I can turn you into gold

As a genre, fantasy has something in common with utopian fiction. Utopias begin with a challenge – Let’s say that everyone’s happy – and then set about answering the questions that challenge provokes. The interest of a utopia is precisely which questions the author believes need to be answered: is it “Who will do the dirty jobs?” or “What about men?”, “What about the idlers?” or “What about aggression?”? The way these questions are answered – and the way they’re framed in the first place – tells us what the utopia is about, what drives it and sustains it – and by implication tells a story about what matters to us, in our world.

Fantasy fiction works a similar trick, at a less exalted – or perhaps simply a less programmatic – level. Let’s say that there are these people who are not like us… and let’s say they can get whatever they want… and let’s say that there are good people and bad people, and the bad people are really easy to identify… I think that something like this set of assumptions lurks behind a lot of fantasy fiction, a kind of unacknowledged comfort zone that the narrative quietly hankers for. The skill of fantasy is then to pull against the tug of wish-fulfilment and play with these assumptions, thinking about their implications and their limits, working out whether people could actually live with them – and if so, how. And, again, the specific questions that get asked (“what about death?”, “what about science?”, “what about pride?”) tell us what the fantasy is about – and, for the author, what matters in the world out here.

So, about Harry Potter…

I’m surprised when sometimes people say to me, “Oh, you know, the books are getting so dark.” I’m thinking, “Well, which part of ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ did you think was light and fluffy?”
- J.K. Rowling, interviewed 16/7/05

Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy – until he is rescued by a beetle-eyed giant of a man, enrols at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, learns to play Quidditch and does battle in a deadly duel. The Reason: HARRY POTTER IS A WIZARD!
- back cover copy, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, paperback edition (43rd printing, Dumbledore picture)

Fluffy, perhaps not – but that blurb is a perfect example of how the Harry Potter books might be read as ‘light’. Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy – until he is rescued - and boom, we’re off. Everything from there to the climactic caps and exclamation mark offers to lift the reader into unbounded fantasy, far from the ‘ordinary’ world of work and pain, love and boredom. (The threat implied by that duel might have done a bit of anchoring, if only it hadn’t been a deadly duel – the two words cancel each other out.)

That’s just a blurb, but I think the books are heavily involved with this weightless, comfort-zone version of fantasy – and that it accounts for a lot of what’s most disappointing about them. By which I mean, most of what isn’t plot or character, and some of what is. From the first chapter of Philosopher’s Stone, we’re encouraged to invest in Harry as a boy who has survived real traumas and will face more – “The boy who lived”, with all that that phrase implies. Yet Harry’s surroundings are pure wish-fulfilment. In an interview a while ago, J.K. Rowling said that she’d acquired an instant fan base among enthusiasts for boarding school education and believers in magic[k], and that she had no interest in either topic except as a fictional device. I thought at the time that this was an extraordinary admission – it’s hard to imagine Anthony Buckeridge or Geoffrey Willans disclaiming any interest in schools. But then, Hogwarts isn’t like any other school – even Linbury Court or St custard’s. Those schools are described with an odd combination of quaint specificity and fantastical exuberance, which echoes the collision between childhood creativity and institutional routine. There are things you must and mustn’t do, places you must and mustn’t go, people you must respect and obey and avoid; how it all fits together is for you to find out – or imagine, in curlicues of private mythology. There’s little of this about Hogwarts: the exuberance is all in the real magical trappings of the school, while the quaint specifics are all perfectly logical. As a school, Hogwarts is identifiable as a fantasy above all because it makes sense – there are things the teachers would rather not share with Harry and friends, but there’s nothing that in principle they couldn’t understand. Even the Jennings books are truer to the limits and the mysteries of childhood experience.

As for magic, to say that magic is real at Hogwarts isn’t to say much more than that wishes come true there. Rowling’s bluff scepticism about magic outside fiction contrasts oddly with peers like Ursula le Guin or Philip Pullman. Le Guin has always taken at least as much interest in fictional ethnography as in plotting, while Pullman concludes “His Dark Materials” by saying that magic is real, here, now – it’s just that in our world it’s called shamanism or the I Ching. Set against Ged’s trances or Lyra’s reading of the alethiometer – or even the solemn, meticulous cod-Tolkien of something like Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series – spells like “Expelliarmus” or “Wingardium Leviosa” seem like awfully thin stuff. (Perhaps in the seventh book there’ll be some explanation of why spells are written in something that looks like Latin but isn’t. Or perhaps not.) There are odd moments when both the magic and the school setting come to life – think of Neville’s trouble with passwords or Hermione’s “Wingardium Levio-sah!” – but they’re all too rare.

