is it your position that one cannot be: (i) left wing; and (ii) Christian?)

With respect to the connection between Aunt Marge and Margaret Thatcher, I didn't make it: that connection is from "The Hidden Key to Harry Potter," a book that analyzes the Harry Potter books as serious literature.

You ask, "Harry the "potter" can't be god and the "messenger of god" now can he?"

I didn't say he was. I said that the name suggests Harry is the Herald of God.

Are you suggesting that Ms. Rowling just picked the name out of thin air? ("Oh, let's just call him something--aw, I like the name Harry. And Potter." Right.) She picked names with a lot of care. It is unlikely she chose the name of her main character without the same care she gave to other names: Draco ("Draconian") Malfoy ("Bad Faith"); Peter (slang for penis) Pettigrew ("Petite Growth"), etc.

Again, thanks for the gratuitous slaps in the face.

Posted by: RJGator at June 19, 2003 at 03:14 PM

You're missing a major reason why the Dursleys are such horrible people: If they were good, kind people, they'd have been proud of their sister the witch, and Harry would have been welcomed into the family with open arms, told of his history, and sent off to Hogwarts at the proper time.

There has to be a reason for the orphan to hate his surroundings, and as Rowling didn't put Harry in an orphanage, she couldn't make his relatives nice. It would ruin the contrast and bore the readers.

There's also something to do with the relationship between Voldemort and Harry. I'm more and more convinced that they are physically related. Hoping she'll give us the clues I need to find out for sure in this book, but I suspect not.

There are a lot of technical writing tricks that those who overanalyze literature constantly overlook. Above all, you need to present a conflict that keeps the reader interested while the hero resolves it.

And folks, English major and proud of it. But I think I squeaked in before the multicultis took it over. I had to study Shakespeare and Hemingway other dead white males in order to get my B.A.

Don't you be dissin' my major, though. Dis away at the fools who write tripe like the Guardian piece. Not the rest of us.

Posted by: Meryl Yourish at June 19, 2003 at 03:43 PM

Not having read the books (but did see the 1st movie), and listening to y'all, I'm wondering:

Did Luke have huge differences w/ Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru? Didn't Uncle Owen pretty much try to hide what Luke was from him? And, gasp, didn't it turn out that Luke and Darth had some relationship?

I'm not saying Rowling made a magic/fantasy version of Star Wars, but it would seem that one's guess might lead in that direction, nu?

Posted by: Dean at June 19, 2003 at 04:40 PM

Hi, Dean:

Yes. There are other parallels; e.g., just as young Luke is Obi-Wan in the making, Harry is Dumbledore in the making. (Unfortunately, that means that the mentor (Obi-Wan, Dumbledore) can no longer be around.)

Just as Luke had powers he did not know of, so did Harry. Etc.

Ms. Rowling pretty certainly borrowed concepts from Star Wars (and the Arthurian legends, and C.S. Lewis's Narnia tales, and Spenser's The Faerie Queene).

Stephen (above) noted that "Most readers (millions of 'em) don't analyse the books, they just like them." I agree; they are a great read on the fictive level. But they can also be analyzed as literature; good literature (and these books certainly are good) will carry the reader. You don't have to fight them; you are, instead, enchanted by them.

Posted by: RJGator at June 19, 2003 at 04:51 PM

Hey, RJ, don't be so sensitive. Disagreement isn't "gratuitous slaps in the face." Sorry that I dared question your august pronouncements, but that's the sort of thing I do every now and then. Anyway, now that you have attributed your sources, I no longer think you are loony. However, I am not so sure about the author of "The Hidden Key to Harry Potter." See, I have trouble with people who read books -- childrens' books, adult novels, whatever -- looking for "hidden keys" to "the real story." It's one thing to analyze a story to understand it better. It's another to claim that the author of a childrens' book was "really" writing about something else -- political, religious, whatever. Mr. Granger's assertion that Rowlings has written some sort of hidden Christian testimony strikes me as deeply goofy. I think it is more likely that any Christian symbology in the books comes about as a result of Ms. Rowling's own background and culture, instead of from deliberate planning. As for the names, I am sure that Ms. Rowling picked the names with some deliberation. I just differ from you as to her reasons for doing so. "Harry" = "Harold" = "Herald of God" strikes me as the silliest sort of rubbish. Here is the actual meaning of Harold, if you must know:

Means "leader of the army", derived from Old English here "army" and weald "leader, ruler". This was the name of five kings of Norway and two kings of England, including Harold II who lost the Battle of Hastings (and was killed in it), which led to the Norman Conquest. After the conquest it was rarely used but was eventually revived in the 19th century. (Source.)

This information, by the way, is available in any baby-naming book, which have been popular at least since the seventies. I would think that a number of factors led to the choosing of the names of the characters, not all of them entirely conscious or deliberate. Often the sound of the name is more important than the meaning.

But don't listen to me -- here is Ms. Rowling herself on how she came up with the names of the characters:

Q. Rebeccah McCarthy asked: "How did you come up with the names of the characters?"

A. Rowling (pronounced "Rolling") said about two-thirds of the names are invented, "like Quidditch and Hagrid." The others are names that she collects. "Often they turn up in my books," she said, noting that Dursley the last name of Harry s aunt and uncle is the name of an actual town in England. "Just say the word to yourself. Doesn t it sound dull and forbidding?" Rowling gave the name to the phlegmatic and boorish aunt and uncle who take Harry Potter in after his wizard parents are killed by the evil Voldemort.

Maybe she is lying here, or concealing her true agenda, but I don't think so. Hope this helps.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at June 19, 2003 at 06:18 PM

I think Rowling wanted a classically dull, normal English name for her hero. Part of the fun is imagining leaving one's dull, muggle-bound life for an exciting magical life. It is interesting that the villains -- Draco Malfoy, Voldemort -- have French names. Perhaps that's because French = snooty.

I do wonder about "Weasly." It seems negative for such a nice family. Perhaps it's meant to suggest they're a comic Dickensian family. Like "Cratchit." And "Dumbledore" has "dumb" in his name. What do the literary critics make of that? (I was an English major myself, pre-multicult.)

Posted by: Joanne Jacobs at June 19, 2003 at 10:24 PM

This is why I read very little literature. Literary criticism is so much more fun to read.

Posted by: Ken Summers at June 20, 2003 at 12:08 AM

I used to think the same thing, and then I discovered the joy of blogging banging myself repeatedly on the toes with an axe handle.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at June 20, 2003 at 12:34 AM

"Dumbledore" is an archaic word for "bumblebee," so Albus Dumbledore would = "white bumblebee." I keep waiting for there to some kind of significance to the name's meaing, but I'm not sure there will be. It seems to me that authors who approach the whole coded-name thing with a heavy hand end up damaging their own creation. Rowling's great gift is to be able to avoid the heavy-handedness that plagues so much fantasy and SF.

Posted by: Mike Drout at June 20, 2003 at 02:25 PM