Despite all this – and despite a writing style in serious need of fluff removal – the books remain interesting, in large part because they do think about the implications and limits of fantasy. What’s particularly interesting is the way that the three themes outlined above recur from book to book, sometimes being waved away in one book and chewed over more seriously in its successor.

In this respect, it has to be said, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone doesn’t begin well. One of the key questions on the frontier between fantasy-as-speculation and fantasy-as-wish-fulfilment concerns the status of other people. To put it bluntly, are they real – specifically, are they as real as me? The fantasy setting offers plenty of opportunities to answer this in the negative, by allowing the reader to identify with the exceptional characters rather than the mere ordinary real people. Consequently, from an egalitarian perspective, many fantasy narratives are marred by either Tory paternalism (use your gifts to serve the less fortunate) or fascism (you have been raised up as a leader). Both Pullman and le Guin find ways around this trap. (It’s worth noting that Tolkien avoided it completely, by vesting paranormal powers in divine beings and consecrated objects – and dissociating heroism from both.) Rowling walks straight into it, in the opening words of the first book.

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

Perfectly normal, thank you very much – reading that last phrase I can just see Michael Palin in a flat cap and Terry Jones in a skirt and a hat with cherries on top. It’s a caricature of a certain kind of English middle-class normality, so broadly drawn that it hardly qualifies as satire and – by 1997 – very tired. The Dursleys, in short, are unreal from the word go – even before the relentless accumulation of negative character traits that follow in the next four chapters. They are the worst surrogate parents Harry could possibly have had, the least deserving of any kind of respect, consideration or reciprocity. The wizard/Muggle distinction gets more interesting in later books, but as far as Philosopher’s Stone is concerned the Muggles par excellence are the Dursleys in all their grotesquerie. Which means that the people who matter are the people who are not like us – or at least, not like them, those boring ordinary people who go to work and watch TV. Score one for wish-fulfilment.

The book’s answers to the other two questions I’ve suggested are a bit more interesting. Yes, HARRY POTTER IS A WIZARD!, but it doesn’t follow that Harry can get whatever he wants – because what Harry wants more than anything else is to be reunited with his parents, who are dead. (And dead, at least in this book, is dead.) One of the weirdest and most moving moments in the book is Harry’s encounter with the Mirror of Erised, a kind of psychological version of Larry Niven’s ‘droud':

‘It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. … However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.’

To be presented with an image of our desires – and to sit before it, entranced – is quite a good image of the spectacle, as the situationists conceived it. It’s also a horribly telling critique of comfort-zone fantasy, that place where considerations of what is real or even possible don’t apply. It’s just a shame that the Mirror of Erised chapter is also the set-up for a really awful with-one-bound plot device (not to mention being one more example of Rowling’s tin ear for language).

The other big question is that of distinguishing between good people and bad people – or rather, between ‘good and bad’ and ‘friendly and unfriendly’ – or rather, between he’s a bad man and I don’t like him – or rather, between he’s a bad man and he doesn’t like me. (This last one is quite a lot to ask of a twelve-year-old; unsurprisingly, it’s a bit beyond Ron right to the end of this book. But then, that’s what Ron’s for.) As that awkward statement and restatement might suggest, this is a question that Philosopher’s Stone chews over thoroughly; it’s not what the book’s about, but it’s the main running theme. As you’ll know if you’ve read this far, we’re talking about Snape here (with whose help this theme will run and run). By the end of the book Harry has learned that Snape genuinely hates him; that he had some reason for hating Harry’s father, if not Harry himself; that, despite all this, Snape didn’t actually want Harry dead, and had in fact saved his life; and that somebody else was trying to kill him. It’s a shocking and persuasive demonstration of the difference between ‘evil’ (will kill hero if possible) and ‘unfriendly’ (will mark hero’s homework unfairly, but will save hero’s life if necessary). It’s only a partial break with comfort-zone fantasy; it’s still assumed that ‘evil’ and ‘death of hero’ imply each other, which clearly isn’t necessarily so (couldn’t Snape hate Harry enough to kill him, without necessarily being in league with the forces of evil? come to that, couldn’t the forces of evil do their evil work without Harry’s death being involved?) But it is a partial break – a tear in the fabric of the comfort zone – and more, and worse, will follow.

And what the book’s about? Love; specifically, Lily’s love for Harry, which saved his life and continues to protect him from Voldemort.

‘Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realise that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign… to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection for ever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.’

Something so good as the self-sacrifice of a mother you never knew… There’s something slightly queasy there. Here’s another quote from that July 2005 interview:

Don’t you want to ask me why James’s death didn’t protect Lily and Harry? There’s your answer … because she could have lived – and chose to die. James was going to be killed anyway. Do you see what I mean? I’m not saying James wasn’t ready to; he died trying to protect his family, but he was going to be murdered anyway. … she was given time to choose. James wasn’t. It’s like an intruder entering your house, isn’t it? You would instinctively rush them. But if in cold blood you were told, “Get out of the way,” you know, what would you do? I mean, I don’t think any mother would stand aside from their child. But does that answer it? She did very consciously lay down her life. She had a clear choice. -

And James didn’t

Did he clearly die to try and protect Harry specifically given a clear choice? No. It’s a subtle distinction and there’s slightly more to it than that but that’s most of the answer.

Love as self-sacrifice – or rather, self-sacrifice as love, as a gesture of love so powerful that it enfolds the loved one forever after. This is a fantasy, but it’s a mother’s fantasy, not a child’s. It’s also rather morbid, and makes me wonder what’s in store for Harry’s emotional development. The other implication of that phrase “the boy who lived” is that the remainder of Harry’s life is a postscript to his first encounter with Voldemort, or at best a working-out of unfinished business. I wonder if Rowling is going to allow Harry at least to think about adulthood, and leave his mother’s sacrificial embrace behind – or will he always be the boy who had been loved? We know now that he’s never going to get together with that nice Hermione Grainger, but is anybody going to stay the course – or get the chance?

This doesn’t sound like an important question – it sounds like I’m reducing fantasy to a soap opera plot, and taking that more seriously than it deserves. But it is important, because it brings us back to the nature of fantasy. The other side of comfort-zone fantasy is the fantasy of a world where the hero is special because he’s marked out for destruction, he can’t get anything he wants and the difference between good and evil equals the difference between him and everyone else. Call it the fantasy of the discomfort zone. It’s an unrewarding, masochistic style of fantasy, but no less popular for that. Let Harry’s life be a vapour trail that streaks from one self-immolating explosion to another, and the only progress we will have made is from weightless comfort to ungrounded discomfort. Tolkien, le Guin, Pullman – all of them have faced up to the idea of a fantasy-figure embarking on a life after fantasy, and in the process drawn attention to what their fantasies were really about (humility and pride, death and fear, desire and science). I hope Rowling can do likewise.

[Sharp-eyed readers will have noted the lack of specific references in this post to the second and subsequent books. The plan is to write a separate post on each one, although hopefully not at quite this length. Stay tuned, and so forth.]

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6 Comments

  1. Posted 30 April 2007 at 03:42 | Permalink | Reply

    A lot of good points, and I await with interest your sequels.

    While I general I agree about Rowling;s tin ear, I must confess that the moment at which I decided that I was going to stick with these books was on the train journey to Hogwarts, when Ron is attempting to give Scabbers a makeover:

    Sunshine, daisies, butter mellow,
    Turn this stupid fat rat yellow.

    Which is actually rather nicely constructed, but more to the point has real rhythm. Her ear can be OK sometimes.

    Interesting that you compare her treatmenmt of Hogwarts as a school to Buckeridge and Willans. First of all I consider Willans to have been a one-off, in a class by himself. He zoomed in on the minutiae of public-school life to a greater extent than any other writer I know (even Compton Mackenzie, who had an awesome memory for that kind of thing and replayed his time at St Paul’s in a number of novels). He also had the ability to take seemingly trivial detail and spin it into a something gloriously surreal (like his description of the school piano, which make me fall about with laughter every single time I read it, or the cartoons – I know they were by Searle, but I assume the subject matter was Willans’s – of The Private Life Of the Gerund. So I don’t think it’s fair to compare Willans to any other “school story” writer: he didn’t write school stories, he created a school.

    The comparison with Buckeridge is fair enough. It sets the bar pretty high, but no harm in that. As far as HPATPS is concerned your criticsm there is valid, though some more Jenning-like episodes are ahead (I’m thinking of the forbidden trip to Hogsmeade in HPATPOA, which brings to mind Jennings and Darbishire hiding from Mr Carter on the bus). The general; strangeness of arrival at a new school isn’t as well done by Rowling as by Buckeridge, but then if she had spent more time on it HPATPS might have been as long as her more recent tomes.

    Once I started thinking of school story comparisons it was Michal Kendrick’s “Ozzy of Overstone” and Ozzy The Wiz” that came to mind for me. As Arthur C Clarke said, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and Ozzy is the purveyor of a very advanced technology indeed, putting him firmly in the wish-fulfilment camp. But there too, In “Ozzy The Wiz” the school simply provides a matrix for the technology-based incidents, whether it be invisible rats getting loose, or apprehending a burglar in the school by means of a paralysing ray.

    I think the difference is that with Buckeridge the whole focus of the stories is Jennings and Darbishire (and to a lesser extent their friends) and the mistakes they make in trying to comprehend the adult world. That’s it: there’s no other plot to be accommodated, because the plotlines are tailored to fit their misunderstandings. With the Overstone books, the storylines are a sort of basic SF, not specifically fitted to the characters acting them out. With Rowling, the plot lines are tailored to the characters well enough, but those plot lines aren’t ABOUT Hogwarts, they just happen to take place there. The school isn’t central to the story in the same way that Linbury Court is for Buckeridge. I’m not sure that you couldn’t make the same point about “Stalky & Co”, where the stories are about boys in a school but where the major plot lines (unsporting behaviour regarding hunting, bullying, etc) could work just as well in a different context. And Kipling, of course, got the Nobel Prize.

    So while I take your points, I don’t believe either Buckeridge or Willans was trying to do the same thing that Rowling is trying to do. They may have achieved their goals better than she does hers, or not: but they were different goals to begin with.

    P.S. Rowling is a splendid exponent of the throwaway line, as with the description on Dumbledore’s chocolate card of his hobbies being “chamber music and tenpin bowling”. Neither of which pursuits is ever referred to again, but it is a delightful pairing.

  2. Posted 30 April 2007 at 10:35 | Permalink | Reply

    I think you can make too much of the school thing. Children’s fantasy books need to dispose of parental control in order to let the adventure happen, which is often done by either killing the parents or sending the children to boarding school, or an uncle in the country. Hogwarts lies more in the tradition of Billy Bunter’s school than anything else – it doens’t make sense, it is just a device to have children inhabiting their own world.

    The problem I have with Rowling is the moral relativism, I have been unable to work out what makes Voldemort evil, and what makes Dumbeldore good. I think it is becasue Rowling fails to establish her own moral and ethical framework of what the war with Voldemort is about that the plots become so rambling in the later books.

  3. steve
    Posted 30 April 2007 at 10:39 | Permalink | Reply

    Maybe it’s because when you actually look at the books they are clunkily written, poorly plotted and awful to read.

    Never understood the hype.

  4. Posted 30 April 2007 at 22:21 | Permalink | Reply

    Rob – yes, perhaps Willans was unique. (Just reading the words ‘school piano’ made me laugh out loud.)

    I take the point about the books not being school stories, but I still think the Hogwarts setting is unusually thin. I’m pretty sure both Bunter and Stalky and Co have more of the kind of texture I’m thinking of – the sort of “Moppers finished early, so the lads went out to tweak some third-year spugs” stuff that Tomkinson’s Schooldays parodied so well. Apart from anything else, that’s what school’s like. My son rang home the other day scrounging a lift – “it’s after four now, so I’ll have to wait in Paton’s”. In what?

    My theory – which didn’t quite make it into the post – is that the weirdness and exuberance of most school stories, which you know is the product of a child’s imagination working on a pretty mundane reality, has somehow been inverted or projected outwards in the Hogwarts setting: Harry isn’t making anything up, the setting really is weird and exuberant (the meals really are extraordinary; the teachers really are, well, freaks). Perhaps something similar’s happened between molesworth’s version of Latin (“tot quot, clot”) and the language of Hogwarts magic?

    Andy – good point about the moral universe. Rowling can’t seem to decide whether Voldemort has had any effect on the realMuggle world, and if so what.

  5. Posted 2 May 2007 at 16:01 | Permalink | Reply

    Yes and clearly Voldemort is not as bad as for example Hitler, so what is all the fuss about.

    And she avoids using the Christian moral framework of Voldemort threatening free will.

    It is as if she has never read Ursula le guin or c s lewis.

  6. Phil
    Posted 2 May 2007 at 18:54 | Permalink | Reply

    Well, she does bring in the “Imperius curse” in the fourth book, but it’s all a bit black-and-white – you’re either an automaton or you’ve got free will. She also implies (a) that only a real villain (or worm) would follow Voldemort freely and (b) that most of Voldemort’s followers were acting freely, which empties the whole question of any real interest. There’s no sense that anyone might be seduced into following Voldemort, even at such an elementary level as Edmund going wrong in TLTW&TW.

    I’m trying to be as fair as I can – and I do think the books are interesting – but I’m starting to suspect that the moral universe of the books is another bit of furniture that she’s not particularly interested in.

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